Whale jumping from sea

Book review: ‘Red Leviathan’ by Ryan Tucker Jones

Image credit: Bhalchandra Pujari/Dreamstime

The Soviet Union’s 50-year campaign of slaughter against whales sheds light on the philosophy behind Russia’s current actions in Ukraine.

‘Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling’ by Ryan Tucker Jones (University of Chicago Press, £24.55, ISBN 9780226628851) struck me as unexpectedly topical for this particular moment in my life. And not only because I’ve just returned from a spectacular Aurora Expeditions cruise to the remote Scottish Islands on board MV Greg Mortimer, during which I was able to take a close look for the first time ever at one of the world’s living wonders - the magnificent Minke whales in their natural habitat in the North Atlantic.

In fact, it was not one whale but three, playing joyfully just 20 metres away from our inflatable and unsinkable Zodiac shuttle boat near the island of St Kilda, casually showing their greyish glistening bulks, then diving again and waving at us with the huge fans of their caudal fins. “Wow! Wow!” all eight passengers on board our Zodiac, including yours truly, were howling in chorus, like a pack of hungry wolves. Having forgotten about our cameras and iPhones, we were watching the amazing creatures knowing we’ll remember the scene for as long as we live.

That was an undisputed highlight of the expedition, and yet, alongside the happy memories of the cruise, reading ‘Red Leviathan’ shortly after returning home could not fail to evoke much more gruesome associations – of the ongoing brutal war in my native Ukraine.

No matter how far-fetched it may seem at a first glance, the further I delved into ‘Red Leviathan’, the more apt and relevant it appeared. Let me explain. Until now, shocked and stunned by the actions of the Russian army against civilians in Bucha, Mariupol, Melitopol, my native Kharkiv and many other Ukrainian towns and villages, the whole of the civilised world keeps asking itself: how come? Where does such unspeakable cruelty to innocent fellow humans stem from?

Those to whom these questions still appear unanswerable should read ‘Read Leviathan’ – the meticulously researched and deeply felt-through story of the ‘Cetacean Genocide’, or ‘Cetacide’ –  a neologism, coined by Tucker Jones to describe the brutal, clandestine and unjustified killing of more than 600,000 whales in less than 50 years of Soviet rule between the 1930s and the 1980s.

The slaughter was carried out using small and agile ‘kitoboy’ (whale killer) vessels, equipped with crude harpoon cannons that would tear the whales’ bodies apart causing unspeakable suffering. What’s more, the killers, having collected some precious body parts from their victims, would leave most of the meat to rot in the sea - unable and unwilling to process it.

In all my 35 years in the USSR, I never ate, or even saw, whale meat, nor am I aware of anyone who did! Why then?

Following the near-fascist theories of such iconic Stalinist academics as Michurin and Lisenko, who branded cybernetics a pseudo-science and insisted that a Soviet man should totally dominate nature, taking away its gifts by force rather than waiting for it to bestow them ‘voluntarily’, Soviet leaders wanted to dominate the oceans. They saw the very existence of these giant, friendly and free mammals as a challenge to their regime and chose to exterminate them.

At the same time, Soviet marine scientists were given the task of carrying out detailed research into the biology and anatomy of the meticulously slaughtered whales.

The whole whale-killing industry was carefully camouflaged by Soviet propaganda as some kind of a heroic endeavour, and the blood-stained kitoboys were routinely hailed as heroes, invited to schools to talk about their ‘achievements’.

Yes, but those were animals, not people, they were killing, you may object. Is it an exaggeration to compare their deeds to a genocide?

Tucker Jones quotes one of the few Western environmentalists who refused to be duped by the Soviet propaganda about whale hunting: “What indeed could a nation of armless Buddhas [whales] do against the equivalent of carnivorous Nazis equipped with seagoing tanks and Krupp cannons?”

Suddenly, the associations with the war in Ukraine start looking much less far-fetched.

Let’s face it, modern Russia has inherited the whole of the brutal Soviet mentality whereby an ordinary human’s life (let alone that of an animal) does not matter. During all my 35 years in the USSR, I was a frequent witness to unspeakable cruelty to both humans and animals. It would pain me greatly even to describe how stray dogs and cats were often disposed of in Moscow and other Soviet cities and towns. It was a true dog-eat-dog society, for someone who could be instinctively cruel to our smaller brothers, be they cats, dogs, birds or whales, would not hesitate to shoot an old man, or a child simply for belonging to a different ‘tribe’ , or just to steal their shoes and post them home.

This book should be compulsory reading for all those seeking to find a cause or explanation for a Russian invasion of Ukraine that threatens to become one of the cruellest in human history. Roughly speaking, all it takes is to mentally replace the words ‘Soviet’ with ‘Russian’, and ‘whales’ with ‘Ukrainians’ – and you will find one.

‘Red Leviathan’, written long before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, is 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.

As the author himself points out very clearly in the book’s powerful final paragraph: “... two of the twentieth century’s defining stories turn out to be inversely intertwined. First was the rise, the repeated near destruction, and final fall of humanity’s most utopian experiment, the Soviet Union. Like most of that century’s ventures, it had fed itself voraciously from the non-human world. And no species suffered more than those underwater giants who strangely resembled humans, but whose fates twisted in the opposite direction. The leviathans’ desperate struggle to ward off extinction was the century’s second great drama, and it reflected the transposed image of the first. The fall, the repeated near destruction, the return of the whales.”

Just like the whales, Ukraine will return.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles