Universiteit Leiden

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Bitter truths: Common-pool resources, industrialisation, and the global history of Central Asian wormwood

  • Beatrice Penati
Monday 10 October 2016
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Guest lecture by Beatrice Penati, Assistant Professor of History at Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan). Dr Penati is the Central Asia Visiting Scholar in October 2016 within the Central Asia Initiative at Leiden University.


Image Library of Congress,
Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a medicinal plant, Artemisia cina , used to grow abundantly on the right bank of the Arys river, not far from Shymkent, in what was the Syr-Darya province of Tsarist Turkestan (now in southern Kazakhstan). An alkaloid derived from this kind of wormwood (santonin) were in high demand at the time throughout the world. Flowers were harvested by the local Kazakh population and handed over to intermediaries, who sent them to Europe to be processed industrially. Entrepreneurs from different parts of the Russian empire established their own chemical plants in Chimkent and Tashkent from the 1880s onwards. They pressured the Russian imperial government to restrict the rights of the Kazakh population to access the land where Artemisia cina grew, and to obtain the exclusive right to exploit such a resource, in the name of conservation.

The collision between the expectations and rights of the nomads, the industrialists, and the colonial administration allows a glimpse into the evolution of  Tsarist colonial policies about land resources and into the way notions of land property were used by each of the parts concerned. Furthermore, this story casts light on the supposed monopolistic nature of pre-revolutionary Russian capitalism. From another viewpoint, through Artemisia cina we see the emergence of conservationism in the region and on the development of scientific expertise in its support. Finally, because the trade of Central Asian wormwood and its derivates was truly global, changing medical practices and consumers' behaviour had a massive impact on the destiny of local harvesting and transformation activities. In this perspective, Central Asia ceases to be a marginalised periphery and appears far more integrated than commonly held.

Beatrice Penati

Dr Beatrice Penati is Assistant Professor of History at Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan), since 2011. She earned a co-directed PhD at the Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa, Italy) and at the EHESS (Paris) in 2008. She was an intern of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies in Tashkent and held postdoctoral positions in Sapporo (Slavic Research Center, JSPS post-doc fellowship) and Manchester (Newton International Fellowship of the British Academy).
In the past, she worked on the basmachi uprising and on the para-diplomatic activity of Muslim nationalist refugees from the former Russian empire in interwar Europe. Her most recent research interests, which have led to several articles, concern the economic and environmental history of colonial and early Soviet Central Asia, with two main foci: taxation, cadastres, irrigation, and forestry before and after the revolution, and the history of rural policies and agricultural change in the 1920s. Her first book, To Feed and to Mobilise: Land Reform and Rural Economy in early Soviet Central Asia, is under contract. At Nazarbayev University, Dr Penati teaches classes in the history of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, comparative colonialism, and Eurasian trade to undergraduate students and students of the local MA in Eurasian Studies. 

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