Borderland Capitalisms Reconsidered: Economic Practices and Contested Resources in (Post-)Imperial Siberia and Central Asia

Borderland Capitalisms Reconsidered: Economic Practices and Contested Resources in (Post-)Imperial Siberia and Central Asia

Ruslana Bovhyria / Aleksandr Korobeinikov / Robert Kindler, Freie Universität Berlin
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
01.02.2024 - 02.02.2024
Reza S. P. Nazir, Mathematische Bildung und Gesellschaft, Freie Universität Berlin

The workshop aimed to address a significant gap in historiography by delving into the understudied economic history of the Russian Empire and the USSR, particularly in regions such as Central Asia, Siberia, and the Far East, while highlighting their interconnectedness. It sought to rectify the historical neglect of these regions in economic narratives by examining the hybrid systems and complex dynamics of borderlands. By exploring continuity across imperial transitions and the interplay between state-led visions and grassroots practices, the workshop aimed to foster new scholarly perspectives. With ROBERT KINDLER (Berlin) emphasizing the importance of understanding borderland capitalisms, the event facilitated discussions on transregional exchanges and concepts, enriching our understanding of economic territoriality and (post-)imperial legacies in a broader historical context.

BEATRICE PENATI (Liverpool) opened the workshop with an insightful keynote on capitalism in Russian-ruled Turkestan. Penati’s critique focused on the predominant focus on cotton cultivation in discussions of capitalism in the Russian Empire’s Central Asia, despite the richness of the theoretical debates. To counter this, she delved into two different case studies. The first, a Bukharan-Jewish-owned cotton mill in Samarkand, provided insights into state-led peripheralization and the problematic foundations of a capitalist economy. In contrast, her examination of santonin production in Shymkent showed how foreign investment and capital infusion facilitated economic prosperity, providing a nuanced understanding of capitalist dynamics in the region.

NICCOLÒ PIANCIOLA (Padua) opened the first panel, delving into the intricacies of the Bank of Chosen, a Japanese-controlled Korean financial institution. He revealed its profound historical significance in late-imperial Vladivostok, highlighting the connections between this area and the Japanese-occupied Korean peninsula through Korean-Russian supply chains. Pianciola explained how this bank, located in the remote Russian Far East, became a key player in global capitalism, transcending spatial and temporal boundaries. Despite the turmoil of the 1917 revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, the bank persisted as the only foreign financial institution, resisting efforts by local party authorities to regulate it. Ultimately, Stalinist policies, not socialist revolution, led to its closure in the USSR, illustrating the interplay of power and finance amid the era’s tumultuous geopolitical landscape.

ALEKSANDR KOROBEINIKOV (Berlin) stressed the need to understand local and regional dynamics to unravel the administrative and economic intricacies of early Soviet history. He delved into the complex economic dynamics of the post-1917 revolution, emphasizing the central role of natural resources in shaping Eastern Siberia and the Far East. Korobeinikov examined territorial disputes, such as those over the Aldan gold deposits, that engulfed the Yakut ASSR and the Far East. Through the lens of Soviet Sakha intellectuals’ efforts, he illustrated how these resources sparked intense debate and strategic maneuvering. The Aldan dispute became a platform for local advocacy, with actors presenting economic arguments for its integration into the Far East or its retention within Yakutia. Despite compelling appeals from Far Eastern representatives, Aldan remained within the Yakut ASSR, albeit with diminished economic importance.

RUSLANA BOVHYRIA (Berlin) presented a nuanced analysis of late 19th-century Central Asia, focusing on the importance of aquatic environments in economic practices. Drawing on newly uncovered archival materials and insights from environmental, transport, and economic history, she demonstrated how the maritime fish trade in the Caspian Basin influenced the livelihoods of settlers and indigenous peoples and intertwined them with broader capitalist transformations. Bovhyria highlighted the Mangyshlak peninsula, where Russian and Muslim communities engaged in fish farming, fostering complex interdependencies. The rise of cabotage shipping and the establishment of an integrated fish market altered socioeconomic dynamics. By highlighting the nuanced role of infrastructure in the imperial context, Bovhyria underscored the impact of factors such as seasonality, remoteness, and mobility in reshaping the economic landscape of both littoral and terrestrial realms in Central Asia.

LILIJA WEDEL (Bielefeld) set the stage for the second panel with a comprehensive analysis of marketing strategies and consumer politics in late 19th-century Russian Turkestan. Examining advertising practices in the context of urbanization, she illuminated the integration of Western European cultural and economic norms, with a particular focus on the contributions of German entrepreneurs. Wedel’s central argument highlighted the impact of advertising on local businesses, economic dynamics, and infrastructure expansion. Through a variety of textual and visual materials, her research revealed the entrepreneurial dynamism and cross-cultural exchange that fueled economic growth in Russian Turkestan.

ALEKSANDR TURBIN (Chicago) delved into the narrative of Adolph Dattan, a German merchant who traded in Vladivostok in the late 19th century. Turbin portrayed Vladivostok as a diverse center composed of indigenous peoples, Russians, Koreans, Japanese, and various Western Europeans. While East Asians were seen as potential trading allies, Western Europeans like Dattan were perceived as a threat to Russian commercial dominance. Despite Dattan’s Russian fluency and citizenship, his non-Russian, European origins led to confrontations. He attempted to navigate these challenges by criticizing Russian nationalism and racializing East Asians, especially the Chinese. However, Dattan’s racial discourse failed to ease ethnic tensions, demonstrating the novelty but ineffectiveness of his strategy within the prevailing ethnic prejudices of the Russian Empire.

THOMAS LOY (Prague) examined the multifaceted journey of Haim Abraham, a Jewish merchant from Bukhara, to explore the complex dynamics of the Jewish merchant community in Central Asia. Through Abraham’s life, Loy uncovered the establishment of a transnational network known as the “Jewish Triangle,” linking the cities of Herat (Afghanistan), Bukhara (Russian Empire), and Mashhad (Persia). Abraham’s experiences shed light on themes of connectivity, globalization, and the fluidity of colonial borderlands, which are often connected to other borderlands or foreign colonial centers. Loy also highlighted the other aspects of Abraham’s story, including encounters with anti-Semitism and the challenges posed by mistrust and regime change in different countries. Abraham’s story thus serves as a poignant exploration of resilience in the face of adversity within the complex tapestry of Central Asian trade and society.

IAN CAMPBELL (Davies, CA) opened the third panel on knowledge and power in Central Asia with a nuanced examination of the Kazakh steppe. Campbell’s research focused on the settlement of Slavic populations after the conquest of this area. He emphasized that the settlement was characterized not by an orchestrated plan, but by laissez-faire policies that legitimized predatory economic practices against the indigenous nomads. Contrary to the civilizing rhetoric of the empire, the colonization of the steppe resulted in social upheaval, exacerbated poverty, and eroded communal ties among the Kazakhs. Campbell’s analysis reveals the unintended consequences of imperial policies and illuminates the complex interplay between power dynamics and social change in Central Asia.

A fresh perspective came from ALISHER KHALIYAROV (Sharjah), who examined the transformation of the Emirate of Khiva after the Russian conquest, focusing on the change in currency. Khaliyarov detailed how the St. Petersburg government ordered the emir to pay reparations in silver tenge after the conquest to establish the Russian gold ruble as the standard currency. However, both the emir and local merchants resisted this change, with the emir continuing to import silver and mint coins, while merchants devalued the ruble in their transactions. Through the lens of currency change, Khaliyarov illustrates how imperial power can be both asserted and contested through monetary mechanisms, offering a nuanced understanding of the dynamics between central authority and economic autonomy in colonial contexts.

SERGEI GLEBOV (Amherst) opened the fourth panel with an exploration of the Russian Far East and its Chinese trading community, a topic parallel to but distinct from Turbin’s focus. While Turbin’s analysis focused on the transformation of the Russian Empire under Alexander III, the shift from imperial to Russian identity, and its impact on the peripheral trading zones, Glebov delved into the activities of the Swiss merchant Julius Brynner in Vladivostok. Glebov interpreted Brynner’s actions in the context of the empire’s reforms, framing them as an attempt to racialize Chinese competitors. Brynner’s use of racist language akin to anti-Semitism and his advocacy of urban segregation of the Chinese reflected the prevailing zeitgeist and local anti-Chinese sentiments of the time and shed light on the complex dynamics of ethnicity, commerce, and power in the Russian Far East.

DAVID DARROW (Dayton, Ohio) introduced the concept of the “butter frontier” as a novel analytical framework for understanding empire. He highlighted the unique role of butter production, which required a particular level of technological infrastructure. Darrow emphasized that the butter industry, in the context of late-industrializing agricultural landscapes, facilitated comparisons between expanding nations and empires. To illustrate this point, Darrow compared butter production in Siberia, the United States, and New Zealand. His research revealed a relatively high level of mechanization on dairy farms, which contrasted with social and official perceptions of backwardness. Despite being labeled as peripheral, all three areas were linked by a network of knowledge that fostered innovation rather than stagnation.

CHECHESH KUDACHINOVA (Bonn) introduced the fifth and final panel, which focused on deer antler harvesting and craftsmanship in the Altai region. Despite its reputation as a refuge for displaced peasants, illegal migrants, and Old Believers, the Altai operated as a “transimperial province.” The deer economy, which offered substantial profits with minimal labor and capital, served as a dynamic production zone with little imperial oversight. Antlers harvested in Russia found eager buyers in nearby Chinese markets, fueling the region's economic vitality. Initial attempts at regulation, such as sending a St. Petersburg official to assess deer farming in 1897, resulted in little action. Instead, the deer trade was disrupted by the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It resumed under Soviet rule, albeit under strict government supervision and regulation.

TAKAHIRO YAMAMOTO (Singapore) conducted a study of a high-risk, low-reward economy. Focusing on the Kuril Islands, Yamamoto illustrated how the Japanese government sought to exert influence and control over a disputed territory by exploiting its resources for foreign companies. This approach not only depleted the local aquatic fauna but also resulted in the near extinction of the indigenous Ainu population, who were forcibly relocated to the main island of Hokkaido. Through this case study, Yamamoto highlighted the detrimental effects of government policies on both the environment and indigenous communities, underscoring the complex interplay between economic interests, territorial disputes, and the human cost of imperial ambitions.

TIMM SCHÖNFELDER (Leipzig) concluded the workshop with an analysis of the international fur trade. Leipzig, famous for its trade fairs, became a central European hub for the fur trade. Arriving from Siberia through indigenous channels, furs passed through the hands of European traders on their way to Leipzig for processing. From there, they entered global markets as fashionable clothing. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution brought a downturn, exacerbated by reduced hunting. The isolation of Germany after World War I, until the Treaty of Rapallo in 1921, stifled trade. Then came the disruptions of Nazi rule, war, and occupation. Schönfelder’s study underscores not only transnational transformations but also domestic discord, charting the fur trade's evolution amid shifting global landscapes and domestic strife.

In the concluding discussion, workshop participants revisited key themes from the presentations. The notion of “borderlands” remained controversial, but proved its analytical value in reflecting regions that are not isolated but intimately connected within a global framework. Although a deeper exploration of capitalism(s) was regrettably sidelined, the overarching focus on economic dynamics underscored the potential for elucidating connections and entanglements within borderland studies. Beatrice Penati’s insight underscored the importance of examining vernacular sources in broader contexts, particularly for economic research. Despite the critical points raised throughout, both panelists and participants recognized the potent research scope encapsulated by the event’s title.

Conference overview:

Robert Kindler / Ruslana Bovhyria / Aleksandr Korobeinikov (Berlin): Welcome and Introduction

Beatrice Penati (Liverpool): Keynote: Peripheral or Global? Turkestan’s Place in Old and New Histories of Capitalism

Panel I: Borderland Encounters and Spatial Visions
Moderation: Stephan Rindlisbacher (Frankfurt an der Oder)

Niccolò Pianciola (Padua): States of Economic Exception: Entangled Sovereignities and Crossborder Trade in the Russian Far East-Manchuria Borderland, 1906–1929

Aleksandr Korobeinikov (Berlin): Natural Resources and Border Making in the Postimperial Yakut Region

Ruslana Bovhyria (Berlin): Perilous Waters: The Caspian Sea and the Maritime Dimension of Central Asian Economies, 1890s–1910s

Panel II: Colonial Actors and Economic Encounters
Moderation: Emre Tegin (Berlin)

Lilija Wedel (Bielefeld): Russian-German Entrepreneurs in Turkestan: Marketing Strategies and Contributions, 1870–1914

Aleksandr Turbin (Chicago): “European Consumerism” in the Chinese Shop: Consumption and Competing Visions of “Proper” Commerce in the Far East of the Russian Empire in the 1880s–1890s

Thomas Loy (Prague): Haim Abraham: Borderland Encounters and Economic Practices of a Jewish Merchant between Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia

Panel III: Knowledge and Power in Central Asia
Moderation: Natasha Klimenko (Berlin)

Ian Campbell (Davies, CA): Envisioning Settler and Local Economies: Knowledge Production and Resettlement in the Late Imperial Era

Alisher Khaliyarov (Sharjah): Borderland Transformation: The Process of Currency Change in Khiva

Panel IV: Imperial Dynamics and Contested Resources in Siberia
Moderation: Aleksandr Korobeinikov (Berlin)

Sergei Glebov (Amherst, MA): Goods and Bodies: Race and the Invention of Chinese Commerce in Late Imperial Far East

David Darrow (Dayton, OH): The Spread of Empire: Towards a Comparative History of Siberia’s Cooperative Creameries

Panel V: Empire and Human-Animal Relations
Moderation: Robert Kindler (Berlin)

Chechesh Kudachinova (Bonn): The Production of Velvet Antler: Frontier Industry and Resource Knowledge in South Siberia, 1880s–1920s

Takahiro Yamamoto (Singapore): A Japan Ground Redux?: Marine Animal Hunting Around the Kuril Islands in the Late Nineteenth Century

Timm Schönfelder (Leipzig): Tracing the Fur Trade. On the Globalization of Resource Exploitation across the 1917-Divide

Final Discussion and Outlook (Roundtable)
Moderation: Martin Wagner (Berlin)

Alun Thomas, Stephan Rindlisbacher, Robert Kindler, Ruslana Bovhyria, Aleksandr Korobeinikov

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