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)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
I’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.
“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
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.
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
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
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
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.
If 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.
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
Welcome 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
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
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
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
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