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.
I’m struck by this too because one of the themes I find really interesting in Erika’s book is the theme of the “seen and unseen,” as she subtitles one chapter. Early in the introduction Erika describes the challenges that face us in trying to recreate history when what we have in the archives are only scattered “moments [of] interaction with the state” (6). As we can see in the remarkably reconstructed family histories Erika presents in the last few chapters of her book, those moments were fortunately more than one might expect—and even more fortunately, often written down (perhaps an actual advantage of the notoriously undergoverned Russian Empire for the historian is that so much had to be written down and sent to distant agents for comment or action?). It’s an enormous amount of work to sift through files and piece together these stories, but it can be done. But still the images there are incomplete in ways that are often more frustrating to the researcher who sees what’s not there than to the reader who gets the neatly compiled version.
In many places in the text Erika tries to see beyond what the state saw. These “glimpses” of, say, the cultural and social world of the Filat’ev family do bring a lot to the larger questions Erika’s posing, particularly the comparison of Russian merchants to foreign ones. (It’s a shame, though, that those glimpses don’t really bring the women of the families into focus at all, other than brief mentions of marrying within or outside one’s status. Or the Filat’ev widow who’s exhorted by her father-in-law not to remarry after her husband’s death, or face expulsion from her home. It’s a shame, but not necessarily a surprise, given that women less often came under the gaze of the state and are harder to trace because of their movement from household to household through marriage.)
The phrase “seen and unseen” also comes up here in a specific context, of looking for evidence of actions contrary to the rules of the state, evidence of smuggling or other illicit activities involving trade. This is another place I recognize so well from my own research. I was always on the lookout for evidence of illegal acts when it came to people’s registry as merchants or meshchane or whatever, and I found so little of it. Similarly, I found just a few cases involving falsified passports or manumission papers (though the one of the latter I found was great, and involved a noblewoman who brought her own magnifying glass to an inquiry that hinged on whether a signature was genuine). I looked because “everyone knows” that there were false papers, that officials were venal and corrupt. And I’m still not sure what my findings mean—did I just look in the wrong places? Do the cases I find represent the tip of the iceberg, a tiny fraction that proves that there was a whole world of falsification “unseen” by the archives? Or was there actually not that much in the way of corruption, and Russia’s reputation is ill deserved? I’m not quite sure where you come down on this question, Erika. You write about the “purported corruption of Russia,” and question “the assumptions brought to the question of corruption” (172-73). Do you have a strong feeling about it (I say feeling and not argument, because I’m not sure it’s ever going to be a question that can be properly answered to the satisfaction of all)? Or are you as puzzled as I am?