January 17, 2018

US to USSR: American Experts, Irrigation, and Cotton in Soviet Central Asia, 1929–32 by Maya Peterson

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In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of Americans traveled to the Soviet Union to help build the first socialist country in the world. American experts in the Soviet Union offered general scientific and technical advice that was grounded in a seemingly apolitical transnational ideology. And yet development work is inherently political. Using published and unpublished sources from archives and libraries in the United States and the former Soviet Union, this article looks at one particular case of American technical assistance—assistance to Soviet irrigation and cotton-growing schemes in Uzbekistan—to explore the little-known story of American participation in the perpetuation of Russia’s colonial relationship with its Central Asian borderland. By privileging Russian dreams of landscape transformation in Turkestan over local uses of the environment, American experts in the region helped to ensure Central Asians’ dependence on cotton cultivation while assisting in a process of environmental degradation that continues to this day.

by Maya Peterson

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