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).
Dry your tears, Ryan! Fur is important and absolutely belongs in any history we tell of Siberia. It’s just not the whole story. To me, this is epitomized visually in the 4-panel illustration of the Russian embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1576. We all know the image: the Russian entourage with men bearing finely assembled forties of sables and other furs. It appears on the cover of one book, in texts, etc.
If you’ll make allowances for my admittedly myopic perspective, I’d say that to the extent that there are iconic images for early Russian history, this is among them. But, the whole image actually consists of 4 panels.
I have a memory from graduate school of driving up to Northwestern University to hear a talk by Sheila Fitzpatrick. This is a little bit odd because I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and therefore had ample opportunity to hear Sheila speak. I know I went with my friend and fellow graduate student Jenifer Stenfors, and I think it was the lure of a day, or at least an afternoon, away from school playing hooky, or so it felt, that was the real pull. I remember stopping in at the Bahai temple on the way, still the only time I’ve been in that space, and being struck by the contrast between its opulent exterior and the very ordinary chairs scattered about its interior. Even there, I’m not sure of why we stopped—had we planned it, or were we running ahead of time and decided to stop, on a whim? (And, in fact, I now realize, looking it up to give a link, that it is not on the way, but past Northwestern, and so we had to have made some decision about going there.)
At the talk Sheila said something—or at least, I remember her saying something—that has stuck with me ever since. This would have been sometime between 1995 and 1997, and so Stalin’s Peasants had recently come out and Sheila must have been working on Everyday Stalinism. My memory is that Sheila mentioned that she was thinking of writing a book that looked at the relationship between Stalin and Molotov—clearly an early version of the project that became On Stalin’s Team—and that one of the reasons the idea appealed to her was that as a social historian she was constantly seeing little bits of people’s lives, but only little bits, never a full story, never people you could really know. In contrast, focusing on just a couple of figures, and well documented figures, to boot, would let her get to know these people in a way that writing social history didn’t allow.
Two links of interest to researchers!
First, the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced its call for applications for summer 2016 work.
Second, the Russian State Library (aka Leninka) has just announced that as of today library users may freely photograph most materials. Check out the announcement for the limitations, but this is remarkable news!
My posts on the dead cheese master may have made one thing about me as a researcher very clear: whenever I come across a list—of people, of things, of places—I am drawn to copy it. Last summer, as I started work on my project on Gatchina, I obviously copied down a fair number of lists, like those of the dead cheese master’s possessions that appear in several earlier posts. I did manage to stop myself from copying down every plant and tree in the gardens of Gatchina palace at the time Nicholas I inherited it from his mother, but there were many, many other lists that made it into my notes. There’s something about them that make places and people feel more known. Through them I see the sometimes unexpected variety of names that actually existed in a particular place (yesterday I found two Kleopatras and two Olimpiadas in early 19th century Vladimir province), or the foods bought for a noble family’s table (asparagus bought every day in May), or household goods left behind by a serf or a merchant (surprisingly long lists of icons).
I’m drawn to lists as I sit in the archives. As an academic writer, though, I always find them very difficult to use. I sometimes wonder if things would be different if I were writing different kinds of prose. One of the things that I particularly appreciated about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is the way she incorporates things like these sorts of documents into her narrative. It’s most explicit here, in a passage from Wolf Hall:
He rubs his eyes. Sifts his papers. What is this? A list. A meticulous clerk’s hand, legible but making scant sense.
Two carpets. One cut in pieces
7 sheets. 2 pillows. 1 bolster.
2 platters, 4 dishes, 2 saucers.
One small basin, weight 12lbs @ 4d the pound; my Lady Prioress has it, paid 4 shillings.
Mantel is completely right. Lists like these make scant sense. Or, rather, in one way they make completely literal sense: this is a list of things that were, that existed, at this point in time (always assuming the list maker was telling the truth, and not hiding a thing of greater value or inflating the cost of a small basin). That may explain the attraction of lists—they seem to be history in its purest form, a recovery of an actual lived past.
I could probably put this post off for another two weeks while I go a bit further into the story of the cheesemaster’s cheeses, but I’m eventually going to have to confess something so it may as well be now.
Well, perhaps confession is too strong a term. Or at least, I can start not with the confession, but instead with another story, or maybe a series of nested stories about the process of research. In a way, it starts with my time at the archives last summer, when I started exploratory research for a new project about Gatchina. My topic when I set off for the archives was really that broad—just, Gatchina, the palace, and Gatchina, the town. This rather vague idea started when I went to visit the palace, a bit on a whim, in July 2011. It wasn’t a complete whim; at that point, although I was primarily doing research for my soslovie book, I already had in mind a future research project on Empress Maria Feodorovna, Paul’s wife and widow, mother of Alexander I and Nicholas I. As I look back, I can’t remember exactly what set me off on that path, if it was something specific I’d read, or just the culmination of a number of references. A bit out of this general interest in that empress and her times, I’d visited Pavlovsk and Elagin Palace on earlier trips, and this time, I took the elektrichka out to Gatchina on a gorgeously sunny summer afternoon.
I was immediately smitten by the palace. Part of this has to do with the excellence of the museum display there, which really captures three distinct periods of the palace’s history. The central block of the palace houses grand eighteenth-century rooms that are all about opulent, imperial display of power and wealth.