Rezension über:

Christoph Witzenrath: The Russian Empire, Slaving and Liberation, 1480-1725. Trans-Cultural Worldviews in Eurasia (= Dependency and Slavery Studies; Vol. 4), Berlin: de Gruyter 2022, 301 S., ISBN 978-3-11-069641-7, EUR 84,95
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Turkana Allahverdiyeva
Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, Universität Bonn
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Stephan Conermann
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Turkana Allahverdiyeva: Rezension von: Christoph Witzenrath: The Russian Empire, Slaving and Liberation, 1480-1725. Trans-Cultural Worldviews in Eurasia, Berlin: de Gruyter 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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Christoph Witzenrath: The Russian Empire, Slaving and Liberation, 1480-1725

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Empires and imperial ideologies, as well as slavery and its ramifications under the Russian Empire, have been the subject of a considerable amount of research. In spite of this, Christoph Witzenrath's most recent academic study, "The Russian Empire, Slavery and Liberation, 1480-1725", offers a new viewpoint by applying the newly established asymmetrical dependency method to link slavery, dependence, and liberation with Russian imperial ideology and purpose. Due to his comprehensive investigation of materials, Witzenrath's research exposes how slavery, emancipation, imperial political culture, and ideology are entwined in the transcultural history of Muscovy.

The book overall is a notable addition to the studies on slavery, emancipation, and the Russian Empire, as well as to the topic of strong asymmetric dependencies, imperial ideologies, and purpose. With its in-depth investigation of the transcultural history of Muscovy and its linkages to these fundamental themes, it is especially useful for students who are studying the Crimean Khanate. Witzenrath's study sheds light on the views, self-definitions, and self-images of the "other side" for scholars specializing in slavery studies and the Crimean Khanate. The author's competence in reading primary and secondary sources in Russian, as well as his rigorous interpretation of these sources throughout the book, adds to the book's importance as a resource for researchers who may lack language proficiency.

This publication includes an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion, a bibliography, and an index. One of the arguments of the author is that the Muscovite Empire pursued both particularistic and inclusive missions, which included releasing and ransoming mostly Orthodox citizens, but also included non-Orthodox and non-Russian captives, therefore defining its imperial transcultural perspective.

Witzenrath adopts the newly established notion of asymmetrical dependency, which transcends the binary distinction between slave and free, and argues that there are degrees of dependencies, which allow for agency. Substantial asymmetrical reliance in Muscovy is emphasized and interpreted from the sources, and the author's arguments are simple to follow due to a well-organized presentation of information.

In the introduction, Witzenrath provides background information on enslavement, ransoming, and serfdom in inner Eurasia from the 1470s to the 1700s, focusing on the Crimean Tatar slave raids on the Russian frontiers and the resulting slower development and lower urbanization levels of the Muscovite Empire as a result of the constant depopulation and loss of labor force.

Although Muscovy's better border controls and fortifications slowed slave raids beginning in the 18th century, these reforms also caused a shift in the historical balance of power. In addition, the author criticizes the "good treatment thesis" of Islamic slavery in contrast to "chattel slavery" while recognizing the need to research the slaves in the Crimean Khanates' sources in order to examine slavery from both the enslavers' and the slaves' perspectives. The author intertwines vast knowledge of literature with a complete analysis of history surrounding slavery studies, empires, and Muscovy in order to establish fresh perspectives, link ignored and missed aspects, and add to academic literature with more precise conceptualizations.

In Chapter 1, the author examines the interrelationships between the history of slavery and imperial ideas associated with religion, commerce routes, and territorial demarcation. Witzenrath contends that there is a contradiction between the liberationist rhetoric in the texts and the reality of slavery at the boundaries. The first chapter adds to the discussions surrounding the history of empires by focusing on these subjects. What makes a person eligible for slavery and what precisely were the enslaving zone, the no-enslaving zone, and the counter-dependency zone in interior Eurasia are among the topics of inquiry. In the enslaving zones, "citizenship, religion, ethnicity, race, tribal affiliation and kinship, political priorities, gender, and location" are among the indicators that have been used throughout history to justify the enslavement of "others."

Witzenrath also asks, in theological and political terms, how the Muscovites defined themselves: New Jerusalem, Third Rome, or New Israel? What did they signify for imperial missions of Russia? Did they imply by "Third Rome" a universalist goal to rule the World? Or did "New Israel" just refer to the emancipation and redemption of Orthodox Christians? Were phrases such as slavery, captivity, ransom, and emancipation used by the governing authority and the church to extend the empire and gain a foothold in the region? The second chapter begins with these questions and an examination of the contemporary history around this subject. According to Witzenrath, there is both a symbolic and actual relationship between slave raids, liberation iconography, and Russia's ultimate expansionist empire-building. Hence, repeated slave raids hampered commerce and produced social and economic stress in the steppe, which slowed the region's growth. All of these causes expedited the spread of the New Israel worldview.

Readers may be surprised by the author's symbolic interpretation of New Israel, in which he shows that the tsar was portrayed as Moses, who led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and to the "promised lands". Witzenrath argues that the 'promised territories' in this instance were the middle Volga, where the monarch was sanctified.

What impact did the emancipation of slaves have on Muscovites? Witzenrath notes that liberation was a return home as opposed to independence in the contemporary sense... and protection against slave raids legitimized domestic asymmetric dependence. The author claims that border fortifications assisted Muscovy to protect its people against slave invasions, but provided a more fertile environment for asymmetric dependency since they were able to regulate domestic labor.

As an expanding empire, Russia would need to include non-Russian and non-Orthodox people. Realizing the significance of contact with the various peoples of Russia ushered in a new multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic empire period in Muscovy's history. Muscovy began establishing a safer "counter dependence zone" after gaining a firm grip on its boundaries in the 18th century. This is Witzenrath's own theoretical explanation for border dynamics and the enslavement zone. Following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the collapse of the Crimean Khanate in 1783, Muscovy was finally able to reduce the slave trade, and with the victory in the Crimean War of 1853-1855, it was completely eliminated.

The next chapter opens a deeper scholarly debate around redemption, liberation, exodus, and ritual, which were central concepts in the Muscovite period which also accelerated the conquest of Kazan, and eventually led to immense imperial expansion. Witzenrath associates the term redemption (iskuplenie) with slavery, ransom, and salvation history, which shaped the political culture of Muscovy.

The emphasis of Chapters 4 and 5 is on non-elite sources that may provide insight into the expectations, perspectives, and worries of ordinary people towards the freeing of hostages. While it is difficult to make definitive conclusions when the majority of the people is illiterate, the author contends that it is feasible to comprehend public views by examining a wide variety of materials, including government documents, icons, maps, and portrayals of saints.

Witzenrath wonders in the last chapter how ransoming and freedom from imprisonment contributed to Muscovy's strength and image. Using a variety of sources, including petitions, chronicles, and paintings, he demonstrates that symbols (slavery, ransom, and freedom) made it possible to unite many cultures, faiths, and non-ethnic Russians into a unified empire.

In his conclusion, the author links the freeing, ransoming, and safe return of prisoners from the steppe to the "redemptive imperial culture" and the tsar's image. As part of the imperial culture and mission, monarchs adopted a transethnic, transcultural, and transreligious approach throughout the process of empire building.

Ideally, future research on the slavery practices of the Crimean Khanate will employ Ottoman and Crimean sources to deepen our knowledge of the problem and allow us to examine events from both perspectives. Further explanations on topics such as agency, other types of asymmetrical dependency, mobility, and trans-regionality would be beneficial, but the book is nevertheless a breath of fresh air in Russian studies, slavery studies, and the recently emerging, strong asymmetrical dependency studies. Its innovatively stated conceptualizations, fresh viewpoints, and interpretation of historical events expand our knowledge of historical reality and provide the way for more scholarly conversation and discussion.

Turkana Allahverdiyeva