An Environmental History of the Russian Steppes, c.1700-c.1914

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: History

Abstract

The principal subject is the interaction between human societies and environments over time when people move from one type of natural environment to another, thereby encountering unfamiliar conditions. Such encounters have recurred over human history, and were common during the period of European overseas empires. Europeans migrated to distant parts of the globe and in many cases tried to transplant their ways of life, such as European-style agriculture, to new lands, with varying results. The main focus of this research is a major agricultural region which has not received due attention from environmental historians: the Russian steppes. The steppes were settled by farmers from central and northern Russia and Ukraine, and also from central Europe, over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They displaced the nomadic population; arable farming replaced pastoralism as the mainstay of the economy; and the farmers changed the face of the land by ploughing up the grassland, sowing cereals, and felling much of the small areas of woodland. Over the following decades, there were waves of anxiety over increasing soil erosion, dust storms (similar to those on the American plains in the 1930s), and droughts and crop failures that seemed to recur ever more frequently.

The Russian government and developing scientific community subjected the steppe region to serious study from the early stages of agricultural settlement. In the late eighteenth century the Russian Academy of Sciences dispatched expeditions, led mostly by German or German-trained naturalists, to the steppes and beyond, which produced detailed studies. Over the nineteenth century, Russian science developed and produced scientists of international importance, such as pioneering soil scientist Vasilii Dokuchaev (1846-1903). Dokuchaev and his colleagues engaged in further detailed study of the steppe environment. Scientists sought to distinguish between human-induced and natural environmental change. On the basis of these studies, the authorities, agricultural societies, and farmers developed ways to promote sustainable agriculture in the steppe environment. They planted trees in the hope of mitigating the semi-arid climate, introduced irrigation, and developed ways of working the land that conserved the scarce moisture.

The key aim is to reconstruct the unfolding understanding among contemporaries of the processes of environmental change that the farmers were involved in. This is to be achieved by analysis of contemporary sources produced by natural scientists, officials, the local population, and the educated public. A further aim is to place the Russian experience on the steppes in a global perspective, thus making contributions to Russian, environmental, and global history. Conducting the research will enable the researcher to develop a methodological approach drawing on traditional historical analysis of primary sources, the approaches of different branches of history, including social history and history of science, geography, and natural sciences. Furthermore, the methodology incorporates fieldwork in nature reserves. Promoting existing links between scholars working on related subjects in UK, Russia and elsewhere in the world is an additional aim. In terms of outputs, the aims are to produce a monograph under contract to OUP, three papers for seminars or conferences in Russia, UK, and Finland, a podcast for an established environmental history website, and an article for a popular history journal.

The research would be undertaken on trips to St Petersburg, Russia, and Helsinki, Finland, to work in archives and libraries and meet specialists. A field trip would be undertaken to the most important nature reserve on steppes, Askania Nova, Ukraine, where the researcher would explore the reserve and engage with scientists. The rest of the fellowship would be spent in Durham analyzing the findings from the research and field trips and writing.

Planned Impact

The immediate beneficiaries from this research include the academic beneficiaries listed elsewhere in this application in the fields of the environmental history and geography of Russia, more broadly in various branches of history, including environmental history, social history, history of science and global history, geography, Russian and E. European Studies, and environmental sciences.

In the medium and longer term this research can potentially benefit a wider group, including stakeholders engaged in nature conservation and in researching and managing the environment in the UK and internationally at the present time, as well as the general public.

The research could benefit this wider group in a number of ways:

- The Russian experience of seeking to understand how an environment changed over time in part as a consequence of activities by migrants familiar with quite different environmental conditions offers a useful and instructive comparison when considering changes of resource use in other environments;

- Likewise, the Russian experience of seeking to differentiate between human-induced and natural factors in environmental change offers a reminder from another part of the globe of both the importance of taking account of all causes of environmental change and the difficulty in doing so. The current controversy over the causes of climate change offers a salutary reminder of the need for effective communication of the findings of scientific research to other stakeholders and the wider public;

- The Russian/Ukrainian experience of nature conservation, moreover, has made an important contribution to the theory and practice of conservation worldwide. The principle of 'inviolable management' of nature reserves from which all human activity except scientific research was excluded, established in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, to some extent anticipated the principles of the worldwide network of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, which includes the Askania Nova reserve in Ukraine which the investigator plans to visit. While the theory and practice of conservation has changed over time as a result of developments in natural sciences and the engagement of scientists with the wider societies of which they are a part, the Russian/Ukrainian experience again offers useful comparisons for considering policies in the UK and elsewhere;

The main benefit research by an environmental historian can bring to a wider group of interested parties is the importance of understanding human interaction with the environments of which they are a part in the wider social, economic, political, cultural and scientific contexts which have shaped human understanding of this interaction and the theoretical, practical and policy implications that flow from these.

Plans to disseminate the findings of the research to academic beneficiaries by means of publication of a monograph under contract to OUP and presentation of papers to audiences of different academic specialists at seminars and conferences have been outlined elsewhere. Immediate plans to communicate and engage with a wider group include meeting scientists who work at the Askania Nova UNESCO Biosphere reserve in Ukraine, recording a podcast for an environmental history website and writing an article for a popular history journal. In the medium and longer term, it is envisaged that engagement be extended to stakeholders in researching, conserving and managing the environment in the UK and further afield. To this end, the investigator is a co-investigator in an application for an AHRC network grant 'Local Places, Global Processes' under the Landscape and Environment theme. The investigator, who is the Regional Representative for Britain and Ireland of the European Society for Environmental History, envisages as part of a wider and longer term process of seeking to broaden enga
 
Description The agricultural settlement of the steppes after their incorporation into the Russian Empire may be seen as one of colonization, both human and ecological. The settlers who migrated to the steppes, the authorities who governed them, and the specialists who advised them aimed to transplant their largely agricultural way of life, based on growing grain, to the steppe region with its very fertile soil. They had little regard for the indigenous population, who had lived mainly by nomadic pastoralism, and gradually drove them out. As the settlers ploughed up the steppes and grew grain, however, they became aware of the vagaries of the steppe environment, in particular the semi-arid climate and recurring droughts that harmed their way of life. For many decades, the authorities, specialists, and some settlers considered planting trees and artificial irrigation to be the best ways to deal with the barriers to arable farming presented by the steppe environment. The intention-either implicit or explicit-was to change the steppe environment to make it more like the forested and more humid environments of central and northern Russia and Ukraine, and central Europe where many of them or their forebears came from. It was from these regions, moreover, that the settlers brought their agricultural way of life and practice of using forest products for many everyday purposes, from timber to firewood.
Parallel to the development of new ways of understanding the steppe environment, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries some settlers and agronomists, supported by the authorities and advised by scientists, devised new methods of cultivating the land to make effective, and indeed sustainable, use of the natural resources. They sought to make the most of the fertile soils and hot summer temperatures, while accumulating and conserving in the soil the limited supplies of moisture that were so essential for crops. Thus, these methods aimed to work with the steppe environment, rather than combat or struggle against it. This agronomical approach to dealing with the vagaries of the steppe environment from the point of view of arable farming was an alternative to afforestation and artificial irrigation. By the end of the nineteenth century, in a marked change of approach, agronomy had partly replaced planting trees and providing water by artificial means in the 'struggle with droughts' in the steppe region.
Exploitation Route The findings suggest historical antecedents to current concerns for sustainability and also reinforce the value of both lived experience by people on the ground working in the environment on a day to day basis and of advice by impartial, scientific experts funded by the government to carry out fundamental research for the benefit of the state, economy, and society.
The findings also challenge preconceptions that most scientific innovations are produced in western Europe and north America by highlighting original scientific work produced in Russia.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://blog.oup.com/2013/04/environmental-history-russia-steppes/
 
Description My book, The Plough that Broke the Steppes, was the subject of radio talk on Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, 16 July 2014.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description British Council Researcher Links Workshop
Amount £30,250 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2014 
End 02/2015
 
Description Leverhulme International Network
Amount £123,005 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2013 
End 07/2016
 
Description Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship
Amount £102,082 (GBP)
Funding ID MRF-2014-092 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2015 
End 08/2017
 
Description Santander International Connections Gold Award
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation Santander Universities 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 09/2015
 
Description • British Academy Small Research Grant (SG112033): 'From the Steppes to the Great Plains: A Study in Transnational Environmental History', March 2012, £7,390
Amount £7,390 (GBP)
Funding ID SG112033 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2012 
End 09/2014
 
Description 'Improving the Environment? Irrigating the Steppes in the Russian Empire', Yale Russian and East European Reading Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Around 25 graduate students and faculty attended the seminar, which sparked lively discussion and established contacts with members of the next generation of specialists

Seminar paper presented to research seminar
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description 'The Amerikan Steppes: The Great Plains in a Russian Mirror', Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, USA, 18 March 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact There was a lively discussion of my paper which encouraged me to take the project further.

Established contact with specialists in my field and was given useful references to scientific literature in cognate areas.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://events.berkeley.edu/?view=summary&timeframe=week&date=2014-03-16&tab=all_events
 
Description 'The Plow that Broke the Plains?: An Environmental History of the Grasslands of the Russian Empire/USSR and the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries,' RUCHE (Réseau Universitaire de Chercheurs en Histoire Environnementale), École des hautes études en scienc 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Paper on research funded in part by grant.

Paper on research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description 'The Plow that Broke the Steppes: Researching the Environmental History of the Russian Steppes', Pomona College, Claremont, CA, USA, 24 March 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact My invited lecture was attended by an interdisciplinary audience of undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty members in History, Environmental Studies and other arts and humanities and social science subjects.

There was a lively discussion and I was able to explain to natural scientists how environmental historians worked and learned from their questions and discussion in return.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.pomona.edu/news/2014/03/03-march-events.aspx
 
Description 'The steppes as fertile ground for innovation in conceptualizing human-nature relationships', Conference: Conceptualizing the Natural Environment: Critical Reflections from Russia, 18th-20th Centuries, European University at St Petersburg, Russia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Lively discussion

Expanded my network of contacts, publication in press
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Paper at Workshop on Icebreaker Krasin, St Petersburg, Russia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact We planned out activities for a Leverhulme International Network.

The director of the Icebreaker Krassin museum was put in contact with a historian of Russian icebreakers built on the river Tyne.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013