Valerie Kivelson

Sovereignty and Indeterminacy in Siberia in the 17th-early 18th Centuries

While European political thinkers debated the meaning of sovereignty, their Russian neighbors wasted little time worrying about theoretical definitions. Instead, the tsar’s sovereignty was unquestioned. Commentators from the early modern period till today often assume that this devotion to tsarist sovereignty translated into centralized autocratic rule and what the late Richard Hellie called a “hypertrophic state.”

As it happened, though, as Muscovite forces spread across Eurasia, their representatives had to work out formulas for conquest and rule on the ground. Maps, a relatively new phenomenon in Russia, forced their makers to address the issue of sovereignty head on, or, more frequently, to punt on the matter. Semen Ul’ianovich Remezov (1642-after 1720) made a mark as the foremost cartographer of Siberia. In his maps, three of which are displayed here, he played with ideas of boundaries, borders, and sovereignty. Boundaries of regions, of plowed fields, and of what we might recognize as ethnic groups feature prominently, while borders between realms are left largely unmarked. Further underscoring the ambiguity of sovereign claims, the maps illustrate the patchiness of tsarist control even within the nominal borders of the empire. Peoples, lands, and even individuals are represented as “pacified” or “unpacified,” or labeled as “tribute-paying”or not. Sovereignty was established only in the reciprocal acknowledgment by all parties. It was not a matter of blanket, unitary control. Hence the astounding commitment, also seen in Remezov’s maps, to identifying each household in Siberia’s vast expanse, whether that of a Russian settler an indigenous reindeer herder, and noting its status within a calculus of submission or resistance.

Map and likeness of the lands of all Siberia, with Tobol’sk and all the towns and settlements and steppes

Chertezh i skhodsvo nalichie zemel’ vsei Sibiri Tobol’skago i vsekh roznykh gradov i zhilishche i stepi

Semen Ul’ianovich Remezov


Courtesy of Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Muzei, Otdel rukopisei, Ermitazhnoe sobranie, f. 256 №346, l. 27.

The so-called “Ethnographic Map” by the self-educated Siberian cartographer, ethnographer, historian, architect, and icon painter is included in the first of the three atlases of Siberia that he composed by order of Tsar Peter I (the Great), in 1697-1698. Oriented to the south, the map shows “the tsardom of China” (in orange) and “the land of Korea” (in yellow) in the upper left-hand corner, and “the land of Great Muscovy” in orange on the right-hand margin. In between, Remezov shows us a multitude of sharply bounded lands and peoples, but he pays little attention to the borders of the tsardom. Sovereignty is indicated only with notations of which people are “pacified,” that is, paying tribute to the tsar, and which are “unpacified.” To the extent that it is a relevant concept, “sovereignty” corresponds to the collection of tribute.

A curious inclusion is “the land of the Golden Horde,” located in dusty pink above Muscovy. The Golden Horde, a vestige of the Mongol empire, subjugated Rus principalities between the 13th and mid-15th centuries, but was long gone by Remezov’s time. Its inclusion invites consideration of the meanings of sovereignty, past and present, in the mapmaker’s view of the world.

The Amur River

Reka Amur

Semen Ul’ianovich Remezov


Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

This map comes from another of Remezov’s manuscript atlases of Siberia, the Khorographicheskaia chertezhnaia kniga or Chorographic Sketchbook. This was the cartographer’s own working sketchbook, composed of about 170 regional maps that tracked the flow of the major Siberian rivers, the branches, sources and outlets of those rivers, and the population points along the way. This particular map, tucked in as a loose sheet of paper into the bound atlas, illustrates the course of the Amur River, established as the border with China by the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. The map, however, makes no mention of a border. The “tsardom of Kitai (China)” is represented by a circular wall at the top of the map, well inside the negotiated border. Remezov indicates guard posts and occasionally notes that a settlement is Chinese.

Sovereignty–its meanings and its implications–is being worked out on the ground in these sketch maps. Remezov notes that the information on this map came from a colonel (polkovnik) from Dauria named Ofanasii Ivanov[ich] Bazdonov.


Semen Ul’ianovich Remezov


Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

This map of a section of the Irtysh River shows Remezov’s (and the state’s) focused attention to tracking down each and every subject or potential subject of the tsar across the vast, sparsely populated Siberian taiga and tundra. The small rectangles indicated with dotted lines represent plowlands farmed by Russian or Ukrainian settlers. The tents represent the “uluses” or household units of indigenous residents.

This particular map is enlivened by details that Remezov, who lived in this region, would have known. Under a peaked yellow rock formation toward the bottom right he has drawn and labeled a collection of bones (unfortunately without explanation). A bit further to the right, he included a line of flowering plants, helpfully labeled to tell us they are berries that the local people don’t gather.

Examine the full version of Remezov’s Chorographic Sketchbook of Siberia

IIIF Drag-n-drop

Valerie Kivelson (University of Michigan) is a historian of early modern Russia whose research focuses on cartography, empire, visuality, and witchcraft, with interests in politics, gender, and religion in Russia and in comparative perspective. She is the author of several books, including Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia (2013) and Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia (2006). She is the editor of Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, 15th-21st Centuries [Russian History/Histoire russe vol. 40, nos. 3-4 (2013)], and co-editor, with Joan Neuberger, of Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture (2008). She completed her PhD in Russian History at Stanford University.