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The Plough that Broke the Steppes Review


Even before American settlers were pushing west out into the Great Plains, Russian settlers were headed to the south, into the great steppes of Southern Russia. The story is a similar one: a vast land, relatively little populated, whose inhabitants were pushed off by the incoming agriculturalists, who dramatically transformed the tremendous expanse in their eternal quest for more land to grow their crops on. In both cases, this was justified on the basis of various scientific principles, cultural nationalism, and biologic civilizing. The story of the Russian side of this is covered in The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia's Grasslands, 1700-1914 by David Moon, an intriguing examination of these processes and how they played out in the development of these frontier lands of the Russian Empire.

Most fascinating in the book is its analysis of ecological imperialism, and how the expansion of the Russian agricultural way of life on the steppes was heavily bound up with notions of Russian Slavic chauvinism and the ecological transplanting of the Russian ecological environment to the steppes. It shows how there was a discourse by Russian writers, who wrote of the advance of trees into the region as representing Russia, and who characterized the hostile winds and heat as Asia, the revenge of the nomadic tribes who the Russians had expelled from the plains. Moon draws heavily from writings on the ecological transformations that European settlement around the world produced, and discusses the changes on the plains, such as the disappearance of feather grass.

This is matched by a very impressive objective scientific history of the land. The Russian settlers, after their initial attempts to simply transplant their ecological regime, had to adapt to the plains: to till the earth in certain manners across the soil to prevent wind erosion, mostly north south, and to enable snow to be caught in the furrows, the implementation of the bare black fallow for the increasing of moisture, and the rise of shelterbelts and other forestry projects. It is a fascinating, see-saw history, where attempts to dominate and control the plains were followed up by adapting and acculturating to its environment. The purely technical side of things, with the debates of Russian scientists over soil formation and the history of the land, adds valuable depth.

It is also interesting in the depiction of different groups among the settlers, such as the Mennonites, who combined their agricultural improvements with religious motivations. Their differences in agricultural improvements were marked compared to their neighbors, with substantially higher productivity and much better laid out villages. It would have been intriguing to discover more of the social structure of the Mennonites and their relationship to agriculture: the main elements which are mentioned are their greater literacy, religious motivation, and smaller villages which better facilitated access to the land.

One thing which is not mentioned at length is the relationship to animal life. After all, it is noted that there was a need for more extensive usage of oxen and other draft animals on the plains, needed for coping with the heavier, less tillable soil. There is also a few asides about sheep, their vulnerability to the feather grass, and their tendency to mow grass to the bone. But there is no detailed section for animal life on the plains, despite this being a topic of great importance to the peasants presumably. Both for manure, seemingly only used by the Mennonites, and land use for fodder, as well as the wear imposed on the land.

Another strong element of the book is its historical analysis of the Ukrainian/South Russian steppes, dating back to the times of Herodotus through a qualitative analysis of the descriptions left behind by travelers and geographers. Moon shows that the plains changed over time, influenced by human development, and that they were far from timeless, unchanging natural environments. He could have definitively settled the point of discussion between Russian scientists at the time who debated whether the plains had always been the way they were or whether there had been substantial forests in the past, but this drawback also shows one of his strengths: accepting thought and ideas on their own values, rather than merely which one turned out to be right in the end.

A fascinating and wide-ranging book, which looks at the cultural, scientific, human, agronomic, and economic (through the question of irrigation) story of the development of Russian agriculturalism on Russia's steppe grasslands. An excellent ecological story which draws on tremendous amounts of reading on the subject and a close knowledge of the region, its people, and land.

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