The Cold War was also a war on the cold. The United States and the Soviet Union considered the ability to successfully mine the resource-rich lands of their respective Arctic regions nearly as important as the ability to send a man (or a dog) into space. One would assume that the Russians had a natural advantage there, having decisively wielded the cold against prior foes. When the unusually early Russian winter of 1941 forced German soldiers to retreat, it was said that Hitler had not learned Napoleon’s “lesson.” In the winter of 1812, tens of thousands of French soldiers died of hypothermia or starvation as the Grande Armée withdrew from Moscow. In the midst of the Crimean War, Nicholas I would say that Russia could always depend on “Generals January and February.” But we all have our limits.
As the leaders of the Russian Empire looked to expand into Siberia, they would encounter manifestations of the cold that terrorized and confounded them. Neither force of will nor national character could master a terrain so stubbornly frozen that it seemed permanently so.
During the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1880s, builders would lay down a track only to feel a rumble, then watch as a geyser of water gushed from the earth and immediately froze, encasing the fruits of their labor in a block of ice. It turned out that the impenetrable slices of frozen soil beneath them left thawing groundwater trickling in from elsewhere no outlet but up. That was just one of the seemingly endless problems this unique geological formation—some form of dirt that did not appear to melt even in the summer—would pose for an empire eager to break all kinds of ground.
Over the years this frozen mass underneath the Siberian topsoil took on a name: permafrost. Its technical definition is soil that maintains a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two years (the significance of two years being that it does not thaw even after the change of seasons). This tricky soil is not confined to Siberia. It can also be found in the polar regions of North America and in Greenland and Antarctica. But nowhere does it occupy as much territory, or as much space in the political imagination, as it does in Russia. “By geographical accident,” the historian Pey-Yi Chu writes, “a continental empire in Northern Asia encompassed ten million square kilometers of territory underlain by perennially frozen earth.”
In The Life of Permafrost, Chu describes the process by which permafrost became, during the push for industrialization, a kind of internal enemy for the Soviets, an inanimate traitor that could undo the promise of a bright socialist future with greater force and efficiency than any spy or satellite. Soviet fiction, film, and even children’s books presented the icy regions of the north and the taiga, where permafrost abounds, as adversaries to be conquered. Chu tracks down a newspaper article circa 1932 that promised “Bolshevik might and will [volia], in combination with the power of technical thought, will vanquish the taiga.” Indeed, one of the leading Soviet experts on the subject suggested it might be possible to burn permafrost,estimating that the problem of frozen earth could be solved with the aid of 1.5 trillion tons of coal.
What concerns scientists today about permafrost is that it is filled with the remains of plants and animals that have been frozen for millennia. Should the permafrost thaw, carbon will be released through the decomposition process in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, raising—potentially quite quickly and dramatically—the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that caused the thaw to begin with.
This prospect, Chu observes, “has led commentators to call permafrost a ‘wild card’ and, still more vividly, a ‘time bomb.’” Chu certainly recognizes the dangers in a thawed permafrost and acknowledges the temptation to frame the crisis this way: “To the extent that it encourages society to lower emissions of greenhouse gases and pursue alternative sources of energy, the idea of a permafrost as time bomb has usefulness.” But as a historian, she cannot help but hear in these terrifying sound bites echoes of Cold War rhetoric and the language of conquest. As permafrost becomes fixed in the public consciousness as a catastrophic accelerant of climate change and a time capsule for ancient diseases, Chu fears we will forget who the villain of this winter story really is. “To conquer hubris,” she explains, “we must be reminded that, with global warming, the threat to people’s well-being arises not from a hostile, external force of nature, but from humans ourselves.”
Unlike the empires of Western Europe, Russia expanded not by sea but over land. The lack of a warm water port severely curtailed Peter the Great’s imperial ambitions to the south and west, but warmth, or even just manageable cold, would also turn out to be a limited resource in Russia’s Far East. In 1684, a military governor in Yakutsk reported that a well “cannot by any means be made,” because of the layer of frozen soil below the surface. This posed problems for the Russians in Siberia looking for animal pelts. Without easy access to water (for drinking and agriculture), even small settlements were unsustainable.
Foreign explorers in the region had no better luck. In 1676, the English captain John Wood was shipwrecked in Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Russian Arctic by the Barents Sea. When he and his crew attempted to dig an underground cave for shelter from the cold, they hit a hard layer of permafrost two feet deep that prevented them from going further. He would describe Novaya Zemlya with its unwieldy soil as the “most miserable Country that lyeth on the Foundation of the Earth.”
This mythic image of Siberia’s unmanageable and unlivable terrain persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries, even though Indigenous peoples, like the ones in the Sakha Republic in northeastern Siberia, had been living in the region for over 200 years. The Sakha had learned to use the craters formed by disturbances in permafrost to store melted ice.
Left out of Western Europe’s land grabs in Africa and the New World, the Russians felt they could not afford to be deterred. Catherine the Great once proclaimed that Siberia “could be our India, Mexico, or Peru.” The need to capitalize on its immense land mass and the resources within it was paramount. The construction of roads for trade routes and of military outposts to manage the empire’s commercial interests was a priority that permafrost threatened to undermine.
In the late 19th century, it was determined that a railroad must be built to connect the various new towns and trading centers. “Until there is a railroad across all of Siberia,” one official wrote, “it will be estranged from the general system and the political life of the state.” In 1882, Tsar Alexander III approved the construction of a “Great Siberian Machine,” but the navigation of permafrost still proved challenging, at times seemingly impossible. Fifty years later, well into the Soviet era, trains that stopped for too long occasionally froze onto the tracks.
Because of the extraordinary difficulties engineers and settlers experienced in furthering the Russian state’s imperial and industrial aspirations, “the tsarist and communist governments sponsored systematic study of frozen earth,” Chu writes. Indeed, the United States would later find itself furiously racing to catch up, bringing in Russian-speaking scientists and researchers to translate a century’s worth of tsarist and Soviet materials on permafrost. In the USSR, the question of who would lead the country’s research on frozen earth became a source of some contention, with two figures emerging in a kind of Soviet replay of Westinghouse versus Edison, albeit a war not of currents but of soil.
During the Soviet era, permafrost ceased to be an annoyance and rose to the rank of enemy of the state. One person understood this shift thoroughly. Born in 1873, Mikhail Sumgin was a man who ran in the direction of trouble, which suited him well to the task of eventually leading the country’s research on frozen earth. His family was of peasant origins, but he found work as a tutor for the children of a noble family. The family, fond of him, paid Sumgin’s way through university, where he swiftly became involved in student activism. Known as hotbeds of revolutionary activity, student assemblies were closely monitored by tsarist authorities. For his repeated involvement, Sumgin was exiled, not once but twice, to Siberia, where he became involved in peasant organizing.
Though he lacked the necessary formal training, Chu writes, “Sumgin’s experiences primed him to study frozen earth from a specifically practical viewpoint.” His work with the peasants and local government “nurtured a commitment to putting knowledge to work for social good.” He was a radical first, a scientist second, one might say; and indeed, he reframed the issue of frozen earth in terms of the Marxist dialectic, defining permafrost as the product of a “‘struggle’ between frozen earth and water.”
Another scientist, however, a geologist named Sergei Parkhomenko, disputed some of Sumgin’s claims. He found Sumgin’s conception of permafrost as an independent substance separate from its environment unscientific and unhelpful. He insisted that to understand it one had to situate it within a system that would factor in “radiation from the sun,” the “minerals in the earth,” and “pressure and humidity in the atmosphere.” He also argued that the term “permafrost”—in Russian, vechnaia merzlota (eternally frozen soil)—was a misnomer; two years was not, after all, eternity. Sumgin and his defenders pushed back on this, using communist rhetoric about accessibility. “Bolshevik culture promoted mass enlightenment of the public about science,” writes Chu, and thus the simplified moniker “could be seen as a ‘people’s word.’”
Sumgin’s view won out, not least because his insistence that permafrost be seen as a discrete substance made it easier to render frozen earth as a clear enemy in the public imagination. Soviet scientists, Chu explains, “drew upon the theme of the struggle with nature that featured prominently in socialist realism, the state-sponsored artistic movement.” Across an array of art forms, from movies to newsreels to adventure novels, nature was presented as “an opponent to be fought and overcome,” Chu notes.
Lenin had loved the tales of Jack London and the way they showed human beings surviving and mastering the elements, particularly snow and ice. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, wrote about one London story, “Love of Life,” that particularly enraptured him. It is about a man stranded in an icy wilderness who kills an attacking wolf with his bare hands. “Half-clad, half-demented, he reaches his goal,” Krupskaya quipped, adding, “The tale greatly pleased Ilyich.”
Under Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, the demands of industrialization meant that Soviet citizens, including children, were taught to view nature as an obstacle to building socialism, an obstacle that would, however, ultimately succumb to Soviet ingenuity and strength of character. In a children’s book, Commotion: A Winter Tale, the season was presented not as a wonderland ripe for sleigh-riding but rather as a scourge that closes schools and causes streetlights to go out. The enlightenment of the new Soviet subject was halted, both literally and figuratively, until the power grid was triumphantly restored by the local government.
So how did the Soviets conquer permafrost? They didn’t, thankfully. Rather, they learned—as the Sakha had—to work with it, not against it. Buildings produced heat, which melted the soil, causing heave, so Soviet engineers erected structures that maintained space between the earth and the ground floor so that any warmth generated would not affect the permafrost. To deal with the water bursts, they employed the permafrost: They froze earth on purpose, creating “frozen earth belts” to route potential overflows away from construction sites and other critical infrastructure. In essence, the Soviets decided to preserve permafrost instead of destroying it—to harness its might and intransigence. “Although Soviet propaganda described this learning process in dualistic terms as a struggle between humans and nature,” Chu observes, “from an outsider’s perspective it could also be seen as a process of learning to adapt.”
In the Sakha Republic lies a nature reserve run by a father-son team of scientists, Sergey and Nikita Zimov, known as Pleistocene Park. The Zimovs are trying to re-create the ecosystem of the last glacial period, known as the Pleistocene, by repopulating their reserve with large herbivores (Yakutian horses, Kalmykian cows, reindeer). Their theory is that the restoration of this habitat will slow the thawing of permafrost. The animals, they say, will break apart snow with their heavy hooves, thereby exposing the ground below to the cold winter air.
Would the Zimovs’ experiment, a kind of environmentalist Jurassic Park, count as an example of what Chu has in mind, an approach to permafrost that moves away from the “time bomb” narrative toward something less reactive and more adaptive? It certainly feels more gentle, grounded less in fear than in a kind of intimate and creative relationship with the natural world. But for a more effective, and certainly tested, way of reprogramming our relationship to the chaotic and frightening effects of climate change, we might look to Australia. As the country is increasingly ravaged by wildfires, some politicians are beginning to think differently about fire itself, that it might be possible to fight it with… well, fire. Drawing on an Indigenous method of containment, called cool-burning, that predates the European settlement of the continent, scientists there are now recommending small, controlled burns to encourage biodiversity and manage the landscape to prevent large-scale bushfires.
The benefits of such an approach would seem to be what Chu wants us to learn from the Soviet story of permafrost, that nature might be something to fight for rather than fight against, to accommodate rather than dominate. Who better to teach us this, after all, than the Russians, for whom there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothes for it.