- Approaching Russian History from European Seas
Russian history, despite efforts such as Kritika’s, remains largely stuck within national or, at best, imperial and comparative frameworks. Few Russian historians have engaged with new trends in transnational histories, much less the sea-centric histories that have reshaped national histories around the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans.1 As Julia Leikin noted in a recent review for this journal, a few historians have begun to explore Russian relationships to the ocean, but the conversation remains at its beginning.2 The three works under review here suggest an alternative entry into this type of history. Scholars of neighboring countries, regions, and seas are increasingly incorporating Russia in their surveys, in recognition of the fact that Russia has long been [End Page 203] active in various European maritime spaces. As such, these books offer an intriguing avenue into Russian history, one that allows overlooked regions, stories, and people to come to the forefront in ways usually foreclosed by national histories. They also possess the potential to normalize Russian history by stressing Russian similarities to European historical trajectories, shaped by long-standing interaction and the leveling action of the regular tides of shared seas.
Not all seas are the same, though. The North Sea, the Baltic, and the Barents, the subjects of three new books, all share high latitudes and convoluted shorelines inhabited by diverse peoples, but the similarities end there. While the North and Barents seas are bathed by a warm Gulf Stream, the Baltic is frozen for much of the year. The first two seas’ fisheries are also much richer. But such ecological characteristics and the environmental histories they helped shape are not the subjects of these books. This, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity to argue for the particular value of sea-based histories and leaves many important connections between Russia and Europe unexplored. An environmentally informed approach, for example, has been taken by scholars of the Pacific (e.g., Paul D’Arcy’s The People of the Sea), the Atlantic (Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea), and the Indian Ocean, in the process uncovering entirely new historical narratives for new communities of humans and others.3
The three books under review here focus instead on the well-established but still fruitful themes of contact and convergence. This focus produces important insights for Russian history, though to varying degrees in each work. In general, the earlier each book’s chronological center of gravity, the less it has to say about Russia. Each book also varies in its commitment to a focus on the sea, with some telling parallel histories around a common center and others honing in on the maritime connections themselves. Taken together, they should alert Russian historians to the possibilities offered by the histories of seas, as well as some of the limitations of approaching the subjects without grappling seriously with the ocean itself. [End Page 204]
Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World takes the strongest sea-centric approach to history. He claims that such an approach is actually the best way to recapture the viewpoint of his subjects, mostly the people of Northern Europe in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance. For them, there was no meaningful distinction between ocean and land, no “seaside” as an intervening space of leisure and barrier to the impact of far-off strangers. This is a world that many think of as the “Dark Ages,” but that Pye would prefer to call a “long morning” of modernity. Instead of darkness and isolation, the period was actually characterized by “constant exchange over water” and...