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  • The Unfinished Puzzle of Identity in Imperial Russia
  • Christopher D. Ely (bio)
Marcus C. Levitt, The Visual Dominant in Eighteenth-Century Russia. 362pp. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011. ISBN 0875804422. $49.00.
Olga Maiorova, From the Shadow of Empire: Defining the Russian Nation through Cultural Mythology, 1855–1870. 277pp. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. ISBN 0299235949. $29.95.
Elena Vishlenkova, Vizual′noe narodovedenie imperii, ili “uvidet′ russkogo dano ne kazhdomu” (Visual Ethnography of the Empire, or “Not Everyone Can See the Russian”). 384pp. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011. ISBN 5867938628.

It seems surprising today that not so long ago the question of identity—ethno-cultural, national, imperial, regional, and so on—played a small and secondary role in the historiography of imperial Russia. Deeply committed to the grand problematic of the empire’s gradual demise and replacement by the Soviet Union, Cold War scholarship (in Russia and abroad) did not ignore questions of identity so much as allow them to be subsumed under what then appeared to be more pressing concerns. The rapidity with which the topic of identity took center stage in the late 1980s and early 1990s can be attributed to the coincidental confluence of two distinct factors. First, under the influence of what was then called “the new cultural history,” the complexity and contingency of identity itself was coming to the fore throughout the discipline of history. National identity in particular underwent a quick shift from something tacitly agreed on as relatively stable to a flexible and contested set of values and ideas based on the “invention of tradition” [End Page 823] and the “imagination of community.”1 Second, scholarship of this sort grew widespread around the same time that power in the Soviet Union was being decentered, flowing out from Moscow into the regions and allowing for the rise of national states that would soon recenter power on themselves. In short, questions of difference, affiliation, and identity in the former Soviet and imperial Russian space were in obvious need of exploration just at the time when the intellectual equipment for that exploration was being delivered.2

By now it would not be going too far to say that problems of identity have become an essential concern for historians of imperial Russia. The “cursed questions” remain, but now those overtly political bol′nye voprosy, like “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?” have been supplemented by a new focus on the equally thorny, and even more irresolvable, “who are we?” and “where are we going?”3 These questions, too, resonated loudly in the Russian Empire. How ultimately to distinguish Russian from Ukrainian, Western from Slav, regional or national from imperial, and so on were fraught and difficult problems, rendered even more intractable by an autocratic state that imposed its own structures of meaning and organization on the society it governed. As difficult as questions of identity in imperial Russia may have been, however, they could not be ignored. As with other external developments that continued to threaten Russia with the need for change, like industrialization or political liberalization, the outside world kept making demands, and clear forms of identity and allegiance were yet another inescapable presupposition of European modernity. [End Page 824]

To be sure, identity must be understood as a myth or a useful fiction, but it is one of the essential myths on which modern history is made. No doubt the “culturally constructed” nature of collective identity helped delay its appearance as a key historiographical problem, partly because the topic does not lie within the provenance of any single discipline. As scholarship on identity formation has become more sophisticated, it has been carried out in disciplines as disparate as art history, literature, political science, and psychology. Historians interested in identity issues have often been compelled to move outside their disciplinary comfort zones.

Yet as much as we have learned in recent years, if the three books under consideration here are any indication, our increasingly extensive and sophisticated scholarship has done more to complicate these questions than to provide any clear resolution to them. These three studies are separated by period and source base, but they are united in their common...


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