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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 7-26

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Between Local and Inter-Imperial
Russian Imperial History in Search of Scope and Paradigm

Aleksei Miller
Dept. of History
Central European University
Nádor u. 9
H-1051 Budapest

When the study is finally written of how the history of the Romanov empire as a polyethnic state was investigated at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, its author will have no trouble identifying the early 1990s as the boundary between two substantially different stages.

The change was signaled by the 1992 appearance of Andreas Kappeler's The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. 1 Kappeler set himself the task of presenting a generalized view of the problem and fully used the material available at the end of the 1980s. If this remarkable work had a weakness, it was that one could not find a better treatment of particular topics. It also comes as no surprise that Geoffrey Hosking was unsuccessful in his attempt to fill Kappeler's most obvious lacuna, the absence of the Russians, for the topic itself had not been sufficiently studied or theoretically problematized. 2

The publication of Kappeler's book coincided with radical political changes as the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The conditions under which historiography was developing across the former Soviet Union, the interaction among historians living in the post-Soviet space as well as with their colleagues in other countries, and scholarly and political approaches to Russian history all changed sharply and continued to adjust dynamically over the course of the 1990s. [End Page 7]

More difficult than dating when the change occurred is to predict what our future author may write about the characteristic features and basic tendencies of the past two decades. At present, the most varied judgments abound. I would like to use my disagreement with one rather widespread opinion as a springboard for this article.

A Regional or a Situational Approach?

Lately we often hear that the regional approach is successful and represents the fundamental direction of the future. Kappeler himself, for instance, writes of this approach in his recent article "The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History Eight Years Later":

In the future, it seems to me, the regional approach to imperial history will be the most innovative one. Overcoming the ethnocentrism of the nation-state tradition, it will permit the investigation of the polyethnic character of the empire over various spatial terrains. In distinction from national history, here ethnic and national factors will not be absolutized and alongside ethnic conflicts the more or less peaceful coexistence of different religious and ethnic groups will be examined. Above all, this shift in perspective will break the centuries-long tradition of the centralized gaze at Russian history, which has outlived its time. 3

It seems to me that the regional approach is still methodologically so undefined that one can speak of it only conditionally, as a tendency in the historiography. There is no reason why the historiographic shortcomings that Kappeler mentions cannot survive in the various versions of the regional approach; in fact, they could even be aggravated by new difficulties.

We can begin by observing that the very notion of "region" is quite vague. It is applied to territories that range in size from vast expanses (Siberia, Central Europe) to ones so small that they can be shown on a panoramic photograph, as Peter Sahlins does in his study on La Cerdagne and Roussillon. 4 These "regions" may belong to a single state, be crossed by international borders, or contain a variety of states. In fact, historians use "region" to describe any territory that does not coincide with present state borders. The principles for identifying or imagining regions are endlessly varied, and Iver Neumann is right to point out that they are imagined according to the same criteria by which we imagine nations. 5 [End Page 8]

Xosé-Manuel Nuñez recently remarked that...


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