- What Is Asia to Us? Scholarship on the Tsarist “East” since the 1990s
It was 1997, and the editors of a new collection on the history of the Russian “Orient” were excited. For years they had been forced to make do with published sources or whatever materials their archival handlers would allow them to see in Moscow and Leningrad, but now the USSR had collapsed and it had suddenly become possible to venture out to the “erstwhile borderlands” and “experience what only being there can provide.” The “famished,” as they described themselves in their introduction, were finally sitting down to the “smorgasbord.” Imperial Russia was being “revisioned.” Scholars were being “reborn.”1
Oh, yes, those were the days. As a graduate student at the time, I remember feeling some of the headiness myself. The Party was over, the world was young. Of course, looking back now, one cannot help but feel a little naïve. Important changes were indeed taking place in the field, but it is not clear how much of this was related to access to new archives or even to the seemingly magical “paradigm shift” of the end of the USSR. A new interest in tsarist Russia as a multinational empire had appeared somewhat earlier, along with funding to support it.2 Yet, regardless of exactly when or how it happened, Daniel Brower and Edward Lazzerini were right that a new era was dawning. Even then, there was a sense that a boom had begun, which, for better or for worse, still continues today. As Stephen Kotkin put it not long [End Page 817] ago, only half tongue in cheek, “Apply for a grant on ‘borderlands,’ and you get the grant even before you hit the send button.”3
The study of the eastern regions and peoples of the Russian Empire has been central to this ongoing “imperial turn.” In this essay, I survey the literature on the “East” and offer some reflections on what we have gained as well as what still seems to be missing in the field. On the one hand, the situation is clear—research on the tsarist empire and on the eastern borderlands in particular has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, both in volume and in terms of depth and sophistication. Yet it is also true, much as with most rapid expansions, that the growth in the field has been uneven, with enormous concentration on some periods and questions—perhaps too much—and not enough on others.
Indeed, it’s worth asking how exactly our knowledge has changed since 1991 and especially over the last decade or so as the boom has intensified. Despite the sense that we have somehow ended up with a “new imperial history,” there is no single school or normative interpretation of the empire to speak of; nor is it entirely clear what the “new imperial history” actually amounts to.4 Is it simply a focus on the empire that draws on more sources and perspectives, in particular a wider range of non-Russian, nonmetropolitan views? Is it work that prioritizes the methodology of “the new cultural history” over more traditional political and social historical approaches? Or is it a way of approaching the empire that reaches beyond “the limits of the national paradigm” to examine “political, social, and cultural actors” and the “spaces” of their activity, while offering an “archeology” of “empire” as a construct and acknowledging the unique “blend of modern and premodern identities” that defined the course of modernization in Eurasia?5 We know more about tsarist Russia’s eastern empire than we did 20 years ago, but do we understand it any better? What more do we need to know? [End Page 818]
Background to a Boom
Though historians in the West studied aspects of the empire’s past prior to the 1990s, there was no field of Russian imperial studies to speak of, much less a special concentration of interest in the empire’s eastern borderlands and peoples. Instead, the focus was on what could loosely be called “nationalities studies,” which generally meant the study of national groups other than Russians. According to the wisdom of the day...