Claiming Crimea is a ground-breaking study of Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Empire – gradual and unsystematic as it was – between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century. While research tends to focus on changing policies toward and elite images of the southern peninsula, Kelly O’Neill explores practices of governance and elite integration while giving voice to a wide range of local actors. An array of archival materials from Crimea and St. Petersburg, along with contemporary publications, form the basis of the analysis, which is also backed up by detailed thematic maps and statistical tables. It is the combination of a cultural, political and economic analysis that makes this a particularly rewarding read.
While placing her analysis in the debate on Russian colonialism, O’Neill follows a spatial logic. She seeks to identify the “connective tissues” between regions and, in so doing, charts the empire as a continuous but differentiated space. Regions in this space were characterized by ambiguities. So was the empire as a whole: it displayed substantial regional variation; and while it strove for consistency, it thrived on ambiguity.
To capture the specificity of Crimea, O’Neill introduces the notion of the “southern empire”: it was not so much a space defined by boundaries and bilateral relations between center and province but an open space, where mobility was key, that thrived on roads and water networks transcending these boundaries. Local communities were part of complex networks: Greek merchants were integrated into the Aegean world while Crimean Tatars were part of cultural geographies that spread into Ottoman lands. Overlapping interrelationships were more important than core-periphery relations. At the same time, the restoration and transformation of infrastructure, ceremonial acts, and secular and religious sites – mosques and towns, gardens and mountains – helped to enshrine the empire into the built environment and landscape of this region.
Unlike the rest of “New Russia”, Crimea was not primarily seen as an internal resettlement project. Empire-building was partly aimed at winning over the allegiance of the Tatar population, mainly by reconfiguring space and society. Addressing this reconfiguration, the book explores administrative change, state and military service, land ownership, and economic exchange, processes that took decades of wrangling. Bonds of loyalty continued to be tenuous and had to be forged again and again. At the same time, multiple layers of jurisdiction and centers of authority emerged. In the economic, political, and cultural spheres, Crimean institutions were subordinated to “centers” located in Odessa, St. Petersburg, and Khar’kov, while different religious communities answered to Kherson, Saratov, Kishinev, and various places within Crimea.
O’Neill also stresses the centrality of economic exchange for empire-building. While the analysis highlights Odessa as a node of exchange, it shows that Crimea’s role lay elsewhere: it offered maritime links to the Sea of Azov and the Caucasian coast and often received the majority of Ottoman ships arriving in Russia. Most of this exchange was contraband trade. The Black Sea and Azov Sea littorals, estuaries and rivers developed their own maritime economies, accommodating and strengthening distinctive tastes and consumption patterns. The southern trade stood out for its value, rather than volume.
While the author’s focus is on the years after the Russian conquest, she repeatedly compares her findings with the Crimean Khanate, thus offering a welcome long-term perspective. As Russian land grants, for example, could only be made from state lands in Crimea (namely, land previously owned by the Khan), land ownership prior to Russian rule effectively determined which lands could be given away after the annexation. On the whole, O’Neill identifies a great deal of continuity. Exchange across the Black Sea flourished and continued to be dominated by Karaite, Turkish, Greek, and (some) Tatar traders and merchants.
The book is admirably detailed in its analysis of land ownership. Instead of just reiterating the narrative of dispossession, O’Neill examines governance and the relationship between social status and land ownership. New methods of quantifying terrain, including cadastral surveys and estate mapping, helped to translate local specificities into the language of cartographic representation. Land surveys were widely used in Crimea in the first four decades of the nineteenth century to gather information and to assist in land disputes. In so doing, these surveys also helped to inscribe the empire itself with its social and legal categories into the landscape, valley by valley. Thick ethnographic descriptions led the imperial gaze towards the peninsula’s fertile valleys and sloping highlands, which became desirable properties. Crucially, instead of being a pillar of the social structure, land ownership in the southern empire was a tool of imperial expansion: far from being limited to the nobility, it was open to low-ranking bureaucrats, craftsmen, and peasants (including Tatars). These groups made up the bulk of Crimean landowners. While efforts were made from around 1830 to bring local laws and procedures in line with those practiced across the empire, these efforts at standardization remained incomplete.
Crimea became an ordinary province, but many Tatar institutions remained effectively untouched for decades, giving rise to a complex set of jurisdictions. O’Neill maps out multiple sources of legal authority, formal and informal. Crimean Muslims could draw on Islamic inheritance law, own land according to local customs, and seek arbitration in qadi courts (even in disputes with non-Muslims). The message was loud and clear: Russian rule was compatible with local institutions. Tatars also retained control of key offices, including courts and the Noble Assembly. For Russian administrators, it only mattered that those elected for office were supporters of the imperial state. Real power was exercised through status and networks, and Tatar service was based on patronage. Either way, this service (especially military service) allowed Tatars to secure positions, landholdings and prestige.
From the 1830s, St. Petersburg began to lose patience with the pre-modern mode of empire-building and took measures to increase knowledge of, and control over, its Muslim population. The persistence of separate elite cultures began to be viewed critically, and by the end of the decade, Tatars no longer dominated among elected officials in Crimea. It was only after the Great Reforms, however, that a new, more assimilative kind of legal and cultural integration was adopted.
It is not easy to fault this carefully researched monograph. Admittedly, the author could have chosen a better title. “Southern Empire” would have captured the gist of the argument more than “Claiming Crimea”, as the real beauty of the book lies in its documentation of the porous boundaries, open spaces, and overlapping jurisdictions. Second, a more balanced discussion of Tatar elites and non-elites would have strengthened the argument further. The majority of Tatars were peasants, many of whom did not own any land. Third, while the analysis of the period under scrutiny is rich and differentiated, the brief discussion of the 1860s and their aftermath could have been less categorical. The post-reform period was no cultural steamroller in Crimea, and many Tatars found a way to reconcile their identifications and everyday lives with the demands of a rationalizing empire.
Still, in sum, Kelly O’Neill has made a formidable, almost frustratingly detailed contribution to the history of imperial Russia and the emerging field of trans-imperial history. She has not only produced a wealth of empirical detail but also encourages us to rethink the meaning of imperial borders, borderlands, and spatial categories in general.