Threads of Empire

Threads of Empire — Loyalty

Paul poses excellent questions regarding loyalty. He accurately characterizes my arguments that I sought to describe a “grand arc” of movement from more passive forms of loyalty to more active ones, and that more of the emperor’s subjects were supposed to understand the state’s goals and actively support them.

I had not focused particularly on question of material versus ideal motivations for loyalty. This was in part because the sources I had rarely made possible such an inquiry. Personal, first-hand accounts of someone’s motivation were not very common. The material dimensions of motivation were sometimes quite apparent, as in cases where servitors received grants of land or salaries. But material considerations could be opaque, too, in cases where someone might be able to use his position to extract bribes that did not see the light of day. I would hesitate to tie passive loyalty only to material interests, and active loyalty to what Paul calls “intellectual or even spiritual spheres.” Material interests can certainly motivate active loyalty.

That said, I would agree that material motivations were most salient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before the 1730s, local elites could likely use their roles as intermediaries between the tsar and his or her subjects to profit materially by skimming taxes collected, for instance. But before the 1730s, the region was too unstable to make landholding secure and lucrative. After the Bashkir wars of the 1730s, joining forces with the tsar’s men brought one the opportunity to obtain land and plunder. Whether or not someone such as Kutlu-Mukhammad/Aleksei Ivanovich Tevkelev actually identified with Peter II was not apparent from the writings I had. Considering Tevkelev and his family owned more land than anyone else in the region by the mid eighteenth century, however, Tevkelev certainly gained materially from his long and loyal service. Other Muslim and Russian Orthodox servitors did as well.

Threads of Empire

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.

Threads of Empire Uncategorized

Four Noteworthy Attributes of “Threads of Empire”

Some people crank out books rapidly, one quickly after the last. Others take longer to accomplish the task. Based as it is on a dissertation defended at Columbia University back in 1999, Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire has been a long time in coming. My guess is that this was a source of frustration for the author himself, but for our field there is real and tangible profit. This book clearly benefitted handsomely from the long time that it took to complete. The bibliography is extensive, and the author has taken careful stock of major developments in the historiography over the last two decades or so. A glance at the endnotes reveals that ideal balance of archival, published primary, and secondary sources, woven together seamlessly and all placed in intimate conversation with one another. That very configuration is evidence of a tremendous process of synthesis and integration—one that really could unfold only over the long haul. This depth—a function of the long time the author spent carefully contemplating the key issues at stake—is the first of four major attributes that I ascribe to this book.

A second—and related—attribute is the book’s chronological scope. While the authors of The History Manifesto (whether rightly or wrongly—probably the latter) fret about the narrowing chronological scope of much contemporary historical research, here we have a work that is bold in its willingness to take on the challenge of covering some 350 years of history. That my colleague and specialist on the early-modern era, Matthew Romaniello, finds the book compelling and indeed “excellent” on the more than two centuries before the 19th century says a great deal about the skill with which Steinwedel, whose work has focused mostly on late imperial Russia, successfully ventured into those earlier eras. This after all requires great sensitivity to the peculiarities of earlier ages, something that requires deep immersion. My colleague Ilya Gerasimov notes the “inner research logic” behind this broad chronological scope, and I agree. Indeed, though my mind is admittedly crippled by the intellectually stultifying task of chairing a modern academic department, I strain to identify more than a handful of books, aside from works of broad synthesis, that tackle such an extended period of time: Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors (which nonetheless focuses principally on the Soviet era); John LeDonne’s works on Russia’s “grand strategy” over 2-3 centuries; and Michael Khodarkovsky’s Making of a Colonial Empire (which however does not extend into the modern period). The fact is that we simply do not have very many books that probe deeply into a particular problem while also tackling the long haul. This is obviously in part because those two tasks are so fundamentally at odds with one another. To reconcile them is no mean feat. Steinwedel has managed this, and indeed the twin problems of loyalty and authority (encompassed in the metaphor of “threads”) are sharply revealed in the process, as is their evolution over time.

Research & Practice Threads of Empire Transnational History

Untangling Ideas with Imperial Threads

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).

Threads of Empire

Imperial History as a Journey (Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552-1917)

In the early 1960s the famous Russian writer and literary critic Korney Chukovsky, renowned for his acidic and even cruel comments, coined the aphorism: “In Russia, one needs to live long: it’s interesting!” Born in 1882, Chukovsky was a lucky survivor of the devastating first half of the twentieth century: according to the 1959 census, in the city of Moscow there lived just over 2,000 men of his age (one per 1,000 male Muscovites). At the same time (1960), in New York City, his cohort was exactly three times more representative. Thus, if they only had that chance, Chukovsky’s less lucky compatriots probably would have opted for longer lives just for the sake of it, even without the promise of anything “interesting” to observe and experience. I like to think that Chukovsky, a very sharp-minded man, meant something other than the personal triumph of surviving Stalin—namely, that with time, one understands more and perceives reality differently. Of course, this also seems to be a rather simple observation, and hardly limited to Russia. It is probably just experienced more dramatically in Russia as a “country with an unpredictable past”: new developments can shed new light on the past to the extent of completely reshaping its image. And the radically reassessed past transforms our perception of the present and future. In living longer, you not only learn more; you see things differently.

Blog Conversations Threads of Empire

Threads of Empire: A Blog Conversation

Cover of Threads of EmpireI’m very pleased that over the next several weeks the Russian History Blog will be hosting another book conversation, this time of Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire: Loyalty and Tsarist Authority in Bashkiria, 1552-1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016). The book uses a focus on one region over several centuries of tsarist rule to produce a local history of the vast empire. One of the things that makes the book so rich is the way it looks at the many ways that Bashkirs were conceptualized and categorized by the imperial state: by nation, by religion, by estate.

Of course, that richness in approach also makes it a perfect subject for a conversation between historians of different aspects of imperial Russia. And so I’m happy to present this list of participants in the discussion.