The Imperial Turn


Since roughly 1991, the Russian field has undergone numerous changes. In fact, one should now say the Russian and Eurasian field, for among the most striking developments has been the explosive growth of studies on what might be called the imperial dimensions to Russian and Soviet history. (1) Much as Social Democrats in Russia at the turn of the 20th century used to put the "nationality question" last on the agenda at party meetings, so Russian and Soviet historians often marginalized--or did not consider at all--a range of issues relating to non-Russian nationalities, ethnicity and nationalism, borderlands and non-Russian groups, national identities and representations of empire. (2) To be sure, fundamental studies appeared, but it is safe to say that this set of issues gravitated toward the margins rather than remaining at the center of the field's attention. The imperial turn in the historiography occurred not just because the Soviet Union broke up into 15 newly independent states in 1991, but because that particular owl of Minerva came on the heels of a quantum leap in the general theory of nationalism and ethnicity in the human sciences. (3) For many years now, study of Russia as a polyethnic state has been one of the fastest-growing and fastest-moving fields of scholarship in the Eurasian area. How has this changed the field?

Let us first refine the question. The imperial boom has persisted for over a decade; already, attempts to take stock are being pursued and a range of collected works have been published. (4) Kritika has also been a participant in this process--the third volume of Kritika Historical Studies, released by Slavica Publishers in November 2006, is entitled Orientalism and Empire in Russia. Aimed especially at classroom use and with scholars in other fields in mind, it brings together work in this area published in the first seven volumes of Kritika and some previously unpublished works on Russian Oriental Studies. Preparing this volume has prompted us to look back at what the journal has published in this area since its founding and to think more broadly about the contours of the new literature. The question we would like to pose here, though, is not primarily internal to the new historiography of empire. Rather, it concerns how this scholarly trend has affected--or, better to say, could affect--grand narratives of Russian history.

To unpack this question is, unquestionably, an interpretive act. Research in new areas often first develops as a new trend or subfield, then begins to change the texture of writing in the field more generally, and only after quite some time has an impact on the level of overall historical interpretations of the kind produced in general histories or told to students in textbooks. At present, it seems clear that there are a number of ways in which the growing body of literature holds implications for our understandings of Russian and Soviet history, even if their precise contours remain subject to debate. In the main, they address neither long-standing lacunae (although those are legion) nor truly macro-level conclusions about Russian history (for those will always be closely tied to political orientation, methodological allegiance, and philosophical dispute). Rather, a whole series of significant, "mid-level" interpretive conclusions emerge from the new literature that appear to affect broader historical narratives.

For example, for many decades, narratives about tsarist Russia revolved around its "decline and fall," whereas histories of the Soviet period often implied a new, almost unprecedented epoch grounded in the radical historical break of 1917. Both paradigms, of course, are not easily dismissed outright, and there were alternatives to them in the literature. However, from today's perspective, our far greater understanding of Russia's multinational character prompts greater appreciation of the forces holding the tsarist empire together for so long and, by the same token, of the long-term challenges and continuities affecting the multinational Soviet Union. …

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