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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

RESEARCH IN PROGRESS: A Peripheral Borderland

RESEARCH IN PROGRESS: A Peripheral Borderland: Perm’ Province Through the Eyes of Travel Writers in the Long Nineteenth Century

Jonathan Rowson

In an 1835 letter, Alexander Herzen claimed that Perm’ ‘terrified’ him. The poor state of the roads and the sight of penal colonies marching towards Siberia filled his soul ‘with coldness and dread’ [1]. I uncovered these unflattering comments whilst conducting preliminary research for my PhD thesis on migration networks in Perm’ province in the late-Tsarist period (1890-1914). In this era, Perm’ province (Permskaia guberniia) was the size of present-day Poland and included the now-separate Sverdlovsk Region (Sverdlovskaia oblast’). Straddling both sides of the Ural Mountains, Perm’ province occupied a unique location on the border between Russia and Siberia. Prior to conducting my overseas fieldwork in Perm’, Ekaterinburg, and Nizhnii Tagil (due to be undertaken in 2017/2018), travel writing has been an invaluable source, providing key insights into the living and working conditions of Perm’’s population. Perm’ province was one of the most illiterate provinces in late-Tsarist Russia, and the overwhelming majority of available archival sources are written by local government (zemstvo) officials. Replete with conversation excerpts with peasants, post-masters, and policemen, these travelogues, authored by Russian, British, German, and French travellers, are incredibly rich with detail, revealing key insights into the experiences of visitors to Perm’ and their interlocutors.

Landscape of Perm’, taken 1885 by George Kennan.

The authors of these texts come from a multitude of backgrounds. Non-Russian visitors to Perm’ included geologists, clergymen, journalists, and explorers, whilst Russian writers ranged from government officials to political critics. It is possible to read many of these texts as travel writing accounts, as many authors provide detailed descriptions of their travel, accommodation, board, and interaction with Perm’’s residents. Stylistically, they also utilise linear chronologies frequently associated with traditional travel writing. Nationality and status appear to play a major role in influencing these narratives, in part due to their effect on the travel experience of the writer. Travelling to and through Russia was expensive, and non-Russian travellers were often much wealthier than their Russian counterparts, enabling them to hire servants for their journeys which were undertaken in the most comfortable carriages available. Non-Russian travellers were also able to acquire what one commentator labelled the ‘carte blanche’, an official document entitling the traveller to the immediate procurement of horses at a fixed price, and comfortable food and board in post-houses along the major transport routes [2]. Most frequently, Russian travellers made their journeys in dirty, overcrowded boats on Perm’’s waterways, frozen for five months of the year, or on foot along the Great Siberian Highway.

A selection of nineteenth-century English language accounts of travels in Russia (Photo by Jonathan Rowson)

Non-Russian travellers were also frequently invited to stay at the mansions of Perm’ province’s wealthy industrialists. Writers such as George Witlam Atkinson and Impey Murchison documented ‘hospitable Uralian custom’, detailing the food, wine, and champagne consumed [3]. On the other hand, many Russian travellers associated with Perm’’s lower classes. In particular, Vasilii Nemirovich-Danchenko spends much of his book Kama i Ural’ transcribing his conversations with Perm’’s peasantry, recording poverty, starvation and disease. This juxtaposition is most profound in discussions of Ekaterinburg, as whilst non-Russian visitors were wowed by this ‘picturesque imitation of Hamburg’, Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote of the ‘disastrous appearance’ of Ekaterinburg’s workers, who looked like they had ‘just left the typhoid hospital’ [4]. Other Russian critical writers also lambast the province’s industrial stagnation and poor weather, resulting in Pavel Mel’nikov-Pecherskii calling Perm’ ‘so morose; so gloomy’ [5].

Despite these differences, there are a number of shared tropes observable in the accounts of both Russian and non-Russian travellers. The first of these sees Perm’ as a borderland. Perm’ is the gateway to Siberia, and British writers in particular detail their excitement of crossing the Ural Mountains, or from Europe into Asia. Consequently, Perm’ province, and its people, are seen to possess both European and Asiatic qualities, mirroring nineteenth-century discussions of Russia as a whole. Citing Lord Curzon, former British vice-consul in Ekaterinburg, Thomas Preston, argued that ‘Russia is no wise European; nor is she wholly Asiatic’ [6]. Other authors, such as George Kennan, locate Russia’s border with Siberia on Perm’’s eastern provincial border with Tobol’sk province. The theorisation of Perm’’s location as a borderland reinforces its position as a zone of transit. For the vast majority of authors, Perm’ province was not their primary destination. Perm’ province merely lay on the route to the more remote, and therefore more desirable, locations of Siberia, Central Asia, or China. Under pressure from sponsors, patrons and their paying audiences, travellers and prison documenters such as Harry de Windt sought to travel beyond Perm’. The Ural Mountains were not Perm’ province’s only border.

Drawing by George Witlam Atkinson of his travelling party taking tea in the Ural Mountains. Source: Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia (London, 1858), p. 86.

Europe-Asia Obelisk at Pervoural’sk, in the Ural Mountains. Constructed 1837.

The conceptual fluidity of Perm’ province’s borders underscores the second key trope of these texts: Perm’’s association with prison transport. The Europe-Asia obelisk, constructed in 1837 near Pervoural’sk, is commonly considered to be the geographical border between Russia and Siberia. Nemirovich-Danchenko writes of this monument being a ‘terrible place’, referring to the prisoners, or ‘people in chains’, forced to march past it [7]. On the other hand, writing about the political border between Perm’ and Tobol’sk provinces, commonly known as the Pillar of Farewell, George Kennan provides an equally emotive account, accompanied with a harrowing drawing which sensationalises the rather unassuming monument.

George Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System vol. 1 (New York, 1891), p. 53.

Photo cited in article by V. Chebaldin.

Kennan wrote that ‘no other boundary post in the world has witnessed so much human suffering, or been passed by such a multitude of heart-broken people’ [8]. Travel writers in the late-Tsarist period, both Russian and non-Russian, were fascinated by these prisoners, documenting their plight with curiosity, pity, and disdain. Departing from Moscow, prisoners would march through at least four other provinces before reaching Perm’, yet the abstract border between Russia and Siberia serves to give Perm’ province a far greater association with prisoners, documented in both Russian and non-Russian accounts. Consequently, Perm’ province’s location on the periphery of European Russia results in it becoming the site of authors’ theorising on the natural and human differences between Russia and Siberia. The overwhelmingly positive depictions of Perm’ province by non-Russian travellers juxtapose those of Russian writers, who were not received in Ekaterinburg’s mansions by the city’s wealthy industrialists. Yet these competing narratives converge on Perm’’s location at the divide between East and West, which was, and still remains, a great paradox for the Russian state as a whole.

These findings can contribute to discussions beyond my regional case study. They underline the importance of analysing the writer, contextualising their subjectivities and experiences and how these impact their narratives. Paul Smethurst wrote that ‘the eye is no longer a stable site of observation, and secondly, the I is no longer a stable site of reflection and judgement’, and recognising the context and subjectivities lying behind the accounts is crucial [9]. For my research, these accounts are some of the few contemporaneous sources documenting life in Perm’ province which are not state-authored. They are crucially important as historians have noted the frequent unreliability of Tsarist government reports and statistics. Prefacing his 1885 book From Paris to Pekin over Siberian Snows, Victor Meignan assured readers of the ‘truthfulness of these descriptions’, and who is to say that Meignan’s text, with its place within the genre of travel writing, gives any less truthful a depiction of Perm’ province than the reports of the local government official only available in the archives? [10] Archival research remains a rite of passage for doctoral history students, yet a greater, nuanced understanding of historical social realities can be achieved by utilising different methodologies and supplementing traditional archival research with a range of sources located beyond the archive, with travel writing being one of many.

Jonathan Rowson is a first-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the Department of History. His thesis, entitled ‘Out-migration from the Russian village: Perm’ province 1890-1914’, examines migration networks in the late-Tsarist period at a local level, analysing the causes and effects of rural-to-urban migration within Perm’ province, and the growth of rural-to-rural migration from Perm’ province to Siberia. This province-level study is also an attempt at documenting the regional socio-economic idiosyncrasies of late-Tsarist Russia’s industrial and economic modernisation, and how this impacted, and was impacted by, population movement.


[1] A. I. Herzen,’Letter to N. A. Zakharina, 6-12 June 1835’ in A. I. Herzen, Sobranie sochinenii v 30 tomakh, vol. 21 (Moscow, 1961), pp. 42-43. [2] Alan B. Lethbridge, The New Russia: from the White Sea to the Siberian steppe (London, 1915), pp. 10-11. [3] Impey Murchison, The Geology of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains, vol. 1 ‘Geology’ (London, 1845), p. 391; Thomas Witlam Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia: A Narrative of Seven Years’ Explorations and Adventures in Siberia, Mongolia, the Kirghis Steppes, Chinese Tartary and Part of Central Asia (London, 1858). [4] Harry de Windt, Siberia As It Is: With an introduction by her excellency Madame Olga Novikova (London, 1892), pp. 113-114; V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Kama i Ural’: Ocherki i vpechatleniia, Book 11 (St. Petersburg, 1904), p. 308. [5] P. I. Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, Dorozhnye zapiski: Na puti iz Tambovskoi gubernii v Sibir’ (Moscow, 2004 [1839]), p. 27. [6] Thomas Preston, Before the Curtain (London, 1950), p. 3. [7] Nemirovich-Danchenko, Kama i Ural’, Book 11, p. 563. [8] George Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System vol. 1 (New York, 1891), pp. 52-53. [9] Paul Smethurst, ‘Introduction’, in Paul Smethurst & Julia Buehn (eds.), Travel Writing, Form, and Empire: The Poetics and Politics of Mobility (New York & Abingdon), p. 4. [10] Victor Meignan, From Paris to Pekin over Siberian Snows, edited from the French by William Conn (London, 1885), p. xi.

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