III: Enemy from the East: Soil between Nature and Culture - Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil
III: Enemy from the East: Soil between Nature and Culture
As historian V. O. Kliuchevskii writes, “The history of Russia is the history of a country
that colonizes itself.”
In Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873), Levin offers theory on this
process of self-colonization, asserting that the Russian people believe in their own calling “to
populate the enormous unoccupied spaces of the east,” resulting in a “view of the land that
differ[s] completely from that of other peoples.”
Levin’s implied connection between Russians’
view of the land and their vocation to colonize the “east” may be understood in a larger Russian
discourse of “internal colonization,” a topic which Aleksandr Etkind has placed in a cultural-
Cultivation and agriculture were not only the pre-conditions of culture in the
European imagination, they were a tool of Russian political expansion in the 19th century.
Unlike its English equivalent, Russian kolonizatsiia describes both “internal” and “external”
settlement; it is defined as “the process of settlement and economic development of outlying
vacant land in one’s own country (‘internal colonization’), as well as the foundation of
settlements (mostly associated with agricultural activities) outside the country (‘external
This political program was in dialogue with cultural myths of the Russian east.
The understanding of internal development as “colonization” reflects Russia’s distinct
geo-political conditions and its cohabitation with other ethnic groups, or nationalities, within the
“vast unoccupied spaces” of its east. Russian mythologies of these peripheral “Asian” lands and
their inhabitants (contrary to Levin’s proposition, the east was not “unoccupied”) took many
forms. The Biblical mythology of Russia’s eastward drive to cultivate new land is represented in
Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle (Semeinaia khronika, 1856), in which the patriarch Stepan
Bagrov moves his family and peasants to a new estate in the “endless steppe, with chernozem
soil a yard and a half deep.”
As we learn, this territory is not uninhabited, but rather has been
Quoted in Aleksandr Etkind, Internal Colonization (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 2.
Quoted in English from Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York:
Viking, 2000), 679.
“Kolonizatsiia,” Bol’shaia Sovetskaia entsiklopediia vol. 12 (Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1969-1978),
Sergei Aksakov, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: Gos. izd. khudozh. lit., 1955), 79.
historically occupied by nomadic Bashkirs, although they merely graze over the surface of this
“deep” fertile soil.
The black soil Aksakov mentions—chernozem—occupied an important place in the
mythology and science of Russian agriculture and borderlands settlement. Although an old
vernacular term, chernozem entered standard scientific discourse by way of the soil scientist
Vasilii Dokuchaev. From his first major work on Russian soil, Russian Chernozem (Russkii
chernozem, 1883), Dokuchaev had imported peasant knowledge and discourse into the universal
scientific domain; narod was now informing obshchestvo on the subject it knew best: soil.
In Russian Chernozem, Dokuchaev proposed that soil was not merely an inorganic mass
of rock and mineral deposits, but a “living” substance, a unique organic body formed under
particular topographic, climatic, and other geographical conditions. Pedogenesis (the origin of
soil types) and ethnogenesis emerged as scientific subjects from a general, intensified interest in
the 19th-century in the effects of the environment on living and non-living formations, with the
nation often functioning as the unit of study in each. Dokuchaev stressed the exceptionalism of
Russian soil, asserting that other countries
how ever long they may continue to exist, will never, under the present climatic
conditions, develop the advantageous, fertile soil which is the intrinsic and unique
treasure of Russia, the result of a surprisingly fortuitous and very complicated
entity [sic] of physical conditions. Outside Europe, only the steppes of Siberia,
Missouri and Mississippi may possibly compete with the Russian chernozem
Dokuchaev further notes that because of the unique properties of Russian soil, “We should be
ashamed of having applied German agronomy in Russia to true Russian chernozem, without
taking account of conditions of climate, vegetation, and soil conditions [...].”
scientific discourse of the particularism of Russian soil echoed an ongoing discourse of Russian
national particularism: Dokuchaev asserted, in a scientific idiom, what the Slavophiles and
pochvenniki had claimed decades before—Russian soil was special.
The national character of Dokuchaev’s work also had a folkloric dimension, drawing on
vernacular soil terminology and local folk knowledge of soil conditions.
As he studied local
soils, Dokuchaev spoke with peasants across Russia, sharing their stories and quoting them
throughout his work. In Russian Chernozem, after describing the sinkholes along the P’yana
river, for example, Dokuchaev relates a story passed on by local peasants: “Not infrequently the
local population witnesses the formation of sinkholes […] About ten years ago, a house was
‘swallowed up’ in the village of Vorontsovo, about 3 versts east of Edelevo. The local
inhabitants point out sinkholes which were formed ‘last summer’ or ‘the summer before last.’
This phenomenon is familiar to the local peasants, who say that all their land along the entire
Quoted here in English from V. V. Dokuchaev, Russian Chernozem: Selected Works of V. V. Dokuchaev, vol. I,
trans. N. Kaner (Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations Ltd., 1967), 384.
Pavel V. Krasilnikov and Joe A. Tabor, “Perspectives on Utilitarian Ethnopedology,” Geoderma 111:3/4 (2003),
197. In a strange twist of history, Russian soil terminology was universalized through Dokuchaev's system: Russian
vernacular terms for soil types were adopted untranslated—linguistically and scientifically, as it turns out—as
standard terms, used to describe soils around the world to this day. The question of the transferability of these soil
terms into a universal context is still being debated.
P’yana bank is of this kind.”
Although Dokuchaev’s subject was natural science, his work
entailed the gathering of oral history, local mythologies, and ethnographic data about the ways
that people worked and managed the soil of their region. This scientific witnessing of a
countryside suffused with dirt echoed the work of the griaznofily writers who had presented
ethnographic sketches showing the muddied byt of village life.
The widespread professional and amateur interest in soil in Russia took on a new hue in
the last decade of the century, as concerns spread of a national “soil crisis.” In 1891, the Volga
and central regions of Russia experienced one of the most serious droughts in recorded history,
and by the summer, the extent of the catastrophe was becoming clear as crops withered in the
heat; 12.5 million people were in need of food aid by December, and the number would grow
steadily over the following year.
The Russian government was widely blamed for inadequately
responding to the crisis,
and public frustration was projected onto the plane of discourse, where
everyone from scientists to mystics proposed solutions for preventing future drought and famine.
There was a new urgency to the ongoing discussion of climate change and soil management at
every level of society; the extensive social and political debates around pochva of the earlier
decades were supplanted by debates about human effects on the environment, the fitness of
steppe soil for cultivation, and the potential for reversing or mitigating erosion of soil, climate
change, and drought. Dokuchaev was among the first scientists to publish a serious response to
the crisis, Our Steppes, Past and Present (Nashi stepi prezhde i teper', 1892), in which he
proposed “improvements” to the steppes of southern Russia. Dokuchaev had apparently been
considering the problem of the steppe erosion even before the drought; when he visited Gogol''s
Dikanka estate in 1888, he lamented the destruction of the virgin steppe described in “Taras
As Dokuchaev’s concern with the erosion of the steppe of “Taras Bulba” illustrates,
scientific discourse of soil overlapped with poetic topoi. In responses to the 1891 drought,
pedological discourse also mixed freely with symbolist eschatological visions, as when
agronomist Nikolai Vereshchagin (brother of the Orientalist painter Vasilii) likened the “harmful
influence of the hot Asiatic winds” from Central Asia to the Mongol invasion of the 13th
The analogy was further elaborated by philosopher Vladimir Solov'ev, who was its
vector into the 20th century, where it recurred with surprising frequency in the Soviet
Following the 1891 drought, Solov’ev published an essay called “Enemy from the East”
(“Vrag s vostoka,” 1892) that warned of an emerging threat to Russia’s black earth region—
desertification. As Catherine Evtuhov has observed, “enemy from the east” is a pun: “vrag”
[enemy] obtains from “ovrag” [ravine], particularly as the “o” would be elided in peasant
Solov’ev dramatically opens his essay with the warning that
Richard G. Robbins, Famine in Russia 1891-1892; The Imperial Government Responds to A Crisis (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1975), 7. A British commercial attache, E.F.G. Law, estimated over 35 million people
were in need of food aid. David Moon, “The Environmental History of the Russian Steppes: Vasilii Dokuchaev and
the Harvest Failure of 1891,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (2005), 149.
Robbins, however, disputes this claim.
Moon (2005), 165.
N. V. Vereshchagin, “Po povodu neurozhaya tekushchego goda,” Trudy Imperatorskogo Vol’nogo
Ekonomicheskogo Obshchestva, 2:5 (1891), 183. Quoted in in Moon (2005), 160.
Catherine Evtuhov “The Roots of Dokuchaev’s Scientific Contributions: Cadastral Soil Mapping and Agro-
environmental Issues,” Footprints in the Soil: People and Ideas in Soil History, ed. Benno P. Warkentin
it is up to us, that is, not all of Europe, but just Russia, to meet yet another,
specific Eastern enemy, more terrible than the Mongol destroyers or the Indian
and Tibetan teachers of the future. Central Asia is advancing on us with its
elemental force of the desert, it is breathing on us with its withering eastern
winds, which, not encountering any obstacles in the felled forests, carry
whirlwinds of sand right up to Kiev.
[…] собственно нам, т. е. не всей Европе, а одной России, приходится еще
встречать иного, особого восточного врага, более страшного, чем прежние
монгольские разорители и чем будущие индийские и тибетские
просветители. На нас надвигается Средняя Азия стихийною силою своей
пустыни, дышит на нас иссушающими восточными ветрами, которые, не
встречая никакого препятствия в вырубленных лесах, доносят вихри песку
до самого Киева.
In Solov’ev’s work, climate change became a new discursive site for the projection of old fears
of the invasion of Russian land from the East. Drawing on the work of A. S. Ermolov
Solov’ev attributes the threat to several factors: first, the external threat
from heat and the sukhovei (a hot wind from Central Asia); second, the internal threats of
deforestation and “predatory agriculture” which disturb virgin soil and vegetation. He describes
the “slow desiccation of our soil, including chernozem” and explains that “due to poor care,
inadequate nourishment, excessive labor straining and exhausting its powers, the organism, no
matter how well built, no matter with what high natural abilities it is gifted, is no longer able to
function properly […]”
It is difficult to discern which “organism” Solov’ev has in mind;
although the state of Russian soil has been his focus hitherto, he appears to be no longer talking
about soil, but about the pathos of the Russian narod—the “outgrowth” of the soil. Indeed,
Solov’ev asserts that desertification is not only caused by nature, it is also caused by social
imbalances. He lists three issues that must be addressed to avert the threat to Russian soil:
The increasing desiccation of the Russian soil and the impossibility of leaving
agriculture in its present form, the need for the educated class to help the narod of
not only in the transformation of agriculture, but also in general to lift the
intellectual and cultural level of the masses, without which there can be no stable
agricultural reforms, and finally, the inability of Russian society to help the narod
as is fitting […].
(Amsterdam; Boston: Elsevier, 2006), 144; and Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization
in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod (Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), 40.
Vladimir Sergeevich Solov’ev, “Vrag s vostoka” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Moscow: Akademiia nauk
SSSR, Inst. filosofii: Izd-vo "Mysl," 1988), 2:480.
Aleksei Sergeevich Ermolov (1846-1917) served as the Minister of Agriculture and State Domains. The book to
which Solov’ev refers is The Crop Failure and the National Disaster (Neurozhai i narodnoe bedstvie, 1892).
Solov’ev quotes Dokuchaev’s Our Steppes, Past and Present (Nashi stepi prezhde i teper', 1892), asserting that
the erosion of Russian soil has been exacerbated by the cutting of trees which anchored the loose soil.
Возрастающее иссушение русской почвы и невозможность оставлять
земледелие в прежнем виде; необходимость помощи народу со стороны
образованного класса не только для преобразования сельского хозяйства, но
и вообще для подъема умственного и культурного уровня народной массы,
без чего невозможны и прочные сельскохозяйственные реформы; наконец,
неспособность русского общества помочь народу как следует […]
Solov’ev recognizes the imbalance in Russian society within the mirror of nature and proposes
that the “enemy from the east” can only be countered by a reconciliation between society and the
narod; between city and country. Asia, as a figure for Russia’s own backwardness and
inequalities, is the enemy that Solov’ev seems to have identified within.
Only the general
lifting of “the intellectual and cultural level of the masses” might neutralize the social factors
leading to the desiccation of Russian soil.
Over the course of the 19th century, a distinct Russian discourse of soil had developed.
As the three vignettes presented here demonstrate, however, this discourse was neither uniform
nor consistent. Commentators frequently disagreed about the terms of their debate, but they
shared many concerns and influences, and frequently competed for control over the same
ideological or discursive ground. Nor did the century witness a steady progression from a
symbolic to a materialist attitude in the discourse of soil. The unresolved questions raised by
many of the commentators in this chapter inform the discourse of soil for a century to come: the
representation of the peasantry and agricultural practices, national exceptionalism, the
relationship between city and country, the threat of Asian soil to Russian identity, and the tension
between scientific and cultural knowledge.
The anxiety of Asian soil within Russian territory would later be expressed in the Soviet period through the trope
of the Asiatic mode of production, the topic of Chapter Four.
The Metaphorics of Soil in Eurasia and the Legacy of Justus Liebig
This chapter examines the cultural reception of the ideas of pioneering German chemist
Justus Liebig (1803-1873) in 19th-century Russia, and considers the far-reaching effects of his
model of soil chemistry on Russian attitudes to agriculture and soil management as social
questions. A protégé of Alexander von Humboldt and founder of one of the most important
chemical research centers in Europe, the Giessen Chemical Institute, Liebig would become a
pioneer of modern organic chemistry and one of the most significant promoters of science in the
public interest in 19th-century Europe. While Liebig’s name is still found in histories of organic
and agricultural chemistry, his renown, like that of many great popularizers of science, was far
greater in his own time than today. At his peak of productivity from the 1840s to the early 1870s,
his name was constantly before the European public in the ephemera of the age: an extensive
body of journalistic writing including his popular Letters on Modern Agriculture, public and
professional polemics surrounding his work, product testimonials, and his own uneven
commercial ventures involving chemical fertilizer and meat extract. Liebig’s books on plant and
animal chemistry, moreover, were popular among lay audiences and translated into a number of
European languages by his numerous students. Even if Liebig’s works have been called too
technical for the lay reader—Karl Marx complained of having to “wade” through them
not prevent them from reaching a broad readership. In a widely-circulated anecdote, it was said
that the passport official examining Liebig’s documents on his arrival in London in 1842 shook
his hand and affably chatted with him about his first major work, Agricultural Chemistry. In
addition to his direct outreach to the public, Liebig was enormously important in building the
social institutions that supported the development of chemistry through his editorship of a major
journal of the day, his professional relationships with chemists across Europe, and his long
teaching career, which spun off several generations of students who would go on to form the
core of Europe’s grand chemists and industrialists. Liebig’s 1873 obituary in the English journal
The Chemical News summed up the chemist’s significance: “The application of chemistry to
agriculture, and to many of the wants of daily life, received so powerful an impulse from Liebig,
that the popular mind has taken him for the representative of the science in its application to
Liebig revolutionized agriculture with his assertion that organic life relies on inorganic
substances for nutrition, laying the foundation for the development of artificial fertilizers.
theory of mineral nutrition essentially supplanted the prevailing “humus theory” of his German
predecessor, A. D. Thaer, which asserted that the top horizon of soil, humus, was a uniform
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895 (New York: International Publishers,
1942), 204. I discuss Marx’s reading of Liebig further below.
“Obituary. Justus Liebig,” The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science, ed. William Crookes 27:700
(April 25, 1873), 206.
growth medium formed by vegetal and animal matter which nourished growing plants.
contrary, Liebig’s mineral theory of nutrition proposed that soil was a dynamic medium of
mineral exchange between human, plant, and animal life. Moreover, this metabolic process
depended on the recycling of minerals back into the soil, a process that involved a number of
social, economic, and cultural factors. Liebig’s ideas on soil fertility were at least as powerful an
influence on the Russian “popular mind” as on the European or American mind, and arguably
more so, in view of the pervasiveness of the “soil question” in 19th-century Russia’s political
and intellectual history. Mid-19th-century Russia had developed a distinct “discourse of soil”
and when Liebig’s ideas began to filter into Russia, they met with a charged political and cultural
environment. From the 1860s onward, Liebig’s work was widely discussed in Russia’s press and
literature, among gentlemen farmers and amateur scientists, novelists such as Ivan Turgenev and
Fedor Dostoevskii, and socialist and Marxist revolutionaries. In the Russian context, the
reception of Liebig’s ideas, and of Liebig himself as a symbolic avatar, was arguably
characterized more by cultural and social debate in Russia than by scientific inquiry. Liebig’s
ideas became a site of political contest between supporters of the Romantic, anti-reductionist
trend in science and the radical positivist-materialist trend that would follow. Liebig’s name
became a rallying cry for groups with wildly different agendas and a symbolic object of
contention between intellectual generations.
Above all, Russian discussions of Liebig and his
materialist soil chemistry focused on how Russia’s distinctive national spirit arose from its
“native soil.” In addition to discussing Liebig’s direct impact on Russian discourses of
agriculture, history, society, and environment, this chapter will further consider how creative
readings of Liebig’s work by such figures as Marx and Engels had a profound, long-reaching
impact on Russian—and, as we will see in the next chapter—Soviet, attitudes to soil
transfer of Liebig’s ideas across epistemic domains—from soil science to social science—had a
profound impact on discourses and ideologies of soil for a century to come.
One historian of science has called Liebig’s Giessen Chemical Institute a “chemist
breeder,” and indeed a significant number of Russia’s chemists and scientists in the mid-19th
century were mentored by Liebig or one of his disciples.
By the 1860s, Liebig’s Russian
students had returned home to establish themselves as major figures in their field and to
propagate Liebig’s legacy and materialist vision of the world in both the scientific and cultural
domains. This cohort constituted the first generation of Russian chemists: Nikolai Nikolaevich
A. A. Rode, Soil Science (Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1962), 5.
It is worth noting that Liebig was also understood by some to be a vitalist, while others claimed him to be a
materialist. For more on this subject, see Timothy O. Lipman, “Vitalism and Reductionism in Liebig's Physiological
Thought,” Isis 58:2 (1967), 167-185.
Vucinich expands the formulation somewhat: “It was virtually impossible to find a Russian chemist of the time
who had not taken a course from Justus Liebig at Giessen, Heinrich Rose at Berlin, R. W. Bunsen at Heidelberg, or
Marcellin Berthelot at the College de France.” See Vucinich, 2:136. The term “chemist breeder” was coined by J. B.
Morrell, see “The Chemist Breeders,” Ambix 19 (1972), 1-46.
Zinin (first chairman and co-founder of the Russian Chemical Society),
Sokolov (who published the first Russian journal of chemistry, Khimicheskii zhurnal, from 1859-
1860 together with the agronomist and journalist Aleksandr Nikolaevich Engel’gardt, whom I
will discuss further below), Aleksei Ivanovich Khodnev, Nikolai Erastovich Liaskovskii, Fedor
Fedorovich Beilstein, and A. A. Fadeev. Liebig’s famed student Aleksandr Abramovich
Voskresenskii, called the “grandfather” of Russian chemistry, trained a succeeding generation of
Russian scientists—among them Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev, physical chemist Nikolai
Nikolaevich Beketov, and chemist Nikolai Aleksandrovich Menshutkin (discoverer of the
Beketov and Mendeleev, in turn, mentored the founder of modern soil
science and soil classification, Vasilii Dokuchaev, discussed in the previous chapter.
transmission of influence through these direct lineages, Liebig shaped Russian chemistry on an
institutional level, insofar as the first Russian chemistry labs were modeled on the Giessen
Liebig’s students of chemistry further popularized his works by translating them into
Russian. The earliest translations, mostly excerpted in journals, were published in the 1840s and
1850s, but it was not until the 1860s that Liebig’s works exploded in Russia, a trend coinciding
with the professionalization of his first generation of Russian students.
Between 1860 and 1863,
at least nine full Russian translations of Liebig’s books were published; it was such a sensation
that agronomist and journalist Aleksandr Engel’gardt was compelled to pen an editorial on the
phenomenon in Saint Petersburg News.
The first full Russian translation of Liebig’s
Agricultural Chemistry was published in 1862 by Liebig’s student Pavel Antonovich Il’enkov
(1821-1877), who would become professor of chemical engineering at St. Petersburg
Brokgaus-Efron, the most authoritative Russian encyclopedia of the pre-
revolutionary period, demonstrated the high esteem in which Liebig was held, calling this work a
“blessing to mankind.”
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