Colloquium Series: “Bashkiria’s Imperial World,” a discussion with Charles Steinwedel


from left: Yanni Kotsonis (Director of the Jordan Center), Charles Steinwedel (Northeastern Illinois University- Chicago), Richard Wortman (Columbia).

Watch the video of the event here

Charles Steinwedel Associate Professor of History at Northeastern Illinois University-Chicago joined the Jordan Center to discuss his soon to be completed book, Threads of Empire: Making the Russian Empire in Bashkiria, 1552-1917.

He introduced his project as one that originated while Steinwedel was completing his dissertation at Columbia. Steinwedel explained he was initially drawn to the time period in which Russia was at the height of its imperial powers, and more specifically interested in the institutions at the core of the empire that dealt with ethnicity and multi-nationality. “As I worked, I found myself being pulled back in time,” Steinwedel said, explaining his research scope, which extends back into the 16th century. “I found sifting through 300 years of material was more than I bargained for,” he said. The result is what Yanni Kotsonis, director the Jordan Center, described as “a very big book.”

The floor opened for questions from the audience regarding Steinwedel’s draft of his conclusion to the book. Associate Professor of History at Drew University Frances Bernstein opened the discussion by asking Steinwedel to elaborate on the central thesis of his book.

Steinwedel explained that he aims to look at the importance of Bashkiria in the formation of the Russian Empire, and examine the ways in which imperial legal strictures informed the development of national identities. Steinwedel explained that whereas nation and faith in particular, have become central to the understanding of imperial integration, these narratives have overshadowed the other ways in which peoples were integrated into the empire. He argued that, with the case of Bashkiria, the various ways in which imperial officials sought to integrate this territory into the empire– by defining legal subjecthood, constructing territorial boundaries, and establishing various institutions–informed the formation of the Bashkir nation.

“Cultural characteristics were given a legal status of their own,” he said. “In a fundamental way, the empire created a hierarchy in order to administer the population.” Steinwedel elucidated a striking example of one such policy; under Catherine the Great Muslims could obtain noble status. This led to not only the subordination of the Bashkir elites to the existing Russian hierarchy, but it also contributed to elite identity formation at the local level within Bashkir society.

Imperial policy also outlined certain expectations for normative behaviors that would lead to acceptance within the empire. However, Steinwedel explained, “Bashkirs don’t respond to this the way they’re supposed to. But they take this and say, we’re a nation, a narod. Their service to the Empire means they are part of it, but not in the way the center necessarily wanted.”

Richard Wortman, Columbia Professor of History, wondered if this extension of inclusion into the nobility preceded or followed Bashkiria’s integration into the empire. Steinwedel said it happened simultaneously along with the process of integration and continued after.

Another audience member commented that she was confused as to how Russia was being geo-politically framed in the work. “How are we considering Russia– as a part of Europe or not Europe?” she asked.

“It’s a good question, because it’s something that I wrestle with too,” Steinwedel responded. “It depends on where, and it depends on what we mean by Europe.” He explained that from the 18th century forward he’s identifying Russia with Europe, but this was not an association with what we might think of as Europe today.

Another question was posed by an audience member regarding the case of Bashkiria in comparison to the treatment of other ethnic groups within the Empire and whether this was indicative of Jane Burbank’s theory of an “asymmetrical Empire,” which understands the only real constant in Russian imperial policy toward national integration as inconsistency.

“I would very much follow in Jane’s line of thinking,” Steinwedel responded. “I don’t think the case of Bashkiria is representative of the empire. The real point I’m trying to make is that this is a real empire, and a real empire to the end.”

Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis remarked that Steinwedel has done an excellent job in making use of the incoherence of the situation– “the messiness,” as Kotsonis referred to it. But he reminded Steinwedel that the conclusion “is your moment to generalize,” and emphasized the need to elaborate on the overarching theme of the empire’s policies in Bashkiria.

Steinwedel explained that one of the major generalizations he planned to draw out was that at the beginning of the 20th century, where his story ends, “the question of nationality remained very much up in the air. Nationality becomes another way of articulating how things should be, which complicates things.”

Anne Lounsbery, Chair of NYU’s Department of Russian and Slavic studies, commented that in 19th century Russian literature Bashkirs represent a pacified people. She wondered if Steinwedel touches upon the representations of Bashkirs in 18th century Russian literature.

Steinwedel said that 18th century literary representations –Bashkirs as capable horsemen, for example–provided a stark contrast to later portrayals. Prior to the creation of an elite status for the Bashkirs they were simply not viewed as subordinate to the state. Only later are they portrayed as these “downtrodden victims,” he said.

Professor Eliot Borenstein of NYU extended the literary discussion to include Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” a short story in which Pahom, a peasant who sets out to acquire as much land as possible. Pahom approaches the Bashkirs who agree to sell Pahom land, but he must agree to a sort of bet– he must set out at daybreak and can walk as far as he wants, which will determine the boundaries of his purchase, however if he fails to return to his starting point by sunset he loses his offer to the Bashkirs. Miraculously, Pahom returns to his point of departure just as the sun is setting but only to suddenly collapse and die. Borenstein described this portrayal of the Bashkirs as one that’s “so familiar,”  in that “it feels so much like the wise, but dispossessed Native Americans” who were willing to sell Manhattan for next to nothing. Steinwedel acknowledged that he does touch upon this Tolstoy story in his book.

Discussion once again returned to identity. An audience member wondered if the Bashkir identity persists today. Steinwedel explained that Bashkir identity still exists, and in fact was accentuated under Soviet national policies which promoted Bashkir culture and established a newspaper in the Bashkir language, among other things. But today many feel this identity is endangered, especially given the strength of Tatar identity, policies advancing Tatar control in the region, and the proximity of this relatively larger group. Bashkirs are presently a minority and account for only 22 percent of the population of Bashkortostan.

Steinwedel went on to reflect on the competing models of empire at play in the case of Bashkiria. “There’s a Eurasian legacy here,” he said. “There was a certain level of pragmatism until 1730.” Steinwedel characterized the imperial policy that would follow as a less violent, more hands off approach, and one that was cloaked in “an Enlightenment dress.” In regards to the extremely bloody Russian Imperial expansion into Siberia mentioned by one audience member, Steinwedel said what went on in Bashkiria was markedly different. “These are people with a universal religion, and with gun powder. Maybe they put up more of a fight.”

Steinwedel reflected on the role location played in Imperial policy toward the Bashkirs. “If you look at who’s bearing the burden in the 18th century, would you rather be a Bashkir or a Russian peasant? I’d rather be a Bashkir– your taxes are lower, you’re not enserfed.” He explained that in many ways it was advantageous to be farther away from the center of power. “It’s better to be off in the periphery if you have a centralizing state that’s trying to mobilize more resources.”

Stay tuned for Charles Steinwedel’s forthcoming book, Threads of Empire: Making the Russian Empire in Bashkiria, 1552-1917, soon to be released by Indiana University Press.