Blog Conversations Merchants of Siberia Russia in World History

The Merchants of Siberia: A Blog Conversation

Merchants of Siberia editWelcome to our new blog conversation on Erika Monahan’s remarkable The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell University Press, 2016).  Erika’s book is a comprehensive study of the structure and logistics of trade in Siberia, which is a ground-breaking accomplishment based on considerable archival research.   I expect that her analysis of Russia as an “activist commercial state” will become the standard framework for explaining the Russian economy in the future studies.  One of the features that is most exciting about the book is that Erika effectively moves between a local history of Siberia and a global view of the Eurasian economy, offering new ideas and interpretations for scholars of Russia and world history.

My own enthusiasm for the book seems to be shared by many of my colleagues, so I am very excited to introduce a large number of participants for this conversation.  The participants will be:

Dennison, TracyTracy K. Dennison is a professor of social science history at the California Institute of Technology.  Tracy is a specialist in Russian economic history, and the author of The Institutional Framework of Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, 2012), which won the W. Bruce Lincoln Prize for Best First Monograph from ASEEES, as well many articles.

Ryan JonesRyan Tucker Jones is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Auckland. Ryan is a specialist in environmental and Pacific history, and recently published Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867 (Oxford, 2014).  He is currently working on a project on Russia’s whaling history.

icon-leviScott Levi is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University.  He is a specialist in Central Asian and Islamic history, and the author of several books, including The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and Its Trade, 1550-1900 (Brill, 2002), Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road (Penguin, 2015), and the co-editor of Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Sources (Indiana, 2010).

oneillmarch2012Kelly O’Neill is an associate professor of history at Harvard University. She is a specialist on the Russian Empire in the imperial era, and the author of the forthcoming Southern Empire: The Logic and Limits of Russian Rule in Crimea.  Kelly has also directed an ambitious GIS undertaking, the Imperiia Project on the landscape, features, and scale of the Russian Empire.

s200_alison.smithAlison K. Smith is a professor of history at the University of Toronto, and an important part of the team at Russian History Blog.  She is also the author of two books, the recent For the Common Good and Their Own Well Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford, 2014) and the earlier Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (Northern Illinois, 2008).

Kira StevensKira Stevens is a professor of history at Colgate University.  She is a specialist in early modern Russia, military history, and teaches a course in Siberian history. She is the author of two books, Russia’s Wars of Emergence, 1460-1730 (Routledge, 2007) and Soldiers on the Steppe: Army Reform and Social Change in Early Modern Russia (Northern Illinois, 1995).

ivinkovetsky06-10Ilya Vinkovetsky is an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.  He is a specialist in Russian economic history and its colonial possessions in the Pacific.  He is the author of Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867 (Oxford, 2011).  He is currently completing a study of Russia’s tea trade with China.

MonohanIMG_0475webpage_000And, last but not least, the author, Erika Monahan, who is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. Aside from her new book, she has published several articles, examining the rhubarb trade and Muslim and Russian merchant families.  I’m personally a big fan of her article on Siberian tobacco that appeared in Tobacco in Russian History and Culture, but I might be a bit biased since I was the editor!

Thanks to everyone for taking part in this discussion; to Erika for letting them discuss her book; and to Cornell University Press which facilitated the discussion.  I look forward to reading your discussion.

2 replies on “The Merchants of Siberia: A Blog Conversation”

The Merchants of Siberia – For Love of Corruption

This wonderful book, The Merchants of Siberia, bears every trace of being written by someone intimately versed in Russian business. In the work’s best chapters (my favorite was easily Chapter 4: Spaces of Exchange – Seen and Unseen), Erika Monahan lavishes almost loving attention on the ways and wiles of Siberian merchants and the pervasive practices of corruption they had to navigate and sometimes helped create. Surely Professor Monahan’s time spent doing business in the Russia of the early ‘90s (page 1) has given her a particularly attentive eye for such practices, along with frustration and perhaps a grudging respect for them! One of the book’s best anecdotes notes that, while Moscow had allowed only a few official Russian caravans to China, travellers nonchalantly recollected more than 50 having traded there (167).

And yet, as Merchants of Siberia argues with force and much evidence, to see the pervasive corruption and evasiveness of Siberian “biznes” as further testament to hoary notions of the Russian state’s heavy-handed and backwards antipathy towards commerce would be to miss most of the story. Those 40-some unofficial caravans to China might bespeak something else entirely – that business and the Russian merchants who made it were in fact much more active and successful than anyone had suspected. That, as historians’ gazes eagerly shift to the fast-developing Atlantic trade-routes of the 16th – and 17th- centuries that are meant to herald modernity and globalization, something extraordinary was happening across the expanses of Central Asia. What does a Russia, and a Siberia, at the center of global trade do for our stories of globalization?

One thing it does is make a lot of scholarly antagonists. While Merchants of Siberia is a restrained text, its footnotes are not afraid to bring the fight. I personally fought tears when I read that furs are “overrated” (88 and again, cruelly, on 362) in Siberian history. But of course I am not alone in seeing my ideas of Siberia challenged – George Lantzeff (117), Basil Dmytryshyn (181), Samuel Baron (228), John LeDonne (337), Alfred Riber (357), and Marshall Poe (various), among others, are also found wanting. I am not suggesting Monahan picks gratuitous scholarly fights, instead that her book is much more than an anthropology of Siberian commercial practices. It aims, through these ambitious, enterprising and subtle merchants, to shake the old images of Siberia and ossifying ideas about the history globalization. Not all readers will find the Fil’atevs and Shababins entirely up to this world-historical task, but I for one will never understand or teach Siberian history the same way (even if I still mention the furs).

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