- Some Paradoxes of the “New Imperial History”
If one attempted to rank the predominant themes in the humanities and social sciences since, say, 1980, "representations of the other" would be near the top of the list. More than ever before, scholars seem fascinated by the ways in which one group views another. A central premise underlies the now established discipline of "alterology," namely, that the pictures of "the other" produced by most observers are as much products of the observers' imaginations as they are reflections of reality. There is at present a productive industry devoted to laying bare the means by which groups were or are imagined. A search for book titles with the syntax "Imagining Something" in the Harvard University library reveals the titanic dimensions of this scholarly enterprise – some 137 books, many of them historical and most of them written since 1990, purport to tell us how some group was imagined. Other scholars, apparently perturbed by the implied passivity of "imagining," go further. They propose that most "others" are "constructed" or "invented" by purposeful observers. Again, a quick search of the Harvard holdings is instructive: "Constructing X" yields 215 titles (some, admittedly, having to do with engineering) and "Inventing Y" produces 149 items (none, surprisingly, having to do with the history of science). It seems clear that (to paraphrase Marx and Engels) all that is solid has melted into air, or rather, that seemingly "solid" things – nations, tribes, ethnic groups, etc. – are not "solid" at all, but rather built out of shifting representations.
In the Russian historical context, the representations movement was and remains an important force behind what might be called the "new imperial studies." There was, it may be forgotten, an "old imperial studies." Thirty years ago the topic of Russian imperialism was perhaps more popular, and certainly more pressing, than it is today. Symposia were convened to discuss it, research institutes were founded to research it, and new lines in history and political science departments were opened to instruct students about it. It is interesting to consider that the discipline of Russian history in the West has this older vogue in empire to thank for its very existence. But, it will immediately be recognized, that "imperialism" is quite different from "imperialism" as it is understood and investigated by scholars today. The topical focus of old imperial studies was conditioned by the Cold War; unilateral Russian and Soviet military aggression were at its center. In contrast, the direction of the new imperial history has been [End Page 623] shaped by the reality of a fragmented Russian empire, a political sphere in which Russia is but one embattled "nation" among others. Thus its center is Russian-imperial "interaction," rather than Russian aggression. The new imperial history – inspired to a significant degree by the logic of "representations" – has replaced troop build-ups with literary discourse, foreign invasion with cultural programs, and outright oppression with micro-techniques of power.
The benefits of the new imperial studies are manifest. Today, thanks to Russian historians working in the alterity mode, we have an excellent understanding of the way Russians (and especially elite Russians) viewed and interacted with the various peoples of the empire. Features of the Russian imperial "gaze" are becoming more and more apparent as this research proceeds. New imperial research has also shed light on heretofore dimly illuminated regions of Russian self-understanding, of the ways in which Russians projected their desires, fears, and fantasies on those they encountered. We can see for the first time (to use Gabrielle Scheidegger's striking phrase) how the Russians "viewed themselves in the Other." Finally, in laying bare the structure of Russian imperial perception, the new studies of empire have provided a necessary tool for those who would attempt to find the reality behind representations. With insight into the basic prejudices of Russian observers, scholars can better understand Russian accounts and provide a more accurate description of a "people without history."
Yet, as our debate on Orientalism in Russian history in this issue demonstrates, the new imperial studies are beset with a number of paradoxes, and are, therefore, controversial. As in ethics, so in imperial studies – virtues in one frame of reference...