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.

Chukovsky’s aphorism always comes to my mind when I think about my friend, Charles Steinwedel, who ventured into the power field of Russia’s chronotope too long ago to remain immune to the influence of long time and vast space. It did not help that Charles has nothing Russian in his background: to the contrary, a native of Minnesota, he fully embraced the Midwestern temporality of taking one’s time in order to do a complicated job. We expected him to complete his PhD dissertation at Columbia in 1996 on the topic “The Local Politics of Empire: State, Religion and National Identity in Ufa Province, 1865–1917.” Eventually, he wrote a somewhat different dissertation, in 1999: “Invisible Threads of Empire: State, Religion, and Ethnicity in Tsarist Bashkiria, 1773–1917.” After that, we began waiting for the book based on his dissertation: several important articles and chapters coming one after another seemed to indicate its imminent preparation:

“To Make a Difference: The Construction of a Category of Ethnicity in Late Imperial Russia,” in Yanni Kotsonis and David Hoffman, eds., Russian Modernity: Politics, Practices, Knowledge (Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000), 67–86;

“The 1905 Revolution in Ufa: Mass Politics, Elections, and Nationality,” Russian Review 59, no. 4 (October 2000): 555–576;

“Making Social Groups, One Person at a Time: The Identification of Individuals by Estate, Religious Confession, and Ethnicity in Late Imperial Russia,” in Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices since the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 67–82;

“Tribe, Estate, Nationality? Changing Conceptions of Bashkir Particularity within the Tsar’s Empire,” Ab Imperio 3, no. 2 (2002): 249–278.

The book eventually came out in the summer of 2016 as Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552–1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

Notice how the focus of the project changed in the course of twenty years, as seen even in the titles. The time frame expanded by moving farther into the past: from 1865 to 1773 to 1552. “Local politics” of the Russian empire and “national identity” were replaced by “the invisible threads” of empire and “ethnicity,” and eventually by “loyalty” and “authority.” “Ufa province” gave way to “Bashkiria.” The initial formulation of the problem looked pioneering for the American history of Russia (or Russian history, for that matter) in the mid-1990s, when it just discovered the reality of Russia’s diversity outside St. Petersburg and Moscow. Charles Steinwedel was among the first U.S. historians able to conduct field research in local archives—in Kazan, and then in Ufa. Still, quite characteristic of this early stage of the “imperial turn,” the original project seemed to objectify the imperial perspective by accepting social processes as restricted to “imperial politics,” and localities—merely as empire’s administrative units (like Ufa province). Gradually, Charles moved to problematizing the reality of empire that was held together by “invisible threads” more than by anything else, which was usually ascribed to it by social scientists developing “imperiology” (the crude force, the devilish politics of “divide et impera,” or geopolitics). Eventually, he concentrated on the anatomy of the imperial condition, boiling it down to the fundamentals of “loyalty” and “authority”—thus bordering on the anthropological perspective (but not making this radical interdisciplinary step). The title lost mention of the “invisible” threads because Charles discovered the prior usage of this formula by Richard Wortman (although in a different sense: Richard S. Wortman, “‘Invisible Threads’: The Historical Imagery of the Romanov Tercentenary,” Russian History 16, nos. 2–4 (1989): 389–408). Charles borrowed the concept from his Ufa sources and could have kept it, but I think he let the catchy formula go because at some point he just stopped differentiating the imperial threads into “visible” and “invisible.” No longer perceiving empire as a self-evident “natural” phenomenon, a historian sees nothing obvious in its manifestations and logics of operation.

This is probably why Charles expanded the chronological scope of his study so radically—in order to discover the social dynamics beyond the formal empire as a polity, or at least before it.

Initially, this move puzzled me. His PhD dissertation, and even more so the articles and chapters published in 2000–2002, established his reputation as an innovative historian of Late Imperial Russia. Not many historians succeed in building a paradigmatic case, and Charles has done exactly this by demonstrating the evolution of the category of “Bashkirs,” so different from normative scenarios developed within nationalities studies. A legal estate (like Cossacks or peasants), the Bashkirs became recognized as a nationality and a nation in the late nineteenth century, and from this stage developed into an ethnicity in the early twentieth century. A legal and socioeconomic category was transformed into a political and cultural, and from there—into a “community of blood.” This paradigmatic case established by Charles helped give a better understanding of parallel developments in the perception of the groupness of Tatars, Jews, or Russians. He not only understood better than most colleagues the mechanisms of Late Imperial social thinking, he found a way to demonstrate it using novel but well-researched historical material. Therefore, I was surprised to see him divert attention from this period, which he knew and had researched so well, to the times of Ivan IV. I thought this was a concession to a request of the publisher, so typical nowadays in the disintegrating field of former “Russian Studies,” when a problem-oriented monograph is marketed as a stand-alone sample of area studies—all-embracing within its limited scope. When I read the book, I saw the inner research logic behind that chronological expansion, and that the earlier periods were written in the same analytical manner—not merely for the purposes of formal reference.

For example, in this pre-imperial part, the author demonstrates the diversity of the “Bashkirs” as a group and the fluidity of “their” territory, as well as the conditional character of authority in the region. As he promptly mentions, in the 1620s, “a territory the size of Italy” was controlled by less than fifty Russian servicemen (23), which immediately raises the question of the nature of that “control.” The dialectic of “loyalty” and “authority” was convincingly introduced on the material of underinstitutionalized power relations, which allowed the focus to remain on these categories throughout the book (just as was promised in its title). By identifying certain analytical categories that are independent of the Russian Empire and empire as such, Charles was able to provide the basic metalanguage for analyzing the constantly transforming phenomenon of Russian Empire fairly independently of the empire’s own authoritative master-narrative. By the same token, this allowed him to show how “Bashkiria” was both unique (as any imperial locality) and typical (representing some fundamental imperial conditions and practices). Hence occasional parallels with Steppe regions, Western Borderlands, the Caucasus, or Jews strengthen the case of “typical specificity.”

The gradual broadening of the chronology of the study over the past twenty years reminds me of the initial spatial expansion of its research focus. According to an old story, when Charles announced in 1994 in St. Petersburg—the Mecca but also the ghetto of Russian historians at the time—that he was heading to Kazan next, his local acquaintances were terrified: “But this is such a backwater (glubinka)!” This reaction was rebuked in Kazan, particularly when he admitted that he was moving farther to Ufa: “We are no backwater, but Ufa, 300 miles to the east, is a real backwater!” Naturally, in Ufa, the location of a true backwater was identified as farther to the east, in the countryside. I guess it was when Charles eventually reached that Bashkir village where they had never seen a foreigner (or a Russian, I suppose, at least on their premises), the spatial aspect of the imperial chronotope gave way to exploring the temporal limits of his study. Rather than starting with the Great Reforms, Charles moved the beginning of the story back to the Pugachev rebellion that was driven primarily by Bashkirs and local Cossacks, and then to Ivan IV, when the first written sources of the region were produced.

So, I read this book not just as a history of “Bashkiria” and not as a belated realization of the research plan of the 1990s, but as a travelogue of a historian of empire. This study is remarkably relevant because it has been written and rewritten in dialogue with the most advanced developments in the field. Its strongest sides and those aspects that can provoke criticism are integral to the current state of Russian Studies. For example, we have come to a point when a new version of a longue durée narrative of the Russian Empire is required. The magisterial work of Richard Wortman summarized the initial stage of imperial studies that discovered the phenomenon of empire as viewed from St. Petersburg and from the vantage point of the RGIA, as the imperial archive documenting the worldview of supreme authorities. Wortman wrote about empire as the imperial regime, the same in 1702, 1802, and 1902, only adjusting its scenarios of power to the requirements of a new epoch. However, this approach cannot be applied as early as 1602 because there was no Russian Empire and no developed sphere of public discourses. Thus, even within the top-down logic of inquiry, the rupture of the Petrine political revolution remains a major obstacle for the analysis of persistence of the regimes of rule in the region.

So today we all are facing some basic questions: How to write a longue durée history of a place that is not confined by fixed political boundaries (of 1913, 1703, or 2016)? How to accommodate a modern understanding of the profound differences between successive ruling regimes, far exceeding the variety of personalities and even their political styles? How to account for historical subjectivity of collective actors (such as the Bashkirs), who themselves were characterized by evolving principles of groupness and self-identification? How to produce a history of imperial society that is not a history of St. Petersburg governmentality? Charles Steinwedel has offered his version of such a history, spanning four centuries of consolidation and modification of rule over the vast territory that included the lands of the Bashkirs. In discussing his book, it is important to keep in mind that this is not a work of “area studies” (of Bashkiria or the Bashkirs) but a contribution to the broader field of Russian history. Threads of Empire in many ways summarizes the previous two decades of studies in the field, reflecting their achievements and lacunae, and opening up new research horizons.

January 10, 2017

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