Managing Land, Soil, and People: Environmental Knowledge and Expertise in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union

Managing Land, Soil, and People: Environmental Knowledge and Expertise in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union

Katja Bruisch, German Historical Institute Moscow; Klaus Gestwa, University of Tübingen, CRC 923 “Threatened Orders”
German Historical Institute
Russian Federation
Vom - Bis
14.03.2014 - 15.03.2014
Katja Bruisch

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 its mark 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 projects aimed 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 powerful claim to integrate regions far from the urban centers into an economic, social, and political whole. In order to plan and implement modernist visions 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 reorganize agriculture, irrigate arid lands, and exploit forests for economic purposes affected millions of people who faced the 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.

1. Actors, Spaces, and Institutions in the Production of Knowledge
Before natural spaces could be reorganized, intellectual knowledge applicable to political planning had to be acquired. This knowledge determined the way in which ambitious programs were to be implemented and who would be responsible for their coordination. Furthermore it was also central for the legitimization of any attempts to transform nature and landscapes. The great chance for the country’s land surveyors, for example, came with the Stolypin agrarian reforms. During Soviet times, scientific knowledge played a major role in the building of dams and irrigation systems.
- Where did the knowledge of the experts come from?
- Who was involved in the generation of knowledge? Which disciplines produced knowledge about nature and agriculture?
- In which institutions and regions did actors acquire the knowledge and experience necessary for the transformation of nature and agriculture?
- How were natural spaces and rural regions represented in discourse among experts and how was related knowledge conveyed to the political powers and the public?

2. The conjunctures of expertise
The generation and availability of knowledge does not necessarily ensure that this knowledge will come to use. Rather, the mobilization of knowledge entails the recognition of pertinent information, experiences, and skills as relevant resources for solving pressing social and political problems. Working from this premise, the workshop looks at the reciprocal relationship between knowledge, the public, and politics in order to gain further insight into the communications channels and power relationships at play. Furthermore, it will take a more detailed look at to what degree transnational interaction and exchange played a role in coping with domestic challenges.
- When and why was knowledge about rural regions and nature called into play?
- How did the bearers of knowledge attain the authority and credibility necessary to grant them the status of experts?
- Which performative strategies were employed by representatives of scientific disciplines in order to present themselves as credible authorities? What room to maneuver did they have within the public and political spheres?
- What kinds of relationships existed between the standards, values, and internal hierarchies of scientific communities and the demands that the state and society placed upon them? How did this change with the Bolsheviks' claim of possessing discoursive hegemony during the Soviet era?
- To what extent were experts integrated into transnational communications contexts in which knowledge and experiences circulated across borders?

3. Resource Management as a Practical Challenge
Numerous attempts were made to re-organize and transform agriculture and nature according to the dictates of science and economics in the Tsarist Empire as well as in the Soviet Union. The workshop will move beyond the level of knowledge, planning, and communication to examine the practical implementation of these programs. It seeks to examine the myriad problems and consequences that cropped up as ambitious designs and goals confronted a society that was often resistant.
- How were natural spaces appropriated outside the laboratory, the testing facility and the halls of academia?
- Who initiated and organized these extensive measures to transform agricultural and natural spaces?
- Who provided the necessary financial and administrative resources for these plans?
- How did the relationship between humans and nature change as a result of environmental transformations?
- What resistance had to be overcome? What were the ecological and social consequences?

The workshop will take place at the German Historical Institute Moscow, 14-15 March 2014. It is funded by the GHI Moscow and the CRC 923 “Threatened Orders” of Tübingen University. Travel and accommodation costs for participants will be paid for by the organizers. The working languages are Russian and English.
Selected contributions will be published as a conference volume.
Abstracts (max. 400 words) and a short CV should be submitted by 15 September 2013 to the following adress: katja.bruisch[at]

For further inquieries contact Katja Bruisch (katja.bruisch[at] or Klaus Gestwa (gestwa[at]



Katja Bruisch

Nakhimovskii Prospekt 51/21, Moscow

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprach(en) der Veranstaltung
Sprache der Ankündigung