Listen: Historian Maya Peterson '02 on Cotton Colonialism and the Shrinking Aral Sea

For the biannual Paul H. Beik Lecture in modern European history, historian Maya Peterson ’02  discussed the rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea in her talk, "Making the Island Desert."  The disappearance of the sea has been called “one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.”

Shortly after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks embraced a transnationally held belief in the power of science and engineering to conquer nature and make the deserts bloom. Yet in the following decades, Soviet engineers instead turned Central Asia’s Aral (Island) Sea into a new, manmade desert, the Aralkum (Island Desert). This was no accident; indeed, Russians had predicted the shrinking – and eventual disappearance – of the sea long before the late 20th 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, Peterson explores the history of Russian perceptions of the Aral Sea. Rather than simply dismissing the Aral Sea crisis as a predictable outcome of Soviet gigantomania, she asks whether 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. The story may also illustrate lessons about the consequences of technological optimism that human beings might do well to heed in future.

Peterson is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose research stands at the intersection of environmental and imperial history. Her forthcoming book, Technologies of Rule: Empire, Water, and the Modernization of Central Asia, 1867–1941, explores the efforts of tsarist and communist leaders to irrigate the Central Asian borderlands. Peterson graduated from Swarthmore with high honors in history with a minor in Russian and a concentration in German studies. She received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and is the recipient of a Fulbright IIE Fellowship, a Fulbright Hayes Fellowship, and a Social Science Research Council Dissertation Fellowship, among other awards. 

The Paul H. Beik Lecture Series honors the memory of Paul H. Beik, an historian of France and Russia who taught and mentored Swarthmore students from 1945 to 1980. The series is endowed through the great generosity of his former students and colleagues.