Imperiia: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Project Philosophy: a trio of brief notes

Our project philosophy is animated by a trio of concepts: 

Location: Aristotle famously argued that location is an attribute of existence, and that place (understood as a location that has been assigned meaning by humans) not only locates and contains, but has the capacity to shape. If Aristotle was right, understanding location and place is a crucial part of understanding history, and making maps is a crucial mode of analysis and narration. 

Relations: We want to explore what happens when we quell our instinct to define historical significance in terms of how clearly a piece of evidence contributes to a particular story, and instead work to 1) cultivate our awareness of how pieces of the historical record connect to each other, and 2) find meaning in the structure and patterning of those connections. Our project is designed to document and interpret the dense fabric of relationships among the people, places, documents, events, and ideas that constituted the Russian Empire. It is designed not to establish hierarchies, but to mobilize the texture of the historical record. We insist that preserving that texture is a necessary and revelatory part of the historian’s craft and therefore that the project ontology is a crucial scholarly output.

Scale: We do not aim to produce a comprehensive spatial history. We do not aspire to acquire and ingest all available historical spatial data. We keep Jorge Luis Borges’s cautionary and gloriously absurd metaphor of a map of an empire produced at 1:1 scale fresh in our minds. While it is true that if we execute the project successfully, we will produce a database that enables the generation of multiple narratives from the same material, the possibilities are not endless. The elements of the system can only be arranged in a finite number of ways: ways determined by the system of relationships expressed in the ontology. Our materials are finite, carefully selected, and dominated by collections (of images, map series, statistical studies, inventories, and other sources with an internal coherence). In other words, a sense of scale is built into our source-base.

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