- Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500 – 1800
Although Russia became the largest land empire in modern times, only recently have historians devoted sustained attention to the imperial dimensions of Russia’s past. Michael Khodarkovsky has made significant contributions to this inquiry for the early-modern period, first with his book on Kalmyk nomads (1992), and now with his broader inquiry into the making of the Russian empire in the southeastern frontier over three centuries. In terms of its geographical breadth and chronological scope, Russia’s Steppe Frontier has no rival in English and thus represents an especially useful contribution to the field of colonial studies.
Khodarkovsky is concerned above all with how Moscow (later St. Petersburg) succeeded in transforming its dangerous southern frontier into “imperial borderlands.” He roots the expansion of Moscow to the southeast in the fundamental incompatibility between the Russian, Christian, sedentary world and the pastoral, non-Christian, politically decentralized world of nomads. Most importantly, the nomadic tribal confederations were societies organized for war and raiding. “Lasting peace was antithetical to the very existence of the peoples that Russia confronted along its southern frontier” (17). In order to guarantee its own security, Russia was increasingly drawn into the steppe and its politics. Indeed, Khodarkovsky nicely demonstrates how Russia was a major participant in steppe politics, attempting to promote the authority and power of individual khans, encouraging the dependency of natives on Russia’s patronage and presents, and at times even championing the interests of indigenous commoners at the expense of elites. As a result Russia’s policies over three centuries “evolved from defending its vulnerable steppe frontiers by repulsing nomadic invasions to a deliberate aggrandizement and conscious transformation of the new territories and subjects” (2). By the eighteenth century, concerns of “civilization” and the promotion of Christianity occupied a much more prominent place on the state’s agenda. Aside from the eastern-most nomadic groups, the steppe peoples had become imperial subjects by 1800.
Russia’s Steppe Frontier derives much of its appeal from its scope. Covering three centuries, Khodarkovsky is able to trace shifts in power relations, practices, and ideology that might escape those working on smaller blocks of time. He is comfortable moving across a range of different tribal confederations—Mongolian and Turkic, Buddhist and Islamic, from Crimea well into Central Asia (not to mention the transfer from Moscow to St. Petersburg in the early eighteenth century). The book also offers numerous comparisons to western colonialism and to medieval Europe, both of which Khodarkovsky finds relevant for understanding early-modern Russia. In general, the strength of this book lies in its attention to the process of incorporation—the interactions, alliances, and conflicts that shaped and transformed the relationship between sedentary and steppe societies.
For all this, several conceptual problems detract from the book’s success. Khodarkovsky sets as a central goal to demonstrate that “Russia was no less a colonial empire than any of the other Western European powers” (6). But, crucially, the term “colonial” is not defined with sufficient rigor or clarity. Nowhere does Khodarkovsky enumerate those characteristics that render a policy or a set of practices “colonial.” Moreover, he acknowledges that the dominance of state interests in Russia’s expansion prevented “any possibility of an explicit colonial discourse” (228), though he does not explain why state dominance would preclude such a discourse, or indeed what precisely renders a discourse “colonial.” If before the eighteenth century Russia’s experiences, attitudes, and objectives along the southern frontier “were more typical of European expansion in the High Middle Ages than of European colonization of the New World” (226), then later those attitudes and objectives “were fundamentally no different from those of Western European empires in their overseas possessions” (229). But Khodarkovsky also argues that only Russia’s further expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia in the nineteenth century “began to look like a classic example of western colonialism driven to conquest and domination by utilitarian concerns” (229). Perhaps Khodarkovsky has in mind different kinds of “colonialism...