Vladivostok via Singapore: Mapping the Indian Ocean dimension of the 19th-century Russian Empire
“Gusev was looking at the little window and was not listening. A boat was swaying on the transparent, soft, turquoise water all bathed in hot, dazzling sunshine. In it there were naked Chinamen holding up cages with canaries and calling out: ‘It sings, it sings!’”
– Anton Chekhov, ‘Gusev’
Anton Chekhov’s short story ‘Gusev’ recounts the story of a soldier returning home from one of Russia’s Pacific outposts after five destitute years of service in the colonies. Compelling and melancholy like Chekhov’s writing often is, the story sketches the portrait of a man detached from society and displaced from home by the global circuits of empire, like a canary in a cage. Strikingly, the story also draws the reader’s attention to an underappreciated – indeed, peripheral – facet of Russia’s imperial geography: its oceanic dimension. For a time, the Indian Ocean route was one of the empire’s key traffic arteries, yet its role has often been overshadowed in the scholarship by the later, iconic overland trans-Siberian railway.
Gusev returns home on a steamship that calls at Chinese ports – the unnamed harbour of the quote is perhaps Hong Kong – before travelling through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and finally touching home at Odessa. The journey closely mirrors, and was presumably inspired by, Chekhov’s own return voyage from the Far East in 1890. In his letters, Chekhov describes a burial at sea near Singapore that closely resembles the final scene of the story, as noted by his biographer Henri Troyat. Like Gusev’s, Chekhov’s travels were also related to the business of empire – the purpose of his visit was to investigate conditions at the infamous penal colony of Sakhalin, on which he later wrote the famously scathingly critical report, Sakhalin Island (1891–3).
As Chekhov was making his way home in late 1890, a more princely representative of empire was approaching in the opposite direction: the tsesarevich Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (future Tsar Nicholas II) embarking on a tour of the Indian Ocean. As one might expect, his journey was full of pomp and imperial ceremony as the prince was fêted by British colonial authorities in India and Ceylon, by the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and the King of Siam, among other luminaries. The trip, a mix of ceremonial diplomacy and pleasure-seeking tourism, including tiger-hunting in India and volcano-climbing on Java, certainly caught the attention of the press around the Indian Ocean. Local papers trailed his movements and changing plans from week to week, mixed with occasional editorial complaints over the exorbitant costs of the planned receptions.
The crown prince Nicholas and his retinue posing with hunting gear in Madras, India. From Esper Ukhtomsky’s account of the tour, Путешествие на Восток Его Императорского Высочества государя наследника цесаревича, 1890-1891 (St. Petersburg, 1893–1897). Wikimedia Commons.
These three voyages – one of them fictional – provide something of a cross-section of the layers of traffic, from labour migration to educated professionals to imperial nobility, that the Russian Empire created in the Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Yet the Ocean is largely absent from conventional conceptions of Russia’s geographical reach, an omission perhaps explained by the Pacific coast’s seemingly indisputably solid connection to the heart of the empire through the Eurasian landmass. Yet the colonisation of Siberia was a discontinuous process slowed down by the region’s riverine geography, and for a significant period the Indian Ocean route provided the best and easiest connection between the western and eastern ends of the empire. This, of course, was in addition to the empire’s Pacific dimension that until 1867 reached across to Alaska.
The competition between land-based and maritime connections is embedded in the travels of Chekhov and the tsesarevich. Chekhov had arrived in Sakhalin overland through Siberia, but by the end of his work there was so exhausted by the demands of colonial life that he preferred the relatively luxurious steamer with its sightseeing opportunities – the ‘exquisite bay’ of Hong Kong, the ‘earthly Paradise’ of Ceylon – on the way back. The prince’s journey, on the other hand, was carefully timed to climax with the ceremonial opening of the works on the trans-Siberian railway upon his arrival in Vladivostok. A logistical imperative of colonisation and an imperial statement of intent, the railway soon displaced the Indian Ocean as the main thoroughfare to the Pacific, leading to the latter’s peripheral role in our present-day imagination of Russian history.
The trans-Siberian railway replaced the Indian Ocean as the main throughfare to the Russian Pacific around the turn of the century. A plan of the proposed connection published in 1897 by the Société de Géographie de Paris. Gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.
For the decades between the construction of the Suez Canal and the establishment of the trans-Siberian railway connection, however, the Indian Ocean played an important role in shaping Russia’s imperial expansion. An observer on Java wrote back to a Finnish newspaper in 1870 – that is, immediately after the Suez Canal’s opening in 1869 – about the significant increase in the Amur trade observable in the ships passing the Sunda Strait. A Batavia paper from around the same time reports on the “very many” Finns that were settling in the Russian Pacific. Odessa eventually turned into a choke point for this traffic, with a report from 1886 lamenting on the thousands of convicts and emigrants crowding in the city waiting for their passage.
A group of Finnish emigrants making the maritime journey from Helsinki to Russian Amur in Eastern Siberia in 1868, photographed by Carl Johan Schoultz in Bremerhaven, Germany. Finnish Heritage Agency.
Historiography has tended to ignore these migrations, overshadowed by the much greater flows facilitated by the railway from around the turn of the century. Yet proper – and properly contextualised – acknowledgment of the importance of this shipping traffic allows a potentially fruitful reinterpretation of some facets of Russian imperial history. For one, it challenges the by now conventional division in imperial historiography between continental, land-based empires on the one hand and seafaring, maritime ones on the other. Russia’s colonial possessions may have been – mostly – territorially contiguous, but the empire was still logistically and economically dependent on maritime connections. For migration to Amur, it was Odessa that provided the main outlet, not the railway terminus of Moscow.
Secondly, a focus on the Suez-Singapore oceanic route allows historians to include Russia in a connective analysis of European imperialism in the Indian Ocean region, drawing on the approaches of global history. For example, it highlights the entanglement of Russia’s migration routes with those of other European powers. An illustrative article published in 1878 tells the story of a man from Finland’s coastal Ostrobothnia region running away from his debtors, first finding employment on a ship in ‘the East Indies’ – here presumably referring to the British Straits Settlements and/or the Dutch East Indies – before getting left behind in a Singapore hospital. From there he got on a Finnish steamer heading to Amur and lived in the Russian colony for a while, then under the rule of a Finnish-born governor. Finally, having settled his debts, the unnamed migrant found his way to ‘New Holland’, that is, Australia where he seemingly stayed.
The story – this time a real one, or at least based on a true story – suggests a competitive migration scene in the mid-nineteenth-century Indian Ocean region. This web of connections had Singapore as its major node, connecting the western and eastern peripheries of the Russian Empire not merely to each other but also to a region encompassing South and Southeast Asia and Australasia, as well as the wider global circuits of empire. Moreover, by decentring Russian imperial history from the Eurasian landmass and focusing on the vibrancy of the littoral, it calls to question the very notion of ‘peripheries’ and brings into view flows and interactions that have become neglected by convention.
A careful reading of this story – of all the stories recounted above – signals toward a potentially fruitful change of perspective, an alternative. What if we tried seeing Russia from the sea; tried listening more to its maritime actors and its many subjects carried across oceans? What would we see and hear, and whose story would emerge next?
Mikko Toivanen is a historian of colonial Southeast Asia and the global cultures of imperialism. Having defended his PhD at the European University Institute in 2019, he is currently a Research Fellow at the Munich Centre for Global History (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität), where his postdoctoral project examines urban culture and developing notions of public space in late-nineteenth-century Singapore and Batavia. He can be found on Twitter at @aruinedmap.