Riding the Imperial Wave: Eighteenth-Century Elites on the Peripheries of the Russian Empire

Project: Research projectExploratory/Developmental Grants

Reporting Period

March 2018-March 2019

Project Description

As the Russian Empire expanded in the eighteenth century, Russian officials began to exercise indirect control over neighboring polities along the empire’s broad, Eurasian periphery by recruiting elites to serve Russian interests. Unofficial Russian hegemony over neighbors placed nobles, boyars, khans, and tribal chieftains in a similar, uncomfortable dilemma. Advancing the Russian Empire’s interests as a loyal client could bring generous financial and political benefits but at the cost of alienating a given elite’s local power base. Open resistance, on the other hand, courted impoverishment and banishment, if not worse. Prescient elites played a dangerous diplomatic game of serving the empire as far as feasible while maintaining a pretense of independence, occasionally seeking opportunities to check and delay the impending imperial advance.
In the nationalist histories of Poles, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Kazakhs, such elites tend to appear as either (bad) collaborators who facilitated their country’s eventual annexation to Russia or (good) patriots who fought bravely in vain for national freedom, depending on which aspect of their activities a given historian discusses. Such readings lose sight of the common dilemma faced by polities with loose, clan-based, or tribal organizations when confronted with the rational-bureaucratic Russian imperial state, and no study has considered possible connections and influences among actors and events in different parts of Russia’s Eurasian frontier.

This project will form the basis of my second book, and the initial, exploratory research is funded by a Social Policy Grant. I intend in this second project to expand my territorial scope (the first dealt with Poland, Ukraine and Belarus) and investigate connections between elites in different parts of the Eurasian theater in the same period. Using Quentin Skinner’s theory about rhetoric as not only a reflection of political designs but as a factor that limits decision-making possibilities, I plan to focus on the exploitation of imperial rhetoric by peripheral elites in order to remain (at least nominally) in favor with Russian officials even as they pursued anti-Russian policies. My first book argues that the rhetoric of Enlightenment reform provided a common umbrella of discourse, which allowed urban officials to present local conflicts or even anti-state activities as evidence of fulfilling the state’s priorities. Similarly, the language of law, liberty, and patriotism used by Russian officials to communicate with Poles provided cover for elites to defy the Russian empress while presenting their actions as fulfilling Russian priorities. In this second project, I would like to broaden this approach and examine the multiplicity of official rhetorics, with particular attention to moments of rhetorical dissonance and cross-pollination among the peripheries. For example, I would like to see how Russian rhetoric in the Commonwealth compared with the empire’s self-presentation in the Kazakh steppe, and whether these different rhetorical worlds created conflicts in the minds of would-be imperial clients.
Short titleRiding the Imperial Wave
StatusActive
Effective start/end date3/31/182/28/19