Threads of Empire – A Response to Gerasimov, Romaniello, and Werth. Space, Time, and Study of the Russian Empire

Typically, when one describes the development of one’s research project, one draws a straight, more or less direct line from a project’s conception to its conclusion. One consciously or unconsciously omits at least some false starts, dead ends, or changes of focus in order to present the course from beginning to end as clear and intentional. I cannot present such a history to Ilya Gerasimov or Paul Werth. I encountered them early in the research of the project. They have seen the false starts and dead ends.

Ilya captures my journeys through space and time well. I would add only that my decision to work in Ufa and Bashkiria was motivated initially less by the desire to find a “backwater” than by practical considerations. I realized fairly quickly that an attempt to compare Kazan and Ufa—my initial intention—would be difficult logistically. To research an ensemble of local institutions across a substantial span of time in two cities and two sets of archives was more than I could do. I had to choose.

Initially, I decided to work in Bashkiria because fewer western scholars had worked there on the late imperial period. The high quality of Kazan’s archives—they suffered little damage during the civil war–meant that people such as Bob Geraci and Paul Werth were already working through its late imperial materials. Since the very point of my study was to assert the importance of spatial distinctions in the empire, it made little sense to add another project on Kazan. Kazan University and the city’s Russian and Tatar educated society make it crucial for analyses of the Russian Empire. Making one provincial city the paradigm for all the Russian Empire in the east, however, did not do service to the empire’s great diversity in people and institutions. A move to the east to work on an area whose experience might contrast that of Kazan seemed important.

As Ilya makes clear, my embrace of the book’s broad chronological framework was more gradual but very much intentional. I felt as though a full understanding of the region’s complex population required a better grasp of earlier encounters of tsarist forces and with the region. I came to see how important history was to the production of knowledge about the region and to efforts to administer it. In researching policy toward the Bashkir population in the 19th c., for instance, I routinely encountered, usually near the beginning of an archival file, a lengthy, historically-oriented memorandum, or “dokladnaia zapiska.” Thus, if officials sought to formulate policy regarding how Bashkir landholding should be treated in law, someone would write what amounted to a history of the issue going back to the sixteenth century. Although it was not always clear precisely how historical memoranda influenced the production of policy, I became convinced the history of peoples and institutions was central to understanding how the empire functioned on the ground.

So, when I got a grant and a sabbatical in 2004, I decided to encompass the region’s inhabitants from the time of their first encounter with tsarist forces until 1917: the empire from beginning to end. The expanded chronology forced me to rethink the language and categories with which I worked. I dropped the “invisible” from the my title in part because moving back into the eighteenth century forced me to confront a history of violence and physical coercion for which my quotation from the early twentieth century seemed inadequate. For many in Bashkiria in the eighteenth century, the bonds of empire were all too visible. I settled on loyalty fairly late in writing the manuscript, following conversations with a friend who works on Habsburg history. Estate status, religious confession, and nationality were used to sort the local population, but they seemed to stand in for the essential effort to build loyalty and respect for the ak bii/tsar/emperor’s authority. Loyalty seemed the best category to frame the entire span of the tsar’s rule of Bashkiria. (More on loyalty to follow).

Matt’s comment captures well the advantages and limitations of a local study. I was intrigued by how in-depth local study could illuminate broader, all-imperial questions. As Matt discusses in his post, central officials did not overtly discuss local political developments when they discussed trade in the eighteenth century with Asia. Working in one locality (as Matt himself has done) shows how local officials were not allowed such a luxury—they needed to try to implement central policy in a region that often was not amenable to it.

Nonetheless, despite one’s best effort, important points get left out. More research might have enabled me to incorporate Matt’s intriguing observations on links between Anna Ivanovna’s trade policy with Britain and the Orenburg Expedition, or regarding the redirection of trade through Orenburg in the 1750s. There are disadvantages to working on such a long time frame. In trying to render a long period in a book of modest length, the editing can go too far, as Paul points out. And errors can creep in. As Paul states, in 1880-1881 when the scandal over Bashkir land came to light, Petr Valuev was not minister of internal affairs. He was chairman of the council of ministers.

Much more could be written on trade, religion, Bashkir land, and other topics, to be sure. As important and interesting as I found the Bashkir case, I always wanted to write a case study of empire using local materials. Writing history over the long durée helped me to see how the local can help us rethink the temporal and conceptual frameworks in which historians of the empire work.

I thank the commentators for their careful reading of my book.  I will address Paul’s question about loyalty in a separate post.

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