Reid on Peterson, 'Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin'

Maya K. Peterson
Patryk Reid

Maya K. Peterson. Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin. Studies in Environment and History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Illustrations, maps. 416 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-47547-1.

Reviewed by Patryk Reid (University of Pittsburgh) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Maya K. Peterson’s Pipe Dreams is a history of Russian and Soviet water management enterprises in Central Asia, from conquest and colonization in the mid-nineteenth century up to World War II. Peterson examines irrigation practices that led to the shrinking and, by some judgments, disappearance of the Aral Sea—once the fourth largest lake in the world by area. She argues that both regimes’ irrigation of Central Asia was characterized by their imperialism and a global faith in the virtue of using modern technology to manipulate nature. The book thereby makes important contributions to several fields, including environmental management and empire as well as Eurasian history.

The Aral Sea basin is a vast region—roughly one-quarter of the size of the United States[1]—comprising much of Central Asia. Its aridity made irrigation an enterprise of great significance for thousands of years (and still does). Besides the importance of canals to individual subsistence, governance and the economy also depended on access to meager aquatic resources. Peterson points out that “water thus formed an arena in which cooperation, compromise, and conflict were unavoidable,” and where power relationships frequently shifted in connection with what stakeholder was best positioned to exert influence over the water conditions of a moment (p. 13). From this complex perspective, Peterson maintains focus on what she calls “intentional actors” involved with contesting and driving the plans, construction, and maintenance of irrigation projects (p. 5). She demonstrates that their varied interactions over the flow and use of water resisted established models for understanding colonialism.

The book thus provides a bird’s-eye view of imperial dimensions of irrigation projects in Central Asia, while swooping down to case studies of various locations. Over six chapters and an epilogue, it examines the Hungry Steppe (between Tashkent and Jizzakh, Uzbekistan) in the 1880s-1910s; Semireche (east of the Ferghana valley, between the Tian Shan Mountains and Lake Balkhash), especially its Chu River valley, in the 1910s; and the Vakhsh and Ferghana valleys (respectively, southwestern Tajikistan, and the border region where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet) in the 1920s and 1930s. Appropriately, this wide-ranging study is based on research at an impressive number of archives and libraries in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States. This breadth facilitates several robust transnational analytical threads transcending conventional discussions of the projection of power and control within empire. The irrigation projects of Peterson’s study involved various sorts of international contact with Central Asia, such as the migration of Eurasian and American laborers and aquatic resource-sharing and administration across changing political borders.

Transnational and global contexts facilitate one of the key goals of the book: examining irrigation factors that formed continuities across the revolutionary ruptures of 1917, which toppled the tsarist empire and led to the establishment of the USSR. Peterson’s attention to this environmental history models new paths for research that transcend eras by avoiding some of the political shackles of regime change. On the largest scale, Peterson traces imperial and socialist participation in rich world conversations at the turn of the century about the potential of engineering to alter natural environments, including in other colonial contexts. On a smaller scale, she follows the careers of Russian and American engineers who worked on irrigation in Central Asia before and after the revolutionary year. She also demonstrates how several projects of the Joseph Stalin era were continuations or reinterpretations of initiatives from the tsarist period.

The most important, lasting motivation for irrigation was the drive for Eurasian cotton independence through Central Asian production. Peterson shows how, starting in the nineteenth century, Russia acquired American cotton seed and systematically improved its cultivation in the Aral Sea basin. The result was that, by the 1980s, Central Asia supplied almost all of the USSR’s raw cotton. Peterson also draws attention to some of the environmental outcomes of continuing irrigation for cotton, such as the propagation of malaria because of newly formed swamps in the Hungry Steppe. The higher profitability of cotton also led to the decline of rice farming and therefore the related loss of a crop that was kinder to the earth: it did not require polluting fertilizers, of which cotton needs much; and rice cultivation techniques also mitigated soluble salts that otherwise threatened water bodies as well as other plants.

Pipe Dreams furnishes important new information on Russian and Soviet Central Asia, while effectively integrating it with more well-known scholarship. Its careful attention to what organizations managed water, like the early Soviet “Central Asian Water Management Administration” (known as Vodkhoz), contributes to a dearth of historiography about institutions of the region. Meanwhile, the book engages a well-established literature on the imposition of tsarist and socialist notions of civility and progress in Central Asia. This extended, for example, to numerous incarnations of regional education in water management, such as in the “Tashkent hydraulic engineering school” established in 1906, and Vodkhoz in-house classes on hydraulic technical training that started in 1924, both of which were meant to include or coopt Central Asians into settler institutions and forms of irrigation (p. 130). These efforts, Peterson argues, were a reaction to the Russian and Soviet failure to displace preexisting canal technology and administration practices believed to be backward. She thus contributes to a body of shorter irrigation histories of Central Asia by analyzing the influence of customary water-sharing practices throughout the tsarist era and the continuing relevance of ariq aqsaqals (elders overseeing irrigation systems) in the early USSR. The book also connects irrigation history to major, if understudied, events. Region specialists, for example, view widespread uprisings of Central Asians in 1916 as a significant anti-colonial moment contributing to the weakening of the Russian Empire on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Peterson integrates this event into her history of the Chu valley irrigation project. Additionally, her attention to the Kashgari and Afghan migrant laborers involved offers rare insights into transnational social problems connected with water management at the end of the Russian Empire in Central Asia.

The book is especially closely integrated with the historiography of the Soviet era and contributes to several dimensions of the literature. A feature of the late 1920s was the regime’s vilification of intellectuals and experts like engineers because they were associated with a pre-Soviet elite whom the Bolshevik Revolution targeted. This included show trials, kicked-off by the iconic persecution of technicians and engineers of the Shakhty coal mines in the north Caucasus who were accused of sabotage and treason. Peterson broadens our understanding of this history by connecting it to the Central Asian irrigation context. She observes that an early 1928 trial “of sixteen employees of the Central Asian water management administration preceded the Shakhty Trial by several months, indicating that the attack on Central Asian hydraulic engineers might be considered a trial run in the borderlands for a larger attack on more prominent specialists” (p. 260). While this aspect of the book confirms broadly held understandings of the political and labor environment of the USSR, Peterson challenges other dominant analytical frameworks. For example, she shows that, although the irrigation construction sites of Soviet Central Asia had many of the same features as those elsewhere in the socialist state, the laborers there were not as integrated into political culture. They did not “speak Bolshevik,” Peterson states, citing Stephen Kotkin’s famous term for accepted, ideological forms of expression used to negotiate daily life in the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Complex of the Ural Mountains.[2] Central Asians working in southern Tajikistan during the 1930s, she explains, “often could not even understand Russian” (p. 298).

This book’s integration with a historiography that is dominated by studies of western Russia, and featuring few environmental histories, results in a number of analytical tensions. Peterson refers to forced labor as a primary feature of irrigation work in early Soviet Central Asia, but she does not provide substantial enough description or evidence to satisfy the potential for this information to change existing knowledge of the region. The author might also have pursued further discussion of the environmental impacts she sees as resulting from tsarist and Soviet irrigation in the Aral Sea basin. For example, the book’s epilogue argues that, as the diversion of water caused the Aral Sea to shrink, Lake Saryqamysh grew—southwest of the Aral Sea, on the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border. Her vivid description of this consequence would have benefited from integration with the larger literature on the Saryqamysh depression, the Uzboi River, the Aral Sea, and the historically changing course of the Amu.[3]

Even so, the broad relevance of Pipe Dreams to regional as well as global histories of water management and empire overshadows its minor problems. The book should be read by scholars and students of Russian and Soviet Empire, modern Central Asia, and environmental management. It belongs in every academic library.


[1]. Phillip Micklin, “Introduction to the Aral Sea and Its Region,” in The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake, ed. Phillip Micklin, N. V. Aladin, and Igor Plotnikov (Heidelberg: Springer, 2014), 15.

[2]. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), chap. 5.

[3]. See Micklin, “Introduction to the Aral Sea and Its Region,” 25-29, 34.

Patryk Reid is a historian of environment and economic life specializing in Russian and Soviet Eurasia. He is an associate of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Citation: Patryk Reid. Review of Peterson, Maya K., Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia's Aral Sea Basin. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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