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Internal Colonization. Russia’s Imperial Experience by Alexander Etkind (review)

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 445-457 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0081

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This is an important and stimulating, but flawed book. It consists of a series of essays in cultural history and literary criticism, which Etkind describes as “a kind of Eisensteinian montage interwoven with an overarching principle, which in this book is internal colonization” (P. 2). He argues that the internal colonization of Russia by its own state, and the relationship between Russia’s literate elites and its masses in the post-Petrine period, are comparable to the external colonization of Asia, Africa, and America by European states and by Russia itself, and can thus be interpreted through a post-colonial lens. He also states at the outset that “this book is a project in Cultural Studies” (P. 3). Both these statements rendered this reviewer apprehensive – the first because the language of postcolonialism frequently mistakes opacity for profundity, the second because all too often “Cultural Studies” is shorthand for saying more and more about less and less, or an excuse for writing history without doing any research. In fact Etkind’s book does not fall into either of these traps. His writing is admirably clear and elegant throughout (apart from the grating use of “Brits” where he means “British,”1 and some unfortunate typographical errors),2 and while the book is not a piece of original research, he has read very widely in literature, literary criticism, and historiography, bringing new insights to well-known texts, and unearthing others that are much more obscure. Some of the essays in Internal Colonization are individually brilliant, but Etkind’s “overarching principle” is both too weak and too problematic to bind them together effectively.

Etkind bases his initial argument on the idea that internal and external colonization exist simultaneously and are equivalent categories in the Russian context (Pp. 2–6, 19, 251). He never defines either of them geographically, and thus internal colonization sometimes seems to refer only to the core (or “heartland,” as he calls them), European Russian areas of the Empire, at others to regions with large non-Russian populations, such as Bashkiria, Siberia, and the European steppe. But can the colonial violence that led to the near extermination of so many Siberian peoples, or the relationship between Russian administrators and Muslim subjects in Central Asia, really be equated to the extension of the state’s control over ethnic Russians in the empire’s heartland, or the relationship between Russia’s elites and its peasantry? Is “internal colonization” really a useful term to describe the latter? I am doubtful.

Etkind describes the concept of internal colonization as “an old, well-tested tool of knowledge,” but the intellectual genealogy he gives it is somewhat confused. On the one hand, he traces it back to certain unspecified nineteenth-century German authors, and, in the Russian context, to Afanasii Shchapov (Pp. 6–8), while he writes that his use of it is taken from the work of Jürgen Habermas. However the book opens (P. 2) with the famous quotation from the historian Sergei Solov’ev, popularized by his pupil Vasilii Kliuchevskii: “The history of Russia is the history of a country which colonizes itself,”3 and Etkind discusses the genesis of this idea in Imperial Russian historiography very effectively in Chapter 4 (“To Colonize Oneself,” Pp. 61–71). It seems to me that when Solov’ev and Kliuchevskii used the reflexive form of what was then a novel verb in Russian (kolonizuetsia), they were not referring to the alienation of the state and its elites from their “own” people, nor were they referring to the extension of coercive and governmental control over that people by the state (even if Kliuchevskii did think that process was taking place at the same time; P. 70). They were referring to the process of settlement – of the migration of the Russian population into lands that were sometimes more or less “empty,” but normally had previously been inhabited by other peoples, who were then dispossessed and sometimes exterminated.4 These regions were then incorporated into the Russian state, though not always on terms of political equality. This is made quite explicit by Kliuchevskii, who immediately after this famous line writes:

The field of colonization in her broadened together with her...

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