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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 273-289

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Did the Government Seek to Russify Lithuanians and Poles in the Northwest Region after the Uprising of 1863-64?

Lithuanian Institute of History
Kraziu 5
2001 Vilnius

Andreas Kappeler, one of the best-known researchers studying the history of Russia as a poly-ethnic empire, once remarked that the nationalities question in the 19th-century Russian empire is much less well researched than the same issue in Austria-Hungary.1 This comment may indeed be accurate, but in recent years various non-dominant ethnic groups within Russia have attracted the attention of many a scholar, as has the empire's nationality policy. Despite these new studies, many areas remain open to dispute. One such contentious issue concerns the aims behind the Russian authorities' nationality policy. In other words, we should be asking whether the Russian authorities sought to Russify other ethnic groups. Historians have noted on more than one occasion that Russian nationality policy changed in the 19th century and was not applicable equally to all ethnic groups. Even in cases where Russian policy clearly pertains to a particular non-dominant ethnic group, scholarly opinion does not always concur.

At present, most scholars in Western countries agree that the Russian authorities did not seek the Russification of non-dominant ethnic groups. Theodore R. Weeks notes that in the Lithuanian case the situation is quite complex: "Did, then, official policy aim to assimilate Lithuanians into Russian culture or to 'Russify' them? No easy answer can be given to this question."2 Although this opinion does prevail in Western countries, in Eastern and Central [End Page 273] Europe we often encounter the opposite point of view.3 Lithuanian scholarship has already abandoned the previously quite popular assertion that from the end of the 18th century on, the Russian imperial authorities sought to assimilate Lithuania in the cultural sense. Today historians detect such intentions only within the period between 1863 and circa 1868.4

When we analyze various scholarly claims, we can detect another tendency. Historians who belong to formerly non-dominant ethnic groups—Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians, and the like—direct their research most often to analyzing particular means of implementing nationality policy, while among Russian and West European scholars the topic of so-called Russian national discourse analysis is becoming increasing popular (i.e., they study how Russia's political elite and society understood nationality [ethnicity], how they imagined Russia's future, etc.).5 Of course, to a large extent such varied points of departure influence the conclusions that are drawn regarding the aims of Russian nationality policy.

In this article I examine imperial nationality policy in only one region of the Russian empire, the Northwestern region [Severo-zapadnyi krai ] which in the mid-19th century comprised six provinces (Vil´na [Vilnius], Kovno [Kaunas], Minsk, Grodno, Vitebsk, and Mogilev). I attempt to determine whether the Russian authorities wanted to Russify the inhabitants of these provinces. In this case, Russification is taken to mean "cultural assimilation." I would like, however, to state a few caveats from the outset. This article does not analyze Russian policy toward the Jews, because this policy was specific and requires a separate study.6 I also do not address the Belarusian case, as Belarusians, like the Ukrainians, were considered to be a component part of the Russian nation and as such were not permitted any separate national expression after the 1863 Uprising was repressed. Thus we will deal in essence with just the Lithuanians and the Poles. [End Page 274]

A few words must be said about the Lithuanian national movement, which is less familiar to an English-speaking readership than the Polish movement. In accordance with the periodization offered by the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, the beginning of Phase B in the Lithuanian national movement—that is, the point when intellectuals consciously pressed for national identity—should be dated to the end of the second...


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