The Saga of Russian Siberia


A review of Enlightening the Land of Midnight: Peter Slovtsov, Ivan Kalashnikov, and the Saga of Russian Siberia, by Mark A. Soderstrom.

Mark Soderstrom offers a much needed reassessment of the relationship between Russia’s educated society and the tsarist regime in the first half of the nineteenth century. He challenges the prevalence of an “alienated educated elite,” a term historians such as Marc Raeff have used to refer to nobles who moved to the countryside to escape the immediate control of the center. Recent scholarly work such as that of John Randolph suggests that indeed, educated society did not cut itself off from the state. Rather, it used the domestic arena to exercise the imperial regime’s values of progress, patriotism, and education. Soderstrom shows how some members of the educated elite not only attributed Russia’s successful “enlightenment” to the paternal guidance of the tsarist regime, but moreover, derived their own sense of identity through and in relation to state service. Using the biographies of two Siberian statesmen, Peter Andreevich Slovtsov (1767-1843) and Ivan Timofeevich Kalashnikov (1797-1863), Soderstrom deftly weaves the story of Russia’s incorporation and development of Siberia into broader narratives of imperial expansion, the rise of bureaucracy, evolving conceptions of selfhood, educational reforms, and the intersecting – and sometimes conflicting – nature of private and public lives for Russia’s statesmen.

As framed in his introduction, the core of Soderstrom’s study is an analysis of how enlightenment ideas played out in tsarist Russia. Methodologically, Soderstrom casts the empire as an agent in Russia’s enlightenment project, the “great affair” of bringing order, religion, education, and tsarist values to the “dark” land and peoples of Siberia (pp. 16-17). The study is engaging and highly readable due to Soderstrom structuring his arguments around the lives of Slovstov and Kalashnikov. Slovstov was a Siberian priest’s son who parlayed his education into positions as a clergyman, teacher, and finally, civil servant. In 1815 Kalashnikov began working as Slovstov’s copyist in Irkutsk; Slovstov adopted him as a protégé and mentored Kalashnikov for the rest of his life. Both were writers who attempted to insert their own lives into Russia’s historical saga. Soderstrom harnesses both their published works and their personal correspondence as evidence for how each framed himself as an “enlightened man” who owed his upward social mobility and escape from the darkness of Siberia to the tsarist state’s autocratic rule. While some historians have used the examples of Siberia’s first historian (Slovtsov) and novelist (Kalashnikov) as precursors to Siberian regionalism, Soderstrom explains that the men protested ignorance, not autocracy. Slovstov and Kalashnikov portrayed state intervention as essential for Russia’s continued progress, and endorsed a particularly heavy-handed approach in Siberia as the empire’s most disordered, uneducated, and underdeveloped site. Soderstrom provides the disclaimer that these two statesmen were hardly representative of every Siberian or government official. However, he argues persuasively for using Slovtsov and Kalashnikov as “tour guides” into the social, administrative, and intellectual dynamics of Imperial Russia.

In Chapter 1, Soderstrom introduces Slovstov and describes his ascent from a poor Siberian village to St. Petersburg, set against the background of Siberia’s simultaneous development. Slovstov came from a family of Orthodox priests, reprimanded more than once by Church authorities for bad behavior. As Soderstrom explains, through the eighteenth century village priests often inherited their positions and did not complete formal training. Towards the end of the century, however, the state, in its attempt to better root Orthodoxy (and thus, tsarist values) in Siberian Russians, implemented a new system of required schooling for aspiring priests. Additionally, the government transformed Tobol’sk into an orderly city, with roads, agriculture, and schools. Later Slovstov would reflect in his history of Russia’s east on how the tsarist state “created” Siberia. He located the beginning of Siberian history with the infiltration of early Russian industrialists and settlers, a group he claimed as his ancestors. As Soderstrom suggests, Slovtsov’s positivist account of the Russian rule of Siberia was informed largely by his early experience of upward social mobility afforded by the central government’s intervention in the lives of Siberian villagers.

Chapter 2 traces Slovstov’s meteoric rise and fall in Petersburg. In 1788 Slovtsov left for the seminary, where he befriended Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranskii, who would go on to become the Governor-General of Siberia. Soderstrom emphasizes how Slovtsov’s sense of being called to serve the Church paralleled his later call to state service. Receiving formal training in critical thought, Slovtsov returned to Tobol’sk as a teacher in 1792.  The following year he found himself in trouble with the tsarist administrators when he delivered a sermon accusing Russia’s elite of privileging their own wealth above the general well-being of society. He encouraged his congregation to vocalize their needs and offered Peter the Great as an exemplary ruler who reigned in the Russian nobility. He was arrested in 1794 and the tsar exiled him to Valaam Monastery. However, his old friend Speranskii petitioned for Slovtsov to win a place in the General Procurator’s chancellery; Slovtsov accepted the job and continued to work for the government for the next 35 years. Still, further scandal followed Slovtsov. Despite producing a much-lauded report on commerce in the Black Sea, Slovtsov was arrested in 1808 for his connection to a bribery scandal within the Ministry of Commerce. However, the government was convinced of Slovtsov’s talent and sent him to work in the chancellery of the Governor-General of Siberia. Soderstrom underscores that while Slovtsov indeed acted as a critic of Catherine II’s rule, he ultimately used state service to effectively redeem and reinvent himself as an enlightened man and agent of empire. Coming full circle, Slovtsov’s return to Siberia and subsequent service in its government illustrates how his sense of self was informed by a corresponding loyalty to God and tsar.

Chapter 3 further develops how Slovtsov perceived himself as a missionary serving multiple, but intertwined interests, as the eventual inspector of Siberia’s schools. These interests included the development of Siberia’s administration, educational system, and religious values. This chapter also underscores the sophisticated nature of Soderstrom’s biographical approach; he uses the relationship between Kalashnikov and Slovstov to trace how state service afforded social mobility. Kalashnikov saw Slovtsov as, “the ultimate chinovnik [government official], a selfless enlightener” (p. 163). Kalashnikov took personal and professional cues from his mentor, agreeing that a good state servitor played three essential roles: nachal’nik (chief), nastavnik (mentor), and namestnik (reliable deputy). Kalashnikov integrated memories of his father’s successful tenure in Irkutsk’s Treasury Chamber into his own experiences as a government official, concurring with Slovtsov that the paternal, sometimes tyrannical, state’s intervention in Siberia was necessary to transform the land and the lives of those living in it. This chapter arguably covers the most ground, detailing young Kalashnikov’s life, the parallels between his father and Slovtsov’s rise as chinovniki, as well as the administrative squabbles that plagued Irkutsk’s school system. Soderstrom highlights a theme yet to be adequately explored in Russian historiography: the effects of the central government yielding authority to provincial administrators on the tsarist regime’s authoritarian rule. He suggests that spaces of autonomy existed within the empire, complicating the picture of tsarist absolutism.

The last chapter witnesses Slovtsov’s ultimate embrace of his life as a civil servant in Siberia. The first years of his post were marked by repeated appeals to the tsar to be returned to Petersburg. In 1819 Speranskii became Governor-General of Siberia and orchestrated such a return, only to have Slovstov turn down the offer. Over time Slovtsov came to perceive his role in Russia’s saga of enlightenment as grounded in Siberia. Through his descriptions of Slovtsov’s efforts to reform and expand the Siberian school system, Soderstrom offers insight into how the tsarist regime used schools as an empire-building tool. This chapter also details the friendship and twenty-five year correspondence between Slovtsov and Kalashnikov, the latter of whom went on to realize young Slovtsov’s ambitions as a Petersburg chinovnik. Kalashnikov’s escape from Siberia represented for both men the power of the state to enlighten and raise up Siberia’s people from darkness. Soderstrom explains, “These were men for whom the notion of a gulf between ‘educated society’ and ‘the state’ was folly. They were convinced that Russia’s future depended on the cultivation of enlightened men – that is, chinovniki like themselves…”(p. 223). Kalashnikov made a name for himself quickly, but Slovtsov cautioned his pupil not to let the accolades go to his head. Slovtsov encouraged Kalashnikov to remember enlightened men saw themselves as servants of the state, doing their duty for the good of the empire, rather than for personal gain. This chapter makes salient how the previous sections, touching on diverse places and people, are connected in Soderstrom’s broader argument.

Based on the conclusions he outlines in his epilogue, Soderstrom’s work stands to make two significant contributions to historiography. First, he decisively dispels the notion of Slovtsov, Kalashnikov, and similar figures, as early Siberian regionalists who were critical of the tsarist regime’s intervention in the periphery. On the contrary, these men recognized, appreciated, and glorified the state as an agent of enlightenment for “dark” lands and peoples. Second, Soderstrom persuasively argues that not all members of the educated elite were alienated from the state. Rather, many chinovniki internalized their roles as missionaries ordained by God and tsar to spread the gospel of empire. He suggests that longstanding historiographical focus on seeking the roots of 1917 has obscured interpretations of the first half of the nineteenth century, a period which itself has much to tell us about the “roots of modern Russia in its empire” (p. 342). One hopes that this work is published as a monograph soon; it is an exceptional example of how a micro-level study can illuminate some of history’s broadest themes.

Jessica Peyton-Roberts
PhD Candidate
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Arizona State University

Primary Sources

Russian State Historical Archive (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv)
State Archive in Tobol’sk (Godudarstvennyi arkhiv v g. Tobol’ske)
Institute of Russian Literature, Pushkin House (Institut russkoi literatury, Pushkinskii Dom)
National Archive of the Republic of Tatarstan (National’nyi Arkhiv Respubliki Tatarstan)
State Archive of Irkutsk Oblast (Godudarstvennyi arkhiv Irkustskoi oblasti)

Dissertation Information

The Ohio State University. 2011. 373 pp. Primary Advisor: Nicholas B. Breyfogle.


Image: “Perspekt Goroda Tobolska c vostochnoi storoni” (View of the City of Tobolsk from the Eastern Side, 1750). Library of Congress Global Gateway.

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