Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia

Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia

Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia

Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia


Robert Geraci presents an exceptionally original account of both the politics and the lived experience of diversity in a society whose ethnic complexity has long been downplayed. For centuries, Russians have defined their country as both a multinational empire and a homogeneous nation-state in the making, and have alternately embraced and repudiated the East or Asia as fundamental to Russia's identity.

The author argues that the city of Kazan, in the middle Volga region, was the chief nineteenth-century site for mediating this troubled and paradoxical relationship with the East, much as St. Petersburg had served as Russia's window on Europe a century earlier. He shows how Russians sought through science, religion, pedagogy, and politics to understand and promote the Russification of ethnic minorities in the East, as well as to define themselves.

Vivid in narrative detail, meticulously argued, and peopled by a colorful cast including missionaries, bishops, peasants, mullahs, professors, teachers, students, linguists, orientalists, archeologists, and state officials, Window on the East uses previously untapped archival and published materials to describe the creation (sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional) of intermediate and new forms of Russianness.


This book explores a crucial dimension in the history of late tsarist Russia: the consciousness of the empire's ethnic diversity and attempts to lessen it so as to produce a united Russian “nation.” I focus on controversies—pedagogical, religious, political, and scholarly—that reveal how Russians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed the cultural ramifications of their country's expansion in “the East.” Though its narrative concludes with the eve of World War I, the book has been profoundly shaped by momentous changes taking place in Russia during the last decade of the twentieth century. To a degree that I can no longer recall precisely, my settling on the relationship between Russian nationality and tsarist imperial rule as a research topic in 1989—1990 came from my awareness of changes afoot in the Soviet Union and in external perceptions of it, in addition to issues that had long interested me in American life. But I certainly did not know just how timely the project would become as I carried it out, nor the degree to which my work on it would benefit from the eventual dismemberment of Communist rule and of the Soviet empire.

When I applied in 1990 to do research on this topic in the Soviet Union, I proceeded uncertainly. My mind was set on approaching the history of Russian national identity from the perspective of Kazan, nineteenth-century Russia's “window on the East, ” because of that city's relevance to the ideology and machinery of cultural integration for an enormous portion of the empire, on the one hand, and for the conceptual multifacetedness a regional focus would allow, on the other. Yet for all I knew, I might never be able to set foot in Kazan, let alone gain access to the research materials I needed there. At that time, foreign researchers in the ussr were typically allowed to visit provincial cities for several weeks at most, and had often been denied meaningful access to archival documents in such places—sometimes even in Moscow and Leningrad. Though it appeared in 1990 that restrictions had begun to loosen . . .

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