In A Woman’s Empire, UTP author Katya Hokanson explores a new dimension of Russian imperialism where women are actively engaged in the process of late imperial expansion. Read Katya Hokanson’s full Q&A about her book below:
1) Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
I had been interested in women travelers for some time, as well as the whole question of how women played a role in defining and, in a sense, assimilating Russian imperial expansion for a broader public. As someone who had spent a fair amount of time studying (male) Russian writers who wrote about the Caucasus in the first half or so of the nineteenth century, I was interested in the next major phase of Russian expansion into Central Asia that started in the 1860s, which had both similarities and differences to the previous one, and was not dominated by imaginative writers in the same way. As I investigated, I began to discover more and more women who filled various roles in the mechanisms of the expansion of the Russian Empire, women ranging from actual scientists, such as the botanist Ol’ga Fedchenko, who accompanied Russian military expeditions, to Iulia Golovnina, a spouse accompanying her husband on a hunting trip disguised as a zoological expedition, to a professional writer and editor, Elena Apreleva, who moved with her family to Central Asia and published short stories that were sometimes quite critical of the Russian government. Alongside them were the very pro-imperial Varvara Dukhovskaia, whose husband’s career was emblematic of the power and often the cruelty of the Russian expansion and domination in both the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Aleksandra Potanina, whose husband was a Siberian separatist. She documented many details of women’s lives as she accompanied her geographer husband in territory inhabited by Buryats, Mongolians, and Chinese, among others, and got to know many people she wrote about on a personal level.
2) What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
The biggest challenge was maintaining a balance between introducing these mostly unknown figures, which required a certain amount of quotation and background information, and discussing them as writers and chroniclers, as well as artists and in two cases, photographers. It was also challenging to find sources that discussed them, in most cases. One exception is Madame Blavatsky, who is extremely well-known, although there is still a relative dearth of purely scholarly material on her.
3) Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that was surprising or exciting?
I found discovering the work of the women scientists, ethnographers, and photographers to be particularly fascinating. While I knew that the 1860s and 70s were a time of increasing opportunities for women in Russia, especially in the realm of education, it was fascinating to see these changes play out in the arena of Central Asia, and also of course sobering to see that many of these women so fully embraced the goal of assimilating Central Asia into the Russian Empire. It was fascinating to see how the work of someone like Ol’ga Fedchenko was appreciated in Europe and elsewhere, and how the various mechanisms of publishing worked for these women, and to what extent some of them struggled to publish.
4) What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
My experience working the editors was excellent, I felt fully supported the whole way, and I was given excellent guidance by Stephen Shapiro and later by the board and by the copyeditors. I highly recommend the press to other authors.
5) What are you hoping the impact of A Woman’s Empire will have on your target audience?
I hope that readers will discover this world of women writers and travelers, take stock of both their contributions and their drawbacks, but ideally also add many names to the list so that we can have a fuller picture of women’s writing and activities in this sphere. And of course, I hope that there will be responses that will incorporate the languages and perspectives of the people who were impacted by these travelers and their writings, and who likely provided narratives of their own.