Canvas Empire: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Plague Story

In 1980, historian John T. Alexander published a book about a pandemic that shook Europe to its foundations but has long since been forgotten. Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster is required reading for anyone interested in the history of public health, medicine, and crisis management.

It is an inherently spatial story as well. The plague moved over great distances, from its origin in Constantinople through Moldavia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and northward to Moscow.

In the preface to his book, Alexander explains that Empress Catherine II

"and her contemporaries watched in disbelief the widening ravages of an immense epidemic that caused one of the worst natural disasters of the eighteenth century."

Terrible things happened between 1770 and 1772: suffering and death of course, but also damage to the public understanding of medical practice. The plague had an effect up and own the social hierarchy, Alexander reminds us, "from the Empress at the top to chimney sweeps and convict gravediggers at the bottom." 

Plague Story is composed of three timelines. The first, "Prelude," recounts a series of events beginning with the Ottoman declaration of war against Russia on October 6, 1768, and ending with Empress Catherine II's formal - if subtle - recognition that the plague had crossed into her empire and taken root in the city of Kiev. It is followed by "Where There Is Smoke" (September 1770 - March 1771) and "Crescendo" timelines (April 1771 - October 1771).

The events are drawn from Alexander's excellent monograph, which was printed in paperback by Oxford University Press in 2003 (in fact, the page numbers provided in brackets refer to the 2003 edition). We encourage you to get your hands on a copy, make a pot of coffee (or tea, if you must), and dig in.

(But while you are waiting for the book to arrive at your door, perhaps our Plague Story will fill a few minutes.)

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