This year while I’m on a research fellowship, I’m helping the University of Utah’s Asia Center to organize an interdisciplinary conference. We’re planning it around the theme of “Asia in the Russian Imagination,” but are expecting it to be more broadly concerned with the history of Siberia, Central Asia, and the Russian Far East and North Pacific. The conference will be held at the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City on March 23-24, 2018. Over the past three years, the Asia Center’s “Siberian Initiative” has sponsored talks on anthropology, environmental studies, history, film studies, and linguistics, and we are continuing this interdisciplinary approach to Russia in Asia/Asia in Russia at our conference.
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).
Welcome 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.
The British expat community found living in Russia to be a great hardship, regularly complaining about the inhospitable weather and its remote location. Even worse, Russia was expensive, especially for prominent foreigners who expected access to some of the finer things. The British envoy to Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Charles Whitworth ) was one of those men. Fortunately, we happen to have access to a couple of his shopping lists (for 1705 and 1706) that provide some insights into the sorts of luxuries a diplomat needed to maintain his position in society. These items were also treated a special project for his staff to acquire, suggesting they weren’t always available in the local markets.
All the items below are on his list from July 1705. In Moscow, Whitworth instructed the British consul to purchase:
6 hogshead of good claret (1 hogshead is about 300 liters)
1 hogshead of good French white wine
1 hogshead of Languedoc or any other good wine
1 or 2 chests of Florence if they are to be procured
1 barrel of English ale
2 dozen drinking glasses
10 dozen of lemons
5 dozen China oranges
A quantity of Dry Sweatmeats
While I was moving some stuff around my office, I rediscovered my copy of Kazan’s Mother of God icon. I haven’t really thought about it since I wrote my first book, but I had recently come across some interesting pieces of misinformation about the icon that cropped up in eighteenth century sources. Before I can relate the later stories, here’s a brief summary of what I know about the icon.
According to a manuscript version of the miracle tale from the beginning of the seventeenth century, during a fire in Kazan’ on June 23 June, 1579, the icon appeared in a vision of a young girl, instructing her to take shelter in Church of Nikolai Tulskii the Miracle-worker. The tale informs the reader that the appearance of the icon during the fire was a reward from God for the Orthodox faithful in Kazan’ for their ongoing battle against “non-believers” (inovernye). Following the first appearance, the icon performed a number of miracles – about ten, the number varies slightly in different versions of the tale. Its miracle-working powers were sufficiently well known that a copy of the icon was carried into battle against the Poles in 1612, where it was recorded as having performed new miracles which, in turn, were recorded in the edifying tale, “About the Advance of the Kazan’ Icon of the Mother of God toward Moscow.” With a proven reputation, Kazan’s Mother of God icon acquired a national festival on July 8, 1633.
Just this week a new online journal for Russian Studies arrived, The Journal of Frontier Studies/Zhurnal frontirnykh issledovanii. It is being edited by a group of scholars at Astrakhan State University, and aspires to put Russian and Western scholars into conversation. They are planning on publishing articles in English down the line.
By way of disclaimer, I’m on the editorial board, but if there’s a new forum to publish articles on the relationship between Russia and Iran in the imperial era (as an article by V. O. Kulakov does in the first issue), then I really am on board with the journal!
A few years ago Steve Barnes was visiting Hawaii to give a talk on his work on campus here at UH. He spent a bit of time at our Library, and came across an unusual find in our special collections, the American Express Travel Service’s 1936 Guide Book of the Soviet Union. It is included in the material we call The Social Movements Collection, which does contain a lot of Soviet material. American Express offered four different tours of the Soviet Union: “A Tour of Great Soviet Cities” that went from Leningrad to Moscow to Kiev, and then returned to the West via Warsaw; “The Crimea Tour” that went from Moscow to Kharkov to Sevastopol, Yalta, and Odessa; “The Volga River Tour” that left Moscow for Gorky, Kazan, Kuibishev, Saratov, Stalingrad, Rostov, and then a train to Kharkov, Kiev, and Warsaw; and “The Caucasus-Black Sea Tour” that took a train down the Volga to ultimately reach Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis, and then depart onto the Black Sea from Batum.
Over the past couple of months, I have been following with increasing apprehension the news from Russia about its treatment of its gay population. Yesterday, a blogger at Gawker summarized the recent events in a good (but disturbing) entry. I won’t rehash the information since the links are all embedded there, but it’s been hard to see the escalating violence documented. It’s going to be interesting to see if this starts to affect the upcoming Olympics. How long will the world be willing to ignore the human rights’ violations (much less the arrests of gay foreigners)?
Back when I was an undergrad, my advisor said something that has remained with me since: if you want to know what’s current in Russian historiography, just look at what the rest of the field was working on twenty years ago. I think it was a comment about how work on Russia’s women’s history had just begun, having followed the birth of the field in the seventies by at least a decade.
I have an uneasy relationship with using films in my classroom. Since I most often teach early modern history, I tend to avoid the whole genre because I’d prefer to avoid ahistorical images in my classroom. When I teach modern history, however, and particularly Soviet history, I feel film is an important part of its history. I’ve shown various recent films toward the end of class, but I always show something from Eisenstein for the 20s or 30s. I’ve found that students have an easier time understanding Battleship Potemkin, but, for whatever reason, I continue to plod on with October, which is so wondrously problematic for a class of students.
I spent some time this past week preparing for my fall class on the Soviet Union. Each time I’ve taught it here at Hawai’i, I’ve made use of an unique resource at our Library, the “Social Movements Collection,” which is a large group of pamphlets and books that had been collected by Eugene Bechtold, a bookseller and former instructor at the Chicago Workers’ School. While much of the collection relates to American Communism, anarchism, and peace movements, it also contains a rich source of material on the Soviet Union.
As I’ve been working on the history of Russia’s experience with tobacco, I encountered a surprising development – the domestic production of tobacco in Alaska. Anyone who’s spent time working on Russian Alaska could not help to notice the colonists’ continuing concerns about food and agriculture. However, southern Alaska was an agriculturally fertile region, particularly among the Tlingit (on and near Sitka Island) and the nearby Haida. (I’ve been assuming they just didn’t produce the food the Russians wanted, but I could be wrong). Among their products was a type of tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalis). The mysterious part of the equation is that no one grows N. quadrivalis anymore, and it was native to the southwestern U.S. No one has come up with an explanation about its migration, much less its extermination.
What do we know? The local indigenous groups grew this type of tobacco, and seemed to have consumed it as “chew” – but a particular recipe of tobacco leaf and lime. Though the Russian American Company (RAC) seemed to have been successful in replacing domestic production with imported tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), the mystery for me is why the local population replaced local varieties for an expensive imported variety. Robert Fortuine suggests that it was because the imported version was stronger, but the evidence in only anecdotal, and the mechanism by which indigenous Alaskans acquired it was rather exploitative, to say the least.
In the early years of the Russian American Company, there was an odd incident that led to establishment of three “Russian” forts on the island of Kauai. The reasons for that are somewhat complicated (and the study of several interesting books [1. Most recently, Peter R. Mills, Hawai’i’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History, (Honolulu, 2002)]), but the physical evidence of the venture is the Hawaiian state park at the site of the “Russian” Fort Elizabeth. When I first arrived at the site as a tourist, my first thought was that this was not “Russian” at all.
My name is Matt Romaniello, and I’m excited to be joining the Russian History Blog. I’m an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and the associate editor of The Journal of World History. I specialize in the Russian Empire, and comparative empires more generally. While my research has focused on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I’ve followed the history of the Russian Empire into the post-Soviet era to see how relations between Russia and its non-Russian subjects have, or have not, changed.