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Bigger Than Grain: Soviet-American Agricultural Exchange, 1918-1928


This dissertation examines the history of agricultural exchange between the United States and Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1928. It shows that Soviet and American agricultural specialists and policymakers sought solutions to the looming global farm crisis of the 1920s through visits, the organization of reconstruction projects, and seed exchange. In doing so, this work advances three arguments. First, the development of post-World War I agriculture, including concepts of large-scale farming, industrialization of agricultural, and rationalization of food production, should be understood within an international context. As the First World war reshaped patterns of agricultural production and showed the inextricable link between food and political stability, experts and policymakers from many countries began to search for solutions to the farm problem not only through national policies but also abroad. As this dissertation shows, this search would take different shapes and forms: from the use of international food aid programs to help domestic food production to the usage of another country’s space to conduct large-scale farming experiments. These experiences in agricultural exchange allowed its participants to acquire new knowledge, technologies, and expertise.

Second, by examining post-WWI patterns of agricultural exchange, this dissertation reconsiders the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union with regard to the flow of technology and expertise. Rather than considering a one-directional movement of American technology and expertise to Soviet Russia and perceiving the latter as a passive recipient, this work portrays an active multi-directional exchange. It shows that both countries perceived each other as research laboratories that were capable of giving solutions to farm problems in their respective countries. Moreover, both American and Soviet agricultural experts believed that this exchange would benefit the reconstruction of international agriculture.

Finally, this dissertation expands the definition of “agricultural exchange.” Scholars have demonstrated that, historically, agricultural exchange, including the movement of plants, seeds, and agricultural knowledge and expertise, is not a new event. The flow of people and animal species brought new plant varieties and agricultural technologies to new places, thus, changing existing environments, economic and social structures. While these transfers knew no borders, since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they had become more institutionalized and regulated by the international community of scientists and policymakers. During this period, many national governments introduced new laws and regulations that controlled the import and export of agricultural commodities. What is often left out in this historiography is the political nature of agricultural exchange. This dissertation shows that participants of agricultural exchange used their experience and expertise that they cultivated through visits and travel to achieve more powerful positions with local and central state institutions. Yet, this experience came at a price. By the late 1920s, with the shifting political climate in the Soviet Union, the participation in agricultural exchange became one of the tools for the ostracization of these experts from powerful positions.

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