- Across the Seven Seas Is Russian Maritime History More Than Regional History?
The Russian Empire is haunted by many stereotypes, one of which is that it does not have a maritime tradition. At the same time, the Imperial Russian Navy is put forth as the quintessential example of Russia’s Westernization. 1Given the resources invested in developing the navy and naval iconography in the imperial capital, it is odd that few studies exist that examine Russian naval practices and maritime interests outside of an immediate strategic context. 2 [End Page 631]Over the past decade, essayists have observed an increase in maritime scholarship, proclaiming that “the sea is swinging into view” while offering new directions for research. 3Meanwhile, maritime history has been put forth as a way to understand global history, 4and scholarly monographs have given way to synthetic histories of many of the world’s seas, with chronological frameworks spanning centuries or even millennia. 5The large academic publishers Routledge and Brill have recently launched series specializing in maritime history. 6But while there has been an increase in the study of “watery” subjects, little of that scholarship has included Russia. Could it be that geography truly is destiny? Or are Russian historians simply tired of the trope that Russian expansion was driven by the search for a warm-water port and thus reluctant to approach the subject? The latter would certainly be a mistake, as imperial Russia bordered at least 13 seas (14, if you include the Caspian Sea, which geographers now classify as a lake, but the ancients considered an ocean) and a couple of oceans.
For over two decades, Atlantic history has shown that oceans are not barriers between nations but rather interactive spaces that have facilitated networks of commerce and exchange, transportation of people, and dissemination of institutions and ideas. 7Atlantic history is but one geographic subfield that was [End Page 632]inspired by Ferdinand Braudel’s assemblage of the sea and surrounding lands into a single unit of historical analysis. 8In the Atlanticists’ stead, scholars have argued that the Indian and Pacific oceans were similarly sites of circulation of trade, migration, and cultural exchange. 9Maritime historians have meditated on the divisions and diverse experiences of populations living around a single oceanic basin, 10and on similar experiences that historical actors encounter across different bodies of water. 11Still other scholars have called for the oceans themselves to be the focus of maritime histories, for history to be “retold from the perspective of the sea.” 12In short, the perspectives developed by maritime historians are broad and not always in agreement with one another; they range from emphasizing similarities to inviting comparisons to mapping transnational currents. As Alexei Kraikovski recently noted, Russian history has its own tradition of scholarship on the relationship of Russians and the sea, although the tradition could be reinvigorated with new perspectives that focus on different groups involved in this relationship and less passive constructions of the environment. 13
The three books under discussion may well begin the conversation on whether the approaches and perspectives developed by maritime historians are useful for understanding Russian history. Would these approaches reveal a new way of viewing Russian history? Have historians of maritime Russia employed them? These texts demonstrate the relevance of maritime subjects to wider questions of imperialism, territoriality, and foreign policy. Russian maritime history has left the strict purview of naval historians, no longer reading like a “company history” driven by...