Merchants of Siberia

Merchants of Siberia: Seen and Unseen

There’s a moment in The Merchants of Siberia that I suspect will call forth a sigh of weary recognition from nearly any historian—or perhaps only from any historian working on the early modern world, or perhaps even only from any historian working on early modern Russia. Erika describes a “scandal” at Lake Yamysh when a trade dispute turned into an occasion for slander, insult, and “mutinous shouts.” The situation was serious enough that “Moscow, predictably, ordered an investigation.” More than a hundred witnesses were questioned, and the result was a 144-page long report “that, unfortunately, contains no resolution” (198). I have so much sympathy, and remembered frustration, for that one word, “unfortunately.” Archival files so often seem to promise the key to an argument but then simply end before they get there. Or they turn out to be illuminating in some way, as in the case reported here, but still leave the reader frustrated for lack of a proper conclusion to their story. 

I’m struck by this too because one of the themes I find really interesting in Erika’s book is the theme of the “seen and unseen,” as she subtitles one chapter. Early in the introduction Erika describes the challenges that face us in trying to recreate history when what we have in the archives are only scattered “moments [of] interaction with the state” (6). As we can see in the remarkably reconstructed family histories Erika presents in the last few chapters of her book, those moments were fortunately more than one might expect—and even more fortunately, often written down (perhaps an actual advantage of the notoriously undergoverned Russian Empire for the historian is that so much had to be written down and sent to distant agents for comment or action?). It’s an enormous amount of work to sift through files and piece together these stories, but it can be done. But still the images there are incomplete in ways that are often more frustrating to the researcher who sees what’s not there than to the reader who gets the neatly compiled version.

In many places in the text Erika tries to see beyond what the state saw. These “glimpses” of, say, the cultural and social world of the Filat’ev family do bring a lot to the larger questions Erika’s posing, particularly the comparison of Russian merchants to foreign ones. (It’s a shame, though, that those glimpses don’t really bring the women of the families into focus at all, other than brief mentions of marrying within or outside one’s status. Or the Filat’ev widow who’s exhorted by her father-in-law not to remarry after her husband’s death, or face expulsion from her home. It’s a shame, but not necessarily a surprise, given that women less often came under the gaze of the state and are harder to trace because of their movement from household to household through marriage.)

The phrase “seen and unseen” also comes up here in a specific context, of looking for evidence of actions contrary to the rules of the state, evidence of smuggling or other illicit activities involving trade. This is another place I recognize so well from my own research. I was always on the lookout for evidence of illegal acts when it came to people’s registry as merchants or meshchane or whatever, and I found so little of it. Similarly, I found just a few cases involving falsified passports or manumission papers (though the one of the latter I found was great, and involved a noblewoman who brought her own magnifying glass to an inquiry that hinged on whether a signature was genuine). I looked because “everyone knows” that there were false papers, that officials were venal and corrupt. And I’m still not sure what my findings mean—did I just look in the wrong places? Do the cases I find represent the tip of the iceberg, a tiny fraction that proves that there was a whole world of falsification “unseen” by the archives? Or was there actually not that much in the way of corruption, and Russia’s reputation is ill deserved? I’m not quite sure where you come down on this question, Erika. You write about the “purported corruption of Russia,” and question “the assumptions brought to the question of corruption” (172-73). Do you have a strong feeling about it (I say feeling and not argument, because I’m not sure it’s ever going to be a question that can be properly answered to the satisfaction of all)? Or are you as puzzled as I am?

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)

2 replies on “Merchants of Siberia: Seen and Unseen”

Alison, in short: I am as puzzled as you are. fwiw: it does seems to me that we (Americans/Westerners, or just a privileged corner of us) take instances of corruption revealed in our society as evidence that the system is working, while we take instances of corruption revealed in Russia as evidence that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is just my observation—‘anecdotal, that is, empirical,’ if I can borrow Joan Didion’s phrase—and it’s contemporary; I’m not sure how it might help us get at these things historically, beyond raising our awareness about assumptions we might idiosyncratically apply. Ryan’s post mentioned how my own experience working in Russia has informed my study of the past. Indeed, it has. And yet, our personal filters have the potential to distort as well as to improve historical understanding. One historian’s common sense is another’s unexamined assumption. To stay with contemporary experience for a moment, I’ve been struck over the years by broad range I’ve encountered on the spectrum of cynicism to naiveté with how Russians regard rules and rule-breaking in their own society. And I was no less struck by the peasant who made the trip from Turinsk to Moscow in 1702 to petition the government and when questioned about the voevoda (local governor), answered that the voevoda is a good man who doesn’t abuse anyone. It is just so outside the norm of what usually got written down about Siberian governors. If a method to reliably quantify corruption in the past escapes me, it does seem that there is more hope for historicizing corruption, which the volume Bribery and Blat so importantly began. After all, insider trader laws are a relatively recent phenomenon, and anti-nepotism laws would have struck so many in the past as laughably absurd, but there were norms for what one did and didn’t do.

Regarding women, you are absolutely right! They need to be more visible, and for my own part, I am going to try to do something about that in the (near-ish) future. At the risk of getting myself in trouble, I happen to have in my possession a ‘binder full of women’ from the Siberian archives.

I appreciate both Alison’s post and Erika’s response to it. I suspect we can all agree that historicizing corruption is important but it’s nearly impossible. At least it’s fun when it turns up. John Bell, my favorite Scottish doctor, recorded an incident from the trial of Andrei Vinius (of the Sibirskii Prikaz, among other positions), where he was exposed for running a massive forgery racket. Bell wrote “Amongst others of his ways to grow rich he invented a singular method of forgery, there appeared in his long trial a Bond or other Deed, from a rich merchant for a certain sum of money payable to the Governor; the deed was in all respects legal & in form & the Merchant himself could not deny his own hand writing, but was positive he never had entered into any engagement of that nature with any man, till at length a clear sighted clerk, or the Czar himself found out the trick.” While Vinius’s defenders rejected the accusation, I can’t say that the incident struck Bell as unusual, just the skill with which Vinius pulled it off!

At the same time, the Russians knew that the English were inveterate smugglers (an opinion, it should be mentioned, shared by the Danes, who had a separate set of policies for the English as opposed to the Dutch or French). As early as the 1620s if not before, the agreement between the Russian government and the Russia Company instituted special procedures for investigating all English bags because of the likelihood of their attempting to avoid customs. The fact that the English envoy kept a stock letter, just waiting for the merchant’s name to be added, to ask for a pardon, indicates that the English knew they had a problem.

In my notes, it’s far easier to demonstrate English corruption in Russia than Russian corruption in Russia. I wonder if looking at the Russians in Britain would provide a different perspective? My own sense is that one man’s corruption is another man’s business. Maybe the problem for historians is that we expect to find complaints about practices that for ordinary Russians weren’t even worth mentioning. If most passports were forged, why would anyone complain about a forged passport?

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