- Imperial Boundaries: Cossack Communities and Empire-Building in the Age of Peter the Great
Boeck’s impressive and important study examines how the Don Cossacks negotiated both the attempts of Peter the Great (1696–1721) to refashion Russian society and the simultaneous closing of the steppe frontier, as the Russian and Ottoman Empires subjugated lands dominated by nomads (including the Cossacks) to create borders between states. In this well-written and finely constructed book, Boeck places the evolution of the Cossack community within the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Russian history and within a broader comparative framework of frontier studies.
Boeck contrasts the life of the Cossack community as it was in the age of the steppe, before Peter, with what it became in the eighteenth century. As he demonstrates, the Cossack community survived by undergoing a radical transformation in this era from an “open, multi-ethnic fraternity dedicated to raiding Ottoman frontiers to a closed ethnic community devoted to defending and advancing the boundaries of the Russian Empire” (1–2). The book’s structure reflects this theme, as organized into three large segments—the Don Cossack community in the seventeenth century (Chapters 2–7), its evolution during the age of Peter the Great (Chapters 8–11), and its life in the subsequent era (Chapters 12–14).
Beyond an account of how the Don Cossacks negotiated the transition from the early modern to the modern world, Imperial Boundaries advises historians about how to understand the Russian Empire. Instead of focusing on central state players—such as Peter the Great—Boeck seeks to “provide a mosaic of both central and regional perspectives” (6). By and large he succeeds wonderfully, drawing his materials from four central [End Page 461] archives and two regional ones, as well as the large amount of published documentary materials.
Boeck engagingly weaves individual lives and vignettes into his narrative to illustrate his larger themes. On the basis of this material, he convincingly demonstrates that any account of Russian imperial expansion must include the dynamics of the local societies on the frontiers. Rather than presenting the insatiably acquisitive, ever-expansive empire found in some accounts, Boeck contends that the Russian Empire did not entirely control the pace and forms of imperial expansion. Indeed, the imperial state had no master plan for expansion. Rather, expansion resulted from a series of ad hoc and situational decisions. As a result of special deals cut with frontier societies, Boeck argues, a situation emerged after 1705 in which the Russian Empire comprised an underprivileged core Russian metropole surrounded by a string of privileged borderland spaces, such as the Don, Siberia, the Ukrainian Hetmanate, and the Baltic Provinces (209; likewise 246). This insight is important and fruitful.1
In addition to being an important contribution to the field of Russian history, Boeck’s monograph equally strives to present the story of the Cossacks in light of the burgeoning field of borderland and frontier studies. He declares, “The Don Steppe frontier cannot be fully understood apart from its connections to larger processes and patterns of Inner Asian history” (10). More expansively, Boeck analyzes the Don steppe through the analytical lens of White’s “middle ground” (16–17; Chapter 3, “A Middle Ground between Autonomy and Dependence”).2 Elsewhere, he suggests that the members of the Cossack community prior to 1700 were like the “pirates, buccaneers, and maroons that emerged on the margins of European colonial societies” (27, 30, 65). Later in the book he compares the increasingly rigid boundaries that emerged between the Cossack and non-Cossack population in the post-1700 era as akin to the U.S.–Mexican border in the mid-twentieth century (228). Such comparisons provide a common analytical terrain for non-specialists to gain some purchase on the arguments in a far-removed field. Yet Boeck might have done more to compare and contrast the Cossacks with more immediately analogous historical cases—such Barkey’s work on the Ottoman Empire during this...