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  • Spaces of Entanglement
  • Andreas Kappeler (bio)

The imperial turn, which for the past 25 years has directed the attention of historians toward empires, may have lost its first impetus, but as the journals Ab Imperio and Kritika as well as recent collective volumes and research projects have shown, it is by no means spent. The collapse of the Soviet Union initially revived interest in Edward Gibbon's question about "the decline and fall" of empires, but "imperiology" has since passed from explaining the breakdown of empires to asking not why they collapsed but how they survived for centuries, how they were organized and structured, and how imperial rule was established and maintained. Scholars have abandoned the metaphor of the "prison of peoples" for a more affirmative position that stresses the relatively peaceful coexistence of diverse peoples and societies under the rule of one dynasty, in contrast to the murderous history of the nation-state. This has led to various comparative projects, monographs, and collective volumes. Studies that examine the Romanov and Ottoman empires include Dominic Lieven's pioneering book as well as comparative projects and collective volumes edited by Alexei Miller, Alfred Rieber, and Kimitaka Matsuzato.1 These and other studies are mostly not comparative in the strict sense, however, but instead juxtapose chapters or articles on each of two or more empires and attempt a comparison only in the introduction and conclusion. Thus the potential of comparative history is far from exhausted.

The most recent comparative study is the ambitious and stimulating Empires in World History by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper. It encompasses a very long period from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires to the 20th century, including the Ottoman and Romanov empires, and places world history into an imperial framework: "Empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as in [End Page 477] the sixteenth, existed in relation to each other." Questions of "imperial intersections," competition, and imitation are thus included.2

By adopting this orientation, the work reflects a new trend in "imperiology" that asks about contacts and interactions between empires. This new direction is connected with a trend in historical sciences toward cultural transfers, transnational history, histoire croisée, and shared or entangled history. The first such studies concerned the interactions between the Western maritime empires and between France and Germany; later ones examined those between Germany and Poland and between Germany and Russia (for example, the special issue of Kritika on Germany and Russia in the first half of the 20th century).3

The histoire croisée of the Russians and Ottomans has been neglected so far, despite its importance for both empires. It lasted at least five centuries, longer than the relations Russia had with any other empire. Their interactions were shaped initially by a competition for the heritage of the Byzantine and Mongol empires and by a military, political, and cultural preponderance of the Ottomans. During the 18th century, the balance of power was reversed and the relationship was characterized by numerous wars, most of them ending with Russian victories. One recent publication includes six contributions on the Ottoman Empire, six on the Russian Empire, and one (by Marsha Siefert) comparing communications in both empires. Although the book's title is Comparing Empires, the subtitle is about "encounters and transfers." The interactions concern, however, mainly transfers from Western Europe to the Ottoman and Romanov empires; direct Russo-Ottoman entanglements are treated only sporadically.4

In 2010, the first collective volume devoted to the entangled history of the Russian Empire with other empires was published. It is focused on cultural transfers from the West European empires to Russia, considered here as a European "imperium inter pares." Only two articles touch on the Ottoman dimension. Vladimir Bobrovnikov compares the experiences of Russia in the Caucasus and of France in Algeria—two regions, parts of which had formerly been under Ottoman rule—and looks for interactions between the two colonial powers as well as borrowings from the Ottomans. A case study on Bessarabia [End Page 478] by Andrei Kushko and Victor Taki deals directly with the Russo-Ottoman entanglement in the border region of Bessarabia.5

Whether the Ottoman Empire, too, was an "imperium inter...


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