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  • Religion and Russification:Russian Language in the Catholic Churches of the “Northwest Provinces” after 1863
  • Theodore R. Weeks (bio)

From the 1860s on, the Russian empire attempted to re-make itself in the form of a modern state. The period of the "Great Reforms" witnessed the emancipation of the serfs, a lightening of censorship, the introduction of elected city and rural governing bodies, and a major reform of the military, most notably in the introduction of (theoretically) universal conscription. 1 These concessions were, however, granted mainly in the interior (ethnic Russian) provinces. For Russia's "national minorities" (who, taken as a whole, made up over half of the empire's population), on the other hand, the half-century from the Great Reforms to the October Revolution is generally remembered as a period of Russification and repression. 2 In fact, reform and Russification were not unrelated, and the growing strength of "Russian society" ( obshchestvo ) 3 during this period paralleled and in many ways underscored St. Petersburg's attempts to strengthen control over the non-Russian borderlands, measures often referred to as "Russification." The [End Page 87] perception of these policies in St. Petersburg generally differed enormously from perceptions in Warsaw, Erevan, and Helsingfors. Where local non-Russian elites perceived a grinding machine aiming to stifle their national culture, Russian bureaucrats, in particular in the center, saw a more modest need to strengthen control over border regions and prevent separatist movements. 4 It should be noted that in most cases the peasantry – making up the great majority of most ethnicities within the Russian empire (and certainly in the "northwest provinces") 5 – was only beginning to think "nationally" by the dawn of the 20th century. The true national struggle in late imperial Russia, with few exceptions, was between non-Russian elites and the Russian administration.

Historiography and Russification

In Russian imperial history from the 1860s to 1914, the terms "imperialism" and "Russification" often arise, usually not very closely defined. Perhaps the best single definition comes from Edward C. Thaden. In an influential article, Thaden distinguished between three different kinds of Russification: unplanned, administrative, and cultural. Unplanned Russification could take place simply as a result of cultural interaction and assimilation without active participation of the state. Administrative Russification entails creating a civil, legal, and military bureaucracy following unitary laws and regulation, and of course using the Russian language. Finally, cultural Russification refers to an active program on the part of the Russian government to assimilate non-Russians, replacing their ancestral language and culture with Russian forms. Thaden also points out the existence in Russian of two verbs denoting Russifying, obruset' and obrusit' . The latter takes a direct object and denotes an active process, e.g., the state Russifies the peasant. The former, however, is intransitive and refers to a "natural process" of sorts, e.g., the peasant went to the city and became Russianized. In the second half of [End Page 88] the 19th century, Thaden points out, the active form ( obrusit' ) became increasingly common. 6

One great difficulty with the concept of Russification is its great broadness. Even Thaden's helpful triad of "different Russifications" was in practice and everyday life considerably muddled. In many cases, administrative Russification helped encourage cultural Russification (which certainly was not alien to the aims of Russian government policy). There was also considerable resistance to Russification. Take, for example, the Pole who went to St. Petersburg to get an education and ended up living many decades there. Even speaking Russian daily, and in many cases more familiar with Russia than Poland, few of these men became "Russified." Indeed, in 1918, when Poland was resurrected, thousands of them returned home. 7 An opposite case is provided by those Russian Jews who thought of themselves as good Russians and good Jews – seldom were they accepted as "truly" Russian. One indication of this is again linguistic: the normal phrase is russkii evrei (Russian Jew). If, however, one says " evreiskii russkii " (Jewish Russian), the native speaker's reaction is often laughter at the strange locution. 8

As I have tried to show elsewhere, Russification in the sense of a carefully planned cultural offensive against non-Russians was not a policy of the...


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