- The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Colonial Comparisons
Ever since the "Imperial Turn" in Russian history began in the early 1990s, there has been a sense that historians of the Russian Empire were running to catch up with the more developed historiographies of the other great modern and early modern empires—British, French, Habsburg, Qing, Mughal, or Ottoman. Restrictions on archival research, together with the dead hand of Sovietology and the strategic and ideological priorities of the Cold War, meant that much of the existing historiography lacked both empirical rigor and theoretical sophistication and tended either to focus on patterns of Russian aggression and "national" resistance or to reproduce cherished myths of Russian and Soviet exceptionalism. Comparison beyond the borders of the USSR was rare, while the new postcolonial sensibility that informed much research on empires from the 1980s onward had little or no impact.1 These [End Page 919] deficiencies have been pointed out repeatedly as scholars scrambled to close this gap, and a flood of new works on Russian imperialism and the history of the non-Russian peoples of the empire has transformed the historical landscape.2 Nevertheless, the sense has remained that Russian imperial historiography needs to be brought into conformity with that of Africa or South Asia, the main regions of European colonialism, or with that on the Ottoman Empire and its management of different peoples—to "apply the insights" developed in the study of other empires to the Russian case. It is the approach I have taken in most of my own work to date.3 It is also that used by many of the contributors to Le Turkestan russe, where the title of Svetlana Gorshenina's introductory historiographical essay (17-76) asks whether or not Russian Turkestan will ever enter into the mainstream of postcolonial studies.4
Of all the panaceas offered as a means of rescuing Russia from the margins and bringing it to the center of modern scholarship on empire, the most attractive has been that of "postcolonialism." As with much academic jargon, this is something more often invoked than explained. Broadly speaking, postcolonialism seeks to expose the unequal relationships of power inherent in empire and to explore and explain how these have subsequently shaped the world and the ways in which its peoples and cultures are represented. It generally includes a strong moral and political critique of colonialism and its legacies. This critique is usually confined to a particular variety of supposedly "normative" European maritime colonialism of the 19th century, and until recently land-based or dynastic empires were rarely included. The structures of dominance and hegemony examined by postcolonial scholars did not end with the formal independence of colonized regions but were perpetuated by economic and, above all, cultural means. The discourses that had helped form and sustain empire—notably those emphasizing the racial, religious, and cultural inferiority of colonized peoples, their passivity, laziness, lewdness, [End Page 920] and general inability to govern themselves—persisted long after its apparent dissolution.
While the best-known theoreticians of postcolonialism—Bernard Cohn, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and others—were mostly either anthropologists or literary critics, these arguments had profound implications for historians.5 If the discourses of empire were this powerful, with the ability to shape not just the written record but the very fabric of colonized society, how were historians supposed to penetrate beyond the layers of received wisdom that enveloped the colonial past and avoid simply reproducing colonial discourses and hierarchies? We have been struggling with this problem ever since. At its...