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Regular version of the site

‘Boundaries of History’ Seminar Starts New Season of Meetings

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg
© iStock

On September 30, Stephen Riegg, Assistant Professor of History of the Texas A&M University, presented his book Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914 at the first seminar of this year’s Boundaries of History series. We spoke with Professor Alexander Semyonov, the seminar chair and the Director of the HSE Centre for Historical Research, about the goals of the seminar and to Stephen Riegg about his research.

Alexander Semyonov, Director of the Centre for Historical Research

Once the Faculty of History (now the Department of History, and the Centre for Historical Research) was established at the HSE campus in St. Petersburg in 2012, the first thing we thought about was a research seminar, which would bring together historians with different backgrounds: political and intellectual history, environmental and technological history, social and cultural history. In addition to creating a discussion platform for different research schools, traditions and approaches, we also wanted to promote the new faculty among the academic community. We were planning to focus on the systematic reflections and advancement of global, comparative, and transnational history. Hence, we settled on Boundaries of History as the title of the seminar.

The complex metaphor in the title refers to limits and scales in comparative and global history, as well as the goal of studying historically-formed diversity and, in particular, the diversity and complex arrangement of difference in historic empires

The metaphor also emphasizes the everlasting methodological problem of boundaries between history and other social sciences and humanities. Moreover, we often discuss the division between history and historical memory in all of its manifestations, in particular, fostering a dialogue between professional and public history.

We always try to stay true to this agenda, inviting or responding to the requests of prominent or distinguished scholars in these respective fields. Relevant and prominent publications and joint projects also provide a good reason and occasion for specific events.

The seminar has proved to be a living organism and it evolved together with the currents of contemporary historiography. For example, a number of papers presented at the seminar addressed what we called ‘contested global history’

We were happy to start this year’s seminars with the paper of Stephen B. Riegg, Assistant Professor of History of the Texas A&M University and winner of the Ab Imperio Award given by Ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space journal, which I co-edit. Professor Riegg won the award in the Best Book category for his book Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801–1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Russia’s Entangled Embrace traces the relationship between the Romanov state and the Armenian diaspora that populated Russia’s territorial fringes and navigated the empire’s metropolitan centers. Engaging ongoing debates about imperial structures that were simultaneously symbiotic and hierarchically ordered, Stephen Badalyan Riegg helps us to understand how, for Armenians, imperial rule represented not hypothetical, clear-cut alternatives but simultaneous, messy realities.

He examines why, and how, Russian architects of empire imagined Armenians as being politically desirable. These circumstances included the familiarity of their faith, perceived degree of social, political, or cultural integration, and their actual or potential contributions to the state’s varied priorities. Analyzing the complexities of this imperial relationship—beyond the reductive question of whether Russia was a friend or foe to Armenians—allows us to study the methods of tsarist imperialism in the contexts of diasporic distribution, interimperial conflict and alliance, nationalism, and religious and economic identity.

Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University

I was born in Yerevan in 1986, just a few years before Armenia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union as an independent state. As a result of my relatives’ advanced education in the Soviet system, my ethnic Armenian family was Russified in its cultural and even political outlooks, which occasionally conflicted and periodically aligned with the general attitudes of the Armenian society around us. As a child I observed, but did not yet understand, the overlapping tensions and partnerships between post-Soviet Armenian and Russian elements. Unraveling the modern roots of that tangled embrace became a mission of my graduate studies, which resulted in the dissertation that I later revised and expanded into my book.

I emailed Dr Semyonov back in 2013 on the advice of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Louise McReynolds. To my tremendous gratitude, Dr. Semyonov agreed to sponsor my visa and host me at HSE during my dissertation research. In 2013 and 2014, I conducted about a year and a half of full-time research in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Yerevan. Because my book focuses on the evolution of tsarist policies toward Armenians, rather than a history of Russo-Armenian ties, the sources are mainly Russian.

My experience at HSE was simply wonderful and I remain very grateful to Dr. Semyonov and the entire HSE community for their ongoing support. It was a real pleasure—and an important professional experience—to spend 2014 attending seminars, such as Boundaries of History, at HSE and meeting diverse specialists.

Since 2014, I have continued to benefit from my affiliation with HSE and I am eager to return to St. Petersburg when the pandemic circumstances allow international travel

Main Findings and a New Project

Accommodation, not assimilation, guided the tsarist approach toward Armenians. Russian chauvinism patronized Armenians as Aziatsy, but they remained familiar, “our” Asiatics. Religious kinship between Oriental Orthodox Armenians and Eastern Orthodox Russians was an enduring cultural link that undergirded the political bond between these imperial actors, even when Armenian clerics and Russian bureaucrats required interpreters at their meetings.

Many statesmen branded Armenians as distinctly non-European and some agents denigrated Armenian villagers as “semi-wild,” but the government saw few incentives for their coerced assimilation or total subjugation. Instead, St. Petersburg unfurled variedly successful efforts to use Armenians in its governance of the Caucasus and to advance its foreign policies.

My new project is tentatively titled “Westerners in the Tsar's East: Russian Imperialism and European Expatriates in the Caucasus.” By the turn of the nineteenth century, Russian officials faced a colonial problem that many of them realized required innovation: the long-coveted Caucasus region could not be annexed through the traditional use of Cossack cavalry and Slavic settlers alone. My project reconsiders the story of Romanov imperialism in the Caucasus by uncovering Russia’s trial-and-error strategy of transplanting or tolerating the settlement of Western European communities in its strategically vital borderlands.

The protagonists include Scottish missionaries, French silk barons, German schismatics, British oil speculators, Swiss evangelicals, and the Russian bureaucrats who monitored them. With both alacrity and apprehension, the Russian state hoped to secure the sociopolitical stability and economic vitality of its Caucasus dominion through the collaboration of foreign expatriates. To the tsarist ministers, viceroys, and other architects of empire, I argue, these techniques were provisional and contingent. In other words, they were experimental.

In 2021/2022 academic year Centre for Historical Research will hold a series of seminars with prominent scholars:

  • On October 21, Paolo Sartori (Austrian Academy of Sciences) and Pavel Shabley (Chelyabinsk State University, Kostanay Branch), Ab Imperio Award 2019 winners in the Best Book nomination, will present their book Эксперименты империи: адат, шариат и производство знаний в Казахской степи [Empire Experiments: Adat, Sharia and Knowledge Production in the Kazakh Steppe].
  • Also, on October 28 there will be a meeting with Ivan Sablin, Jargal Badagarov, and Irina Sodnomova (Heidelberg University, Germany), Ab Imperio Award 2020 winners in the nomination ‘Best article in a peer-reviewed academic journal or chapter in a scholarly collection’. 
  • On November 25, Yoshiro Ikeda from University of Tokyo will give a paper.

Seminars will be held in a hybrid or online format.

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