Canvas Empire: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Why Imperiia Matters

Why do we need a spatial history of the Russian Empire?

Historians have been studying Russia for centuries; mapmakers have been mapping it even longer.

But despite the archives and library collections, there remain significant gaps in our understanding of how the empire functioned. How, for example, did people, goods, ideas, and animate and inanimate objects of all kinds move from one location to another? How did patterns of mobility differ across regions and up and down the rungs of the social hierarchy? What was the scale of daily life? To what extent did administrative boundaries create meaningful spaces? Did proximity to roads link villages to sprawling commercial networks? Is there a correlation between the number of ice-free days and the value of goods carried along a given river? Is there a correlation between distance from the provincial town and the frequency of episodes of social or political unrest in a given district? 

The list goes on and on, but it all comes down to this: we need a spatial history of the Russian Empire because we need to understand the empire from the perspective of those who inhabited it. We need to know whether they prized accessibility over isolation, proximity over distance. We need to understand when spatial relations were incapacitating and when they facilitated social, political, and cultural change.

Moreover, we need to recover the geospatial context of the past because it would be irresponsible not to do so. There are tools and methods at our disposal that allow us to recover that context. Wielding those tools and methods allows us – Russian historians – to participate in crucial conversations about global and international history, comparative and entangled history, big data, and the future of history itself in the digital age. 

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