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.
The continental trade between Russia and China offers a specific example of the ambivalence that Russians had toward long-distance Eurasian trade. The Russian state avidly desired to establish and increase direct trade with China. (Erika even goes so far as to argue that commerce with China – and “the East” more generally – was a chief motivation for the Russians to even be in Siberia.) Yet Russian-Chinese trade was sporadic and tentative until the end of the eighteenth century. It became more stable and increasingly voluminous from the 1790s on, but from the beginning the Russian state was seeking an alternative. This was so perhaps because goods that were transported from China were made substantially more expensive when they arrived in European Russia after the many months of continental transit. It is thus no surprise that the Russians were very eager for the Chinese to open up their ports to Russian ships – which the Chinese refused to do until they were forced to after the first Opium War. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, as Chinese products increasingly arrived in Russia via Black Sea and Baltic ports (thus bypassing Siberia altogether), Kiakhta shifted from being a funnel of Russian-Chinese trade to a key location for Russia’s more modest and localized trade with the Mongols. Meanwhile, thanks to the maritime routes, Russians could finally get their fill of Chinese tea: tea prices dropped and consumption rose.
But despite the reality that official St. Petersburg welcomed the opportunity to shift to maritime connections between European Russia and the Far East on the grounds of economic efficiency, there was also considerable backing for retaining and revitalizing the continental route. The pro-continental trade lobby was led by the Siberian merchants as well as ones from Moscow with a direct investment in the land route. Yet – and this is a telling detail – these self-interested parties were joined by other citizens who argued that the (previously subsidized) continental route facilitated crucial economic development of Siberia and thus was vital for securing this thinly populated region for the Russian Empire. (These concerns were later addressed by the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.) In other words, in such a vision the Russian-Chinese trade route through Siberia served the needs of the state – not to mention enrich its coffers through tariffs – by helping to make life on the frontier a bit more bearable. It was, in a sense, a state development project. The higher prices that consumers in Moscow or St. Petersburg paid for Chinese goods helped pay for the maintenance of the Siberian route. All this to say that trade and commerce in Siberia, in early modern as well later periods, was rather complicated business, involving overt and covert interests. Erika’s book gives us an important window to look at some of these, and to reassess Muscovy’s position in the world economy in the process.