Etkind, Alexander: Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience.
Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience
(Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2011)
ix, 289 p. I ISBN: 978-0-7456-5130-9 (pbk.) I RRP AUD 37.95
In Internal Colonization, Alexander Etkind argues that Russian imperial history is the history of the continual colonization of all the peoples within the ever-expanding boundaries of Russia, including Russians. His argument is based on a study of contemporary histories and literature in a roughly chronological order, beginning in the twelfth century. Etkind presents these documents in order to show the development of the Russian state's increasingly complex and fine-tuned methods of colonization up to the early twentieth century. This book is a cultural history of Russia's Rurikide and Romanov dynasties that attempts to apply recent colonial and postcolonial theory and research to the bafflingly large Russian Empire. Internal Colonization argues that scholars of colonialism and its aftermath have ignored the Russian experience to their detriment, as it offers new lessons in the field. It is a very ambitious undertaking-merely showing that Russia colonized the Russians would be ambitious enough-but Etkind succeeds comprehensively.
The idea of Russia colonizing itself is not particularly new, beginning in the nineteenth century in the works of several influential Russian historians. One of the last of these, Vasilii Kliuchevsky, drew on the work of his predecessors to write in 1904 that 'the history of Russia is the history of a country that colonizes itself (2). Etkind is thus the latest in a long line of historians to take up this view of Russian history. His aim is to revive the notion of 'internal colonization' after it fell from grace during the Soviet period. He stresses that the reflexive formulation of this dictum ('colonizes itself') is as strange in the Russian language as it is in English. Much of the first part of the book, therefore, defines exactly how this process can be conceptualized and applied productively to the study of Russian imperial history.
Etkind frames his study by presenting two common visions of imperial Russian history. The first is that of 'a great country that competes successfully, though unevenly, with other European powers, produces brilliant literature, and stages unprecedented social experiments', while the other is that of 'economic backwardness, unbridled violence, misery, illiteracy, despair, and collapse' (1). Etkind warns scholars against one-track thinking, and so subscribes to both visions at once. Indeed, the interspersed narrative sections of the book form a bloody tale of cruelty, brilliance, and grandeur. The Rurikides, among whose number were the famous Ivan the Great and his grandson Ivan the Terrible, expanded Russia's boundaries in the quest for fur. Unlike agricultural or pastoral empires, hunting and trapping were the driving forces of the later Rurikide dynasty (c. AD 862-1598), and some of the facts presented are astounding. London, for example, imported 350,960 squirrel skins in 1391 alone, most of which came from Russia (79). The realities of this trade for the colonized Russians and Siberian peoples are not forgotten, and some of Etkind's best passages are brutally blunt. Speaking of the nineteenth-century historian Afanasii Shchapov, himself a Siberian, Etkind notes how this man understood through local knowledge what the expanding frontier must have been like centuries earlier: 'He knew about the tragedies that developed at the frontlines of this hunting colonization, where the Cossacks were exterminating the hunting tribes in order to force them to exterminate the fur animals' (86). It is germane to Etkind's thesis that the Cossacks, mounted soldiers in the Tsar's service, were themselves a colonized people.
Imperial Russia was made up of many ethnic and religious groups, and society was divided along estate, rather than racial, lines. Without the familiar imperial markers of race and geography, Etkind argues, Western and Eastern scholars alike have overlooked the need to consider Russia as a colonial and postcolonial society. The four estates (the Russian term translates to 'co-ordinates') were the gentry, clergy, townspeople, and serfs, who after the 1861 emancipation became peasants. Creating laws to define and differentiate these four estates was one of the chief concerns of the Russian government. Most of the soldiers were Russian, or other colonized peoples, and while the gentry-estate officers were ethnically Russian, by the eighteenth century they often spoke a western European language more fluently than they did Russian. There was a physical difference between officers and men, too-Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725), the first westernizing tsar, had the gentry shaved, imposing a hefty tax on any recalcitrant officers. By sending these men to commands in the furthest regions of empire, the literature, art, and scientific thought of the European Enlightenment was spread throughout Russia. Like in British India, and elsewhere in the British empire, metropolitan officers commanded native soldiers that they found culturally incomprehensible. Referencing Kipling's 'white man's burden', Etkind neatly summarizes the duty of these gentry officers as the 'shaved man's burden'.
The book is a gripping read. Etkind combines an energetic pace with a multitude of sources, including historical documents, statistics, artwork, as well, of course, as the vast wealth of Russian literature. He has a knack for boiling his argument down to punchy sentences. That said, the book requires closer editing. The number of little mistakes was surprising for a book from this publisher. The use of an in-text referencing style meant that the year in which certain books were written was not able to be determined, which is an important consideration in this study of historical documents. The pictures throughout aided the argument very nicely, in some cases encapsulating several important points in a single image, but the text could have benefitted from the inclusion of a map of places mentioned. (It is possible, though, that Etkind left the map out to emphasise his argument that in imperial Russia, 'social differences were greater than geographic ones' (109)). These considerations do not, however, detract from the power and intellectual weight of the argument. Considering the book's complexity, Etkind has succeeded in presenting an entirely readable text that will appeal to anyone interested in Russian imperial history, Russian literature, or the literature and culture of a colonial and postcolonial society.
University of Melbourne
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|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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