Plains Folk

Steppe by Steppe


I feel like I should apologize at the outset for the punny title of this Plains Folk column: “Steppe by Steppe,” spelled s-t-e-p-p-e. It is, however, a reasonable description of an intercontinental journey.


Fundamentally, I consider myself a historian of the Great Plains. This place is my home, and it is my professional preoccupation. Three decades ago I commenced a sort of broadening, or lengthening, process, taking up research interests on the Canadian prairies. Then it was on to the grasslands of New Zealand and Australia—steppe by steppe, you might say.


In the mail now comes a splendid new book by an Englishman, David Moon: The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914. David was kind enough to send the book because he made use of some of my work on Mark Carleton, the plant explorer who brought Kharkov winter wheat and Kubanka durum from Russia to America.


Moon’s book tells the story of how the Russian Empire absorbed, gradually got to know, and ultimately embraced its great grasslands west of the Urals. The Russians were people of the forest, but as they experienced the challenges and the possibilities of the steppe lands, the steppes became embedded in the history, literature, and identity of the empire.


Part of the Russian development of the steppes was a matter of colonization, that is, recruiting foreign settlers to go in and break the land. This was the origin of the Germans from Russia, who after pioneering the Russian steppes then moved on to pioneer the American plains.


The really interesting part of Moon’s book is how Russian scientists and officials came to understand the grassland country they were dealing with. For instance, not to get too arcane with this, but soil science was important to their understanding.


During the 19th century the Russians decided that soil science as practiced in Germany or England was simply inapplicable to the Russian steppe. The Russian scientist Vasily Dokuchaev coined the term chernozem, meaning black earth, to label the fertile soils of the steppe. He also revolutionized the theory of soil science to take into account the environmental factors that created chernozem. American soil scientists, who at the time were confronting the task of classifying the soils of the prairies, learned how to do it from the experience of Dokuchaev.


In one matter after another, the challenges and opportunities of Russian steppe development, by which a great grassland was converted into a great granary, paralleled those of the North American plains. Russian officials, for instance, spent a lot of effort attempting to modify the steppe environment through tree-planting and irrigation works. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, and the Russians continued to fret about catastrophic drought and soil depletion.


So they turned to agronomy, to reformed farm practice, in order to establish workable systems for agricultural production and rural life. Leading the way in this were the German colonists, and leading them was the influential Mennonite, Johann Cornies. They developed and adopted the techniques of dry farming, including deep plowing and the schwarze Brache, which is to say, black fallow.


I’ve suspected it for a long time, but now I know I need to go to Russia, to see the feather grass billowing in the wind, and learn from the experience, good and bad, of the Russian steppes.



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