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.
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.
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’.
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)
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)
Shelterbelts at Kamennaya step’ research station, southern Russia, founded by Dokuchaev in 1890s
(directly relevant to the project – since award of grant)
‘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. http://global.history.ox.ac.uk/global-and-imperial-history-research-seminar
‘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. https://www.bethelks.edu/news-events/news/post/5530/
‘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. http://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/events/land_and_environ_2016/program.php
‘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. https://www.evensi.us/the-amerikan-steppes-russian-influences-on-the-great-plains/189582656
‘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. https://events.unl.edu/plains/2016/10/12/113492/
‘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: https://pure.york.ac.uk/portal/files/45970574/MGU_certificate_02_16.pdf
‘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. http://www.york.ac.uk/history/research/majorprojects/russiasenvironmentalhistory/events/#tab-5
‘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. http://aseees.org/sites/default/files/downloads/2015%20convention%20program%20for%20web.pdf
‘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. http://www.collegium-carolinum.de/news-detail/article/jahrestagung-des-colleguim-carolinum.html
'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. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/research/research-centres/centre-for-russian-studies/centre-for-russian-studies-events-publication/amerikan-steppe
'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. http://www.basees.org/nove-prize/
Selected as one (of ten) history books of the year for 2013 by the Financial Times. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f60b681e-529f-11e3-8586-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2mn2K9uTR
Subject of radio talk on Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, 16 July 2014. http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/radio-programs-a-z/plains-folk?post=57129
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. https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/international-review-environmental-history-volume-3-issue-2-2017
‘Cultivating the Steppe: The Origins of Mennonite Farming Practices in the Russian Empire’, Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol.35 (2017), pp.251-78. http://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/jms/2017toc.php
‘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. http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/radio-programs-a-z/plains-folk?post=9100
(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. http://eseh.org/awards/eseh-article-award/
(Russian translation: ‘Ekologicheskaya istoriya rossiiskikh stepei: Vasilii Dokuchaev i neurozhai 1891 g.’, Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniya i tekhniki (2009), no.3, pp.48-71)
‘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. https://www.york.ac.uk/history/news/news/2016/moon-basees-keynote/
'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. http://www.york.ac.uk/history/news/news/2016/moon-russia-visit/
Featured in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter, January 2015: https://www.leverhulme.ac.uk/sites/default/files/imported_pdfs/newsletter%20january%202015-.pdf (see p.5)
Featured in the Times Higher Education supplement: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/grant-winners-26-february-2015/2018703.article