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The Amerikan Steppes: Russian Influences on the Great Plains


Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, September 2015-August 2017

Professor David Moon on the Askania Nova nature reserve in Ukraine with some wild horses

David Moon

Read more about David Moon

This project explores influences from the steppes of Russia and Ukraine on the American Great Plains. By analyzing connections between two regions with similar environments and environmental histories, it considers how far the transformation of the Great Plains into a major agricultural region drew on prior experience on the Russian and Ukrainian steppes. Drawing on research spanning the humanities, social and natural sciences, it sheds light on this under researched aspect of American history and challenges preconceptions of the relationship between Russia and the USA. Moreover, it offers historical analogies to contemporary issues of global food security and sustainability at a time of environmental change.

The Great Plains


The Eurasian Steppe, including the Russian and Ukrainian steppe

This project is original. Individual parts of the story have been told from one side or the other, but no one has drawn on both Russian and American sources, archival and printed, supported by field work in both regions to present a fuller interpretation. This project makes a timely  and innovative contribution to the growing fields of transnational and global environmental history, which have focused mainly on transatlantic exchanges between the Americas and Western Europe and the impact of European colonialism on other parts of the globe. In locating the Russian experience at centre stage, this project answers calls by leading environmental historian John McNeill  for more research on Russia, which offers ‘dramatic opportunities for scholars with the requisite language skills.’ (The applicant is fluent in Russian.) In researching Russian influences on the USA, the project emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing American environmental history – long focused on national agendas – in a global, comparative and transnational framework.

The Project

This project analyzes the role of influences from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes in the transformation of the American Great Plains from grassland to major agricultural region, albeit one with recurring droughts, between the 1870s and 1940s. The Great Plains received  crop varieties,  farming and forestry techniques,  and modern soil science, all from Russia and Ukraine’s steppes. Some farmers (mostly ethnic Germans and Mennonites) and scientists (mostly Jewish) also made the journey from the steppes to the Great Plains.

The two regions

Both regions share similar environments and environmental histories. The Great Plains, extending from Texas to Canada, resemble the steppes, which stretch across Ukraine, southern Russia, southern Siberia, Kazakhstan and beyond. Both were originally grasslands, inhabited by mobile peoples who lived by hunting or herding animals. Both, starting with the steppes in the late-18th century and the Great Plains after 1865, were settled by farmers of European origin, who ploughed up the very fertile soils. In good years, they reaped bumper harvests, turning the grasslands into the bread baskets of much of the world. Both regions, however, had unreliable rainfall and high winds. In bad years, e.g. 1891-2 on the steppes and the early 1930s on the Great Plains, droughts were accompanied by dust storms, crop failures, exoduses of the population, and, in Russia, famines.

The Americans drew on Russian experience in coping with the vagaries of the climate, because the Russian steppes underwent the transformation to major agricultural region first. The Russians thus had a head start in working out the best varieties of crops to grow in the semi-arid environment, the most appropriate ways to cultivate the land to conserve scarce moisture, techniques of planting shelterbelts of trees to protect the soil against the wind, and new ways of understanding the fertile soils. In the process, they developed ways of farming that we would now term ‘sustainable’.

Circulation of knowledge

The influences were not just one way. The Russians drew on American expertise in mechanization and farm organisation, topics which have been well researched. Nor were Russian influences entirely beneficial to farmers: weeds also made their way to the Great Plains from Russia’s grasslands.

This project has wider significance: it investigates historical analogies to present-day issues of global food security and sustainability at a time of environmental change; it points to such remedies as the exchange and circulation of knowledge, practices and crop varieties on a global scale, and of seeking remedies in unlikely places. In contrast to what might have been expected, the American government, scientists and farmers drew, with some profit and success, on Russian experience.   

Mennonite farmers in Kansas (late nineteenth century)

Wider Significance

By highlighting the importance of Russian advances, such as modern soil science, this project raises questions about the origins of and preconditions for innovations in science and technology. And, in challenging himself to extend the geographical focus of his research from Russia to the USA, David is encouraging others to investigate under-explored connections and test preconceptions of relationships between different parts of the world.


Continental excursion after 1st International Congress of Soil Science, Washington, DC, 1927. Marbut, 2nd from left; Glinka, 3rd from left. (Photograph courtesy of Missouri State Historical Society)

Research Questions

  1. When, to what extent, why, and with what consequences did Russians and Americans recognise similarities between the steppes and Great Plains?
  2. When did scientists and agricultural specialists become aware of scientific work on grasslands and  farming methods in the other country? What were their attitudes to the others’ research?
  3. What role was played by competition between Russia and the USA in the world grain market in the late-19th and early-20th centuries?
  4. How important was the role of farmers – mostly ethnic Germans – who moved from the steppes to the Great Plains in the transmission of crops, farming and forestry techniques?
  5. How important was the role of the US Department of Agriculture in the transmission of crops, farming and forestry techniques, and also modern soil science, from Russia?
  6. How important in these transmissions was the role of scientists - mostly Jewish – who migrated from Russia to the USA in the late-19th and early-20th centuries?
  7. How important was the role of conventional intellectual discourse: publications, including translations; personal connections; and international scientific meetings and field trips?
  8. What barriers were there to the reception of Russian practices in the USA, e.g. language barrier, perceptions of Russian ‘backwardness’, institutional resistance? How were barriers overcome?

Shelterbelts at Kamennaya step’ research station, southern Russia, founded by Dokuchaev in 1890s


  1. Conventional historical research in printed and archival sources. The main sources include:  publications and archival records of the US Dept of Agriculture and the Russian and Soviet  government agencies responsible for agriculture; scientific literature in the relevant branches of agriculture, forestry and soil science; the publications and archives of individual agricultural specialists and scientists, including accounts of visits to the other country; the records of communities, e.g. Mennonites, who migrated from the steppes in the Great Plains region.
  2. The researcher is reading the American specialist and scientific literatures through his knowledge of Russian work on the same areas and looking for influences and inferences, acknowledged or not, to Russian work. The acknowledged influences are straightforward to follow up to trace the routes of transmission; those that are not acknowledged are harder, and could also suggest independent invention of similar approaches and techniques. Possible sources of American information on Russian practices  can be sought in specialist publications, including translations, by identifying attendance at scientific meetings and conferences where Russian specialists were present, by reading private correspondence etc.
  3. Consultations with American and Russian specialists in relevant areas of farming and forestry techniques and environmental sciences, including scientific staff of nature reserves, agricultural and forestry experiment stations, and the US Department of Agriculture.
  4. Field work in the two regions. The researcher has already visited many locations in both regions, taken part in scientific expeditions, visited experiment stations, forestry plantations and farms. The main purpose is to gain a practical understanding of the environments of the two regions, how they are studied by scientists and managed by farmers and foresters, and of similarities and differences between them. Field work has provided a sense of place, a experiential framework in which to understand conventional historical sources and devise questions to address to them.




The American Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), xl + 431 pp.


(directly relevant to the project – since award of grant)

'The American Steppes: the unexpected Russian roots of Great Plains agriculture, 1870s-1930s,' Department of Geosciences, Université de Fribourg, Switzerland, 17 December 2019 

'An unexpected guest from the Eurasian steppe in the American West: Tumbleweed/ Перекати-поле', 10th biennial conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH), Tallinn, Estonia, 21-26 August 2019

«Евразийские корни земледелия на Великих равнинах США в 1870-х - 1930-х гг.»,  Казахский гуманитарно-юридический инновационный университет, Семей, Казахстан, 16 мая, 2019 г.

«Евразийские корни земледелия на Великих равнинах США в 1870-х - 1930-х гг.»,  Исторический факультет, Карагандинский государственный университет имени академика Е.А. Букетова, Караганда, Казахстан, 29 марта, 2019 г.

'Экологическая и транснациональная история евразийской степи: в архивах США,' Тематическая встреча, Архив Президента Республики Казахстан, Алматы, 19 марта 2019 г.

'Экологическая и транснациональная история евразийской степи', Институт истории и этнологии имени Ч.Ч. Валиханова, Алматы, Казахстан, 18 марта 2019 г.

«Евразийские корни земледелия на Великих равнинах США в 1870-х - 1930-х гг.»,  Исторический факультет Евразийского Национального Университета им. Л.Н. Гумилева, г. Астана, Казахстан, 29 нояб. 2018 г.

‘The Eurasian Roots of Agriculture in the Great Plains of the United States, 1870s-1930s’, Central Asian Studies Center, KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, 9 October 2018

‘What did the Americans learn from Agriculture in the Eurasian steppes?’, Nazarbayev University History Club, Astana, Kazakhstan, 26 Sept 2018

‘The American Steppes: The Unexpected Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, c. 1870- c.1940’, Humanities/ Eurasian Studies Reading Circle, Nazarbayev University, Astana, Qazaqstan, Sept 4, 2018

‘The Steppes of North America: The Development of Agriculture on the Grasslands of Canada, the United States, Russia and Ukraine,’ Keynote lecture, Canadian History and Environmental Summer Symposium: Prairie Landscapes and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, May 31-June 2, 2018

‘The Amerikan Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s’, Global and Imperial History Research Seminar, History Faculty, University of Oxford, 11 November 2017.

‘The Amerikan Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Farming, 1870s-1930s’, History Seminar Series, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1 November 2017

‘The Amerikan steppe (Американская степь): Influences from Russia and Ukraine on the Great Plains, 1870s-1930s’, ‘Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum’, Kauffman Museum at Bethel College and Warkentin House, North Newton, Kansas, USA, May 28, 2017.

‘The Amerikan Steppe (Американская степь): Influences from the Russian Empire and USSR on the Great Plains, 1870s-1930s’, Dept of History, National Research University-Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg, Russia, 20 March 2017

‘Cultivating the Steppe: The Origins of Mennonite Farm Practices in the Russian Empire’, Mennonites, Land and the Environment: A Global History Conference, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 28-29 Oct 2016.

‘The Amerikan Steppes: Russian Influences on the Great Plains’, Public Lecture, Dept of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND, USA, 26 October 2016.

 ‘The Amerikan Steppe: Influences from Russia and Ukraine on the Great Plains, 1870s-1930s’, Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA, 12 Oct 2016.

‘A Community of Scholars?: Communications, Exchanges and Cordiality among Russian and American Environmental Scientists, 1890s-late 1930s’, Keynote lecture, Annual Conference, British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 2 April 2016. A Community of Scholars?: Communications, Exchanges and Cordiality among Russian (MS PowerPoint , 1,104kb)

See conference programme, pp.5, 38

‘The Amerikan Steppe/Американская степь: Influences from Russia and Ukraine on the Great Plains, 1870s-1930s’, Foreign Guest Academic Seminar, Faculty of Geography, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia, 15 Feb 2016. David's Powerpoint presentation: amerikan-steppes-powerpoint-david-moon (MS PowerPoint , 4,559kb). David's certificate for giving this seminar:

‘Empire, Exploration and Scientific Innovation in the Russian Empire: The Case of Genetic Soil Science’, Conference: Natural Resources, Landscapes and Climate in Russia and Neighbouring Countries, Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg, Russia, 26-28 November 2015.

‘Russian Steppe Forestry on the Great Plains of the USA’, 47th Annual Convention, Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, Philadelphia, PA, USA, November 19–22, 2015.

‘Perceptions of Space, ‘Scientific’ Exploration, and the Origins of Genetic Soil Science in the Russian Empire’. Paper presented to Annual Conference of the Collegium Carolinum, ‘Science and Empire in Eastern and East-Central Europe in the 19th Century', Bad Wiessee, Germany, 5-8 November 2015.

'The Amerikan Steppe: Influences from Russia and Ukraine on the Great Plains, 1870s-1930s', Paper presented at the Centre for Russian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL, UK, 2 November 2015.

'The Amerikan Steppe/Американская степь: Influences on the Great Plains from Russia and Ukraine' (poster and report), 8th Conference of European Society for Environmental History, Versailles, France, 30 June-3 July 2015. Poster: eseh-2015-poster (PDF , 2,398kb)

‘The Amerikan Steppe: Making the Great Plains in the Russian Image’, Department Seminar, Dept of History, University of Essex, 29 April 2015. Flyer: essex-talk-flyer (PDF , 210kb)

‘The Amerikan Steppe: Influences from Russia on the Great Plains’, Research seminar  "Boundaries of History", School of History, Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia, 26 March 2015




(directly relevant to the project)


The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) xx + 319pp

Winner of Alexander Nove Prize in Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies awarded by the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, 2013.

Selected as one (of ten) history books of the year for 2013 by the Financial Times.

Subject of radio talk on Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, 16 July 2014.


with Edward R. Landa, ‘The Centenary of the Journal Soil Science: Reflections on the Discipline in the United States and Russia Around a Hundred Years ago’, Soil Science, vol.182, no.6/7 (2017), forthcoming.

‘The Curious Case of the Marginalization or Distortion of Russian and Soviet Environmental History in Global Environmental Histories’, International Review of Environmental History, vol.3, no.2 (2017), pp.31-50.

‘Cultivating the Steppe: The Origins of Mennonite Farming Practices in the Russian Empire’, Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol.35 (2017), pp.251-78.

‘The Steppe as Fertile Ground for Innovation in Conceptualizing Human-Nature Relationships’, Slavonic and East European Review, vol.93, no.1 [Special Issue] (2015), pp.16-38

‘Plowing up the World’s Grasslands, c.1850’, Global Environment, no.11 (2013), pp.207-9

‘In the Russians’ Steppes: The Introduction of Russian Wheat on the Great Plains of the United States of America’, Journal of Global History, 3 (2008), pp.203-225

Subject of radio talk on Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, North Dakota, USA.

(Russian translation: ‘Introduktsiya russkoi pshenitsy na Velikikh Ravninakh Soedinennykh Shtatov Ameriki’, in V.V. Sorgin (ed.), Amerikanskii Ezhegodnik 2011 [Moscow: Ves’ mir, 2012], pp.161-76)

‘The Environmental History of the Russian Steppes: Vasilii Dokuchaev and the Harvest Failure of 1891', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 15 (2005), pp.149-174

Winner of 2007 Publication Prize by European Society for Environmental History and German Historical Institute.

(Russian translation: ‘Ekologicheskaya istoriya rossiiskikh stepei: Vasilii Dokuchaev i neurozhai 1891 g.’, Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniya i tekhniki (2009), no.3, pp.48-71)

Chapters in books

‘Kak stepi stali khlebnymi polyami’ (‘From steppes to grain fields’), in E.E. Merzon et al (eds), Sotsiokul’turnaya sreda rossiiskii provintsii v proshlom i nastoyaeshchem: Sbornik nauchnykh statei (Elabuga: Izdatel’stvo Belov Evgenii Valeriyanovich, 2015), pp.15-17

(‘Как степи стали хлебными полями’, ред. Мерзон Е.Е. и др., Социокультурная среда российской провинции в прошлом и настоящем: Сб. научных статей,Елабуга: Издатель Белов Евгений Валериянович, 2015, cc.15-17)

‘The Grasslands of North America and Russia’, in J.R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Maudlin (eds), A Companion to Global Environmental History (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 247-62

(Ukrainian translation: ‘Степи Північної Америки та Росії’, Наукові праці історичного факультету Запорізького національного університету, 2015, вип.43, 168-77)


Alexander Chibilev and Sergei Levykin, ‘Virgin Lands divided by an Ocean: The Fate of Grasslands in the Northern Hemisphere’, trans. and annotated by David Moon, Nova Acta Leopoldina, Neue Folge, 114, no.390 (2013), pp.91-103


'York Professor gives keynote lecture - David Moon discusses Amerikan Steppes project at interdisciplinary conference'. An article on the University of York website, 6 April 2016.

'York Professor in Russia visit - York history professor David Moon shares his knowledge with students and academics in Moscow and St Petersburg'. An article on the University of York website, 4 March 2016.

Featured in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter, January 2015:  (see p.5)

Featured in the Times Higher Education supplement: