Paul Josephson on Russian hospitality, running and lawn pollution

By Abigail Wheeler '04
Photography by Fred Field

Some in the Colby community know Paul Josephson (history and science, technology and society) simply as "the runner" for his long training runs in any sort of weather. Those who know him from the classroom and elsewhere know he has a lot to say about Russian culture, about how we humans manage our planet and about the need to know your limits.

So what is it that you most enjoy about Russian culture?
Russian life has always been very hard. But one of the most delightful things about Russian culture is that, no matter how bad things have seemed to be on any given day, if you get invited to someone's house or, more likely, apartment, there will be a kitchen table spread with things you've never seen before, starting with hors d'oeuvres and bottles of every different kind of drink known to man. And once you've eaten for two or three hours you think, "Oh, that's it, I'm full." And then the hot food comes out. But what makes it really special is the fact that the tables are small. And no matter how small the table is, the Russians always find a way to sit one more person there, in the smallest of rooms, at the smallest of tables. Anyone who stops by late at night is welcome. No one gets turned away. So you may be at a table with people eating and drinking 'til the wee hours. And since they don't allow television or anything else to intermediate the human experience, you end up talking about things that really matter,ideas, feelings, desires. You get to know who they are and who you are yourself. All the cares of the world, in some sense, do go away because you have dear and sweet friends.

How many times have you visited Russia?
I've lost track. I first went to the Soviet Union in 1984 and since then have probably been 20 or 25 times for a total of two and a half or three years. I've lived in Ukraine and Kiev. I've been to Siberia. I've spent a lot of time in Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Now I spend more of my time in places that are off the beaten path, especially in connection with my work on nuclear power. To visit these facilities you have to have permission from the Russian equivalent of the FBI, which is called the FSB. I'm very straightforward and people know what I'm doing. I'm just a historian and it's very clear that there's nothing more to me than that, so I always do get permission.

Tell me about your most recent projects.
My most recent book, Industrialized Nature, was published in December of 2002. I examined the scientific management of fish, forest, and water resources in different settings: Norway, Brazil, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. The book addresses the use of various technologies to manage those resources and examines the ways in which we and our Soviet, Brazilian and Norwegian colleagues are more alike in our approach to resource management than we are different. And that raises the question of what the social and environmental costs of that ultimately large-scale and, I argue, inefficient approach have been.

What are you working on now?
I have three other projects. One is about the evils of the American embrace of the internal combustion engine. It's supposed to be labor saving, but it's highly polluting, it's often dangerous and we use it willy-nilly. I'm looking at four different ecosystems: inland and coastal waterways, deserts and other fragile ecosystems, snow environments and the lawn. The lawn attracts such things as the lawnmower, the weedwacker, the leaf-blower, the edger, the power broom,all of these things are small, internal, usually two-cycle engines, which are highly polluting, very noisy, dangerous, dreadful, and they're good for laziness.

I have two other projects, which bring me back to my first love, the Soviet Union. One is on so-called industrial deserts and focuses primarily on the southern Ural region, where metallurgical and nuclear industries are concentrated. The other project is on the influence of Soviet technological style, which I capture under a rubric I guess I would call proletarian aesthetics,simple, gray designs, with comfort and safety playing a lesser role. I'm going to focus on Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria. I'm not going to try to learn Lithuanian, but I am going to try to learn to read Bulgarian, and I'm already trying to get started on Polish.

Many people on campus know you as "the runner" because we see you running all the time. How many miles do you actually average per week?
I now average about fifty miles a week, and I try and stay in shape year round, even in the dead of winter. If you get out of shape, especially as you age, it's harder to get back into shape. So fifty miles a week, with usually one long run, although last week I actually ran seventy-two miles in six days because I'm getting ready for another marathon. I ran in seven marathons last year, and I recently kicked off this year with the Boston Marathon, which was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was very warm. It was dreadful. It was eighty-four degrees at the start and eighty-six at the finish and we'd been training in thirty and forty degrees. So even though I ran slowly, I still suffered and began to cramp in the last miles. But I finished. I read somewhere that eleven hundred people were hospitalized or had medical treatment. But I don't do that. What's the point? You have to know what your limits are and run only so hard so you don't end up [hospitalized]. So this year I think I'll probably do five [marathons].