"Russia's Enclosure" and the Issues of Bordermaking: A Conversation with Title VIII Summer Scholar Paul Werth
Paul W. Werth is a professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he has taught since 1997. The holder of a Kennan fellowship prior to his start at UNLV, he has held other fellowships in the US, Japan, Germany, and France. He has researched topics including the problems of borders and boundaries in Eurasia, across several centuries and shared with us reflections on his time at the Kennan Institute.
Q: Describe your background and what brought you to the Wilson Center.
Having been a fellow at the Kennan Institute in 1997 immediately after obtaining my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, I join the Wilson Center for a second time here in 2021. I do so with great pleasure, even as I am compelled by circumstance to take the fellowship remotely.
For most of the first two decades of my career, I studied the intersection of religion and imperial governance in Russia's long nineteenth century. Having recently completed a book on Russia in the seemingly ordinary but remarkable year 1837 (1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2021), I began to work on the history of Russian borders and territory. I find that it is precisely at the earliest stages of a new project that one can benefit most from the fellowship of Kennan scholars and the breadth of the Wilson Center's access to diverse sources.
Q: What project are you working on at the Center?
Entitled "Russia's Enclosure," my project provides a history of the world's longest border across three continents from the earliest boundary-making in the medieval period through the present. Based on a growing secondary literature and targeted archival research, the project asks both how official Russia conceptualized and sought to reinforce the country's physical limits, and how sundry historical actors and institutions—from border guards and customs officers to pilgrims and nomads—experienced the border and at times defied its injunctions. At the project's foundation is the supposition that borders, and border-making implicate a wide range of issues central to both history and the present: geopolitics and diplomacy, sovereignty and citizenship, mobility and migration, violence and coercion, commerce and contraband, technology, and intelligence. "Russia's Enclosure" seeks to integrate these diverse realms of inquiry in work accessible to a broad readership concerned with Eurasia's past and present.
I presently envision two related but distinct books emerging from this research. The first is a very concise work entitled A Territorial History of Russia, which seeks to answer a simple but fundamental question for the history of Eurasia and the wider world: What territory did Russia occupy at different stages of its history—and why? Charting the growth of Russia from around 1300 to the present and recounting territorial changes across that time, the book aspires to provide a brief but accurate account of this critical aspect of Russia's history. I have a contract now with Bloomsbury Publishing and hope to complete the book in 2024. The second book is a full-length monograph that bears the "Russia's Enclosure" title and focuses specifically on the border question as outlined above. Even as I gather materials for both books, I focus principally on the territorial book in the near term. I'm not that young anymore, and there is only so much I can do.
Q: How did you become interested in your current research topic?
I discern two factors that brought me to it. One is that, in researching problems of religion and imperial governance in tsarist Russia, I encountered many issues that went across the borders of the empire: specific forms of pilgrimage, religious authority in institutions such as the papacy and the Armenian Catholicos, Buddhist networks on the Chinese frontier, etc. These issues compelled me to think more about borders and their meanings. I also sensed that a critical mass of literature on borders in diverse quadrants and periods was now appearing, creating new possibilities for synthetic work. The appearance of COVID-19 and the importance of borders that the pandemic reinforced—provided confirmation that the project was worth pursuing.
Second, I apparently have a certain fascination for borders without even being able to explain why. Traveling about in Scandinavia on a rail pass in 1989, when I was an absurdly naïve college student, I took it into my head to go and see the Soviet-Finnish border. I had a decidedly Cold War-mentality and thought it would be fascinating to behold, on the open terrain, where Finland ended, and the USSR began. I had to walk several miles (I didn't really know how many) from a train station in a small town called Simpele. Nor did I have a very detailed map. My plan was not very well hatched. Did I mention I was naïve? Not surprisingly, I never actually made it to the border, though as I view the area on Google Maps today, I can see that I must have been close. The whole enterprise was ridiculous, really, and I don't even know what I was expecting to find. But I think the idea for my current project appeared back then, at the moment when it occurred to me to go and try to see the border. It just took me 30 years to realize it.
Q: Why do you believe that your research matters to a wider audience?
Borders seemed to be disappearing before COVID-19—though the matter was never that simple, and there are good grounds for making the opposite claim. The pandemic made crystal clear that they still matter, if debates about immigration and the US and Europe hadn't made that obvious already. The fact is that we live in a bordered world, one that came fully into being only quite recently in a historical sense. Understanding how that occurred and the consequences that it had for various people strikes me as centrally important. To what extent do borders represent fundamental attributes of modern sovereignty? Are they necessary attributes of modernity? What were the conceptions of territorial liminality before the modern period? Territory, for its part, is something that we often take for granted—until borders shift. Vladimir Putin's recent "article" on Russians and Ukrainians reveals that borders and territory remain an important aspect of the outlook of Russia's leadership currently. In case we needed confirmation.
There is an added advantage in that Russia has the longest border and most territory of any country, which has been true for a long time. At the top of these lists, Russia's place opens the opportunity to tell an especially compelling story, one that can resonate among a wider public. Anyone who has spun a globe or avoided doing real work by poking around on Google Maps cannot fail to notice Russia's territorial scope and thus the astonishing length of its border. My hope is to tap into this sense of mystique and childish curiosity.
Finally, Russia's size and the length of its borders necessitates engagement with diverse parts of the world—from northern Norway, across East-Central Europe and the Caucasus, through Central Asia and the Far East, and well into North America—as far "east" as Fort Ross and the Farallon Islands. In short, by exploring Russia's territory and borders, one by necessity has to engage in history on an almost global scale. And this requirement allows for the possibility of placing one's work in a wide set of scholarly conversations.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your research?
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge is the geographical and chronological scope of the project. The goal is to tell a story across some seven centuries and three continents—a task that simultaneously represents the project's strongest and weakest points. Even just organizing the text, let alone acquiring basic proficiency in diverse times and places, is taxing my stamina and ingenuity massively. Figuring out what exactly I wish to say is another immense challenge—I am far from an answer presently. There are good grounds for optimism, though. My bibliographic work reveals remarkable literature, including the work of fellow Wilson Center scholar Andrey Shlyakhter. Its existence creates a strong foundation for synthetic work. As a nineteenth-century student, I feel that neither the early-modern period nor the Soviet one is entirely alien to me, so I propose that I am in a good position to do this work.
A second major challenge is maps. Just finding truly accurate and relevant historical maps can be a challenge. Making good ones—the territorial book will have as many as 30 of them—is still more difficult. But thanks to Kennan intern Liam Murphy, I am making progress on this. Liam is composing some excellent maps that we believe will tell important parts of the story in a very compelling way.
I have no doubt that I will struggle with this project. Most likely, some will dismiss the books that result. But I have tenure, and moreover, I am eventually going to die. So, I might as well try to do this project before that happens. I also believe that broad works of synthesis that take on the longue durée represent a key contribution to our understanding of the world.
Q: What do you hope the impact of your research will be?
Having written mostly for scholarly audiences in the past, I have been trying to write for broader audiences more recently and engage in more synthesis as opposed to original research. This was one motivation for my book on 1837, which combines elements of culture and ideas, industry and empire, peasants and fires in a brief book designed for any reader curious enough about Russia to pick it up (or to have it assigned by someone who makes such decisions).
Assuming that a Pulitzer Prize is not in the cards (I'm pretty sure it isn't), my hope is above all that I can tell a good, broadly accessible story and foreground the fine work by those studying territory and borders in more focused segments and periods of time. I hope furthermore that policymakers will be able to read my work with profit and that their thinking will be a little more subtle and well-informed as a result. The book on territory is to be exceptionally short—merely 40,000 words—which I hope will help earn it a wide audience and course adoption. I hope as well that it might serve as an entry point for young people into the world of Russian and Eurasian studies. The older I become—and the process seems always to be accelerating—the more I think we need to have in mind the next generation(s).
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more