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Were the Steppes ever forested? Science, economic development, and identity in the Russian empire in the 19th century

Moon, David (2003) Were the Steppes ever forested? Science, economic development, and identity in the Russian empire in the 19th century. In: 2nd International Conference of the European Society for Environmental History, 2003-09-03 - 2003-09-07.

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Over the 19th century there was a long-running debate in the Russian Empire over whether the steppes of today's southern Ukraine and southern Russia had ever been forested, or whether they had long been open grasslands. The clergyman-turned-scientist Ivan Palimpsestov and others believed that the steppes had once been covered in trees. They relied heavily on descriptive writings by people who had visited the steppes in past centuries. They argued that the trees had been removed by the Tatar and Mongol nomadic pastoralists, who had controlled the steppes prior to the start of large-scale Slav, agricultural settlement in the 18th century, and by the Slav settlers. The counter-argument was put forward by a number of scientists, for example Karl Ernst Baer and Vasilii Dokuchaev. They used a wider range of sources and methodologies to reconstruct the past environment of the steppes, including descriptive accounts, place names, and, crucially, analysis of the soil. By 1880s Dokuchaev had demonstrated conclusively that the organic matter in the black earth (chernozem) which covered most of the steppes had been formed from decomposed grasses. Trees had been restricted to small islands in the steppes. Thus, the paper will examine the development of 'modern' science in the Russian Empire. The debate also concerned the economic development of the region. The imperial government sought to transform the steppes from semi-arid grasslands sparsely populated by nomadic pastoralists into a productive agricultural land inhabited by large numbers of Slav farmers. Once the steppes had been conquered militarily, however, the Slav, agricultural settlement was hindered by shortages of trees and moisture. The settlers needed trees to supply timber for constuction and firewood, but is was also widely believed - on both sides of the debate - that woodland made local climates less extreme and moister. The point of Palimpsestov's argument was that if the steppes had once been covered in trees, they could be reforested, and the woodland would have a moderating influence on the climate, making it more suitable for arable farming. Dokuchaev shared this wider aim, but sought to provide a solid scientific basis for the sustainable agricultural development of the steppes, including plans for limited aforestation. Thus, the paper will investigate the role of plans for economic development in the debate. The debate, it will be argued in this paper, also concerned the identity of the steppes. The heartland of the Russian state and settlement lay in forested lands around Moscow. Over the 19th century, there was considerable anxiety among educated Russians over the growing pace of deforestation throughout Russia. Thus, forests were important to Russians' sense of identity, together with their ethnicity, language, religion and predominantly agricultural way of life. Thus the paper will consider the extent to which those who argued the steppes had once been forested were trying to give them a 'Russian' identity prior to the Russian conquest and Slav, agricultural settlement of the region.