- Enterprising Empires: Russia and Britain in Eighteenth-Century Eurasia by Matthew P. Romaniello
In Enterprising Empires: Russia and Britain in Eighteenth-Century Eurasia, Matthew Romaniello explores the interlocking commercial histories of Britain and Russia against the backdrop of globalization in the early modern era. Numerous economic and geopolitical circumstances fostered and tightened trade ties between the two countries: Britain's escalating demand for Russian forest goods and naval stores; Russia's direct access to Asian markets along its southern and eastern borders; and Russia's lack of a merchant marine, which increased its dependence on the British commercial fleet for exporting its products. While historians have long studied these trends, few have focused on the human agents whose initiatives and interests sustained the mutually beneficial relationship over the centuries. Romaniello seeks to fill this gap by focusing on the British Russia Company, founded in 1555 for the purpose of expanding business opportunities for its membership and building networks with Russian officials. Beyond recasting the narrative framework of early modern Russian economic history, Enterprising Empires also challenges the longstanding paradigm of Russia's semi-peripheral status vis à vis Britain and Western Europe. "The basic fact is striking," Romaniello contends. "Russia was the dominant partner in its commercial relationship with Britain in the eighteenth century, easily exploiting British ambitions for its own gain and enjoying a sizeable balance of trade in its favor" (5).
Romaniello amasses a wide-ranging array of evidence culled from British, Danish, American, and Russian archives to support his argument. Spread across five chapters, all chronologically arranged and sporting lyrical, alliterative titles (e.g., "Opening Opportunities," "Navigating Neutrality," "Asian Aspirations," etc.), his account guides readers through the serpentine dealings of envoys and officials amidst the complex moving parts of Eurasian commerce, diplomacy, and politics. In addition to piloting their way through palace revolutions in St. Petersburg and assorted international upheavals (the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars), diplomats and merchants in the British Russia Company had to reckon with the inescapable reality of rising Russian power in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. From the beginning of Britain's trade ties with Russia, British merchants had vigorously lobbied tsarist officials for direct access to Iranian silk markets through [End Page 169] the Volga River and Caspian Sea (95–96) These efforts culminated in the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1734, which permitted British merchants to purchase Iranian silk unfettered by Russian middlemen (118–20). As Romaniello demonstrates, however, the treaty did little to boost profits for British merchants in the Caspian region or increase their influence in Iran. In the long run, the most consequential factor in the trade between Britain and Russia turned out to be the latter's unique geopolitical positioning between European merchant capital and lucrative Asian markets. While British merchants and diplomats gnashed their teeth over what they saw as Russian corruption and intransigence, tsarist officials expertly utilized their resources, power, and strategic location to their advantage.
While Romaniello's survey of Britain's maneuverings with the tsarist government is certainly exhaustive, his analysis of "merchant narratives" falls short of the complex "entangled histories" that he promises in his introduction. The stories of British merchants in Russia, if used judiciously, can complement the mountains of economic data and trade statistics used by old-school scholars like Arcadius Kahan and Boris Mironov. Since individual members of the Company "frequently acted against the interests of the company and the British crown," Romaniello writes, "it is more valuable to examine the negotiations, and the rhetorical strategies that merchants employed, rather than to detail the actual commodities exchanged between the two countries" (14). Fair enough, but the problem for Romaniello is that his merchant narratives are so deeply embedded in a morass of diplomatic details that it is easy to lose sight of the larger context. Nor does it help that he uses only three case studies to make his point: John Bell, who traveled the length of Eurasia from Moscow to Beijing during the reign of Peter I...