Although Peter the Great famously expanded Russia's coastlines and began its development into a major naval power, he and his successors were much less successful in fostering Russian maritime trade. Virtually to the end of the tsarist era, most imports were delivered to St. Petersburg and other ports by foreign merchants on foreign ships, and most Russian exports left the same way. Though imperial expansion and immigration had resulted in minority and foreign communities on the empire's coasts who made their living through shipping (Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Jews, Britons, Persians, etc.), state officials never stopped complaining that the ethnic Russian core of the empire's merchantry had little expertise or interest in seafaring. Economists' analyses of Russia's untapped potential to win profits and prestige in foreign trade dwelled on this stereotype, which became a key facet of what Geraci calls a full-blown and pervasive "trope of Russian commercial inferiority" that arguably continues to haunt Russian consciousness even today.
Using a wide variety of historical sources, Prof. Geraci will show the evolution of the discourse around maritime trade in 19th-century Russia before fixing attention on the Society for the Promotion of Russian Commercial Seafaring, a state-supported civic organization founded in 1873. The group championed the elimination of what it deemed to be the chief structural and legal obstacles to Russian maritime trade and took on the educational and cultural challenge of changing the mindset and skill set of Russian merchants and traders. Besides offering some provisional conclusions as to the relative success of these efforts, the talk will discuss in some detail a handful of the movement's key figures, whose views and activities stemmed from first-hand knowledge of demographic, social, and economic conditions in various ports such as Riga, Arkhangel'sk, St. Petersburg, Odessa, Baku, and Vladivostok.
Robert Geraci taught Russian history at the University of Virginia for over 20 years before moving to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is Research Associate Professor in the International and Area Studies Library and is affiliated with the Departments of History and Slavic Languages and Literatures as well as REEEC. He is the author of Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia (2001, Russian translation 2013) and co-editor of Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia (2001). His most recent article is "Pragmatism and Prejudice: Revisiting the Origin of the Pale of Jewish Settlement and its Historiography" Journal of Modern History (December 2019). He is writing a book titled Imperial Bazaar: Commerce and Ethno-National Diversity in Russia from 1700 to the present. His research has been supported by grants from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER), the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), and the Universities of Virginia and Illinois.