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III: Enemy from the East: Soil between Nature and Culture - Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil

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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-
historical context.
 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. 
 Etkind (2011). 
 “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. 
 Dokuchaev, 2. 
 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  
 Dokuchaev, 42. 
 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
Vasilii Dokuchaev,
 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. 


 Solov’ev, 2:491-2.


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.   
 Solov’ev, 2:482-3. 
 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. 


Chapter 2 


The Metaphorics of Soil in Eurasia and the Legacy of Justus Liebig 




I. Introduction 

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
—it did 
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 
practical purposes.”
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.
 On the 
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),
 Nikolai Nikolaevich 
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 
Menshutkin reaction).
 Beketov and Mendeleev, in turn, mentored the founder of modern soil 
science and soil classification, Vasilii Dokuchaev, discussed in the previous chapter.
 Aside from 
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 
research center.  
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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