Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience

January 26, 2012

The phrases "internal colonisation" and "self-colonisation" have, through overuse, become associated with political correctness. Russia has long been both subject and object of colonisation. Alexander Etkind's book reinvigorates these tired terms, offering a compelling analysis of Russian history and culture until 1917. The country's efforts to colonise its own heartlands and peoples matched, and perhaps exceeded, its pursuit of colonisation along more traditionally imperial avenues. This book's 12 chapters, ranging from literary and cultural explorations to a study of Russia's fur trade, vividly delineate this process. Moreover, as Etkind notes, "an interesting measure, the sum total of square kilometers that an empire controlled each year over the centuries, shows that the Russian Empire was the largest in space and the most durable in time of all historical empires, covering 65 million square kilometer-years for Muskovy/Russia/Soviet Union versus 45 million for the British Empire and 30 million for the Roman Empire".

In stressing Russia's liminal location between West and East, Etkind focuses on cultural hybridisation. He frames his necessary, critical yet admiring engagement with Edward Said by interpreting the Palestinian-American intellectual as someone torn between the beliefs of his pro-Nasser mother and his uncle, Charles Malik, the pro-democratic Lebanese statesman.

Etkind's literary-cultural interpretations of writers such as Daniel Defoe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Rudyard Kipling are clever and engaging, especially his readings of two "river" novels, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Nikolai Leskov's The Enchanted Pilgrim. Nikolai Gogol's canonic story, The Nose, illustrates internal colonisation. When Kovalev discovers that his nose has vanished, a parable about the part and the whole ensues: "When in its proper place, the nose is just a little part of Kovalev's wholeness...As long as the part is the slave of the whole, the order is safe."

Central to Etkind's understanding of Russia's internal colonisation is the fur trade. "Man-made migrations of small, wild, furry animals defined the expansion of Russia. Winter roads, trade stations, and militarized storehouses for fur spanned across Eurasia, playing roles that were not dissimilar from the Great Silk Route in medieval Asia. Ecologically, colonization also meant deforestation." Following the historian Afanasy Shchapov, Etkind argues that it was not the sword but the axe that moved Russia's colonisation. Even more important were the bow and the trap. The fur trade reduced many tribes nearly to extinction, and "in some cases the population- loss went so deep and happened so quickly that it is proper to speak of genocide". Etkind argues that no other quest for any single commodity has "been so well forgotten in the history of human suffering". Now the same lands play a similar role in the quest for natural gas and oil; primary pipelines follow the old fur trade routes.

Etkind also devotes significant time to Peter the Great, maintaining that his brand of colonisation was more about population than about territory. "Having its colonies inside itself, Peter's Empire did not bother about tariffs, piracy, and trade surplus, the concerns of the mercantilist Europe." Russia thus colonised itself. "Russian museums document a full break between the imperial culture and the pre-Petrine past. Leaving the rooms of 'icons' and entering the wing of 'Russian art,' one feels the same rupture as when moving from a section of native art into the imperial section in any colonial museum in America, Australia, or India."

Surprisingly, Etkind concludes that Russian literature was "the most successful institution of cultural hegemony in the Russian Empire". (He perhaps underemphasises the strong influence of the West here.) Specialists may have their quibbles, but the cumulative power of Etkind's argument constitutes an impressive scholarly achievement, offering a coherent yet richly detailed account of Russia's centuries-long experience of internal colonisation.

Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience

By Alexander Etkind. Polity Press. 264pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745651293 and 1309. Published 14 October 2011

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