Gouging out the State’s Eyes: Geology and Settler Colonialism in Russia and the Soviet Union

Soviet Geologists, 1951. Image credits: Seraphim Frolov, Arts Academy Museum
Soviet Geologists, 1951. Image credits: Seraphim Frolov, Arts Academy Museum

Reflecting on the logic of settler colonialism in Russia and the Soviet Union, one must confront the settler state’s anxiety about land and property: not everything conquered can be considered truly state property, there is an imaginary gap between conquering and truly owning. Nastya Dmitrievskaya argues that geology is used as a tool to fill this gap.


Geology has many facets. It shows different manifestations depending on the perspective of a person asking, and the question asked. Each time a question is asked, a new object is created out of the creature called geology. I was very much excited by the ways Kathryn Yusoff makes the case for considering geology in its entirety, as if asking – what does geology do outside of itself, with the world, with constructions of humanity in its Western understanding? In particular she looks at the nexus of colonial material history, geology, and the gravity of race (Yusoff, 2018). She deals mostly with the context of European imperial forces. This led me to think about Russia and the Soviet Union, and to approach geology out of preoccupation with Russian settler colonialism. What does geology do for settler colonialism? What is the alliance between them? How does “underground structure overground”, using Yusoff’s remarkable wording? To answer these questions, I suggest turning to the concept of osvoenie.

As I will show further, there is a deep continuity between geology and osvoenie, but now let’s find out what osvoenie means. In the broadest sense, it can be translated as “making something one’s own, appropriating something.” Emma Widdis has laboriously studied the concept, and states: “The etymology of the term is complex. From the pronoun svoi (one’s own) and the verb osvoit’, osvoenie expresses both annexation, the “making one’s own” in spatial terms (osvoenie tselinnykh zemel’ [the cultivation of virgin lands]), and mastery, understood as the ability to use Russian (osvoenie russkogo iazyka [mastering the Russian language])” (Widdis, 2003). In the first meaning, making one’s own, there is a hidden aspect, as noticed by Yuri Shabaev and Kirill Istomin: “osvoenie of an object means the change or modification of the object (or, sometimes, of the subject) and it is by virtue of this change only that the object becomes the ‘subject’s own’” (Shabaev and Istomin, 2020).

Exploration plus extraction

For example, in the famous Virgin Lands campaign, the land had to undergo a process of osvoenie: it had to be transformed and cultivated so that the state could claim it as its own. However, neither Widdis, nor Shabaev and Istomin, consider osvoenie in the context of settler colonialism. I would argue that exactly thinking of osvoenie in settler colonial context brings us closer to understanding how establishing dominance over the land functions. Observed from this perspective, the multilayered meaning of the word – making something one’s own by means of transforming it and mastering it – turns into a settler colonial formula. The will to execute osvoenie illuminates the settler state’s anxiety about the land and ownership: not everything that has been conquered can be considered truly state property, there is an imaginary gap between conquering and truly owning. And this is where geology comes in as a tool to fill this gap.

In Soviet times, geological exploration together with the subsequent extraction of natural resources has always been one of the central activities performed in the name of osvoenie of a particular region. So sometimes it is possible to equate osvoenie of a territory to osvoenie of resources (exploration plus extraction). This coupling was most intensely articulated and executed at the end of 1920s and in the course of 1930s. The young state was in dire need of rapid industrialization, that is why the volume of exploration was radically increased. As Alla Bolotova noticed: “Weakened by the long civil war and the devastation it had brought, the strategic aim of the Soviet state was to dispose of the necessity to import mineral resources, assuming that resources of this kind could be found in abundance in the country’s vast unexamined territory. Geologists were in the forefront of the “explorers” of the new lands. They were often the first to come to places where, depending on the results of their investigations, a new industrial complex could arise” (Bolotova, 2004). She also provides illustrative numbers: Just before the revolution there were less than 100 specialists in the Geological Survey of Russia and in 1947 there were already 10.000 geologists with higher education.

To get the colonial overtone of geological exploration, one needs to ask where these explorations took place. The decisive part of the expeditions focused on the Far North, the Far East, and Siberia. These lands were neither ‘originally’ Russian, nor ‘terra nullius.’ Most of the lands on which exploration was conducted were and are native lands once colonized and annexed to Russia. As an illustrative example, we can look at the Taimyr Peninsula, the traditional land of the Dolgan, Nenets, Nganasan, Evenk, and Enets peoples beyond the Arctic Circle. In my dissertation I studied the tightening of the settler-colonial grip on the land, which culminated in the 1920s, when large deposits of copper-nickel ores were found there and the huge metallurgical plant was built (Dmitrievskaya, 2022).

The long shadows of osvoenie

After Russians arrived on the Taimyr Peninsula in the 17th century, they established a colonial outpost that served as an administrative center for collecting tribute from the natives and trading furs, as well as a stronghold for Muscovite expansion into the depths of Siberia. Later, The Great Northern Expedition marked the first scientific study of the place as well as ethnographic study of the indigenous population living there. Although colonized, populated and mapped, the land needed osvoenie from the state’s perspective. And it was exactly geological exploration that could ensure realization of these ambitions.

One of the GULAG camps, Norillag, was established after the discovery of copper-nickel ores. The prisoners were involved in the extraction and construction of the whole infrastructure of the plant and the city which would be known as Norilsk. The metallurgical complex, built under the forced labor system, has been transferred from state to private ownership in the hands of one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, Vladimir Potanin, and is known as Norilsk Nickel. This example highlights that present day capitalistic enterprises are built on the ground of early colonizations. And, in their turn, these enterprises cement the colonial presence, rooting it into the subsoil. A deep grip of osvoenie.

Bear Brook Quarry, Norilsk Nickel. Image credits: Slava Stepanov, Gelio

One would think that osvoenie, the paradigm of osvoenie, is an artifact of the Soviet era, when a certain pathos of mastering was fostered, the rhetoric of conquest waved flags and manifested itself in literature, songs, and films. But the word has outlived the epoch. Now we will see neither the celebratory slogans about osvoenie, nor how this word is included in each Five-Year Plan, but we will encounter how it is used routinely: in the news, in exhibition projects, in the titles and agendas of young scientists’ forums, in grants from the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research, on the websites of mining companies. And even new theories of osvoenie are being developed, e.g. under the motto Osvoenie 2.0.

A seemingly faded linguistic anachronism, it has not ceased to mean colonial occupation, anchorage on once conquered lands. The settler colonial state is still worried about osvoenie, despite the fact that its pompous and grandiose era passed in Soviet times. Osvoenie still works as a means of establishing dominance over the land. And its forceful companion, geology, continues its underground work of building and maintaining a colonial state above the ground, distributing the uneven gravities of extraction.

Struggles against geological exploration

In this light, or given the history and meaning of osvoenie, I’m arguing that struggles against geological exploration are also struggles against osvoenie and its ultimate ambition to appropriate the land, to strengthen the colonial grip. To give an example: On May 20, 2023, in Bashkortostan, in the village of Temyasovo, a people’s gathering (yiyin) was held against the geological exploration of the Irendyk ridge. It gathered from 5,000 to 7,000 people. At the gathering, its participants opposed geological exploration, prospecting and development of subsurface areas on the ridge of the mountain. This resistance is not surprising. After all, it is mining that causes oncological diseases in the local population. But there is more to it.

People’s gathering, Temyasovo, Bashkortostan, May 20, 2023. Image credits: RusNews

The JSC Ural Geological Survey Expedition was to carry out work on the search for manganese oxide and gold-bearing ores, to assess the prospective areas and calculate the forecast resources of the ores. The exploration was ordered by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, and the money for the work was allocated from the federal budget as part of the state task for the ‘inventory of the subsoil.’ The people’s gathering led to the termination of geological exploration of the Irendyk ridge in September. Hence, this unprecedented gathering in terms of size gives much hope. But it also shows the risks that such protests entail for activists: In October one of the prominent Bashkort activists, Fayl’ Alsynov was detained and accused of ‘inciting hatred’ during his speech at the protest.

On the structural level, when struggling against geological exploration people also fight against environmental damage and for indigenous sovereignty. Fighting against geological exploration is about gouging the state’s eyes out. And, much more broadly, it is about resisting the degradation of nature to a matter of “affordances” and resisting the “grammars of geology” that teach to “recognize matter by the imperative to extract and accumulate” (Yusoff, 2021). That is why such struggles can be so powerful in the current historical moment. That is why they demand and deserve effective solidarity and support.

Note from the editors: A list of the sources can be found here.

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