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Orenburg: An Imperial Stronghold on Russia's Multiethnic Frontier

Exhibit Author: HY

Over 1400 kilometers southeast of Moscow, Orenburg stood in the late 18th century as the only significant imperial Russian fortress in the region of southern Ural (the Iaik River prior to 1774). Many of the inhabitants of Orenburg province were ethnic minorities living on the fringes of the empire. Orenburg’s distance from the political and administrative centers of Russia, yet proximity to the Iaik River, bestowed a potent symbolic and political value on it as the military presence of the tsar on the southern frontier. In 1773, the difficulties of organizing and dispatching tsarist troops against the Pugachev Rebellion, an insurgency led mostly by a core host of Iaik Cossacks, revealed to the imperial government the necessity of developing a more stable relationship with its ethnic minorities, which were often majorities on the frontier.[1]

After its central role in the Pugachev Rebellion, Orenburg became, in 1785, the site of a still-experimental model of assimilation, this time carried out with the Muslim Tatar population in its province.[2] As the imperial government’s sole direct point of contact with its southern frontier subjects, Orenburg played a crucial role in the tsarist strategy to consolidate power over ethnic groups within the Russian empire during the reign of Catherine the Great, becoming the conflict-rife interface between the central authority of Moscow and the ethnic minorities it purported to rule.

[1] Alexander Pushkin, Complete Prose Fiction, trans. Paul Debreczeny (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983).

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001), 120.

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