A Glass Half-Full, Perhaps Three Quarters: Imperial Questions in Boris Mironov’s Rossiiskaia Imperiia
“Rossiiskaia imperiia” is a remarkable feat of scholarship – ambitious, intense, erudite, dazzling in its command of sources and topics. It’s also idiosyncratic and unwieldy, abounding with so many claims and so much information that it can sometimes be hard to define or reduce to a single impression. The book is a curious hybrid: a deeply empirically based survey of social life in the imperial era that also, at least in parts, has the feel of a meandering essay with multiple digressions on disparate topics. Sunderland’s remarks concentrate on just one aspect: the question of empire. Mironov’s points are compelling in many ways. There are good reasons to draw attention to the empire’s long-term historical stability and the particularities of tsarist rule that made the empire similar yet also different from other empires of its time. The vastness of the empire was stunning and clearly had a critical and overall advantageous impact on the development of the state. Numerous peoples indeed gained in important ways from their incorporation into Russian space, while ethnic Russians, as Mironov correctly points out, were not a “ruling people” who benefitted unambiguously from the imperial structure. “Rossiiskaia imperiia” generalized that created an overly one-sided picture of the empire’s virtues. Long-lasting and diverse states like the Russian Empire are complex forms hard to fit into tight categories of success or failure. Squeezing them into these boxes invariably means leaving things out, but leaving things out, in turn, creates a distorted view. Mironov’s book is far from a superficial glorification of the Russian experience. The work is full of scholarly complexity, contradiction, and nuance. It engages with difficult issues and invites constructive disagreement. But there is also no denying that Mironov tends to round up rather than round down when making generalizations about the tsarist experience, including the aspirations, practices, and consequences of Russian imperial rule. His insistence in “Rossiiskaia imperiia” in seeing tsarist Russian past as a glass half-full, perhaps three-quarters.