Water & Modernization of Central Asia, 1867-1941


A review of Technologies of Rule: Water, Power, and the Modernization of Central Asia, 1867-1941, by Maya Karin Peterson.

As the Russian Empire renewed its piecemeal conquest and incorporation of Central Asia in the mid-1860s, state and non-state actors confronted stunning natural diversity. Turkestan was a land at once of fertile oases, seemingly capable of producing endless amounts of grain, fruit, and cotton; grasslands useful only to pastoralists; and uninhabitable deserts. To those interested in increasing the productivity of Turkestan, whether as part of a mission civilatrice, a high-modernist vision, or a wish for a remote borderland to cover its own administrative costs, this suggested the importance of “manag[ing] the water resources of the Central Asian region” (p. 2). Late-tsarist and early Soviet attempts to do so are the subject of Maya Peterson’s dissertation, an environmental approach to the history of Russian rule in Central Asia that also draws on insights from social and cultural history. This methodological openness helps Peterson to go beyond a narrative of environmental degradation (though the desiccated Aral Sea lurks in the background) and craft a set of arguments about the challenges that diverse actors confronted in trying to remake the Central Asian landscape, and the consequences of their decisions.

Spanning more than seven decades and six currently independent states, the history of Russian irrigation projects in Central Asia is a big story to tell, and Peterson uses a dazzling array of archival materials to do so. Along the way, she addresses several important historiographical questions. Though many scholars have treated the Russian Empire as exceptional, she demonstrates that Russians in Turkestan saw themselves representatives of a European imperial state, implying a mission to “civilize” the region in several senses. Her intervention in the debate over Russian Orientalism is sensible: if Edward Said’s model is not perfectly applicable to Russia, stereotypes of Turkestan’s land and people played an important role in tsarist and Soviet policymaking. By treating Turkestan within a Eurasian context, where goods, ideas, and people moved along several axes, she shows the importance of multiple actors and interest groups to hydraulic projects; moreover, she gives a sense of what was lost when Soviet power became increasingly relevant to these endeavors. Finally, she demonstrates the importance of the environment both in local histories generally (as providing the context of a specific place) and in this particular narrative (as an actor thwarting the plans of those seeking to harness it for their own purposes).

The dissertation has three sections, each pairing a chapter on the relevant political and institutional context (and environmental imaginaries) with a case study of a large irrigation project. The first, after a genealogy of tsarist-era arguments for hydraulic engineering, focuses on the activities of Grand Duke Nikolai Konstaninovich Romanov, nephew of Tsar Alexander II, a ne’er-do-well exiled from St Petersburg who settled in Tashkent in 1881. The Grand Duke was a fascinating hybrid figure who, while acting independently from local administrators, used his allowance to support development schemes in Turkestan. Chief among these were several canals built on the Hungry Steppe (the left bank of the Syr-Darya River in contemporary Uzbekistan). These had a mixed record of success, but were occasionally of lasting utility, and built with extensive local participation. For Peterson, the Grand Duke symbolizes “an alternate vision for Russian rule of the region… in which respect for local knowledge, customs and the region’s past were blended with a vision of Russia as a mighty empire with a glorious future” (p. 127).

The second section is devoted to a period of increased governmental control of irrigation affairs in Turkestan, symbolized by the 1898 nationalization of the Grand Duke’s Nicholas I Canal. At this time, the hybridity of the earlier era was already fading from view; the cultivation of cotton in Turkestan and its colonization by Slavic peasants were paramount for officials like the Minister of Agriculture, Alexander Krivoshein, interested in maximizing the Russian Empire’s productive capacity. The push for more cotton, Peterson demonstrates, preceded the colonization fever; most administrators preferred local Turkestanis as cotton cultivators. Colonization, rather, was required to supply regions transitioning to cotton monoculture with grain. Both projects required the large-scale redistribution of Turkestan’s surface waters. Peterson focuses on the tsarist state’s attempt to irrigate the Chu River valley of Semirech’e, in hopes that it would become a home for grain-growing peasant settlers. Despite logistical problems and the cataclysmic 1916 Central Asian revolt, in 1917, Russians and Central Asians still shared an interest in the project and discussed ways of moving forward on it. Peterson argues, thus, that a window of opportunity for cooperation remained open, until the Bolshevik takeover of Central Asia in 1918 and ensuing civil war “deepen[ed] existing rifts and create[d] new ones” (p. 342).

The last section brings the narrative of state-driven hydraulic projects forward into the Soviet era, first by discussing the multitude of planning organizations interested in irrigation and then through a case study of the Vakhsh River, in southern Tajikistan, thought promising for growing long-staple Egyptian cotton. Peterson shows that 1917 was not a clean break in terms of visions for “bringing life to” (ozhivlenie) the Turkestani environment, nor in the praxis of irrigation. Tsarist engineers attracted by the promise of the economic and environmental transformation of Turkestan did not disappear in 1917; the early Soviet state shared this concern, and these engineers were the best available sources of hydrological expertise. However, they were blamed for the slow pace of success in restoring cotton production to pre-war levels and ultimately subjected to a show trial in 1928. The Vakhsh project was to be an entirely Soviet project, aided by a few American engineers. What it proved, however, was that the Soviet state was both as capable as its predecessor of committing to an unworkable idea and more willing to use coercion in its pursuit. Irrigating the Vakhsh valley had been intended to revitalize agriculture, support factories, and provide for settlers; instead, underfed and sick workers created a nearly uninhabitable swamp. If this failure was, Peterson agrees with John McNeill, characteristic of politically-motivated twentieth-century projects to remake the environment at any cost, it was unique in the climate of ideological fervor that made success impossible (see John McNeill, Something New Under the Sun:  An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).

In a thoughtful epilogue, Maya Peterson discusses a more successful project of hydraulic engineering – the 1939 building of the Great Fergana Canal, providing water from the Syr-Darya to cotton fields in the Uzbek and Tajik SSRs. Ironically, this canal, the most important of the Stalin era in transforming the Central Asian landscape – and in making the region, as Peterson argues, “in an environmental sense…a Soviet colony” (p. 29) – was enabled by a pragmatic turn to local methods of labor organization and cheap local technologies. This also entailed, however, the mass mobilization of collective farm labor, in an environment where the line between voluntary and compulsory work was blurred. The rhetoric was that of liberation, of celebrating local traditions, but beneath the surface lurked “the fact that the state had absolved itself of any responsibility for providing for the people” (p. 516). The price of the “gift of empire” (Peterson borrows Bruce Grant’s phrase) embodied by the great construction projects was dependence (see Bruce Grant, The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).  Once a borderland, through irrigation, Central Asia became a periphery; in Peterson’s words, “Central Asian fields got their water, but so much was lost in the process” (p. 518).

Ian Wylie Campbell
Department of History
University of California, Davis

Primary Sources

Central State Archive of the Kyrgyz Republic (TsGA KR)
Central State Archive of Political Documentation of the Kyrgyz Republic (TsGA PD KR)
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan (TsGA RK)
Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan (TsGA RU)
Central State Archive of the Republic of Tajikistan (TsGA RT)
John Hays Hammond Papers, Yale University MS 259
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE)
Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI)
Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA)
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Turkestanskii sbornik (Turkestan Collection – a 591-volume series of documents collected at the behest of Turkestan’s Governors-General)
Willard L. Gorton Papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 546 pp. Primary Advisor: Terry Martin.


Image: Max Alpert: Construction Site of the Fergana Grand Canal (1939). Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

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