The Eurasian steppe is an enormous semiarid grass belt that stretches from northern China and Mongolia, through Russia, all the way to Ukraine and into Hungary. For well over two millennia, the region has served as the highway of human civilizations, the wide-open road that history marches on. Like the American prairie, the steppe is a place of myth, an infinite landscape of rolling grass. “You go on and on and there is no way to tell where it begins and where it ends,” wrote Anton Chekhov at the close of the 19th century in one of my favorite stories, “The Steppe.”
The western edge of the steppe, in Ukraine, has been the quintessential frontier of Europe and one of its most contested regions. It was once known as dikoe pole, “the wild field,” and it took the Russian Empire until the end of the 18th century to subdue it and bring under imperial control its various nomadic and seminomadic groups. The very name Ukraine means “borderland.” Now, history seems to be repeating itself. The steppe has become a frontier once again.
When I visit Askania-Nova at the end of September, the iconic fescue and feather grasses, dotted by red tulips and purple irises, have long gone to seed under the harsh summer sun. But the immensity of the steppe, stretching out in all directions, is still dizzying. There is certain grandeur in monotony.
“We need rain, rain, rain. The whole steppe really changes with the rain,” says Gavrilenko, as if ashamed that I could not witness the steppe’s full splendor. He tells me that for all his years at the reserve, he has never experienced such dry weather. Climate change is real here. It the 1990s the average rainfall was 450 millimeters (17.7 inches), and this year it has been just 190 mm (7.4 inches). “In the spring, if you listen carefully, you can hear the grass grow: puk, puk, puk,” he said. “You should come back here again.”
If Peter the Great opened a window onto Europe, Putin is now closing it
I don’t know if I would be able to return, as it was not easy to reach Askania-Nova. With the violent conflict in eastern Ukraine still raging, and Crimea recently annexed by Russia, I had to pass through a string of military checkpoints, where gruff camouflaged men were digging trenches and wielding Kalashnikovs, armored vehicles and tanks waiting at the side. “Putler, stop!” one hand-drawn road sign read, referring to what many locals see as Putin’s Hitler-esque ambitions in Ukraine. Air defense batteries and radars were stationed near Askania-Nova, ready to respond to a Russian invasion from Crimea. Everyone and everything was gearing up for war.
“Even in my nightmares I couldn’t imagine that Russia would attack Ukraine,” Gavrilenko tells me when we go back to his office in the administrative wing of Askania-Nova, a spacious room full of books, a jumble of papers, and framed desk photos of a red-backed shrike and a Eurasian hobby. “If Peter the Great opened a window onto Europe, Putin is now closing it.”