Dr. Flora Roberts

Assistant Professor
Cultural History

Trained as a social historian of the Soviet Union (MA and PhD, University of Chicago 2016), my research focuses on southern Central Asia, and I am broadly interested in the entanglements of nature and culture in the modern period.  A five year postdoc at the University of Tübingen, in a Junior Research Group led by Dr Jeanne Feaux de la Croix, allowed me the space to develop as an environmental historian.

Through both my research and teaching agendas, I seek illuminate the historical roots of urgent international issues like social inequality and anthropogenic climate change. The big questions that animate my research often explore how the physical environment – built as well as natural – shapes patterns of social interaction and organisation, and conversely, the extent to which societal forms and cultural systems affect, or determine, the type and extent of environmental transformations enacted. As a member of the Junior Research Group on society and the environment in Central Asia at the University of Tübingen (2016-2020), I developed a research project on the environmental history of a transboundary river in the Soviet Union’s cotton belt. A Sea for the Valley: Water and Power in Soviet Central Asia complicates our understanding of Sovietisation in the Muslim republics by placing written and oral sources in Uzbek and Tajik alongside the top down perspective of Russian archival documents. At the heart of this project is an exploration of the cultural reception of the environmental changes brought by Soviet-built dams in Central Asia, and attitudes towards nature among Tajiks and Uzbeks as expressed through poetry, paintings, memoirs and oral testimonies. 

As I see it, environmental history extends social history’s commitment to give voice to the voiceless beyond human communities, proposing to consider the mutual interactions over time between people and their ecosystems – flora, fauna, and landscapes (mountains, rivers, swamps, forests). The advent of the Anthropocene demands that we take seriously the profound interdependence of humans with other life forms, and take stock of the potentially irreversible impact of human activity and technology on the landscape. 

The broad picture offered by Soviet historians such as Paul Josephson is that state socialism and market capitalism in the twentieth century did not differ significantly in their approach to the natural world, both systems favouring the deployment of “brute force technology” – in the form of large dams, canals, and dykes, with the goal of bringing natural resources like rivers fully under human control. There is scope, however, to complicate this picture with detailed case studies alive to the particular cultural contexts encountered by colonial and authoritarian regimes: what specificities can we find, for example, in the role of water within Persianate cultures?  How do projects of environmental and social engineering intersect?

I have conducted archival research in Moscow and Tajikistan, as well as oral history interviews with members of the Soviet Tajik intelligentsia, former dam builders, factory workers and farmers in Tajikistan. Important sources for my research include published, classified and handwritten sources in Russian, Persian/Tajik and Uzbek, as well as memoirs in European languages, and a variety of visual sources. Hitherto my fieldwork in Central Asia and the Russian Federation has been funded by the University of Chicago (2010-11), the University of Tübingen (2016-2018), and the RedGold project hosted by the EHESS in Paris (2019-2023).