- “We Slavishly Request…”:Invitations to Empire and Russian Political Patronage in the Balkans
The 18th century is arguably the most neglected period in Russian, Ottoman, and Balkan history. Interestingly, Ottoman and Russian historical studies have developed in parallel. In both cases, historians have been concerned primarily with either the problem of origins – the question of the rise and consolidation of these states and empires – or of decline, and the reasons for the nearly simultaneous collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires in World War I. As a result, the preponderance of historical attention has been focused on the early (pre-1700) and late (post-1800) periods of imperial history, leaving a kind of "forgotten middle," the 18th century. Ottoman historiography has traditionally privileged the "classical" era (ca. 1400–1600) and to a lesser extent has addressed attempts to reform the Ottoman system of governance in the 19th century. The situation is inverted in the case of Russia, where the study of the Great Reforms of the late 19th century and the Russian Revolution has long dominated the field.1 Finally, Russian and Ottoman histories alike have largely been written as the story of the empires' core areas, or centers. In both fields, what might be called regional, borderland, or frontier history is only just beginning to emerge.2 [End Page 751]
Yet it seems clear that the 18th century was a crucial period – in some respects formative – in both Ottoman and Russian history. The inspiration for the reforms of the Tanzimat period and the rise of national states in the Balkans in the 19th century are to be found precisely in the 18th century – in social, economic, military, and cultural developments. A fundamental refocusing of Ottoman military energies from the Habsburg to the Russian Empire also took place in this period. The 18th century witnessed the meteoric rise of Russia to a place of prominence in European Great Power politics. Consider only that the Muscovy of Aleksei Mikhailovich registered 49th (before Transylvania) on a list of the 50 European powers that were party to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), while in the next century, the Ukrainian-Russian statesman Aleksandr Bezborodko could boast, with only some exaggeration, that "in our day not a single cannon in Europe dared to fire without our permission."3 Indeed, by the end of Catherine's reign, Russia had established itself as one of the dominant powers on the European continent; less than a quarter century later Russia defeated Napoleonic France.
In both Ottoman and Russian historical writing, then, the 18th century has been given short shrift. Vek Ekateriny II. Dela balkanskie, a collection of stimulating essays from some of Russia's leading Balkanists, is therefore a welcome addition to our shelves. Setting the authors' interpretations aside for the moment, this volume presents much new evidence on Russia's relations with the peoples on its frontiers, and suggests promising avenues for fresh lines of inquiry. Most important, its publication provides an opportunity to reconsider the aims and methods of Russian diplomacy and foreign policy in the context of imperial expansion – a controversial subject that suffered greatly during the ideologically-charged years of the Cold War.4
The editor, Vladlen Nikolaevich Vinogradov, rejects at least some of the excesses of Soviet historiography. In the Soviet Union, he points out, the reign of Catherine II (1762–96) was often treated in the abstract (3, 282). "Classes" and "movements" were viewed as the "moving forces of history," and little room was left for the agency of the empress or her advisers. Under the influence of Mikhail [End Page 752] Nikolaevich Pokrovskii and other orthodox Soviet historians of the 1920s and early 1930s, the influence of historical materialism was strongest – Catherine became a mere product of her environment, sometimes a symbol of all that was wrong with her age. Interestingly, little changed even after the Stalinist line reconciled itself to the need for heroic individuals to animate history, which took place around 1937. Under the threat of war with Germany, men of power in politics and academe took...