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Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil in Russia and Its Eastern Borderlands from the 1840s to the 1930s


This dissertation explores the cultural topos of soil in Russian and early Soviet culture. Centered on the Soviet project of land reclamation in Central Asia in the 1930s, this dissertation traces the roots of Soviet utopian and dystopian fantasies of soil to the ideological and discursive traditions of the 19th century. It considers how Soviet cultural, scientific, and political figures renovated and adapted 19th-century discourse in order to articulate for their own age the national, revolutionary, and utopian values attached to soil. The intersection of national soil and national identity in this discourse is examined, along with the persistent fear that Russian identity and utopian aspirations are threatened by "Asian" land, both within and beyond Russia's borders.

Providing an overview of selected high points in the discursive history of soil in Russia, this study begins with romantic and materialist discourses of soil from the 1840s to the 1860s, tracing organicist concepts of native soil from German philosopher Herder to literary critic Vissarion Belinskii and thence to the symbolic uses of Russian pochva in the writings of the Slavophiles, the pochvenniki, and others. A case study follows on German chemist Justus Liebig and the transfer of scientific metaphors of soil into the cultural domain, concluding with a discussion of Liebig's influence on Marx's theory of social metabolism and its far-reaching influence on Soviet ideology.

The study moves to its core discussion of Soviet poetics and ideologies of land use in the 1920s and 1930s. First, I examine writer and land reclamation engineer Andrei Platonov's novella Dzhan in the context of Soviet technological utopianism and the campaign to transform the sands of Central Asia into fertile soil. The following chapter extends the discussion of Soviet land reclamation to the dystopic themes of the Asiatic mode of production and "reforging" in the novels of Platonov, Bruno Jasienski, and Boris Pil'niak. This study closes with a discussion of the revival of organic conceptual metaphors of nationality and national soil in the context of the smychka, or union, between the Soviet center and its Asian periphery in the films of Vertov, Turin, Kalatozov, and Iarmatov.

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