Dr Johanna Conterio


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Research Biography

My research examines the environmental history of Modern Russia and the Soviet Union, with a geographical focus on the "subtropical" south and the Black Sea, in international and transnational context. I am especially interested in intersections between environment and health, nature protection, urban planning, and maritime environments.

My first book manuscript, Ecocide Revisited: Environment and Health in the Soviet Sanatorium, 1917-1991 (currently under peer review), is a history of the sanatorium covering the entire Soviet period. It examines how medical research produced environmental knowledge in the past, and how this environmental knowledge shaped the medical practice, architecture and urban planning, and landscape architecture of the sanatorium and the rise of a mass environmental consciousness in Soviet culture. This study applies theoretical frameworks developed in the “post-Pasteurian” turn in environmental humanities to historical sources, emphasizing the interconnection of the human body and the environment and the relationship between textual, material, and embodied knowledges and experiences. I argue that the rise of bacteriology did not lead to a paradigm shift away from the environmental dimensions of disease in Soviet medicine, as occurred in other contexts within scientific medicine particularly after the discovery of antibiotics. A distinctly socialist form of natural healing developed in the Soviet Union, which had its origins in Central European natural healing practices and strands of thinking tied to international socialist politics. This divergence was also shaped by traditions and contingencies in the history of science and medicine in Russia, including a long-standing resistance to reductionism in medicine and public health, an ecological tradition in Russian bacteriology, and a particularly strong Russian tradition in the earth sciences. The Soviet approach to medicine was not backward, but rather constituted a variant within the shared experience of scientific medicine in the twentieth century. 

I am currently at work on a number of new projects. In Green Moscow: Urban Planning, Social Engineering and the Politics of Green Space in the USSR, 1931-1941, I explore the relationship between urban planning, social order, and public health, through a historical study of the urban green space of Moscow. Throughout the 1930s, rapid urbanization threatened the standard of living of Soviet cities and towns, as new migrants strained limited urban resources. From the mid-1930s, the state prioritized raising the standard of living and establishing social order in the towns and cities through policing, and this coincided and indeed was linked to large state investments in urban planning and reconstruction. Urban planners sought to shape the social order by reducing urban population density and limiting urban growth. By limiting the growth of central urban spaces, urban planners contributed to a shift in the movements and settlement patterns of the entire population of the Soviet Union in the entire Soviet territory, away from the two capitals and into new industrial areas and border regions. In Green Moscow, I explore how urban planners translated the ideal of less densely populated cities into designed built environments. One way in which urban planners sought to reduce population density in planned areas was through the construction of heavily policed and protected Parks of Rest and Culture, networks of forest parks or “green lungs,” and green spaces in residential neighbourhoods. Green space was a lever of controlling urban density and slowing the expansion of urban populations overall, a material barrier to urban settlement. By reducing population density and the populations of cities overall, and by introducing curative rest areas within the parks, urban planners argued that green space not only made the body social more orderly, but it also improved public health. Indeed, urban planners could and did reasonably argue that in reducing urban density and limiting urban growth, that is, by eliminating slums and replacing them with green Stalinist neighborhoods, they were building socialism.

I am the curator of a special forum on 'The Black Sea World and the Question of Boundaries', published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian Studies in 2018, which draws on a workshop that I convened on 'The Black Sea in the Socialist World' at Birkbeck in 2015.

Before coming to Flinders, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, working on the Wellcome Trust project 'The Reluctant Internationalists: A History of Public Health and International Organisations, Movements and Experts in Twentieth Century Europe'. I am a member of the Centre for the Study of Internationalism at Birkbeck College, University of London. I am also a Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.


Research Interests

Modern Russian and Soviet History in Transnational, International, and Global Perspective

Environmental History / Environment and Health

International History

Maritime History / The Black Sea Region

The History of Urban Planning


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