- Negotiating Loyalty in the Russian Empire
Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire zooms in on a region where Russia’s European and Asian territories met in order to explore how the tsarist state expanded its land possessions and negotiated the “loyalty” of its subjects. In the course of this extended story from 1552 to 1917, the region under focus came to be known as “Bashkiria,” and its inhabitants expanded from the Turkic-speaking, nomadic, and Muslim Bashkir tribes along with a few other indigenous populations to an entire panoply of imperial subjects, among whom Russian Orthodox elites gradually gained both the center stage and the upper hand. Steinwedel sees “loyalty as rooted in changing practical concerns, ones that can form the basis of a more lasting identification with a state or ruler,” as opposed to “a sort of disembodied idealism” (5). Rather than taking the absence or presence of loyalty as a given at any moment, he locates it in the continual negotiations of the tsarist state with its subjects about securing their political allegiance: hence the title of the book, Threads of Empire. Steinwedel argues that such a “loyalty remained an important element of cohesion” (5) for the Russian Empire.
The book’s seven chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) follow the chronology of Russian imperial history and expose how changes in Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s “scenarios of power,” in Richard Wortman’s ingenious words, unfolded in the two capitals’ relations with the Bashkir tribes and progressively with Bashkiria and its inhabitants as they became integral components of the tsarist empire.1 We first witness how Bashkirs find [End Page 454] themselves in the newly emerging Muscovite state’s sphere of influence as it expands by “gathering” the lands of the Golden Horde, as Andreas Kappeler has suggested in his seminal work.2 While Muscovy conquers and incorporates former Golden Horde lands along the Volga Basin, farther to the east in the Bashkir areas it has to contend with negotiating a checkered contractual relationship that follows the steppe practices of pledging allegiance in return for recognition and protection. Tsarist agents tend to perceive this relationship as one of subjection and attempt to limit the Bashkirs’ negotiated privileges from time to time, but the Bashkirs stand their ground through armed rebellion. In the end, a long sequence of pledges, breaches of contract, rebellions, and pledges again defines the status of Bashkirs in the Russian Empire by the early 18th century, primarily by exempting them from enserfment and granting them hereditary landholding rights in return for tribute and occasional corvée service.
As the Russian state evolves from a post-Mongol steppe empire into a European power with absolutist ideals in the 18th century, tsarist agents attempt to assert authority over Bashkirs on a more permanent basis by reducing the nomadic tribes’ autonomy and range of mobility through the construction of a line of forts. Bashkirs resist tsarist encroachments in their usual way, through armed resistance, but they do not stand a chance of wining against the growing imperial state over the long haul of this conflict of attrition. Moreover, tsarist agents also learn to target “rebellious” Bashkir notables while coopting others and, which is important, they start migration into the region from European Russia by making Bashkir lands a “commodity that could be sold on the market” (51). The commodification of Bashkir lands starts a long process of land transfer from Bashkirs, who have little understanding of market forces, first to imperial officials, military men, and private industrial entrepreneurs, and over time to immigrant Russian peasants. With increased leverage over the nomadic tribes, the tsarist administration integrates them into the imperial edifice by establishing “Bashkir” as an estate status, replacing contractual tribute with various mandated taxes and fees (but not the poll tax), and further coopting Bashkir elders into the region’s expanding administrative apparatus. This is also when we see the language of a “civilizing mission” deployed to guide and justify Russian rule in the region. The Pugachev Rebellion...