- Visions of EmpireRussia's Place in an Imperial World
Diversity among subject peoples demanded diverse approaches to governing the tsarist empire. As leaders in St. Petersburg began to pursue models of Western modernization in the 19th century, tensions between standardizing, centralizing tendencies and flexible, accommodative policies intensified. Haphazard, sometimes half-hearted efforts to adapt European nation- and state-building policies from Poland to Central Asia met resistance from subjects as well as local administrators. Each of these three studies concentrates on imperial governance from the vantage point of the varied peripheries in tsarist Russia, at the same time showing the importance of empire to St. Petersburg. Conquest and violence emerge as less central than accommodation and agency, as settlers and subject peoples alike negotiate with relatively small numbers of tsarist overlords and a distant capital. Confusion and false starts, rather than continuity and certainty, mark the imperial endeavor, with [End Page 381] complications peaking in the twilight of the tsarist regime and the revolutionary era.
Each of these works claims to offer new directions for a field of Russian history that has exploded since the collapse of the Soviet Union.1 Jane Burbank and Mark Von Hagen's introduction to Russian Empire asserts a move away from simplistic value judgments that are alleged to dominate contemporary views on empire.2 Burbank and Von Hagen maintain that empires are seen today as unstable, disruptive, and repressive forces, remnants of a dark past or harbingers of a darker future. They set themselves, and their contributors, the task of studying empire nonjudgmentally as a "state form" (2). Such a definition allows for complexity and agency from below as well as from above, though the volume, arising from two 1996 conferences that united scholars from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom to discuss post-Soviet approaches to the history of empire, is written overwhelmingly from the colonizer's viewpoint. The book explicitly ties its endeavor to an effort to understand how to reconstitute a multiethnic Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Empire's introduction sees empire in Russia as "a moving target" that could easily be considered "a muddle," given constantly changing goals and practices of governance across its vast expanses (15–16). At the same time, the tsarist state and important swaths of society saw empire as a critical symbol of Russia's power and of its unique ability to draw together so many diverse ethnic groups and control such large stretches of territory. Imperial officials and Russian intellectuals continually sought knowledge in order to govern effectively lands as variegated as the Baltic provinces and the North Caucasus. The regional studies and conceptual pieces of Russian Empire underline the tension between diversity and uniformity among the tsar and his advisors, who sought to streamline administration as well as apply modern concepts of identity to peoples under their control. Burbank and Von Hagen emphasize their own gentle view of empire as a "particular kind of polity where differences among groups were accepted by all as normal ways of being" (10).
Tsentral´naia Aziia also emerged as a collective effort, in this case by several scholars in Russia and at least two in Kazakhstan, to reconsider the tsarist empire through a focus on the lands now called Central Asia. It is the latest volume in a series developed with the help of the Social Science Research [End Page 382] Council and the Ford Foundation to apply post-Soviet historical lenses to the study of the peripheries of the tsarist domains.3 Tsentral´naia Aziia contains a panoply of approaches, from historians...