The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

The Inner Lives of Russian Towns

Places matter in Russian history. Palaces, peasant huts, churches, mosques, post stations, mines, factories, salons... all have played important roles in historical events as well as in how those events have been understood and interpreted over time.

In this project we focus our attention on a particular kind of place: the town. Russian towns ranged from glamorous imperial capitals (St. Petersburg and Moscow) to humble backwaters hardly distinguishable from the villages that surrounded them. Some were located in the heart of the empire; others occupied sites on the periphery. Some had existed for centuries; others were called into existence by Peter I or Catherine II. Some have receded into the shadows; others are still "on the map" so to speak.

Our aim in this project is threefold:

  1. to produce a thick description of each town (the kind of detailed description that elicits an almost visceral sense of place),
  2. to explain the significance of each town within the history of the tsarist period, and
  3. to investigate the themes and motifs that emerge across these urban histories and generate, perhaps, a few broader insights into the inner lives of Russian urban spaces.

Our method is simple. In this project we are adopting the model of the atlas. Generally speaking, an atlas can work one of two ways. It either breaks a large space into smaller pieces and treats each piece individually, or it maps the same space again and again, each time with a focus on a different kind of information. We draw on both approaches in an attempt to organize our research into meaningful pieces - pieces which we present in a particular order, but which might as easily be rearranged or reordered. Taken together, the vignettes of each city will evoke a rich sense of place and time. 

Contents of this path: