- Russian Science in TranslationHow Pochvovedenie Was Brought to the West, c. 1875–1945
In a scientific paper of 1934 titled "German Names for German Forest Floors!" the German soil scientist Richard Lang voiced alarm at the increasing use of Russian terminology in his field. He wrote that "since World War I scientific literature in soil science has been flooded by Russian soil names. . . . You read of podzol, chernozem, and rendzina . . . and those using these terms do not realize they are taking part in the destruction of the German language."1
Lang concluded his article with a call for a purely German scientific terminology. This was certainly not unusual among German scientists of his day: since the National Socialists had risen to power early in 1933, this kind of scientific nationalism had become politically opportune.2 Lang's particular aversion to Russian terminology, however, referred to circumstances quite specific to the field of soil science, a discipline that overlapped with the agricultural sciences and subjects such as geography, geology, and botany. It was not only the German literature on soil science that had become infiltrated by Russian vocabulary, such as chernozem (black earth), podzol (boreal forest soil), and kashtanozem (chestnut-brown soil). By the late 1920s—a time of intensifying international exchange in the field—Russian soil terms could be [End Page 683] found in numerous European and American publications on the subject.3 How did they get there?
This article presents answers to this question and thereby provides important insights into the processes by which modern Russian science became internationally visible—something we still do not know enough about. While historians of Russian science have long established that, by the early 20th century, Russia had achieved significant results in numerous branches of science (such as physiology and chemistry, to name but two), we still lack a profound understanding of the paths and mechanisms that brought Russian contributions to the international stage.4 It is precisely this issue that is addressed here. Using the example of soil science, I reveal practices by which Russian and non-Russian scientists—in their verbal and written communications—detached scientific concepts and ideas from their formative Russian contexts in order to render them comprehensible and instructive at an international level. I focus on two such practices: the translation of scientific texts from Russian into other languages and the joint field trips by Russian and non-Russian scientists that were undertaken to observe soil out in the field, with the goal of finding a common analytic language to describe it.
The present article contributes to a growing body of literature that, unlike some previous work in the field, refuses to depict Russian science as a product largely shaped by influences from Western Europe.5 As this newer research has [End Page 684] shown, far from being a mere "receptacle for ideas from the West," modern Russia was often "a locus of scientific . . . innovation, where scientific ideas and practices were formulated and essayed."6
Soil science is certainly a case in point. In Russia, the scientific study of soil (pochvovedenie) had an exceptionally strong tradition, which dated back to research work first undertaken by Vasilii Vasil´evich Dokuchaev (1846–1904) in the mid-1870s. The paradigm of soil science as it evolved between the world wars consisted of an approach to the classification of soil types that was based on the natural history tradition and a theory of soil genesis. By 1935, many scientists in the field, both inside and outside Russia, acknowledged that this paradigm had been decisively shaped by the Russian work.7 Thus what was true with regard to terminology also applied to theories and methods: pochvovedenie was becoming extremely influential on the international stage. Although historians of Russian science have not overlooked this, they have mainly studied pochvovedenie in the context of scientific, environmental, and political developments within Russia.8 By contrast, this article—informed by [End Page 685] recent methodological literature on knowledge transfer and the circulation of knowledge—presents an account of pochvovedenie's journey beyond Russia's borders.9
My analysis reveals the high degree of cooperative work that was undertaken by Russian and non-Russian...