The Landscape Concept in Russian Scientific Thought, c1880s - 1991

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Social & Political Sciences


Recent studies in the geography and sociology of scientific knowledge have suggested that the conceptual understandings and practices of science vary spatially across a range of scales. This proposal aims to extend this literature by means of a detailed empirical study of the historical development and evolution of a key environmental science concept, namely that of 'landscape', within an understudied national context, that of Russia. The project will argue that differences in scientific understanding arise not only from the particularities of disciplinary debate but also from distinctive traditions of scientific thought specific to different countries. Through a detailed study of Russia, the project will seek to show how the landscape concept was received, interpreted and contested in that particular country, whilst remaining sensitive to the many ways in which such understandings were influenced by events and ideas in the wider world. In so doing the project will make a significant contribution to the broader literature on landscape.

The landscape concept has recently been the focus of considerable attention in the English-language literature, particularly within the discipline of geography and cognate areas. This reflects the concept's versatility and interdisciplinary nature, with its ability to rove across the interface between the physical and social sciences. In the context of current debates about global environmental change, this characteristic has appealed to many scholars and draws attention to the concept's pertinence to present-day sustainability concerns. There has been a commensurate rise in interest in the ways in which landscape has been understood and used in the various disciplines. But whilst there have been a number of attempts to trace the origins of the term, such analysis has tended to focus on the English-language literature and there has so far been limited consideration of the ways in which the landscape idea was encountered in non-English speaking contexts such as Russia and the subsequent ways in which it was interpreted, accommodated and transformed.

While it is clearly problematic to advance the notion of a rigid, nationally-based science in view of the mutable character of scientific thought and practice as well as the porous nature of national borders to scientific ideas, it is also evident that particular socio-cultural settings have the potential to generate distinctive traditions of thought and enquiry. For example, the Russian approach to the landscape concept is characterised by a distinct sensitivity towards the holistic character of landscape and the union between organic and inorganic matter which is less evident in the Anglo-American tradition. Building on the work of Vucinich (1970) and his efforts to assess the relationship between Russian culture and science from the mid-nineteenth century, a number of influential factors are worthy of consideration: (i)the particular needs (however defined) of a given society; (ii)the relative emphasis placed on either applied or pure scientific pursuits; (iii)the ability of dominant philosophical traditions to affect subsequent interpretations of scientific theory; (iv)the influence of key individuals. In addition to these domestic factors, external influences on national scientific endeavour and specific scientific understandings should also be acknowledged.

In order to explore the historical roots and subsequent evolution of Russian understanding of the landscape concept, the research will include extensive library and archival work as well as discussions with academics working in the field. This work will be carried out in Russia, Germany, Finland and the UK.


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Denis Shaw (Author) (2010) Some Eighteenth-Century Russian Perceptions of the Living Environment in Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniya (Studies in the History of Biology)

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Oldfield Jonathan D (2013) Symposium on History of Applied Biology in Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniya (Studies in the History of Biology)

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Oldfield Jonathan D (2013) Conceptualising the natural environment: Critical reflection from Russia in Istoriko-biologicheskie issledovaniya (Studies in the History of Biology)

Description The landscape concept forms an integral element of Russian geographical thought. Furthermore, its firm intellectual roots can be traced back to the work of late eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian and Western scholars. Within the Russian context, the concept internalises long-standing insights into the geographical regularity of natural-physical (physical-geographical) systems and the tendency for such systems to manifest themselves at a range of scales from the local through to the global level. The origin of such understanding in the Russian context is varied and includes a multitude of exogenous (e.g. the synthetic work of foreign natural scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Karl Ritter and others etc.) and endogenous factors (e.g. work of the soil scientist V.V. Dokuchaev and his School, the particularities of Russia's physical environment, which is characterised by a pronounced latitudinal pattern (north-south) of distinct natural regions etc.).

In order to further understanding of how the landscape concept was received, interpreted and contested within Russia during the late tsarist and Soviet periods, the project focussed on the broad areas detailed below. These intentionally identified distinctive contextual factors (e.g. work of individuals, institutional changes, ideological influences, etc.) in order to throw more light on the different ways in which the landscape idea was shaped during the period under study. Analysis of materials (particularly post-1953) is ongoing:

1. Earlier synthetic work of von Humboldt, Ritter, N. Sibirtsev etc. which drew attention to natural regularities in the wider environment.

2. The work of the Russian soil scientist V.V. Dokuchaev and his school during the late tsarist period. Dokuchaev is perhaps best known for his work with soils and specifically the black earth or chernozem soils of southern European Russia. He advanced a genetic understanding of soil formation which emphasised the interaction of key soil-forming factors (i.e. ground-rock, climate, fauna, flora, relief, and the geological age of the land) giving rise to different types. Central to his conceptualisation of soil, and in keeping with his assertion that soils were independent natural bodies worthy of special attention, was the observation that soil type was restricted to particular geographical areas. It was a short step from the Dokuchaev school's complex understanding of soil type to more developed articulations of what came to be termed soil zones reflecting the tendency for key soil-forming elements such as climate and vegetation to exhibit distinct spatial patterning within the northern hemisphere. Furthermore, Dokuchaev's broader natural-historical zones proved influential for later articulations of landscapes.

3. The early establishment of geography within Russia's university system from the 1880s and subsequent debates over the aim of the discipline. Russian geography's strong links with the natural and physical sciences resulted in the emergence of a relatively influential set of disciplinary concerns that partly coalesced during the 1880s and 1890s and were characterised by a general focus on the interrelations between natural phenomena at the earth's surface. These concerns had much in common with the general ideas emanating from the Dokuchaev school. Furthermore, a casual glance at the biographies of influential Russian geographical thinkers towards the end of the late nineteenth century reveals their varied intellectual backgrounds and training within the natural sciences linked to disciplinary areas such as botany, climatology and pedology. This ensured that subsequent debates over the focus of Russian geography were deeply entangled with concomitant developments in the broader natural sciences during the late tsarist period.

4. The work of L.S. Berg in relation to the purpose and aim of geography. Berg produced two influential papers in 1913 and 1915 in which he advanced his understanding of landscape as "those areas in which the character of relief, climate, vegetation and soil cover blend together into a single, harmonious whole, typically repeated over the extent of a well-known area of the Earth." He was also intent on placing landscape science at the heart of Russian geographical practice. His work in this area developed strongly during the early part of the Soviet period.

5. The work of the Commission for the Study of Natural Productive Forces of Russia (KEPS). The Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences (IGRAN), emerged out of the Commission for the Study of the Natural Productive Forces of Russia (KEPS) which had been set up in 1915 in order to provide detailed insights in to Russia's strategic natural resource reserves. The Commission's Industrial-Geographical Department (forerunner to IGRAN) led a number of complex expeditions during the 1920s and these together with other associated expeditions encouraged the further development of conceptual work related to natural regions and landscapes.

6. Ideological debates and the rise of Stalin. Berg's understanding of landscape was criticised by the geographer A.A. Grigor'ev during the 1930s and 1940s for its links to bourgeois scientists. During this period, Grigor'ev advanced the notion of a distinct 'physical-geographical process' operating at the earth's surface which was driven by solar energy and characterised by the complex interaction of a range of natural phenomena. He proceeded to refer to the area within which this process operated as the earth's physical-geographical envelope. He also noted that the single physical-geographical process would vary in its character over the surface of the earth linked to the modifying influence of variations in solar input as well as surface phenomena.

7.The late Stalin period. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the advancement of Stalin's Plan for the Transformation of Nature which provided geographers with an opportunity to put into practice their complex understanding of natural physical systems embedded in the debates surrounding landscape units and associated conceptualisations.

8. The landscape concept post-1953. The critical debate broadened following the death of Stalin and ideas of landscape were modified in a number of significant ways. But landscape continued to be a key element of Russian geographical debate.
Exploitation Route The major impacts will be scientific but we believe that aspects of our research (for example that on the history of ideas on climate change) may attract broader public attention.

The PI and CoI continue to work on conference papers and published outputs arising from the research in addition to those listed.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Scholarly impact: (i)Five refereed papers have been published to date. (ii)Two papers are in preparation. (iii)Edited collection (eds. Oldfield, Shaw and Julia Lajus, St Petersburg) of papers linked to the project's main published in the journal Slavonic and East European Review (2015). (iv) Key findings of the project form the basis of a book now published by Routledge (2016). The Routledge book incorporates the project's main findings and provides a detailed exploration of Russian scientific ideas and associated perceptions about the nature of the natural environment from the 1880s to the late Soviet era emphasising the work of geographers and cognate scientists. It examines an array of contextual factors which influenced those perceptions. Project Workshop 'Conceptualising the Natural Environment: Critical Reflections from Russia 18th-20th Centuries': The project Workshop (with additional funds from the ESRC and CRCEES ) was organised by the two investigators in conjunction with the European University at St Petersburg. It took place in St Petersburg (March 2013). It brought together approximately 20 scholars from Russia, Europe, North America, including postgraduates/early career academics. Conferences/Invited Talks - various including: Special panels were convened at the 2011 BASEES conference (Managing resources and conceptualising nature during the late tsarist and early Soviet periods) and the 2013 BASEES/ICCEES European Congress with Russian colleagues (Perspectives on Russian environmental history and historical geography). Linked invited talks were delivered by the investigators at leading universities and organisations in Russia, France and the UK (see website). The international aspect of the research was furthered by workshops in Helsinki and Prague organised by Oldfield (see website). The project findings formed a key part of Oldfield's involvement in a new Leverhulme International Network initiative 'Exploring Russia's Environmental History and Natural Resources.' Key findings have been disseminated in the Russian language.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal