The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Settled places

Settlements are one of the most important features of Russian imperial geography. Inhabited places came in a bewildering assortment of shapes and sizes, with a broad range of ascribed privileges and obligations. 12,205 appear on the Geographical Atlas of the empire (published in the 1820s); the Lists of Settled Places published later in the century attest to roughly a quarter million sites. (The discrepancy in the two figures has to do with population growth but primarily with the scale at which the atlas was executed.)

Locating settlements is a crucial piece of the work of mapping history. So is describing them. Sorting them. Analyzing their similarities and differences. It is tempting to begin this task by applying categories familiar to us from other historical contexts. One could, for example, divide the populated places shown on the Geographical Atlas into urban and rural categories. According to this logic, the settlements would break down in this way:This seems sensible enough, but the urban/rural classification scheme is not necessarily the most productive approach to understanding Russian space. Any bureaucrat worth his salt, for example, would have described Russian space using administrative logic. From this perspective, settlements would fall into two main categories:(Bureaucrats are not always the splashiest thinkers.)

We could of course dispense with the map legends and classify settlements according to schemes that are either more illuminating or more entertaining:... The possibilities are endless. 

But we can, and should, start with location.

After all, where matters. Right?

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