Territorial Colonization in Late Imperial Russia: Stages in the Development of a Concept

By Masoero, Alberto | Kritika, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Territorial Colonization in Late Imperial Russia: Stages in the Development of a Concept


Masoero, Alberto, Kritika


At the Paris Exposition universelle of 1900, the tsarist pavilion included a section devoted to the empire's peripheries. The map prepared for the occasion traced an arc that stretched from the northernmost regions of European Russia to Siberia, the Steppe Region, Turkestan, and the Caucasus. The idea of the progressive "colonization" of these vast, sparsely populated territories became a political imperative in the last ten years of the empire. Prime Minister Petr Arkad'evich Stolypin assigned a central place to it in his program of reforms. By the eve of World War I, there was a sizable literature on "resettlement" (pereselenie) and "colonization" (kolonizatsiia), a body of knowledge built up over time through careful study of foreign models. It comprised theoretical treatises, manuals, and specialized periodicals such as Voprosy kolonizatsii (Questions of Colonization, 1907-17). In 1914, an authoritative semi-official publication proclaimed that the "lands of Asiatic Russia are an indivisible and inseparable part of our state and at the same time our only colony." (1) How did this terminology become part of the imperial lexicon? What exactly did Russian authors mean by "colonization" and what nuances did the meaning of the word acquire in the decades before the revolution? This article explores the colonization discourse articulated by Russia's intellectual and administrative elite, including unofficial and oppositionist components. It traces how a modern vision of resettlement emerged from older patterns of territorial transformation, careful study of the Western colonial experience, and the need to respond to the challenges created by the political and intellectual context of the postreform era.

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"Colonization" is not understood here as a word describing centuries of spatial and demographic history. The subject of this analysis is not the socio-economic fact of peasant migration but the conceptualizations that accompanied it. The concept was adopted selectively from European literature around the middle of the 19th century. Here it is examined as it evolved through a discussion about populating and transforming the empire's peripheral, mostly eastern regions--a discourse about organizing population transfers, establishing a human presence, and assigning resources. Like other European expansions, the reality of Russian settlement in the east was the outcome of "a messy convergence of private impertinence and the coercive might of the state." (2) Government policy was merely one of the factors affecting the borderlands' development, and the examination of theories of colonization should not be confused with the history of the colonized regions, which depended on many local dynamics not examined here.

The theme has drawn a good deal of attention in the historiography, from different viewpoints. (3) Mark Bassin investigated the relationship between geographical representations and national identity. Willard Sunderland explored how the public at large viewed resettlement and how it was perceived by peasants. He has rescued the topic of territorial transformation from pre-revolutionary historiography and constructed the long-term periodization essential for assessing the discontinuity of the late imperial approach. A. V. Remnev considered colonization as a process of institutional and mental appropriation of Siberia, Central Asia, and the Far East, a discourse about empire and nation building. His and N. G. Suvorova's analysis of contemporaries' perceptions of settlers is unsurpassed in depth and subtlety, helping to explain the particular intensity of colonization policies in the years before the war. Alexander Etkind has offered a cultural interpretation of imperial history in the light of the concept of "internal colonization." His analysis leaves open the question of what political forms this broad cultural paradigm assumed at different times, especially when the term "colonization" was used explicitly to describe migration to the peripheries. …

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