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Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich

Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich

(b. Milyukovo, Smolensk province, Russia, 1 March 1846; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 8 November 1903)

natural science, soil science, geography.

Dokuchaev came from the family of a village priest. He received his elementary education at a church school in Vyazma and then studied at the Smolensk seminary. In 1867 he graduated with distinction from the seminary and was accepted at the St. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy. In the same year, having decided not to become a priest, he left the academy and entered the physics and mathematics department of St. Petersburg University to study the natural sciences.

In 1871 Dokuchaev graduated from St. Petersburg University with a master’s degree. His dissertation was devoted to the study and description of the alluvial deposits of the Kachna River, on the upper reaches of the Volga, near his birthplace. From that time Dokuchaev’s scientific activity was connected with St. Petersburg University, the Society of Natural Scientists, the Free Economic Society, the Mineralogical Society, and the Petersburg Assembly of Agriculturists. With the support of these groups he carried out research on the Russian plains and in the Caucasus. In the fall of 1872 he was made curator of the geological collection of St. Petersburg University, and in 1879 he became Privatdozent in geology. Along with his courses in mineralogy and crystallography he began to give a special course, the first anywhere, on Quaternary deposits.

From 1892 to 1895, while remaining a professor at St. Petersburg University, Dokuchaev was occupied with the reorganization and then the direction of the Novo-Aleksandr (now Kharkov) Institute of Agriculture and Forestry (now named for him). There he founded the first department of soil science in Russia and a department of plant physiology that offered courses on microorganisms.

Dokuchaev’s first major work, “Sposoby obrazovania rechnykh dolin Evropeyskoy Rossii” (“Methods of Formation of the River Valleys of European Russia”), defended as a doctor’s thesis in 1878, was the result of years of profound study of the geological, orographical, and hydrographical peculiarities of the Russian plain, particularly the districts covered by ancient glaciers. He analyzed various earlier hypotheses on the formation of the river plains, particularly those treating valleys as the result of tectonic fissures or receding of the ocean, and he criticized accepted ideas, such as Murchison’s “drift theory.” Dokuchaev gave a coherent explanation of the genesis of landforms and their relation to specific physical and geographical conditions of the past; on this basis he may be considered one of the founders of geomorphology.

After he began his field studies of Quaternary deposits, Dokuchaev directed his research to the topsoil of European Russia, particularly to chernozem. In 1875 he was invited to write an explanatory note for V. I. Chaslavsky’s soil map of European Russia; he then spent several years preparing the map for publication. From 1877 to 1898 he investigated the northern boundary of the chernozem belt: the Ukraine, Moldavia, central Russia, Trans-Volga, the Crimea, and the northern slopes of the Caucasus. His monograph “Russky chernozyom” (“Russian Chernozem,” 1883) won numerous honors.

This research attracted the attention of zemstvos (village councils) and individual landowners of Saratov and Voronezh provinces; comprehensive research on the natural conditions of these large territories was carried out by a group of young scientists, most of whom were students of Dokuchaev’s and worked under his guidance. Their work was important not only for the practice of agriculture but also for the confirmation and development of Dokuchaev’s ideas in a new area of natural science—genetic soil science.

Dokuchaev’s expeditions to Nizhni Novgorod (1882–1886), Poltava (1888–1896), and other places were conducted according to a special method. In accounts of the expeditions a full description of the natural history of the provinces was given by natural components (geology, soil, water, plant and animal life); and on the basis of an analysis of all the data, an appraisal was made of the agricultural potential. These collections served as the basis for the organization, at Dokuchaev’s initiative, of museums of natural history in Nizhni Novgorod and Poltava. Following a plan proposed by Dokuchaev, similar museums were later created in other cities of Russia. Dokuchaev was one of the organizers and leaders of the Eighth Congress of Russian Natural Scientists and Physicians. At his initiative the agronomy and geography sections were separated for the first time. He emphasized the necessity of creating a soil institute and museum and of making a thorough study of the natural history of various areas.

In 1891 there was a severe drought in Russia, and Dokuchaev subordinated his scientific work to the problem of dealing with this disaster. He was commissioned by the Ministry of State Lands to undertake a special expedition that was to devise ways and means of conducting farming, forestry, and water management in the steppe (chernozem) zone. The basis of the work of the expedition was a plan set forth by Dokuchaev in his book Nashi stepi prezhde i teper (“Our Steppes Past and Present,” 1892), which included preliminary geological, soil, and climatic findings. Three experimental plots in the steppe belt, each about 5,000 hectares, were chosen to survey: Starobelsky, in the watershed between the Don and the Donets; Khrenovsky, between the Volga and the Don; and Veliko-Anadolsky, in the watershed between the Donets and the Dnieper. Of great importance was the network of meteorological stations and rain-gauge points set up on these plots. The careful observations of the climate of the steppe zone made it possible to determine the influence of climatic conditions on agriculture, particularly the role of forests and protective forest belts. Much work was done on artificial forest cultivation, the regulation and use of water resources, and the building of reservoirs.

As head of the Bureau of Soil Science of the Scientific Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, Dokuchaev also carried out the compilation of a new soil map of European Russia. In 1897, after twenty years of service at St. Petersburg University, he retired for reasons of health. His health having improved slightly, in 1898 Dokuchaev led an expedition to study the soil of Bessarabia; in 1898–1899 and 1900 he studied the Caucasus and the Transcaucasus; and in 1898–1899 he also went to the Trans-Caspian region. Of the results of his research in the Caucasus he wrote that he “not only predicted but even factually proved the indisputable unusually sharply expressed existence in the whole Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus of vertical soil (and, in general, natural history) zones...” (Sobranii sochineny [“Collected Works”], VIII, 331).

Dokuchaev’s last public activity was a series of lectures on soil science and on the results of his threeyear study of the soils of the Caucasus, given in Tbilisi in 1900.

Dokuchaev continually sought to popularize the accomplishments of science. He stressed the centralization of all soil work and research and the necessity of creating a soil institute and departments of soil science in universities. He and A. V. Sovetov were responsible for the series Materialy po izucheniyu russkikh pochv (“Material for the Study of Russian Soils,” from 1885) and Trudy (“Works”) of the Soil Commission of the Free Economic Society (1889–1899). In 1899, at his initiative, the journal Pochvovedenie (“Soil Science”) began publication.

A prerequisite for the creation of soil science was Dokuchaev’s discovery of soil as a special body that has developed as a result of climate, bedrock, plant and animal life, age of the land, and topography.

Dokuchaev’s approach to the evolution of soils allowed him to discover all the complex connections between the soil-forming factors, including the factors of time and human activity. He defined soil as follows:

It consists essentially of the mineral-organic formations lying on the surface, which are always more or less noticeably colored with humus. These bodies always have their own particular origin; they always and everywhere are the result of the totality of activity of the bedrock, the living and inanimate organisms (plant as well as animal), climate, the age of the country, and the topography of the surroundings. Soils, like every other organism, always have a certain normal structure, normal depth, and normal position and are always related to these in warmth, moisture, and plant growth differently from their bedrock [ibid., II, 260].

Thus, according to Dokuchaev, soils are geobiological formations, the properties of which are closely related to their position on the earth’s surface and change regularly as a result of environmental conditions. Starting with the definition of soil and the position that soil depends on soil formers, Dokuchaev created a New classification of Soils according to natural history. His methods of classifying soils are now basic for cartographic representation and qualitative appraisal of soils. He distinguished three basic classes of soils: normal, transitional, and abnormal. A more detailed division into sections and types was made after considering the differences in soil formers and their interrelationships. Normal, or zonal, soils are the most typical and most widespread. In the course of time the classification of soils has become more precise and detailed. In Dokuchaev’s classifications of 1896 (ibid, VII, 449, inset) and 1898 (ibid, VI, 330, inset) the genetic soil types and soil belts were related to vegetation and climatic belts, which was of great importance “for the accurate and complete understanding and appraisal of nature and its varied and extremely complex forms” (ibid, VI, 306).

Dokuchaev established the zonality of soil and its coincidence with the zonality of climate, vegetation, and animal life. On this subject he wrote:

...thanks to the known position of our planet relative to the sun, thanks to the rotation of the earth, its spherical shape—climate, vegetation, and animal life are distributed on the earth’s surface from north to south, in a strictly determined order... which allows the division of the earth’s sphere into belts: polar, temperate, subtropical, equatorial, and so forth. And since the agents—soil formers, which are subject to known laws in their distribution—are distributed by belts, their results also—the soil—must be distributed on the earth’s sphere in the form of definite zones, going more or less (only with certain deviations) parallel to the circles of latitude [ibid, 407].

A view of nature as an entity shaped by a profound mutual interdependence and mutual determination of all its components led Dokuchaev to create the theory of zones of nature. He distinguished five basic geographical zones: boreal, taiga, chernozem (steppe), arid desert, and lateritite (tropical). Tracing the main zones, he noted transitions between them and pointed to the differentiation of natural zones into separate physical-geographical regions.

Dokuchaev stressed that agriculture should be carried out on a zonal basis and defined the main problems of agricultural technology for each zone. The most complete synthesis of his scientific work can be found in his statements on theory of the relationship between “inanimate” and “living” nature. In Mesto i rol sovremennogo pochvovedenia v nauke i zhizni (“The Place and Role of Contemporary Soil Science in Science and in Life,” 1899) Dokuchaev wrote:

As is well known, in recent times one of the most interesting disciplines in the field of contemporary natural science has developed and become more and more defined, namely, the theory of the multiple and various relationships and interactions, and equally laws which govern their age-old changes, which exist between so-called inanimate and living nature, between (a) the surface rocks, (b) the plastic layer of the earth, (c) soils, (d) surface and underground water, (e) the climate of the country, (f) plant, and [g) animal organisms (including, and even chiefly, the lowest) and man, the proud crown of creation [ibid, 416].

Dokuchaev sought to create a unified science that would embrace “the one, whole, and indivisible nature.” The core of this new science would be genetic soil science. His death cut off this work; but it has been continued by, among others, Dokuchaev’s student Vernadsky, the creator of the theory of the biosphere.

Dokuchaev’s work greatly influenced the development of physical geography and geobotany, and made a great contribution to the study of swamps. His “polygenetic” theory of the genesis of loess significantly anticipated contemporary views. His ideas received wide recognition, and his genetic soil classification was applied in making soil maps of England, the United States, Rumania, and other countries.


Dokuchaev’s works have been gathered in Sobranii sochineny (“Collected Works”), 9 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad, 1949–1961). Vol. I contains his most important geological and geomorphological works, including Sposoby obrazovania rechnykh dolin Evropeyskoy Rossii (“Methods of Formation of the River Valleys of European Russia,” St. Petersburg, 1878). Vol. II contains articles and reports on the study of the chernozem (1876–1885) and Kartografia russkikh pochv (“Cartography of Russian Soils,” St. Petersburg, 1879). Vol. Ill consists of Russky chermozyom (“Russian Chernozem,” St. Petersburg, 1883). Vols. IV and V are devoted to Nizhegorodskie raboty (“Nizhni Novgorod Works,” 1882–1887). Vol. VI contains works on the transformation of the nature of the steppes, on soil research and soil appraisal, and the theory of zonality and classification of soils (1888–1900), including Nashi stepi prezhde i teper (“Our Steppes, Past and Present,” St. Petersburg, 1892); K voprosu o pereotsenke zemel Evropeyskoy i Aziatskoy Rossii. S klassifikatsiey pochv (“Toward the Question of a Reappraisal of the Soils of European and Asiatic Russia. With a Classification of Soils,” Moscow, 1898); K ucheniyu o zonakh prirody (“Toward a Theory of Zones of Nature,” St. Petersburg, 1899); and Prirodyne pochvennye zony. Selskokhozyaystvennye zony. Pochvy Kavkasa (“Natural Soil Zones. Agricultural Zones. The Soils of the Caucasus,” St. Petersburg, 1900). Vol. VII consists of various articles and reports, material on the organization of soil institutes, and popular lectures (1880–1900). Vol. VIII contains speeches and correspondence. Vol. IX contains S. S. Sobolev’s article on the development of Dokuchaev’s basic ideas, a biographical sketch by L. A. Chebotareva, and archival documents for his biography. A substantial part of the volume is devoted to a bibliography of all his works (pp. 165–247) and of literature on him (pp. 248–322), including 49 items in foreign languages (pp. 315–320).

Recent works on Dokuchaev not listed in the bibliography mentioned above are V. A. Esakov and A. I. Soloviev, Russkie geograficheskie issledovania Evropeyskoy Rossii i Urala v XIX-nachale XX v. (“Russian Geographical Research on European Russia and the Urals in the Nineteenth and the Beginning of the Twentieth Centuries,” Moscow, 1964), pp. 76–90; Istoria estestvoznania v Rossii (“History of Natural Sciences in Russia”), III, S. R. Mikulinsky, ed. (Moscow, 1962), 217–238; and G. F. Kiryanov, Vasily Vasilievich Dokuchaev, 1846–1903 (Moscow, 1966).

Vasily A. Esakov

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"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (August 19, 2017).

"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from

Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich

Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich (1840–1903) A Russian soil scientist, Dokuchaev was Director of the Kharkov Institute of Agriculture and Forestry. He studied the formation of soils, especially the chernozem, developing a soil classification and making soil maps.

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"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (August 19, 2017).

"Dokuchaev, Vasily Vasilievich." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from

Dokuchaev, VasilyVasilievich

Dokuchaev, VasilyVasilievich (1840–1903)A Russian soil scientist, who became director of the Kharkov Institute of Agriculture and Forestry. He studied the formation of soils, especially the chernozem, developing a soil classification and making soil maps.

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"Dokuchaev, VasilyVasilievich." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Dokuchaev, VasilyVasilievich." A Dictionary of Ecology. . (August 19, 2017).

"Dokuchaev, VasilyVasilievich." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from