Sugar Beets Structured a New Set of Labor Relations – Interview with Alexandru Leşanu

Alexandru Leşanu is the 2019-2020 Irmgard Coninx Prize Fellow for Transregional Studies in the framework of Prisma Ukraїna – Research Network Eastern Europe, a research program of the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. During the fellowship, he will work on his book manuscript Refining Lives and Defining Sugar in the Transnistrian Borderlands (1898-2003). We talked to him about his research interests and his project during the fellowship.

 The Rybnitsa Sugar Factory in Transnistria. Source: Alexandru Leşanu.

How did you become interested in the infrastructure of sugar production in Transnistria?

During my PhD program in Modern European History at George Mason University, I attended a series of courses on the concept of modernity in European history. Commodities such as sugar played an important role in the emergence of modernity and not only from a trade point of view. In particular, the increasing availability of sugar on the global market provided a cheap source of calories for the increasing labor force involved in the industrialization of the European economies. In other words, colonial sugar produced by the slaves in the Caribbean alimented the growing number of workers in the European factories. In the 19th century, along with the emergence of beet sugar production in Europe, cane sugar lost its monopoly in the global sugar production. Most of the research in the area of sugar production refers to the relationship between cane sugar production and slavery. By contrast, there are very few publications about the connection between the European sugar beet production and industrialization. Sugar beets were not only an alternative to the sugar cane but they also structured a new set of labor relations. Consequently, by focusing on the infrastructure of sugar production in Transnistria, I sought to reflect on the role that sugar beet production had on the structuring of the labor relations in 19th and 20th century European history.

How does your research connect to (other) works on the history of capitalist sugar production?

As a global commodity, sugar transgresses the spatial and temporal boundaries of modern societies. In his saga of salt, Mark Kurlansky describes the way in which a mineral substance can deeply affect different regions of the world by becoming a global commodity.[1] In the same context, Sidney Mintz explains the transformation of sugar into a global commodity in connection with the colonial trade in the Caribbean.[2] Yet, Mintz overemphasizes the monolithic structure of the sugar industry. The sugar industry appears as little more than a commercial Leviathan, where the only thing that counts is the commercial value of sugar. My goal is to move beyond the strictly commercial element of sugar production and to show that each sugar factory negotiates its place in the global sugar economy by developing its own definition of sugar technology and by shaping a particular set of labor relations.

What sources do you intend to work on during your research stay in Berlin?

Germany was a pioneer in beet sugar production. Just to give you some numbers, in 1913, Germany produced 2,719,759 metric tons[3] of sugar, followed by Russia with 1,750,029 tons and Austria-Hungary with 1,703,435 tons.[4] Throughout the 20th century, Germany continued to be among the top three producers of beet sugar in the global market. In particular, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in the World War II, Soviet engineers were interested in transferring technologies from German sugar factories. Along with the removal of thousands of German factories as war reparations, the Soviets also closely inspected technological processes in German sugar factories. The Bundesarchiv houses an extensive collection of documents on the postwar removal of German sugar factories to the Soviet Union. So, in Berlin I will focus on the analysis of these documents in order to reveal the role of German reparations in postwar technological transfers to the Soviet Union.

What meaning does academic mobility have for your research?

In fact, academic work cannot exist without mobility. Even the scientists who, in theory, spend all their days in labs cannot test their ideas if they do not go out and meet some other colleagues, either from a neighboring lab or from another continent. Of course, they can still isolate themselves in the labs and use Skype or any other form of virtual communication, but even in this case, if they do not physically travel, then their ideas only circulate in a virtual environment. As a historian, I still have to visit the archives because there is a large amount of documents that have not been digitized. Therefore, for my research, I managed to visit archives in Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, and United States, and now I am in Berlin, to explore new angles of my research topic.

[1] Mark Kurlansky. Salt: A World History (New York: Walker and Co, 2002).

[2] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).

[3] A metric ton is equivalent to one thousand kilograms.

[4] Noel Deerr, The History of Sugar (London: Chapman and Hall, 1950), 2:492-493.

Alexandru Leşanu is the Irmgard Coninx Prize Fellow for Transregional Studies in the framework of PRISMA UKRAЇNA – Research Network Eastern Europe for the academic year 2019-2020. During the fellowship, he will work on his book manuscript Refining Lives and Defining Sugar in the Transnistrian Borderlands (1898-2003). His research interests include Soviet history, post-Soviet de facto states, borderlands studies, transnational history and history of technologies. In 2018-2019, he was a Swedish Institute Visby Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES), Uppsala University.

He received his PhD in East European and Digital History from the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA). In 2013-2014, he was a Black Sea Link Fellow at the New Europe College, in Bucharest, Romania. He was a lecturer at the Free International University of Moldova and received his Master of Arts in History from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) in 2005.

Citation: “Sugar Beets Structured a New Set of Labor Relations” – Interview with Alexandru Leşanu, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.01.2020,

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