SSRC Fellow Pey-Yi Chu

Encounters with Permafrost: Science and Development in Soviet Eastern Siberia

Current Position: Postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard

Permafrost Country: Eastern Siberia and the Making of a Soviet Science

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With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the command economy no longer governs development in North Asia. Nevertheless, aspects of the Soviet experience, including expectations derived from Soviet-era planning paradigms, persist to this day. By investigating the history of eastern Siberia under Soviet rule, my project illuminates continuities in approaches to development in North Asia. It also aims to connect economic history to environmental history and the history of science by examining the relationship between the geosciences and ideologies of modernization. I show that economic development in eastern Siberia was accompanied by the creation of scientific structures whose raison d'etre was to optimize the industrial colonization of a permafrost environment. The imperatives of modernization not only fueled the expansion of scientific institutions but also shaped scientific ideas about the physical geography of eastern Siberia, such as the nature of frozen earth. Scientists' writings about the natural environment of eastern Siberia contributed to the formulation of Soviet regional development theory. Their descriptions of eastern Siberia's “natural productive forces” contained arguments for both economic adaptation and extraction, regional self-sufficiency and specialization. These tensions underlay Soviet imaginations of eastern Siberia's place in the imperial as well as the global economy.

Current interests and projects:
Conference paper - “'All the Elements of Mendeleev's Table': Soviet Geoscientists and Ideas about Mineral Wealth in Siberia” for “Eurasian Environments,” held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in September 2011;

Conference paper - “Mapping Permafrost Country: Visualizations of Frozen Earth in Russian History” for “Frost, Ice, and Snow: Cold Climate in Russian History” held at the German Historical Institute in Moscow in February 2012

Abandoned copper mine in the Udokan Mountains.
Photo: Pey-Yi Chu