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Response to Review of The Russian Empire 1450-1801

I am honored by Orel Beilinson’s appreciative review of my book. I am particularly gratified that he identifies virtually all of the key themes that I had tried to convey in the work, particularly the ‘empire of difference’ model. Tolerating diversity as a strategy of imperial governance was crucial to the success of the Russian Empire, and endured well into the 19th century; one might even say it was resurrected in the Stalinist nationalities policy. I would like, however, to underscore a theme that runs through the book as a complement to the ‘empire of difference’ model; it is perhaps the flip side of that model, in fact. That is my argument that crucial to the success of the state was its identification of a very limited range of activities that it reserved for its central control.

In Russia’s case, these imperatives were only three: monopolization of the means of violence (military forces), mobilization of resources (human and material) and the criminal justice including judicial violence. Below those key areas, ‘difference’ was tolerated (local elites, religions, petty criminal law, etc.). Thus, as Professor Beilinson notes, I included in the book two matching chapters on the arenas in which the state ‘wielded its power’ in pursuit of these goals, in the period before 1700 and in the eighteenth century. Russia’s early modern rulers accomplished these goals by single-mindedly and doggedly pursuing centralization. They created an empire-wide bureaucracy with a single bureaucratic language, paperwork and criminal law; they never sold venalities, never let resources escape central control. The sphere of centralization was narrow, but crucially important to providing the resources and control that the state needed to survive in such adverse geographical conditions. These two strategies – obsessive control of a narrow range of state prerogatives and toleration of a panoply of multi-ethnic, multi-religious difference – constituted the skeleton on which the empire was constructed. I am most grateful to Orel Beilinson for such a comprehensive analysis of my work; an author could not ask for more.