Untangling Ideas with Imperial Threads

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.

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3 Responses to Untangling Ideas with Imperial Threads

  1. Michael Corsi says:

    Hello professor,

    Thank you for your post! I have a question for you… Do you think Tevkelev’s account was written in such a way because he and Kirilov were genuinely unaware of the local conditions/attitudes toward imperial profit seeking along the Orenburg trade routes, or as a way to legitimize the success of their own expedition (as in they knowingly tried to soften the occurrences of local pushback)?

  2. Charles Steinwedel says:

    Hi Michael,

    When the Orenburg Expedition set out from Ufa in 1735, I think that Kirilov and Tevkelev were unaware of how hostile the local population would be to the building of a fortress on Bashkir land. (I think the taking of land, not profit-seeking from trade, was the issue that caused conflict.)

    Kirilov and Tevkelev represented the Expedition in a most optimistic way, as one might expect. They clearly sold the empress and her advisors on the ease and importance of building a fortress to support trade with Central Asia. If the Expedition had been prepared for the worst, one might conclude that Kirilov and Tevkelev expected problems and only wrote differently to St. Petersburg to justify the Expedition. However, Kirilov, who led the expedition to the proposed site of Orenburg, showed so little preparation for possible conflict and gave so little attention to warnings of local opposition that one can only assume that he didn’t expect trouble.

    Once the local population began to resist, Kirilov was soon forced to confront his error. Before long, there was no way to minimize what you call “local pushback.” The empress’s men faced thousands of Bashkirs who knew the local terrain. The Expedition lost men and supplies. The government in St. Petersburg had to order forces from Kazan to stabilize the situation, and five years of war ensued.

    Thanks for the question.

  3. Michael Corsi says:

    Ah that all makes so much sense! Thank you for your response professor, and for your engaging publication.

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