Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling (Hardcover)

Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling By Ryan Tucker Jones Cover Image

Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling (Hardcover)


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A revealing and authoritative history that shows how Soviet whalers secretly helped nearly destroy endangered whale populations, while also contributing to the scientific understanding necessary for these creatures’ salvation.
The Soviet Union killed over six hundred thousand whales in the twentieth century, many of them illegally and secretly. That catch helped bring many whale species to near extinction by the 1970s, and the impacts of this loss of life still ripple through today’s oceans. In this new account, based on formerly secret Soviet archives and interviews with ex-whalers, environmental historian Ryan Tucker Jones offers a complete history of the role the Soviet Union played in the whales’ destruction. As other countries—especially the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Norway—expanded their pursuit of whales to all corners of the globe, Stalin determined that the Soviet Union needed to join the hunt. What followed was a spectacularly prodigious, and often wasteful, destruction of humpback, fin, sei, right, and sperm whales in the Antarctic and the North Pacific, done in knowing violation of the International Whaling Commission’s rules. Cold War intrigue encouraged this destruction, but, as Jones shows, there is a more complex history behind this tragic Soviet experiment. Jones compellingly describes the ultimate scientific irony: today’s cetacean studies benefited from Soviet whaling, as Russian scientists on whaling vessels made key breakthroughs in understanding whale natural history and behavior. And in a final twist, Red Leviathan reveals how the Soviet public began turning against their own country’s whaling industry, working in parallel with Western environmental organizations like Greenpeace to help end industrial whaling—not long before the world’s whales might have disappeared altogether.
Ryan Tucker Jones is the Ann Swindells Associate Professor of history at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741–1867 and coeditor of Across Species and Cultures: New Histories of Pacific Whaling.
Product Details ISBN: 9780226628851
ISBN-10: 022662885X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 30th, 2022
Pages: 304
"Vivid and sober. . . . [A] fascinating account of the history of Soviet and Russian whaling.”
— Martha C. Nussbaum

“Jones asks why the Soviets embarked on this irrational and destructive journey, and how they got away with it—until they didn’t. One answer (worth bearing in mind in view of the latest battleground over gas pipelines and wheat fields in Ukraine) is that pride, competition, and a sense of historical injustice motivated Soviet whaling far more than commercial considerations. . . . Ultimately it wasn’t economics or ideology but a growing spotlight on these practices that put an end to the carnage. . . . As whale populations begin to revive, Jones shows the power of a handful of environmental activists on tiny inflatable Zodiac boats, pushing back against a tide of destruction."
— Times Literary Supplement

"A gripping and heart-breaking chronicle of the Soviet regime’s war (not a ‘conflict’, ‘special operation’ or any other euphemism) against the freedom of our natural environment and its inhabitants it wanted to dominate."
— Engineering and Technology

"A very well-researched, readable, and well-illustrated book that provides a fascinating new insight into what was effectively the end of the 'modern whaling' era."
— Marine Biologist

"Red Leviathan is a fascinating history of Russian and Soviet whaling that spans between Odesa, Ukraine, and Vladivostok, in eastern Russia, and beyond. Jones succeeds in chronicling the devastating extent of Soviet whaling in a highly interesting and readable text which includes personal reflections on his interactions with whalers and the nuances of the whaling industry. While Jones argues that extensive Soviet whaling, especially of endangered species, amounted to a genocide of whales, he acknowledges that these activities also contributed to an expansion of scientific knowledge about whale species, which fueled the conservation movement focused on their salvation. Jones’s work is especially important as it places the Soviet history of whaling in a global context and compares it to efforts by other states, such as Norway and Japan."
— H-Russia

"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. . . . An excellent book."
— H-Environment

"Jones explores the hitherto untold story of Soviet whaling, which, over the course of the twentieth century, resulted in the slaughter of more than half a million of the planet’s largest animals. Jones, a professor of history at the University of Oregon, explores how this profitable industry was driven by far more than mere commercial considerations, but by pride, competition and a deep-rooted sense of historical injustice. . . . Soviet whaling officially ended in 1987 but its story is only just being told today. Red Leviathan is a moral story that is neither accusatory nor forgiving, but which reveals how Soviet hopes that communism would forge a better relationship with the natural world were thoroughly disappointed."
— Moscow Times

"What this author calls the tragic Soviet experiment (a phrase which I think applies to more things than just whaling) was about the predatory use of nature—like the predatory use of its own populace, like the predatory use of everything—and this led to destruction. The whaling was as anti-ecological as you can imagine. . . . the further away we get from Soviet times, the more it stands out in its unprecedented inhumanity, including to whales."
— Five Books

"A multi-dimensional examination of pelagic whaling by the USSR. Based on deep study and sympathetic interviews of participants in Russia and Ukraine this notable book covers a variety of topics in an invitingly clear and well-organized narrative. This is backstopped by endnotes and an excellent index. A rewarding and authoritative read."
— Northern Mariner

"Almost everything about this book is astonishing. Jones teaches environmental history, but he writes like a virtuoso journalist. . . . This text is emotionally affecting but objective, not sentimental—altogether describable as a tour de force. . . . Highly recommended."
— Choice

"The public unveiling only began in 1993, when Alexey Yablokov delivered 'what amounted to a national confession' at an international scientific conference in Texas. In Red Leviathan, Jones places what has been learned since then in a social, economic, and geopolitically strategic as well as ideological context. He does this in a rigorous and engaging way."
— Randall Reeves, Chair, IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group Hudson, Quebec, Canada

“This is a really important story. Jones has set out to reframe much of what we know about twentieth-century environmental history, particularly of the oceans. His archival work is extraordinarily impressive, and the oral history interviews with Russian whalers and marine biologists are, to my knowledge, unique in English-language historical scholarship. But it is Jones’s incorporation of whale science and his own personal vignettes that make this book special. Soviet whaling had the single greatest impact on world whale populations in the postwar period, but no other historian has told its inside story. Red Leviathan is a game-changer.”
— Jason M. Colby, University of Victoria, author of "Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator"

“American environmentalists are inclined to see the United States’ Cold War opponent as a villain. Telling the story of the Soviet role in modern whaling, Jones complicates this perspective by acknowledging the Soviets’ disproportionate impact while also looking beyond it. He illuminates the contradictions and tensions among different players within the Soviet whaling industry—whalers, the whale scientists who worked with them, and other Russians not directly involved in but still impacted by and shaping the demands of the industry. From the first attempts at whaling in Peter’s Russia to the protest era and pushback against whaling by Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherds, Red Leviathan combines thorough research and great storytelling to fill a necessary gap in the history of global whaling.”
— Jakobina K. Arch, Whitman College, author of "Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan"

"Greater attention to vulnerability and intimacy are likely only two of a great many ways in which studies of human-nonhuman relationships in Russia might develop along the general lines suggested by [this book]. Future authors taking up similar questions might do well to move still closer to what I termed, at the outset, the literary/artistic and shamanic strands of writing about relationships between humans and other species in Russia. As Jones’s incorporation of whale poetry and fiction nicely if briefly exemplifies, these domains overlap much more than past scholarship has admitted."
— Douglas Rogers