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  • Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe by Willard Sunderland
  • Jeff Sahadeo
Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe. By Willard Sunderland. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.

In his sweeping survey of steppe colonization, Willard Sunderland argues that Russian officials and intellectuals transformed the lands to the south of Moscow from “the seemingly most alien of wildernesses to a touchstone of the nation…”(223). Slavic peasants and other European migrants, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, displaced steppe nomads, plowed up fertile soil, and grew to recognize the authority of the tsar. A “government-public nexus” in the metropole employed the steppe to advance economic and agricultural policies as well as fulfill national myths of Russia as a dynamic country of peasant resettlers, gently and gradually civilizing surrounding lands. Yet Sunderland points out that contradictions and ambiguities in steppe colonization proliferated not only on the ground, where the process was anarchic, but also in the capital, where state policies and nationalist and imperialist imaginings constantly shifted. Colonization, “providing a window on Russia itself” (225), displayed confusion as well as conquest, disorder as well as destruction, as Russia tried to place itself among the empires of the west.

Sunderland details processes of Russia’s colonization that highlight its particularities as well as place the country within a larger western imperial pattern of expansion. One of these important particularities involves state efforts to control the colonization process on the one hand, and the extent to which this control was undermined on the other. Tsars and central ministries saw bordering steppe lands as the sole property of the state and bombarded local officials with decrees seeking to manage all aspects of development. Colonization was alternately forbidden or discouraged based on central efforts to maintain tight control over the economy and “social order” in the metropole as well as the periphery. Leading bureaucrats adopted a paternalistic and patronizing view of Slavic settlers, believing they needed tutelage to become useful subjects and turn the steppe into a productive region. The state’s reach, however, exceeded its grasp. Alongside low state capacity and bureaucratic confusion, the willfulness and defiance of settlers and the local population produced a process that local officials complained degenerated into “total chaos” on the frontier.

Frustration with settler behavior contributed to another particularity of tsarist colonization. Central officials and intellectuals viewed Russian peasant colonists as lazy, vulgar drunkards, threats to as well as vessels of a civilized nation. Although Sunderland seems unaware that such internal class divisions were common within imperial powers, he points out that even Russian nationalists saw German Mennonites and other non-Russians or non-Orthodox as more capable settlers, believing them to be blessed with an entrepreneurial ethos. The state offered more generous incentives for “foreign” than Slavic settlers. Sunderland highlights these issues as one example of an ambiguous “national-imperial spirit” in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Russia. The state seemed to favor imperial over national goals. Russian nationalists, meanwhile, sought not only inclusion in, but superiority over, the European family of nations. They argued that that Russia ‘s mode of steppe “resettlement” was more pacific than the brutal colonizing methods of other imperial powers, yet still brought civilization and enlightenment. The unsanctioned and uncultured behavior of Russian settlers made a mockery of this, perhaps sharpening their demonization by elites, though Sunderland never makes this link explicit. Colonization seemed to proceed on two quite different planes: one of the imagination, where the center remolded the steppe, through novels and poetry as well as policies, in its own image; and the other on the ground, where “practical interactions” dominated.

Sunderland effectively engages a larger debate as to whether territorially contiguous Russian expansion could be considered “imperial” in nature. Russians themselves envisioned their appropriation of the steppe in various ways. Some boasted of their ability to transform the completely alien territory of the “wild field;” others saw the land as eminently theirs, once home to tribes that were ancestors of the contemporary Russian nation. Officials and intellectuals alternated between labeling the migration process “resettlement” or “colonization” and referred more frequently to the territory as “okraina” (roughly translated...

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