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Plains Folk

Russian Roots


In the course of that slow dance by which we people of the plains come to an understanding of the place we inhabit, we require many contributors. We commence with native knowledge, the product of centuries, even millennia of experience with the land. Layered on that we have the sense of the settler societies, who, however brief their experience, is at least well documented. There is a vital role, too, for public intellectuals on the plains--thinkers like Walter Prescott Webb, the historian, or Charles Edwin Bessey, the botanist--who form the inchoate sense of prairie life into deeper and larger forms that help us understand what is around us.


And there is important work also for scholars from over the horizon, outsiders who take serious interest in the Great Plains of North America, who digest it, interpret it, and help correct our inbred assumptions. Such a scholar is Pekka Hamalainin, the Finnish scholar who has reinterpreted the Comanche and Lakota empires in the middle of North Dakota. Or--David Moon, Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York, an assiduous researcher and formidable intellect who brings to the narrative of the Great Plains a cosmopolitan sweep that elucidates connections, patterns, and insights.


Moon is the author of The American Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s, published by Cambridge University Press. I spoke previously of Moon and his book in reference to his chapter on tumbleweeds, Russian thistles. The bulk of his book is devoted not to such accidental occurrences but to deliberate transfers and influences between the Russian steppes and the American plains, most of which we regard as positive developments.


It may be superficially impressive to expound on the environmental similarities between the steppes and the plains, but that doesn’t get us far as to historical understandings. Environmental parallels are a necessary but not sufficient cause for historical relationships. Moon credits the agency of settlers and scientists who made those relationships material. “Some Americans,” writes Moon, “became aware of this Russian prior experience, recognizing it could be useful in the Great Plains, and began to learn from steppe agriculture.”


Begin with the immigrants, the peoples of the Russian Empire who came to North America in the nineteenth century. Germans from Russia settled heavily in Kansas, Manitoba, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and were present in appreciable numbers all over the plains. They brought with them both germplasm--wheat varieties, most notably--and agricultural methods, such as summer fallowing. They were carriers and examples to the rest of us.


We have neglected to credit Jewish immigrants from Russia in Great Plains development, perhaps acknowledging their agricultural settlements but saying, falsely, they were hapless farmers. Among the Jewish emigres to America, however, were numerous scientists who served as translators and disseminators of Russian science in the United States. Raphael Zon, for instance, was a formative influence in the shelterbelt project of the 1930s.


Scientists from up and down the plains engaged in scientific exchange with Russia and its scientists--Mark Alfred Carleton, the cereal scientist from Kansas Agricultural College and the USDA; Niels Ebbesen Hansen, of South Dakota Agricultural College; and Henry Luke Bolley, of North Dakota Agricultural College, were prominent among them. The director of soil surveys in the USDA, Curtis Marbut, reformed all soil survey work in the US along the lines of Vasilii Dokuchaev of Russia--to whom we owe use of the term, chernozem, to describe the rich, black soils established under grassland formations.


All these things were, as David Moon says, “human choices on the Great Plains,” and they spanned oceans and continents--as does Moon, the historian.


-Tom Isern

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