Russia's Other Neighbors: Turkey and China

AHA Session 44
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Matthew John Payne, Emory University
Willard Sunderland, University of Cincinnati

Session Abstract


Russia’s Other Neighbors: Turkey and China

Standard narratives of modern Russian history are Eurocentric: they highlight the role of Western influences and connections, and see Russia’s past as deeply entangled with that of its European neighbors.

But what about the nations along Russia’s Asian borders—Turkey and Persia, China and Afghanistan?

These other neighbors’ multifaceted contact and deeply intertwined historical engagement with Russia constitute an area of research that promises to decenter the emphasis given to Europe and the West in shaping narratives of Russian history. Yet few studies consider Russia in historical relation to its Asian neighbors. This is a result of the linguistic difficulties involved, as well as scholarly habits of thought shaped by stubborn area-studies framings, structures, and influences.

Counteracting this entrenched tendency to focus primarily on Russia’s ties to the West, our panel presents a new direction of research that seeks to clarify the various links that bound Russia to its neighbors along its long southern and eastern frontier. The importance of understanding Russia’s historical relations with Asia, and with that cross-over border space that has historically fallen between empires, now increasingly called Eurasia, is made especially clear in light of current events. The present confrontation between Russia and Europe over Ukraine has accelerated the Putin government’s eastward turn, as did previous confrontations between these two blocs. But this “pivot to Asia” has historically been fraught with ambivalence, as the papers in our panel will demonstrate.

Our panel joins three scholars working on Russia in relation to the Ottoman Empire, Qing China, and Republican China. Using sources from collections both in and outside Russia, two of the papers for this panel deal with Muslims in the Ottoman world and under Qing rule, and all three deal with the migration—of people, commodity, and rebellion—across the formal borders dividing these empires. By bringing these scholars and their work into dialogue with one another, we seek to foster a productive, comparative discussion about methods and approaches involved in pioneering new directions in Russian history, and reveal historical patterns across regions that cannot be seen when scholars work in isolation. Our ambitions extend beyond this panel: we hope to launch a robust scholarly discussion about the need for new framings of Russian history, and bridging (or, perhaps, dismantling) ahistorical area-studies boundaries that make this work difficult.

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