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History professor's book unpacks the story of Black Sea grain

Alan Flurry

2019 Guggenheim Fellow Scott Nelson, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Humanities in the department of history, published a timely new book this year recounting the story of how people have been growing wheat along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast since at least 2700 BC.

Nelson's book Oceans of Grain (Basic Books, 2022) has met with widespread acclaim worldwide for both its insights on this global commodity as well as grain's central role in the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine:

The country is so adept at producing the staple, in part, because of its legendary black soil. But it also has broad plains, relatively deep rivers bringing fresh water from the mountains and great ports such as Odessa, which are vital for transport (rail is 20 times more expensive than sea freight). “There are relatively few places that hit all those marks,” says Nelson.

As the far-reaching threats to food security have shown, wheat is intertwined with the war in Ukraine. When reports of Russian movement began to emerge, some doubted an invasion would occur. But Nelson, with his recent focus on grain and empire, recalled the many other times Russia has invaded the northern Black Sea in the past 250 years.

Vladimir Putin’s master’s thesis was on strategic resources in Russia and Ukraine, Nelson highlights: “For Putin, it’s all about resources, and always has been,” he says, adding that Russia’s “elemental desire” to dominate the Black Sea is important to understanding the conflict.

Related praise for Oceans of Grain on WBUR’s Radio Open SourceBloomberg OpinionThe SpectatorMother Jones, and Slate


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