Sophie Pinkham (MARS-REERS ’12; Ph.D. Slavic ’19) reviews Andy Bruno’s Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy for the New York Review of Books (June 22, 2023).
On February 15, 2013, a luminous object trailed across the skies above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, in the southern Urals. It was around 9:00 am, just after the late winter dawn. The recent popularity of dashcams in Russia—useful in case of an accident or an encounter with the corrupt traffic police—meant that the event was filmed by many of the cars on the road that morning. Soon anyone with an Internet connection could watch a ball of fire arc toward an Orthodox church as a driver muttered obscene variations on the question “What is that?”
In Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy, Andy Bruno, an environmental historian who specializes in Russia and the Soviet Union, probes this legendary story from several directions. His account raises an array of questions about how such a mystery can stimulate not only scientific research and environmental conservation but also fantasy, from pseudoscience to ufology to science fiction. The Tunguska event figures prominently in serious works of dystopian and paranoid literature too, including Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Most intriguingly, the saga shows how people cope with the prospect of the end of the world.