National Identity, Modernization, and the Environment

By Autio-Sarasmo, Sari | Kritika, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

National Identity, Modernization, and the Environment


Autio-Sarasmo, Sari, Kritika


Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905-1953. 232 pp., illus. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0822961659. $27.95.

Tricia Cusack, Riverscapes and National Identities: Space, Place, and Society. 237 pp., illus. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0815632115. $29.95.

Anthony Heywood, Engineer of Revolutionary Russia: Iurii V. Lomonosov (1876-1952) and the Railways. 400 pp., illus. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0754655398. 75.00 [pounds sterling].

Different as they are, the three books under review are unified by broader themes, including the development of new nations, the construction of national identities, and processes of modernization. Each book also reveals an environmental dimension of space, as well as the nature of technological progress from the early 19th century to the mid-20th. More implicit--but nonetheless present--are the themes of the transfer of ideas and technologies across national borders. These themes of interaction, exchange, and flow of information are elements of transnational history, which can serve as a tool for analyzing all three books. (1) This review concentrates on these common themes with special focus on transnational exchange and interaction. How did these exchanges--as well as internal exchanges and interaction--influence the development of nation building and modernization? While the books of Stephen Brain and Anthony Heywood clearly focus on Russia and the Soviet Union, Tricia Cusack's monograph offers a comparative analysis encompassing several nations.

Cusack's Riverscapes explores the relationship between painted riverscapes and the creation of national identities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ranging from America to Europeas far as Russia, she has chosen five rivers--the Hudson, Thames, Seine, Volga, and Shannon--to reflect early examples of nationalizing states that were distinct in geographical, cultural, and political terms (3). In her effort to incorporate riverscapes into her analysis of nation building, Cusack relies on the works of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith, and Christopher Ely, among others. She begins with several key assumptions--for instance, that nations are modern and socially constructed--and proposes that modernization and industrialization are particularly important to this construction. (2) In her analysis, the author connects theories of nationalism to visual imagery, notably landscape painting (10). She states that visual imagery, including "visual print" (mass-produced illustrations or prints of celebrated paintings), contributes significantly to nationalist discourses. The study's starting point is that the geographical imaginings of place constitute an essential component of nation formation and national identity (15). Through an analysis of individual painters' influence and role in constructing nationalist discourse, Cusack also emphasizes the importance of individual agency.

The book is structured according to the rivers noted above, so each chapter focuses on visual representations of what the author labels a "national" river--that is, one that acquired iconic status as a key national image in a particular country. The author starts her analysis with the Anglo-American narrative of national riverscapes, focussing on the role of the Hudson in U.S. identity. The process of modernization and the place of Native Americans in how Europeans imagined the Hudson play an important role in nationalist discourse surrounding that river. U.S. identity is an interesting topic from the point of view of transnational history as well. It was in the United States that the transnational turn took place in early 1990s, when the question of the specificity of U.S. history emerged. The connection between national development and cross-national influences came to the fore. (3) In this regard, it would be interesting to know more about individual agency and external influence in the creation of the national imagery with regard to the Hudson, because, as the author claims, the role of immigrant painters in the process was important. …

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