- Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe
Russia's experiences as an imperializing power borrowed aspects from those of all of its like-minded expansionist neighbors, from Europe in the west, the Ottomans in the south, and China on its eastern borders. Moving into geographically contiguous areas, the successive Russian governments sought to naturalize conquest by presenting themselves as the bearers of progress, first through Christianity and then through science and modernity. As Willard Sunderland points out in this pioneering study of the colonization of the Russian steppe, the "wild field" in his title, historians have been largely as prone as Russian rulers to accept the vision of the eighteenth-century cartographers that the steppes were an empty space, awaiting to be peopled. Stretching across a large swathe of Eurasia, from present-day Moldova to Kazakhstan, the steppe includes grasslands, forests, and desert areas. Until [End Page 383] now, the displacement of ethnic nomadic tribes by Slavic peasant agriculturalists has been an understudied chapter in the history of Russian imperialism. Notably, Russia's tsars came to consider the steppe as part of their territorial state, which affected both the administration of the region and how it fit into the national imagination.
A primary virtue of Sunderland's approach is that he contextualizes Russia's colonizing practices within the secondary literature that has explained how other societies functioned as both colonizing and imperializing powers. As Sunderland makes plain, although the two notions overlap, they are not synonymous, and he takes advantage of Russia's rather jumbled experiences in the steppe frontier to explore differences. For example, borrowing from arguments made by Richard Slotkin, a historian of the American West, Sunderland uses the notion of the frontier as a "middle ground" to discuss the process as one of transformation rather than unidirectional appropriation. Two ethnic groups are especially important to this part of his story, the Cossacks and the Kalmyks, both of whom asserted independent identities, gradually becoming absorbed into statist structure through the specific, especially military, services they could offer. Likewise, he uses world-systems theory to illustrate how the steppe-periphery was essentially an extension of the state-center; although I would have appreciated a more sustained comparative analysis, Sunderland's attention to how others have written about colonization increases the value of his work to world history. In telling how Russia accomplished this, he relies heavily on official decrees, bureaucratic reports, and specialized periodical publications and is less concerned with postcolonial theories of "Otherness."
Although the bulk of this monograph is devoted to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially from the implementation of Catherine the Great's efforts at "enlightened colonization," the first chapter sketches the first millennium of multicultural contacts in the area. Drawing from such varied sources as the Primary Chronicle to the reports of ethnographers dispatched by Peter the Great, Sunderland provides a vivid overview of early Russia that reminds the reader of that country's troubled and paradoxical position between East and West, an Orthodox Christian country that spent centuries under the Mongol yoke and that always contained a multiplicity of ethnicities and confessions within its geographical borders. When Peter famously opened his "window on the West" at the turn of the eighteenth century, he intended to establish Russia as a proto–western European state that would use science to accumulate and govern the backward territories along its frontiers. The nature of colonization changed here, as it did [End Page 384] in other countries, when the Enlightenment inaugurated a new justification for it with its implicit promise of progress, guaranteed by science.
Where the monks who wrote the Primary Chronicle framed their story of the struggle between good and evil in the wild field in religious images, Catherine saw it in secularized ones, beginning with the steppe (step') itself, or "empty, unpopulated, and treeless place of great expanse" (p. 71). Her academicians even defined the verb "to settle" (zaselit') as "to settle steppes," thereby affirming that the movement of agriculturalists into...