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Retelling the Environmental History of the Soviet Era

5 September 2019 – A witness to history’s biggest battles, how do landscapes preserve our cultural memory? And if we think about forests as the keepers of our past, will we do more to protect them? A new book aims to retell the history of Central and Eastern Europe in the Soviet Era by looking to the environment to reshape historical narratives.

When Anna Barcz, Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellow, delivered a public lecture to Trinity College Dublin on Bialowieza - a vast UNESCO forest bordering Poland and Belarus, she spoke of the crimes and wars that played out in landscapes such as these. The soldiers who made the forest their ally, taking shelter and respite from the war, and the anti-communist uprisings that are etched in this landscape. She referred to the forests as being the ‘managers of memory.’

In an exciting new study, one which also challenges a more traditional disciplinary approach to history, Dr Barcz, who has been a fellow in the Trinity Long Room Hub for the past year in association with Trinity’s Identities in Transformation research theme, is bringing a new Eco-critical analysis to the narrative of the Soviet Era, pioneering yet another fascinating approach to the field of research in environmental humanities.

Anna Barcz Fellow in Focus

Dr Anna Barcz speaking to her mentor Professor Michael Cronin (TCD) during her Fellow in Focus discussion.

Unknown Land

Dr Barcz has a research background in animal studies and Eco-critical analysis. Growing up in Warsaw, she heard the stories from her grandfather of the fighting in the Second World War that took place in the Bialowieza forest. For the past year she has been completing work on her forthcoming book Environmental Cultures in Soviet East Europe: Literature, History and Memory.

To many in the west, the Soviet Era is characterized by a detrimental and dark political agenda that destroyed the environment. With a multitude of documentaries, books and dramas describing tragedies such as Chernobyl, Dr Barcz argues that there are many other stories left untold and the environment itself is central to telling these stories.

While collecting materials for her book, she found a glaring gap in the way environmental cultural history and heritage is described in former Soviet lands. She realised that she couldn’t find any authors from central Eastern Europe among the dominant narratives. ‘I decided that I would go to other countries that were under the colonisation of the Soviets and analyse its environmental history in a more complex way, looking also at some of the anti-communist writers and their response.’

Inevitably, Dr Barcz couldn’t ignore Chernobyl as part of her study. She focused on the works of Belarusian author Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich who despite having received a Nobel Prize, has not featured significantly in Anglo-American environmental literature. Her book includes the interviews she carried out following the Chernobyl disaster - interviews which have been used to make the recently acclaimed HBO series on Chernobyl, which highlighted new narratives around the devastating impact on animals.

‘The stories are very real and shocking but what is very interesting is the way she didn’t hierarchise the impact of Chernobyl on the environment, the people and the animals. The fate of animals is rarely captured in the cultural memory of Chernobyl.’

This same Nobel Prize winning author has also commented on westerners’ fascination by the Soviet era, which she said is spurred on by the strict limitations and restrictions on what they can know. She says the Soviet period for westerners is like ‘the unknown land.’

 

Dr Barcz argues that environmental literature and the impact of culture can reorder how we narrate the environmental history of the Soviet period and of this difficult political situation. But ultimately the examples she has chosen, including mining, indicate practices that transfer to other jurisdictions.

One of the examples she has chosen comes from ‘peasant literature’. ‘Peasant writers were among the first critics of collectivisation, of hyper industrialisation.’ Looking at the impact of mining culture and of the mining of coal and uranium, accelerated by the Soviets, what she found was a fascinating environmental and cultural response to this extreme extractive industry. ‘They represent the Soviet period, but I also try to indicate what was happening in the USA and other countries.’

A Witness to History

The last part of her book brings her back to Bialowieza, one of the largest low-land forests in Europe, whose ecosystem is still under threat from logging and under human practices.

UNESCO describes Bialowieza, a large forest located on the border between Poland and Belarus as having ‘an exceptionally high nature conservation value,’ which ‘due to the scale of its old growth forests,’ ‘include extensive undisturbed areas where natural processes are on-going.’

Boasting 59 mammal species, over 250 bird, 13 amphibian, 7 reptile, over 12,000 invertebrate species and its most iconic inhabitant, the European Bison, 25% of the world’s total population of Bison, the forest is a unique and important ecological and cultural site in the former Soviet lands.

She describes the forest as ‘a witness to history’, as testified in accounts from Polish literature as ‘a soldiers’ ally, a partisans’ hideout, a hero of songs from the First and Second World Wars’, and similarly, her grandfather’s accounts relay stories of the forest as a refuge from the enemy.

 

Because many crimes of the Soviet era were also committed in natural landscapes such as Bialowieza, Dr Barcz says that ‘in Central Eastern Europe nature is intertwined with memory in a very material way. The environment doesn’t only belong to ecology or culture, it’s also connected with blood, with the victims and the many bodies that are still not found.’ According to Dr Barcz, ‘this is one of the reasons it has to be protected.’

In Poland, this is a point of contention because Dr Barcz says it is not doing enough to protect this woodland even though it is part of the national culture and should be thought of as a place of memorialisation to the many things that happened there.

The forest in Bialowieza is also a witness to Poland’s multi-national heritage and culture dating back to the 14th century; an uncomfortable truth for Poland’s current political establishment pushing a mono-nationalistic identity.  ‘The cultural bond with the forest derives from the first settlers in Eastern Europe and environmental conditions that they found here. Thus, the traditions of nature conservation are inextricably linked to the history of the Polish statehood.’  Dr Barcz commented during her public lecture at Trinity.

‘There is no Poland without the forest.’

Fellowship

Dr Barcz’s book, which was written during her fellowship has been submitted to Bloomsbury publishers, will be released next year. Along with the support of her mentor Michael Cronin, she has found the links with the Irish Environmental History Network (IEHN), hosted by the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities, particularly constructive in commenting and contributing to her research.

As many other fellows attest to, the Trinity Long Room Hub has provided a space not only for writing but also a ‘very lively community’ and the opportunity to have many informal discussions about research. ‘There is an atmosphere here – it should be in all institutes that have visiting fellowships – wherein people are somehow inclined to talk about their research in a very natural way.’

Having borrowed over 100 books from the Library of Trinity College, the access to secondary texts for her research and the latest works on environmental humanities was something that was facilitated by being in Trinity and working from such a well-equipped library, Dr Barcz commented.

While based in the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Barcz was one of the organisers of a significant conference entitled ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, which saw 200 delegates from all across Europe attend one of the first conferences of this kind held in Europe and hosted by Trinity College Dublin. In association with the School for Creative Arts, the Identities in Transformation Steering Group, and the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities, the conference looked at how art interrogates the current geological period in which the earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity are being slowly disrupted by human intervention.

Although a reluctant activist, Dr Barcz argues that environmental humanities is a growing research field which can be considered ‘activitism in words.’ But she sees a bigger role for this inter-disciplinary approach which has the potential to change the way history is told.

‘Some would call it the environmental history and some - like me - would advocate for changing the national discourse of telling history in general.’

 

Dr Anna Barcz is Trinity Long Room Hub Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow (2018-2019); the author of Environmental Cultures in Soviet East Europe: Literature, History and Memory (Bloomsbury Academic, Forthcoming 2020); Ecorealism: From Ecocriticism to Zoocriticism in Polish Literature (Katowice 2016), Animal Narratives and Culture: Vulnerable Realism (Newcastle upon Tyne 2017) and co-author and editor of Animals and Their People: Connecting East and West in Cultural Animal Studies (Leiden 2018).

Cover image: European Bison, Białowieża Forest ©Frank.Vassen

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