Threads of Empire — Loyalty

Paul poses excellent questions regarding loyalty. He accurately characterizes my arguments that I sought to describe a “grand arc” of movement from more passive forms of loyalty to more active ones, and that more of the emperor’s subjects were supposed to understand the state’s goals and actively support them.

I had not focused particularly on question of material versus ideal motivations for loyalty. This was in part because the sources I had rarely made possible such an inquiry. Personal, first-hand accounts of someone’s motivation were not very common. The material dimensions of motivation were sometimes quite apparent, as in cases where servitors received grants of land or salaries. But material considerations could be opaque, too, in cases where someone might be able to use his position to extract bribes that did not see the light of day. I would hesitate to tie passive loyalty only to material interests, and active loyalty to what Paul calls “intellectual or even spiritual spheres.” Material interests can certainly motivate active loyalty.

That said, I would agree that material motivations were most salient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before the 1730s, local elites could likely use their roles as intermediaries between the tsar and his or her subjects to profit materially by skimming taxes collected, for instance. But before the 1730s, the region was too unstable to make landholding secure and lucrative. After the Bashkir wars of the 1730s, joining forces with the tsar’s men brought one the opportunity to obtain land and plunder. Whether or not someone such as Kutlu-Mukhammad/Aleksei Ivanovich Tevkelev actually identified with Peter II was not apparent from the writings I had. Considering Tevkelev and his family owned more land than anyone else in the region by the mid eighteenth century, however, Tevkelev certainly gained materially from his long and loyal service. Other Muslim and Russian Orthodox servitors did as well.

The possibility of material reward, most notably land, remained a feature of service in Bashkiria well into the nineteenth century. As long as Bashkir land could be acquired through a grant from the emperor or could be purchased for little money, an enterprising noble could serve in the region and use his position or wealth to acquire considerable land at little cost, as in Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle. Lower down in the hierarchy, Bashkir cantonal administration enabled local elders to redirect resources to themselves and to their families. Deciding who would serve on the Orenburg defensive line, for instance, was something that set up possibilities for bribe-taking. After the cantons were abolished in 1865, the Bashkir elite grew poorer along with ordinary Bashkirs.

In Bashkiria, loyalty as a sort of “disembodied idealism” first becomes clear among very elite servitors who served personally with Peter the Great. Ivan Nepliuev’s description of being despondent when he heard of Peter’s death would seem to indicate more than material interests were at issue. V. N. Tatishchev’s dedication of his monumental work of history to Peter shows a mix of material and idealistic sources of devotion. In his introduction to his History of Russia, published well after Peter’s death, Tatishchev wrote of Peter:

Everything that I possess: ranks, honor, an estate, and above all else, reason, I                        possess solely because of the kindness of His Majesty. Had he not sent me to                          foreign lands, had he not used me in important affairs, had he not encouraged                        me with his kindness, I could have obtained any of these things.

Catherine’s reign marked an expansion of who could be loyal to include Muslims. The creation of the Bashkir cantons and eventually the construction of a mosque in Orenburg, the Bashkir caravanserai, and the mufti’s house and mosque in the center of Ufa indicated that increasing numbers of the Muslim elite could identify with imperial authority.

The making of the local elite in the post reform era combined idealism and materialism. Those who served in zemstvos or later in the State Duma, could identify themselves with imperial authority. When Mufti Salim-Girei Tevkelev sought to retire but did not like his proposed replacement, he wrote, “I, as a Russian nobleman, for the common good, eagerly agree to continue service.” Implicit in such a statement is the fact that as an elderly, wealthy man, he had no material reason for serving, but did so out of a sense of honor and devotion to the emperor and empire. For the Muslim elite, the moment in February 1877 when Mufti Tevkelev publicly displayed his newly-awarded Orders of St. Stanislav and St. Anna, first class, epitomized the possibilities for loyalty. The tears the mufti shed and the joy of the Muslim community suggest more than a material motivation for loyalty. He and others seem to have felt the medals were recognition of mutual bonds between emperor and elite Muslim subjects. In such a case, I would agree with Paul’s suggestion that a set of values had emerged that motivated loyalty to the sovereign, and that this succeeded in drawing some Muslim and Russian Orthodox members of elite to imperial service.

At the same time, zemstvo service could be a source of material benefit. Mufti Tevkelev’s nephew, Kutlu-Mukhammad Tevkelev, chaired the zemstvo committee that apportioned tax burdens on the province’s residents. I have no evidence that he personally benefitted from his post, but it certainly could be a source of power that he could use to collect bribes or simply favor those who might in some way favor him back. People could benefit from service in other ways, too. Members of families of men in zemstvo service frequently appeared in lists of those receiving scholarships to local secondary schools or the university, for instance.

How extensive were idealistic values? In the pre-reform era, I would argue, not very extensive. In a system based on a hierarchy of legal statuses, everyone was supposed to recognize their subordination to someone above them in the social hierarchy. The loyalty of the elite in that hierarchy was what mattered. As Bob Crews first argued, the empire entered the spiritual realm of Muslims beginning in the 1780s. In Bashkiria in the 1790s, Bashkir cantons opened several hundred positions for elders, translators, and others who now would become part of the imperial military and the culture that came with it. The Nepliuev Cadet School in Orenburg opened in 1825, and enrolled native Russian and Turkic language speakers in an effort to create a bilingual elite that would serve the empire on its southeastern borderland, and in the 1830s began to send some Bashkir youth to study medicine in Kazan. Yet not until 1858 did the Bashkir cantonal administration begin to establish schools for ordinary Bashkir youth. Before the Great Reforms, officials did not think ordinary Bashkirs even needed to study Russian and be inculcated in the culture and values of the empire more broadly.

In the post-reform era, more of the male population was expected to be actively loyal. The idea that more of the male population ought to know the tsarist state and its values, and be ready to pursue them or to defend them received emphasis in the military, zemstvo, and judicial reforms. In the post-reform era, I think participation in state institutions and the military succeeded in expanding the number of those who identified with imperial authority. Such men were not loyal just to gain economic opportunities, though these still loomed large. They believed that their loyal participation in the empire’s affairs would make them active parts of a powerful and prosperous empire. For this reason, the Volga famine of 1891-92 and the war of 1904-06 with Japan loomed large as challenges to that loyalty. When the tsarist state seemed unable to feed a hungry population or defeat the empire’s enemies, loyalty seemed to indicate support for ineptitude and failure.

I think the fraying of bonds of loyalty during and after 1905 had the intensity it did because it represented a failure both of ideal and material bases for loyalty, at least among landowning elites favored in local self-administration or Duma service. For all members of the elite, there were fewer opportunities to get Bashkir land on the cheap, and more people trying to acquire it. For Muslims squeezed out of zemstvo or duma seats, the opportunities for material acquisition were lost as well.

Moreover, during and after 1905, loyalty began to be less about what one did or even believed, and more about who a person was. In the revolutionary tumult of 1905, even members of the elite with names derived from languages of “foreign” lands (Turkic, German, Polish, and others) and anyone whose politics leaned left of center had their very ability to be loyal questioned. After Petr Stolypin shut down the second State Duma on June 3, 1907, Nicholas II decided that non-Russians should not have decisive voices in “purely Russian” questions. Those who did not fit an increasingly narrow definition of loyalty and act it out regularly no longer had the opportunity that their predecessors for the past 150 years had. Material interests aside, for many, the emperor and his officials no longer welcomed what the tsar’s subjects saw as their loyalty. With little to be gained financially and bases for idealistic loyalty waning, other systems of loyalty–to faith, nation, or class–became more attractive.


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Threads of Empire – A Response to Gerasimov, Romaniello, and Werth. Space, Time, and Study of the Russian Empire

Typically, when one describes the development of one’s research project, one draws a straight, more or less direct line from a project’s conception to its conclusion. One consciously or unconsciously omits at least some false starts, dead ends, or changes of focus in order to present the course from beginning to end as clear and intentional. I cannot present such a history to Ilya Gerasimov or Paul Werth. I encountered them early in the research of the project. They have seen the false starts and dead ends.

Ilya captures my journeys through space and time well. I would add only that my decision to work in Ufa and Bashkiria was motivated initially less by the desire to find a “backwater” than by practical considerations. I realized fairly quickly that an attempt to compare Kazan and Ufa—my initial intention—would be difficult logistically. To research an ensemble of local institutions across a substantial span of time in two cities and two sets of archives was more than I could do. I had to choose.

Initially, I decided to work in Bashkiria because fewer western scholars had worked there on the late imperial period. The high quality of Kazan’s archives—they suffered little damage during the civil war–meant that people such as Bob Geraci and Paul Werth were already working through its late imperial materials. Since the very point of my study was to assert the importance of spatial distinctions in the empire, it made little sense to add another project on Kazan. Kazan University and the city’s Russian and Tatar educated society make it crucial for analyses of the Russian Empire. Making one provincial city the paradigm for all the Russian Empire in the east, however, did not do service to the empire’s great diversity in people and institutions. A move to the east to work on an area whose experience might contrast that of Kazan seemed important.

As Ilya makes clear, my embrace of the book’s broad chronological framework was more gradual but very much intentional. I felt as though a full understanding of the region’s complex population required a better grasp of earlier encounters of tsarist forces and with the region. I came to see how important history was to the production of knowledge about the region and to efforts to administer it. In researching policy toward the Bashkir population in the 19th c., for instance, I routinely encountered, usually near the beginning of an archival file, a lengthy, historically-oriented memorandum, or “dokladnaia zapiska.” Thus, if officials sought to formulate policy regarding how Bashkir landholding should be treated in law, someone would write what amounted to a history of the issue going back to the sixteenth century. Although it was not always clear precisely how historical memoranda influenced the production of policy, I became convinced the history of peoples and institutions was central to understanding how the empire functioned on the ground.

So, when I got a grant and a sabbatical in 2004, I decided to encompass the region’s inhabitants from the time of their first encounter with tsarist forces until 1917: the empire from beginning to end. The expanded chronology forced me to rethink the language and categories with which I worked. I dropped the “invisible” from the my title in part because moving back into the eighteenth century forced me to confront a history of violence and physical coercion for which my quotation from the early twentieth century seemed inadequate. For many in Bashkiria in the eighteenth century, the bonds of empire were all too visible. I settled on loyalty fairly late in writing the manuscript, following conversations with a friend who works on Habsburg history. Estate status, religious confession, and nationality were used to sort the local population, but they seemed to stand in for the essential effort to build loyalty and respect for the ak bii/tsar/emperor’s authority. Loyalty seemed the best category to frame the entire span of the tsar’s rule of Bashkiria. (More on loyalty to follow).

Matt’s comment captures well the advantages and limitations of a local study. I was intrigued by how in-depth local study could illuminate broader, all-imperial questions. As Matt discusses in his post, central officials did not overtly discuss local political developments when they discussed trade in the eighteenth century with Asia. Working in one locality (as Matt himself has done) shows how local officials were not allowed such a luxury—they needed to try to implement central policy in a region that often was not amenable to it.

Nonetheless, despite one’s best effort, important points get left out. More research might have enabled me to incorporate Matt’s intriguing observations on links between Anna Ivanovna’s trade policy with Britain and the Orenburg Expedition, or regarding the redirection of trade through Orenburg in the 1750s. There are disadvantages to working on such a long time frame. In trying to render a long period in a book of modest length, the editing can go too far, as Paul points out. And errors can creep in. As Paul states, in 1880-1881 when the scandal over Bashkir land came to light, Petr Valuev was not minister of internal affairs. He was chairman of the council of ministers.

Much more could be written on trade, religion, Bashkir land, and other topics, to be sure. As important and interesting as I found the Bashkir case, I always wanted to write a case study of empire using local materials. Writing history over the long durée helped me to see how the local can help us rethink the temporal and conceptual frameworks in which historians of the empire work.

I thank the commentators for their careful reading of my book.  I will address Paul’s question about loyalty in a separate post.

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Four Noteworthy Attributes of “Threads of Empire”

Some people crank out books rapidly, one quickly after the last. Others take longer to accomplish the task. Based as it is on a dissertation defended at Columbia University back in 1999, Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire has been a long time in coming. My guess is that this was a source of frustration for the author himself, but for our field there is real and tangible profit. This book clearly benefitted handsomely from the long time that it took to complete. The bibliography is extensive, and the author has taken careful stock of major developments in the historiography over the last two decades or so. A glance at the endnotes reveals that ideal balance of archival, published primary, and secondary sources, woven together seamlessly and all placed in intimate conversation with one another. That very configuration is evidence of a tremendous process of synthesis and integration—one that really could unfold only over the long haul. This depth—a function of the long time the author spent carefully contemplating the key issues at stake—is the first of four major attributes that I ascribe to this book.


A second—and related—attribute is the book’s chronological scope. While the authors of The History Manifesto (whether rightly or wrongly—probably the latter) fret about the narrowing chronological scope of much contemporary historical research, here we have a work that is bold in its willingness to take on the challenge of covering some 350 years of history. That my colleague and specialist on the early-modern era, Matthew Romaniello, finds the book compelling and indeed “excellent” on the more than two centuries before the 19th century says a great deal about the skill with which Steinwedel, whose work has focused mostly on late imperial Russia, successfully ventured into those earlier eras. This after all requires great sensitivity to the peculiarities of earlier ages, something that requires deep immersion. My colleague Ilya Gerasimov notes the “inner research logic” behind this broad chronological scope, and I agree. Indeed, though my mind is admittedly crippled by the intellectually stultifying task of chairing a modern academic department, I strain to identify more than a handful of books, aside from works of broad synthesis, that tackle such an extended period of time: Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors (which nonetheless focuses principally on the Soviet era); John LeDonne’s works on Russia’s “grand strategy” over 2-3 centuries; and Michael Khodarkovsky’s Making of a Colonial Empire (which however does not extend into the modern period). The fact is that we simply do not have very many books that probe deeply into a particular problem while also tackling the long haul. This is obviously in part because those two tasks are so fundamentally at odds with one another. To reconcile them is no mean feat. Steinwedel has managed this, and indeed the twin problems of loyalty and authority (encompassed in the metaphor of “threads”) are sharply revealed in the process, as is their evolution over time.


A third attribute is the book’s focus on space—a particular though also changing territory known as Bashkiria. In some sense there is nothing distinct about this approach, as a regional focus has been a standard feature of the historiography both in Russia and outside of that country. For example, in her award-winning book Catherine Evtuhov demonstrated how much we could learn from the focus on a single province—an entire world of historical experience that was otherwise obscured now became more readily apparent. Yet there is something very distinct and revealing about the Bashkiria that Steinwedel has focused on, especially for our understanding of empire. As a student of the Volga-Kama region, the area just to the west of Bashkiria, I was always struck by the added degree of complication that I encountered when my sources brought me into that territory. There were many reasons for this, soslovie being among the most significant (more on that shortly). But the convergence in Bashkiria of so many diverse problems and issues that were characteristic of the challenges of governance across the empire, as well as of matters strikingly unique to that territory, makes for an exceptionally revealing analysis. Steinwedel nicely captures the specificity of the region by noting its liminal character—its location at the very edge of European Russia and thus at the intersection of the empire’s core and its more distinctly imperial territories. Drawing on Adeeb Khalid’s distinction between “modern overseas colonial empires” (with their focus on the perpetuation of difference) and “modern mobilizational states” (with their tendency towards homogenization in the pursuit of universal goals), Steinwedel remarks, “Bashkiria was located geographically just at the point where the two forms of governance met. Bashkiria would be in the European core, but just barely” (251). Much of the value of this study, as I see it, derives from the insights that this liminal space offers.


Finally, I find especially revealing Steinwedel’s particular attention to the problem of soslovie and the intersection of that institution with religious belonging and nationality. Here again, the issue is not entirely new, and we have a number of recent works that take on the problem of soslovie head-on—Boris Mironov’s massive social history (1999); Natal’ia Ivanova and Valentina Zheltova’s Soslovnoe obshchestvo Rossiiskoi imperii (2009), and Alison Smith’s recent For the Common Good (2014). But again the ways in which Steinwedel attacks the problem is distinct. The terrain here is extraordinarily complex—the question of who counted as a “Bashkir” at different points could by itself easily fuel a dissertation—and Steinwedel handles it deftly. He shows that despite substantial evolution and a degree of simplification in the era of the Great Reforms, even on the eve of 1917 “estate remained a key element of imperial order” (236). I would venture to say that no serious study of soslovie can now fail to engage with this book, as it provides, to a degree that I have not seen elsewhere, a promising opportunity to link analytically processes characteristic of the Russian center and its “borderlands” into a single, all-imperial notion of social, institutional, and legal change. Likewise, because the matter of soslovie was so deeply embedded in virtually any matter of reform, I also think that no one can really write substantively about the Great Reforms without considering this book.


There were moments when I thought the book was perhaps trying to cover a bit too much. Some chapters consist of nine or more sections, and in some cases the links among those different discussions—some of them quite brief—are not entirely clear. Steinwedel also suggests that Petr Valuev was the interior minister when forced confronted with the 1881 crisis over land swindles (119, 141), but my understanding is that he had left that post in 1868. At the end of chapter 3, Steinwedel notes a “failure of the military organization of society in Bashkiria” (114) in the pre-reform period, but I was uncertain about why the developments he described constituted a failure.


In ending, I would perhaps offer a few thoughts about the matter of loyalty, a key concept of the book. As I read things, Steinwedel is describing a grand arc featuring a movement from more passive forms of loyalty, largely rooted in material interest, to more active ones, rooted sooner in intellectual and even spiritual spheres. Steinwedel notes in the introduction, drawing on R. J. W. Evans’s examination of early Hapsburg lands, that “loyalty” is best understood as “a calculation” rather than “a sort of disembodied idealism” (5). He refers at several points, especially in the earlier parts of the book, about giving people a “stake” as a way of fostering loyalty which suggests that the goal was to create contexts for the convergence of interests between more tsarist rulers and local elites. I wonder if Steinwedel would posit the gradual emergence over time of a “disembodied idealism” as a system of values that, at least some hoped, might motivate loyalty in the later stages of the empire’s existence. And if so, how extensive and successful was it? Did the threads fray, in the end, partly because they were based less on a convergence of material interest than they had been in the past? As I see it, especially in the current moment, thinking about the relationship between interests and values is critical, and Steinwedel’s book provides material with which to do that.



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Untangling Ideas with Imperial Threads

The more time I’ve spent thinking about the Chuck Steinwedel’s excellent Threads of Empire, the more I’m taken by the idea of imperial threads.  The intertwined purpose of policy is difficult for anyone to unwind. I think this is an important contribution just for the reminder about the multivalent nature of imperial governing strategies.

In the excellent chapter on the middle of the eighteenth century (“Absolutism and Empire”), Steinwedel begins with the Ivan Kirilov and Kutlu-Mukhammad Tevkelev’s expedition that led to the establishment of the new fort of Orenburg. The expedition departed Ufa in April 1735, and immediately ran into difficulties in the form of an uprising, which eventually would be known as the Bashkir War of 1735-40.  This is the point when I start to think about threads of empire.  Steinwedel thoughtfully analyzes the outcome of the revolt upon the local populations, and thinks about the ways in which local identities were shaped by these experiences and the changing relationship to state authorities.  Towards the end of the 1750s, Tevkelev produces an examination of state policies toward the Kazakhs, which considers whether the nomads could be encouraged to settle or would continue to follow their traditional lifestyle.  Summarizing the report, Steinwedel assesses its evaluation: the “Kazakhs had already fallen in love with trade” (p. 65). Continue reading

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Imperial History as a Journey (Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552-1917)

In the early 1960s the famous Russian writer and literary critic Korney Chukovsky, renowned for his acidic and even cruel comments, coined the aphorism: “In Russia, one needs to live long: it’s interesting!” Born in 1882, Chukovsky was a lucky survivor of the devastating first half of the twentieth century: according to the 1959 census, in the city of Moscow there lived just over 2,000 men of his age (one per 1,000 male Muscovites). At the same time (1960), in New York City, his cohort was exactly three times more representative. Thus, if they only had that chance, Chukovsky’s less lucky compatriots probably would have opted for longer lives just for the sake of it, even without the promise of anything “interesting” to observe and experience. I like to think that Chukovsky, a very sharp-minded man, meant something other than the personal triumph of surviving Stalin—namely, that with time, one understands more and perceives reality differently. Of course, this also seems to be a rather simple observation, and hardly limited to Russia. It is probably just experienced more dramatically in Russia as a “country with an unpredictable past”: new developments can shed new light on the past to the extent of completely reshaping its image. And the radically reassessed past transforms our perception of the present and future. In living longer, you not only learn more; you see things differently. Continue reading

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Threads of Empire: A Blog Conversation

Cover of Threads of EmpireI’m very pleased that over the next several weeks the Russian History Blog will be hosting another book conversation, this time of Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552-1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016). The book uses a focus on one region over several centuries of tsarist rule to produce a local history of the vast empire. One of the things that makes the book so rich is the way it looks at the many ways that Bashkirs were conceptualized and categorized by the imperial state: by nation, by religion, by estate.

Of course, that richness in approach also makes it a perfect subject for a conversation between historians of different aspects of imperial Russia. And so I’m happy to present this list of participants in the discussion.

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“Every extremely shameful, immeasurably humiliating, mean, and, above all, ridiculous position I have happened to get into in my life has always aroused in me, along with boundless wrath, an unbelievable pleasure.” – Nikolai Stavrogin, in Demons (692)

I gave precisely zero thought to the presidential election when creating the syllabus for my course on Imperial Russia this year. Instead, knowing that I would be teaching an overload in addition to a heavy administrative burden this fall, I kept my course structured mostly the same way. That placed my unit on “Modernity, Terrorism, and Revolution” not in a sunny, hopeful, pre-graduation April but in the darkening days of November. Students spend three of the four weeks of this unit doing one thing: reading Dostoevskii’s brilliant and frightening novel Demons. Continue reading

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Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Launches

A few years back, Vadim Staklo came to George Mason University from Yale University Press. At YUP, in addition to wide editorial direction of publications on Russian and Soviet history, Vadim had worked on the launch of the Stalin Digital Archive, digitizing the Stalin Collection at the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. [If you don’t know the Stalin Digital Archive, check out this interview with Vadim.] Vadim came to George Mason in hopes of collaborating with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media on further projects aimed at digitizing and translating materials from the archives of the former Soviet Union, but now rather than expensive subscriptions that limit the availability of the digitized projects, he would seek outside funding to make documents available via open access to everyone.

I share below his announcement of the beta launch of the first project, a collection of transcribed and translated documents devoted to the history of Islam in Russia and the Soviet Union. In addition, I will join him on a roundtable at the upcoming conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, where we will talk more about the online archive. We are anxious for your feedback as we continue to develop the project. Without further ado, here’s Vadim.


George Mason University is launching a major new international multidisciplinary scholarly program, the Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Project (RPI). The project, with primary support from the Luce Foundation and the NEH, documents the encounter and evolving relationship between the Orthodox/secular state and the Islamic regions, groups, individuals, and ideologies on the territory of the former Soviet Union and neighboring countries. This set of unique materials illuminates the strategies implemented by the Soviet and Russian state to establish authority and legitimacy among predominantly Muslim populations in Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus and Siberia and to enhance Moscow’s influence internationally with nearby Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. The digital archive is designed to disseminate these documents to the widest possible scholarly community and general readership.

Please join us for the launch and presentation of the RPI
at the ASEEES Congress on Saturday, 19 November at 3:45 PM.

Continue reading

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E. P. Gau, Views of the halls of the Winter Palace. The Military Gallery of 1812, 1862.

E. P. Gau, Views of the halls of the Winter Palace. The Military Gallery of 1812, 1862.

I’m in St. Petersburg right now, enjoying my research leave and finding all sorts of lovely bits and pieces in the archives. I’ve been pleased to find some connections I hoped to find and frustrated by hints of larger stories I can’t follow. I’ve grinned, I’ve teared up, I’ve gasped out loud at a surprising turn a document took. (It’s possible I’m too emotionally engaged, but I don’t really think so.) I even have more of the dead cheese master’s story to tell, at least a bit.

That’s going to wait for a while, though, because yesterday I got a file that weirdly echoed the news of the day. On July 10, 1812, the St. Petersburg Civil Governor wrote to the Gatchina town authorities to pass on an order from on high: as part of a general survey of foreigners living in the Empire, the town administration was to send in a list of all foreigners currently living in the town. It came with a handy model form that gave all the information they wanted: name, what the foreigner was doing, whether they owned a home, when they had come to Russia, whether they had taken an oath of loyalty (that is, taken Russian subjecthood/citizenship), the name of someone with oversight over them, and then any plans they had to leave the country or even just move within Russia. The governor also confirmed that although the form only mentioned inostrantsy, male foreigners, they also wanted information about inostranki, female foreigners, as well: “although on the form there is nothing noted about women, but they too—that is widows with their children if there are any, and unmarried women too—should be included.” Continue reading

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The Merchants of Siberia — “A Rising Tide Raises All Ships” (even on Lake Yamysh)

I am among those who eagerly awaited the publication of Erika Monahan’s book, The Merchants of Siberia.  For a number of years I’ve been developing a study of what one might call (if one were inclined to use flamboyant catch phrases to draw popular attention to scholarly subjects) The Early Modern Silk Road.  This is essentially a study of Central Eurasia’s position at the heart of overland networks of exchange during a period when most have assumed that they had diminished to the point of insignificance, and few have thought to look and see if that assumption was correct.  The Merchants of Siberia advances a related argument and marshals a substantial amount of original evidence to support it.  Erika Monahan was kind enough to provide me with working drafts of select chapters as her project was coming to a close.  But it was only when I had the published book in my hand that I was able to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. Continue reading

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Merchants of Siberia: Seen and Unseen

There’s a moment in The Merchants of Siberia that I suspect will call forth a sigh of weary recognition from nearly any historian—or perhaps only from any historian working on the early modern world, or perhaps even only from any historian working on early modern Russia. Erika describes a “scandal” at Lake Yamysh when a trade dispute turned into an occasion for slander, insult, and “mutinous shouts.” The situation was serious enough that “Moscow, predictably, ordered an investigation.” More than a hundred witnesses were questioned, and the result was a 144-page long report “that, unfortunately, contains no resolution” (198). I have so much sympathy, and remembered frustration, for that one word, “unfortunately.” Archival files so often seem to promise the key to an argument but then simply end before they get there. Or they turn out to be illuminating in some way, as in the case reported here, but still leave the reader frustrated for lack of a proper conclusion to their story.  Continue reading

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Merchants of Siberia – Response to Ryan Jones

Dry your tears, Ryan! Fur is important and absolutely belongs in any history we tell of Siberia. It’s just not the whole story. To me, this is epitomized visually in the 4-panel illustration of the Russian embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1576. We all know the image: the Russian entourage with men bearing finely assembled forties of sables and other furs. It appears on the cover of one book, in texts, etc.

RHB1.Perkhavko_bk_coverIf you’ll make allowances for my admittedly myopic perspective, I’d say that to the extent that there are iconic images for early Russian history, this is among them. But, the whole image actually consists of 4 panels.





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The Merchants of Siberia — Siberia transit trade

Merchants of Siberia complicates and enlivens our evolving picture of commerce and trade in early modern Russia. Noting the links between Russia’s growing involvement with European trading partners and trading activities on Muscovy’s southern and eastern frontiers, Erika Monahan calls for a closer focus on the role of the Russian state and Eurasian merchants as facilitators of east-west and north-south trade. As part of this move, she emphasizes that, from the point of view of both merchants and agents of the Muscovite state, Siberia was far more than just a store of natural resources, highlighting in particular its place as “a node in important trans-Eurasian routes.” This is a productive avenue of exploration. Erika’s work examines western Siberia’s under-appreciated early modern connections with Central Asia. Muscovy was indeed connected to diverse states along its multiple frontiers. Reading about these interactions, but coming at these same issues from the point of view of a historian of the nineteenth century, made me wonder, what standard do we have for calling a particular trade vibrant and a particular route or set of routes important?

Importance seems to be a relative concept. Continental trade to and through Siberia was important – undoubtedly so, I would argue, to the communities that resided there. As for transit trade, it was surely important as well, but the difficulty – not to mention the sheer length – of the routes made long-distance transport daunting and time-consuming under the best circumstances, and of course expensive. The routes between Siberia and east and central Asia all came with a set of challenges and risks. Climatic conditions compelled trade in Siberia to follow a seasonal rhythm – making passage of goods impossible for months at a time. The fact that these trade routes nonetheless persisted seems to point to both the dearth of alternatives and the reality that there were parties who had a vested interest in these routes, whatever the economic calculations. Continue reading

Posted in Merchants of Siberia, Russia in World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Merchants of Siberia: A Blog Conversation

Merchants of Siberia editWelcome to our new blog conversation on Erika Monahan’s remarkable The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell University Press, 2016).  Erika’s book is a comprehensive study of the structure and logistics of trade in Siberia, which is a ground-breaking accomplishment based on considerable archival research.   I expect that her analysis of Russia as an “activist commercial state” will become the standard framework for explaining the Russian economy in the future studies.  One of the features that is most exciting about the book is that Erika effectively moves between a local history of Siberia and a global view of the Eurasian economy, offering new ideas and interpretations for scholars of Russia and world history. Continue reading

Posted in Blog Conversations, Merchants of Siberia, Russia in World History | 2 Comments

Interwar émigrés

Although my academic work gives no hint of this, I’ve always been oddly fascinated by the interwar period. I know exactly where the fascination came from: mystery novels. No, even more specifically, British mystery novels, where the specter of war is rarely foregrounded but often there, from poor (well, not poor) shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey to clever and displaced Hercule Poirot. I even love more recent mystery novels that take interwar Britain as their setting—an awfully popular setting, really, perhaps because everyone is trying to recapture the allure of Sayers and Christie.

Because I’m me, there is one extra thing I always notice in these novels—the random Russian émigrés who show up around the edges of the stories, making their lives in the wider European world. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase the murder victim is a young Russian émigré working as a professional dancer at a resort hotel. In her Strong Poison Lord Peter visits the smoky rooms of hipster Bloomsbury, where Russians fry sausages and play atonal music.

Yesterday I got a book out from the library that made me think about those Russians wandering about interwar Europe. On the surface, there’s no reason for the book to lead me there—it’s a history of the colonization of Siberia, by V. I. Shunkov, from 1946. But the book had this stamp:


It says Библиотека русских шофферов, or the library of Russian chauffeurs, and gives an address in Paris. Well, of course I had to find out a little bit more about that.  Continue reading

Posted in Soviet Era 1917-1991, Transnational History | 10 Comments

Ivanovo: Manumission

As I’ve spent time reading files and writing about Ivanovo, one of the things I’ve wondered about is how exactly the spate of manumissions that first created this odd part-serf/part-industrial society happened. Obviously it happened when a group of serfs gained their manumission, but that’s not actually a simple thing. Manumission was not in general an unknown part of serf life, and a number of accounts of Ivanovo note that the Ivanovo serf E. I. Grachev had received his freedom back in 1802. But that had been a single instance of manumission, and since then Ivanovo had been developing into a major textile center without additional cases over the next two decades. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the 1820s, something changed, as a dozen or so serfs gained their freedom over the course of just a couple of years. The short time period in which this number of serfs gained their freedom is still a clear sign of some specific event.

Part of the answer to this question almost certainly has to do with something that has nothing to do with Ivanovo itself: Sheremetev’s age. Born in 1803, and orphaned just a couple of years later, he only gained control of his estates from his guardians in the middle of the 1820s. Before then, he had just barely begun to think of manumitting serfs. In 1819, his former wetnurse, Anna Danilova, and her family, were granted freedom through Sheremetev’s personal desire. This was an isolated incident, though, and because at that point he was still a minor, Emperor Alexander himself had to approve the manumission. Continue reading

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I have a memory from graduate school of driving up to Northwestern University to hear a talk by Sheila Fitzpatrick. This is a little bit odd because I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and therefore had ample opportunity to hear Sheila speak. I know I went with my friend and fellow graduate student Jenifer Stenfors, and I think it was the lure of a day, or at least an afternoon, away from school playing hooky, or so it felt, that was the real pull. I remember stopping in at the Bahai temple on the way, still the only time I’ve been in that space, and being struck by the contrast between its opulent exterior and the very ordinary chairs scattered about its interior. Even there, I’m not sure of why we stopped—had we planned it, or were we running ahead of time and decided to stop, on a whim? (And, in fact, I now realize, looking it up to give a link, that it is not on the way, but past Northwestern, and so we had to have made some decision about going there.)

At the talk Sheila said something—or at least, I remember her saying something—that has stuck with me ever since. This would have been sometime between 1995 and 1997, and so Stalin’s Peasants had recently come out and Sheila must have been working on Everyday Stalinism. My memory is that Sheila mentioned that she was thinking of writing a book that looked at the relationship between Stalin and Molotov—clearly an early version of the project that became On Stalin’s Team—and that one of the reasons the idea appealed to her was that as a social historian she was constantly seeing little bits of people’s lives, but only little bits, never a full story, never people you could really know. In contrast, focusing on just a couple of figures, and well documented figures, to boot, would let her get to know these people in a way that writing social history didn’t allow. Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Ivan Baburin, IV

Ivan Baburin’s intransigence completely puzzled the Ivanovo estate administration. In the archival files he comes off as completely unconcerned with the fact that he had just decided to stop paying rent, and was therefore maintaining a presence in Ivanovo totally illegally. In reports from the administration, Baburin seems to have believed—or at least claimed—that he was totally justified in his actions. He had faithfully paid rent while using the buildings. Now that they no longer existed, he felt no need to pay for them. He also told the estate administration multiple times that he was planning on going to St. Petersburg in person to talk to Sheremetev, implying that they could work something out man to man. Of course, he told the estate administration this in 1842, claiming that he would go as soon as he got back from the Makar’ev market… and then told them the same thing in 1844, when he had not gone. Clearly, he had no intention of doing anything other than staying in Ivanovo, not paying rent, and rebuilding.

In response, the administration sent reports. And occasionally petitions. And mostly didn’t know what to do about him. Continue reading

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Visualizing the 1897 Census in Pie Charts

A couple years ago one of my Soviet history students, Jessy Mwarage, said he wanted to do a bit of extra work at the opening of the semester, so I gave him some Russian census data from 1897 to play with. He turned the data into very elegant pie charts.  

I should add one caveat. I’m not absolutely positive about the quality of the data, but I think it’s reasonably good. Above all, it will give students a sense of the diversity of the population in the Russian Empire.

Russian Census Data, 1897

Total population:  125,640,021 people
Sex:  50.2 % female;  49.8 % male
Urban:   16,828,395 (13.4%);   Rural:  108,811,626 (86.6%)
Literacy:   29.3% of males;  13.1% of females were literate
Nationalities (as determined by language)

  • Russians:  56 million (44%)
  • Ukrainians:  22 million (17%)
  • Poles:  8 million (6%)
  • Belarusians (a.k.a. White Russians):  6 million (5%)
  • Jews (Yiddish speaking): 5 million (4%)
  • Kirghiz = 4million (3%)
  • Tatars = 3.7 million Tatars (3%)
  • Georgians, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Moldovians: 1-2 million each (1.6%)


    • Russian Orthodox:   69.34%
    • Muslims:   11.07%
    • Roman Catholics:   9.13%
    • Jews:   4.15%
    • Lutherans:   2.84%
    • Old Believers and others split from Russian Orthodox:   1.75%
    • Armenian Gregorians & Armenian Catholics:   0.97%
    • Buddhists, lamaists:   0.34%
    • Other Protestants:   0.15%



    Social Groups

    Peasants and Cossacks:                      99.8 million (79.4% of the total population)

    Towndwellers:                                     13.4 million (10.7%)

    Total lower classes:  113.2 million (90.1%)

    Merchants, honored citizens:             0.6 million (0.5%)

    Church estate:                                       0.6 million (0.5%)

    Nobility:                                                  1.85 million (1.5%)

    National minorities [inorodtsy] incl. Jews:      8.3 million (6.6%)

    Foreigners:                                            0.6 million (0.5%)




    Source of Income of Main Breadwinner

    Agriculture  (incl. livestock prod., fishing, forestry):  74.57%

    Manufacturing & crafts (esp. sewing, construction, metal, textiles, woodworking):  9.34%

    Servants and daily manual workers:   4.61%

    Commerce:   3.99%

    Transport and communications (nearly one half were horse and cart drivers)  1.55%

    Army and navy:   .99%

    Public administration (state & local authorities):   .75%

    Living on capital income:   .72%

    Religious institutions (including clerks & janitors):   .63%

    Medicine, education, science, literature, and legal practice:  .61%

    Mining:   .44%

    Others:    1.8%



    Largest Cities of the Russian Empire:


    Data from Wikipedia (English and Russian) and other sources.   Pie charts by Jessy Mwarage.

    Posted in Imperial Russia, Teaching Russian History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

    Russian Census of 1897 as teaching tool

    This week Pietro Shakarian posted an article on Russia Direct that addresses the issue of the ethnic composition of the Russian Empire in 1897 as it relates to current crises in Ukraine, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and Trans-Caucasia. To my mind it is very informative and would be a good article for students to read if one also gave them good maps. (Shakarian is apparently a PhD student at Ohio State University.)

    Posted in Crimea, Imperial Russia, Teaching Russian History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment