Cotton plants in the Sukhumi Botanical Garden; digital colour rendering from glass plates in the Prokudin-Gorskiĭ albums (c1905-15). Courtesy the Library of Congress


Dream of the Russian tropics

Imperial Russia had little access to the bountiful tropics that other empires enjoyed. So it created its own in the Caucasus

by Oleksandr Polianichev + BIO

Cotton plants in the Sukhumi Botanical Garden; digital colour rendering from glass plates in the Prokudin-Gorskiĭ albums (c1905-15). Courtesy the Library of Congress

In the age of empires, seeds and saplings of tropical plants were making regular voyages throughout the world. Travelling across continents and oceans via metropolitan and colonial botanical gardens, they did not only transform, but also helped to construe the very notion of the tropics. The trans- and intra-imperial circulation of biota shaped a global web that connected colonial realms of the British, French, Dutch and other maritime empires. The Tsarist Empire is never thought of as a participant of this process, but it was one of the stopovers on the tropical plants’ round-the-world journey. It was in the South Caucasus where imperial botanists, agriculturalists and upper-class settlers invented Russia’s own ‘tropical’ domain.

This region lies nowhere near the tropical zone but, in the long 19th century, this geographical fact mattered little when confronted with the power of imagination. As Catherine Cocks has shown in her Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas (2013), the term ‘tropics’ was used rather evocatively and indiscriminately, spreading into places like Southern California and Florida. Only at the turn of the 20th century, the term ‘subtropics’ firmly entered the imperial lexicon to lend an air of science to the idea of tropicality.

The ‘tropics’ was, thus, a wandering notion, which travelled along with the plants that were its hallmark. In the South Caucasus, it roamed from one place to another – from the arid steppes of Azerbaijan to the river valleys of Georgia – before it finally became ensconced on the eastern Black Sea coast, in places like Sochi (today a resort city in Russia), Sukhum (or Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia) and, most comfortably, Batum (today’s Batumi, the second-largest city in Georgia, close to the border with Turkey).

Why did imperial Russia need the tropics? From the early 19th century onwards, the pursuit of tropical commodities was the main driving force of the acclimatisation of exotic plants. As the century wore out, the tropics took on a new meaning – as places of delight and self-indulgence. Ornamental exotic plants equalled – if not outmatched – useful ones in importance. Hotels, sanatoria and ‘climate stations’, where tsarist subjects succumbed to dolce far niente, dotted the littoral. Well-off settlers were coming in large numbers. Villas and vacation residences popped up throughout the coastline.

Tropicality entailed settler colonialism: the public and the government alike treated the Indigenous population as too indolent and primitive to be able to unleash the real potential of the local climate. The inflow of ‘pioneers’ and ‘Kulturträger’ from Russia proper and the empire’s European provinces was the only means to productively harness and economically uplift the region. Lastly, tropicality served imperialism as a symbol of grandeur. Many a member of tsarist society took pride in the very thought that their empire was immense enough to stretch from the polar ice caps as far as places where coconut palms and banana plants grew. In other words, if there were no tropics, they were worth to be made.

In 1902, in an account of the years spent in Java, Modest Bakunin – the Russian imperial consul to the Dutch East Indies – reflected on his experience of living in a part of the world that few of his countrymen had a chance to see firsthand. Tasked with advancing trade opportunities, and searching for a colonial territory for the Russian Empire in Southeast Asia that would host a coaling station for tsarist ships, Bakunin felt disillusioned. For him, just as for a vast number of other colonial sojourners whose career paths took them to the warm oceans, his stay in an exotic place was about boredom and disappointment rather than about adventure and excitement. Homesick, he was ever more longing for the Old World he had left behind.

To escape the tedious routine, Bakunin took comfort in socialising with other Europeans, who for various reasons came to stay in the colony’s capital, Batavia. This was, as Bakunin described it, ‘a tight circle of colleagues, that is, real Europeans who, like me and my family, see their existence in Java as something temporary and transient.’ Indeed, the yearning for Europe, as well as the shared sense of Europeanness, was what brought them all together: ‘All of us keep and carefully maintain the “European” flame that unites us in our faraway captivity and all the time tells us about old Europe, better and nicer than which nobody has invented anything.’

Bakunin enthusiastically described the main advantages that the tropics could offer – colonial commodities produced from heat-loving plants. Cinchona tree, coconut palm, bamboo, rattan, teak and tea, among others, delivered enormous benefits to metropolitan societies. If the tropics, the ‘white men’s cemetery’, were of any use to Europeans, it was the immense exploitative potential of their vegetation. Whereas his own colonial mission proved an exercise in futility, Bakunin envisioned the introduction of exotic crops – particularly tea – to tsarist soil because Russia, he assured, had a territorial possession in the south that, in many respects, resembled the Dutch East Indies: ‘Transcaucasia for us is just the same colony that Java is for the Dutch metropole. The climatic and soil conditions of the Russian tropics allow planting in our domains and successfully introducing many of tropical and subtropical cultivars.’ Bakunin’s consular service in the tropics, if anything, made him an avid proponent of inter-imperial transfers of useful plants from Java to the South Caucasus.

Tsarist visitors discovered the South Caucasus as capable to yield ‘tropical’ commodities to satisfy the metropole

Writing about the latter as a tsarist tropical colony, Bakunin followed in the footsteps of many of his contemporaries and predecessors who propagated this view. Due to their efforts, by the turn of the 20th century, the South Caucasus had come to be firmly associated with the idea of tropicality. The dream of the Russian tropics was not a new fin-de-siècle passion. It had been haunting different layers of tsarist society since the moment Russia first secured its dominion over the region.

In the opening decades of the 19th century, imperial Russia expanded south of the Caucasus Mountains. Its challenge was to rule over not only an extremely variegated social, cultural and political landscape, but also over an environment that differed from the rest of the empire – the one that was expected to open new prospects for the imperial economy. Imperial travellers, scientists and officials appropriated various parts of this unfamiliar space through images and tropes that emphasised the luxurious, exotic and exuberant nature of its scenery. The spectrum of meanings attached to the South Caucasus was one way or another associated with the idea of the region’s purported tropicality. Much like in early 19th-century India, which increasingly came to be perceived as part of the broader tropical world – as David Arnold has shown in his study The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze (2006) – tsarist visitors discovered the South Caucasus as capable to yield ‘tropical’ commodities to satisfy the needs of the metropole. Speculations about its tropical climate conditions defined much of the imperial attitudes towards the region, believed to be able to produce nearly everything the southern climate might offer and nearly everything the imperial cause might need.

Different authors entertained different opinions as to which parts of the region best matched their expectation of the tropics. Such was the great lowland of modern-day Azerbaijan, which, an 1836 survey assured, ‘will become a nursery for tropical plants and will substitute for Russia Persia, India, and South America.’ This survey, commissioned by the imperial authorities as a compendium of statistical data about the South Caucasus to expose its natural riches, assessed that most of its territory possessed tropical qualities. To make them work for the empire, the improvement of local agriculture was needed so that ‘the South Caucasus, as a colony, could satisfy the demands of Russian manufactures by its tropical and southern production in raw form.’

Such an outspoken mercantile colonial vision of Russia’s new territorial acquisition, driven by fantasies about its alleged tropicality, was a product of discourses about empire and environment that tsarist officialdom borrowed from Western Europe. Colonialism was a joint enterprise, in which the cross-fertilisation of ideas and policies across imperial states and their dependencies contributed to the emergence of the shared vocabulary of imperialism, conceptualised by Christoph Kamissek and Jonas Kreienbaum as ‘the imperial cloud’. One of those who drew extensively on the trans-imperial repertoire of knowledge, images and practices was Egor Kankrin, the empire’s finance minister and one the first senior tsarist officials who formulated the concept of the South Caucasus as a colony of exploitation. In 1827, he wrote: ‘Not without reason, the Transcaucasian province can be called our colony, which should bring for the state very important benefits of the products of southern climates.’

In the second quarter of the 19th century, when these ideas proliferated, nobody knew what exactly these colonial commodities could be. Because of the want of any reliable scientific data, colonial fantasies of the imperial bureaucracy about the tropical climate of the region led them to believe that the abundant supply of sunshine in the South Caucasus would make for the cultivation of ‘southern’ and ‘tropical’ crops, much needed by tsarist commerce, medicine and industry.

Environmental imaginaries of this kind resulted in early ambitious undertakings by Russian imperial agents. Today, Aleksandr Griboedov is mostly known as a poet and playwright. However, apart from his literary passion, he had a passion for empire. As a tsarist diplomat in Persia, he took pains to expand Russia’s imperial sway south of the Caspian Sea. The neighbouring South Caucasus, in his eyes, deserved a special arrangement akin to that of India vis-à-vis the British Empire. In 1828, Griboedov put forward a project of the Transcaucasia Company, which would administer the province in a fashion similar to the East India Company. He bemoaned the fact that the Russian Empire imported commodities of the hot climates from abroad while it could obtain its own ‘southern and even tropical production’ from the South Caucasus. The Transcaucasia Company, as a concerted effort of entrepreneurial capitalists, would remedy the problem by producing, manufacturing and exporting ‘colonial products’ to the Russian metropole and the most distant parts of the globe. The death of Griboedov at the hands of an angry mob in Tehran the following year buried the project, but not the idea of tropicality.

The local administration was keen to employ foreign – mostly French – experts in tropical agriculture to put these ideas into practice. Among those who came to the South Caucasus was the botanist and agriculturalist Joseph-Elzéar Morénas, who had a long record of colonial service in India and Senegal. His stay in Africa made him a vocal critic of slavery and brought him to Haiti, where Morénas admired the achievements of the anticolonial revolution. He resented colonial slave trade but marvelled at colonial commodities. In 1829, he ended up in the South Caucasus at the invitation of the government. Instructed to bring out the most suitable areas for plantations of exotic crops, Morénas suggested introducing sugarcane, oranges, lemons, coffee tree, indigo and other ‘plants of the tropics’, arguing that some parts of this region were ‘not inferior to the best colonies’ in terms of its climate. The main hazard that awaited planters, he warned, were local fevers not unlike those in tropical colonies. Morénas fell victim to one himself in 1830.

In just a few years, the first tea shrubs germinated in the garden’s soil

The corollary of governmental pursuits – and an echo of Griboedov’s project – was the Transcaucasian Society for the Advancement of Agricultural and Manufacturing Industries and Trade. Established in 1833, it concentrated its efforts on the acclimatisation of exotic plants and their dissemination across the South Caucasus. In its own experimental farm and the garden in the region’s capital, Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi), the society attempted to cultivate Chinese indigo, olive trees, Egyptian cotton, tobacco, sugarcane and other crops, all with mixed success and almost no effect on the local economy. After its dissolution in 1845, the society gave way to the Caucasus Society for Agriculture, designed to put the issue of acclimatisation on scientific footing, while its experimental nursery was transformed into the Tiflis Botanical Garden, which also tried its hand at acclimatising southern plants for plantation purposes.

If any tangible results of this early phase of the tropicalisation endeavour were anywhere to be found, however, it was in another botanical garden in Sukhum, a major tsarist outpost in Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast. Founded in 1840 by Lieutenant General Nikolai Raevskii, the commander of the military fortified line along the coastline and a passionate botany aficionado, it could boast some of the most exotic plant species growing in the Russian Empire in the open air, including varieties of citrus trees. An officer who visited the garden in 1842 gleefully anticipated that, thanks to it, the empire would have its own ‘oranges, lemons, almonds, olives, cotton, the best tobacco, and, maybe, coffee, tea, cork as well as many pharmaceutical plants.’ In just a few years, the first tea shrubs germinated in the garden’s soil. At the time Britain introduced Camellia sinensis to the Darjeeling area to become self-sufficient in the production of its favourite drink, Russia pursued the same goals in the South Caucasus. Unlike the former, however, it took some more decades before the first large tea plantations were set up in the region.

The rise of tea cultivation in the South Caucasus was a trans-imperial story from the outset. Walter Tschudi Lyall was the man behind it. A British colonial officer in India, he was a nephew of the chairman of the East India Company. His younger brothers were senior officials in the service of the British Raj, whose careers made them governors of Punjab and the North-Western Provinces. In the 1860s, Lyall attempted to establish a tea plantation in the Himalayan foothills, but failed and tried his luck in Tiflis, where he introduced himself to the local authorities as a tea planter with almost two decades of experience, offering his service in founding a company for the cultivation of tea on a large scale. The company planned to bring, just as the British did, Chinese labourers to work on plantations and to ship tea seeds and seedlings from China. The plans never materialised for the lack of money and enormous difficulties that the company met in the corridors of tsarist bureaucracy.

No other development contributed more to the assertion of the South Caucasus tropical image than the war between the Russian and Ottoman empires that broke out in 1877. In the wake of it, Russia annexed the town of Batum on the Black Sea shore and the whole adjacent area. Villages in the region were remarkable for their orange groves, cultivated by the native population, which testified to the unique conditions of the local climate, evidently suitable for exotic crops. As the region was opened for Russian colonisation after the exodus of most of its residents to the Ottoman Empire, it was this milieu of Russian colonists who began introducing evergreen vegetation for ornamental purposes and for the sake of making their fortune. Among them was the Tiflis naturalist and ethnologist Nikolai Zeidlits, who attempted to cultivate tea, eucalyptus and other exotic crops in Chakva, north of Batum, but soon realised that this agricultural hobby obstructed his scholarly studies.

Nevertheless, Zeidlits, under the influence of Lyall’s manuscript about his tea experiments, encouraged another Chakva settler, the retired colonel Aleksandr Solovtsov, to start a tea plantation on his land. Planting material was brought from one of the largest centres of tsarist tea production, located well beyond the Russian Empire. The treaty port of Hankou in China (today part of Wuhan), one of the most important nodes of Russia’s informal empire, which subsequently hosted a Russian territorial concession, with its tea factories run by Russian entrepreneurs and employing Chinese manpower, became a supplier of the first tea plants for the emergent tea enterprise in the South Caucasus in 1884. Solovtsov’s plantation proved successful, and soon large capital followed suit.

Konstantin Popov, a scion of the founder of one of the largest tea companies of the empire, which also owned a plantation in Hankou, bought a large area next to Solovtsov’s estate in 1892 and established a cutting-edge tea plantation with a tea factory. Tea was not the only transfer from China that Popov implemented. Besides plants, he brought people – just like Lyall had proposed two decades before him. A dozen skilled Chinese tea farmers together with an expert on tea cultivation, Liu Junzhou, became the first example of labour transfer from a semi-colonial treaty port to this part of the Russian Empire.

Settlers from the metropole would cultivate whimsical plants for aesthetic pleasure and commodities

The bringing of the Chinese was preceded by heated discussions about the practicability of such a move, which betrayed acute racialised concerns among Russian commentators. The phantom of the ‘yellow peril’, well-entrenched in the mindset of tsarist society at the turn of the century, and the fear of race deterioration loomed large. As one article in the official local newspaper went, ‘however desirable it is to acclimatise the tea shrub here and free ourselves from the multimillion tribute that we pay to China for tea every year, it is nevertheless even more desirable to free ourselves from the necessity to acclimatise here the Chinese themselves.’ The author of this piece compared the Chinese with phylloxera, a grape disease that devastated vineyards across Europe, tsarist wine-growing areas being no exception, noting that it was still possible to fight the plant pest, ‘whereas one cannot rid of the Chinese by any means.’

The government was a latecomer to the tea plantation business in the South Caucasus. In 1895, when Popov’s workers were harvesting tea for the first time, it organised an expedition to China, Japan, Ceylon and the Himalayas to bring specimens of tea and other southern crops to the Russian Empire. As the expedition was off to the tropics, the Department of Crown Domains acquired nearly 17,500 hectares of land in Chakva to establish a state-owned experimental and, as its title suggested, ‘colonisation’ estate, the main purpose of which was to receive, acclimatise and grow exotic plants expected to be brought by the expedition. This venture resulted in astonishing success, turning the estate and, eventually, the vicinities of Batum into a quasi-tropical landscape with vast plantations of tea, citrus trees, bamboo, loquat, Japanese persimmon and many other exotic species. By 1915, the Chakva estate had the largest tea plantations amounting to almost 550 hectares. Popov lagged behind with 140 hectares, while 200 private farmers together cultivated slightly more than 200 hectares.

In the 1890s, two botanical gardens, one in Sochi and one in Sukhum, were established and, then a decade later, experimental stations were added. There were few people in the Russian Empire as obsessed with the tropics as the mastermind behind the latter’s creation, Pavel Tatarinov. He travelled extensively. His dreams about the tropical world took him to South America, where he admired the marvels of the ‘earthly paradise’ but remonstrated that ‘semi-civilised’ people were turning it into ‘hell’. He made trips to Algeria to explore the experimental Jardin du Hamma, and to the French Riviera, where he visited Villa Thuret in Antibes, a botanical garden and an acclimatisation and research facility dealing with tropical plants. In conversation with Tatarinov and, later, in a separate essay, its director Charles Naudin argued that the villa, inspired by British experimental colonial gardens, could, in turn, serve as a model for similar institutions in Russia’s southernmost possessions.

In 1885, Tatarinov took the most important decision of his life, purchasing land on the coast of the Black Sea near Sukhum. There, he used his important skills to reproduce a tropical oasis in the open air, which turned into the most spectacular showcase for exotic vegetation on the whole coast. Tatarinov envisaged turning the coastal part west and south of the Caucasus Ridge into a nearly tropical realm, where incoming settlers from the metropole would cultivate whimsical plants for aesthetic pleasure and the production of commodities. Inspired by the French, he spoke in favour of establishing experimental stations in Sochi and Sukhum and, as soon as it happened, he became the director of the latter.

The reality betrayed expectations, however. Debates over which kinds of plants should be given preference ensued in the forthcoming years. Many opted for more down-to-earth pursuits, such as the introduction of traditional fruit, cereals and vegetables to the coastal zone of Russian colonisation. Others insisted that wasting the close-to-tropical conditions of the region for plants of the temperate climate was unreasonable. More than a decade after, the new director of the Sochi, and later Sukhum, experimental stations, Vasilii Markovich, described the rivalry between the proponents of growing ordinary Russian plants and the supporters of southern vegetation as a battle between ‘cabbage and orange’, arguing that ‘where ananas [pineapple] and other exotic fruit grow, there cannot be room for cabbage and potato.’

Tatarinov would certainly agree. However, his quest for the Russian tropics took him southwards. Disillusioned with not uncommon freezing temperatures and snowfalls of Sukhum winters, he acquired a new estate near Batum in 1898, the climate of which seemed a much better fit for his tropical garden. By the time Tatarinov moved there, the region had already been recognised by scholars as the Russian Empire’s ‘subtropical’ corner. No one else did more for this idea to take hold in the imagination of fin-de-siècle Russia than Andrei Krasnov, one of Russia’s foremost scholarly experts in tropical flora. Krasnov was a member and the public face of the governmental tropical expedition of 1895. His resounding article, published the same year under the telling title ‘The Russian Tropics’, was meant to put the long-standing idea of the South Caucasus tropicality on a scientific footing. Krasnov argued that regions with a tropical outlook – humid, winterless and rich in rainfall – could be found far beyond the tropics themselves. ‘Subtropical’ thus meant ‘tropical’ in most respects save for the geographic one. With the warmest winters and the highest amount of precipitation in the Russian Empire, red laterite soil, and a number of indigenous evergreen plant species that formed the undergrowth of local woods, the Batum region reminded Krasnov of Java and Ceylon. What set it apart, in his view, was the want of genuinely exotic vegetation typical of tropical rainforests, which had existed here in the prehistoric era but had mostly perished during the Ice Age.

In his later writings, Krasnov suggested correcting this historical injustice and restoring the region’s appearance to its ‘authentic’ tropical condition by reintroducing exotic plants from the Global South. This endeavour underlined many activities of the Chakva estate in the Batum region. Krasnov did not feel it was enough, arguing that the tropical transformation of the local environment could be achieved only with the help of a botanical garden. This acclimatisation institution, similar to British colonial gardens in India and the garden of Dutch Buitenzorg in Java, as Krasnov wrote, would ‘restore’ the prehistoric flora in the area and would facilitate the dissemination of tropical and subtropical plants along the coast so that settlers would be able to produce ‘colonial’ commodities on Russia’s own home turf.

The imperial army advanced along the Ottoman coast, occupying lands with orange orchards and evergreen flora

The Batum Botanical Garden, established in 1912, was conceived by Krasnov as having a broader appeal for the public. He wanted it to host not only exotic plants, but also exotic human beings – to be an ‘ethnographic exhibition’ or an ‘exhibition park’. In essence, Krasnov designed a human zoo of unique proportions. While the structure of the garden represented various (sub)tropical parts of the globe – from Japan, Ceylon and Florida to Australia, New Zealand and Chile – the garden’s sections were to be populated by these places’ Indigenous people, ‘placed within the real conditions of the nature that nurtured them.’ Amid palm trees and banana plants, humans on display would feel at home and would serve visitors delicacies made of tropical fruit grown on the spot, sell handicrafts, and entertain their guests in many other ways.

Such a spectacle of tropicality and race was likely inspired by what Nigel Rothfels in his study Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (2002) termed the ‘Hagenbeck revolution’ – still a new way of exhibiting animals and people in their ‘natural habitats’, promoted by the zoo tycoon Carl Hagenbeck in the early 20th century. If implemented, Krasnov’s daring creation would have been unparalleled in the history and practice of human zoos in Europe, but his vision never materialised. The First World War halted the development of the garden, while Krasnov died in late 1914, unsure about what kind of future awaited the fruits of his years-long efforts.

Despite all the horrors and anxieties that the Great War brought to the Russian Empire and, particularly, to the South Caucasus, there was room for excitement. The empire was expanding in Asia – for one last time before its nearing end – and so did the tsarist (sub)tropics. In 1915, the imperial army advanced along the Ottoman coast, occupying new localities with orange orchards and evergreen flora. A correspondent of the official local newspaper excitedly wrote about the crossing of the border between the Batum region and Russian-occupied Ottoman Lazistan: ‘One more step to the south, and we are in our new subtropical possessions.’ With the transfer of Anatolian territories to Russia, he noted, ‘the dream of the poet of the Russian subtropics, the late professor A N Krasnov, comes true. The soil of these areas is suitable not only for the growth of oranges and lemons; tea will grow perfectly here.’ Indeed, Russian tea planters were quick to petition the officialdom with a request to start plantations in the ‘new’ regions. State agronomists began analysing which areas of Anatolia were most suitable for this cause, suggesting that up to 16,000 hectares were available for prospective plantations. As the Russian Empire disintegrated and Turkey reclaimed its territories in a few years, the Turkish government brought the idea of tea plantations in Anatolia into fruition and made it a reality in the 1920s.

Yet another success at tea planting in neighbouring Persia was at least partially based on the tsarist tropical experience. In 1901, Iran’s tea pioneer Prince Mohammad Mirza visited the Chakva estate and brought from there new knowledge about methods of tea cultivation and tsarist specialists. His first tea plantations in Gilan came into being thanks to Russian imperial expertise. Plant-based industries and transfers in the South Caucasus came hard on the heels of those undertaken by Russia’s imperial rivals and allies. Surprisingly, however, they also served as models for more southern countries to follow.

Oleksandr Polianichev’s project ‘Tropics of Tsardom: Plants and Empire in the South Caucasus, 1800s–1917’, is supported by Sweden’s Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.