The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

From Forest to Fleet

This is a story of an empire, reimagined.

Russia has always been known as a continental power. An inland empire. Full of forests, rivers, and snow. But it was always moving toward the sea - toward the wealth and glory of the maritime world.

Over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Muscovy expanded northward to the White Sea and eastward to the Pacific. The spoils of Tsar Peter I’s Great Northern War (1700-1721) included a chunk of Baltic coast extending all the way to Riga. By the time Empress Catherine II began acquiring Black Sea territories in 1774, the notion of a deeply-embedded “urge to the sea” – an insatiable desire for warm water ports on the great world seas – not only had currency: it had become the mobilizing idea of Russia’s imperial project.

Catherine, like Peter I before her, knew that if Russia wanted to play a dominant role on the world stage, it must reinvent itself as a naval power. The empire needed fleets to patrol not just the Baltic, but the Black Sea and the Caspian as well. It needed ships. And building ships required vast quantities of high-quality timber. 

It was only a matter of time before thousands of naval officers, shipwrights, surveyors, barge haulers, forest rangers, timber merchants, peasants, pilots, and laborers, set about harnessing the bounty of the natural world and, in so doing, transforming the tsarist state.

From Forest to Fleet explores the complex relationship between nature and the state by telling the story of how mature oaks were claimed and floated from forests in the heartland to shipyards on the empire's peripheries. It is a story of the power of statistics, the agency of nature, the scale of ambition, and the necessity of maps.

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