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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 291-297

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The Ambiguities of Russification

Institut für Osteuropäische Geschichte der Universität Wien
Spitalgasse 2-4
A-1090 Wien

In the 1970s, when I began studying tsarist nationalities policy, there existed only a few reliable scholarly works concerning these problems. Soviet historiography emphasized the harmonious relations between the Russian state and non-Russian ethnic groups ("the friendship of peoples"), and the nationalities question was virtually taboo. So the delicate topic of Russia's relations with the Poles, Lithuanians, and Belarusians was avoided not only by most historians in the Soviet republics of Belorussia and Lithuania but also in communist Poland. Meanwhile, the interwar national historiographies of Poland and Lithuania, which survived among émigré scholars, were committed to the notion that a coherent and systematic Russification of the non-Russians had been undertaken in the tsarist empire. "Western" specialists on Russian history widely followed this pattern, although there were exceptions.1 The first comprehensive, modern monographs devoted to tsarist nationalities policies in the western borderlands—the two volumes edited and partially written by Edward C. Thaden—were published only in the early 1980s. Thaden opposed the view that there had been a systematic, long-term Russification policy and distinguished between two kinds of Russification, administrative and cultural: the former was more durable and important and dated from the reign of Catherine II; while the latter was not systematic, covered only parts of the empire, and was undertaken after 1830 and especially after 1863.2 Following [End Page 291] this interpretation, I have tried to make some generalizations concerning tsarist nationalities policies.3

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the historiographical situation changed dramatically: the taboos imposed on Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian scholars disappeared; and hitherto closed archives were opened. Whereas many older historians now adopted the national paradigm, a younger generation of scholars made excellent use of the new opportunities and began to publish in-depth studies of the nationalities policies in the western regions of the empire. Today there exists an international network of specialists from Poland, Russia, Lithuania, the United States, and Western Europe who have all been working in the archives, have excellent language skills, and are engaged in a fascinating international discussion about the nature, aims, and implementation of Russification during the 1860s and the 1870s. The authors of the two articles presented in this issue of Kritika—one from Lithuania, the other from Russia—are active participants in this discourse. Other discussants whose works are frequently quoted in the articles are Henryk Glebocki and Witold Rodkiewicz (Poland), Leonid Gorizontov and Aleksei Miller (Russia), Theodore R. Weeks (United States), Daniel Beauvois (France), and Andreas Renner (Germany).4

The articles by Staliunas and Dolbilov treat the Russification policy in the Northwest region during the 1860s as it was conceived, formulated, and implemented by the authorities, especially the regional Russian bureaucracy. Both make excellent use of Russian and Lithuanian archives and contemporary printed sources; and both apply the modern methodological approaches of discourse analysis and (especially in Dolbilov's case) the concepts of representation, symbols, and mythmaking. They share the general assumption that there was no coherent, systematic Russification policy in the sense of cultural and linguistic [End Page 292] assimilation and that the picture is very complex. The meaning of the crucial terms "Russification," "Pole," or "Russian" and the relative importance of different markers of nationality (language, alphabet, religion, class /estate) therefore had many variants. This diversity is aptly illustrated by well-chosen, contradictory quotations from the sources; however, the quotations sometimes appear to have been selected arbitrarily and at random, creating the impression that any argument can be supported with evidence from the sources.

In both articles, the numerous contradictions within Russian nationalities policy are well elaborated. Thus, on one hand, tsarist officials postulated that Belarusian peasants were genuine Russians, while on the other they believed these same peasants were menaced by Polonization and had to be liberated from strong Polish...


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