Pey-Yi Chu

Associate Professor of History; On leave Fall 2024
With Pomona Since: 2012
  • Expertise


    Pey-Yi Chu's teaching and research center on modern Europe and northern Eurasia as well as environmental history and the history of science. A historian of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, she is interested in how the physical environments, geopolitical contexts and intellectual traditions of northern Eurasia shaped global scientific knowledge. She offers courses on the political, social and transnational histories of Europe as well as Europe's connections to the wider world through science, colonialism and the environment.

    She is the author of The Life of Permafrost: A History of Frozen Earth in Russian and Soviet Science (University of Toronto Press, 2020). The Life of Permafrost tells the history of permafrost as a scientific idea to uncover its multiple, contested meanings. In recent decades, permafrost has attracted attention as its thawing threatens to exacerbate global warming. Tracing the English word permafrost back to its Russian roots, The Life of Permafrost argues that understandings of frozen earth were shaped by two key experiences in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. On one hand, the colonization and industrialization of Siberia fostered an engineering perspective on frozen earth that viewed the phenomenon as an aggregate physical structure: ground. On the other, a Russian and Soviet tradition of systems thinking encouraged approaching frozen earth as a process, condition and space tied to planetary exchanges of energy and matter. Aided by the United States' militarization of the Arctic during the Cold War, the engineering view of frozen earth as an obstacle to construction became dominant. But recovering alternative essences of frozen earth highlights its role in the earth's system and interconnections between humans and the rest of nature. Restoring pluralism in ideas about frozen earth has the potential to foster curiosity and awareness, rather than antipathy, about permafrost. The Life of Permafrost was a co-winner of the W. Bruce Lincoln Book Prize given by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

    Chu has received support for her research from the U.S. Department of Education, the Social Science Research Council, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She is currently exploring Russian Imperial and Soviet scientific expeditions in Central Asia, as well as the Eastern bloc's participation in the International Biological Program of the 1960s and 1970s.

    Areas of Expertise


    • Modern European history
    • Russian Empire
    • Soviet Union
    • Environmental history
    • History of earth sciences
  • Work


    “Cold War Environmental Knowledge in the Polar Regions,” with Stephen Bocking. In The Cambridge History of the Polar Regions, 510–35. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

    The Life of Permafrost: A History of Frozen Earth in Russian and Soviet Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

    “Encounters with Permafrost: The Rhetoric of Conquest and Processes of Adaptation in the Soviet Union.” In Eurasian Environments: Nature and Ecology in Imperial Russian and Soviet History, 165–184. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.

    Reorienting World Environmental History: Pedagogy and Scholarship on Cold Places,” with Andrew Stuhl. Environment and History 23, no. 4 (November 2017): 601-616.

    To Dig a Well (in Siberia).” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia Summer 2017, no. 13. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

    Mapping Permafrost Country: Creating an Environmental Object in the Soviet Union, 1920s–1940s.” Environmental History 20, no. 3 (July 1, 2015): 396–421.

    "Vladimir I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere (1926): Excerpts and Commentary," in The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change, edited by Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, and Paul Warde, 161-173. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

  • Education


    Ph.D. in History, 2011
    Princeton University

    M.A. in History, 2006
    Princeton University

    B.A. in History, 2003
    Stanford University

    Recent Courses Taught

    • Modern Europe since 1789
    • The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union
    • World War II in Eastern Europe
    • Researching the Cold War
    • Science and Empire
    • Climate in History
    • Critical Inquiry Seminar: Cold Places