This book talk explores the ways in which both the tsarist and Soviet regimes used fantasies of bringing the deserts to life as a means of claiming legitimacy in Central Asia, a process that ultimately led to the drying up of Central Asia’s Aral Sea. Based in part on materials found in Stanford’s Hoover Institution Archives, Maya Peterson argues that the disappearance of the Aral Sea, considered one of the worst environmental catastrophes of the late twentieth century, is deeply rooted in the dreams of the irrigation age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when not only Russians and Bolsheviks, but engineers, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs around the world united in the belief that universal scientific knowledge, together with modern technologies, could be used to transform large areas of the planet from ‘wasteland’ into productive land. The implications of this broader understanding of the Aral Sea disaster – the transnational aspects of which have often been overlooked in narratives focused on the hubris and folly of communist gigantomania and Soviet disregard for the environment – serve as a reminder that wise water management remains one of our greatest challenges today, particularly here in California.
Maya Peterson is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research and teaching interests include Russian and Central Asian history, as well as the history of the environment, science, technology, and medicine. Her first monograph, Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin was published as part of the Cambridge University Press series Studies in Environment and History in May 2019. She is currently working on a project on the role of kumys (fermented mare’s milk) in medical sanatoria across the Russian Empire and the Soviet and post-Soviet space.