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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 397-431

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An Imperial Rights Regime

Law and Citizenship in the Russian Empire

Dept. of History
New York University
53 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012 USA

What difference can empire make to citizenship? In this article, I address the question of imperial citizenship in Russia through an exploration of imperial law, rights, courts, and their use by lowly members of the polity. I want to enable a more expansive notion of citizenship that includes polities based on differentiated but activated rights and to escape from a framework that privileges the "nation-state"—a short-lived phenomenon but a long-lived construct. I challenge the notion that citizenship—both as a practice and a construct—need be restricted to polities that declare themselves founded on the principles of shared nationality and uniform rights—based on ethnicized or other homogenizing identifications of their populations. Categories such as "equal rights" and "national identity" may be getting us off on the wrong foot—or just one leg—if we want to describe the modes of political expression, claim, and exercise of rights characteristic of the Russian empire.

This article sketches out what I call Russia's "imperial rights regime" and focuses on the law and courts as areas where citizenship is practiced. I describe Russia's "umbrella of imperial law," address the confusing category of "difference," explore the significance of the imperial rights regime for both elites and commoners, set out the parameters of lower-level court practice in the late 19th century, engage briefly a 20th-century conflict between liberal plans for and peasant experience of local courts, and conclude with a consideration of the significance of an "imperial social contract." I suggest that both rulers and subjects of the Russian empire—and later of the Soviet Union—held conceptions of the state, its powers, and its significance in social life that derived from their experience of a regime of differentiated, alienable, but [End Page 397] nonetheless legal and meaningful rights. The "habitus of Russian Empire" was critical to how the polity was held together, how it came apart, and how it was put back together again (twice) in the 20th century.1

Before elaborating on these arguments, let me define more precisely what this article is not about. First, this article is not about "empire" as a unitary phenomenon but rather considers Russia as a particular empire, as one variant on the most common form of state power in Europe from Rome until the mid-20th century. Although nations and nationalism were theorized, mobilized, and fought over in the 19th century, all of Russia's rival polities in this period—the German Reich (from 1871), the French empire (with republican or overtly imperial phases), the British empire, not to mention the Ottoman and Habsburg states—were empires, mostly in name, always in practice. Empire was the ordinary kind of state, and the competition among empires was the ordinary kind of "international" politics in the period I consider in detail—the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My argument is not that "empire" generically conceived shaped citizenship in Russia, but rather that the kind of imperial governance that emerged on what became Russian territory since at least the 16th century (and arguably earlier) is a critical factor for understanding how rulers and ruled in these polities (Muscovy, imperial Russia, the Soviet Union) understood the state and their rights in it.

Second, as recent scholarship makes abundantly clear, the practices of empire of the "classic" European colonial polities—although there is little to justify this Eurocentric terminology—were not confined to the "periphery," the colonies, the borderlands, the ethnicities, and so on. Economic, political, and ideological developments in the so-called metropoles cannot be conceived of as distinct from the histories of more distant areas.2 Ruling, controlling, and extracting from differentiated populations were tasks all empires faced, tasks that shaped the physical, intellectual, artistic environments of capitals as well...


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