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Seeds of exchange: collecting for Russia's apothecary and botanical gardens in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries


This dissertation follows the collection and cultivation of plants in the Russian Empire for medicinal and botanical purposes from the beginning of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries. It focuses on the itineraries of collection and the spaces of cultivation established by herbalists, doctors, and naturalists in the employ of the Apothecary (Medical) Chancellery and the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In doing so it investigates how methods of botanical collection, including specific itineraries, influenced the creation spaces of botanical cultivation, including gardens, collections of correspondence and regional Floras. This juxtaposition and analysis of the mutual influence between routes and gardens ultimately attempts to explore how mobility and space intersected with the production of natural knowledge in the early modern Russian context. The first chapter of this dissertation, “Travniki and the Chancellery,” details the seventeenth-century network of itinerant herbalists [travniki] who collected plants, flowers, roots and seeds seasonally for the Apothecary Chancellery’s pharmacies and gardens. The travels of the Chancellery’s travniki are contrasted with the trade in materia medica, which included medicinal plants as well as chemical medicines, found in the herb stalls [zeleinye riady] of Moscow’s trading quarters. The specter of witchcraft and the role of Chancellery doctors in witchcraft trials concludes the chapter and is used to underscore the perceived threat and power of plants as they were transported from the countryside into the city. The second chapter, “Via the Volga,” then follows the Apothecary Chancellery into the eighteenth century, spanning its reorganization as the Medical Chancellery and detailing the first botanical and medical expeditions of Chancellery doctors down the Don and Volga Rivers. Chancellery expeditions clearly had a strong southern orientation throughout the century in no small part due to the Chancellery’s growing relationship with the Russian military. The existence of a broadly shared botanical imaginary which saw the eastern edges of the Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus as the origin of post-Noachian global plant and animal diversity also fueled the Chancellery’s collecting activities there. These itineraries led to collections in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Astrakhan that allowed the Russian Empire to advertise more broadly its own unique access to the botanical wealth and thus the storied landscape at the edges of the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus and the surrounding steppe. In the third chapter, “Translatio Botanicae,” the relationship between the city of St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (established in 1724) and the idea of Siberia as a site of scientific investigation are presented and explored as a powerful complex of interconnected ideas and images produced by a growing empire desirous of entering the Republic of Letters. Just as the Chancellery doctors travelled south, naturalists from the Academy of Sciences travelled east into Siberia as far as Kamchatka and the Pacific Ocean. These itineraries, the gardens they produced, and the scientific claims they were then used to substantiate show how the scientific image of Siberia was constructed in combination with the establishment of the city of St. Petersburg as the new imperial capital and cosmopolitan city of science. The fourth and final chapter, “Collecting Europe,” follows the mid-eighteenth century travels of Russian students (and one in particular) who were dispatched to collect botanical specimens in the gardens of Europe. It highlights how certain Russian travelers sought to treat Europe as a botanical borderland to be collected, organized, and displayed back in Russia. Rather than reinforcing the imbalance of a “center-periphery” relationship between Russian naturalists and their European counterparts, this chapter focuses on the subtle and dynamic ways in which Russian students and collectors met, engaged with and benefited from the European botanical community. This dissertation therefore traces the emergence of a widely-recognized Russian botanical community by the end of the eighteenth century. It details the intersection of three broad but intimately connected processes: the creation of itineraries of collection, the establishment of spaces of cultivation and the production of botanical knowledge, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The larger role played by Russian imperial policy infiltrated the emergence of this scientific community at every level, but none more so than in the ways in which herbalists, doctors and naturalists chose to travel through the surrounding landscape. This process of actively turning otherwise unassuming products of nature into bona fide botanical objects for circulation and exchange in the global scientific community was as influenced by its Russian imperial context as it as by the plants in which it dealt.

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