Imperial desert dreams. Cotton growing and irrigation in Central Asia, 1860–1991 (Obertreis, 2017)

Arnošt Štanzel

cottonObertreis, J. 2017. Imperial desert dreams. Cotton growing and irrigation in Central Asia, 1860–1991. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Gmbh & Co. 536 p. ISBN 978-3-8471-0786-6. €59,99.


Arnošt Štanzel


To cite this Review: Štanzel, A. 2018. Review of “Imperial desert dreams. Cotton growing and irrigation in Central Asia, 1860–1991”, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Gmbh & Co., 2017, by Obertreis, J., Water Alternatives,


In her book Imperial Desert Dreams. Cotton Growing and Irrigation in Central Asia, 1860-1991 Julia Obertreis writes about the history of Central Asia from the Russian conquest in the 19th century until 1989, in connection with the growing of cotton. She connects the imperial history of the region with environmental aspects, namely cotton growing and water management, hence contributing to a new approach in the historiography on Central Asia. Further, the author uses her study on Central Asia as a test for James C. Scott’s argument on authoritarian high modernism, presented in his book Seeing Like a State. Obertreis’ focus lies on cotton growing projects in what are now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, omitting Tajikistan as another important cotton grower due to the difficult archival situation there. Being written from an imperial perspective, the study is based on Russian sources, as that was the language of imperial politics, administration, and science. Sources are varied, and include travellers’ accounts, engineers’ memoirs, state administration and policy documents mainly from the Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan (TsGARUz) in Tashkent, as well as tsarist-era and Soviet scientific journals. Four chapters – with nearly 500 pages – will inform the reader about the continuities between the different ruling regimes in Central Asia, putting the region into a global context while describing cotton’s grasp of Central Asia and subsequent environmental problems.

In the first chapter, Julia Obertreis shows how the Russian Empire interacted with its Central Asian regions from the 1880s onwards until the Russian Revolution in 1917. After having been conquered by Russia in the 1860s, the newly established Governorate of Turkestan was slowly integrated into the Empire. Obertreis sees geostrategic reasons in the wake of the Great Game [1], the idea of a Russian civilising mission, and the opportunity to present itself as an advanced European power and camouflage its own backwardness, as the main drivers for the expansion of the Empire to the south. Agriculture, and especially cotton production, did not play any role in the beginning of the conquest. Turkestan was seen as an isolated backwater, and the Russian imperial administration and intelligentsia, with their imagined and real superiority, felt it to be their duty to make the land 'productive' and bring 'order' to it. The treeless nature was regarded by the colonisers as a huge empty space to be exploited. They were convinced that the space would remain worthless if supposedly superior Russian (European) agricultural methods were not introduced. Behind this thinking was the idea of transforming the dead desert into a blossoming oasis with cultivated land and people, fuelled by water.

Another formative idea is that of 'cotton autonomy'. During the American Civil War cotton imports to Russia suffered heavily, showing the dependence of the Empire. From that time, the centre regarded Central Asian cotton as a way to gain independence from imports. But as Obertreis works out, at this point there was only a little interference into existing systems: although colonial officials regarded Russian agricultural methods as superior, they had an admiration for local irrigation systems, and left them virtually untouched as they were too complex to be understood easily. The drive to establish order thus remained mainly a military task, Obertreis concludes. Still, cotton production increased, not because of Russian state interventions and superior methods, but rather due to private initiatives: cotton traders introduced a system of advance payments for cotton. Peasants thus became integrated into the capitalistic world cotton market, leading to their dependency on the 'white gold' and the end of subsistence farming. This resulted in ever-increasing Russian grain imports. With the 1890s, a process of de-militarisation and centralisation started. Only then did European research begin, and the ministry of agriculture started to engage more in Turkestan to better exploit the region’s resources. These processes mark the region’s integration into the empire – investments increased, epitomised by the construction of the first dams and canals.

In the second chapter, the imperial desert dreams of the Bolsheviks (who came to power in 1917) are scrutinised. The analysis extends to 1945. Although the new rulers saw themselves as changing everything, in Central Asia they embraced the same economic and social goals as the tsarist regime, Obertreis argues. Developing irrigation remained a priority, but no new techniques were introduced. Obertreis even claims that the 1920s and early 1930s constitute the worst period of colonial history in Central Asia, as the civil war and later colonisation led to starvation of up to one-third of the Central Asian population. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks managed to increase cotton harvests over time, as they aimed at reaching 'cotton autonomy'. After the mid-1920s several reforms (New Economic Policy [2] and collectivisation) and policies shook up social stratification in the countryside and helped to enforce cotton growing. As Obertreis explains, Soviet leadership kept on pushing for more and more cotton, and Uzbek communists were in line with this as it promoted their own and the republic’s status. 1939 was a real turning point for centre-periphery relations between Moscow and Central Asia. For the first time since the Russian conquest, substantial investments in irrigation systems were made, mainly in the Ferghana Valley. Moreover, the region’s position as the main cotton-growing region of Russia and an example of Soviet modernity in a Muslim, 'oriental' region had been established. For the local population, Soviet reign finally led to positive results, as agricultural opportunities emerged, and local urban elites could promote their careers, including those of women. Thus, Obertreis concludes, in the mid-1940s, relations between ethnic Russians and Central Asian indigenous people had calmed and improved after years of collectivisation and terror.

The third chapter is the central part of Obertreis’ test on Scott’s high modernism argument, with the author presenting many supporting examples. Generally, the period between the end of World War II and the early 1970s saw the development of large new irrigation systems and the establishment of new cities like Yangier. New infrastructure was built in accordance with engineers’ ideas and visions, which meant a prevalence of straight lines, large solutions, and a lot of concrete and iron. Plants were grown in geometric fields and in accordance with the world-wide drive towards industrialising agriculture, mechanisation, and the increased use of chemicals and fertilisers. Elites were driven by hostility against nature, using militaristic expressions like 'attacks on the desert and the hungry steppe'. Khrushchev’s 'virgin lands campaign', which aimed at using previously uncultivated lands for agriculture, is seen by Obertreis as the culmination of high modernism in Central Asia. She contrasts these great political plans with insights from micro level studies of the Hungry Steppe that stress the importance of patronage and personal networks, which were vital to put people to work, safeguard necessary materials, and cope with sometimes terrible working conditions, as these promises of complex planning rarely delivered liveable infrastructure. By stressing the involvement of Central Asians in the high modernist projects, Obertreis shows another side of the centre-periphery relations: the local population participated eagerly, being prepared for the task by the educational boom related to the establishment of higher education and research institutions in Central Asia. At the same time, serious problems started to appear. Irrigation acreage constantly rose and, with it, production. But due to bad planning, missing construction materials, and faulty construction of canals, yields per hectare did not rise. Newly developed areas quickly faced problems of salinisation and waterlogging, while increasing acreage of cotton required using more and more pesticides and fertilisers, which led to additional problems such as water pollution.

These environmental problems are the focus of the fourth chapter. It advances the idea of an ecological turn – i.e. the emergence of ideas to protect nature and the environment – in the 1970s in Central Asia and the Soviet Union, which is comparable to the situation in industrialised 'Western' countries. For this, Obertreis delves into the academic areas of eco-critique of economic and social conditions and shows how environmental problems were articulated in scientific journals from the early 1970s onwards. The starting point was the economic critique of free water supply, and concerns over rising water pollution in the 1970s. In the 1980s the drying up of the Aral Sea became an important topic which was used to criticise the idea of 'the mastering of nature'. From these observations Obertreis concludes that an ecological turn took place at the same time as in the West, and she shows how western literature on the topic shaped the academic discussions in the Soviet Union. A big difference of Soviet eco-critique was that it remained an elite phenomenon without broader repercussions in the population.

Based on this environmental history of Central Asia since the 1970s, Obertreis also questions some aspects of general Soviet historiography. Generally, glasnost and perestroika from 1985 onwards are seen as a turning point in Soviet history, as the reform policies signalled a deepened crisis of the political, economic, and social systems. In contrast, the author sees in the reactions to the Central Asian environmental and water crises (manifested by water scarcity and pollution) that took place in the 1970s, clear signs of a broader crisis for the Soviet Union. This crisis was not only an environmental one, but was also connected to the social and economic situation of Central Asians, especially women. The political system tried to curb pollution and fight environmental problems by introducing new laws and regulations, but nobody adhered to the water-protection bureaucracy and its stipulations. The regime was no longer able to balance economic and social development with environmental issues, which worsened living conditions already in the 1970s. This inability to improve the situation eventually led to the downfall of Soviet rule in Central Asia. Although environmental problems increased and impacted cotton yields, Moscow demanded more and more of the 'white gold'. The answer of the political elites in Central Asia was to falsify cotton production figures. Their dilemma was that without cotton investments to the region would decrease, but at the same time environmental problems prohibited the growing of more cotton, thus the Central Asian communists decided to fake numbers – not due to individual corruption of Central Asian elites, as current historiography states, but due to the centre’s unrealistic demands. When Moscow found out about the falsification, it responded with the re-emergence of russification policies, which again spurred Uzbek nationalism and finally led to independence after 1989.

In her conclusion, Julia Obertreis reconnects the findings of her study on cotton growing in Central Asia to the idea of high modernism. Her first conclusion is that high modernism was at its height in the Soviet Union not during times of crises, as Scott argues, but rather in the 1940s until it peaked in 1969, after which irrigation enthusiasm receded. In the 1970s, indeed, ever-increasing problems meant a crisis for Soviet modernity in general. Seen historically and globally, high modernism was no Soviet exception, Obertreis recounts. Many projects had been planned by tsarist engineers but became a reality in the Soviet Union, and geometric simplicity was in vogue world-wide. Still, the enthusiasm for planning, technophilia, and transformative zeal, together with communist rule without civil society and parliamentary control, meant that high modernist projects in the Soviet Union were implemented on a different scale – faster, bigger, with fewer qualms. Scott’s emphasis on the intertwining of informal and formal structures is supported by Obertreis work on the development of the Hungry Steppe, where she shows the importance of personal networks. Another building stone of high modernism is reflected in the rhetoric of subjugating nature and the use of terms such as 'attacking the desert'. Generally, Obertreis argues that the Soviet adhering to High Modernist ideas was quite appealing to the regime: it legitimised the regime as the provider of new technologies to overcome backwardness, especially in less-developed Central Asia. But Obertreis also points to the limits of the transformative power of the regime, as it was able to provide new and advanced infrastructure but failed to improve the social and cultural situation of the population – something that Obertreis underlines by recalling the high numbers of women’s self-immolations in the 1980s, and generally pointing to the women’s difficult position in society. This and other examples also show how Obertreis integrates gender aspects into her historical account very fruitfully. Looking at the imperial part of the centre-periphery-relation based on cotton, Obertreis acknowledges that the Central Asian periphery profited from the centre: many people were educated and gained top positions during the Soviet period and Central Asia could make demands on the centre, as Moscow needed the periphery’s successes and it needed cotton. Nonetheless, Central Asia was on the weaker side of the cotton contract, as shown by the violence of the 1920s and 1930s and the cotton scandal.

With Imperial Desert Dreams Julia Obertreis presents an informative study on the history of Russian/Soviet Central Asia. She manages to integrate different aspects by addressing the imperial, social, infrastructural, environmental, and gender history of cotton growing in Central Asia over one and a half centuries. Obertreis succeeds in integrating transnational perspectives by not only transcending the borders of Central Asia and examining the centre’s influence, but also by including a global perspective like the world cotton market and western ecological ideas. In addition, Obertreis contextualises the idea of growing cotton in a broader historical perspective, as she points to the ideas’ roots in the tsarist era, its culmination, and the subsequent decline. Moreover, Central Asian high modernism resembles very much Czechoslovak and Romanian high modernism, which the reviewer has examined, thus stressing the validity of Obertreis findings once more. She succeeds in historicising Scott’s high modernism, shedding light on Central Asian water infrastructure and management, adding to the region’s environmental history and unearthing new insights into the centre-periphery relations of the Russian and Soviet Empires.

At some point the reviewer would have appreciated some elaboration on central concepts such as 'the empire'. As it is part of the book’s title, the many examples of centre-periphery relations could have been foregrounded. Also, with more maps, readers could better navigate through the mentioned places and Central Asia’s deserts, rivers, and cities. But overall, reading the study was a highly interesting journey through recent Central Asian history. And, although Julia Obertreis describes her fight with the non-native English language, it is very well written and an enjoyable journey as well.

[1] 'The Great Game' was a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and neighboring territories in Central and Southern Asia. See, 1.11.2018.

[2] In 1921 Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy, which allowed free market elements to co-exist with the nationalised industries, leading to a mixed economy system.

Additional Info

  • Author(s): Julia Obertreis
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Publisher: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Gmbh & Co
  • Subject: Environmental History
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: Arnošt Štanzel
  • Language: English