Russia’s long-standing claims to Crimea date back to the eighteenth-century reign of Catherine II. Historian Kelly O’Neill has written the first archive-based, multi-dimensional study of the initial “quiet conquest” of a region that has once again moved to the forefront of international affairs. O’Neill traces the impact of Russian rule on the diverse population of the former khanate, which included Muslim, Christian, and Jewish residents. She discusses the arduous process of establishing the empire’s social, administrative, and cultural institutions in a region that had been governed according to a dramatically different logic for centuries. With careful attention to how officials and subjects thought about the spaces they inhabited, O’Neill’s work reveals the lasting influence of Crimea and its people on the Russian imperial system, and sheds new light on the precarious contemporary relationship between Russia and the famous Black Sea peninsula.
In tsarist Russia elite integration was a crucial component of empire building. While the status claimed by, or ascribed to, non-Russian elites helped determine the relationship between core and periphery, elite integration had an equally important latitudinal dimension. Careful study of the nuances of this process in Tavrida province (the former Crimean khanate) suggests that the ennoblement of borderland figures engendered a reconceptualization of the implications and accessibility of noble status throughout the empire. The case of the Crimean murzas, explored in this article, suggests that we rethink the geography of social categories and the dynamics of the process through which officials and elites curated noble society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The murzas were a diminutive population – never more than 500 at given time – but they were Muslims in an era of religious toleration, former vassals of the sultan in the age of Russian-Ottoman rivalry, and heirs to steppe traditions in the midst of Russia’s attempt to reinvent herself as a European state. Determining whether and how a murza might become a nobleman therefore had wide-ranging logistical and ideological implications for imperial society.