24 Aug

The twin tales of Russian history

Posted By Politybooks

alexander-etkind-120pxStudying imperial Russia, scholars have produced two stories. One concerns a great country that competes successfully, though unevenly, with other European powers, produces brilliant literature, and stages unprecedented social experiments. The other story is one of economic backwardness, unbridled violence, misery, illiteracy, despair, and collapse. I subscribe to both of these at once.

But scholarship is not a dual carriageway; we need to find a way to coordinate the different stories that we believe in. My solution is a kind of Eisensteinian montage interwoven with an overarching principle, which in this book is internal colonization. I propose this concept as a metaphor or mechanism that makes the Russian Empire comparable to other colonial empires of the past. So, in this book, the two Russian stories combine into one: the story of internal colonization, in which the state colonized its people. 

Before and during and after the imperial period, the Russian state was engaged in the colonization of foreign territories and it was also concerned with colonizing the heartlands. Peoples of the empire, including the Russians, developed anti-imperial, nationalist ideas in response. These directions of Russia’s colonization, internal and external, sometimes competed and sometimes were indistinguishable. Dialectic in standstill, as Walter Benjamin put it, but also an explosive mix that invites oxymoronic concepts such as internal colonization.  

Incorporating different disciplines, voices, and periods is a risky task for a cultural historian. I take courage in the idea that high literature and culture in Russia played significant roles in the political process. Due to its paradoxical mechanism, internal colonization made culture politically relevant and power culturally productive. For an empire such as Russia’s, its culture was both an instrument of rule and a weapon of revolution. Culture was also a screen on which the endangered society saw itself – a unique organ of self-awareness, critical feedback, mourning, and warning.

Human grammar distinguishes between subject and object, while human history does not necessarily do so. Self-imposed tasks – self-discipline, internal control, colonization of one’s own kind – are inherently paradoxical. Languages, including scholarly ones, get into trouble when they confront these self-referential constructions. In the twenty-first century, scholars of globalization meet the same logical difficulties as the scholars of Russian imperial history met in the nineteenth century. Of course, I hope that the world of the future will be no more similar to imperial Russia than it will be to British India. But the experience and experiments of the Russian Empire can still teach us some lessons.

Alexander Etkind is director of Russian studies at King’s College, Cambridge, and the author of Internal Colonization, out on 23 September.