E.V. Filep, Ch. Bichsel

Е.В. Филеп, К. Бихсель

University of Fribourg

(Unit of Geography, Chemin du Musée 4, 1700 Fribourg, Switzerland) 

Фрибургский Университет

(Отделение географии, ул. Шемин дю Мюзе 4, 1700 Фрибург, Швейцария)

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The paper analyses how Ivan Bunin and Evgenii Nosov conceive of the steppe in its transformed state and articulate in relation to it their feelings about their country and their identities. By exploring the spatial history of steppe imaginaries for the period beyond the 19th century, this paper critically engages with and takes further existing research, which has identified the steppe as a key imaginary in Russian philosophical and political thought for earlier periods.

В статье анализируются представления о степи в рассказах Ивана Бунина «Эпитафия» и Евгения Носова «Потрава». Рассматривается авторское восприятие степи не только как физического ландшафта, но и как символа, ассоциативно связанного с идеями о национальном характере, о духовном, социальном и политическом состоянии общества. Подчеркивается важность проведения дальнейших исследований о представлениях о степи в художественном и научном дискурсе 20 века. 

During the last decades, scholars, both within and outside Russia, have given considerable attention to exploring the material and symbolic aspects of the steppe for Russian history and identity. Several authors, such as Christopher Ely, Mark Bassin or Jane Costlow have studied cultural representations of landscape in literature, painting and poetry and suggest the centrality of spatial imaginaries in Russian philosophical and political thought [7, 9, 10]. By drawing on literature, but also other types of sources, these scholars discuss the link between literary and artistic representations of nature and the formation of Russians’ perceptions of self and nation.

Russian renowned geographer and steppe expert Alexander Chibilev sees steppe as the primary element (prirodnaya stichiya) to which history and destiny of the Russian state are closely tied [5, p.1]. This element, he argues much in Ely’s vein, is rendered aesthetic and affective through its attributes of vastness and expanse, which signify freedom and liberty (razdol’e). Such an aesthetic interpretation of the steppe characterises, in his analysis, much of Russian classical literature. In a similar vein, philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, earlier on already equated the expanse of the Russian land with the Russian soul, both characterised, in his words, by the same «…boundlessness, formlessness, aspiration to infinity, width» [1, p. 8]. Other scholars have discussed the symbolic significance of the steppe to Russian statehood and nation building. Two monographs by Willard Sunderland and Mikhael Khodarkovsky show how the Eurasian steppe was gradually but persistently transformed over time as it was included in the Russian state between the 16th and the 19th century and they demonstrate how steppe as a frontier through intricate transformations became a part of the Russian Empire [11, 12].  

The above-discussed authors, among others, have made a tremendous contribution to the analysis of steppe imaginaries for understanding Russian cultural space. However, while some of the authors trace the importance of the symbolic significance of the steppe for Russian history as far back as the 9th century, their reflections mostly end with the late 19th century and only marginally touch or do not address the 20th century. Yet, as recent research has shown, the steppe continues to be a key theme, which informs Russian social, political and spatial thought beyond the 19th century and thus, requires further scholarly reflections.

Steppe imaginaries in 20th century writing and poetry

The 20th century saw the appearance of many vibrant portrayals of a new transformed steppe. Poems by tselinniki, enthusiastically depicting the first achievements in the early years of the Virgin Lands Campaign are a vivid example of this. The economy-centred changes induced by the Soviet state during this period brought into play a fundamentally altered interpretation of the steppe. The steppe in these representations appears as an abundant and productive space achieved by means of human transformation in a modernist framework of thought. Some authors have noted the predominance of the mastery of nature theme in Soviet discourse about the natural world in literature and poetry produced during the 20th century. For example, Christine Bichsel in her research discusses how steppe imaginaries significantly characterize geographical descriptions in scientific texts, which served to propagate, interpret and justify largescale environmental transformations [8]. Yet, there is a lack of scholarly research exploring the literary work produced during the 20th century by the authors whose accounts of the Soviet transformation of nature did not match the ideological requirements and presented adversarial representations of steppe. I. Bunin’s «Epitaph» and E. Nosov’s «Potrava» could be considered examples of such accounts.

Bunin’s «Epitaph» and the loss of old Russia

Ivan Bunin’s (1870-1953) depictions of the steppe are interesting not only because they demonstrate the cultural significance of the steppe to Russian 20th century writers but also because they exemplify the artistic vision of the current and future state of the steppe environment. «Epitaph» (1900) was written in the context of rapid industrialization, civil unrest as well as the impoverishment and the loss of the privileged status of landed gentry. Severe draught in 1891 affected large parts of the steppe region of southern and South-eastern Russia and caused famine that lasted long into 1892. In dozens of Russian gubernia people died from hunger, animals from the lack of food, peasant households collapsed, erosion led to the decrease in fertility of black earth soils [2, p. 77].

On the one hand, Bunin’s depiction of a «dying» steppe in «Epitaph» is his response to the actual environmental crisis that affected the nature that he wholeheartedly loved. On the other hand, having come from a noble but impoverished family, «Epitaph» is Bunin’s expression of grief for the decline of aristocracy, together with the cultural, social and political way of life, which for centuries constituted the foundation of Russian society. The story opens with the memory of a peaceful customary life of a village in the steppe. Bunin describes an old road through the steppe which «disappears into the rye», and an old birch tree bent by the steppe wind, and an ancient cross – «… with a little triangular plank roof which protected the Suzdalian icon of Holy Mary stored under it» [2, p. 196]. The cross, as Bunin narrates, has been placed at some point by the first person to arrive to this area and: «… ever since the old icon guarded the old steppe road day and night…» [ibid.]. Such symbols as «the old cross» and «the icon» in Bunin’s depictions of the old steppe village convey not only peacefulness and harmony, but also sacredness regarding the allegedly natural state of the steppe environment, symbolically correlated with the values of the old Russia, which are about to vanish.

Narration continues with the following lines: «Life does not stand still, the old ways are gone and we say farewell to them with a great sadness» [2, p. 198]. Having suffered from the draught, steppe in Bunin’s depictions turns ‘lifeless’: «Steppe, where formerly one could hear people’s voices and girls’ singing, now seemed dead» [ibid.]. Bunin’s vision of the future of the steppe is bleak. People from the cities started arriving to the steppe in search of ore deposits. He postulates that soon the steppe will disappear, and so will the Russian countryside with its peasants and small gentry, giving place to industrial cities, or in Bunin’s words: «Perhaps soon smoke will start belching from factory chimneys, large railroads will stretch in place of the old roads, and instead of an old savage village a city will grow. And what has earlier lightened the life – the grey cross, which has once fallen into the ground – will be forgotten by everyone…» [2, p.198]. Bunin concludes «Epitaph» by questioning the values, which would soon replace the ones that have for centuries constituted the basis of Russian society: «Will there be anything that the new people will bless their new life with?» [ibid.]. By joining the physical with the symbolical, Bunin on the one hand foresees the fate awaiting steppe’s physical landscape, and on the other, uses steppe as a symbol to bemoan the bleak future of his homeland.

Wild steppe vs. tamed field in Evgenii Nosov’s «Potrava»

Another Russian Soviet writer, in whose works the human destiny is closely intertwined with the depictions of the Central Russian steppe is Evgenii Nosov (1925-2002). Nosov, who was part of the «village prose» (derevenskaya proza) and the «trench truth» (okopnaya pravda) movements and fought in World War II, devotes most of his short novels and stories to the lives of ordinary people of Central Russia with the frequent inclusion of war related episodes. In his story «Potrava», Nosov depicts the steppe landscape in two different, in fact opposing states: «The islands of those former, primeval steppes are now lost in the shoreless sea of plowed up and plowed over fields, surrounded by settlements and villages, enmeshed in highways and country lanes, scurried by buses and ‘Volgas’…» [4, p. 104]. Here Nosov employs the term steppe to refer to the island of untouched nature, or «dikaya vol’nitsa», as he calls it. He linguistically distinguishes it from the «ploughed up and ploughed over field» (pahannoe perepahannoe pole), by giving it another verbal expression: field.

Interestingly enough, existing research reveals that the debate on whether the steppe environment, which was transformed by humankind, requires another verbal identification, was not limited to literary thinking only. So, in their analysis of early 20th century scientific-geographic studies of steppe, Chibilev and Grosheva refer to Russian scientist M.N. Bogdanov, who in his work «Birds and animals of blackearth stripe of Povolzhie and the valleys of middle and lower Volga» wrote: «Large or small areas of dry plains are referred to by a Russian person as steppe, open field or wild field. Unlike a wild field, plaughed up land and land under crop are called bread field» [6, p. 53]. However, Chibilev's and Grosheva's analysis further reveals that such a view did not receive further development as most of the leading scientists of the 20th century such as A.N. Beketov, A.N. Krasnov, G.I. Tanfiliev, L.S. Berg or F.N. Milkov predominantly agreed that the territories within the steppe areas do not stop being steppes in a geographical sense, even if they have been ploughed up and exploited in economic ways for centuries [6, p. 54]. Accordingly, at the very beginning of the 20th century, Russian botanist G. Vysotskiy writes: «Not every surface covered in grass can be called steppe (fields, meadows, swamps), on the other hand, ploughed up steppe, occupied by cultivated crops, none the less remains steppe» [ibid.]. This points to a long and contradictory process of the ongoing formation of the geo-ecological ideas and imaginaries about the steppe landscape which started in Imperial Russian, continued later in Soviet science and found their reflection in literature.

Yet, in Nosov’s prose the distinction between the untouched nature and the transformed land is relatively clear cut, where the first is the symbol for something eternal, foundational and ultimately detached from the cultural landscape of the Soviet village with its strict set of rules and norms of collective living. He writes: «Muzhiki from the neighbouring villages when passing by the edge of the steppe, would stop to contemplate its vastness, and once again wonder about the blind foolishness of this idle land that hasn’t yet served to men, that seeds itself, lavishly and unceasingly delivers… They would stand there for a while, breath its absinthial air and go back… to their hundred times ploughed up and ploughed over fields». [4, p. 105]. These lines refer to the life of an ordinary Soviet peasant, caught up in the dramatism and harshness of daily routine, and, thus, incapable of appreciating virgin natures’ «idle» existence. Further in the story, whenever Nosov employs the adjective «stepnoi», it seems to symbolize the crossing of boundaries, the entry into the situation with a different set of rules. That’s why the first meeting of Potrava’s main character Ignat, whom Nosov symbolically correlates with the wild steppe environment, and Yashka a feeble-minded member of the Soviet village, symbolically linked to the transformed and exploited steppe landscape, takes place at the breastwork (brustwer), which divides the two kinds of steppe and the two worlds: the free world of a wild steppe and the constricting Soviet village. Being human acquires a new meaning in the virgin steppe, allowing for the release of suppressed and controlled emotions. That is why, the murder of Yashka that Ignat commits takes place precisely in the wild steppe.

Another theme that emerges in Nosov’s Potrava is the inclusion of Russian formerly dangerous and unstable frontiers into the national territories. As the author’s voice in Potrava narrates: «Rus’ has expanded its frontiers and none of the contemporary Sloboda inhabitants is afraid that a wild nomad would run against him… or a beautiful young woman would be captured and taken into the Crimean khanate. … Time flies!» [4, p. 116]. These lines, referring to Russia’s experience with imperial expansion and its significance for the construction of Russian national identity, once again demonstrate the importance of a continued analysis of steppe imaginaries in the 20th century also for the frontier environmental history.


Although limited in its scope, the analysis of steppe depictions in Ivan Bunin’s «Epitaph»” and Evgenii Nosov’s «Potrava» reveals interesting insights about Russian national identity and its connections to imaginations of geography and landscape. This analysis asserts that in the 20th century the steppe remains a key imaginary for the construction of Russianness. Furthermore, the paper reveals some concerns about the destruction of nature among writers that echoed the science-based study of the steppe. Generally, the paper proposes that there is a need for a sustained engagement with steppe imaginaries in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature in the 20th century as it was during this period that the steppe environments underwent large-scale transformations. 

The paper was written in the framework of the research project “Deconstructing steppe imaginaries in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature from 1900 to 1968” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. 


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