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By John Helmer, Moscow

This is a tale about whales and Russians. In the telling, it has surprised even its author. A university professor from Oregon, he belongs to that seagoing pod which, like the North Pacific right whales,    is a seriously endangered species right now — that’s the American exceptionalists.

Ryan Tucker Jones’s book, Red Leviathan: The Secret History of Soviet Whaling, was published this month.  It has yet to be noticed in the Russian press. One reason is that the history of Soviet whaling and Russian fishing is no secret at all in Russia. The second reason is that the secret Russians know about Greenpeace and other campaigns against whaling that are part of the long US war against Russia is not one Jones has recognised, nor does he appreciate the damage these protests have done to the ecological protection groups of Russia in their domestic battle with the Russian oligarchs. Instead, he endorses what he calls the Greenpeace plan “to hit more directly at the Soviet economy” when that organisation moved on from campaigning against US and French nuclear bomb testing to  targeting not only Soviet whaling in the North Pacific, but also Soviet fishing.  

The final reason is that the way Jones tells his story in a fashion that ironizes, sarcasticises, and misrepresents the whaling story, turns out to be blubber that has been cut up,  boiled,  and coloured into margarine for the last time to be spread on Russian toast in the mornings. That’s exceptionalism for you.

“One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century,” Jones opens his book about what he call the genocide of the whales,  “whose only reckoning had been the fact that the world had forgotten about them,”. By them, Jones means the Russians of the Soviet period. Quoting a Greenpeace protester,  Jones makes the equivalence he intends from start to finish. “What indeed could a nation of armless Buddhas [whales] do against the equivalent of carnivorous Nazis equipped with seagoing tanks and Krupp cannons.”

“They killed more whales than did any other country after World War II”, is Jones’s claim, and “the Soviet Union’s part in the story has remained entirely hidden”. What has been hidden from whom?

Jones isn’t speaking of the Russians, for their own histories of Russian whaling are voluminous and well-remembered. What is hidden Jones himself hides. He admits the Soviets killed “more than 500,000 whales during the twentieth century” while Japan “killed nearly 600,000 and Norway nearly 800,000. Others, mostly American whalers, had killed nearly 300,000 in the nineteenth century, at a time when Russians had killed almost none.” According to Jones’s count,  the Russians killed far less than the Japanese and Norwegians after World War II, and in the 19th century far less than the Americans.  

But Jones starts with his falsehood and repeats it over and over from the front cover to the blurbs at the back – “essential reading” says the American Historical Review. If not the true genocide count, what then is the truth in this whale of a tale, and is it secret at all? “If the Soviet contribution to modern whale genocide was not preeminent,” Jones concedes the qualifier, “it had special characteristics. The Soviets killed nearly half their whales secretly, in knowing contravention of the conventions they had signed.”

Read the archive on Greenpeace’s propaganda campaigns  against Russia here.  Publication of the history of post-1991 Russian shipping, Sovcomplot, How the Kremlin Pirates Tried Stealing Billions but Were Caught Out, has been suspended for the duration of the war.

The Times Literary Supplement endorses this, and the Greenpeace campaign, as part of the ongoing war. Why had “the Soviets embarked on this irrational and destructive journey, and how they got away with it – until they didn’t. One answer (worth bearing in mind in view of the latest battleground over gas pipelines and wheat fields in Ukraine) is that pride, competition and a sense of historical injustice motivated Soviet whaling far more than commercial considerations.”  

Indeed, the evidence of the book – and the accumulated evidence of many books and reports before it, including Russian ones – is there was Russian or Soviet cheating on the terms of the rules of the slaughter promulgated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC)  between 1946 and 1986 when the IWC stopped the commercial business – except for the Japanese cheating,  the killing of whales for “scientific reasons”.  

Again, Jones admits arithmetic in historical evidence. The Soviet cheating, Jones has written on his third to last page, amounted to “around 170,000 more whales were killed [from 1946 to 1986, when the IWC moratorium came into effect]  than they had reported… or ten times the the number of blue whales estimated to be alive anywhere in the world in 2021.”  Omitted is what percentage this Russian dishonesty represented of the recorded,  quota-authorized catches worldwide. This aggregate number is over 2 million – 2,014,635 according to this source.  The simple arithmetic, which Jones fails to do or if he has, he is concealing it from the reader, is that Soviet cheating amounted to 8.4% of the global catch. How wicked is that?

This question of magnitude is beside the political and moral point of Jones’s (right) tale.“Altogether,” he concludes “Soviets had taken roughly one of every six whales killed in the twentieth century.” How immoral is this 17% compared to the significantly larger whale kills of Norway and Japan? Jones isn’t saying. Instead, “[in 1983] the Soviet Union stood on the brink of its own extinction”, and then “[in 1994] the Soviet Union was gone, relegated to the dustbin of history”. For an associate professor of history to speak of the “dustbin of history”, let alone relegate the Soviets to it,  is nothing less than propaganda having nothing whatever to do with whales. Into what dustbin of history does Jones place the bigger whale genocidalists – Japan,  with which Russia remains legally still at war, despite the capitulation of 1945; and Norway, a sworn NATO warfighter against Russia on the Ukrainian battlefield and in the war to destroy Russian exports of oil and gas exports to Europe, so that Norway can profiteer from the outcome?

The failure to answer these questions, and also to understand why they must be asked in a “secret history of whaling”, is what makes Jones’s book a contender for the Pushkin House prize for best book on Russia. Pushkin House of London is a British government-funded information warfare unit against Russia whose financial reports reveal regular, intended violations of UK law – and that’s a secret; read more.   

Red Leviathan  is not a book about the economics, ethics and politics of slaughtering animals for food and other types of human consumption. If that was what Jones wanted to historicise, he would have pointed out that the two greatest animal slaughters in Russia occurred between 1941 and 1945, when it was German government policy to starve the Russian people to death; and between 1991 and 1996 when it was US government policy to get the Yeltsin regime to halt all forms of state support for food production and farmer support. Some estimates put the number of cattle killed during the Yeltsin period as greater than in the German occupation.  For more on German starvation plans, read this.  

Killing whales for margarine had been Soviet state policy for rapid replacement of animal fats in the diet of the Russian people recovering from what the Germans had tried to do – and what the US military and intelligence agencies continued planning to do. When the whale story is told as part of an anti-Russian war campaign, animal liberationsts like Princeton professor Peter Singer,  or like the German Green Party under Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, are always sympathetic to the lives of animals, and in parallel quite keen on killing Russians (Chinese, Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Palestinians, Libyans, et al.). The former is camouflage for the latter.

Jones attempts his animal ethics after anthropomorphising the whales but not the other killable  creatures of the field, sky, stream, and sea. According to Professor Jones, there is a distinction between the “wildness” of the whales and the domestication of other animals. “Whaling – and Soviet whaling in particular [sic] – differed in several crucial respects from the twentieth-century slaughterhouses.  Unlike pigs, chickens and cows, whose life cycles and reproduction were controlled from birth and who thus lost much of their dignity and individuality, whales remained wild animals. Each whale had to be chased down and outwitted – a word that reminds us that whales remained very much conscious, intelligent and autonomous individuals.”

Jones makes plain his complete ignorance of the secret life of cows.

Left: “The Secret Life of Cows succeeds in showing that cows are thoughtful beings with individual personalities. At times Young's approach is whimsical, perhaps overly so, as when she translates what she takes to be bovine thoughts directly into human language”.   Read the book by Rosamund Young, published in 2017.  Right: in Germany from 1933 it was Nazi policy from to protect animal welfare, stop scientific experimentation with animals, etc. In the poster Herman Goring is exchanging Hitler salutes with laboratory rabbits he has saved. According to Goring at the time, he prohibited vivisection and said that those who "still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property" would be sent to concentration camps.” Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_welfare_in_Nazi_Germany#/

There’s worse. After documenting many years of Russian scientific research on whales, Jones draws this conclusion: “the very characteristics that within three decades would convince the Western public that killing whales and dolphins was immoral appeared to Soviet scientists a key breakthrough in killing more whales.” Between the clever Russian monsters and the “Western public”, Jones’s message is that there is an ethical and moral threat so profound – existential is the NATO term — as to warrant any measure by the “Western” governments, including sanctions war, to destroy the Russians.  Russian scientists’ attempts to develop conservation schemes in parallel with the whaling industry are dismissed by Jones as “technofantastical and a little totalitarian”.

Also, there are the Portland professor’s race clichés. Jones writes that between the western and eastern Russian whaling bases, he prefers “sparkling leafy” Odessa to “foggy” Vladivostok and its “vast concrete squares – the hollow heart of most Soviet cities”. In Odessa, Jones stopped at the “large beautiful synagogue [which] still constitutes one of [Odessa’s] one of the city’s main historical sites, its prominence a rarity in a country that since the 1950s had returned to its antisemitic past.”  On page 157, in a chapter titled “Whales in the Home”, Jones makes this race lie.

Jones half-comprehends the military, political and commercial drivers of anti-Soviet whaling.  In 1945 it had been the policy of the US government in Washington, and the Allied Council for Japan running the country under General Douglas MacArthur, to revive Japan’s whaling industry, rebuild its whaling fleets, and underwrite its commercial advantage over the Soviet fleet – just as the British government had used its colonial base in South Georgia, on the edge of the Antarctic whaling grounds, to sabotage the Soviet enterprise.   Jones reports both in passing, but then glosses the evidence with this pseudo-sociology of the English ethos compared to the Russian: “Soviet class-spanning hunting culture helped inure them to the damage done  by their harpooners’ killing sprees; in England aristocratic nations of ‘sportsmanship’ – a notion absent in Russia – caused some observers of whaling to condemn the industry because whales did not have a fighting chance. That concept did not register in the Soviet Union.”

In the end of his secret tale-telling, Jones concedes that the publicity generated by the Greenpeace protest campaigns against Soviet whaling had next to no impact on the policy decisions made in Moscow to stop commercial whaling. The Russian reasons included the Soviet planners’ realization that whale production had dwindled to a “minuscule” part of the domestic economy, while demand for fish was growing fast. That, plus the US Congress’s sanctions against both Soviet whaling and fishing,  led to an explicit trade-off – whaling was substituted by fishing, the vessels converted, and the shore processing industry retooled. This, Jones calls, “anthropocentric Marxism”. Valuing whale lives, he adds, was “heresy.”

Note: The lead illustration is a late 18th or early 19th century illustration of whale fishing in a Chukotka village on the Bering Sea.  For accounts in Russian of the whale story,interpreted unsecretly and easily accessible by machine translation into English, read the Russian Wikipedia summary.  A recent interview by Fishnews.ru with the long-lived veteran of Soviet whaling, fleet captain and professor of ship management, Victor Shcherbatyuk,  can be read here. In December 2021 Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on killing whales, dolphins, and  porpoises in the harbours and coastal waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. Jones displays animosity towards Putin, calling him “a later master Russian masculinist”. In Ukrainian war propaganda, repeated by the mainstream US media, Putin has been accused of killing 50,000 dolphins in the Black Sea since the start of the Special Military Operation.   

Left: Captain Victor Shcherbatyuk; right, President Putin.

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