Managing Land, Soil, and People: Environmental Knowledge and Expertise in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union (18th – 20th Century)

14.-15.3.2014, Internationaler Workshop, DHI Moskau

The project of modernity is most commonly associated with industrial and urban contexts. Yet the belief in the ability to shape the world through knowledge, technology, and reason has also left itsmark on places far from the classic laboratories of modernity. Indeed, rural regions were often the subject of ambitious programs designed to bring about rationally organized, highly productive agricultural systems. An abundance of infrastructure projectsaimed to exploit natural areas less tainted by politics and state administration whose economic potential had yet to be fully tapped.

The rural and natural aspect of this modern urge to mold the world was particularly pronounced in Russia. Well into the 20th century, the country was dominated by agriculture and many regions were only thinly settled, if at all. The aggressive attacks that the Bolsheviks launched against the village with its traditional way of life is only one of the many examples attesting to the existence of the powerfulclaim to integrate regions far from the urban centers into an economic, social, and political whole. In order to plan and implement modernistvisions for the future, however, motivated individuals were needed whose broadly acknowledged skills and expertise effectively endowed them with decision-making powers. Irrigation specialists, foresters, agricultural scientists, climatologists, statisticians, and economists provided ideas and helped turn plans of natural and environmental transformation into reality. At the same time, they were involved in the processes by which such measures were legitimized as being necessary to ensure progress and growth.

This workshop deals with the relationship between humans and nature, as well as with the interplay between knowledge, the public, and politics in Russia from the 18th century until the late 20th century. In particular, the workshop aims to explore the role of experts in the appropriation and transformation of nature and rural areas from the perspectives of environmental history, agricultural history, and economic history. Furthermore, its goal is to further enrich our understanding of the social dimensions of the project of modernity. Consequently, the focus of the workshop extends beyond the role of experts as an important source of ideas and a driving force behind the transformation of the environment and nature. It also explores how plans to reorganizeagriculture, irrigate arid lands, and exploit forests for economic purposes affected millions of people who facedthe challenge of integrating new natural conditions and new kinds of land use into their work and daily lives. Thus, in addition to looking at the history of the planning and realization of large projects, close attention will also be paid to the question, how people sometimes obstinately adopted to the transformation of rural and natural spaces.