Deconstructing Demuth

Introduction: Bathsheba Demuth introduces her topic by first giving the reader some context, telling the reader about Pacific walruses and their lives on the Bering Strait. She then begins to connect these walruses to the main argument by saying that walrus pups born in the 1870’s would have seen and been victim to communist USSR and capitalist USA.

Larger context: The USSR and USA were both vying for resources along the Bering Strait to help push their respective ideologies, and walruses ended up getting caught in between the two feuding nations as they sought to control humans and animals alike.

Statement of importance: Walruses, being dense in calories, are important to this time period because they represent both the environmental management imposed by the USA and USSR as well as representing a crucial point in energy history. According to Demuth, most of energy history only focuses on the USA and the capitalist aspects of environmental management, while few historians touch on the USSR’s hand in managing its environment. Demuth proposes comparing the two to gain a better understanding of the time period, economics, and environmental impacts.

Review of Literature: Comparisons between the USA and USSR’s cities, towns, treatment of waste, and treatment of the environment come from Jenny Leigh Smith, Andy Bruno, and Kate Brown. Demuth also includes a quote from Richard White where he discusses how non-human actors can help direct the failure of a state. The review flows together with Demuth connecting ideas and studies that seem distantly related, synthesizing them to strengthen the argument that the USSR and USA’s handling of the environment was similar.

Main argument: Demuth’s main argument is that the USA and USSR were both engrossed in finding biological calories and by doing this they joined a larger ecological conversation, where states need energy to survive (487).

Major sources: Ryan Tucker Jones observing humans being impacted by changing migration patterns of animals. Patrick Wolfe’s research on how commercial walrus hunting causing Indigenous famine was seen as a good thing to promote Indigenous assimilation (490). Letters of Sheldon Jackson and newspaper articles from The New York Times. Research on the Boone and Crockett Club’s involvement in the 1902 Alaska Game Act (491). Olaf Swenson’s discussion of how American ships came to Russia to harvest walrus to use their oils since there was little demand for walrus in Russia (494). B.I. Mukhachev’s documentation of the first Soviets to arrive on the USSR’s side of the Strait (495). More letters from Soviet officials frustrated over the Native populations disinterest in socialist policies (496). GARF is consistently used as a source, as well as reports from newspapers, letters, environmental policies, and market values (500). Nature and state are not separate, but systems that react to one another (509).

Major points: Nature controls the condition of the state by providing energy (487). Nature and raw materials being turned into currency for economic mobility took precedent over those who were negatively affected by commercial walrus hunting; using the environment to better control people living within borders (490). The 1902 Alaska Game Act severely restricted Indigenous entry into the walrus trade while also cutting off their access to walruses as a source of food (493). The Soviets, like the Americans, tried to assimilate Native populations away from the walrus and into “proper society” (495). Just as the American commercial walrus hunting ships had focused only on production, the walrus kolkhoz in the 1930’s pushed production (498). The 1940’s brought about more need for walrus and demand for ivory as military personnel bombarded small Alaskan villages; Walrus Act in 1941 to allow Natives to participate in the walrus trade to continue feeding into the economy (501-2). At the same time, similar happenings occurred, with demand for walrus high but care for Indigenous populations low (504).

Conclusion: Communist and capitalist ideals toward conservation and walruses finally converged after 80 years (507). Nature and state are not separate, but should be viewed as a cohesive unit (509).