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Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present

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A fundamental dimension of the Russian historical experience has been the diversity of its people and cultures, religions and languages, landscapes and economies. For six centuries this diversity was contained within the sprawling territories of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it persists today in the entwined states and societies of the former USSR. Russia's People of Empire explores this enduring multicultural world through life stories of 31 individuals—famous and obscure, high born and low, men and women—that illuminate the cross-cultural exchanges at work from the late 1500s to post-Soviet Russia. Working on the scale of a single life, these microhistories shed new light on the multicultural character of the Russian Empire, which both shaped individuals' lives and in turn was shaped by them.

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Italics indicate lives explored in this volume


Ivan IV, just 3 years old, becomes Grand Prince of Moscow 1530s/40s–1585: Life of Ermak


Ivan IV is the first Russian ruler to be crowned tsar, the Russian term for “Caesar”


Conquest of Kazan and annexation of the Kazan Khanate


Annexation of the Khanate of Astrakhan'


Livonian War—Ivan IV’s armies initially conquer parts of Livonia and Lithuania, but are defeated by Poland-Lithuania and Sweden


Conquest of Novgorod


Life of Simeon Bekbulatovich


Ermak’s campaign against the Khanate of Siberia


Death of Ivan IV; his son, Fëdor, becomes tsar


Fortress towns of Ufa, Tobolsk, and Tiumen founded


Death of Fëdor; Boris Godunov elected tsar


Death of Boris Godunov; Russia experiences period of political pretenders


1. Ermak Timofeevich (1530s/40s–1585)




Vasilii Surikov’s masterpiece Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895) takes up an entire wall in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum. It is a typical battle scene, painted in the realist style that made Surikov famous, with the Russians arrayed in the foreground and the native Siberians facing them across a river. Approaching the painting from across the gallery, we need only a moment to realize who will carry the day. The Russians stand like a bristling wall, staring defiantly at the foe, their banners high, and smoke clouding from their muskets. The angle Surikov chose for the scene places us on the Russians’ side. The natives, meanwhile, stare back at us from the opposite bank, close enough that we can see the fear in their eyes.

At first, it is hard to locate the hero of the painting, but then we find him, just to the left of the canvas’s center: a determined warrior under the banners, outfitted with a steel helmet and a breastplate. He looks out at the natives, his arm outstretched toward the opposite bank, pointing to victory and reaching for the future. This is Ermak.1


2. Simeon Bekbulatovich (?–1616)




We can date the beginning of the Russian Empire to 1552 when the tsardom of Muscovy conquered the Tatar khanate of Kazan'. That initial conquest of a non- Russian area was followed four years later by the conquest of the khanate of Astrakhan'; by expansion westward into present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Livonian War (1558–83); and then by Muscovite expansion across Siberia, which resulted in a Russian expedition standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean at the Sea of Okhotsk in 1639.

The Tatar princes who came over to the service of the Muscovite ruler were an essential part of the rise of the Muscovite principality to empire. The military role of Tatars as commanders of regiments in the Muscovite army had a long tradition. According to the Muscovite chronicles and military registers, in the fifteenth century a number of them, such as Tsarevich Kasim in 1450 and 1467, Tsarevich Mehmed Emin in 1487 and 1496, and Tsarevich Saltagan (Saltygan) in 1499, commanded regiments against the Tatars of Kazan'. Others, such as Tsarevich Danyar in 1473 and Tsarevich Saltagan (Saltygan) in 1491, commanded regiments against the Great Orda. In yet other cases, Tsarevich Yakup commanded a regiment against Dmitrii Shemiaka in Kokshenga in 1452, and Tsarevich Danyar commanded a regiment against Novgorod in 1471 and 1478.1 In the sixteenth century, Tsarevich Kudai Kul converted to Christianity as Peter Ibramovich in 1505, married the sister of Grand Prince Vasilii III, and was appointed commander to the main regiment of the Muscovite army in 1506. For the next seventeen years, Vasilii III and Tsarevich Peter were inseparable, except when Peter commanded the defense of Moscow against the Crimean Tatar attack of 1521 (Vasilii fled the city for safety). Their close relationship led the historian A. A. Zimin to suggest that Vasilii planned to name Peter as his successor.


3. Timofei Ankudinov (1617?–1653)




In 1646, in the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, a man appeared at the court of the Turkish Sultan Ibrahim in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He claimed to be the son of Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii, and the true heir to the Russian throne.

The Turks informed the Russian ambassadors of the arrival of “Tsarevich Ivan Vasil'evich Shuiskii.” The Muscovite diplomats knew that Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii had died childless in 1612, and they were convinced that the newcomer was the latest in a series of pretenders who had plagued Russia in the early seventeenth century, falsely claiming the identity of Muscovite tsars or tsareviches. In this assumption they were correct: Ivan Shuiskii was indeed an impostor, and he turned out to be one of the most remarkable of all Russian pretenders.

At first the Russian diplomats in Constantinople were unable to establish the true identity of “Tsarevich” Ivan, but one day their clerk accidentally encountered the impostor’s companion and recognized him as Konstantin (Kostka) Koniukhovskii, a clerk from the New Quarter chancellery in Moscow, who had fled from Russia a few years previously. This enabled them to name the pretender as Timofei (Timoshka) Ankudinov (alternate spellings are Ankidinov, Akudinov, or Akidinov), another runaway clerk from the same chancellery. Over the next few years, as Timoshka traveled from Constantinople to various lands including Ukraine, Sweden, and Holstein, Russian envoys supplied the rulers of these countries with compromising information about him. These denunciations constitute our main source of evidence about the pretender’s life before his arrival in Constantinople. They are partly confirmed by the confessions which Kostka and Timoshka made under torture in Moscow, in 1652 and 1653, respectively; and can be supplemented by some details provided by Adam Olearius, a German official who interrogated Ankudinov in Holstein in 1653.1


4. Gavril Romanovich Nikitin (?–1698)




On October 25, 2003, on the cheerless Siberian tarmac of Novosibirsk, Russian authorities apprehended oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s private jet and arrested him on charges of tax evasion and fraud.1 As this goes to print Khodorkovsky serves his sentence in jail and few doubt that his arrest was politically motivated, although whether he should be considered a victim, visionary, or villain remains a matter of debate. Over three centuries earlier, in 1698, another of Russia’s most wealthy businessmen was himself arrested for what looks like politically motivated reasons. That businessman was Gavril Romanovich Nikitin, and this chapter is about him.

Despite the shared circumstances of state heavy-handedness and a national economy undergoing increasing integration and foreign influence, there are many differences between these two inscrutable cases of “riches and ruin.” First, Novosibirsk did not exist in 1698, although the river it sits on today, the Ob, was a crucial byway for Nikitin and his men’s commercial trafficking. Second, unlike Khodorkovsky’s private airplane that zipped through Siberian airspace at blistering speeds, Nikitin’s caravans crossed the Siberian forests and steppes far more slowly and at a time when people—those few who cared about such abstractions—considered the Ob rather than the Urals to be the continental divide between Europe and Asia.2 Third, Khodorkovsky became fabulously rich extremely quickly and mostly as a result of his connections to government. Nikitin’s wealth, however, was slow in coming, and he gained government attention and influence after, rather than before, attaining commercial success. And yet both arrests underscore the critical and sometimes precarious relationship between politics and commerce in the early modern and (post)modern Russian worlds. Moreover, by looking at Nikitin’s life, we are able to appreciate the now largely forgotten experience of the Siberian merchants of his day, whose work involved navigating the tensions between business and politics in what were then distant and diverse frontier environments.


5. Boris Ivanovich Korybut-Kurakin (1676–1727)




The autobiographical Vita del Principe Boris Koribut-Kourakin del familii de Polionia et Litoania [sic],1 a querulous chronicle of the life of one of the leading diplomats of Peter the Great, is not merely the first eighteenth-century Russian memoir, norsimply an eyewitness account of the reformist reign of Russia’s first emperor (r. 1682–1725). It also constitutes a unique, early modern “ego-document,”2 which expresses how one extraordinary member of Muscovy’s hereditary service elite understood and experienced the processes of “modernization” and “secularization” that were the hallmarks of Peter’s “cultural revolution.”3 Kurakin’s Vita not only enriches our understanding of these long-term cultural processes, but also offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine them from the inside out—that is to say, from the point of view of a member of a social group (dvorianstvo or shliakhetstvo) frequently depicted as a blank slate upon which a reforming tsar and faceless historical forces left their indelible marks. In Kurakin’s case, these marks included not only the prominently displayed insignia of the first Russian knightly order or the cravat and perruque that he sports in his personally commissioned engraved portrait,4 but also the oozing, scorbutic sores and melancholic thoughts concealed in plain sight among all these fashionable trappings of worldly success, like the anamorphic death’s-head in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). Indeed, from a certain angle, Kurakin’s complaints can be seen as psychosomatic manifestations of a Muscovite courtier’s desperate—and, ultimately, not unsuccessful—attempt to use all the tools at his disposal to reconcile his astrological complexion with his professional aspirations and aristocratic pretensions, and thereby take control of his own fate.5


6. Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765)




As the old saying goes, comparisons are odious. To make sense of Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov, historians have frequently resorted to comparisons more or less apt (usually less). Almost all of the comparisons emphasize his ventures in natural philosophy—the set of doctrines and practices concerning the study of nature that would, in the nineteenth century, acquire the moniker “science.” Russian historians tended to see him as akin to Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94), the French chemist and member of the Parisian Académie des Sciences credited with the discovery of oxygen and the law of the conservation of matter: matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form. This comparison bolsters (by suggestion) a claim for Lomonosov’s priority for the conservation law, and also emphasizes the Russian’s position as a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences—and hence his analogous location in a complicated absolutist patronage network. Western historians have likened Lomonosov to Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), emphasizing both men’s research on electricity, folksy self-presentations, and positions as outsiders on the European stage of Enlightenment natural philosophy.1


7. Catherine the Great (1729–1796)




As Empress Catherine the Great forged her own Russian identity, so did Russia. During Catherine’s reign from 1762 to 1796, Russia discovered itself not only as European, but as a multinational and multiconfessional empire, and as Russian. A German, Catherine, with her legendary practicality, Russified herself, and at the same time promoted herself as a European ruler and Russia as a European nation. Yet she also inherited a vast Eurasian empire that doubled its population under her rule; until 1991, Russians and Russian Orthodox believers would make up less than fifty percent of its inhabitants. By the end of the eighteenth century, these tensions between Russia as a nation and as a diverse empire would come under pressure from new nationalist ideals.

After she arrived in Russia on February 9, 1744, at age fourteen from a small German state, Princess Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy on June 28, became Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna, and began to learn Russian; over a year later, on August 21, 1745, she married the heir to the throne. She was crowned Empress Catherine II on September 22, 1762, after she took power in a coup d’état on June 28 against her husband, Peter III (b. 1728, r. 1761–62)—the nephew of Empress Elizabeth I (b. 1709, r. 1741–61)—who was murdered. Peter III was half German, the son of Elizabeth’s sister Anna and Charles Frederick, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and showed his devotion to King Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (b. 1712, r. 1740–86) during his short rule when he ended the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) with Prussia by returning land Russia had won. He then changed the color of the uniforms of the elite Russian guard units from their traditional green to Prussian blue. During her coup, Catherine used Peter’s Prussophilia against him and wore a green guard’s uniform to show her Russian colors. After the coup, her equestrian portrait as Russian ruler in the uniform of the Semenovskii Regiment by the Danish court painter Vigilius Eriksen (1722–83) made this point as well. Catherine had many copies made of this portrait, as well as of her coronation portrait by Eriksen, which were sent to the courts of Prussia, England, and Denmark. In the 1760s, he also made a portrait of Catherine dressed in national costume—with a kokoshnik, a traditional Russian headdress, as a matushka, or little mother—of which copies were made. Thus Catherine used different portraits of herself as a military leader, as empress, and as mother to her people, to represent herself variously as a Russian sovereign nationally and internationally.


8. Petr Ivanovich Bagration (1765–1812)




“When my father, King Iese, was in Persia for a time at the shah’s court, I was left to live there in the capital of Isfahan . . . and I remained there with my mother, at the shah’s court, where I was raised in their profane and abominable Mohammedan faith.” So Prince Aleksandr Bagration stated in a 1759 petition addressed to Russia’s Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–62). Having escaped his enemies, “Christians in Georgia and impious barbarians in Persia,” he requested “to be received into Your Imperial Majesty’s eternal subjecthood and service and awarded a rank in accordance with that given to my kinsmen and nationals [in Russian service] . . . and a double grant in accordance with that given to foreigners as decreed by Your Imperial Majesty.” Not only was Prince Aleksandr granted asylum in Russia, he was soon given command of the Georgian Hussar Regiment stationed in Kizliar, in northern Caucasia, and one of his sons was enrolled in the prestigious Noble Infantry Cadet Corps in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Following in his father’s footsteps some years later, Prince Ivan Bagration settled with his family in Kizliar, where his son, Prince Petr Ivanovich Bagration, was raised before going on to become one of the most revered and remembered military commanders in Russian history.1


9. Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch (1768–1835)




There are two principal justifications for writing someone’s biography.1 Some people (such as Catherine the Great or Lomonosov) are significant for the individual roles they played in history. Others performed no great deeds, yet if we ask the right questions, they can tell us much about the world in which they lived. This approach—“microhistory”—is especially rewarding in the case of immigrants, religious converts, and others who experienced a change in their social position, for how they exchanged old identities for new ones illumines the wider process by which social identities are formed and maintained.

The life of Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch—immigrant, stage actor, merchant, freemason, religious convert, writer, and pastor—is a case in point. Crisscrossing his native Germany, emigrating to St. Petersburg, making his fortune in Moscow, and finally settling on the Russian steppe frontier, he repeatedly refashioned himself socially, professionally, and spiritually. The only known likeness of him, a painting by Johann Baptist Lampi the Younger that belongs to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and is entitled “Portrait of a Pastor,” dates from the final stage of Rosenstrauch’s journey. By then, as a man of the cloth, he had achieved sufficient public regard that after he died, his grateful congregants could sell an engraving made from Lampi’s painting as a fundraiser. Look closely at that engraving: Does it not seem that alongside the demonstrative air of piety, the artist captured a hint of irony in Rosenstrauch’s expression? There was more to this man, he seems to suggest, than meets the eye.


10. Imam Shamil (1797–1871)




When the Georgian modernist poet Titsian Tabidze decided to commemorate his recent excursion to the mountain village Gunib, the site of Imam Shamil’s surrender to the Russian general Bariatinskii in 1859, it was not necessary to provide much context for his Georgian readers. Written in 1928, the poem was never published in his lifetime, and only made it into his collected works in 1966. Titsian was well aware of his poem’s unpublishability under the conditions of Stalinist rule. The most articulate text produced by a Georgian about the Russian conquest of the north Caucasus, a conquest facilitated by Georgian generals in the Tsarist army, thereby escaped censorship. Thanks to this evasion, the words that have been preserved have not lost their resonance:

I crossed Daghestan. I saw Gunib.

I, an infidel, now a shahid.

My sword is an arrow; it will not bend

Though it may kill me. [ . . . ]

I see the ghost of a nest, ravaged by eagles.


11. Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East” (fl. 1860s)




Zalumma Agra was the victim of circumstance, but she was also the beneficiary of incredible good fortune. From her native Circassia, in the beech- and oak-covered hills northeast of the Black Sea, she ended up a slave in the Ottoman Empire. Formerly a subject of the Russian tsar, she came to live in the harem of a senior Ottoman official as part servant, part concubine. She might have been acquired in the thriving open-air market in the center of Constantinople, which had been closed only a short time when Mark Twain visited in 1867. Girls like Zalumma could be had for the equivalent of twenty or thirty dollars, he said, and the still-brisk trade in people, even if conducted in private, was pursued with a shameless savvy that only Americans could beat. “Best brands Circassians, crop of 1850, £200; 1852, £250; 1854, £300” was Twain’s fantasy of an American version of the “white slave” trade around the Black Sea. “Best brands Georgian, none in market; second quality, 1851, £180.”1


12. Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855)




For the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century (to 1914), the single most problematic nationality—aside, possibly, from the Jews—were the Poles. The life of Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, reflects the complicated relations between these two closely related Slavic nations, Poles and Russians. The Poles were unique among European non-Russians in that they possessed a well-developed high culture (unlike, for instance, peasant peoples like Ukrainians or Latvians), a noble landowning class, and an accurate historical memory of past greatness. Both the life and the works of Adam Mickiewicz demonstrate the uncomfortable and problematic position of Poles under tsarist rule.

It is a rare Pole who does not know the first lines of Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz’s most famous work: “Lithuania! My homeland! You are like health—Your worth is only truly appreciated by he who has lost you.” Lithuania? For the Polish national poet? Mickiewicz’s famous lines made perfect sense to Poles of the nineteenth century who saw “Litwa” (“Lithuania”) not as a national-linguistic marker but as a region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Of this state—the second-largest in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz remarked that although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has long since disappeared from maps, for centuries it existed like other more familiar multiethnic units such as Savoy, Transylvania, or Languedoc.


13. Archbishop Innokentii (Borisov, 1800–1857)




Few places in the empire rivaled the diversity of New Russia, a vast territory lining the northern Black Sea littoral conquered from the Ottomans in the eighteenth century. From the era of Catherine II (1762–96), the empire promoted cultural autonomy and religious toleration among subject populations, yet recognized Orthodoxy as the state religion. These policies left a legacy of mixed rights and privileges that divided populations for decades. Rather than assimilating immigrants into the empire, imperial policies often reinforced or created new boundaries around native identities. Of Crimea, for example, one French visitor commented that “sometimes, just to cross the street, you believe you are passing from Europe to Asia.” Unlike the Americas, Europe and Asia, where “diverse peoples exist, but they mix in the same quarter, and strive . . . to assimilate,” he noted that in Crimea “there is nothing similar; at the minimum is one race, who lives in the village inhabited only by its own, or within a separate quarter in the village that becomes two in which the religion, the manners, the dress, the houses are all very different from one to the other.”1 He was most struck by the isolation of these groups from each other, noting that peoples of Crimea—Tatars, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Greeks, Germans, Roma, and Russians—lived in their own colonies, divided largely by their confession.


14. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809–1852)




On the face of it, the biography of Nikolai Gogol seems an Imperial Russian success story: a model of metropolitan openness to peripheral diversity. A twenty-year-old Ukrainian youth of humble means moves to St. Petersburg and launches his career as a writer in Russian, soon to earn recognition as a founding father of Russian prose and as the author of a beloved national icon: the image of Russia as a rushing carriage, about to overtake all nations. The Ukrainian subject matter of Gogol’s first volumes of stories—Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831–32) and Mirgorod (1835)—in no way diminishes the warm welcome with which the Russian audience greets the new talent from Ukraine. Gogol soon befriends key figures in the cultural life of the capital, among them the Russian poets Zhukovskii and Pushkin, who encourage and support his work. Sumptuous grants from the empress and the tsar follow. The period’s most important arbiter of literary value, Vissarion Belinskii, lavishes accolades on the young Ukrainian, pronouncing him the head of the new nationally conscious realist movement in Russian literature. Gogol moves to Russian themes, and after his masterful comedy The Government Inspector (1836), he writes what will become a foundational text in the history of the Russian novel, Dead Souls (1842). Gogol’s ascendancy in Russian culture would seem to offer proof of the powerful appeal that the imperial, metropolitan culture held to provincials and of this culture’s receptivity to an art of non-Russian ethnic provenance.


15. Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)




Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (Rubinshtein), although born at the edge of the Russian Empire, a member of a despised people, nonetheless became a central figure in the life of what is, alongside literature, Russia’s first great cultural contribution to the world in the nineteenth century—classical music. Not a great composer, his music falls out the canonical progression that begins with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804–57). Rather he became a world-renowned concert pianist, an aggressive promoter of European art music in Russia, and the founder—against tough odds—of the first Russian conservatory. Rubinstein in many ways always remained a bridge between Russia and Europe, even down to his Jewish roots on both sides. His mother hailed from Silesia, an eastern wing of the Kingdom of Prussia. His father, Russified and a convert to Orthodoxy, came from a town in a corner of Podolia near Bessarabia, recently acquired from the Ottoman Turks—a true borderland where dwelled Ukrainians, Romanians, Russians, Jews, Tatars, Turks, and Greeks. Characteristically, the “western” bride and the “eastern” groom met in Odessa, one of the great crossroads of Europe.


16. Aleksandr Borodin (1833–1887)




No musical composition is more closely associated in the West with the tsarist East than Aleksandr Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia.1 A track on virtually every bargain basement collection of Russian classical hits, the orchestral sketch was commissioned to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s reign, in 1880. The celebration’s grandiose plans featured a conversation between “the Genius of Russia” and “History,” to be illustrated by various orchestral tableaux vivants highlighting the monarch’s achievements. In addition to Borodin’s contribution, other pieces included “Slava” (Glory), a chorus by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and a march by Modest Mussorgsky commemorating the capture of the Ottoman stronghold of Kars in 1877. The the projected performance never took place, as its promoters mysteriously disappeared. Nevertheless, In the Steppes of Central Asia quickly acquired great popularity both at home and abroad.2


17. Kutlu-Mukhammad Batyr–Gireevich Tevkelev (1850–?) and Family




In August 1916, two State Duma deputies, Alexander Kerensky and Kutlu-Mukhammad Batyr-Gireevich Tevkelev, traveled to Turkestan to investigate the causes of an uprising against conscription into labor battalions among the region’s native peoples.1 Both men had connections to central Asia. Kerensky had spent part of his youth in Tashkent where his father served as a school administrator. Tevkelev’s great great grandfather, also Kutlu-Mukhammad Tevkelev (1674/75–1766), had traveled to central Asia two centuries before as a translator for Peter the Great. This Tevkelev took the name Aleksei Ivanovich in 1734, served as second in command of Ivan Kirilov’s Orenburg Expedition, and became notorious in Bashkiria for his vigorous use of lethal force to suppress the Bashkir uprising of 1735–39. The Tevkelev family’s five-generation journey from one Kutlu-Mukhammad considered a tsarist “executioner (palach)”2 to another who was an elected leader of the Muslim fraction in the State Duma tells much about the changing possibilities for elite Muslims in the Russian Empire from the seventeenth century until its collapse in 1917.


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