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  • Bondage and Emancipation across Cultural BorderlandsSome Reflections and Extensions
  • James F. Brooks (bio)

Nikolai Shipov's paradoxical journey to self-emancipation through Chechen captivity cannot but strike chords with scholars who now flock to the study of cultural borderlands near and far. When Kritika first asked that I—an ethnohistorian of North American borderlands—provide a critical reading of Professors Brower and Layton's fascinating treatment of Shipov's life and writings, I leaped at the chance. Having dabbled with comparisons of capture-and-exchange systems across borderlands as distant (and distinct) as the American Southwest, Canada, southern Africa, and the Caucasus, I expected to learn much from this essay—and indeed I have.1

At first, I found the particularities of Shipov's skill in turning the Russian legal code on its head toward his own liberation so unusual that I wondered if that aspect were so unique—not only in borderland dynamics writ large but even in the Russian context itself—that it must stand unfortunately alone in the literature. A fascinating case, but anecdotal in the extreme. Yet the experience of intercultural captivity as culturally enlightening and liberating for its victims has a much wider resonance and opens a window for connecting Shipov's story to a wealth of like cases and theoretical extensions. If we set aside for the moment Shipov's premeditation in his own "voluntary captivity"—an agency that may prove less distinct than it first seems, given the willingness of many frontier dwellers to place themselves and their families in harm's way—we are drawn into many worlds wherein moments of abject powerlessness become opportunities for expanding empires to sharpen formative identities and for individuals to present life stories of personal transformation.

Brower and Layton make clear that Shipov's tale, although standing alone as the sole autobiographical account of self-liberation through captivity, [End Page 281] shares company with a vital body of captivity literature that emerged from Russia's expansion to the south and east. In this respect Shipov's experience might fruitfully be read in parallel to a similar output from the British empire, so insightfully detailed in Linda Colley's magisterial Captives: The Story of Britain's Pursuit of Empire and How Its Soldiers and Civilians Were Held Captive by the Dream of Global Supremacy, 1600—1850. Her argument hinges on the apparent contradiction of a tiny, culturally insecure Britain venturing into the imperial game with a countervailing "aggression and above all an urge to compensate" for its smallness on the world scene. The many thousands of Britons swept into captivity in the Mediterranean, North America, and India simultaneously reinforced this national sense of vulnerability while justifying massive commitments of military and financial resources to global domination. Shipov's ethnographic emphasis on shared cultural traditions between his "Russians" and the peoples of the Caucasus strikes a very different note from the narratives emanating from the British press—and from the vacillating tropes of "brutish" or "noble" mountaineers more common in 19th-century Russian literary products themselves. One might write this off to Shipov's lifelong familiarity with Kazakhs and Chechens or to the rather late date of publication (1881) of his memoir—by which time pacification of the region was nigh complete—but one wonders if those "Russian" traders and Cossacks who shared his milieu maintained similarly different attitudes about the empire and its neighbors.2

Indeed, this "local cosmopolitanism" seems ubiquitous across other imperial borderlands and often proved the source of real consternation among agents of empire attempting to consolidate administrative control of regions distant from the metropole. In the American Southwest (New Spain and Mexico's far northern frontier; later the U.S. Far Southwest), borderlanders like "redeemed" captives Juana Hurtado Galván, Francisco Xavier Chaves, Alejandro Martín, or Indian traders Manuel Cortés and Pablo Montoya all enjoyed long careers in which they turned their cross-cultural skills—acquired either in the captive experience or as actors in widespread illicit commerce—toward personal enrichment, diplomatic negotiation, or the bedevilment of customs agents. Juana "la Galvana," stolen by Navajo raiders when but a child, returned to the New Mexican colony as a young woman...


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pp. 281-284
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