The Plough that Broke the Steppes

Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914

David Moon

This is the first environmental history of Russia's steppes. From the early-eighteenth century, settlers moved to the semi-arid but fertile grasslands from wetter, forested regions in central and northern Russia and Ukraine, and from central Europe. By the late-nineteenth century, they had turned the steppes into the bread basket of the Russian Empire and parts of Europe. But there was another side to this story. The steppe region was hit by recurring droughts, winds from the east whipped up dust storms, the fertile black earth suffered severe erosion, crops failed, and in the worst years there was famine.

David Moon analyses how naturalists and scientists came to understand the steppe environment, including the origins of the fertile black earth. He also analyses how scientists tried to understand environmental change, including climate change. Farmers, and the scientists who advised them, tried different ways to deal with the recurring droughts: planting trees, irrigation, and cultivating the soil in ways that helped retain scarce moisture. More sustainable, however, were techniques of cultivation to retain scarce moisture in the soil.

Among the pioneers were Mennonite settlers. Such approaches aimed to work with the environment, rather than trying to change it by planting trees or supplying more water artificially.

The story is similar to the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains of the USA, which share a similar environment and environmental history. David Moon places the environmental story of the steppes in the wider context of the environmental history of European colonialism around the globe.

David Moon is an Anniversary Professor in the Department of History. His research interests focus on the rural world of the Russian Empire from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and, more recently, environmental history.  

The book is available to buy through all good bookshops, or direct from Oxford University Press

The blog to accompany the book is also available via the OUP website: http://www.oup.com/uk/isbn/9780199556434