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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Mapmakers in the Baltic Provinces of the Russian Empire

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

For the final instalment of our Baltic series, we turn to Peripheral Histories? editor Catherine Gibson for insight into the visual and spatial history of nationhood in the Russian Empire’s Baltic provinces. Catherine’s award-winning first monograph Geographies of Nationhood: Cartography, Science, and Society in the Russian Imperial Baltic (Oxford University Press, 2022) traces the geographical imagination of national territories in the Baltic region by examining the history of ethnographic cartography in the late Russian Empire. In this author interview with fellow Peripheral Histories? editor Siobhán Hearne, Catherine discusses knowledge production, cartographic literacy, and national consciousness in the late imperial Baltic.


PH: Geographies of Nationhood explores the rapid rise in ethnographic mapmaking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the broader reverberations of this trend in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire. Why was ethnographic cartography on the rise in your period of study and what was its contribution to the ‘Baltic question’?


The second half of the nineteenth century saw a massive rise in the collection of statistical data, which was accompanied by discussions among statisticians of how to present it, analyse it, and communicate it using different forms of data visualisation. In this context, ethnographic maps garnered considerable attention from intellectuals, imperial authorities, and nationalist activists as a way of exploring the relationship between territory and different visions of nationhood. Thematic maps were not a neutral medium for representing information about the world but, as Susan Schulten has argued in the case of North America, became increasingly argumentative as the nineteenth century progressed.[i] Mapmakers produced maps to visualise various “questions” in society and, in some cases, also hint at potential solutions.


The so-called “Baltic Question” was one such question which garnered attention from mapmakers. The particularities of imperial rule in Baltic provinces, which allowed the region’s German-speaking nobles and landlords to retain autonomy over religion, courts, trade, commerce, and land ownership and management, created a dilemma for Russian intellectuals. On the one hand, the Baltic provinces were frequently perceived as “our window to the West”; on the other hand, the region came to be regarded as standing apart from the empire proper and the loyalty of the region’s ruling German-speaking Lutheran landowners was increasingly called into question. In the 1870s, mapmakers such as Aleksandr Rittikh produced ethnographic and religious maps of the Baltic provinces to draw attention to the potentially destabilising influence of borderland populations. Rittikh used these maps as supporting evidence for arguments circulating in the press about the need to more closely integrate these provinces into the empire, anticipating the so-called “Russification” policies which would be implemented in the 1880s.



Aleksandr Rittikh’s Ethnographic Map of the Baltic Territory (1873).

Source: Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta Pribaltiiskago kraia (St. Petersburg: Kartograficheskoe zavedenie A. Il’ina,1873). National Library of Estonia Digital Archive (DIGAR).


PH: In the book, you pay particular attention to the collaborative nature of mapmaking, expanding the analysis beyond the perspectives of professional cartographers working within academic and military institutions to explore a wide range of local voices and ‘invisible hands’ that were involved in the production of maps. What does this expansive lens help to reveal about the meaning(s) of maps and the social context of their production within Baltic society?


One of the arguments I wanted to emphasise in the book was that we can only understand the wider social significance of cartographic print culture through paying attention to the production, circulation, consumption, and reception of maps. By focusing mainly on the activities of intellectuals and military personnel, groups such as provincial bureaucrats, women, and the lower classes have often been marginalised from histories of mapmaking in imperial Russia.


For this reason, I deliberately choose to use the term “mapmaker” rather than “cartographer” in the book to help us think more broadly about the people who engaged in mapmaking in a variety of different social spaces and contexts. This theme comes to the fore in the account of the trials and tribulations of Aleksandr Sementovskii, secretary of the Vitebsk Provincial Statistical Committee, during the process of making the Ethnographic Map of Vitebsk Province (1872). Sementovskii’s fraught correspondence with the publisher and printers in St Petersburg contracted to print the map reveal the immense logistical financial and technological difficulties of making a map. Mapmakers’ grand visions were often tempered by the practical challenges they faced trying to gather data or securing funding to realise their projects.


Another perspective is offered by the figure of Martha Bielenstein, a pastor’s daughter from rural Kurland province and the main caregiver for her elderly parents, who assisted her blind father with the compilation of an atlas of the Latvian language area in the 1890s. Her story reveals how, during a period often associated with the increasing professionalisation of science, mapmaking in the late nineteenth century imperial provinces continued to take place in domestic spaces and how cartographic labour was deeply intertwined with gender roles within the family.[ii]


PH: Ethnographic maps could be considered instruments of imperial knowledge production that were used to legitimise territorial conquest and make the Empire’s subjects more legible to officialdom, but mapmakers were unable to control how readers interpreted their work. Which groups were able to read and use maps at this time?


At the end of the nineteenth century the Baltic provinces had the highest literacy rates in the Russian Empire. By 1897, a staggering 95% of the adult population of Estland province and 92% in Livland could read. One of the questions I was curious to explore was the extent to which cartographic literacy also developed during this period. The fragmentary evidence that we have suggests that maps became common objects of everyday visual and material culture. Newspapers frequently published maps, as well as advertisements notifying readers of the latest maps and atlases available in bookstores. Globes and wall maps were common centrepieces in turn-of-the-century classrooms, and geography textbooks guided pupils through lessons on how to read maps and how to produce maps themselves. At the same time, educational reforms continued to bemoan the poor state of geographical knowledge among the general populace, so we have to be careful about overestimating their impact.



Pupils at Peningi village parish school in Estland province in 1896.

Source: Vallakool Peningil, Harju-Jaanis, AM _ 13741:342 F 11684:168. Eesti Ajaloomuuseum SA.


The question you raise about the discrepancies between mapmakers’ intentions and readers’ interpretations is a really important one. This issue becomes readily apparent in reviews of maps, which could often be very scathing of mapmakers’ efforts, from pointing out errors in the sources of data they used to criticising the poor quality of the printing. One example that I write about concerns the case of Matīss Siliņš, a prolific producer of Latvian-language maps in Riga in the 1890s. Siliņš published his maps of the Latvian territory as appendices to popular calendars and perceived maps as instruments of public education to raise awareness among his Latvian readership about the physical and human geography of their homeland. By contrast, reviewers were sometimes critical and complained that too much information was crammed onto the maps making them almost illegible, and they would have rather preferred a map that was aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. These kinds of sources raise important questions about which criteria were used by individuals in different social and political contexts to judge whether a map was “good” or “bad”, and how these value judgements about what makes a “good map” changed across the long nineteenth century.


Matīss Siliņš’s Map of Latvia (1890).

Source: Matīss Siliņš, Latvijas karte (Kurzeme līdz ar Vidzemes un Vitebskas guberņu latviešu daļu) (Riga: M. Siliņš, A. V. Grotusa litogrāfija, 1890). National Library of Latvia.


PH: How important was the development of cartographic literacy to fostering national consciousness and ethnolinguistic identities in the Baltic provinces? And how far were ethnographic maps used by various groups to challenge narratives of imperialism or present alternative ways for thinking about the Baltic region?


Maps attune us to how concepts of nationhood were examined across different scales, perspectives which have often been rendered invisible to us in mainstream national accounts of the region’s history focusing on the cartographic construction of national territories. Some mapmakers approached ethnolinguistic mapmaking as a way of recording small, regional linguistic groups under threat of assimilation, such as Carl von Russwurm who mapped coastal Swedish-speakers on the islands of Estland province. Others, such as physician Bernhard Körber, saw nationality as linked to urban questions in the context of rapidly growing multiethnic cities, urban to rural migration, and socioeconomic inequalities. Others took a more expansive vision, such as Matīss Siliņš’s map Map of Asia depicting Latvian settlements across the Russian Empire and migration to North and South America at the turn of the twentieth century.


When it comes to assessing the role of maps in fostering national consciousness, I argue that we can’t draw conclusions about the impact of maps without examining sources that tell us how the map circulated and its reception, sources which can be hard to find. I illustrate this through the contrasting cases of two mapmakers who made maps of the Latvian ethnolinguistic territories in the 1890s, during a period when ideas about Latvian nationalism were coalescing, but whose maps tell us very different stories about the role of maps in society. August Bielenstein was a Baltic German, Lutheran pastor from Kurland province who, together with the help of his daughter and sons, produced a monumental ethnolinguistic and historical atlas Latvian language territory in the 1890s. While the atlas was innovative from a perspective of linguistic mapping, gaining Bielenstein international renown for first using isogloss lines to mark geographical boundaries between dialects, the atlas had limited impact on Baltic region itself. The atlas only produced in a small print run of 500 copies, was printed in German, and mainly found an audience among academicians. By contrast, the Latvian-language maps by the aforementioned Matīss Siliņš were printed in thousands of copies and reached a much wider audience in Kurland and Livland provinces, were widely reviewed and cited, and yet appear to have had little demonstrable impact outside of the Baltic provinces.



Newspaper advertisement for Matīss Siliņš’s calendar Atbalss and supplementary map.

Source: Baltijas Vestnesis, Nr 261, 17.11.1889.


PH: The diverse ethnolinguistic composition of the Baltic provinces complicated the process of drawing state borders following the collapse of tsarist autocracy and establishment of the independent nations of Estonia and Latvia. Could you give us an example of a challenge that emerged during Estonian-Latvian border making process?


The Estonian-Latvian Boundary Commission was established in 1919, following the Paris Peace Conference, to demarcate the boundary between the newly independent states of Estonia and Latvia. Both governments sought to draw state borders on “ethnographic principles”, yet, as you point out, the diverse ethnolinguistic composition of the inhabitants of the border region meant that it was not a straightforward process. In attempting to solve the dispute, the Boundary Commission produced dozens of ethnographic maps to analyse the distribution of different ethnolinguistic groups. Unlike earlier ethnographic maps, the maps made by the Boundary Commission were on a much larger scale, and they classified individual households and farmsteads on the basis of nationality.


At the same time, tensions were running high not only in the bilateral negotiations between Estonian and Latvian representatives to the Boundary Commission, but also emerged between the Boundary Commission the inhabitants of the border region themselves. The Boundary Commission received dozens of petitions from the local population protesting the location of the proposed border. Some also included hand-drawn maps to show how the proposed border would harm their livelihoods by restricting access to their farmlands or key natural resources such as rivers or forests. In the context of interwar boundary-making, ethnographic mapmaking became a tool for border inhabitants to challenge the authorities and attempt to make their voices heard in the bordering process.



Catherine Gibson is a lecturer in East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Tartu. Her research has focused on the history of borders, language politics, and science in the Russian Empire in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the Baltic provinces. She is author of Geographies of Nationhood: Cartography, Science, and Society in the Russian Imperial Baltic (Oxford University Press, 2022), which was awarded the 2023 Baltic Geopolitics Network Publication Prize.


[i] Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: Chicago University Press, p.2. Mapmakers produced maps to visualise various “questions” in society and, in some cases, also hint at potential solutions.


[ii] Further information about Martha Bielenstein can be found here: Catherine Gibson, “Martha Luise Sophie Bielenstein (1861–1938): Map of ‘The Latvian Language Area’ (1892).” In: Women in the History of Science: A Sourcebook, edited by Hannah Wills, Sadie Harrison, Erika Jones, Farrah Lawrence-Mackey and Rebecca Martin, pp. 198–201. London: UCL Press, 2023.

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