Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.4 (2004) 735-747
[Access article in PDF]
Identity in Late Imperial Russia
Nation, Culture, Politics
Theodore R. Weeks
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4519 USA
Vissarion Belinskii once remarked: "Nationality is not a homespun coat, bast slippers, cheap vodka, or sour cabbage." What is, then, the essence of "being Russian"? Or indeed, is there a Russian identity at all? In various ways the books under review here attempt to answer these questions, both building on older historiography and blazing new paths. During the "long Cold War," which extended into the 1980s, Russia was often treated as sui generis, a world and nation apart—in a sense agreeing with Konstantin Aksakov ("The Russian people is not a people: it is humanity") and Fedor Tiutchev ("Russia cannot be understood with the mind"). For better or worse, the collapse—with a whimper, not a bang—of the USSR ended those days, one hopes forever. Russia is no longer one of the great world powers; it is, rather, an important but hardly hegemonic state with enormous potential but facing [End Page 735] no less daunting economic, social, and political challenges. One of these challenges involves making sense of what being a Russian is and was.
"Identity" is a notoriously slippery concept, and some scholars wish to eschew its use entirely. In the end, though, historians must deal with fuzzy categories and emotional attachments—what are humans, after all, if not fuzzy and emotional?1 The last decade or so has seen the publication of a number of monographs on aspects of Russian identity (in particular, national identity) that range from the scintillating to the pedestrian.2 We certainly know more now about nationality policy, non-Russian resistance to Russification (however defined), and the histories of ethnic groups within Russia.3 At the same time, the complex bundle of culture, religion, sentiment, class, and politics that makes up "Russian identity" (or "identities") remains largely terra incognita. In diverse ways these four books illuminate different corners of the notorious "Russian soul" through the prism of landscape images, the theory and practice of corporal punishment, concepts of liberal nationalism, and building a Russian "liberal alternative" outside Russia proper.
Of these four books, only two mention "identity" in their titles. Ely argues that artistic and poetic visions of the Russian landscape can provide insight into Russian national identity. Schrader advances a similar argument, but for her the prism through which Russian identity is revealed is the theory and practice of corporal punishment. For the other two books, arguments [End Page 736] about identity are more implicit than explicit. When Wolff speaks of a "liberal alternative" posed by the city of Harbin in Russian Manchuria, he is referring to a challenge made by liberal Harbin to Orthodox and autocratic Russia. Hence this book also delves, though less explicitly, into the realm of political identity in late imperial Russia.4 Finally, Malinova's book on liberal nationalism both presents a Russian liberal alternative to familiar right-wing and antisemitic nationalism and implicitly suggests that in today's Russia such a liberal patriotic model might also have a place. In each book, the issue of "how Russian is it?" appears on nearly every page through the filter of legal, social, intellectual, and art history.
The changing valuation of Russian landscape in literature and art forms the...