By Garret J. McDonald
Andy Bruno is an environmental historian and professor at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of The Nature of Soviet Power and numerous articles on Russian and Soviet environmental history. Andy’s newest book Tunguska explores the history of the mysterious 1908 Siberian explosion and efforts to study it.
Garret McDonald: Your book is centered on how the mysterious blast that leveled approximately 830 square miles of Siberian forest in June 1908 has been studied and imagined. The so-called “Tunguska Event,” as you highlight, has been an enduring source of fascination since the 1920s, when Soviet researchers sought to uncover the cause of the explosion. The remoteness of Tunguska, as well as the upheavals of a world war and the 1917 revolutions, had prevented Russian scientists from taking an interest in blast sooner. International attempts to study the incident, your book notes, were also effectively prevented until the end of the Cold War. All sorts of wild theories filled the voids left between the sensational stories in Siberian newspapers at the time of the explosion, the Indigenous accounts of the incident, Soviet frustrations with the lack of apparent evidence, and the interests of amateur scientists and science fiction writers. In all likelihood, you write, the Tunguska explosion was the product of the largest known impact of a cosmic object on our planet. With this in mind, you position the book as a call to “think cosmically” about planetary development. Invoking Dipesh Chakrabarty, you highlight the planetary as a perspective which “takes seriously the interdependencies among living and non-living systems” as well as the vast historical timescale over which the planet has developed compared to the relatively short history of humankind (p. 209). How would thinking cosmically change the way we write history and view our environment?
Andy Bruno: Chakrabarty and other theorists of the planetary, such as William Connolly, Sheila Jasanoff, Bruno Latour, and Frédéric Neyrat, have done interesting work to conceptualize distinctions between a global and a planetary perspective that points to blind spots and ruptures in a Western philosophical tradition that has been influential since the Enlightenment. The basic move is to think bigger about people’s place in the world not only through human connections but also our embeddedness in an Earth System beyond our control. The predicament of the Anthropocene demands such a change in perspective according to them. It seems to me that if we are going to take the step of concentrating on the Earth as an integrated system that has existed for four and a half billion years, then we might as well engage with the vast expanse of the cosmos as well.
The planet, of course, is not an isolated entity but maintains all sorts of relationships with other celestial bodies. Any attempt to bracket off the natural world beyond our planet as somehow outside of an environmental analysis is bound to be incomplete. Now this doesn’t mean that every scholarly contribution must genuflect at the pervasiveness of cosmic connections. There are always trade-offs between inclusiveness and coherence. But if we are going to theorize the vastness of non-human entities and existence, then I don’t think that we should stop at the planet alone. The story I tell about the Tunguska explosion shows how it would be incomplete to write environmental histories that neglect objects beyond Earth.
GM: Professor Chakrabarty suggests that the planetary approach will decenter humanity in history or consider the vastness of time in a way that is not anthropocentric. Yet, many scholars are most concerned with the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch in which humans possess and exercise the power to alter our planet. How does your approach in the book reinforce, challenge, or decenter the notion of the Anthropocene?
AB: I’ve written a lot about the Anthropocene in my scholarship, including in Tunguska. There my main point is to remind readers that Earth’s current precarity is not only anthropocentric but includes hazards that extend beyond human influence and even beyond the planet. On the one hand, the history of Tunguska shows us how societies have engaged with cosmic disasters in the past and thus reinforces a sense of connectedness. The consequences of a collision of an asteroid or comet can nevertheless still depend on cultural, political, social, and economic circumstances among human populations. On the other hand, the inclusion of these otherworldly hazards force us to recognize how little influence we have over the broader cosmos even in the Anthropocene. So Homo sapiens have altered the geology of one planet? Well, there are trillions upon trillions of stars in the universe, and many with planets orbiting them. How robust is human power from that standpoint?
There is plenty to say about the Anthropocene that extends beyond the book as well. My calls for thinking cosmically and about mystery in environmental history largely come from an effort to analyze the history of the Tunguska explosion. But the empirical study of that history only gets at some of my views about the Anthropocene and contemporary environmental precarity. Many thinkers have been polemicizing about the Anthropocene, whether to use the concept, and its possible implications. My stance is that I find the notion helpful in turning us away from an over-emphasis on constructivist understandings of nature that dominated during much of the 1990s and early 2000s. As part of a backlash against the perceived excess of alarmism of earlier environmentalism, a good number of environmental historians, I think, ended up de-emphasizing the scale of environmental problems that the world is facing. The Anthropocene concept has helped bring us back to reality by highlighting how human activities have thrown elements of an integrated Earth System out of whack. It also has the virtue of not reducing all environmental precarity to climate change, which is a major issue but not the totality of the problem. I’m not qualified to adjudicate on the Anthropocene from a stratigraphical perspective, but I think the concept’s influence in underscoring the mess we’ve made for ourselves is valuable. While I also very much agree with critics who point out that it hasn’t been all of humanity that bears responsibility, I don’t see the term as irreparably problematic or unusable because of this. I’m also not wedded to the term and open to other ways to get at the massive scope of environmental disruption.
Regarding the “good Anthropocene,” which might most charitably be described as a sense that “if we broke it, we need to fix it,” I think this is hogwash. It simply follows in a long line of Promethean hubris that fails to accept that the material world isn’t simply a human playground. Technological fixes like geoengineering aren’t going to magically resolve all of the tensions of a destabilized environment. Sustained and quite drastic changes in economic and social relations will be part of a necessary response, but the Anthropocene also means that we likely have a lot of awfulness in store for us. There is nothing good about it.
GM: In the conclusion you further note that many of the most compelling examinations of the Anthropocene and the environmental destruction that characterizes human interactions with nature “foreground the social and economic inequalities of global capitalism,” but that the case of Tunguska specifically and the Soviet Union more broadly necessitate looking “beyond capitalism” (p. 208). Can you expand on how examining Soviet socialism enhances the current historiography of the Anthropocene?
AB: Let me discuss the project that I am just turning to rather than Tunguska. I’m starting to write a synthetic book that addresses the environmental history of economic growth in the Soviet Union. It is very much a project that aims to speak primarily to contemporary concerns and will only address my fellow Soviet historians secondarily. I’ve found much inspiration in the work of the current theorists of degrowth. They’ve avoided the unfortunate anxieties about population that characterized many of the initial environmentalist critics of economic growth in the 1970s, while also insisting again that an ever-expanding economy is not compatible with biophysical realities. We know that capitalist systems have a structural dependence on accumulation that helps explain why they keep prioritizing growth despite recognition of environmental problems, but in theory socialist systems don’t need this. Yet if you look around, there is a continued denial about the contradiction between growth and environmental sustainability in very vocal parts of the contemporary left. The most fundamental environmental lesson from state-socialism in my view is that you can’t have a system that is just as committed to growth as capitalism, but this still seems a matter of debate in some corners. Thus, I am hoping that a deeper dive into the Soviet Union’s unwavering allegiance to economic growth from an environmental history perspective will help influence this conversation. I see the Soviet growth imperative as the main thing that helped drive it into the Anthropocene and also plan to rely on Earth System science to help assess the broad environmental record of the Soviet Union.
GM: The concept of mystery plays a substantial role throughout the text of Tunguska. You write that mystery’s environmental forms consisted of “emanations from the natural world and . . . impositions upon a territory” which shaped the environmental and scientific approaches to Tunguska (pp. 8-9). Where does mystery, in either form, fit in humankind’s quest to conquer and control nature more broadly?
AB: A key conclusion about the Tunguska event that I came to, though one that I reached early in the research process, was that it revealed a way in which mysteries can shape environmental behavior. This is a distinctive facet of the Tunguska story because the impulse to try to figure out what happened became so dominant in structuring people’s relationship to a specific landscape for such a long time. Field research at the Tunguska site was scientific in the sense of endeavoring to understand cosmic collisions generally, but also focused on cracking a particular case of a singular event. Compared to other familiar forms of human use of non-human nature, this dominant orientation toward solving a mystery seemed noteworthy and under-explored in environmental history scholarship.
On the conquest/control of nature element of your question, the influence of mystery was a complicating factor. The conquest of nature has been a major theme and realm of debate in the environmental historiography of the USSR, including in my own work as well as the scholarship of Alexandra Bekasova, Stephen Brain, Nicholas Breyfogle, Pey-Yi Chu, Paul Josephson, David Moon, Douglas Weiner, and others. The treatment of the Tunguska landscape simply doesn’t fit into that framework very well. Researchers certainly desired a degree of control in terms of wanting to force the trees, bogs, and terrain to reveal the truth of the explosion through their investigations, but they also felt it was necessary to preserve the place as much as possible so as to not destroy any undiscovered evidence. As I describe in the book, Tunguska investigators who debated acrimoniously with each other about the cause of the blast were in unison on the need to turn the area into a nature reserve. They began advocating for the creation of a protected territory on the blast zone as early as the 1960s and grew more vehement in their demands upon seeing industry infiltrate nearby regions in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1987 the Academy of Sciences declared the area of the blast a temporary nature reserve and in 1995 the new government of the Russian Federation decreed it to be a permanent one.
On a more philosophical level beyond the Tunguska case, I do think that many people today share a discomfort with mystery and insist that all unknowns should become known. This impulse definitely can lead to a desire to conquer or control parts of the natural world that elude any illusion of submission. I’m all for curiosity and trying to figure things out, but comfort with uncertainty is also a virtue.
GM: In Tunguska, the mystery of what exactly happened and the speculation around it also fueled the participation of amateurs and non-scientists, predominately the volunteers of the Complex Amateur Expedition (KSE), in the scientific enterprise. Yet, Soviet science is often understood as an insular, extremely secretive, and technocratic collection of individual experts and learned institutions. Despite your own suggestion that the KSE represented “a distinctively Soviet form of citizen science” you also later write that it “seems peculiar” that the Soviet Academy of Sciences worked alongside, and in some ways were even eclipsed by, “amateur alien hunters” (pp. 112 and 124). How does the participation of the KSE in Tunguska research challenge our understanding of how science, in both its popular and professional forms, was practiced in the Soviet Union?
AB: Soviet science could be extremely hierarchical, technocratic, and secretive, but so could Cold War science in other countries, as can much research in the corporate, medical, and defensive spheres today. A larger takeaway from my research was just how much the image of a closed scientific culture in the USSR did not match the reality of dispute, debate, discussion, and collaborations (including internationally). This did not just include the voluntary researchers at KSE and science popularizers. Official channels were much more porous than the stereotype. To give one example, Evgenii Krinov at the Committee on Meteorites at the Soviet Academy of Sciences hosted Fred Whipple from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Moscow in the 1950s and used these connections to get his book on Tunguska translated into English.
I do think that the relationship between voluntary researchers and professional scientists looked different in the Soviet context. There were moments of competitiveness and gatekeeping, but also sustained cooperation among the groups. Many Soviet scientists valorized field work, expeditions, and data collection without the sense of needing to quickly come to a conclusion about the topic being investigated. There was also an openness to paranormal phenomenon on behalf of mainstream Soviet scientists, especially in the Thaw period. Just a bit before the combined KSE/Committee on Meteorites expedition in 1961, the Soviet Academy of Sciences collaborated with non-professional investigators into cryptozoology research: expeditions to search for the snezhnyi chelovek (Yeti or abominable snowman) in the Pamir Mountains.
GM: The Indigenous Evenki people of Siberia also feature regularly in the scientific explorations of Tunguska. Bolshevism brought with it the idea that Indigenous nomads were simply victims of capitalism and the tsarist regime who could become good socialist citizens, but we see that the Evenki’s beliefs, especially those surrounding the explosion site, are met by Soviet researchers with frustration and derision. As a result, Soviet-era ethnographic accounts, such as those of Innokentii Suslov (1893-1972), often obscure Evenki recollections of the 1908 event. You highlight how Suslov even advised mineralogist Leonid Kulik (1883-1942), the researcher driving the Soviet investigation of Tunguska, to be deceitful and mistrustful in his interactions with the natives. How did you navigate the complexities of incorporating Indigenous accounts that have most certainly been altered or recast by Soviet researchers?
AB: This was a thorny issue and one that I approached with caution but also a desire to try to produce something clear and digestible for the reader. There can be a tension between peeling back the layers of complexity for the sake of accuracy and trying to summarize what can be determined about Evenki involvement. I certainly highlight myth, obfuscation, and the power dynamics in retrieving Evenki impressions about the Tunguska event, but I also try to piece together a narrative that foregrounds Evenki action and agency and in doing so inevitably imposes some of my own suppositions and literary motifs. A key part of my method, however, was to read the testimony of Evenki witnesses (some only second or third-hand accounts) collected by later Tunguska investigators, but instead of trying to deduce what happened during the 1908 explosion from this evidence, I concentrated on trying to learn about Evenki experiences and impressions of the event.
One thing that was very clear from this research is that they had a variety of views about what happened, just as the outside scientists who came to investigate did. I also remained suspicious about any attributions of cause in the descriptions of the Evenki. Kulik insisted that the Evenki were superstitious and fearful about going to the blast site. Many Evenki tended to avoid places where people died, so this might partially be true. But there was also plenty of evidence in his account about how his Evenki interlocuters were acting as their own agents with their own interests, even if those didn’t always align with Kulik’s.
Suslov was a particularly interesting case because he was both an ethnographer and political actor trying to bring Soviet power to the taiga. We have some drafts of materials that show places where he edited things out, so we can also glimpse what he thought was pertinent to meteorite researchers. In particular, he removed references to the involvements of spirits, including Ogdy, in one of the most evocative firsthand accounts of the disaster by an Evenki woman, Akulina. In Suslov’s later writings, Akulina was positioned as a convert to the Soviet cause. In a sense his excision of her references to spiritual involvement represents some of the strongest evidence that some Evenki did indeed attribute the blast to Ogdy.
GM: You have a chapter on “cosmic fantasies” centered on science fiction author Aleksandr Kazantsev (1906-2002). His short-story “Explosion” posited that the Tunguska event was caused by a nuclear-powered spaceship and this generated a vigorous negotiation of the scientific and the pseudo-scientific within the circles studying Tunguska. Soviet journalists and scientists argued whether or not “scientific fantasy” could serve “scientific-enlightenment” (p. 94). Can you expand on what the significance of the fictional popularization of the Tunguska mystery is for the scientific search for answers? What can science fiction do that science cannot?
AB: The role of science fiction in the history of Tunguska is fascinating. In general, science fiction allows for creative speculation without evidence. Most of what is posited will be wrong, but occasionally new possibilities of investigation can be opened up. Fantasy certainly helped revitalize interest in discovering what happened in 1908, while also unleashing its own cultural phenomenon in which people have felt empowered to offer their own solutions to the riddle. Eventually the unmoored speculating reached the point where even some of the initial enthusiasts for scenarios emerging from science fiction scoffed at newcomers proposing their own eccentric ideas. This happened when the popular science magazine Technology for the Youth, which had played a major part in spreading Kazantsev’s hypothesis that a crash of a spaceship caused Tunguska, rebuffed letter writers in the 1970s and 1980s who tried to publish their own unconventional ideas. It also appeared in the derision that some of the voluntary scientists, who initially became interested in Tunguska through Kazantsev, had for the idea of a pair of American scientists that the blast might have been caused by a miniature black hole.
An attraction to fantasy in the Soviet Union for scientific explanations also had a somewhat paradoxical relationship to the rise of popular science and science education. As historian Alexey Golubev has been showing, popular science efforts through organizations like Znanie (Knowledge) ended up encouraging citizens to look beyond the bounds of science for answers. An educated and atheistic public ended up quite open to exoteric explanations for cosmic phenomenon.
In the case of Tunguska, there are also several issues to highlight. First, though I don’t have proof of it, I suspect that Kazantsev may have already been familiar with a work of science fiction from the 1930s that attributed Tunguska to aliens. This is noteworthy because his story came out in early 1946 and he always insisted that news of the US atomic attacks on Japan had helped inspire his scenario of a nuclear-powered spacecraft operated by extraterrestrials. Also, there was a profound inability of mainstream meteorite specialists to control the narrative. They helped Kazantsev put on a show at the Moscow Planetarium, hoping to popularize interest and secure funding for further Tunguska research. But this show ended up convincing many people that alien involvement was a real possibility. At first Kazantsev acted as if his hypothesis was just part of his fiction, but then he turned to promoting it as an idea that should be investigated. Another thing to underscore is that Kazantsev got something right: he claimed that the blast must have been above ground. At the time, mainstream meteorite scientists dug in and denied that this was possible, but later came to see it as correct.
GM: I would be remiss if I did not conclude with a question about more recent attempts to, let’s say, “wonder cosmically.” The book, I think, has actually gained relevance in the year since its publication through the renewed interest, at least here in the United States, in the UFO phenomenon. Media outlets are abuzz with news of possible UFOs or UAPs and there was even a Congressional hearing on the topic. How does the UFO phenomenon, our collective hopes and fears concerning visitors from outer space, fit your understanding of mystery and the cosmic dimensions of human history? What can Tunguska teach us about the historical and ongoing search for extraterrestrials that may or may not have shaped planetary development?
AB: I’m probably going to sound conventional and dissatisfying here. The recent flurry of interest in UFOs or UAPs seems another part of a longstanding historical phenomenon wherein there is much excitement that the truth about alien contact is finally going to be revealed. And the truth is almost always continued uncertainty. I am glad that the government is coming clean on some of its secretive monitoring and believe that some of the testimony reflects the genuine convictions of knowledgeable people. However, nothing that I’ve heard about the hearings and revelations has seemed all that ground-breaking or different from claims in the past. I’m personally more intrigued by the booming science of exoplanets in regard to extraterrestrial life and cosmic mysteries. Just the other day I was reading that a research team has upped the estimate of rogue planets (ones which are no longer obviously orbiting a star) just in the Milky Way galaxy to trillions and argued that most are probably closer in size to Earth than gas giants like Jupiter. The probability that an advanced lifeform exists right now somewhere out in the universe is starting to seem extremely high. Yet, the possibility of contact remains unfathomable beyond science fiction. Allowing mystery to generate the awe to wonder cosmically remains fruitful. It can inspire contemplation of the intricacies and possibilities of the universe as well as human smallness in it.
Garret J. McDonald is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. His work examines the history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization in the Soviet Union. His primary research interests are the intersections of criminal investigations and science, Tsarist and Soviet prisons, the natural sciences and imperialism, as well as Central Asian history.
Edited by Thomas Furse
Featured Image: Fifty-Year Commemorative Stamp of the Tunguska Meteorite. Wikimedia Commons.