Forests, Peasants, and Revolutionaries: Forest Conservation and Organization in Soviet Russia, 1917-1929

Article excerpt

Brian Bonhomme. Forests, Peasants, and Revolutionaries: Forest Conservation and Organization in Soviet Russia, 1917-1929. East European Monographs. Boulder, Colorado: Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 2005. 252 pp. $ 55.85, cloth.

In his monograph, Forests, Peasants, and Revolutionaries: Forest Conservation and Organization in Soviet Russia, 1917-1929, Brian Bonhomme has made a vital contribution to the still sparse work available on the Russian forest, particularly from the historian's perspective. Together with Douglas Weiner's work on forests and conservation, these studies stand as the beginning of an incredibly important, fruitful, and expansive reserve for the historian. Research on the management, usage, conservation, and conflicts over the forest provides crucial insights into institutions, legislation, social history, environmental history, culture, and ecology.

Bonhomme's title is especially revealing in that it prioritizes his subjects and his affections: forests first, peasants second, and revolutionaries last. His chief interest and focus is conservation and he clearly lays out his primary claims from the start. He argues that early Soviet forest conservation had its roots in pre-revolutionary forest conservation which has "hitherto been underrated or ignored." He challenges Weiner's claims on early Soviet conservation as being too narrowly focused on designated nature preserves (zapovedniki) which in turn created an overly optimistic portrait of conservation because of the degree to which these limited areas were protected. Bonhomme argues that Soviet conservation efforts should not be "judged 'cutting edge' (unless, of course, that term be taken quite literally!)." Bonhomme's third key claim is worth noting in its entirety:

Third, and most important, Soviet efforts at forest protection during this period, it turns out, where significantly hampered-even undermined-not only by the inevitable contemporary changes of the Revolution and Civil War, but more fundamentally by the unfailing noncooperation of the Russian peasantry, the nation's majority population, for whom nature conservation and forest planning held little appeal and were instead constant sources of irritation and resentment. This conflict, aptly characterized by a Bolshevik observer in 1924 as 'the war between the population and the forest economy' is the dominant theme of much of this study (p. 5).

Concentrating as he does on the early conservationists, Bonhomme lends to repeat their characterization of the peasantry as downright hostile to the forests without a thought for the future. However, it seems unfair to pass such a judgment on peasant consciousness given the circumstance and the time frame of a few years marked by extreme shortages and hardship. …