5

The essay "Tuber or not Tuber" claims with no citation:

Introduction of the tuber to Russia is usually credited to Peter the Great, who became familiar with potatoes while learning the shipbuilding trade in the Netherlands, bringing back with him seeds with which to grow the plant in St. Petersburg.

Can a more authoritative claim be made about Peter's role? Is any part of the story true?

  • 1
    Perhaps a quibble, but potatos are seldom propagated from seed. (Generally only when developing new varieties.) Instead, they're vegetatively propagated by planting pieces of the tuber. – jamesqf Aug 24 '17 at 17:58
4

There is no documentary evidence for this legend. It was most likely invented by the members of the Free Economical Society - historical sources prior to establishment of this society in 1765 make no connection between potatoes and Peter's persona. First actual historical accounts of potatoes in Russia are after Peter the Great's death - there are documented instances of potatoes being served at St.Petersburg's tables as early as during Anna Ioannovna rule (1730-1740), which coincides both with influx in foreign immigrants in Russia and with spread of potato cultivation in Europe.

Thus, the more realistic story would be that potatoes were brought by European immigrants and, for a long time, potato consumption was limited to those immigrants and the only people who interacted with them on a daily basis - the aristocracy.

So while it is doubtful that Peter the Great did introduce potatoes to Russia himself, it's his reforms that enabled the plant to spread to Russia.

Edit: this article (Russian language) notes that during Peter's times potatoe were unknown in most countries tzar visited in his travels, but Rissia did have a limited trade with England via the White Sea, and that in 1740s one of Russian potato popularizers Jacob Sievers wrote, that northern peasants grew a lot of potatoes, while in south the vegetable was treated with distrust. So potatoes might've come by the northern route.

  • I have only hesitated to accept this answer because of its lack of citations. The information here is completely plausible, but is it original research? – Aaron Brick Sep 2 '17 at 15:45
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    @AaronBrick no, this info was mostly taken fron a newspaper article I've read once. I just couldn't find it at the time this post was written. I added the link now. It laks proper references, since it's just a newspaper article, but does point to state archives and mentions several historical persons and documents, so that could point to something a historian can actually use, I guess. – Danila Smirnov Sep 3 '17 at 16:42
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Russian Wikipedia has some detail. I translate:

In the end of 17th century Peter sent a bag of potato from Holland to spread it for cultivation. However in the 18th century potato was not cultivated in Russia on a significant scale. In 1758, the Peterburg Academy published an article "On cultivation of pommes de terre". This was followed by several other articles on the subject. However, because of the several cases of poisoning with the "devil's apple", the peasants were reluctant to cultivate it. In 1840-42 by the initiative of graf (count) Kiselev, the areas for potato cultivation started to increase. According to the government order "On the spread of potato cultivation", the governors had to give periodic reports to the government on the increase of potato production. This lead to a series of peasant riots (see "potato riots" in Wikipedia). However, this "potato revolution" under Nicholas I was a success...

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    This answer is interesting, but it repeats the original claim without providing a scholarly source. – Aaron Brick Apr 18 '17 at 2:25
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Peter the Great is basically synonymous in Russia with "reform." He singlehandedly modernized almost every aspect of the country from its economy (shipbuilding) to its military, education, and government, bringing it more or less in line with western Europe at the time. He worked two years as an ordinary laborer in a Dutch shipyard to learn these things, and it is entirely plausible that one of them was the usefulness of the potato, newly imported to Europe from the Americas. He was a "micromanager," and very little would have escaped his attention. Any number of reforms were attributed to him, whether or not they originated with him. So while his exact role in the matter may be buried in the past, it is a moral certainty that he at least "signed off" on, if not initiated, the importation of the potato to Russia.

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