The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Identifying Relationships

Russian bureaucrats did not go about their work with 21st century historians in mind. Their handwriting can be... enigmatic at times. They often left abbreviations unexplained. They were not always careful with sums. They did not always take notes on the things we wished they had taken notes on. And some created unnecessarily circuitous paper trails.

But more often than not, they operated according to a discernible logic: the logic of administrative geography. Provinces, counties, cities, villages - these were the units for counting people, calculating grain yields, describing ethnic diversity, and organizing the daily flurry of ministerial correspondence. One has to work quite diligently to unearth a document from the imperial archive that is without a geographic identifier or one kind or another.

So what? 

So glad you asked. You see, place (a place being the sort of thing that is described by a geographic identifier, or toponym) is what holds the Imperiia project together. It is the element that allows us to analyze pieces of information that come from different sources and talk about different things as a coherent set.

Defining the relationships between places is our bread-and-butter. Sometimes those relationships are vertical. For example, this province contains this district; this district contains this village; this village contains this garden. Sometimes the relationships are thematic. For example, this travel account, this map, and this painting describe a cholera outbreak; or, each of the places on this list are mentioned in the travel account of a certain Russophobic Frenchman. Sometimes the relationships are chronological. For example, before the Pugachev rebellion this river was the Yaik River. After the Pugachev rebellion it was the Ural. And so on. 

We are not interested in establishing a hierarchy among relationships. We are interested in articulating every relationship among pieces of information that could possibly be mobilized to better understand Russia's spatial history.

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