Academic journal article Kritika

Vocabularies of Difference: Ethnicity and Race in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia

Academic journal article Kritika

Vocabularies of Difference: Ethnicity and Race in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia

Article excerpt

Juliette Cadiot, Le Laboratoire imperial: Russie-URSS, 1870-1940 (The Imperial Laboratory: Russia and the USSR, 1870-1940). 267 pp. Paris: Editions CNRS, 2007. ISBN 2271064821 (paper).

Marina Mogil'ner, Homo imperii: Istoriia fizicheskoi antropologii v Rossii (konets XIX-nachalo XX v.) (Imperial Man: The History of Physical Anthropology in Russia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries). 512 pp., illus. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2008. ISBN-13 978-5867935672.

Human beings are diverse. This is a fact of nature, as inevitable and universal as the primordial distinction between self and other. But the terms we use to describe, define, and classify human diversity are manmade, rooted in particular cultural, social, and intellectual contexts; in short, they have a history. Since the 1990s, this constructivist truism has formed the basis for a growing body of literature on the conceptualization of human diversity to which scholars of the Russian Empire have made substantial contributions. (1) But while the theme of human diversity has echoed broadly throughout the recent literature of Russia and the Soviet Union, the works under review are among the first to address head on two of the most powerful and pervasive measures of difference: ethnicity in Juliette Cadiot's Le Labaratoire imperial, and race in Marina Mogil'ner's Homo imperii.

Cadiot and Mogil'ner place their discussions within roughly congruous chronological boundaries. They begin their narratives in the aftermath of the Great Reforms, focus particular attention on the first decade of the 20th century, and follow their subjects well into the Soviet period. Thus both works join a growing body of recent literature spanning the boundary of 1917 in search of common trajectories and patterns that transcend the dramatic shift in ideology and practices brought by the revolution. (2) Authors of such works tend to view the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an incubator of ideas and practices that would find broader application by the modern state both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Markers of group identity in particular--such as class, gender, nationality, and race--served as instruments through which the state organized its population into manageable units readily arrangeable into hierarchies of utility and trust. Yet the recognition of these tools of identity opens new agendas for research: why were some modes of classification preferred over others? How were markers denoting innate features reconciled with belief in the malleability of the individual? And who controlled the ways in which markers of difference were articulated and deployed?

Such questions, of course, were not unique to Russia and the Soviet Union. The fact that Russian statisticians, ethnographers, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and government officials participated in international discussions on the human sciences and their practical applications underlines the importance of the comparative context. Cadiot and Mogil'ner, like many recent scholars, firmly resist the notion of a Russian Sonderweg, showing in considerable detail the international ties of Russian scholars and the circulation of West European concepts within Russia. Nonetheless, the evidence they present suggests a number of ways in which the Russian experience was distinct: the tsarist state's tardiness in embracing the category of ethnicity, for example, or the downplaying of race by key elements within the scholar community, to note two of the most obvious instances. But how much analytical weight do these particularistic elements merit? Were Russia's distinct features merely variations on a larger European imperialist theme, or do they bear witness to fundamental differences? In one way or another, both authors face the challenge of placing Russia's experience in an international context and accounting for its distinctiveness.

Both works focus on the processes through which concepts of difference were established and deployed to classify, quantify, and administer the population of the empire; and both writers look to academic disciplines as workshops within which a modern vocabulary of ethnicity and race was formulated and disseminated. …

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