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  • ShaboWine and Prosperity on the Russian Steppe
  • Carol B. Stevens (bio)

The village of Shabo (aka Chabag) was founded in 1822 on the shores of the Dniester Liman at the Russian Empire’s southwestern edge by a group of French-speaking Swiss of the Reformed Protestant faith. Somewhat improbably, more than 90 years later, Shabo was a prosperous and growing community. Unlike many nearby colonies of “foreigners,” however, it did not preserve its initial sense of ethnolinguistic or religious community. The colony’s trajectory, comparatively examined, raises interesting questions about the economic successes and failures of Russia’s effort to colonize and incorporate the Pontic steppe after its conquest in the latter part of the 18th century.

The village of Shabo still exists, now a quite ordinary settlement near the shoreline about 10km south of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskii. Its founders and original inhabitants were Tatar. In 1812, following the Russian conquest of Bessarabia during the Russo-Turkish War, most residents left for other parts of the Ottoman Empire, leaving only three to four families behind.1 A “new” Shabo was established by foreign colonists, Russians, and Ukrainians. At its peak in late imperial times, the village with the adjacent settlement had more than 4,000 inhabitants. Contemporary photographs and plans portray neatly arranged household plots on a rectangular grid. In the 1850s, long rectangular cottages with thatched roofs were set around an open square with a Protestant church at the center. But by 1920, population pressure had transformed the village, with residences filling in the earlier open plazas surrounding the church and facing the municipal hall, converting those civic buildings into other plots on the grid. To the north and west, the village was surrounded by vineyards on gently sloping sandy fields closest to the liman. Farther west, there were clayey chalk soils and, still farther inland, rich [End Page 273] black earth. To the south, Shabo bordered immediately on a somewhat larger village, known as Chabag (Shabo)-posad, whose inhabitants were mostly Russian and Ukrainian.2

Beginning in the late 18th century, the Russian Empire, as is well known, invited groups of foreigners as well as Russians and Ukrainians to colonize the steppe and Crimea. Over the century and more that followed, many of the foreign colonies proved to be economically very successful. This article uses a microhistory of Shabo to emphasize the importance of some explanations for such colonies’ economic success that are not commonly treated together in the historiography.

The reasons for success that are usually offered focus on the qualities and conditions of the colonies themselves. Human capital explanations, well known to students of colonization the world over, argue that foreign colonizing populations often bring with them educational and cultural attributes, a different approach to technologies, or other factors that are unusual to the new territory. Such characteristics, especially when sustained in subsequent generations because of internal cohesiveness and cooperation, offer one important explanation for colonies’ economic success.3 Imperial Russian colonial policy was initially motivated by the belief that the successes of such cohesive groups of foreign migrants would provide a valuable example to Russians and Ukrainians on the steppe. The Russian government, these communities, and their descendants continued to endorse similar ideas. Since then, historians like Natalia Venger and Detlev Brandes have given considerable weight to the durable internal cohesion of immigrant colonies to explain their overall success.4

Another approach, again not uncommon to studies of colonization in many parts of the world, argues that the institutional framework in which foreign colonists operated was of great importance.5 In the Russian context, discussion has focused on the economic advantages available to foreign [End Page 274] colonists who came with unusual resources or to whom the imperial government awarded family-owned plots of land and other preferential considerations on arrival.6

Here I analyze the economic success of Shabo by using a human capital argument based on the internal cohesion of the village, as well as by examining its early institutional framework. The article also examines a version of the human capital argument rarely broached in Russian historiography. In Shabo’s case, furthermore, success was also predicated on a delicate interaction between the character...