A Russian geographical tradition? The contested canon of Russian and Soviet geography, 1884–1953

Jonathan D. Oldfield, Denis J.b. Shaw

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The paper defines a ‘geographical canon’ as those texts and authors which have been regarded as authoritative by geographers active at particular points in time. The focus is on the development of a geographical canon in Russia and the Soviet Union between the establishment of the first university geography departments in the 1880s and Stalin's death in 1953. A key 1949 meeting of the Academy of Sciences, held at a crisis point in Soviet history, is initially highlighted. The meeting's purpose was to define a canon or list of ‘founding fathers’ for each of the Soviet sciences, including geography, accenting the Russian provenance of each science. In geography's case, the ‘founding father’ selected was the eminent soil scientist, V. V. Dokuchaev (1846–1903). The paper discusses Dokuchaev's scientific achievements and questions why he was considered such an important figure by the geographers of the late Stalin era. It then analyzes some of the key works of a number of prominent geographers of the pre-revolutionary and Stalinist periods to discover how far Dokuchaev's work was emphasized. The main finding is that, although Dokuchaev and his school did have an indirect influence on geographical work from early on, only from about 1930 was his importance emphasized whilst that of the Germans was largely erased by Stalinism. The conclusion is that the geographical canon defined in 1949 was less a genuine attempt to describe the history of the discipline than a response to the priorities of the late Stalin era.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-84
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Early online date10 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Russian geographical canon
  • Dokuchaev
  • Stalinism
  • Zhdanovshchina
  • History of science


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