Imperial Russia

Northern spaces

Last year around this time, one of my colleagues was asked to be a special commenter on a showing of a documentary on campus.  The film, Passage, focuses on a 19th century failed search for the Northwest Passage (the Franklin expedition) and its aftermath, which played out in the British admiralty, and in the press.  The film focuses on one aspect of this: the question of whether the crew of the British ship turned to cannibalism before succumbing to the elements (which was the story told by Inuit informants to the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] explorer John Rae), or whether no true Englishman would do such a thing, and they were actually eaten by the Inuit (which was the story Charles Dickens pushed in a rather awful piece of “journalism”).  The film is rather firmly on the first side, and builds its argument in odd and ingenious ways.

As we talked about the film, we realized that there would be a lot to talk about by looking at a different kind of oceanic history:  by looking at Arctic world history.  And so, this year, we’re co-teaching a course called “True North: Circumpolar Histories.”  (The syllabus is here, should anyone be interested.)

Teaching the course has been eye-opening.  My colleague, a specialist in Canadian aboriginal history, and I are both regularly struck by things that either are consistent beyond the national borders of the places we research, or that are actually unique to them.

One thing that’s really struck me is, I suppose, really a confirmation, or a re-emphasis, on something that in principle I already knew: rivers are important in Russian history.  It’s not just an abstract thing–though, seriously, go look at google maps of the Eurasian and the North American arctic, and see how different the river structure is–but is important in (and here I’m trying to build off John’s recent post) imagining space, and reconstructing how people of the past built their knowledge of the world.

I’ve realized that rivers have always been there in my images of Russia’s past (and present): people fishing in them, traveling on them (or pulling barges along them!), damming them, building canals between them.  But it’s taken seeing them on old maps to make that realization pop, somehow.

Remezov's map of Siberia, 1699Take this image (which you can see in greater definition in its source, here).  To orient yourself, that relatively big river coming out from the sea at the lower left corner is the Lena.

This is some of the work of Semën Remezov, a cartographer from Tobol’sk, who mapped that city and eventually drew the first (detailed) map of Siberia.  The big map above was based on a whole series of other smaller maps of individual rivers… and they’re now all visible in gorgeous scanned versions at Harvard’s Houghton Library, here.

It’s not surprising that rivers were the basis for mapping, really, given their importance for movement (I vividly remember being told to watch out for all the rivers in Avvakuum’s autobiography when I first read it as an undergraduate).  But what’s really interesting, I think, is what that means for knowledge of the Arctic.

English Map after MüllerThis is a 1775 English map (higher resolution version available here) based on a 1754 map by Gerhard Friedrich Müller originally published in Russia.  It was the height of cartographic knowledge of the northern Pacific part of the Arctic–and very obviously, the (European, map-making) knowledge of Siberia and the American Arctic is dramatically different. Is this just because Europeans were “closer” to Siberia?  Is it because the HBC only authority over rivers that fed into Hudson’s Bay itself, and so just didn’t make it that far?  Is it the different geography of the two Arctics?  Or is is something else about Russians and rivers?

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

6 replies on “Northern spaces”

Hi Alison,
Sounds like a great course. At a NASA space conference I ran into a bunch of people, mostly American historians, who view space travel in the context of mythologies/practices initiated with voyages of exploration, especially the polar (north and south) expeditions. Michael Robinson at the University of Hartford, who gave a keynote based on his many publications on the topic, has a blog with a great title: “Time to Eat the Dogs” ( I vaguely remember that he had attended a conference of historians in Russia’s arctic recently with Paul Josephson, the prolific history of science and technology scholar. At any rate, this kind of research and teaching lends itself to transnational and comparative history approaches, and I can imagine the students love it.

Thanks! The course has been a blast to teach (though a lot of work), and I think the students are liking it. Yesterday one of them had this moment of realization that a creek he’d kayaked (?) on last summer up in the north was probably named after one of the explorers we were talking about. So it’s been fun seeing them make real connections between the past and the present, let alone across the North Pole.

Alison, thanks so very much for sharing the link to Harvard. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to squeal when I find it–it really is something amazing to look at.

Hi Alison,
Thanks a lot for this post. I thought about it a little, so here goes: While it is absolutely necessary to search maps for more than only contemporary geographical knowledge, knowledge indeed seems crucial in this case. The American Pacific Northwest was “terra incognita” at the time – the shapes of the coasts, not to mention the topographic structure of the country were largely unknown. In fact, many contemporary maps prefered to cover this region (and the lack of knowledge about it) under artfully designed cartouches.
Still, it is very important to think about rivers, when it comes to spatial history, and Valerie Kivelson has done this in an extremely inspiring way, I think. She basically argues that rivers on Siberian maps were employed in order to turn the Siberian landspace into a paradise: not only beautiful, but also well accessible. But in general, I am not sure whether the notion “Russians and their rivers” wouldn´t lead us into the wrong direction, constructing another cultural myth about “the Russians” and their ways of thought. Paul Carter has written about the crucial meaning of rivers for early explorers of Australia and mentioned “the spatial value of rivers. More reliable than hills, flowing rivers lent the landscape direction” (which becomes very clear in the Russian context when you look at the maps from the first Bering expedition, for instance this one: Rivers help to move, to find one´s direction and to structure the country – and this is why Carter´s explorers actually invented rivers in the “structureless” space of Australia. So apart from the actual meaning of rivers for transportation, their significance for spatial imagery is not too surprising – and it is not, I think, “Russian”.

Hi Martina, and thanks for the comments!

I think that’s fair–I certainly don’t want my “is it something else about Russians and rivers” to suggest anything like some weird congenital predilection for rivers. Certainly there’s a vibrant historiography on rivers, maybe particularly within environmental history, all over the world.

The other options are probably better answers to why the northeastern parts of the Pacific were so much later explored by mapmakers than were the northwestern parts. The bulk of exploration in what becomes Canada focused further east. There wasn’t necessarily as much to begin with.

I think what I was really trying to point out is the very, very different geography of the Eurasian Arctic and the American Arctic. One’s a solid land mass with a ton of rivers. One’s a bunch of islands, with really only one major river leading into the Arctic Ocean.

Now that I think about it, I suppose that’s really the issue–that the American Arctic is the odd space, which makes it so hard for European mapmakers to figure out how to deal with it. They don’t expect all the little islands, so keep making them into solid masses.

That really is an interesting point. And I like the idea of research on the circumpolar region, not so much on nations or states. About Russia and America: Although the map by Müller you posted here seems to suggest different, I believe that the Russians coming from SIberia (i.e., in this case, from the West) did not actually see the Ameircan continent as something so different or as a “new world”. They were mostly interested in the NW coast, and this, to them, formed a unity together with the Eastern coast of Siberia and the Aleutian islands. I have written an article elaborating on this idea (to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Global History), but I looked at this point only from th Russian side. A more pluralistic, circumpolar perspective would be great!

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