The Soviet Steppe – Culture, Environment, Economics and Politics

The Soviet Steppe – Culture, Environment, Economics and Politics

Prof. Julia Obertreis, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg; Prof. Christine Bichsel, University of Fribourg; Dr. Ekaterina Filep, University of Fribourg
Vom - Bis
15.02.2019 - 16.02.2019
Moritz Florin, Department Geschichte, Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

The steppe represents a vast ecological space, but also a key symbolic reference for Russian imperial and Soviet history. To date, scholars have explored the cultural, political and ecological history of the steppe for the pre-Soviet period (for example Khodarkovsky 2002, Sunderland 2004, Moon 2013, Piancola/Sartori 2013). For the Soviet period, selected works have addressed issues related to the steppe such as agricultural and economic rural development (McCauley 1976, Abashin 2015), the Virgin Lands Campaign in Kazakhstan (Pohl 2013, Saktaganova 2017), Stalinist compulsory sedentarization of nomads and state building (Ohayon 2009, Pianciola 2009, Kindler 2014), resettlement policies and practice (Pohl 2007), land reclamation and irrigation development (Obertreis 2017, Bichsel 2017), and national and international scientific debates (Elie 2015). However, existing scholarship rarely centers on the steppe itself (for an exception drawing on agricultural and environmental history see Elie/Ferret 2018).

This conference seeks to further explore cultural, environmental, economic and political aspects of the steppe in the Soviet Union (1917-1991). How did the steppe serve as a cultural space for the production of meaning and identity? How did the steppe and its transformation interact with Soviet environmental and economic thinking? How did the steppe provide a geopolitical imaginary for center-periphery relations and Soviet political rule? How did the steppe relate to other ecological spaces, in particular the forest? The conference aims at creating a space for fruitful interdisciplinary discussion. It seeks to explore the interplay between cultural, political, ecological and economic aspects and to make first attempts to characterize the place of the steppe in Soviet and Eurasian history.
We welcome submissions from junior and senior scholars with a background in history, historical geography, literary criticism, cultural studies and related fields working on these themes. The format of the conference will be interactive. Conference papers will be pre-circulated, and participants’ commentaries will guide the discussions. We expect participants to submit their full draft conference papers by January 15, 2019. We aim to produce a peer-reviewed special issue from this conference.

Possible themes for contributions include but are not restricted to:

- Territory and borders
- Identity and nationality politics
- Steppe and other ecological spaces
- Agricultural development
- Virgin Lands Campaigns
- Environmental movements and conservation
- Irrigation and waterworks
- Resettlement and settlers
- Steppe in Soviet literature and film
- Urbanity on the steppe
- Semantics and symbols of steppe

The deadline for submission of abstracts is September 14, 2018. Please submit the following details to Christine Bichsel (

- Title
- Abstract of your paper (max. 250 words)
- Brief bio (max. 250 words)
- Contact information (name, affiliation, email address)

We will endeavor to inform applicants about the outcome within four weeks of the submission deadline.
Pending upon funding, travel grants will be available for selected participants.
For more information, please contact Christine Bichsel (, Professor in Human Geography, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg.


- Abashin, S.N. 2015. Sovetskii kishlak: mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei, Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie.
- Bichsel, C. 2017. From dry hell to blossoming garden. Metaphors and poetry in Soviet irrigation literature on the Hungry Steppe. Water History 9(3):337-359.
- Elie, M., Ferret, C. (eds) 2018. Verte, la steppe? Agriculture et environnement en Asie centrale = Études rurales, 200 (2).
- Elie, M. 2015. Formulating the global environment: Soviet soil scientists and the international desertification discussion, 1968–91. The Slavonic and East European Review 93 (1): 181-204.
- Khodarkovsky, M. 2002. Russia’s steppe frontier. The making of a colonial empire, 1500-1800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Kindler, R. 2014. Stalins Nomaden. Herrschaft und Hunger in Kasachstan. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition.
- McCauley, M. 1976. Khrushchev and the development of Soviet agriculture. The Virgin Land Programme 1953-1964. London: Macmillan.
- Moon, D. 2013. The plough that broke the steppes. Agriculture and environment on Russia's grasslands, 1700-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Obertreis, J. 2017. Imperial desert dreams. Cotton growing and irrigation in Central Asia, 1860-1991. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.
- Ohayon, I. 2009. Sedentarizatsiia kazakhov SSSR pri Staline. Kollektivizatsiia i sotsial’nye izmeneniia (1928–1945 g.g.). Almaty: Sanat.
- Pianciola, N. 2009. Stalinismo di frontiera. Colonizzazione agricola, sterminio dei nomadi e costruzione statale in Asia Centrale (1905-1936) [Frontier Stalinism. Agricultural Colonization, Extermination of the Nomads and State Building in Central Asia (1905-1936)]. Rome: Viella.
- Piancola, N./Sartori, P. 2013. Introduction. Towards a connected history of the Qazaq Steppe. In: Piancola, N. and P. Sartori (eds) Islam, society and states across the Qazaq Steppe (18th - early 20th centuries). Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 9-26.
- Pohl, M. 2013. From White Grave to Tselinograd to Astana: The Virgin Lands Opening, Khrushchev's forgotten first reform. In: Kozlov. D. and E. Gilburd (eds) The Thaw. Soviet society and culture during the 1950s and 1960s. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 269-307.
- Pohl, O. 2007. A caste of helot labourers: Special settlers and the cultivation of cotton in Soviet Central Asia: 1944-1956. In: Kandiyoti, D. (ed.) The cotton sector in Central Asia. Economic policy and development challenges. London: School of Oriental Studies (SOAS), 12-28.
- Saktaganova, Z. G. 2017. Ekonomicheskaia modernizatsiia Kazakhstana, 1946-1970 gg. Karaganda: Izdatel’stvo KarGU.
- Sunderland, W. 2004. Taming the wild field. Colonization and empire on the Russian steppe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



Christine Bichsel

Chemin du Musée 4
1700 Fribourg