You know the old saying, “when you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? Our team wields a hammer, and we take the responsibility seriously. Much of the historical record has a spatial component, but our goal is not to map the whole archive. Instead, we choose our nails carefully. In this phase of the project, we are working with collections: with groups of documents, records, maps, or narratives, that are structured the same way or describe the same sort of places. Our “nails” look something like this:
Atlases train a standardizing gaze on the regions they depict. General atlases, agricultural atlases, river atlases, economic atlases - all offer insight into what was known (and knowable) about imperial space.
Geographical dictionaries were the gold standard of systematized information in the 18th century. Russia produced dictionaries of settled places, market towns, monasteries, educational establishments, dictionaries of provinces and regions.
By the mid-19th century, statistical tables were delivering information about everything from population to murder rates, trade volume to tree counts, the occurrence of thunderstorms, and the consumption of coffee.
Obsessive description of new territories was a crucial aspect of empire building. Coastlines, estuaries, mountain ranges, deserts, forests, islands—the trained eyes of men of science described them in travel accounts and expedition reports in exhaustive detail, with an eye for sources of wealth and prestige.
Archival documents, both unpublished and published, are crucial to our project. We draw on document sets from central archives such as the Russian State Imperial History Archive, the Russian State Naval Archive, and the Russian State Military History Archive, as well as provincial archives.