Expect the Unexpected

1600-1850 Dec 19, 2017

Underlying my contributions to Information and Empire is academic work extending back several decades over much of my academic career (with many breaks for other projects). I have had the satisfaction of seeing conclusions based on imperfect evidence confirmed by the work of colleagues (notably Ingrid Maier and Stepan Shamin), who have taken the analysis to new levels. The process also has taught me to expect the unexpected and to confront complexities whose resolution may never be within our grasp.

My early attempts at understanding the acquisition of information in Muscovite Russia through translation of Western sources were framed in traditional discourses about Russia’s gradual “westernization” and “modernization”. Hence the focus on the translated news summaries of the vesti-kuranty, whose production became regular with the establishment of the Muscovite foreign post in the middle of the 17th century. As I became better informed from a comparative perspective about the development of information networks elsewhere in Europe, the Muscovite experience seemed to share in the same process, yet proved to be markedly different. Europe had its published newspapers, accessible outside of the narrow circles of the government elite; Muscovy was still a land of manuscript and oral communication where foreign news was for the privileged few. Yet this comparative perspective also has increasingly led me reconsider what had been one of the abiding paradigms of Europe’s own “modernization” in which the rapid development of printed newspapers wrought fundamental changes in society and politics. From that perspective, Muscovy arguably was hopelessly “backwards”. But then is it really tenable to insist that a new era of rational objectivity in Europe had dawned, when in fact there was ample evidence to the contrary? Fortunately, scholarship about the “information revolution” in the West has been moving beyond such a limited perspective. I would argue, as did the noted economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, that specialists on the “early modern” West might yet learn from examining “Europe in the Russian mirror”, a mirror that can be explored in some of the very substantial essays in this book.

My ideas on all this continue to develop (perhaps a reassuring confirmation that our brains don’t necessarily wither by the middle of our seventh decade). The Cambridge symposium which underlies this book served as the stimulus for me to explore, however tentatively, the larger subject of what was “news” in Muscovy beyond the evidence of the translated foreign news.  Asking such a question is to open the door for research that others will have to tackle in decades ahead, as it will be the project for several lifetimes. A particular challenge will be to incorporate into our analysis the non-print media, inter alia to try to understand more fully the impact of oral communication. Rumor, still hugely understudied in the Russian case, demands attention.

One of my detours on the road to the essays in this volume was into the arguably remote Russian provinces, which, as it turned out, were not quite so badly “connected” as conventional wisdom had it. Surprisingly little had been done to date on communication in that rapidly expanding Russian Empire, since scholarship has too often looked through the lens of the center. Information and Empire should serve as the impetus to broaden and deepen our understanding of how well (or, in somc cases, how poorly) those charged with administration were able to fulfill their tasks, and the degree to which within the framework of an “autocratic” system, there were vast spaces occupied by local initiative.

Even in the narrower realm of my initial explorations into Muscovite acquisition of foreign news, I am re-examining the disputed question of whether or not the makers of Muscovite foreign policy were well informed. I had tended to side with the skeptics who emphasized the limitations imposed by not having permanent diplomatic representatives abroad who could serve as intelligence agents. Yet a closer look at the documents, many of them long ago published, but others still needing to be exhumed from the archives, is seeming to suggest the opposite—the Russian government in fact managed to learn relatively efficiently what it needed to know. (My thinking about such matters will be further developed in a monograph Ingrid Maier and I are completing.) If bad policy ensued, it was not necessarily the result of not having the facts in hand. Tempering any assessment of this material is the realization that even in the “more advanced” information networks of the West, there were serious limits imposed by the state of information technologies.

In short, readers of Information and Empire should find much here to challenge what “we thought we knew”.

by Daniel C. Waugh

To read more of Professor Waugh’s work see his chapter in our book Information and Empire: Mechanisms of Communication in Russia, 1600-1850.