Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.
Since the seminal publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000), there has been a continuing upsurge of writings on the possible reasons behind the rise of the West from a “global perspective.” Most of these studies focus on comparisons between Western Europe and China. Yet, in recent years works on India and the great divergence have followed suit, taking up research questions that have not been as prominent since the proliferation of debates on the subcontinent’s pre-colonial potentialities for capitalist development in the 1960s and 1970s. As of now, the paucity of quantitative data complicates endeavors to compare pre-colonial India with Europe and explore the underlying reasons behind the great divergence. Case studies examining the socio-economic history of a number of South Asian regions are still needed in order to conduct systematic comparisons between both advanced and underdeveloped regions of the subcontinent and those of Europe. The existing evidence, however, suggests that some of the "core areas" of 16th- to 18th-century India had more or less comparable levels of agricultural productivity, transport facilities (during the dry season), military capabilities in terms of ground forces (e.g., Mysore and the Marathas), commercial and manufacturing capacities (especially in textile, ship, and metal production), and social mobility of merchants (e.g., in Gujarat). Moreover, Indian rulers and artisans did not shy away from adopting European know-how (e.g., in weapon and ship production) when it redounded to their advantage. On the other hand, South Asia possessed some geo-climatic disadvantages vis-à-vis Western Europe that also impeded investments in infrastructure. India seems to have had a lower degree of consumer demand and lagged behind Western Europe in a number of fields such as mechanical engineering, the level of productive forces, higher education, circulation of useful knowledge, institutional efficiency, upper-class property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, and inter-communal and proto-national identity formations.