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 Flora Roberts

Flora Roberts

Lecturer in Environmental History

School of History, Archaeology and Religion

Email
robertsf5@cardiff.ac.uk
Telephone
+44 (0)29 2087 6219
Campuses
John Percival Building, Colum Drive, Cardiff, CF10 3EU
Users
Available for postgraduate supervision

Overview

I am a social and environmental historian of modern Eurasia: I am interested in how societies and their environments have shaped and influenced each other over time. My regional area of focus is the Ferghana Valley, at the heart of Central Asia – shared today between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but more broadly I am interested in the history of the Soviet Union as a whole.

As I see it, my calling as an environmental historian is to extend social history’s commitment to amplify the voices that have been muted, beyond human communities. My subject are the mutual interactions over time between people and their ecosystems – flora, fauna, and landscapes. 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.

I hold a BA in Classics from Oxford University, and an MA and PhD in History from the University of Chicago (2016). Prior to joining Cardiff University in 2020, I was a member of the Junior Research Group on the Environment and Society of Central Asia at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany (2016-2020).  I have published in Central Asian Survey, ab imperio and the latest issue of the Rachel Carson Center’s Perspectives (2/2020). I am currently working on two book projects: Patricians of Leninabad: Power and Lineage in Soviet Central Asia, based on my dissertation research into saintly lineages in Khujand, northern Tajikistan, while The Sea in the Valley is an environmental history of the Syr Darya river and the Ferghana Valley in the modern period.

My article “Tajikistan: from Reconciliation to Post-Reconciliation,” co-authored with Edward Lemon, is due to appear in January 2021 in Political Regimes and Neopatrimonialism in Central Asia: A Sociology of Power Perspective, edited by Ferran Izquierdo-Brichs, and Francesc Serra Massansalvador, and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Biography

Prior to joining Cardiff University in 2020, I was a member of the Junior Research Group on the Environment and Society of Central Asia at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany (2016-2020).  I have also benefited from a three month research fellowship at Leiden University in 2019, where I also taught in the BA in International Studies. 

I hold a BA in Classics from Oxford University, and an MA and PhD in History from the University of Chicago (2016). While at Chicago, I also studied Russian, Persian and Uzbek. Prior to embarking on my MA and PhD in Chicago, I worked for two years for openDemocracy in London, and spent two and a half years living and working in Central Asia (with stints in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan). While in Central Asia, I worked in international development, as a project manager for ACTED, and in Kabul for a local human rights organisation, HAWCA.

Teaching

  • HS1794 A Global History of Rivers
  • HS1105 Making of the Modern World
  • HS1702 Exploring Historical Debate
  • HS1801 Dissertations

Under the broad rubric of the environmental history of modern Eurasia, I pursue several axes of research, which all begin in the Ferghana Valley - a region at the heart of Central Asia, split today between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 

I am interested in probing the relationship between state socialism and the environment, which in the first instance seems not dissimilar to the path taken by market capitalism in the twentieth century: both systems favouring the deployment of what Paul Josephson has called “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?

In answer, I am developing a monograph provisionally titled A Sea for the Valley: Water and Power in Soviet Central Asia, an environmental history of the interactions between the Syr Darya river and the communities of the Ferghana Valley in the long twentieth century. The narrative is centered on the first large dam built in the 1950s, and explores the conflicting visions of European experts, and local traditions and beliefs. I have undertaken primary research for this project in the Moscow archives, as well as an oral history project among 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. 

My research has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals including Central Asian Survey, and ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space. For ab Imperio, my article “A Controversial Dam in Stalinist Central Asia” illuminates the tensions and rivalry that broke out between Communist Party leaders of neighboring republics over the first major dam project in the region. Previously neglected archival sources allow me to challenge the received narrative about the top down planning of major infrastructure projects, and their grateful reception within Central Asia.

I am currently revising my first monograph, Patricians of Leninabad: Lineage and Social Mobility in Soviet Central Asia.  Here, I focus on the hereditary socio-political elite of urban Central Asia, and analyze the reasons for their surprisingly successful adaptation to Soviet rule, which carries profound implications for the success and limits of state-run affirmative action programs. Even the radical Stalinist policies designed to discriminate against “class enemies” could not, within two or even three generations, overcome the competitive advantage enjoyed by Patricians over those regarded as their social inferiors. Similarly to what Bourdieu observed for France, Soviet affirmative action policies relied on free public education to act as a leveling force, but this would often prove no match for the social and cultural capital built up over many generations by Patrician families. 

Supervision

I am happy to supervise research in the environmental history of modern Eurasia. 

I am also available to supervise students with interests in 

  • the social history of the USSR
  • the enviromental history of Soviet and post-Soviet space
  • the history of rivers
  • modern Central Asia

External profiles