The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914

Research output: Book/ReportBook


This book offers the first environmental history of Russia’s steppes. From the early-eighteenth, settlers moved to the semi-arid but fertile grasslands from wetter, forested regions in central and northern Russia and Ukraine, and central Europe. By the late-nineteenth century, the steppes were the bread basket of the Russian Empire and parts of Europe. But, there was another side to this story. The steppes were hit by droughts, winds that whipped up dust storms, soil erosion, crop failures, and in the worst years - famine. From the late-eighteenth century, naturalists and scientists studied the steppe environment. Russian scientists came up with innovations, in particular, Vasilii Dokuchaev’s new soil science explained the fertile black earth as a product of the steppe environment in which it had formed. Scientists also studied environmental change, including climate change, and debated whether human activity or natural forces were to blame. They proposed remedies to the environmental barriers to farming on the steppes. For a long time, they focused on planting trees and irrigation, in attempts to make the steppes more like the homelands of the settlers.More sustainable were techniques of cultivation to retain moisture in the soil. Among the pioneers were Mennonite settlers. Such approaches aimed to work with the environment, rather than try to change it. The story is similar to the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains of the USA, which share a similar environment and environmental history. The story is also placed in the wider context of the environmental history of European colonialism around the globe.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)978-0-19-955643-4
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • environmental history, Russia, steppes, black earth, climate change, agriculture, forestry, irrigation, agronomy, Mennonites


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