All Along the Watchtower

1Mountains, in the Humboldtian tradition, figure a panoptic sublime. To perceive, from a single pinnacle, myriad climatic zones and geophysical forms was to elevate the senses and achieve moral eminence.[1] So Schiller’s chorus—Auf den Bergen ist Freiheit!—On the mountains is freedom!—rings out in the epigraph of Humboldt’s Views of Nature (1808).[2] But the same topographical features that made mountains unique sites of observation also made them significant and contested nodes of power.[3] In Imperial Russia’s Central Asian frontiers, as under all colonial skies, highlands formed strategic positions from which to surveil one’s subjects or lay siege to one’s enemies—if they did not harbor “mountaineer” rebels.[1] I wish to thank Tobias Kraft, Florian Schnee, and Ulrich Päßler for their efforts in making the Russo-Siberian Journal widely accessible, and Tobias in particular for his generous feedback on this chapter. Secord 2018, 401–02. Cf. Nicolson 1997 [1959]; Bigg 2007, 78–79, 87; Kraft 2015a. [2] Humboldt 1808; Friedrich Schiller, The Bride of Messina (1803), IV, 7.[3] Scott 2009, 41–63; Simpson 2017.

2A particular sort of prominence arises from Humboldt’s Russo-Siberian journal of 1829—the Karaulnaya Gora (Караульная гора), sentry mountain or Wachtberg—and with it, a view of science on a war footing. One such mountain loomed over the Zmeinogorsk Mines of the Altai, where Humboldt described the strike and dip of an ore lode embedded in barite and hornfels. Then, as if looking up, he recorded a “great porphyry peak” some 800 feet above the village and its church, “the prism Karaulnaya Gora (Wachberg [sic.], sentinel against the Kalmyk invasions).”[4] Raising the specter of Mongol invaders, Humboldt referred to a nomadic Buddhist people, the Xaľmgud, already subordinated through eighteenth-century policies of forced migration and religious conversion. In truth, the sentinel was as much a means of policing Russia’s own workmen, many of them serfs owned by the powerful Demidov family, scions of Russian mining, if not penal laborers exiled to Siberia by the Romanov state. Mass desertion blighted Siberian society: within a few years of Humboldt’s journey, the government could account for less than half of the penal laborers it banished to Western Siberia (between the Urals and Altai).[5] As another German traveler observed, some runaways did indeed seek freedom in the mountains around mines and quarries, stalking the hills in outlaw bands, if they were not hunted down and executed by the Emperor’s “Mountain-Battalions.”[6] The figure of the Wachtberg projected imperial power, to be sure, but also signaled the instability of a colonial system based in exile and unfree labor.[4] Humboldt RST I, 46v. Cf. Rose 1837/1842, I, 529.[5] Gentes 2005, 73–85.[6] Ledebour 1829–1830, 176, 377; Ledebour 1830, 19.

3Another such mountain stood watch along the Orenburg Line, at the southern base of the Urals, whose fortresses surveilled the Kyrgyz Steppe. West of the Line, the Empire continued its genocidal hundred-year march into the Caucasus, while to the east, Russia swept into Kazakhstan, forcing the Turkic people of the Great Horde under their “protection” in the 1820s. Still, Humboldt marveled—or shuddered—at the thought of “more than 1,200,000 Kyrgyz” in the hordes of the southern Steppe, “a nomadic! population [sic.] greater than the Province of Orenburg.”[7] The perceived threat loomed large as Humboldt traveled 60 versts south of the Orenburg Line with several mining officers and an armed Cossack-escort to the Saltworks of Ileckaya Zaščita.[8] Its Wachtberg was already a landmark among Germanophone travelers. The Austrian mineralogist Franz Hermann (1755–1815) described a “cone-shaped and chalky, white gypsum mountain,” not “forty fathoms from the fortress,” while Prussian naturalist Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811) located the Wachtberg opposite the fort in a map cited in Humboldt’s journal (Figure 1), upon “a steep hill, which surveys a wide region.”[9] Following their lead, Humboldt climbed the gypsum hill, “isolated in the plain,” to inspect the icy cavern atop its summit.[10] His companion, the mineralogist Gustav Rose, was more keen to observe its socio-political constitution: “The western peak bears the name Wachtberg (Karaulnaja Gora),” he wrote; “being the highest point, a watchtower and small citadel was built upon it, where the worst of the criminals who work the salt mines spend the night.”[11] In the mountains is freedom, Schiller proclaimed; in the Wachtberg, a prison.[7] Humboldt RST I, 90r.[8] On Humboldt’s armed escorts, Böttcher 2020.[9] Hermann 1789, 38; Pallas 1771-1776, I, 237–238.[10] Humboldt RST I, 90v, 91r.[11] Rose 1837/1842, II, 205.

Große Ansicht (Digilib)Figure 1: Map of the saltworks of Ileckaya Zaščita by Pallas 1771 in the fortress and Wachtberg indicated top-right by the letters A. and C. The sentinel was position to surveil saltworks and Steppe alike. Zentralbibliothek Zürich, NR 230 | G – NR 235 | G / Public Domain Mark.

4The Wachtberg, not the mountain sublime, is the proper emblem of science in Russia’s industrial frontier. In these contested borderlands, metallurgy, stone quarries, and saltworks served both as sites of natural inquiry and footholds of political power. The geo-administrative assemblage of the Karaulnaya Gora—a natural watchtower—stands as a grim monument to colonial science more generally. It substantiates the fundamental link, especially in Humboldt’s Siberian travels, between geo-climatic survey and military surveillance, iso-thermal lines and lines of fortification.

5In the course of the eighteenth century, Russian mining exploits in the Urals and Altai replaced the Siberian fur trade as the raison d’être for eastward expansion. A system of exile, also begun under Peter the Great, was devised to meet labor demands and thereby colonize “Asiatic” Russia.[12] Humboldt’s circuits through Russian Siberia not only followed in the footsteps of a long line of Germanophone naturalists working under Tsarist patronage, like Hermann and Pallas. He also trod the same ruddy roads as the 300,000 people banished from “European Russia” between the 1823 and 1861—as when he, Rose, and company passed a fettered “transport of exiles” along the road to the Urals or later stopped at the prisoner waystation of Tobolsk en route to the Altai.[13] Humboldt entered Western Siberia just as a new exile policy, the reforms of governor-general Mikhail Speranky, took full effect. The criminalization of vagrancy and outsourcing of deportation powers to serf-owners produced a penal workforce of unprecedented scale among European empires.[14] In Siberia, they were to make a mineral empire of the platinum deposits, silver lodes, and goldfields that Humboldt surveyed. [12] Popova 2018.[13] Gentes 2010, 6; Rose 1837/1842, I, 110. [14] Beer 2016, 21–27.

Große Ansicht (Digilib)Figure 2: New Smelting Huts and School of Mines in Barnaul, near to the Zmeinogorsk Mines of the Altai, in Ledebour 1830. Image retrieved from the Library of Congress.

6The infrastructure of mineral empire provided Humboldt a familiar framework for science, grounding his wandering itinerary in established bases of observation.[15] Lodging with mining officers in Bogoslowsk, Zmeinogorsk, and Miass, Humboldt toured local collections, copied maps, and—as in Spanish America—crossed paths with several Freiberg Mining Academy graduates.[16] Since his own days at the Saxon Bergakademie (1791–1792), Humboldt relied upon the bureaucratic networks of mining personnel for geognostic, thermometric, and magnetic data, first in Prussia, where he directed mines, then in New Spain. Now that system extended across Russian Siberia. In Barnaul’s stately new School of Mines (Figure 2), for instance, Humboldt and Rose found Freiberg East, a center of metallurgy staffed by “many cultivated men.”[17] Humboldt’s Russo-Siberian journal might even be read as a sequel to his notebooks from New Spain. Humboldt’s Essai politique sur le royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (1811) depended on data collected from a sprawling complex of mining operations, with a particular debt to a corps of Creole mathematicians and cartographers at the Real Seminario de Minería in Mexico City.[18] Likewise, in the north Ural copper capital of Bogoslowsk, Humboldt found a locus of “zealous and educated mine officers” capable of establishing the meteorological stations required for “comparative climatology” in Asie centrale (1843).[19][15] Naylor/Schaffer 2019, 140; Outram 1999.[16] See a list of Russian collaborators, many of them mining officers, in Humboldt RST I, 124r127r. On mineral cabinets and the objects acquired there, see “Russland” in Damaschun/Schmitt 2019.[17] Rose 1837/1842, I, 513. [18] Humboldt 2005. [19] Humboldt 1843, III, 76.

7Russian mining operations were embedded in the larger architecture of Siberian colonization: the chain of zavody (fortified industrial townships), katorga (penal labor camps), and ostrog (wooden bastion-prisons) that lined Humboldt’s itinerary from the Urals east to the Altai and back along the Irtysch and Orenburg Lines. The copper pits of Bogoslowsk were themselves a sort of subterranean citadel, guarded by the same surveyor and Oberbergmeister who guided Humboldt and Rose.[20] Humboldt’s notes are preoccupied with the curious phenomenon of Bogoslowsk’s “underground glacier,” not unlike the “eternal ice” he later observed in the frozen crypt atop Ileckaya Zaščita’s Wachtberg.[21] These were significant sites of thermal observation in a global survey of the earth’s native heat.[22] Questions of “underground glaciers” might have also led Humboldt down the drainage tunnel in Bogoslowsk, where he and Rose traced a rich vein of “Diorite-Porphyry”—at least until another metallic phenomenon barred their way: “iron grates,” Rose noted, “to keep the convicts from leaking out [Entweichen der Sträflinge].”[23] Such was the language of earth science in a land of exile. [20] Rose 1837/1842, I, 418. [21] Humboldt RST I, 32r, 91r. On subterranean heat, see also Humboldt RST I, 43v45r, 62v, 141r.[22] Cf. Bulstrode 2019, Chapter 1.[23] Rose 1837/1842, I, 418, nt. i.

8The Russo-Siberian journal is, in this sense, a document of the architecture of colonial science, chronicling pickets and posts with different degrees of fortification. (Vorpost designated Cossack settlements, the editors note, while Krepost indicates a barricaded outpost.[24]) In some cases, the forts themselves became objects of inquiry. “2 important points for theory discovered by Prof. Rose in the Fortress Moat,” Humboldt noted from Bukhtarma, at the western slope of the Altai, where their Cossack-guarded company neared the Kazakh-Chinese border.[25] Fortification was a form of political geology.[26] Bukhtarma’s bastion became a significant base of mineralogical survey. Tracing “porphyry & glimmer-rich clay shale in granite” along the moat, Rose and Humboldt identified “yellow-white albite and feldspar” striking along the Irtysch River, linking these finds to observations in nearby copper pits, the well-mined Magnet-Mountain, and indeed the Chinese border sentinel of “Baty.”[27] [24] Editors’ notes to Humboldt RST I, 74v.[25] Humboldt RST I, 55r55v.[26] Bobbette/Donovan 2019.[27] Rose 1837/1842, I, 586587.

9Redoubts in all their Russian forms also offered stable bases in which to erect magnetic tents or perform celestial navigation. Returning west to Omsk, the administrative seat of the Irtysch Line, Humboldt recorded longitude from the commanding quarters of the city’s katorga—the same that held Fyodor Dostoevsky from 1850–1854.[28] Humboldt’s “notes from a dead house” betray little of the penal institution Dostoevsky would describe: the barracks, workhouses, and hexagonal ramparts that, in 1829, confined some 200 inmates with half-shaven heads.[29] In his semi-autobiographical novel, Dostoevsky’s narrator recorded a particular hatred for “the major’s house,” an “accursed and loathsome place,” in whose garden Humboldt once tilted his Ramsden telescope to the sky. Yet Dostoevsky’s prisoner found solace in the same “unfathomable blue sky” that Humboldt surveilled, “as a captive gazes at freedom from the window of his prison.”[30] The Omsk katorga was both a penitentiary and an observatory; its barricaded structures welcoming to the savant, repulsive to the convict; its sky a realm of celestial navigation, or salvation. Such were the complex semiotics of science in a land known as the “vast roofless prison.”[28] Humboldt RST I, 8v, 31v32v; Humboldt 1843, III, 490; Humboldt 1844, II, 305.[29] Gentes 2010, 180.[30] Dostoevsky 2008, 275–276.

Oriental Orography and the Russian Cordilleras

10The orography of these Central Asian borderlands (the physical geography of its mountains) was shaped by a particular conjunction of imperial, extractive, and orientalist interests. After all, as Humboldt’s travels attest, the pits and picket lines of Western Siberia were also sites of commerce in Chinese, Tibetan, Armenian, and Persian manuscripts, artefacts looted from Altaian burial sites, as well as ethnographic observation of various Turkic and Mongolian peoples whom European travelers viewed as the objects of racist antiquarian study.[31] Barnaul not only boasted a new School of Mines but also a museum filled with “the costume and artefacts of Siberian peoples and their shamans [and] antiquities from the Chudian graves, which are found in great plenty in the Altai, and contain gold, silver, and copper instruments of manifold form.”[32] From private collections in Barnaul, Humboldt and Rose sourced “a collection of Chinese manuscripts,” while in Baty Humboldt traded fabrics for “a Chinese book in five volumes” from a soldier from Peking.[33] His carriages thus laden, Humboldt described his journey back to European Russia as a “return from the heavenly empire of myth, from the Mongol-Chinese border-post Baty,” and thence “along the border of human civilization” that was the fortified Irtysch Line from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Omsk.[34] [31] See Lubrich in Humboldt 2009e, “Ethnologie und Philologie,” B13–B20. On the Siberian antiquarian trade and Humboldt’s Romanticism of the Steppe, Sunderland 2006, 99–100. Humboldt engaged in this trade just as a romantic “noble savage” concept of Mongolians took hold in the frontier ideology of Imperial Russia, having engulfed and subdued resistance in the Siberian Steppe. See Khodarkovsky 2002, 186.[32] Rose 1837/1842, I, 520522. Cf. Ledebour 1829–1830, 12 [33] Humboldt to François Arago, St. Petersburg, 8/20.08.1829 in Humboldt 2009a, 170. On Humboldt’s visit to the Chinese border and deep interest in Chinese texts and sciences, see Kraft/Schnee 2021.[34] Humboldt to Ekaterina Zacharovna Kankrina, Zlatoust, 29.8/10.9.1829, in Humboldt 2009a, 183.

11The coincidence of orientalism and earth science in Siberia blurred the boundary between cultural and natural landscapes, as between antiquarian and geological methods. As Pratik Chakrabarti has shown, colonial geologists of the period sometimes treated archeological digs, ancient texts, and indigenous mythology as geo-historical references, documents of “deep nature,” which might also aid in the pursuit of mineral wealth.[35] Similarly, in the Altai, Humboldt corroborated mineralogical evidence with the manuscripts, myths, and artefacts he encountered there. The very meaning of Altai, as the “golden mountains,” had been devised by a suite of German scholars as the restoration of ancient oriental knowledge. According to Chechesh Kudachinova’s essential studies of Siberian geography, Humboldt’s works helped canonize the “golden mountain” mythology, which took shape during several decisive moments in Russia’s metallurgic conquest of the east.[36] The first reference to the golden mountains, in Johann Georg Gmelin’s account of the Second Kamchatka Expedition across Siberia (published in 1747), coincided with the establishment of the Kolyvanskie “Cabinet Lands.” A precious metal mining fiefdom of the Tsar, Kolyvanskie served as a foothold of Russian power in the north Altai. Gmelin was followed by Friedrich Müller and Pallas, who located Altai’s etymology in the Mongol and Manchu-Chinese languages. Though based on loose readings of Mongolian and Turkic languages (which make no reference to precious metals) and false Chinese translations, the golden mountain myth was apparently confirmed by the prosperity of the Kolyvanskie mining operations. Here, as in Barnaul, travelers purchased golden artefacts exhumed from ancient barrows. In both sites, antiquarian trade cast Russia’s mineral empire as a resurrection of golden empires past.[37][35] Chakrabarti 2020, 19–20, 122–23, 188–90.[36] Kudachinova 2015, 124–125, 144–145; idem. 2020, 29–39.[37] Kudachinova 2020, 35.

12Orientalism was also at work in Humboldt’s identification of the Altai as one of Asia’s four major mountain-systems (along with the Kunlun, Tian Shan, and Himalaya). His new orography of Asia promised to restore the testimony of Chinese geography and Mongolian metallurgy. In this, he echoed the revivalist attitude of colonial surveyors across the French and British empires, who claimed to preserve the primordial values of ancient Indian and Egyptian measures in modern standards, instruments, and technique.[38] So, too, in expanding the geographic scope of the Altai, Humboldt’s professed: “I simply follow the custom of Chinese geographers, which in navigational description remain exact.”[39] But Humboldt’s confidence belies the complexity of his task: to systematize an inchoate, fragmented geography yet to fall under a single heading. While the golden mountain mythology had purchase in isolated pockets of Russian industry, “Altai” was yet to designate an entire Asian Gebirgssystem.[40] In fact, most of the gold deposits Humboldt mapped in Asie Centrale lay northeast of the Altai, between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal, the most notorious being the East Siberian katorga complex of Nerchinsk. So, Humboldt was faced with the problem of generalizing a powerful but idiosyncratic nomenclature—the solution to which promised to map a vision of mineral empire well beyond its foothold in the Crown’s Cabinet Lands. To canonize Altai even where gold was not forthcoming, he appealed to Chinese and Byzantine records of a medieval Mongolia awash in “luxury,” a typical Orientalist trope. Citing sixth-century records of a mobile yurt, which housed a princely throne, “golden vases,” and a bed gilded with “golden fowl,” Humboldt claimed such luxury “still rules in the tents (yurts) of the Kyrgyz, Mongolian, and Kalmyk princes.”[41] He might have also extrapolated this from his meeting with Sereb-Dschab Tjumenev, prince of the Volga Kalmyks.[42] Humboldt thus cited the inhabitants of Siberia much as he did the Zmeinogorsk Mines, as vestiges of former splendor.[38] Schaffer 2017, 179, 182, 190, 194.[39] Humboldt 1844, I, 154. [40] Kudachinova 2020, 38–39.[41] Humboldt 1844, I, 158–58, nt, 161.[42] Humboldt RST I, 105; Rose 1837/1842, II, 334.

13The metallic, shimmering tents for which Westerners named Mongolia’s Golden Horde emblazoned Russia’s precious metal industry with an exotic prehistory, as if to place the Russian Emperor in a succession of “Golden Princes (Altun-khans).”[43] Shortly after Humboldt’s journey, the senate endorsed this vision by renaming Nicholas’ Kolywanskie factories the Altai factories (Altaiskii gornyi okrug). Meanwhile, to the east, new deposits of gold were being unearthed in the Kara of the Transbaikal, just as the Polish and Lithuanian uprisings of 1830/31 created a massive influx of convict labor. In fetters, they marched across the Altai to so-called Siberian Gold Rush of the 1830s and 40s. By mid-century, Russia produced 40 percent of the world’s gold. [43] Humboldt 1844, I, 161.

Große Ansicht (Digilib)Figure 3: Detail from Humboldt’s map of the southern Urals, from Nižne-Tagil’skij far beyond the Orenburg Line, through the Kleine Horde der Kirghisen, and into the “isthmus” between the Caspian and Aral seas. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Rar 5853 / Public Domain Mark.

14In the Urals, too, Humboldt’s orography extended apace with the Empire, expressing ambitions far beyond “the border of human civilization” where some maps went blank. In Humboldt’s map of Chaines de montagnes et volcans de l’Asie Centrale,” Russia’s great meridian range stretches far beyond the Orenburg Line, cutting through the Petite Horde des Kirghiz (Figure 3). Russia’s southern advance was not far from Humboldt’s mind when he took up the task, offered by the Tsar’s Finance Minister, Georg Cancrin, to carry out a mineral survey with particular focus on platinum in the south Ural region. Writing to Cancrin in 1827, he dreamt of the “delightful prospect” of “the Urals and the soon-to-be-Russian Ararat” (emphasis added), referring to the Armenian mountain recently claimed for the Russian Emperor in the final Russo-Persian conflict over the Caucasus.[44] The southern extent of the Urals was ill-defined amongst geographers because it was disputed amongst nations. The fortification of the Orsk jasper quarry and surveillance of saltworks at Ileckaya Zaščita made this clear.[45] [44] Humboldt to Cancrin, Berlin, 19.11.1827, in Humboldt 2009a, 76.[45] Orsk and Ileckaya Zaščita are two in a long list of fortified industrial sites in Humboldt’s itinerary. On the history of the militarized “Lines” Humboldt circuited, see Humboldt 2009a, 162, nt. 12.

15Mapping mountains where the Line’s sentries could not see presented particular challenges for Humboldt—and opportunities for the Empire. Here, again, Humboldt corroborated geological and ethnographic information. In Orenburg, he sourced topographical details from “a manuscript-map of the lands of the Small Horde” kept in an officer’s “rich Asiatic Collection.”[46] According to Humboldt’s notes, the map corresponded to the geological and hypsometric investigations of Gregor von Helmersen (1803–1885) and Ernst Hofmann (1801–1871), also enrolled in Cancrin’s mineralogical campaign. “Hofm[an] and H[elmersen] adopt my opinion of the prolongation of the Ilmeny Mountains,” Humboldt noted of the point at which the Urals appeared to splinter into three chains around Zlatoust, south of Yekaterinburg.[47] As Tobias Kraft and Florian Schnee have indicated, a major focus of Humboldt’s notes from the south Urals was to delineate these splintered chains and the watersheds that fell into the “longitudinal valleys” between them.[48] There appeared to him “no doubt” that the ridgelines of the Ilmeny Mountains were truly “a continuation of this same eastern chain, which after joining the central chain of Irendik and Guberlin turn toward the isthmus between the Aral and Caspian.”[49] The sweeping claim appeared to make light work of yet another fragmented mountain-system. In truth, though, a subtler rhetoric was required to make the Ural’s southern advance a fait accompli. [46] See editors’ note to Humboldt RST I, 95v; Humboldt 1844, I, 276, nt.[47] Humboldt RST I, 94v95v. [48] Humboldt RST I, 82v84v.[49] Humboldt RST I, 95v.

16In Asie Centrale Humboldt likened the “tripartition” of the southern Urals to the parallelism of the Andean Cordilleras, so named for their cord-like bifurcation in Columbia.[50] As Bernard Debarbieux observed, Humboldt tended to arrange mountains into meridians and parallels. This brought the Urals into a dialogue with the longitudinal ranges of North and South America, forming a marked right angle with the meridians figured by the Tian Shan and Kunlun on Humboldt’s map of Central Asia.[51] The Andean reference also stemmed from wider survey of geological analogies, both in the Russo-Siberian journal and in a global study of the parallelism of mountain formations. Indeed, as Lachlan Fleetwood has shown, the quest to make disparate global mountain environments “commensurate” was characteristic of early nineteenth-century European efforts to map and govern Central Asia’s bewildering upland expanses.[52] In Humboldt’s case, this project also had clear implications for mineral prospecting.[53] Comparison to gold and platinum deposits of Brazil led Humboldt to tell Cancrin “the Ural is a true El Dorado.”[54] The Cordilleras-concept of parallel chains was therefore useful in establishing orographic coherence, especially in the complex and by no means mountainous geography of the Kyrgyz Steppe. Hofmann and Helmersen did themselves concede that “the height of the Ilmeny Chain … diminishes greatly in its southern extension,” only to add that this “does not generally matter” in tracing the Urals “into the Kyrghyz Steppe.”[55] Humboldt agreed: the Ural’s southern terminus in the Steppe “might be invalid if one was not authorized to regard a single mountain-system as sometimes composed of several partial, heterogenous upheavals.”[56] [50] Humboldt 1844, I, 277–278. Cf. “Paralletisme [sic] des formations” in Humboldt RST I, 94v.[51] Debarbieux 2012, 22–25.[52] Fleetwood 2018, 6, 34; Fleetwood 2022.[53] E.g. Humboldt to Cancrin, 3.4.1830, in Humboldt/Cancrin 1869, 124–126. See also Päßler 2017.[54] Humboldt to Cancrin, Miass, 3/15.9.1829, in Humboldt 2009a, 185.[55] Hofmann/Helmersen 1831, 3; editors’ notes to Humboldt RST I, 95v.[56] Humboldt 1844, I, 276.

17Humboldt’s regard is significant in this passage, as one authorized to see, combine, and assemble disparate geographies into coherent mountain-systems. This chapter has explored the corresponding social system that authorized such a survey—the mines, border posts, and mountain-sentinels that made it possible to trace out the “Diorite- and Porphyry Rock that characterizes the Russian Urals,” from the iron-barred pits of Bogoslowsk to the “Mughodjarischen Mountains” of the Kyrgyz Steppe.[57] The effect, in the Urals as in the Altai, was to prove the epistemic power of mineral empire and its infrastructure, where local observations could be projected into the lands of Russia’s nomadic subjects and foes.[57] Ibid., 276.

In the Mountains is Freedom: Conclusion

18Inscribed in the Russo-Siberia journal is a political history of observation. It shows how a program of geo-climatic survey emerged through a system of penal-colonial surveillance, how a science of freedom stemmed from a state of unfreedom. “I strive for the mountains,” Humboldt wrote to the astronomer Bessel from St. Petersburg in May, at the outset of his journey: “for as Schiller said: ‘in the mountains is freedom…’.”[58] Six months later, upon returning to St. Petersburg, Humboldt returned to Schiller’s theme. Now, however, he appealed to the wealthy industrialist Pavel Nikolaevič Demidov to plea for the “liberté civil” of Fotij Il’ič Švecov, the serf who guided him through the Urals.[59] Sent by his master to study mining at the École des mines in Paris, Švecov met Humboldt in Berlin upon his return to servitude in the Urals, where he managed the mines of Nižne-Tagil’skij since 1828. In 1829, Humboldt specifically requested the twenty-four-year-old serf as his guide in the Urals.[60] [58] Humboldt to Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, St. Petersburg, 7/19.5.1829, in Humboldt 2009a, 120.[59] Humboldt to Demidov, St. Petersburg, 10/22.11.1829, in Humboldt 2009a, 221.[60] Humboldt 2009a, 223, nt. 3; Rose 1837/1842, I, 307308.

Große Ansicht (Digilib)Figure 4: Sketch of gold deposits in the mid-Ural mining regions of Nižne-Tagil’skij, “begun by Fotij Il’ič Švecov,” Humboldt’s primary guide in the Urals. RST I, 73r.

19Humboldt and Rose relied extensively upon the young serf’s expertise, first in the region of Nižne-Tagil’skij and then in expeditions made from the south Ural copper center of Miass. “Ask Schwetzow about all of this!” Humboldt scribbled during his north Ural tour.[61] And ask he did. Notes from Nižne-Tagil’skij show a map of “magnificent gold alluviations in the southwest declivity of the Bertewaya Chain” (Figure 4). Further to the map’s southwest margin, an attribution of credit: “commence par Mr. Schwetzow.”[62] As the journal’s editors observe, a closer look at the map shows an initial topography sketched in pencil, possibly by Švecov, overlaid with the black ink in which Humboldt wrote. When they met again in the south, Švecov presented another map he had made at Humboldt’s behest, showing platinum and gold operations around Bjelaja Gora. The map later appeared in a Karte vom Ural Gebirge, and is attributed to Švecov in Rose’s account.[63] We can imagine Humboldt and Švecov together in Miass—the elder savant inspecting the young serf’s work—in the house of the Chief Metallurgy Officer, whose garden opened to a view of smelting plants with “the Ilmeny Mountains rising beyond them.”[64] [61] Humboldt RST I, 35v; cf. RST I, 29r.[62] Humboldt RST I, 73r.[63] See Karte vom Ural Gebirge (1837), in Rose 1837/1842, II. On Švecov as informant, middleman, and draftsman, see “Schwetsoff” in Rose 1837/1842, I, 321327. [64] Rose 1837/1842, II, 21.

20In the end it was Švecov, not Humboldt, who found freedom in the mountains. In letters to Cancrin, Humboldt countered the system of serf and convict labor that prevailed in the Urals with a set of liberal-statist reforms, including land allotments for free workers, bureaucratic management of timber resources, and increased “division of labor” in metallurgy.[65] The reforms were rejected; but Švecov was freed. Švecov’s was not the sublime aesthetic freedom that Humboldt evoked to Bessel, but emancipation from a life of servitude to the Demidov dynasty, who lorded over some 10,000 worker-subjects in mining operations throughout Western Siberia. Švecov’s very agency was at stake in his collaboration with Humboldt. He won his freedom through acts of scientific servitude—the draftsmanship he performed, the crystal and chromite he gifted to Rose.[66] Švecov’s story speaks, like Humboldt’s journal, to a Siberian system of science: a science practiced by serfs as well as savants, mountain guides and prison guards; a science whose grand survey of orographic patterns and thermometric averages was embedded in the material and conceptual architecture of a mineral empire. [65] Humboldt to Cancrin, Ekaterinburg, 5/17.7.1829, in Humboldt 2009a, 148–149; Humboldt/Cancrin 1869, 147–149; Beck 2009, 161–164.[66] Rose 1837/1842, I, 323; Rose 1837/1842, II, 145.


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Anthony, Patrick: The View from the Wachtberg. Surveying a Mineral Empire in Central Asian Borderlands. In: edition humboldt digital, hg. v. Ottmar Ette. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin. Version 8 vom 11.05.2022. URL:


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Über den Autor


Patrick Anthony

Vanderbilt University, Nashville (TN)

Patrick Anthony, geb. 1992, Promotion im Fach Geschichte an der Vanderbilt University. Seit 2021 DAAD PRIME Fellow der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München und Gastwissenschaftler der Cambridge University.

Patrick Anthony, born 1992, received his PhD in History at Vanderbilt University. Since 2021 he has been a DAAD PRIME Fellow at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and a Visiting Researcher at Cambridge University.