Canvas Empire: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Deal: History through Playing Cards

In 1856, a hot new item hit the shelves in Russia: a set of playing cards. Created by Konstantin Matveevich Gribanov, the set had an impressive title:

Album of Geographical Playing Cards of Russia, arranged on 80 cards according to maritime basin (A wonderful and instructive child's game of patience)

As you can imagine, these were not ordinary playing cards. They were elaborately illustrated, beautifully-produced, and laden with pedagogical and ideological value. If you had money to spare and fancied yourself an educated, elite, or prestige-hungry subject of the tsar, you no doubt found a way to get your hands on a set.

Playing cards of this kind were popular teaching tools in the nineteenth century. Imagine standing in your parlor (if you had the money to purchase the playing cards, you most likely had a parlor), thumbing through the set of texts and images describing the culture, history, economy, and geography of the provinces. It was like holding the empire in the palm of your hand.

Despite the fact that you are (most likely) not a wealthy inhabitant of the Russian Empire, you too can play cards. You can look through the gallery, explore one of the "card sorts" (each of which has a thematic focus), do some filtering of your own on a series of interactive visualizations, play a game, or sit back and enjoy a quick flipbook.

This project teaches you loads about the history of the Russian Empire, but it rests solely on the information contained in a deck of cards. We have resisted the relentless urge to expand and explain and expound at every turn. Instead, we hope you will feel compelled to do that work. Our job is to fire up your sense of curiosity... and provide a bit of entertainment.

Note: The cards were digitized as the "Geographic Card Set of the Russian Empire" by the Meeting of Frontiers project: a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Russian National Library. They are available for noncommercial educational use.

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