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Mapping Empire and Environment in Siberia: International Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’ Hosts Erika Monahan

Mapping Empire and Environment in Siberia: International Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’ Hosts Erika Monahan

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How does an American researcher become interested in the history of enterprise in Siberia? Does knowing Alaska give one a good understanding of the Siberian temperament? If there is one book that provides a good history of Russia, what is it? HSE News Service asked these and other questions to Erika Monahan, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, who recently gave a talk at the seminar of the HSE International Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’.

Professor Monahan’s talk was entitled ‘Seeing Empire and Environment in Remezov's Khorograficheskaia Kniga’. It focused on perceptions of empire in cartographer Semyon Remezov’s Chorographic Sketchbook of Siberia.

I am very appreciative of the questions asked and connections made in the presentation. It is a real (and rare) gift to be able to share work and interest in 17th and 18th century Siberia with people who are as or better informed on that very topic, so I am so grateful for the opportunity.

My cooperation with HSE began through talking with Ekaterina Boltunova. She gave a very interesting paper at a conference in Tiumen in 2019. I engaged her in conversation after her presentation. When she began to talk to me about her work to engage regional universities in the HSE sphere I was very intrigued and excited about the opportunity to engage with Russian history graduate students. One of my goals for 2021 is to get back to archives in Russia, although this remains a complicated matter for the time being.

Siberia in the Fate of an American Scholar

I joined the UNM History department in 2008. My work for a small company in Russia during the 1990's sparked my interest in the history of enterprise in Russia.  This, coupled with an interest in borderlands and frontiers, led me to write a dissertation that examines merchants and their practices in Siberia during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. That project became my first book, The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell University Press, 2016).

Over the years, my reactions to Siberia have sometimes shifted. I think lately—perhaps because I’m in Alaska and it’s winter, and I’ve just been working on a project on materiality, which I think has contributed to my thinking about people in Siberia centuries past in very visceral terms lately:  how cold did they get? How many layers did they wear? How itchy was the wool? How did their tolerance of cold compare to ours?

I’ve also wondered about the physical work in their days—how much did they rest? How did they deal with daily aches and pains and sickness? Sometimes I think I perhaps creep up on thinking I am—for lack of a better word— relating to people, and then I think about the expectations for and of women in that context—a topic I’d like to understand better, but nonetheless, those kinds of thoughts serve to check the ‘relational imagination’ I might be entertaining.

Current Research and Teaching

I currently have three ongoing projects. The first is a book project, tentatively titled ‘Spinning Russia: Nicolaas Witsen and the Making of Russia’s Image in Europe’, which investigates the work of Nicolaas Witsen (1641–1717)—a Dutchman who devoted himself to amassing information about the peoples, places, and history of Eurasia—in order to reexamine circulation of knowledge about Russia and Eurasia in the early modern era. Investigating representations of Eurasian indigenous peoples and the cartographical traditions on which Witsen drew are components of this project.

Second, growing out of my first book, I am continuing to explore Bukharan merchants and imperial intermediaries in a broader Eurasian context and into the nineteenth century. Third, Bloomsbury Publishers has commissioned me to write a revised and expanded second edition of Lindsey Hughes’ The Romanovs: Ruling Russia, 1613–1917.

I also have a few pieces in the works dealing with Remezov. I am working on a piece about the Khorograficheskaia Kniga for a volume on materiality in Russian history. In the other pieces I am thinking about what the Khorograficheskaia kniga might offer us in terms of environmental history.

I teach courses on Rus’, Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and Russia from the ninth century to the present in a three-semester narrative sequence. I also teach courses on the history of the Russian Empire, Environmental History, and Russia in a larger European and global context. I teach graduate seminars in Early Modern Commerce (Cultures of Exchange; Capitalism: A Prequel) and Eurasian Borderlands. My teaching and research touch all of our department’s thematic concentrations, while my publications to date fit most squarely in our Frontiers & Borderlands and Politics & Economy concentrations. 

Lessons from History and a History Book Recommendation

Selectively, history can certainly offer lessons in resilience. I like to think that having substantial historical knowledge can put one in a better position to take stock of the dynamics of the present, and one hopes that history can offer cautionary tales.

At the moment, if someone was going to read just one textbook of Russian history, I’d probably recommend Paul Bushkovitch’s A Concise History of Russia. I think it is a masterful synthesis of a broad sweep of history.

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