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Ellison Center Lecture Series

REECAS Lecture Series 2022-2023

Russia in the Arctic

The Ellison Center’s 2022-2023 Lecture Series

This three-part lecture series presents new research on Russia in the Arctic.

As the largest country in the Arctic, Russia has a long history of northern settlement. It is also the most ambitious player in renewed international competition for natural resources and control of sea routes in the Far North. What role do various actors in Russia play in the transformation of the Arctic? How do they respond to the radical changes in this region caused by global climate warming? The 2022-2023 REECAS lecture series addresses these questions by exploring the different meanings of the Northern Sea Route, the environmental history of the Chukchi Peninsula, and the assumptions behind an ambitious science experiment in Arctic Siberia aimed at climate change mitigation. The series presents recent studies of the region by Russian and U.S. scholars who have approached it from the disciplinary perspectives of anthropology and history.

The Northern Sea Route: The Anthropology of Russian Arctic Mega Infrastructure

Valeria Vasilyeva, Research Fellow, Center for Arctic Social Studies, European University at St. Petersburg (Russia) and Fulbright Visiting Scholar, Boise State University

December 1, 2022 at 3:30-5:00 PM (PST) | HUB 214


The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a shipping passage with clear geographical boundaries officially defined by Russian legislation. It runs along the Russian coast from the Novaya Zemlya archipelago to Cape Dezhnev in the Bering Strait. At first glance, it seems to be a typical transportation infrastructure, but there is much ambiguity if we look closer. Is the Northern Sea Route intended for transit, export of hydrocarbons, or supplying of remote areas? What ports does it include? What infrastructural objects are necessary for the stable exploitation of the NSR? What are its navigational regimes, and to what extent is shipping engaged with local communities? Even its geographical definition is not as undebatable as it seems. A configuration of answers depends mainly on the respondent’s local and professional belonging, but at the same time it is influenced by the modern official discourse on the NSR. It has become a commonplace in infrastructural studies that political discourse is the most potent source for determining infrastructure’s geographical and functional content. However, for some groups, the gap between their practical observations on its development and political rhetoric is significant. For some coastal settlements that owe their very existence to the Soviet period of the Northern Sea Route’s functioning, the political promise of the NSR’s development is shaping expectations for the future while at the same time colliding with the current slow decline of these settlements.

The lecture will present the results of the project dedicated to the history and anthropology of the Northern Sea Route. The project was carried out by a group of researchers from the European University at St. Petersburg and the Tyumen State University in 2017-2021. Field data to be discussed in the lecture have been collected by Kseniia Gavrilova and the author in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Indiga, Amderma, Sabetta, Dikson, Dudinka, Khatanga, Tiksi, Pevek, Provideniya, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Vladivostok.


Valeria Vasilyeva (Ph.D. in Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences) is a research fellow at the Center for Arctic Social Studies, European University at St. Petersburg, Russia. Currently, she is a Fulbright visiting scholar at Boise State University. Her research focuses on mobility practices, social construction of space, and perception of infrastructure in the Russian North. She has conducted fieldwork in several regions on the Arctic coast, but her primary region of interest is the Taimyr Peninsula.

The Reindeer at the End of the World: Climate, Apocalypse, and Soviet Dreams

Bathsheba Demuth, Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University

February 27, 2023 at 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM (PST) | Online via ZOOM


Climate change and other alterations to the Earth caused by human activity are often described in apocalyptic terms: as Armageddon, or the end of the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic, where the rates of warming are twice that of temperate regions and have been visible for decades. This talk turns to the history of the Chukchi Peninsula, in far eastern Siberia, a place that has experienced radical changes in the past: first with the founding of the Soviet Union and then with its dissolution. Weaving a story of devoted Bolshviks, Chukchi nomads, and herds of reindeer, it explores what kinds of narratives suit the empirical experience of radical change, what is lost when we emphasize rupture, and what is gained by paying attention to the ruins left by past ways of living as we face a transformed Arctic – and planet.
Bathsheba Demuth is the Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, where she specializes in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic. Her multiple-prize winning first book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (W.W. Norton) was named a Nature Top Ten Book of 2019 and Best Book of 2019 by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal among others. Demuth holds a BA and MA from Brown University, and an MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in publications from The American Historical Review to The New Yorker.

Pleistocene Park: Engineering Wilderness in a More-than-Human World

Anya Bernstein, Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

April 27, 2023 at 3:30-5:00 PM (PDT)
Pleistocene Park is a large-scale science experiment in Arctic Siberia in the form of a future-oriented rewilding project with the goal of mitigating climate change. Park’s creators hypothesize that introducing large herbivores to this area will slow down the thawing of permafrost. Using the approach of multispecies ethnography, in attending to the nonhuman agencies at work in the project, I argue that the park differs from other rewilding projects, which are usually ecocentric, in emerging as a survivalist project with a distinct anthropocentric bent. Even so, however, the survivalist goal for humans coexists with ontologies based on collaboration and mutual aid between humans and nonhumans, and between organic and inorganic matter, with extensive agency assigned to nonhuman others. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork within the frame of the Park’s different genealogies, I trace its underlying assumptions in equal measure to the history of Russian science and to the experience of the Park’s lead scientists of sociopolitical rupture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Considered as a case study, Pleistocene Park is especially suited to exploring issues of time and temporality, apocalypticism and redemption, extinction and eternity, in addition to particular visions of the natural and the human.
Anya Bernstein is Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University. Her first book, Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism (University of Chicago Press, 2013), was the winner of the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, from the American Academy of Religion, and an Honorable Mention for the Davis Center Book Prize in Political and Social Studies, from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (2014). Her second book, The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Anya Bernstein Contemporary Russia (Princeton University Press, 2019), explored the interplay between ideas about immortality and life-extension industries across the Soviet Union and postsocialist Russia, drawing on archival and ethnographic methods to investigate these technoscientific and religious futurisms. This book received the 2020 William A. Douglass Prize in Europeanist Anthropology, from the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, American Anthropological Association. Her current book project, titled Pleistocene Park: Extinction and Eternity in the Russian Arctic, extends her previous work on technoscience and future scenarios in Russia to issues of climate change and geoengineering, by chronicling the efforts of a transnational team of scientists to “resurrect” an extinct ecosystem in Arctic Siberia. As a visual anthropologist Bernstein has directed, filmed, and produced several award-winning documentary films on Buryat Buddhism and shamanism, including Join Me in Shambhala (2002) and In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman (2006).


The annual REECAS Lecture Series is organized by the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington in partnership with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.