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Regular version of the site

Department Head — Professor Alexander Semyonov


Department Academic Supervisor— Professor Evgeniy Anisimov

198099 Saint Petersburg
17 Promyshlennaya Ulitsa, Room 107

Phone:+7 (812)786-92-49 

Postal address: 
190008 Saint Petersburg
16 Soyuza Pechatnikov Ulitsa



The American Steppe: Influences from Russia on the Great Plains

Event ended
Anniversary Professor of the University of York (UK) David Moon will present his paper “The American Steppe: Influences from Russia on the Great Plains” at the regular research seminar “Boundaries of History” of the Center for Historical Research and the Department of History of the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg.

The Great Plains are considered a quintessentially American region: the home of cowboys, Stetsons and the tumbling tumbleweed has been immortalized in Hollywood ‘Western’ films. The Western world tends to think it has been the origin of most innovations, which have then spread around the globe. This paper challenges these ideas. The American Great Plains were shaped by influences from the Russian and Ukrainian steppe. When American settlers ploughed up the Great Plains from the 1860s, they drew on the knowledge of Slav, German and Mennonite settlers on the steppe and the Russian scientists who advised them. All had several decades experience of agriculture and the environment on the steppe.

The Great Plains and the steppe share similar environments and environmental histories. Both were grasslands, with semi-arid climates and periodic droughts, but very fertile soil. Both were settled by farmers, attracted by the fertile soil, but facing recurring shortages of water.  Russians and Americans recognised the similarities, and realised they could learn from each other’s experience.

Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, there were a series of transfers between the two grasslands. The extent to which Russian and Soviet steppe farming used American machinery is well known. Not quite as well known are the transfers the other way, from the steppes to the Great Plains:

- Migration by Mennonites and Volga Germans to the Great Plains

·     - The introduction of drought- and disease-resistant varieties of wheat, most famously ‘Turkey Red’ (‘Krimka’ in Russian), and other crops by migrants and also by scientists of the US Department of Agriculture.

·     - The adoption by the US government Soil Survey in the 1920s of a methodology based on Russian genetic soil science. The Russian approach was devised by Vasilli Dokuchaev and his colleagues on the basis of field work in the black-region of the forest-steppe and steppe in the late 19th century. American soil scientists tested it on the Great Plains in the early 20th century.

The Prairie States Forestry Project – the planting of shelterbelts to combat soil erosion on the Great Plains in the 1930s – was based on Russian steppe forestry methods and masterminded by a Russian-born American forester – Raphael Zon.

·    The most lasting legacy of the connections between the steppes and Great Plains may well be the tumbleweed (Перекати-поле). Now an icon of the American West, seeds of  the tumbleweed were imported accidently in a sack of flax seed by Mennonite migrants to the northern plains in the late-19th century. The tumbleweed then spread rapidly and destructively across the West.

David Moon is Anniversary Professor in History at the University of York, UK. His main expertise is in Russian history, and he currently works on Russian, American and transnational environmental history. His most recent book is: The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2013). He is also the lead investigator on an international project funded by the Leverhulme Trust entitled ‘Exploring Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources’ which involves specialists from Russia, the USA and the UK.

Language of the presentation - English

Moderator: Alexander Semyonov (PhD, Professor, Chair, Departament of History, National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg)

Address: Promyshlennaya St., 17, Room 412

Contact email: isokolovskaya@hse.ru