How do people know things?

1600-1850 Dec 11, 2017

“How do people know things?” – the title of this blog post – seems like a simple question, but as our new publication, Information and Empire: Mechanisms of Communication in Russia, 1600-1850 demonstrates, the answer is complex. The volume focuses on how people knew things in pre-modern Russia, from the official information collected and used by the imperial government or created and circulated through bureaucratic institutions to the ways in which information was circulated publicly and privately through newspapers, the post, and experienced through the visual “graphosphere”. In addressing the broader question of the empire’s knowledge, the book brings together a history of information and its communication in Russia through case studies written by specialists.

Information and Empire had its genesis in the Cambridge-based research project “Information Technologies in Russia, 1450-1850”, led by Simon Franklin. One of the key events of the project was a conference, “Information Technologies and Transfer in Russia, 1450-1850”, which took place in September 2014 (the program is available here. The conference facilitated a number of serendipitous research connections, when scholars working on seemingly unrelated topics suddenly found themselves in productive dialogue with each other. The conference’s theme, which united so many disparate and yet linked areas of research, proved a rich one, and as soon as the event was over, Simon and I lamented that the discussions that were so stimulating and interesting at the event had not been preserved – a Storify record of a conference includes some food for thought, but these are crumbs compared to the in-person experience of the event. This book was conceived as our way of recreating those serendipitous connections and we hope that it also works to facilitate fruitful discussions in the future.

The book is divided into five sections, each focused on a particular type of information. The opening section on map-making discusses the way empire was represented, and the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of pre-modern cartography. International news and post includes chapters on the way Muscovy saw Europe in the Vesti-Kuranty, a seventeenth-century newspaper handwritten for the Tsar featuring news from Europe, and on the way Europe saw Muscovy, using the execution of Stenka Razin as a case study. The following section moves into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with discussion of the relay post and newspaper circulation before the rise of a “mass” press later in the nineteenth century. Finally, to round out the two sections, there’s a chapter on what was news, which explores what we know about how people knew things without newspapers or networks. The penultimate section examines information circulation within bureaucratic institutions including a chancery, the taxation system, and a ministry. And, finally, the book concludes with the public graphosphere, that is, through the experience of information, the information that surrounds people on a day to day basis, particularly in urban settings. Information and Empire is the first book of its kind on this theme in Russian Studies, but given the diversity of chapter topics and disciplines represented within it, it will surely not be the only volume.

With an unfathomable amount of information constantly available at our fingertips, for us gathering, communicating, or transmitting information is neither difficult nor unusual; this has become a mundane part of daily life. Examining the way pre-modern people and institutions categorized, understood, and interacted with information, we learn about not only how they saw themselves, but how they saw and understood the world. In this task, one can’t help but reflect on how we know things today, and what we can learn about ourselves through this reflection.

by Katherine Bowers
Read Information and Empire for free here.