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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 22, May 27, 2023

Armston-Sheret. Review of Jones, Ryan Tucker, Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling

Sunday 28 May 2023



Reviewed by Edward Armston-Sheret (Institute of Historical Research)

The Secret History of Soviet Whaling

by Ryan Tucker Jones. Red Leviathan

University of Chicago Press, 2022
Illustrations. xvii + 269 pp.
(cloth) ISBN 978-0-226-62885-1

Red Leviathan, by Ryan Tucker Jones, is a well-researched and clearly written book of immense interest to scholars working in a variety of fields. Jones provides a detailed and insightful history of whaling in the Soviet Union. The book tells a fascinating story, not widely known in the West: it explains how and why the USSR killed more than half a million whales during the twentieth century, and why it ceased just in time to stop the complete extinction of numerous whale species.

Jones begins by situating Soviet activities in their broader historical context. The Russian Empire carried out comparatively little whaling in the nineteenth century, while American and western European fleets depopulated the oceans, including Russian waters. This experience of foreign exploitation (and the idea that the Russian Empire had been denied its rightful share of marine mammals) shaped Soviet attitudes toward the industry.

Soviet whaling, Jones shows, began during Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans of the 1930s, but the Soviet Union remained a small player until the Nikita Khrushchev era. In the 1960s, the Soviets dramatically expanded their whaling fleet and the number of whales they killed. As Jones’s archival research demonstrates, this often involved catching whales prohibited by the International Whaling Commission and the publication of fabricated (and much lower) whale-kill numbers. By the mid-1970s, the decimation of whale populations already threatened the viability of large-scale whaling in the longer term. But, as Jones shows, it was only a combination of international diplomacy, internal lobbying by Soviet scientists, and direct action from Western environmental organizations that led to the end of the practice in the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

An outline of the book’s overall argument cannot do justice to the strengths of Jones’s work and the various fascinating stories told within it. There are numerous interesting narratives to be found, and the book should be read by scholars working on a broad range of subjects (Soviet history, environmental history, ecological activism, and maritime history, to name but a few). Red Leviathan offers new insights on economic planning within the USSR and its approach to natural resources and the environment (particularly the importance of Khrushchev-era reforms).

Another fascinating story is around the relationship between whaling and Soviet science. We also learn about the cultural position of whales and whaling within Soviet society, the relationship between state-controlled and Indigenous whaling, labor and gender relations on board whaling ships, and the effect of Soviet hunting on whale populations. The book will also be of interest to scholars interested in the efforts to regulate whaling internationally and the role of environmental activism in political decision-making. Jones deserves immense credit for weaving multiple complex narratives together into such a concise and readable book.

Given the breadth of the work covered, it is inevitable that some topics would have benefited from greater attention. Red Leviathan frames the mass killing of whales as an act of “genocide.” This framework—and the suggestion that Soviet whaling was “one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century”—made me feel uneasy. While Jones concedes that Soviet whalers “were hardly Nazis,” I was left ruminating on whether such an approach might be offensive to human victims of genocide in the twentieth century (p. xii). That said, some critical animal studies scholars have forcefully argued that genocide is a useful term to refer to nonhuman death. But the book would have benefited from an engagement with these arguments, particularly as it will undoubtedly attract a readership beyond scholars familiar with such debates.

Another minor gripe is that Soviet whalers are often referred to as “Russians,” despite the presence of other Soviet nationalities—mostly Ukrainians—on board whaling ships (p. 98). Though Jones’s book was undoubtedly written before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems particularly important to stress the multinational nature of Soviet whaling crews in the context of recent Russian efforts to deny Ukrainian national identity.

Despite these minor issues, one of the strengths of Jones’s account is his strong and subtle engagement with the lives and experiences of Soviet whalers and scientists. While never shrinking from describing the destructive effects of their actions, the book offers a nuanced picture of the people involved in the whaling industry. Indeed, throughout the book, one aspect that shines through is the depth of research on which Red Leviathan is based, including archival research, oral history interviews, and an analysis of films and literature on Soviet whaling.

Overall, Red Leviathan is an excellent book that tells an important story little known in the West. It is written in an engaging and accessible style, is well researched, and should be widely read by scholars working in numerous disciplines and subdisciplines.

The above work from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License.

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