The USSR as a hydraulic society: Wittfogel, the Aral Sea and the (post-)Soviet state

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Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism is not only a scholarly exposition of the ‘hydraulic hypothesis’ but also a political polemic about Soviet ‘totalitarianism’. Wittfogel does not mention that these two themes are connected: the USSR itself may be construed as a hydraulic state, especially in the Central Asian periphery, where expansion of irrigation depended on and cemented the power of the apparatus. The environmental consequences famously include the regression of the Aral Sea. This article first explores irrigation in Soviet Central Asia: while there was a connection between the centralizing tendency of Soviet bureaucracy and water’s susceptibility to political control, environmental problems were exacerbated by relatively weak control from the centre and by material qualities of water which escaped control. I then draw on my ethnographic research in Aral’sk, Kazakhstan, to examine the role of hydraulic infrastructure in imagining the strong, centralized state. I take Wittfogel’s particular constellation of connections between water, infrastructure and power as a Cold War artefact, which I compare with accounts of Soviet hydraulic projects from inhabitants of the Aral region today. Finally, I examine post-Soviet projections of statehood through a recent dam which has restored part of the Aral and mixed local reactions to it. Hydraulic infrastructure may project centralized authority, but I show that readings of the relationship between the two depend on contextual factors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1217-1234
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironment and Planning C: Politics and Space
Issue number7
Early online date14 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Aral Sea
  • Kazakhstan
  • infrastructure
  • post-Soviet
  • Wittfogel


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