Smouldering Past: How a Fire Event Turned Me into an Environmental Historian

Scroll this

This is the second post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.

Fire led me into environmental history. On 1 August 2010, I travelled from Berlin to Moscow excited to join the German Historical Institute while writing a PhD on agricultural experts in late imperial and early Soviet Russia. Soon after my arrival excitement gave way to unease. Amidst a prolonged heat wave and drought, massive forest and peat fires were burning in the wider region of Moscow. The heat was relentless and exhausting. On some days, the smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see the other side of the road. Breathing was difficult. I developed a cough and bought a face mask – which in pre-pandemic times felt quite an extraordinary thing to do.

Smoke from forest and peat fires in Moscow, August 2010 (Petr Kaufman, Wikimedia Commons, public domain, CC BY 3.0)

Peatlands tend to burn without an open flame. They smoulder, and they can do so for months, sometimes years. Peat fires can expand downwards deep into the soil and persist even when a thick layer of snow covers the ground. Long after firefighters and rain had extinguished the fires, the eerie summer of 2010 kept flaring up in my life. I remembered a college friend who had written an undergraduate thesis in geography about peatlands as carbon sinks; a Russian magazine featured a long article on abandoned worker settlements in the central Russian region of Tver, where peat had been extracted on industrial scale throughout the Soviet period; one day someone explained on German public radio that degraded peatlands act as carbon emitters.

What tied fire, carbon, and history together? At the time, a New York Times article titled “Past errors to blame for Russia’s peat fires” had claimed that drainage and peat extraction in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Revolution had created fire-prone environments. I had learnt to be suspicious about explanatory shortcuts between Russia’s revolutionary past and the country’s problems in the present. Dislodging this one proved difficult though. While Russia is the country with the largest peatland area in the world, I had not encountered these ecosystems on the pages of my history books. Neither had I ever considered that peat may be a factor in the country’s history. Past and present spoke to each other in ways that were unfamiliar to me.

Boundaries lose their meaning in the face of smoke. Back in 2010, the smoke had crept through the wooden window frames of my room where it enveloped me day and night. Years later, when I decided to turn my questions into a new research project, the dividing lines so neatly arranged in my head – between here and there, between now and then – got blurry, too. A singular experience for me, the 2010 fire event was just one of countless such episodes which happen with increasing frequency and increasing scale both in Russia and beyond as the climate changes. The fires also confronted my understanding of historical time. The wetlands in what nowadays is central Russia had accumulated carbon dioxide since times that I had considered outside of the historical domain. From scientists I learned that drainage and peat extraction revitalize the decomposition of organic matter that is interrupted under the waterlogged conditions in peatlands and allow carbon to escape into the atmosphere. Peat fires, which are more likely to happen on degraded peatlands, further accelerate the release of carbon thus making thousands of years of earth history an active presence in the here and now.

Peat fires are not a recent phenomenon in Russia. Reflecting a history of drainage and peat extraction that went back to the imperial period, they smouldered on the pages of my archival files, their smoke filling the eyes and lungs of peasants, nobles or engineers. Long before climate change was fully understood or spoken of, people observed that drainage and extraction increased the likelihood of peat fires and that peat fires are special. In 1910, exactly 100 years before my first encounter with peat fires, a firefighter submitted a long report to the imperial Russia administration describing how persistent peat fires can be; how they create deep holes full of hot ash; and how the intense smoke makes firefighters vomit or faint. For later years I read about fires destroying the extracted peat before it was sent off to fuel power stations; about the self-ignition of peat in storage; about peat workers who died from smoke poisoning in the summer of 1972 when wildfires swept large parts of European Russia. Social elites in Russia, as in other countries, had long resented peatlands as useless and dangerous landscapes that ought to be drained and exploited in the name of progress. The history of peat fires tells us that it was the attempt to tame these landscapes that made confrontation a persistent thread in human-peatland relationships.

Image 2: Drainage canal close to former peat extraction sites near Shatura, ca 140 km east of Moscow, July 2019 (photo by the author)

Even as I write, the ground is shifting underneath our feet. Climate change makes enduring peat fires a regular occurrence in present-day Russia. In October 2021, smoke pollution from burning peatlands in the Ekaterinburg region got so intense that schools closed and people were advised to stay indoors. The fires continued through the winter. Even peatlands which have not been targeted by drainage and extraction in the past catch fire with growing frequency. Thawing permafrost increases methane emissions from Arctic peatlands and also makes them more vulnerable to fire. Large amounts of carbon that had previously been stored in the soil may be unlocked as a result.

Russia’s 2022 fire season started early, raising fears that this year could become even worse than 2021, when the wildfires in Russia reached a historically unprecedented magnitude.  Their area exceeded the geographical extent of the combined wildfires of Southern Europe, the United States and Canada, all of which received so much attention in Western news. Some observers have voiced concerns that people and resources normally deployed to control fires may be insufficient this year, because they are mobilized for Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine. These uncanny links underscore how smoke and flames are at the heart of our precarious predicament. Fires pose an immediate threat to human and non-human life, but they also challenge our sense of history. Writing history in a world aflame means investigating fire. For every fire has a past.

Image 3: Fires and smoke over Siberia, 17 July 2022, NASA, public domain.

Feature image: Smoke from forest and peat fires in Moscow, August 2010 (Petr Kaufman, Wikimedia Commons, public domain, CC BY 3.0)
The following two tabs change content below.
Historian of modern Russia and the environment. Her current project on the history of peat centers on actors, places and energy sources at the margins of Russia’s fossil economy.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.