Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 19

Russia, South Africa, Australia


The land of European Russia is not complicated. It is the direct extension of Belt No. 1 of Asia, described in Chapter 6. Its sea-coasts are too limited and removed from the open ocean to alter its essential character, which, with its situation between Asia and Europe, directed the history of the Russians.

Its physical map is, therefore, mostly tinted green, indicating an elevation up to five hundred feet. It has two irregular areas of yellow, of elevation up to two thousand feet running north and south; one to the west, the second to the east. The eastern is intersected by a thin strip of light brown, of elevation up to five thousand feet, the Ural Mountains. These west and east areas are in latitude 60 degrees joined by a transverse yellow band. The three areas form the watersheds of Russia's rivers. Two considerable rivers, the Dwina and the Petchora, open into the Arctic Ocean, but the largest Russian rivers, unlike those of Siberia, run south. The Volga rises from all three watersheds, west, east and transverse, and runs into the Caspian, its last section in the Caspian Tract being actually below sea level. The Don rises from the eastern side of the west yellow area, and the Dnieper from its western side, and also by its big tributary, the Pripet, from the northern Carpathian Mountains outside Russia. Both flow into the Black Sea. The Dniester, also entering the Black Sea, forms the south-western boundary of Russia.

Russia is thus an extension of the Siberian Plain, made European by the Ural Mountains. South-east Russia, with the Caspian Tract, is the European extension of the Asiatic Kirghiz Steppes. Through the Steppe country many Nomads of Asia passed into Europe and, at a later time, Russians passed into Asia.

At the time of the last Glacial Age, nearly all European Russia was covered with ice. As the ice receded, Russia emerged in a sodden condition of boggy lands and lakes, the abundant waters of which were drained away by the great rivers.

In the drying up of the Post-Glacial epoch, Russia slowly attained to the condition of being habitable to men. European Russia is now divided into three belts.

Firstly there is the northern belt, with its Arctic tundra cap, with a long winter, a brief summer and a saturated, boggy soil. It offers only the most limited opportunities for farming.

The central belt has a more equable climate than the other two. Its soil is capable of receiving and storing water to a considerable depth, and it gets an abundance of water in the spring from the melting of the snows. Its surface then becomes a sea of mud, but five or six months of open season follows; the surface dries, and so becomes cultivable by men. This central belt, which contains the capital and other manufacturing towns, constitutes the farmed, but food-deficient area of Russia.

For these two deficient belts, Russia is compensated by the third or southern belt, the food-surplus area. Here the season of freedom from snow lasts up to nine months. Here also the extremes of heat and cold are greater than are those of the central belt. So dry is it at times, from the heat and the hot winds which sweep into it from Central Asia, that it is subject to drought. But its soil is rich, and that of the Black Earth Zone, immediately south of the middle belt, is the granary of Russia.

Russian agriculture began in the middle belt, the belt of forests. It was not until the reign of Ivan IV (A.D. 1533-84) that the grain land was reached. Sir Bernard Pares in his most instructive A History of Russia, 1944, states that the Russian peasants were peaceful men, seeking to cultivate land without interference. They would clean a piece of land along the bank of a river, burning down the trees and digging out the stumps. They would erect a colony of a few houses, keeping close to the river for fishing and transport. In the north they met the Finns, then entirely unorganized, and they established friendly relations, with them. 'The Russian peasant', says Pares, 'was a man of peace and he did not come to start new conflicts, but to avoid them.'

But they were not left at peace by their rulers at Kiev and Moscow for the reason that they were the source of the greater part of the wealth of a poor country and, secondly, because the army was recruited from them.

The chief enemies of the Russian people from about A.D. 1130 to the reign of Ivan IV were the Nomadic Mongols from Asia, who passed into Russia through the Caspian Tract. To preserve themselves and their peoples from the Mongols, the Russian rulers relied on the strength of the land and its peasants. When Kiev was the capital, the near land was in the hands of a landed aristocracy, the far in the hands of pioneer peasants themselves. When Moscow became the centre of the eventual Emperor, land was given to a second class of superior landowners, who were allotted it for their lifetime on condition of rendering military and other service to the State. 'The conditions of tenure', writes Pares, 'stated precisely the number of recruits who had to be placed in line. The allotment of land corresponded to this number and was graded carefully according to class, which was practically synonymous with military rank'; and he adds that military service was also demanded from the hereditary landowners: 'the patrimonies themselves were put under the same obligation of military service, and, in fact, all land in Russia came to be held only by the title of service to the Tsar'.

'As a system of agriculture', continues Pares, 'nothing could be more unsound. The squire was firstly a fighter, only secondly a squire. His absences were frequent. His efficiency was rated only by his military service;' and, as regards the landowners of the second class, they could be moved at will, which prevented them from acquiring any permanent interest in their peasants.

The peasants were bound to the soil, for the aggression of the Mongols was 'such as to convince the dullest of peasants of the necessity of national defence and of national sacrifices'. Nevertheless, some peasants were bold enough to seek freedom from the oppression of their rulers and moved eastwards and to the south and south-east. 'Flitters', Sir John Maynard calls them in his fascinating The Russian Peasant, 1943, and it was the flitters who came to constitute the Cossacks, or border peasantry, who were so powerful a factor in the eventual repulsion and conquest of the Mongols. The Cossacks came to possess, writes Pares, 'wonderful military resource and were masters at taking cover. They practically never parted with their horses and were trained riders from childhood. Their scouting tactics were those of the Russian army of to-day. Tall lonely trees were used as observation posts; different points at some distance from each other were garrisoned, and between them relays of individual Cossacks patrolled, never dismounting'. Such men, therefore, enjoyed a freedom not given to the more central peasants.

Even when the Mongols were subdued by Ivan IV, the heavy burdens of the Russian peasants were not lifted. The danger to the Russian kingdom then shifted from the south and east to the west, as Europe advanced in civilization and military strength. The virtual serfdom of the peasants, severe according to their relative proximity to Moscow, was continued, and, in 1649, a code of laws was issued which 'finally confirms the establishment of serfdom, which henceforth becomes a state institution'.

Not even Peter the Great (A.D. 1682-1721), who in physical strength, will, genius and energy was perhaps the greatest of all European rulers, could relax the oppression of the peasants. It was he, above all, who realized that Russia was lost in the struggle against European aggression, unless her backward people were Europeanized. So, though 'Peter was far closer to the Russian peasant than any Tsar before him or since', his vast expenses forced him to increase the weight of the peasants' chains. Flitters to the freer south and south-east increased greatly in numbers, and some passed over the Urals into the land, familiar in character, of the Siberian Plain. As time passed, the freeing of the peasants from serfdom in order to promote the advancement of by far the largest number of the Russians became more and more urgent, and eventually an Act of Emancipation was passed in 1861. It was in many ways ineffective, and the final stage of release came with the Soviet Revolution and the Collective Farms of Lenin and Stalin. Under the Collective Farms the medieval tempo of farming was transformed into modern farming of an advanced kind. Sir John Maynard, in his sixteenth chapter, gives a full account of these collective farms, with their advantages and difficulties, their tractor machines, their economics, their lack of sufficient manure, their associated work on the large farms, their personal work on their private farms.

From this account of the soils and their ownership it will be seen that two forms of erosion could have been witnessed in European Russia. The first would occur from the destruction, without afforestation, of the forests upon the slopes and watersheds of the higher land, if the land itself was owned by men who were anxious to get the most wealth from the soil without adequate return. When the forest had been destroyed on the slopes and watersheds, sheet and gully erosion would occur owing to heavy rain or melting snow. The rivers would, in the wet periods, then be in flood and bear top-soil to the sea; later on, in the summer season, their profitable streams would dwindle.

Such a dominance of money did, indeed, occur in historical Russia, particularly in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mr. Jacks' pronouncement, in The Rape of the Earth, on this cause of erosion is one with which we are already familiar. The peasants of Russia were serfs; all the profits of farming went to enrich a landed aristocracy. We are told: 'The landowners' aim was to get the maximum out of the soil in the shortest time with the least expenditure of labour and improvements. Sheet erosion was extreme, though generally unnoticed and not associated with the new gullies that continued to break up the land.'

Fortunately for Russia, the primitive farming of the serfs was very slow in extension. Though marshes and lakes dried up and the streams of great rivers flooded and dwindled, there was a tempo very much less than that of the United States under the era of the machine. Consequently, loss of the Russian soil was far from reaching the disastrous magnitude of that of the American soil.

When the serfs of Russia were emancipated in 1861 and became possessors of much of its soil, there was no halt in this form of erosion. The peasants were given the poorest eroded land and they, therefore, set to work to extend the cultivation of the slopes. Their method of ploughing was in long strips up and down the slopes to the tops of the watersheds; the hollows between the ridges became first water courses and then gullies and so erosion was increased. Even under the Soviets, no halt was called to the destruction of forests owing to the need of timber in exchange for the machines from foreign countries which the new manufacturing towns of the U.S.S.R. required.

So much for the first form of erosion, namely, sheet and gully erosion. The second form of erosion is wind erosion. This would affect the third or southern belt of Russia, both the rich Black Soil Zone and the land of the Steppes. Here is what Major Law, Commercial Attache in St. Petersburg in 1892, reported upon this belt, once protected by belts of forests: 'It is certain that those forests do not now exist , and that the black soil country is often scourged by devastating blasts from the Steppes, and not infrequently baked by prolonged droughts.' Wind erosion and floods work their havoc and 'smite the soil with perpetual barrenness'.

This erosion at length aroused alarm in the Russian aristocracy and, in the eighteen-nineties, many shelter belts of trees were planted to break the force of the hot winds upon the top-soil 'on such a spectacular scale and with such excellent results that a special government commission was appointed to study afforestation' (Whyte, in The Rape of the Earth).

The sudden stride of the U.S.S.R. into the modern era, with its reliance upon machines, made the tractor-plough in particular a symbol of modernization. It became the visible image of the inner belief in the machine as a saviour, and wherever the tractor went it was heralded as a propagandist. Nevertheless, it had its intrinsic dangers. Messrs Jacks and Whyte, in the Technical Communication No. 36 of the Imperial Bureau of Soil Science, 1938, discussed this danger and quoted the Russian Professor Kornev as saying, with regard to both forms of erosion: 'At the present day there are huge areas in the U.S.S.R. where, owing to the excessive breaking up of the topography, whole territories, formerly under profitable agriculture, are now occupied by immense ravines and infertile wastes.' To this the two authors added: 'The tractor-plough is the enemy of the grass land in dry areas, but is indispensable to the propagandist of Russian agriculture. Though forewarned by the experience of other countries, it is difficult to ascertain if the authorities are aware of the danger of mechanization.'

Certainly, by the year 1938, the Soviet authorities had put tractors upon the land on a very vast scale. Whereas, according to Appendix III of the Trade Unions of the U.S.S.R. (quoted in the Fabian Essay on Our Soviet Ally, 1943), in 1913 no tractors were in use in the Russias; in 1938 there were used, upon the scientific, mechanized, collective farms, no less than four hundred and eighty-three thousand tractors. The potential threat of erosion in such numbers is enormous, as the consideration of the other three of the four great examples of modern erosion, South Africa, Australia and the United States, will show. The war and its demands have concealed the threat and even made it one that had to be concealed. No account of the degree of new erosion can, therefore, be given.

South Africa

South Africa is described by Mr. Whyte, in The Rape of the Earth, under the italicized sub-heading of The Transformation of South Africa into Semi-desert in the Twentieth Century. The agricultural wealth of South Africa is chiefly pastoral. The natural veld and the Karroo provide animal fodder, though in favoured localities special grasses and foreign crops are grown. But this natural vegetative cover has deteriorated and 'erosion has already transformed parts of the richest pastoral areas in the country into semi-desert. Considering that the luxuriance and excessive wetness of the veld in the Orange Free State were previously an obstacle to pastoral farming, the rapid appearance of the disastrous consequences of erosion is very remarkable. It occurs in all parts of the Union, either as an actual or probable menace, and is predominantly a pastoral problem.'

He then continued with this important paragraph: 'The great uncertainties of the South African climate, and the suddenness with which the country was opened up after the discovery of gold, have contributed largely to the rapid acceleration of erosion. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it was realized that serious overstocking was taking place, but public attention was not focused on the danger until the Drought Investigation Committee issued its final report in 1923. Until then the opinion had been gaining ground that the climate was becoming drier and the rains more torrential. The report pointed out that there was no proof of a definite and recent climatic change, but that erosion would account for the drying up of rivers and waterholes, the falling watertable and the increasingly disastrous effects of droughts and heavy rains. The Commission concluded that the erosion was caused chiefly by deterioration of the vegetative cover brought about by incorrect veld management, and that all efforts to improve the latter would have a beneficial effect on the former.'

South Africa was taken from the Dutch by the British in 1812.


In the speed with which fertility of the soil is being lost, Australia is believed to surpass even the United States. This is the opinion of Mr. E. S. Clayton of the Department of Agriculture, New South Wales, who was sent to study erosion and anti-erosion measures in the United States for the better defence of his own country. In Investigations Overseas, 1937, he writes: 'There is no doubt that we Australians are in a process of transforming the semi-arid areas into desert at a more rapid rate than in the U.S.A.'

Australia is, in short, being threatened with becoming to the British Empire what Libya became to the Romans. The loss of soil from rapid deforestation and burning of vegetative cover and from overgrazing is severe. 'Approximately two-thirds of the area covered by the Alpine woody shrub type has been completely cleared by the action of fire,' writes Mr. R. V. Byles of the catchment area of Australia's greatest river, the Murray, in Bulletin 13 of the Commonwealth Bureau of Forestry. He continues: 'The organic layer, with no cover to protect it and no live roots to hold it, dries up and is blown away; the loose sandy soil is in its turn blown away, leaving the final product, bare granite rocks and stones with no vegetative cover.' The once constant river has become inconstant and its water is intermittently turbid in place of the original constant clarity. 'In thirty years the land about it has become desert, according to the testimony of men who have nurtured cattle there all their lives.'

The eagerness for wealth in a country that does not nestle to the heart as does the homeland destroys the permanence of its gifts to men. There is no real ecological link between the white man and its nature, nor habit and tradition which expresses it. They do not feel that when they burn or tear its verdure they are tearing at their own home fields, at something which is an eternal associate of their own, and their ancestors' and their descendants' lives. It is land and land can give wealth, but it is not motherland, and, until that human term and what it implies in the fullest sense becomes bred in the bone, it will not be real, and the land will not be properly treated. It is the heart, faith, sentiment that ultimately prompt action.

So in the drier parts of Australia there are thousands of acres of lightly stocked pastoral country, which are suffering from erosion and where men, like fifth columnists, have helped the central desert to advance. Not only is the fertility of these undulating lands being depleted at an alarming rate, but the wetter, riverine districts near the sea are also in many parts gravely affected by erosion, due to the same eager speed to clear the land, as has already done so much harm to the riverine area of the great Murray River.

Finally, there are the rabbits, introduced from Britain to this, to the white man and rabbits, new world. In Pamphlet No. 64 of the Commonwealth of Australia there is an incomparably vivid picture of these pests given by Mr. F. N. Ratcliffe. In a way, the four-legged immigrants from Britain behave like the two-legged from the same country. When the going is good and there is abundant pasture, the rabbits do not act as if they were part of a country in balanced equilibrium, but as pitiless ravagers of its soil fertility. They revel in the rich harvest and they multiply out of all counting, as if the future must be a repetition of the past. In numbers they eat up the pasture and drive the hungry sheep to devour saltbush. They overreach their good fortune. Then come the hard times of a drier season. They are hungry, so hungry that they eventually eat all and any food within reach and even beyond the ordinary reach of their kind. They eat the surface plants. They climb. They burrow into the earth and get at the roots of the hardy acacia scrub. They take all that is above and below the soil and give it no chance of regeneration. Then comes a drought, and the rabbits die in heaps under the very eaves of the settlers' houses or wherever man-made shade can shelter them from the pitiless sun. So the rabbits, too, fail to fit into the balanced life which nature had long established in Australia, before they were brought out with the intention of providing food, not destroying it, for the white settlers.

The British first settled in Australia a century and a half ago.

The British annexed New Zealand, the islands of the 'emaciated skeleton' threat mentioned at the end of Chapter 17, in 1840, just over a century ago.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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