- Enterprising Empires: Russia and Britain in Eighteenth-Century Eurasia by Matthew P. Romaniello
Enterprising Empires: Russia and Britain in Eighteenth-Century Eurasia by Matthew P. Romaniello convincingly challenges the traditional narratives of eighteenth-century Russian economic backwardness, showing that the Russian economy and its trading strategy was as sophisticated and successful as other European states. In the process, this revisionist book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of both the activities of the British Russia Company and the British attempts to break into the Eurasian markets, and, to a lesser extent, the calculus of Russian commerce and trade in the eighteenth century. The interdisciplinarity of this work is commendable: it stands at the intersection of economic history, transnational history, imperial history, and the history of information. It is also exceptionally readable, thanks to the methodological focus on qualitative evidence, which anchors the skillful deployment of lived history through various episodes and characters that move the analysis forward. Along the way, we meet vivid characters including the disaster that was John Elton; the suave Charles Whitworth; Claudius Rondeau; James and Katherine Harris; John Hobart; the [End Page 306] enterprising Peter Dobell; and the merchant family Shairp. In this emphasis on individuals rather than governments, the author follows the approach of the late Arcadius Kahan.
The book is organized chronologically. Chapter 1 sets out the seventeenth-century background to Russia's emergence as a dominant supplier of raw materials for England and to the challenges that this new economic position brought to British diplomats and merchants. Chapter 2 covers the period of Peter I's reign. The first decades of the eighteenth century were spent by the British merchants and diplomats trying to secure from Russia a privileged trading treaty with a guarantee of lower customs duties for the British subjects than for other European states. They encountered little success in these negotiations, as there was not much that the British could offer to the young empire, while the Russian raw materials were still in great demand, due to Royal Navy's voracious appetite for pitch, hemp, and tar. It was at this time that the balance of trade began to turn in Russia's favor. Chapter 3 covers the middle decades of the century, including the Seven Years' War. It was a time when the Russian Empire took firmer control of its economy and trade, and as the author writes, was "far more developed than the British had recognized" (108). During this time, Russia moved adroitly to negotiate new contracts with China and Iran.
Chapter 4 focuses on the long reign of Catherine II, describing the endless jockeying of French, Dutch, and British diplomats in this period for favorable trade contracts with the Russian empire. This chapter's account on the experiences of a Scottish merchant family engaged in this pursuit clarifies the book's larger argument that personal relationships and interactions carried more weight than international agreements and institutions in the daily lives of members of the merchant community. In this period, the Russian Empire also successfully expanded its trade in the Pacific and in Asia, at the expense of the British, and made advances in regulating its Baltic and Black Sea trade. Chapter 5 extends the previous chapters' focus on British-Russian trade negotiations and practices, discussing the significant challenge posed during the Napoleonic Wars by the United States to British trade interests. However, Chapter 6, the final chapter, shifts our attention quite abruptly from trade between Russia and Britain to trade between Russia and the United States and trade in the Pacific. This chapter is especially insightful, both in its assessment of the operations and struggles of the Russian American Company as it tried to enter new markets in the Pacific and its argument that it a later stage of these struggles would cause the 1867 sale of Alaska. In the Afterword, the author considers the end of the favorable balance of trade that eighteenth-century Russia had enjoyed with Britain. With the...