S. B. Riegg: Russia's Entangled Embrace

Russia's Entangled Embrace. The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801–1914

Riegg, Stephen Badalyan
330 S.
$ 45.00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Stefan B. Kirmse, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Stephen Badalyan Riegg’s study of the Russian Empire’s complex relationship with Armenians in the long 19th century is an important achievement. With its focus on changing Russian policies and perceptions, colonialism and the integration of ‘natives’ in the South Caucasus, it offers not only a detailed empirical analysis but, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also a thought-provoking discussion that raises uncomfortable questions about the role of ethnic and religious ‘Others’ in the project of empire-building. How much agency did non-Russians have, and how useful are the concepts of inequality, violence, accommodation, and symbiosis to understand their relationship with the imperial centre?

Riegg highlights the degree to which the tsars relied on the Armenians to take and retain control over the Caucasus, as mediators, spies, and frontiersmen, in a relationship that was hierarchically ordered but, for the most part, mutually beneficial. He shows the fragile and shifting balance of Armenophilia and Armenophobia among Russian elites, and he tracks the reasoning behind the empire’s flexible policies towards Armenians, who were occasionally framed as subversive or overly privileged. In addressing these questions, Riegg alerts us to the specificities of the Armenian case while acknowledging commonalities with other minority histories. One of the specificities – that the number of Armenians outside Russia was consistently higher than inside – explains the centrality of geopolitics, and the Persian and Ottoman Empires, in Riegg’s analysis. The story of Armenians is a story of trans-imperial connectivity and inter-imperial rivalry.

“Russia’s Entangled Embrace” adopts a decidedly central perspective: the book is about the ways in which tsars and ministers in St. Petersburg and their plenipotentiaries in Tiflis saw and treated Armenians, rather than about foregrounding Armenian voices (and the concentration on archival material from Russia underlines this focus). Yet, while such a perspective might seem unfashionable at a time when many call for a ‘decolonisation’ of the field, it is not only legitimate (and much-needed given the scarcity of comparable work) but also, in retrospect, a fortunate decision insofar as archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg will be difficult to access for Western researchers for years to come. Riegg tracks imperial correspondence meticulously, combining its analysis with that of a great variety of published sources.

The book follows a broad chronological order, dividing the Russo-Armenian encounter from around 1800 to 1914 into six chapters. The first three, covering Russia’s annexation and consolidation of rule in the South Caucasus until the mid-19th century, introduce several interrelated arguments. Having documented the emergence of Armenians as Russia’s primary partners in the Caucasus (in contrast to Georgians, who were quickly branded as unreliable and rebellious), the discussion follows the civic integration of Armenians into Russian imperial society, even before the incorporation of Eastern Armenia in 1828. Riegg then shows that by the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855), senior statesmen regularly clashed over the treatment of Armenians, their economic privileges and tax exemptions. Yet attempts at fiscal and legal standardisation were regularly rebuffed while the Armenians skilfully honed their image as loyal and strategically important subjects, who were in continued need of special legal protection. Thus, accommodation prevailed as a form of governance. As the Armenian Church and kinship networks reached deep into Ottoman lands, the Armenians were also of great geopolitical value. Religion was the glue that held the diaspora together.

Chapters 4–6 track these themes into the late imperial period, when the tsarist empire positioned itself as the champion of Ottoman Armenians, against the background of war and the Russian occupation of eastern Turkey. However, by the mid-1880s, growing nationalism, among Armenians and especially the Russian elites, had led the tsar and his government to believe that the plight of Western Armenians was none of their business while Eastern Armenians (eager to reinforce ties across the border) came to be seen as potential separatists and revolutionaries. By the 1890s, Russia had morphed from former protector into “another heavy-handed imperial overlord” (p. 174). The final chapter documents such heavy-handed policies, from the confiscation of church property to the violent closing of schools and libraries. However, it also shows their transient nature, for after 1905, they were revoked, denounced as ill-guided, and replaced with policies aimed at restoring the symbiotic relationship of old.

Traditional scholarship on empires rarely uses ‘minorities’ as an analytical term, not least because it understands the emergence of ‘majority’ societies as tied to the nation-state. By contrast, Riegg employs this term consistently, not only to reflect that Armenians shared a non-dominant minority experience with other groups (while being courted and protected by the centre), but also to highlight the violent constraints they felt from the 1880s, when St. Petersburg pushed for administrative and cultural homogenisation. As these findings differ from recent literature that explains the usefulness of the ‘minority’ term at least partially in terms of the growing inclusion and moves towards imperial ‘citizenship’ (grazhdanstvennost’) after the Great Reforms1, Riegg certainly contributes to a topical debate.

His book also helps to deconstruct the idea of monolithic Russian authorities. The ministers rarely agreed on anything, the viceroys and high commissioners in the Caucasus pursued independent agendas, and while the tsars had the final say, they could also be persuaded. Riegg shows that a great diversity of positions, attitudes and policies coexisted at all times. Some Armenians, including heads of the Church, came to exert remarkable influence. Overall, the ingenious combination of domestic and foreign policy analysis leads Riegg to conclude that the Russo-Armenian project of empire-building was messy and unequal, but also deeply pragmatic and “decidedly symbiotic” (p. 238). Indeed, his study may help to erode the ‘crisis paradigm’ prevailing in narratives of Russian imperial ties with non-Russian subjects, yet the case for symbiosis would be even more persuasive if it had included more Armenian voices.

There are drawbacks. First, some relevant literature has not received sufficient attention. In the 1980s, Andreas Kappeler expounded the idea of the Russian Empire treating its non-Russian subjects with changeable, unsystematic policies and ‘pragmatic flexibility’ (emphasising tolerance and co-optation). Would Riegg confirm or qualify Kappeler’s ideas? Why does he briefly reference Onur Önol’s monograph “The Tsar’s Armenians” (2017), focusing on the period 1903–1914, but does not engage with its overall argument (that the Russian policy towards Armenians emerged in deliberations between St. Petersburg and Tiflis)? Second, on occasion Riegg’s conclusions seem at odds with his chapters. That eight decades of fruitful dialogue in Russo-Armenian relations were followed by three decades of distrust and tension (p. 238) is only partially supported by the material (which is far more nuanced); similarly, that Armenians in the 1870s had as many reasons to seek Russian patronage as to fear its imperial grip (p. 160) does not strike me as the message of the preceding pages (which mention fear more as an afterthought).

Third, the book shows that there were no ‘nationalities policies’ as such, but rather a set of disparate decrees and proposals. Riegg could have avoided this overused term. Sure, in the given case the state presumably targeted ‘Armenians’ (whereas much legislation on Tatars actually spoke of ‘Muslims’). Still, many laws and regulations concerning Armenians were directed at specific territories (and not applicable to all Armenians) while many general laws dramatically affected Armenian lives. Certainly by the reform era, laws tended to be written in universalist language, with only some groups, such as the Jews, sometimes excluded in footnotes. In fact, a greater sensitivity towards the policies of inclusion in the reform era would not have gone amiss as they counterbalanced the move from cooperation to confrontation highlighted in the book.

Overall, however, this book has advanced the field immensely and will be referenced for years to come.

1 Paul W. Werth, What is a “Minority” in an Imperial Formation?, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 41:3 (2021), pp. 325–331; and Stefan B. Kirmse, The Lawful Empire, Cambridge 2019.

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