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Russia's People of Empire

Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

Edited by Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland

Publication Year: 2012

A fundamental dimension of the Russian historical experience has been the diversity of its people and cultures, religions and languages, landscapes and economies. For six centuries this diversity was contained within the sprawling territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it persists today in the entwined states and societies of the former USSR. Russia's People of Empire explores this enduring multicultural world through life stories of 31 individuals—famous and obscure, high born and low, men and women—that illuminate the cross-cultural exchanges at work from the late 1500s to post-Soviet Russia. Working on the scale of a single life, these microhistories shed new light on the multicultural character of the Russian Empire, which both shaped individuals' lives and in turn was shaped by them.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

Chronology of the Russian Empire

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pp. xi-xviii

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INTRODUCTION Russia’s People of Empire

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pp. 1-15

“You are mistaken, my dear grandmamma,” Alix wrote in 1900. “Russia is not England. Here we do not need to earn the love of the people. The Russian people revere their Tsars as divine beings, from whom all charity and fortune derive.”1 The grandmother in question was no ordinary one: she was Queen Victoria. And by the time she wrote the letter, Princess Alix had adopted a new name and a new country: she was Empress Alexandra of Russia...

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1 Ermak Timofeevich

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pp. 16-25

Vasilii Surikov’s masterpiece Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895) takes up an entire wall in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum. It is a typical battle scene, painted in the realist style that made Surikov famous, with the Russians arrayed in the foreground and the native Siberians facing them across a river. Approaching the painting from across the gallery, we need only a moment to realize who will carry the day. The Russians stand like a bristling wall, staring defiantly at the foe, their banners high, and smoke...

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2 Simeon Bekbulatovich

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pp. 26-35

We can date the beginning of the Russian Empire to 1552 when the tsardom of Muscovy conquered the Tatar khanate of Kazan'. That initial conquest of a non- Russian area was followed four years later by the conquest of the khanate of Astrakhan'; by expansion westward into present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Livonian War (1558–83); and then by Muscovite expansion across Siberia, which resulted in a Russian expedition standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean at...

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3 Timofei Ankudinov

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pp. 36-45

In 1646, in the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, a man appeared at the court of the Turkish Sultan Ibrahim in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He claimed to be the son of Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii, and the true heir to the Russian throne....

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4 Gavril Romanovich Nikitin

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pp. 46-57

On October 25, 2003, on the cheerless Siberian tarmac of Novosibirsk, Russian authorities apprehended oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s private jet and arrested him on charges of tax evasion and fraud.1 As this goes to print Khodorkovsky serves his sentence in jail and few doubt that his arrest was politically motivated, although whether he should be considered a victim, visionary, or villain remains a matter of debate. Over three centuries earlier, in 1698, another of Russia’s most wealthy businessmen...

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5 Boris Ivanovich Korybut-Kurakin

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pp. 58-69

The autobiographical Vita del Principe Boris Koribut-Kourakin del familii de Polionia et Litoania [sic],1 a querulous chronicle of the life of one of the leading diplomats of Peter the Great, is not merely the first eighteenth-century Russian memoir, norsimply an eyewitness account of the reformist reign of Russia’s first emperor (r. 1682–1725). It also constitutes a unique, early modern “ego-document,”2 which expresses how one extraordinary member of Muscovy’s hereditary service elite understood and experienced...

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6 Mikhail Lomonosov

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pp. 70-79

As the old saying goes, comparisons are odious. To make sense of Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov, historians have frequently resorted to comparisons more or less apt (usually less). Almost all of the comparisons emphasize his ventures in natural philosophy— the set of doctrines and practices concerning the study of nature that would, in the nineteenth century, acquire the moniker “science.” Russian historians tended...

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7 Catherine the Great

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pp. 80-91

As Empress Catherine the Great forged her own Russian identity, so did Russia. During Catherine’s reign from 1762 to 1796, Russia discovered itself not only as European, but as a multinational and multiconfessional empire, and as Russian. A German, Catherine, with her legendary practicality, Russified herself, and at the same time promoted herself as a European ruler and Russia as a European nation. Yet she also inherited a vast Eurasian empire that doubled its population under her rule; until 1991, Russians and...

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8 Petr Ivanovich Bagration

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pp. 92-103

“When my father, King Iese, was in Persia for a time at the shah’s court, I was left to live there in the capital of Isfahan . . . and I remained there with my mother, at the shah’s court, where I was raised in their profane and abominable Mohammedan faith.” So Prince Aleksandr Bagration stated in a 1759 petition addressed to Russia’s Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–62). Having escaped his enemies, “Christians in Georgia and impious barbarians in Persia,” he requested “to be received into Your Imperial Majesty’s eternal subjecthood and ...

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9Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch

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pp. 104-115

There are two principal justifications for writing someone’s biography.1 Some people (such as Catherine the Great or Lomonosov) are significant for the individual roles they played in history. Others performed no great deeds, yet if we ask the right questions, they can tell us much about the world in which they lived. This approach—“microhistory”—is especially rewarding in the case of immigrants, religious converts, and others who experienced a change in their social position, for how they exchanged old identities for new ...

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10 Imam Shamil

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pp. 116-127

When the Georgian modernist poet Titsian Tabidze decided to commemorate his recent excursion to the mountain village Gunib, the site of Imam Shamil’s surrender to the Russian general Bariatinskii in 1859, it was not necessary to provide much context for his Georgian readers. Written in 1928, the poem was never published in his lifetime, and only made it into his collected works in 1966. Titsian was well aware of his poem’s unpublishability under the conditions of Stalinist rule. The most articulate...

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11 Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East”

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pp. 128-137

Zalumma Agra was the victim of circumstance, but she was also the beneficiary of incredible good fortune. From her native Circassia, in the beech- and oak-covered hills northeast of the Black Sea, she ended up a slave in the Ottoman Empire. Formerly a subject of the Russian tsar, she came to live in the harem of a senior Ottoman official as part servant, part concubine. She might have been acquired in the thriving open-air market in the center of Constantinople, which had been closed only a short time...

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12 Adam Mickiewicz

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pp. 138-147

For the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century (to 1914), the single most problematic nationality—aside, possibly, from the Jews—were the Poles. The life of Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, reflects the complicated relations between these two closely related Slavic nations, Poles and Russians. The Poles were unique among European non-Russians in that they possessed a well-developed high culture (unlike, for instance, peasant peoples like Ukrainians or Latvians), a noble landowning class...

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13 Archbishop Innokentii

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pp. 148-157

Few places in the empire rivaled the diversity of New Russia, a vast territory lining the northern Black Sea littoral conquered from the Ottomans in the eighteenth century. From the era of Catherine II (1762–96), the empire promoted cultural autonomy and religious toleration among subject populations, yet recognized Orthodoxy as the state religion. These policies left a legacy of mixed rights and privileges that divided populations for decades. Rather than assimilating immigrants into the empire, imperial...

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14 Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

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pp. 158-167

On the face of it, the biography of Nikolai Gogol seems an Imperial Russian success story: a model of metropolitan openness to peripheral diversity. A twenty-year-old Ukrainian youth of humble means moves to St. Petersburg and launches his career as a writer in Russian, soon to earn recognition as a founding father of Russian prose and as the author of a beloved national icon: the image of Russia as a rushing carriage, about to overtake all nations. The Ukrainian subject matter of Gogol’s first volumes...

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15 Anton Rubinstein

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pp. 168-177

Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (Rubinshtein), although born at the edge of the Russian Empire, a member of a despised people, nonetheless became a central figure in the life of what is, alongside literature, Russia’s first great cultural contribution to the world in the nineteenth century—classical music. Not a great composer, his music falls out the canonical progression that begins with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804–57). Rather he became a world-renowned concert pianist, an...

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16 Aleksandr Borodin

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pp. 178-187

No musical composition is more closely associated in the West with the tsarist East than Aleksandr Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia.1 A track on virtually every bargain basement collection of Russian classical hits, the orchestral sketch was commissioned to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s reign, in 1880. The celebration’s grandiose plans featured a conversation between “the Genius of Russia” and “History,” to be illustrated by various orchestral tableaux vivants highlighting...

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17 Kutlu-Mukhammad Batyr-Gireevich Tevkelev

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pp. 188-197

In August 1916, two State Duma deputies, Alexander Kerensky and Kutlu-Mukhammad Batyr-Gireevich Tevkelev, traveled to Turkestan to investigate the causes of an uprising against conscription into labor battalions among the region’s native peoples.1 Both men had connections to central Asia. Kerensky had spent part of his youth in Tashkent where his father served as a school administrator. Tevkelev’s great great grandfather, also Kutlu-Mukhammad Tevkelev (1674/75–1766), had...

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18 Petr Badmaev

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pp. 198-209

As much as any other figure of his time, Petr Aleksandrovich Badmaev embodied the conflicting notes of ambition, ambivalence, optimism, and suspicion that marked Russia’s career as an imperial power in East Asia during the last decades of Romanov rule. Historians know him best as the author of an elaborate 1893 memorandum advocating Russia’s historic mission to extend the “white tsar’s” sway over eastern China and Tibet. Contemporary observers and posterity alike also regarded him as a symbol of the ...

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19 Ekaterina Sabashnikova-Baranovskaia

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pp. 210-219

Thus began the appeal of Ekaterina Baranovskaia (née Sabashnikova), to Tsar Alexander III (1881–94), requesting the right to live separately from her husband, Aleksandr, and, most importantly, to gain custody of their five children. Ekaterina Sabashnikova was the eldest child of a wealthy and cultivated merchant family. Ten years before this appeal, when Ekaterina was twenty-one years old, she had accepted the marriage proposal of Aleksandr Baranovskii, nineteen years her senior, nobly...

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20 Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

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pp. 220-231

One of the great ironies of the history of Finland is that its most celebrated son, Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951)—statues of whom stand throughout Finland—was less a product of Finland itself than of the tsarist empire. Mannerheim had two careers: one as an officer in the tsarist army; the other as Finland’s first de facto head of state and greatest wartime hero. For Mannerheim, this was no contradiction; he was a man who disdained the exclusionist nature of ethnic nationalism...

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21 Mathilde Kshesinskaia

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pp. 232-241

The essentialist view of nationality has by now been thoroughly rejected by the academic world. Instead, historians and other scholars have come to see national identity as a construct whose implications can vary widely depending on the individual. To be or feel national, in short, is akin to donning a costume in a play. Depending on the interpreter, the costume can express a variety of meanings and fit numerous roles. To a degree, one can also take the costume on and off, which allows whoever is wearing it the ability to signal inclusion or exclusion, difference or sameness....

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22Joseph Stalin

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pp. 242-253

Three imperial leaders of modern Europe came from the peripheries of the empires they would rule and expand—Napoléon, Hitler, and Stalin. Born on December 6 (19), 1878, in the Georgian town of Gori, in a country exoticized as dramatically beautiful, fatally attractive, and savage as Corsica—and as far from the centers of political power as the hinterlands of Austria—Joseph Stalin (Ioseb Jughashvili) rose from impoverished son of a shoemaker to become one of the most powerful men in the world. He forged two empires—one internal between the metropole of...

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23Anna Akhmatova

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pp. 254-263

Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia’s best-loved and most talented lyric poets. Yet her preeminent position in Russian cultural history rests on more than the quality of her writing. Through a combination of her poetry, the shape of her biography, and the force of her personality she has acquired a legendary status, becoming—even during her own lifetime—a larger-than-life, monumental figure, martyr against tyranny and preserver of prerevolutionary culture, a symbol of persecuted genius, and an example...

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24 Aleksandr Germano

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pp. 264-273

“Am I a Gypsy or not a Gypsy?” Posed by Aleksandr Viacheslavovich Germano, the Soviet Union’s most celebrated Gypsy (Romani) writer, the question is both surprising and puzzling—at least when taken at face value.1 Yet the question remains: Who was Germano? A Gypsy? A Russian? Why did his nationality matter?...

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25 Lazar' Moiseevich Kaganovich

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pp. 274-281

Lazar' Moiseevich Kaganovich lived for nearly a century: he was born in 1893 in the village of Kabany, near Chornobyl' (or Chernobyl' in Russian), Ukraine, and died a loyal Stalinist in Moscow in July 1991, six months before the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps he was fortunate not to witness the demise of the country to which he had devoted his entire adult life. He loyally and unswervingly served the country’s dictator Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) as one of his most trusted associates. Like the man he served, Kaganovich was both extraordinarily energetic and capable, and extremely...

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26 Dziga Vertov

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pp. 282-295

A perpetually controversial figure in the history of cinema, Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (b. David Abelevich Kaufman in Bialystok, Russian Empire [now Poland], January 15, 1896 [NS]; d. Moscow, February 12, 1954) has, since at least the early 1970s, figured centrally in debates about nonfiction cinema, avant-garde cinema, political propaganda film, and film theory worldwide. His work and thought present a number of apparently intractable paradoxes. Vertov was at once the most uncompromising advocate of documentary (or “non-acted”) film as a means of showing “life as...

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27 Mukhtar Auezov

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pp. 296-307

With a life spanning the first six decades of the twentieth century, Mukhtar Auezov was a successful playwright, novelist, and scholar. His life provides a glimpse into the tumult of Central Asia in the twentieth century and raises questions about the constructed pantheon of Soviet intellectuals—their sacrifices, compromises, and ethnic diversity. Auezov, like many other prominent intellectuals of his time, struggled to avoid the purges while maintaining ideas of nationality, culture, identity, and modernity...

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28 Jahon Obidova

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pp. 308-317

These words were written by Jahon Obidova, a Communist Party activist from Uzbekistan, in 1960. They reflect a Soviet ideology of the brotherhood (or sisterhood) of nationalities, and they highlight the importance of Soviet efforts to create equality for Central Asian women in the 1920s....

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29 Olzhas Suleimenov

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pp. 318-325

Olzhas Suleimenov has been a key representative of Kazakh culture since the 1960s. A Russian language writer and poet impassioned by history, he expressed during Soviet times a Kazakh national feeling within the framework then set by “peoples’ friendship,” which implied the superiority of the Russian “big brother.” Since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, his adopted aim has been to rehabilitate the Turkic cultures of the steppes by proving their ancient status and their major role in world history. His...

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30 Boris Akunin

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pp. 326-337

The most famous living author in a country that has long worshipped its literary stars, Boris Akunin is really two people—both products of empire. The first Akunin is his creator, for Akunin is a pseudonym used by a Georgian literary scholar of Japan named Grigorii Chkhartishvili. The second Akunin is the creator of an alternate empire, a place described by the author as “a country resembling Russia,” where the forces that sustained and ultimately dissolved the empire of the Romanovs are turned into playful points ...

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31 Vladislav Surkov

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pp. 338-350

Vladislav Surkov has had several incarnations. His official Kremlin biography lists him as having been born in the village of Solntsevo, in the Lipetsk region in southern Russia, near Tambov and Voronezh, on September 21, 1964. However, in a 1995 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel he admitted publicly for the first time what had long been rumored, that he was born in Chechnya of a Chechen father and had spent his first five years there. Other information lists him as being born not...


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pp. 351-352


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pp. 353-366

E-ISBN-13: 9780253001849
E-ISBN-10: 0253001846
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253001764

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 30 b&w illus., 4 maps
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Cultural pluralism -- Soviet Union.
  • Cultural pluralism -- Russia.
  • Russia (Federation) -- Biography.
  • Russia -- Biography.
  • Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Cultural pluralism -- Russia (Federation).
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