Nov 02 | Cocktail Hour: Making the Island Desert: Cotton Colonialism and the Long History of the Shrinking Aral Sea

4:00-5:30pm | SJRC Common Room (Oakes 231)

The Science and Justice Research Center will host Maya Peterson, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California – Santa Cruz, in a Cocktail Hour discussion.

The rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea over the years leading up to and since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been called “one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.” Yet the disappearance of the sea was no accident; indeed, Russians had predicted the shrinking – and eventual disappearance – of the sea long before the late twentieth century. The major Soviet river diversion and irrigation projects undertaken beginning in the 1960s can be seen as the culmination of decades of policies designed to transform the vast Central Asian region to the south and east of the Aral Sea into a cotton colony of the Russian and Soviet empires. These policies continue to have severe consequences for the indigenous people of the region and those who depended upon the sea for their livelihoods. Drawing on recent work in environmental history and the history of technology, as well as original research in Russian and Central Asian libraries and archives, this talk explores the history of Russian perceptions of the Aral Sea to see whether, rather than simply dismissing the Aral Sea crisis as a predictable outcome of Soviet gigantomania, considering the story of the sea’s disappearance in its longer-term historical context can help to illuminate the nature of the relationships between water management and power and to illustrate lessons about the consequences of technological optimism that human beings might do well to heed in future.

Maya Peterson is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her research and teaching interests include Russian, Soviet, and Central Asian history, the history of the environment, technology, and engineering, as well as comparative empires. Her current book project, based on the dissertation she completed at Harvard University in 2011, is titled Pipe Dreams: Water, Technology, and the Remaking of Central Asia in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. The book examines tsarist and Bolshevik efforts to irrigate the Central Asian borderlands and how such hydraulic engineering projects reflected imperial and Soviet notions of civilization and progress, as well as Russia’s quest to be a European empire in the heart of Asia.
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