Global Comparisons: Russia and the Ottoman Empire, 1453-1839.

Course Description: 

Both Russians and Ottomans created multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural land empires, sovereign, but loosely bounded in overlapping borderlands. They emerged in European imaginary as friend or foe around the same time, and their identities were shaped to a large extent by complex interdependencies with the West. And yet, both empires, the one Islamic, the other Christian Orthodox, developed societies and imperial systems that were fundamentally different, not only in their arrays of religions, but also in state-building and the incorporation of the peoples, and their elites, in the territories they had conquered. Sweeping similarities and obvious differences make comparison both meaningful and inadequate at the same time. The aim of this course is to draw ‘imperfect comparisons’ (J. H. Elliott) between two world civilizations whose presence defined Europe as much as European influence defined them. We will compare the Russian and Ottoman empires not as two separate cultural spheres, that were lumped together by Europeans as their composite oriental counterpart, but as two societies that were aware of each other, competed with each other in military, diplomacy, culture, and trade, and sometimes even looked to each other for models as part of wider, transnational developments in early modern history, from the conquest of Constantinople to the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (also known as the ‘Peter the Great of Turkey’). The course is designed to introduce students to the methods and theories of comparison, its uses and the challenges it faces in the study of empires, drawing on a range of primary and secondary source materials and bringing together the rich historiographies of early modern Russian and Ottoman studies. Both fields are currently breaking away from the classic paradigms of ‘Ottoman decline’, ‘Muscovite backwardness’ or ‘Westernization’. We will compare the two empires and study the contacts and mutual exchanges between them. We will also locate the Ottoman and Russian empires in new historiographical approaches to early modernity more broadly conceived and less defined by East/West antagonisms than by global connectedness, convergences and parallel developments, subjecting them to topics such as expansion and imperial institutions, imperial self-fashioning in ideology, architecture and geographic representations, religious diversity, diplomacy, the peoples of the borderlands, slavery as well as early modern Christian/Muslim mutual perceptions and their modern legacies. 

Learning Outcomes: 
  • a critical understanding of the range of historiographies of comparative history applied to early modern empires
  • develop an understanding of early modern Ottoman and Russian history (and the exchanges between the two empires) in comparative perspective; a critical understanding of the range of historiographical debates about Eurasian land empires in the early modern period
  • an understanding of the relative merits and demerits of a range of interpretations of early modern dichotomies such as East/West, Russia and the West or Occident/Orient, diplomacy, religion, imperial expansion, and early modern political culture
  • present their analyses and arguments clearly and concisely in accordance with the scholarly conventions of historical writing and oral presentations



• Attendance at all meetings is mandatory. Up to two unexcused absences will be tolerated before your final grade is affected.  Any unexcused absence after that would result in automatic decrease of the final grade by half a letter grade. 

• Participation in the discussion: 15 pts 

• Discussion questions: each student will be responsible for preparing a set of 5 discussion questions related to weekly readings, twice during the term: 10 pts 

• Response papers: 3 response papers, 3-4 pages in length (Times New Roman, double-spaced, font 12): 45 pts (15 pts each) 

• Final Paper (8-10 pages on a chosen topic): 30 pts

 Students who are taking the class as a 2-credit elective course: are not expected to attend the tutorials or write a Final Paper, their participation in class discussion counts for 15 pts; discussion questions count for 10 pts; three response papers (3-4 pages) to the readings: 75 pts (25 pts each).