Anatomy of a Course: The Final Exam

The final exam serves many functions. It’s a moment of assessment, of course, a relatively important one in this class at 40% of the total grade. A student writes for two hours, and you read it for fifteen minutes. If you do it right, that exchange allows you to determine whether a student has done “satsifactory” (C), “good” (B), or “excellent” (A) work. But what does it mean to “do it right?” I’m pretty sure there’s not a single perfect way to construct a final. In any case, I have experimented with different models over the years: take-home finals, oral finals, and in many courses no final at all. In recent years, however, I’ve adopted a hybrid model that I like for my intermediate “lecture” classes. I give students the long essay questions ahead of time but also have a set of shorter questions that they see for the first time during the exam itself. Here’s the final exam I gave this year: Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Course: Outside Speakers

I’m sitting now proctoring the final exam for “Russia from Lenin to Putin,” so the “Anatomy of a Course” is nearly finished. I’ll have a final post or two on the final exam, and there will be one more guest student post, but before I wrap this series up, I want to speak briefly about co-curricular activities and their place in my course. There were two big events that planning began for in the summer and that were on the syllabus: a roundtable on revolution to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and a visit from Steve Norris to talk about blockbuster films and patriotism in the 21st century. Let me talk about the Norris lecture, in part because it occurred more recently (two weeks ago), and in part because of Revolution Anniversary Fatigue.

I have found that outside speakers work better when I consciously and extensively integrate them into my course structure. I will admit to a soft spot for attending lectures that introduce me to something completely new and divorced from what I’m thinking about at a given stage, but I know that not all students feel the same. As I said in an earlier post, inviting Steve allowed me to re-envision what the structure of my class might look like. More specifically, it allowed me (and more importantly my students) to think in terms of iterations and reiterations of historical moments. Most obviously, I had never assigned (or read) Akunin’s Turkish Gambit prior to this semester, but students had this for their summer reading and then returned to it with a required film screening, readings from Steve’s Blockbuster History, and then his talk, all in the same week. Thus, not only did we get to talk about imperialism, nationalism, militaries, police states, and gender politics in the 19th century on the very first day of class by talking about the themes of Turkish Gambit, but we got to return to those important themes in the final days of the course by examining the same “text.” Or mainly the same text, as the film differs in important ways from the novel. Most notably, the “who” in the “whodunit” tale changes (for reasons Steve talks about in his book and discussed with my class). But also, as students and faculty alike noted, both the gender politics and the theme of orientalism changes. Varvara’s character goes from being a woman struggling with the collision between political commitments, gender expectations, and her own desires to a simpering stereotype, and the book’s challenge to orientalist stereotypes ends up with a straightforwardly orientalist movie. These observations allowed students not only to understand Norris’ book (and his excellent updating of these themes to encompass shifts during Putin’s second stint as president), but also to understand what we might mean by the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” in commercially saturated media environments that both my students and Russian citizens live in today.

Bringing in an outside speaker has additional positive knock-on effects. Many of my students were thrilled to meet the author that they had just been reading. This thrill is easy to forget, especially when we have our cynical moments about our jobs and profession, but it is genuine. We learn because we are human, and combining human contact with the words on a page is powerful. In addition, it allows them (rightly) to feel like they are entering a world of experts. They’ve literally done the reading, and this allows them to ask good questions that engage and excite scholars in the field. Finally, outside speakers help promote faculty cohesion. We’re all busy, and it’s nice to sit down to have dinner with five or six folks, one of them an outsider, and talk about new ideas (and, of course, to compare working conditions and kvetch). In sum, though these events take some work both intellectually and organizationally, the payoff is quite substantial. Many thanks to Steve and to many of my other colleagues and friends who have agreed to come speak at Lafayette in the past!

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Anatomy of a Course: “A bit of a mess”

How should a college professor teach? Pick up a guide for new instructors (or attend a workshop aimed at the same), and you may well be advised to train yourself to be a “guide on the side” rather than a fusty old “sage on the stage.” Don’t worry, this post won’t be a rehashing of the debate between pro-lecture and anti-lecture partisans. No, my point today is that posing the question in the way it has traditionally been posed impoverishes the debate by giving only two options and by presenting those options as mutually exclusive. This is a shame, because none of the many great teachers I have seen in action were either a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side.” There are lots of ways to be effective in the classroom, but the folks I’ve seen with the most success have both made their teaching persona an outgrowth of their personalities and have shown flexibility in teaching methods depending on the class they’re teaching. Rendered as pithy advice, this would boil down to “Be yourself” (or, maybe, “Be your best self”) and “Pay close attention to the students in front of you.” Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Course: A student view

This month, I invited one of my students to write about her experiences in the “Russia from Lenin to Putin” course. She chose to write about how different types of readings worked together in the course. The author is Nicole Harry, who is a History major and a Russian and East European Studies minor with interests in the study of Soviet history and of society and politics in the post-Soviet states. Here’s Nicole: Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Course: Starting the Semester

Every year, somehow, the start of the fall semester gets busier and busier. At an institution like mine, which is crazy about meetings, everyone wants to meet right away. Tenure cases are mulled. Grant proposals are due (hooray for an upcoming sabbatical!) And in the midst of all of this, you teach the first critical weeks of the course. It’s especially tempting (and dangerous) for professors with a few years under their belts to think about putting classes on cruise control, using old texts, old lecture notes, and spending entire periods going over the syllabus.

But you will not get a second chance to make a first impression. Students start answering pressing questions regardless of what your out-of-class workload looks like. Is this course interesting? How much work is there? Do I really have to do all the work? Will I have the chance to contribute/discuss/question in class? The answers, I think, help build attitudes that fall on a spectrum that ranges from “my professor is mailing it in, so will I” to “I’m looking forward to the readings and classes each week.”

It is frustrating, but I think undeniable, that there is no sure recipe for success when it comes to establishing a positive classroom atmosphere. Preparation is critical, but sometimes improvisation matters more. Coming across as serious and disciplined is important, but being open-minded and open-hearted is necessary too. Finally, and probably most importantly, you’re just one human being in that room. You have more influence than anyone else, but sometimes individual students (or small groups of them) either make the class a special and memorable one for all involved or make it a miserable slog.

Despite not having full control over the outcome of the social dynamics of the classroom, I do my best to structure the first weeks to maximize chances for success, with three basic goals in mind. First, I want to “interpellate” every student in an intellectual way. This means learning their names as quickly as possible (which is difficult for someone, like me, who has difficulty linking and remembering names and faces). But it also means providing early opportunities for each student to say (or write) something of substance and to have me respond in a meaningful fashion. Second, I try to lead with interesting classes and topics. As the previous posts indicated, it’s important to design an excellent syllabus, but if the syllabus is the most interesting part of your course, something is probably wrong. Sometimes, this means getting to the heart of the course right away, and sometimes it means designing an interesting introduction. Finally, it’s important to set the core narrative in motion. Courses, like ideas, have shapes. History classes often (though not always) take shape through narrative. We have to decide which ideas/events/notions will form the through line of the course and then get busy introducing and explaining them.

In terms of course readings for “Russia from Lenin to Putin,” I decided to assign summer reading – Boris Akunin’s Turkish Gambit and several of my favorite Chekhov short stories. This accomplished several goals, I think. First, these were interesting readings. Any student unable to appreciate the charms of either Akunin or Chekhov is unlikely to find much else of interest in the course, so s/he will know this in plenty of time to drop the class. Second, the very act of assigning summer reading is an indication of seriousness and commitment – a mutual pact between me and the students that we’re going to work hard for each other. Finally, it sets up for a first day in which we begin by discussing the “woman question” in 19th century Russia and the inversions of anti-Semitism in “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” That was, I promise you, way more engaging than going over penalties for absences and federal credit hour requirements on the syllabus. By the end of the week, we had gotten around to discussing the nuts and bolts on the syllabus (and setting expectations for students), but it didn’t occupy the first moments of the class. Those first discussions were also a source of great relief. Most of the students had not only done the readings but were ready to discuss them and to ask questions about aspects of those texts that confused them. They were curious, energetic, and engaged with each other as well as with me. They are already the kind of class that makes you love your job.

I introduced some new activities when we got to the second day of class. We did two things. I gave my first lecture (on the period from 1905-1914), and we discussed the first chapter of their first long book by a historian, Steve Smith’s Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928. This was obviously the first time I taught this book (which came out just this year). As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had skimmed it prior to assigning it, but I didn’t know how well it would help me achieve my overall course goals, including the key one of teaching students to think in more complex ways both about class and revolution. I’m happy to report, now that the students and I have read the whole thing carefully, that it works wonderfully. It hits all of the key topics, challenges historical orthodoxies in interesting ways (just yesterday we talked about his careful critique of the idea that control of the Secretariat was the only way that Stalin won the political battles of the 1920s), and represents the Revolution in all of its messy, bloody, inspiring glory. Smith was a thoughtful, clear, and reliable guide for the period leading up to 1928.

We are now well on our way, having finished the fourth week of the course. Students know why workers and soldiers supported the Bolsheviks in 1917 and why so many of them turned away from them later. They know how the fate of the worker revolution actually centered on grain policy and the hunger, violence, and eventually famine that resulted from the increasingly coercive and disastrous policies of successive governments. Class has been described, not so much theoretically (though we did some of that too) as how it actually existed in Revolutionary Russia. It is already clear that the Revolution was fired by deep (and deeply politicized) feelings of social and economic injustice and that the Bolshevik victory in the revolution was at least in part a result of a violently authoritarian streak that would have dire consequences in the years and decades to come. Stalin and Stalinism are on our collective horizons.

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CFP: Asia in the Russian Imagination

This year while I’m on a research fellowship, I’m helping the University of Utah’s Asia Center to organize an interdisciplinary conference.  We’re planning it around the theme of “Asia in the Russian Imagination,” but are expecting it to be more broadly concerned with the history of Siberia, Central Asia, and the Russian Far East and North Pacific.  The conference will be held at the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City on March 23-24, 2018.  Over the past three years, the Asia Center’s “Siberian Initiative” has sponsored talks on anthropology, environmental studies, history, film studies, and linguistics, and we are continuing this interdisciplinary approach to Russia in Asia/Asia in Russia at our conference. Continue reading

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The failures of arbitrary mercy

Toward the end of a very long archival file, toward the end of a long research trip, I came across a letter that made me gasp and then tear up as I sat in the reading room. It was sent from the Minister of the Interior to the Minister of the Imperial Court on December 12, 1914, and then forwarded on to the Gatchina town authorities:

On October 26, Iuliia and Luiza Ruprekht, the first 71, and the second 67 years old, German subjects who lived in Gatchina and were subject to deportation due to the war, gave the Gatchina police chief a petition in which they asked to be allowed to remain in their place of residence in Russia, where they were born and had lived all their lives, and referring to their elderly years, illness, and material dependence on their sister, a Russian subject living in Petrograd. [The police chief] presented this petition to the Petrograd governor only after thirteen days, that is on November 8, with а favorable conclusion, due to which [the governor] placed a decision favorable to the petitioners on the report. But not waiting for notice of [the resolution of their petition], the aforementioned foreigners on November 9 ended their lives with suicide, having hanged themselves in their apartment; the reason for their suicide, according to the same police chief, was that they were dejected under the influence of the threat of the possibility of being sent, as German subjects, out of Russia. The police chief’s explanation of why there was such a delay in presenting the late Ruprekhts’ petition to the Petrograd governor does not hold up.

Where to begin? Well, there’s a horrible irony here, because the other actors were hardly themselves all Russians, even if they were all Russian subjects. The police chief’s name was Kavtaradze; the Minister of the Imperial Court’s name was Frederiks, the Petrograd governor’s name Adlerberg. The officials of imperial Russia were of its empire, not all of Russia. I could go on about the unfairness of former non-Russians turning on current non-Russians, particularly current non-Russians who had lived their whole lives in Russia, except that I think that’s not really the story here.

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Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 3 (topics and readings)

As I discussed in my first two posts on syllabus construction, I try to figure out the readings and weekly topics as my last step, after I’ve made decisions on the course goals and assignments that form the backbone of the class. To recap, I’ve decided to focus on the “revolutionary” aspects of the past century and to concentrate course work on extensive readings and the analysis of those texts. I’m also shifting my time frame to spend a bit less time on the period before 1917 and a bit more both on the late Soviet and the post-Soviet periods. I’ve got fourteen weeks and about two thousand pages of reading to accomplish these goals. Less, actually, since I’m also doing an unusually large number of off campus lectures/conferences this semester, which will require me to miss some class sessions and to make them up outside of class time, mostly with course films that students can watch on a flexible schedule in case they have a conflict with the makeup class time. This reduces the number of lecture slots available, but it does provide a bit more breathing space for students to do their reading. Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 2 (assignments)

I mentioned in my first “Anatomy of a Course” post that I had flubbed my interview question on course preparation by only mentioning the books I hoped to use. One of the basic things I failed to do was to discuss course assignments with the search committee. Because learning is less about what the professor says than what the student does, this was a serious omission. As a result, assignment design really should be a starting point rather than the end point of preparing your courses. In some cases, the curriculum helps determine this for you. For instance, all advanced history seminars at Lafayette require students to write a 20-25 page research paper that demonstrates serious engagement with both primary and secondary sources. For my advanced seminar, therefore, I start out by blocking periods of time for students to work on their paper proposals, their outlines, their drafts, and their final projects before filling in other course elements around those blocks. When I developed my new introductory seminar on the Cold War (which is also a course that requires 20 pages of “process” writing but focuses on teaching novice students how to critique and use different sorts of primary sources), I also began by creating the (short) paper assignments before moving on to the rest of the syllabus. Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 1 (nuts and bolts)

This is part of a continuing series entitled “Anatomy of a Course,” which will be updated throughout Fall 2017. Click on the “Anatomy of a Course” category heading to see all the relevant posts.

If you haven’t been in a university classroom in the Age of Assessment, you may not realize how large and bulky syllabi have gotten. Accreditation institutions now require us to post student learning outcomes and federal credit hour requirements, colleges insist on other items to be included, and before you know it, the syllabus has become a booklet. As a result, I’m going to split my discussion of syllabus construction in three. Today, I’ll do the “nuts and bolts” part of the syllabus, follwed by a post on course assignments, followed by the post on the course schedules and readings. Part one of my draft syllabus is posted at the following URL, which you can refer to as you read through this post: http://sites.lafayette.edu/sanbornj/hist-244-syllabus-part-one/ Continue reading

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Anatomy of a course

I well remember the teaching portion of my first job interview for a tenure-track position. They asked me a simple question – how would I design a course on Russian history? – and I gave them a simple answer – a list of books and topics that I wanted to cover. It was the wrong answer, and I didn’t get the job. Over the years (and particularly over the past five years when I have served as Department Head and have chaired search committees for every new tenure-track and visiting hire in the department), I have heard that question answered in a similar fashion by other candidates fresh out of graduate school, so I thought I would spend some time here explaining what (I hope!) is one of many possible “right” answers to the question of how to design – and then teach – a course on Russian history. I plan to blog consistently about the course, starting today with early planning efforts and continuing through the semester as the class happens in real time. I hope that this series of posts will not only create a conversation with experienced and novice Russian history professors but might also pull back the curtain for students and for folks outside the academy who hold the understandable but mistaken belief that teaching a college course is simply a matter of knowing a lot, telling students a lot, and then testing how much they remember. “Oh history!” a golfing buddy of my uncle said to me more than two decades ago. “That’s gonna be easy! It never changes, so after you teach it the first time, you’re set for life!” Continue reading

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Foreigners, revisited

It’s not really a surprise that the Russia of Nicholas II was as interested in keeping lists of foreigners as the Russia of Alexander I had been back at the time of the Napoleonic wars. At least, it’s not much of a surprise. It was a time of “extraordinary” security measures and revolutionary movements, after all. Of course, that’s usually thought of as aimed at internal enemies, not necessarily at foreign nationals, at least until the onset of the First World War. But concern about foreigners started much earlier. As early as January 1896, the police chief of Gatchina was sending regular reports to the town administration listing the foreigners living in the town. The practice continued up through the start of the First World War. They’re collected, interfiled with a lot of other reports on a lot of other subjects, in an archival folder labeled “confidential correspondence on various questions.” So not only was concern with foreigners real, it was also secret.

Glancing through the file, two things seems clear—first that there was a great diversity of people and of lengths of stay in Russia, and second (perhaps as a result) that it was really hard to make accurate lists of people. The first report, from January 12, 1896, listed twelve foreigners living in Gatchina: two French, three English, one Austrian, two Germans, and then a set of other German speakers, from Mecklenburg, Bavaria, and Prussia. Another list from the same month lists 37 people, not 12. (The German regions also persist here even well after the consolidation of Germany.)

Here’s the list of foreigners drawn up on June 15, 1912, almost exactly 100 years after the list from 1812.

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Correspondence on various questions

I am always running across bits and pieces of stories in the course of doing research that leave me wanting to know more (as I’ve posted about more than once before this!). It’s one of the things that I both love about the archives and find frustrating. At times, they have such rich materials, with stories that really allow you to figure out quite a bit about an individual person or about a turn of events. And sometimes they leave you hanging, with the set up for something, and no resolution, or not enough backstory to understand what was going on.

It’s certainly possible that I bring some of this onto myself by having a bit of a penchant for ordering files with titles like “Correspondence on various questions, 1893.” But I can’t stop ordering them because they so often brim with a sense of the fullness, as well as of the randomness, of life. In just that one file (part of the archives of the Gatchina palace administration) there are, among many, many other things:

  • a petition (proshenie) from the “residents of the town of Gatchina” for help in getting a secondary school for boys opened in the town
  • a letter from the administration’s superintendent recommending a recent graduate of the Gatchina girls secondary school for a job with the Warsaw Railways
  • a complaint from a professional theatrical prompter working a charity show in Gatchina expressing his UTTER OUTRAGE that the local police told him to prompt more quietly
  • a request from the Novgorod governor on behalf of someone working on his staff who was descended from a former administrator in Gatchina, and who needed documents about that ancestor to prove his nobility
  • a petition from the widow of a titular counselor, herself a member of the Gatchina Philanthropic Society, asking for support in her efforts to find a space in the St. Petersburg Widows Home
  • a report from the police about an outbreak of theft, including of money from donation boxes
  • a series of documents concerning whether the synod had allowed coconut oil to be used for church lamps (it had not, but one St. Petersburg lamp-oil company had produced pamphlets claiming it was acceptable)

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Exhuming Individual Lives

I didn’t watch the Oscars on Sunday, but because I live in the world, I have heard quite a bit about them. Of course the big story was the kerfuffle over Best Picture (to which I say, yay, Moonlight! you know this without me saying it, but wow, you are a gorgeous movie!), but I find myself coming back to the very beautiful speech Viola Davis gave as she accepted her award. I adore her metaphor of what she wants to do with her job: exhume the stories of individual lives, of “ordinary people.” I’m not sure I’ve ever put it in quite those words, but that is absolutely one of the things that most motivates me as a historian. (I’m also fine with exhuming the lives of not-so-ordinary people, too, though, particularly since they’re the ones who tend to leave things behind.)

Old Bolshevik graves, Peredelkino cemetery, June 2014

Old Bolshevik graves, Peredelkino cemetery, June 2014

But I keep coming back to another line in her speech: “I became an artist… because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” I think I keep coming back to that because it brings up a certain tension I feel in what it means to be a historian. Historians don’t usually think of themselves as artists, really, even those of us who see ourselves firmly on the humanities side of the humanities/social science divide. We may try to be elegant stylists in our writing, but that’s not quite the same thing. It’s artistry, but not being an artist.

Perhaps the difference is imagination. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as aiming for radical or defiant objectivity (or even believing that objectivity exists), we don’t conceptualize its opposite as imagination. We are analytical, not imaginative. Of course we know that whatever the calls to teach or tell history as just “the facts,” facts rarely speak for themselves. A single fact lies there saying nothing—it needs to be linked to others, to be analyzed, in order to mean something. That’s what we do, and that is absolutely important. But sometimes there are facts that cry out not just for analysis, but for the exercise of the imagination in order to say anything at all. Continue reading

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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