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Thinking through Russian colonial history

May 15, 2020

Intellectually speaking, I seem to be moving between two extreme geographies: on the one hand, I thirst for reading and writing about the seaside, the beaches and the coastscapes of the world; on the other, I bury myself into studies of the strange, dry interiors of Eurasia. This spring I was supposed to have spent two weeks in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, linked to my contribution to a special issue in the Central Asian Survey and a workshop that was scheduled for facilitating it, to be held in Bishkek, organized by my brilliant German fellow historians Jonas van der Straeten and Julia Obertreis. Unsurprisingly, the workshop couldn’t take place physically, but the organizers heroically turned the event into a digital one. It became my first-ever online conference. The theme? “Technology, Temporality and the Study of Central Asia”.

Central Asia’s modern history is very much a history of Russian colonialism. In this sense the online workshop came up at precisely the right moment, because I’m currently also working together with four Swedish colleagues on finalizing a co-authored book with a colonial-historical angle. Based on two large research projects that we recently concluded, the book targets Sweden’s role in the African, Asian and Arctic exploitative colonialism. My own focus here has been on Asia, and especially Russia and the Soviet Union, starting with the Swedish Nobel Brothers’ pioneering role in Russian petro-colonialism – centred in the Caucasus but later expanding into Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East – and ending with state-led Swedish efforts to tap into the Soviet Union’s colonial resource wealth.

Both the Bishkek workshop and the Swedish project have given me an excuse to devote quite some time recently to reading about the history of Russian colonialism more generally. The most fascinating book that I’ve come across here is Alexander Etkind’s Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (2011), which retells Russian political and cultural history as “a history of country that colonizes itself”.

Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience by Alexander ...

I have to admit I always thought the notion of “internal colonialism” was a post-World War II academic term, but in Etkind’s account it becomes clear that it was a guiding concept for exploring the very essence of the Russian Empire early on, and practically all pre-1917 (Russian and foreign) intellectuals made use of the term. Etkind nicely problematizes the intricate interaction between Russian settler colonialism in areas primarily populated by non-Russian peoples – Siberia, the Volga basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. – and what the colonial-style histories of the Russian heartlands. I’m deeply impressed by the way Etkind turns Russian history into transnational history. Moreover, he manages to bridge political power issues (in a discussion inspired by Hannah Arendt) and exploitative economies and ecologies (from fur pelts to fossil fuels) with a cultural history featuring well-known writers like Gogol but also strange, unreliable thinkers like Vasilii Tatishchev (who believed that the Russian people stemmed from a mix of Scandinavian Vikings and African Amazons).

However, as one of the participants in our Central Asia workshop, Oybek Makhmudov, made clear to me, the very idea that Russia has a colonial past remains controversial in the scholarly community – especially so in Russia itself. Needless to say, this makes the theme even more fascinating, and so I will continue reading and writing.

From → Energy

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