Russia was an empire, but (except in the case of Alaska) no oceans separated its centres of power from its colonies - only marshes, steppes and desert. The colonies were on the periphery - Siberia, Central Asia, Transcaucasia, the Baltics - but also in the heartlands over whose Russian peasants their masters - though often of the same race and speaking the same language - exercised an uncertain dominion. Russia's colonial history in many respects reflects this specific and unusual geographical character of the Empire.
Alexander Etkind comes at this subject as a University teacher of Russian Literature and Cultural History.
In the past (quite distant now), his subject matter would have been fair game for writers and intellectuals receiving no specific state subvention for their work. They would have produced belles-lettres, sometimes idiosyncratic and unreliable. Professors aim for something different and so Etkind pays his respects to the theorists of cultural history who matter in his world - Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin - though he largely spares us Derrida.
But having paid his respects, I am not sure that it makes much difference to what he writes. He starts from a Bibliography to die for (pp 257 - 82) and turns in some virtuoso performances, for example on the fur trade. But overall the book is a collection of sketches from an academic's album: seminar papers ("In this chapter, I will re-read these novellas together with two lesser known non-fiction texts by the same authors..." (page 214), biographical entries for little-known writers, "compare and contrast" literary essays,and - at worst - plot summaries and cabinets of curiosities. It is modern belles-lettres, with an academic cover story, and perhaps no worse for that.
On the other hand, Etkind does miss the opportunity for an integrated narrative of Russian colonial experience when he throws away a very interesting and important idea in just two pages (pp 143 - 144). He reprises this idea in his Conclusion:
"the Russian Empire demonstrated a reversed imperial gradient: people on the periphery lived better than those in the central provinces. The Empire settled foreigners on its lands, giving them privileges over Russians and other locals. Among all ethnicities in the Empire, only Russian and some other eastern Slavs were subject to serfdom..."(p 252)
This idea struck a lot of chords. Not so long ago I read Nicolas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers ( 2005). He shows how religious heretics (schismatics) originally exiled to the Caucasus to keep them away from the Orthodox in the Russian heartlands ended up both enjoying very obvious privileges, such as exemption from military service, and being relied on by the Imperial administration to provide valuable services to the Empire, for instance maintaining postroads and post stations on the Imperial periphery. At one and the same time, the heretics were outcasts, privileged and indispensable.
The Caucasus was also home to communities of foreign (mostly German) sects - Wurttemburgists, Mennonites - who were allowed enough autonomy to put their energies to long-term productive use. In the settlement of [H]elenendorf (after 1914, Elenino / Eleneno) in predominantly Muslim Elisavetpol guberniya, Wurttemburgists - who had arrived as far back as 1818 - produced wine and marketed it through a company of some importance, Concordia. The community survived until 1940 when Stalin exiled these Germans to Kazakhstan. There were a score or more communities like Elenino.
In another direction,the striking fact that peasants in the heartlands lived worse than those in the "colonial" periphery could be seen as critical to understanding both the collapse of the regime in 1917 and later (1918 - 21) features of War Communism.
In relation to the collapse, it was workers and peasants in the Russian heartlands who disproportionately provided the manpower to fight the First World War and who bore the brunt of German assaults. They were on the sharp end of the failings of the Imperial regime, not least the class (Estates, Ranks) system which made officers completely foreign to their men.
In contrast, and by way of example,for almost the whole war period, Russian Poland was under German Occupation. The subjects of the Tsar got on with their lives under German Occupation and parts of the civil administration were devolved to them. In the East, the Germans were not defeated - and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they took control of even more Imperial territory (the Baltic provinces, Ukraine).
The Bolshevik re-conquest of Russia in the East - Ukraine, the Don and Kuban,Central Asia, Siberia - which involved the defeat of all the opposing "White" forces by the end of 1920 - also deployed soldiers recruited primarily from the Russian heartlands from among poor workers and peasants. As the Red Army moved south and east, into areas richer in food and other products than the heartlands, so it requisitioned produce for the centre - for Petrograd and Moscow. And, at an individual level, soldiers looted or acquired on favourable terms food and other goods which they shipped back home by post. In a very crude and violent way, there was a redistribution from the wealthier periphery to the poorer centre.
Under Stalin, that redistribution from periphery to centre became larger and even more lethal, culminating in the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932 -33 [ see my review of Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows in a previous Blog].
So I think that Etkind in the idea of the "Reversed Imperial Gradient" touched on something which could perhaps have been developed at much greater length and which might have integrated some of the disparate material in this interesting book.
Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do