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.

Merchants of Siberia is exceptionally well-researched and elegantly presented.  I am grateful that the publisher opted for footnotes rather than endnotes because it is there – on the bottom of each page – that one finds how Monahan’s analysis of early modern Siberian trade makes its most important interventions in early modern Russian historiography.  One of the key questions that the book poses is, “How important in the big picture was Siberia?” (p. 94).  Her answer of course is that it was very important: “Siberia immediately evokes associations of exile and fur, but the history of Siberia told here is that of an empire learning to function” (p. vi).

At the heart of the book is the dialectic between commercial incentives and imperial expansion, and so I am also glad that Monahan made her narrative accessible to those who are less well versed in the nuances of commercial history.  Assumptions about trade patterns are too often misused as building blocks in larger historical arguments, and this book effectively identifies and corrects many of those assumptions.  Rather than a place of “exile and fur” far removed from the well documented globalizing patterns of the early modern maritime world, Siberia itself is a locus of globalization.  I’ll return to this point below.

Moscow’s use of trade to extend Russian power in the region are clear and present, but while reading the book I felt that Moscow remained over the horizon.  This is by design as, Monahan effectively argues, it was local context and not Moscow’s objectives that shaped the nature of commercial exchanges in early modern Siberia.  Readers find a clearer sense of the multiplicity of types of exchange, the many different peoples and merchandise involved (Siberia is valuable for much more than just fur), and the way that merchants and agents of the state learned to negotiate in a distant imperial territory that was rapidly expanding both eastward and southward over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Because of my interest in early modern Central Asia, I find two chapters to be exceptionally interesting.  I’ll first mention chapter 7, which presents a close analysis of the Shababin family, one of the most successful Bukharan merchant families to relocate permanently to Russian Siberia.  Landed families like the Shababins stood apart from the transit Bukharans, caravan traders who passed in and out of Siberia as they moved between the Bukharan Khanate and distant markets.  In the context of early modern Central Asian history, where the tendency has long been to emphasize regional isolation over integration, this chapter illustrates the depth of Bukharan integration with Siberia and, through Siberia, with both Russia and China.

The other chapter that I’m particular fond of is chapter 5, “Connecting Eurasian Commerce: Lake Yamysh.”  Yamysh is a salt lake near the banks of the Irtysh River in what is today northeastern Kazakhstan.  It had long been appreciated as a source of exceptionally high quality salt, a critical ingredient for preserving food and preparing hides and leather.  The lake’s utility and geography attracted traders from across the region to its shores.  But chapter 5 presents a close analysis of Yamysh to demonstrate how, as Russia’s foreign trade with China expanded over the eighteenth century and especially following the Treaty of Kiaktha (1727), Yamysh transformed from a small and remote trading outpost to a much greater center for commercial traffic in the region.

The case of Yamysh presents, in Monahan’s words, “a glimpse of the too-little documented dynamics of trade between Russians, Bukharans, Qalmaqs, Kazaks, Dzhungars – a juncture at which the (too) classically defined ‘settler-nomad’ societies met…  Not only does Lake Yamysh testify to the growth in the trade between Russia and China.  It presents a counter-story to the problematic commonplace that early modern overland trade declined against the competition of European maritime trade” (p. 176).  Even in Siberia, in the globalizing early modern world, one finds that “a rising tide raises all ships” (p. 202).

About Scott Levi

Associate Professor of Central Asian history at Ohio State University
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