White Gold Fever: The Quest to Grow Cotton in Central Asia

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Maya Karin Peterson, Harvard University
This paper explores Russian and Soviet efforts to grow cotton in Central Asia, beginning in the late 19th century The Central Asian borderlands were the most suitable place in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union to grow cotton. Though the production of domestic cotton was an important economic goal and one of Russia's priorities in Central Asia, the region's distance from the capital cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow led central authorities to leave much of the decision-making in Central Asia to regional authorities, scientific experts and engineers. In spite of the considerable power they wielded, however, these regional actors remained largely dependent on indigenous Central Asian knowledge and expertise about the cultivation of this lucrative crop, since Russians themselves had little experience growing cotton. Russian attempts at large-scale cotton plantations proved to be less viable than already existing local systems of smallholders. Russians also remained dependent on local communities of water managers and existing Central Asian irrigation networks when attempting to expand acreage under cotton. Yet throughout, Russian and Soviet engineers and officials remained convinced of the superiority of Western science and technology over indigenous hydraulic expertise and thus were actively engaged by the 20th century in importing foreign machinery and international expertise to improve upon regional systems and practices. One of the most fascinating transfers of agricultural knowledge took place during the first Five Year Plan (1928-1932), when sixteen African-American agronomists came to Soviet Central Asia to serve as advisors to cotton-growing programs in the region. The paper will conclude with an examination of this episode and the ways in which multiple regimes of knowledge and practice, as well as a range of actors -- local, regional, national, and international -- have helped to shape the Central Asian landscapes we see in the region today.