The more time I’ve spent thinking about the Chuck Steinwedel’s excellent Threads of Empire, the more I’m taken by the idea of imperial threads. The intertwined purpose of policy is difficult for anyone to unwind. I think this is an important contribution just for the reminder about the multivalent nature of imperial governing strategies.
In the excellent chapter on the middle of the eighteenth century (“Absolutism and Empire”), Steinwedel begins with the Ivan Kirilov and Kutlu-Mukhammad Tevkelev’s expedition that led to the establishment of the new fort of Orenburg. The expedition departed Ufa in April 1735, and immediately ran into difficulties in the form of an uprising, which eventually would be known as the Bashkir War of 1735-40. This is the point when I start to think about threads of empire. Steinwedel thoughtfully analyzes the outcome of the revolt upon the local populations, and thinks about the ways in which local identities were shaped by these experiences and the changing relationship to state authorities. Towards the end of the 1750s, Tevkelev produces an examination of state policies toward the Kazakhs, which considers whether the nomads could be encouraged to settle or would continue to follow their traditional lifestyle. Summarizing the report, Steinwedel assesses its evaluation: the “Kazakhs had already fallen in love with trade” (p. 65).
That comment gave me pause. Having just written a book on Eurasian trade, the Orenburg expedition has an entirely different resonance, as does the state’s assessment of its trade. The period in which the Orenburg expedition was launched was also the peak of the Astrakhan trade for the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. From about 1730 until 1755 (give or take), the customs revenue taken by Astrakhan for entry from “Asia” (either across the Caspian from the Middle East or India or the trans-Eurasian Central Asian and China trade), exceeded the value of Russia’s Baltic revenue. I can’t help but notice that Anna Ivanovna’s government agreed to the Orenburg expedition the same year they gave the British a new right to conduct trade in Iran through Russia. Both were policies enacted to facilitate the growing “Eurasian” trade.
During the instability of the Bashkir War, Orenburg wasn’t a viable addition to Russia’s management of its trade, but in 1753, all of the Eurasian transit trade from China and Central Asia was required to enter Russia via Orenburg rather than Astrakhan. Tevkelev’s report on the Kazakhs, in other words, supported an existing state policy.
Steinwedel’s text does what all good books should – it makes me rethink what I thought I knew about Russia. The local developments at the heart of his analysis, particularly those focused on the changing identity of the local communities living on Russia’s major trade routes, never entered the economic discussions in St. Petersburg. The insecurity of Orenburg, much less the five-year revolt that disrupted travel across the steppe and along the Volga, weren’t mentioned in my sources. The British exploratory trip down the Volga to Astrakhan and then across the Caspian, never mentions any issues with the Bashkirs impeding the trade. Central authorities might have generated policy, but generally had much less knowledge of the countryside than we might expect.
A smart historian once mentioned to me that history is a lot like a wikpedia entry. No one person has the entire answer, but we each keep contributing new pieces of knowledge to generate a richer understanding of the past. Steinwedel’s study does all the best things – it contributes great vision and new ideas but also small details that add to our understanding of the Russian Empire, and all of its varied strands of policy that kept it functioning.