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  • From Resistance to Subversion:Imperial Power, Indigenous Opposition, and Their Entanglement
  • Paul W. Werth (bio)

To the extent that colonial rule, with its arrogant pretensions of cultural and political superiority, has been construed by the academy as morally illegitimate, it has perhaps been natural for students of colonialism in Russia, too, to seek examples of indigenous resistance to that rule as a way of confirming its illegitimacy and locating among the oppressed a universal urge for liberation. The status of the Soviet Union among many Western observers as an oppressive order of dubious legitimacy could only further such imperatives, as did the search to uncover archetypal sources of Soviet behavior. In particular, émigré communities, inclined to construe their co-ethnics as historically "captive nations," have been eager to underscore indigenous opposition as part of a narrative of "national martyrology."1 As regards the tsarist period, this perspective at times curiously dovetailed with the imperatives of Soviet historiography itself, which sought to document the dual nature of oppression (both national and social) for non-Russians in the tsarist "prison of peoples" and thus to privilege examples of resistance, which would of course then serve as a counterpoint to a prevailing Soviet "friendship of peoples."2 And now post-Soviet scholarship, retaining the "heroic" character of non-Russian resistance, has in many cases merely shifted the objects of indigenous discontent from the "feudal" and "capitalist" domination highlighted by Soviet studies to national and religious oppression (and indeed recast the former as a function of the latter). When we acknowledge the simple fact that opposition tends to leave more visible imprints in the archive than [End Page 21] harmonious interaction, the prominent place of resistance in the existing historiography seems hardly surprising.

But while examples of resistance offer valuable insights into the mentalities of non-Russian communities and the frailty of imperial hegemony in particular times and places, the resistance paradigm also suffers from distinct shortcomings that inhibit our comprehension of the nature and consequences of imperial rule. First, to the extent that non-Russians in many parts of the empire were settled among Russians and did not differ juridically from the latter in terms of their social status, privileges, and obligations, the specifically "imperial" or "colonial" character of the state's domination is far from clear and thus needs to be deliberately conceptualized and empirically established rather than merely asserted. Second, lines between colonizer and colonized often turn out to be far more opaque than one might initially suppose, and concentration on this one axis of conflict frequently involves writing other axes out of analysis of resistance. Third, studies of resistance tend to assume that the subjectivity and consciousness of subalterns were undivided and fully-formed prior to their engagement in acts of opposition, while there are in fact substantial grounds for doubting that indigenous autonomy was actually so complete.

After registering the accomplishments of existing scholarship on resistance, this essay investigates the three shortcomings noted above in greater detail and concludes that the most recent and engaging scholarship on imperial rule has in fact moved beyond resistance as its principal concern. I suggest that resistance as an analytical concept retains its greatest utility when applied to the earliest stages of imperial rule and to cases when the state embarks on novel and intrusive campaigns designed to transform aspects of local worlds that have previously retained a fair degree of autonomy. In other cases I propose that we think in terms of subversions – that is, smaller manifestations of opposition that may complicate significantly the exercise of power even as they themselves are engendered and structured by that power. Thus rather than accepting a set of relatively unproblematic oppositions implicit in the notion of "resistance," we should explore the ways in which the imperial and the indigenous, the Russian and the non-Russian, and the Orthodox and non-Orthodox become ever more thoroughly intertwined and entangled, even while subjective understandings of difference retain an undeniable salience. As imperial social categories and economic practices reconfigure the ground on which imperial subjects imagine themselves, and as imperial authorities reconfigure their own projects in light of the behavior, material culture, and perceived aspirations of the subjects...


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pp. 21-43
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