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.

A third attribute is the book’s focus on space—a particular though also changing territory known as Bashkiria. In some sense there is nothing distinct about this approach, as a regional focus has been a standard feature of the historiography both in Russia and outside of that country. For example, in her award-winning book Catherine Evtuhov demonstrated how much we could learn from the focus on a single province—an entire world of historical experience that was otherwise obscured now became more readily apparent. Yet there is something very distinct and revealing about the Bashkiria that Steinwedel has focused on, especially for our understanding of empire. As a student of the Volga-Kama region, the area just to the west of Bashkiria, I was always struck by the added degree of complication that I encountered when my sources brought me into that territory. There were many reasons for this, soslovie being among the most significant (more on that shortly). But the convergence in Bashkiria of so many diverse problems and issues that were characteristic of the challenges of governance across the empire, as well as of matters strikingly unique to that territory, makes for an exceptionally revealing analysis. Steinwedel nicely captures the specificity of the region by noting its liminal character—its location at the very edge of European Russia and thus at the intersection of the empire’s core and its more distinctly imperial territories. Drawing on Adeeb Khalid’s distinction between “modern overseas colonial empires” (with their focus on the perpetuation of difference) and “modern mobilizational states” (with their tendency towards homogenization in the pursuit of universal goals), Steinwedel remarks, “Bashkiria was located geographically just at the point where the two forms of governance met. Bashkiria would be in the European core, but just barely” (251). Much of the value of this study, as I see it, derives from the insights that this liminal space offers.

Finally, I find especially revealing Steinwedel’s particular attention to the problem of soslovie and the intersection of that institution with religious belonging and nationality. Here again, the issue is not entirely new, and we have a number of recent works that take on the problem of soslovie head-on—Boris Mironov’s massive social history (1999); Natal’ia Ivanova and Valentina Zheltova’s Soslovnoe obshchestvo Rossiiskoi imperii (2009), and Alison Smith’s recent For the Common Good (2014). But again the ways in which Steinwedel attacks the problem is distinct. The terrain here is extraordinarily complex—the question of who counted as a “Bashkir” at different points could by itself easily fuel a dissertation—and Steinwedel handles it deftly. He shows that despite substantial evolution and a degree of simplification in the era of the Great Reforms, even on the eve of 1917 “estate remained a key element of imperial order” (236). I would venture to say that no serious study of soslovie can now fail to engage with this book, as it provides, to a degree that I have not seen elsewhere, a promising opportunity to link analytically processes characteristic of the Russian center and its “borderlands” into a single, all-imperial notion of social, institutional, and legal change. Likewise, because the matter of soslovie was so deeply embedded in virtually any matter of reform, I also think that no one can really write substantively about the Great Reforms without considering this book.

There were moments when I thought the book was perhaps trying to cover a bit too much. Some chapters consist of nine or more sections, and in some cases the links among those different discussions—some of them quite brief—are not entirely clear. Steinwedel also suggests that Petr Valuev was the interior minister when forced confronted with the 1881 crisis over land swindles (119, 141), but my understanding is that he had left that post in 1868. At the end of chapter 3, Steinwedel notes a “failure of the military organization of society in Bashkiria” (114) in the pre-reform period, but I was uncertain about why the developments he described constituted a failure.

In ending, I would perhaps offer a few thoughts about the matter of loyalty, a key concept of the book. As I read things, Steinwedel is describing a grand arc featuring a movement from more passive forms of loyalty, largely rooted in material interest, to more active ones, rooted sooner in intellectual and even spiritual spheres. Steinwedel notes in the introduction, drawing on R. J. W. Evans’s examination of early Hapsburg lands, that “loyalty” is best understood as “a calculation” rather than “a sort of disembodied idealism” (5). He refers at several points, especially in the earlier parts of the book, about giving people a “stake” as a way of fostering loyalty which suggests that the goal was to create contexts for the convergence of interests between more tsarist rulers and local elites. I wonder if Steinwedel would posit the gradual emergence over time of a “disembodied idealism” as a system of values that, at least some hoped, might motivate loyalty in the later stages of the empire’s existence. And if so, how extensive and successful was it? Did the threads fray, in the end, partly because they were based less on a convergence of material interest than they had been in the past? As I see it, especially in the current moment, thinking about the relationship between interests and values is critical, and Steinwedel’s book provides material with which to do that.

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