Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 317-320
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Critics of nineteenth-century anthropology have reminded us that theories of primitive society are about something that never existed. But Yuri Slezkine, whose professional allegiance to Russian and Soviet history frees him from anthropology's disciplinary quarrels, makes in Arctic Mirrors the equally important point that ideas of savagery have mattered enormously in determining the treatment of people identified as "primitive." The "mirrors" to which the title of his original and thought-provoking study of Russia's Arctic peoples refers are the Russian conceptions of these peoples. Over the period of four centuries during which they have lived at least nominally within a Russian state, their fate came increasingly to depend on the deforming mirrors that their colonial rulers held up to them. Images oscillated between the extremes of, in Slezkine's terms, "backwardness-as-beastliness and backwardness-as-innocence." Whatever the prevailing idea, the well-being and at times the very lives of these peoples were at risk.
Slezkine's approach, as he makes clear at the outset, is to write of this encounter from the perspective of, and on the basis of sources generated by, the Russian colonizers. All the peoples of the Russian North, from the seal- and whale-hunting Chukchi on the Bering Sea [End Page 317] to the reindeer-herding Nenets of the lower Ob River basin, have their own unique history. It appears here only through the prism of their response to outside intervention. All these peoples spoke languages different from the Slavic tongue of the Russians; all conducted their nomadic or semisettled economies under environmental conditions so severe that they lived at the margin of subsistence and in circumstances scarcely tolerable—or downright intolerable—to visitors from societies of relative abundance. In other words, differences—that theoretical lodestone for contemporary ethnographic theory—were every-where apparent to the intruders. This encounter posed in the starkest possible terms the question of the role and identity of the Russian colonizers. Slezkine reminds his readers in thoughtful, subtle ways throughout his study that the "Arctic mirrors" reveal as much or more about the Russians as about the peoples whose lives the Russians sought to control.
The terms by which Russians identified these peoples offer a schematic guide to the historical themes Slezkine develops in covering the four centuries of Russian rule over Arctic lands. The Russians from the Muscovite state who came in search of furs saw only "foreigners" (inozemtsy) living outside their known world. Orthodox missionaries recognized souls to be converted among the "unbelievers" (inovertsy), proceeding much like the Spanish at the other end of the world to promote the greater good of their church and their monarch by imposing uniformity of Christian faith.
The eighteenth-century Petrine empire altered dramatically this vision of subject peoples. Under Enlightenment inspiration, it extended the borders of a common humanity beyond the Arctic Circle by incorporating the northern peoples in a recognizable ladder of being. It did so, however, by consigning them to the lowest rung of "savagery" (dicost'). The final stage in the empire's project for Arctic rule was to commit these "children of nature" to a protected status of "alien" (inorodtsy). In the early nineteenth century, new laws set definable and, in theory, defensible barriers around the northern peoples. Their way of life possessed its own unique value, and (again in theory) they acquired the autonomy necessary to be able to choose when andÝto what extent they would adopt the customs, language, and dress of their civilized rulers. In practice, Slezkine makes clear that the irreversible inroads of the market, the vodka bottle, and epidemic disease had made Arctic sanctuary an impossible dream. Differences re-mained, but they continued to place the northern peoples at a terrible disadvantage.
Soviet treatment of these peoples, to which Slezkine devotes more [End Page 318] than half of his book, continued the...