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The environmental history of Russia’s steppes

By David Moon

When I started researching the environmental history of Russia’s steppes, I planned my visits to archives and libraries for conventional historical research. But I wanted to get a sense of the steppe environment I was writing about, a context for the texts I was reading; I needed to explore the region. I was fortunate that several Russian and Ukrainian specialists agreed to take me along on expeditions and field trips to visit steppe nature reserves.

The scientists took the time to explain to a visiting historian how they conducted their research into the steppe environment: studying the flora, fauna, climate, and soil; monitoring human impact; and above all observing the interconnections between all of these. I learned, a little hesitantly, to identify the main wild grasses and that different types of plants grew on different types of soils. On one expedition, I was even permitted to help collect samples of soil for analysis (and carry them back to the expedition’s van).

On my first visit to the Rostov steppe nature reserve in the arid southeast of the region, I felt disorientated in a landscape of almost unbroken flatness that extended to the horizon with no shelter from the hot sun. Later, I visited more rolling countryside with a high steppe bisected by ravines and the valleys of steppe rivers, including the Don, Kuban’, Volga, and Dnepr. On my last visit, to the Askaniya Nova nature reserve in southern Ukraine, I explored the area of unploughed steppe that has been protected since the end of the nineteenth century and also the woodland park planted at around the same time.

In between the field trips, I was reading about expeditions of  naturalists and scientists to the steppes going back to the eighteenth century. I visited some of the locations they had and compared my impressions with theirs. Like me, visitors from outside the steppe — from the more humid, forested lands to the north and west — at first felt disorientated and exposed in the flat lands with no shelter.

The steppes have few trees (in spite of attempts to plant them), low and unreliable supplies of water (my spring and summer in Rostov coincided with a serious drought), burning hot sun and winds in the summer, but very fertile soil that yielded bumper harvests in good years. The lands to the northwest, in marked contrast, are heavily forested, have abundant supplies of water, especially in the spring when the snow melts, long, cold winters, and not very fertile soil. The steppes were conquered, settled, and ploughed up by people from the northwest who coveted their fertile soil and warmer climate, and expelled the indigenous, nomadic, population.

Not all farmers who worked the land or authorities who governed them appreciated the environment. When things went wrong, which they did periodically, bumper harvests were replaced by dust storms, crop failures, and famines. People agonised over who was to blame. Was it the farmers’ fault for ploughing up the steppe and felling the small areas of woodland? Or were the recurring droughts natural phenomena?

Over time, scientists came to understand the steppes environment, in particular the origins of its very fertile soils. Over time, moreover, they learned the need to work with the steppe environment, rather than against it, in order better to promote sustainable farming.

David Moon is Anniversary Professor, Department of History, University of York, UK, and the author of The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914. He recorded a podcast ‘A transformed landscape: the steppes of Ukraine and Russia’ for the Exploring Environmental History podcast on his methodology. A specialist on Russian history, in recent years his research has focused on environmental history in a transnational context. He combines conventional historical research in archives and libraries with field work in the environments he studies. He has spent much of his career teaching at universities in the north of England and Scotland. He also has extensive experience of both Russia and the USA. While a postgraduate student at Birmingham University, he studied for a year at Leningrad State University in what was then the Soviet Union. He makes regular visits to Russia and Ukraine, including the steppe region, for research and field work. For more information listen to his podcast on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia.

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Image Credits:(1) The steppe at the Askaniya Nova nature reserve. Photo by David Moon. Do not reproduce without permission. (2) Feather grass blowing in the wind, southeastern Rostov region. Photo by Antonina Shamareva, Rostov Botanical Garden. Do not reproduce without permission. 

Recent Comments

  1. Ken Glick (EEI)

    I’m surprised the Russian steppes is still in existence(and in pretty good condition) after 75+ years of Soviet rule. After all, we all know what happened to the Aral Sea under the Soviet Union.

  2. Nathaniel Blair

    With more time on my hands in recent months, I’ve had the pleasure to dive back into historical research, and I really enjoyed your blog and hope to dive more into them despite the fact that I’m currently studying Iberia, which is quite far from your area of expertise. Thank you for posting!

  3. Jenny Baldwin

    I remember being infused with an enthusiasm for this topic when I studied the Russian Tsars at York when you taught me David. I am so pleased to have found this blog post (even 7 years after it was posted!) so that I can start referencing current investigations in History to my A Level students! Though they are doing the Communist years, I think it brings in an exciting opportunity to get students to think further and deeper and understand the impact of geography on policy-making.

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