- Imperial Entanglements: Two New Histories of Russia's Western and Southern Borderlands
These days, one of the most active research fields in modern Russian history is borderlands history: that is, the history of non-Russian peoples living on the empire's peripheries, understood either in isolation from the Great Russian heartland or in dynamic relationship to it.1 Because this subject encompasses a central dimension of Eurasian history—Russia's status as a multinational, multi-confessional polity—the intellectual attractiveness of studying it is self-evident. Since as little as 20 years ago one could not confidently have predicted that scholarship would move so vigorously in this direction, we should ask why so many scholars both in post-Soviet Russia and the West have now opted to write on the borderlands.
In the Soviet Union, of course, writing the history of non-Russian peoples was a serious enterprise from the very beginning of Soviet power, but much of the scholarship that appeared in the early Soviet period was attuned to party doctrine and thus not inclined to investigate important questions such [End Page 407] as the place of religious affiliation in nationality politics.2 Moreover, certain issues like Russian–Jewish relations were so sensitive that, at times, they were virtually off-limits to scholars.3 In addition, borderlands scholarship occasionally became the virtual preserve of academics who either belonged to one of the non-Russian nationalities or lived in one of the non-Russian republics; meanwhile, the "commanding heights" of the historical profession were occupied by historians who wrote the history of the heartland.4 This professional constellation began to disintegrate in the Gorbachev and post-Soviet periods, but its breakdown did not immediately lead to a concentration on borderlands history. Indeed, if we imagine scholarship proceeding in waves, the [End Page 408] first wave, lasting from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, issued from a fascination with liberalism and reform in imperial Russia; the second wave, beginning in the early 1990s and still continuing at present, arose from a revival in Russian conservatism and a concomitant interest in the relative durability of the Russian empire compared with the Soviet Union. Borderlands history is the third wave of scholarship since the late 1980s. Its numerous sources include: the shattering of old taboos that hindered research on the subject; the realization that the Russian empire managed its national minorities for 300 years without experiencing the kind of "meltdown" that occurred in the last years of Soviet power; the knowledge that post-Soviet Russia, being a "post-imperial empire," must also attend to nationality problems of various kinds, many of them inherited from the Soviet system or from the Russian empire; the opening of archives in former borderlands regions that were once difficult to access, even for Russians; Western scholarly research in borderlands history that reinforces Russian interest in the subject; and the revival of certain classical problems in international relations—namely, tensions between Poland and Russia over the Western border zone, and tensions between Russia and Islamic states over the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Western scholarly interest in the imperial borderlands developed in a slightly different fashion. In Britain, for example, historians have long paid attention to the non-Russians along the southern rim of the Russian empire, probably because these peoples have been near neighbors of Britain's own empire.5 Moreover, the desire to compare the operation of competing empires has animated many British scholars, from imperial taxonomists like Arnold Toynbee and Niall Ferguson to Russian specialists like Dominic Lieven.6 In France, which has had its own empire located partly in Muslim societies, there has been a long-standing fascination with Russia's Islamic subjects in the Caucasus, in Tatar regions, and in Central Asia.7 Moreover, French [End Page 409] scholarship on the multinational composition of...