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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Demons

“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.

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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.

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Foreigners

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

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