- Closing Gaps or Digging Holes? Linking Imperial Frontiers in the 18th and 19th Centuries
The books brought together in this review offer diverse accounts of the interactions of the Russian Empire with peoples of the peripheries who eventually became Russian subjects during the 18th and 19th centuries. Each represents an important and ambitious contribution to debates in various regional subfields in the history of imperial borderlands. In recent decades, historians have made great advances in broadening the purview from an excessive focus on the centers of power in St. Petersburg and Moscow to study events and processes in the provinces and peripheries of the growing empire. The books considered here study parts of what Michael Khodarkovsky calls the “perennial frontier” (7)—that is, the steppes north of the Black Sea, the North Caucasus, and what is now Kazakhstan, much of which was long an area contested by neighboring empires. [End Page 897]
Since the appearance of these books, many of the regions and issues they treat have become focal points of international conflict, which only underscores their significance. Until the 19th century, however, these areas were never of sufficient strategic value to justify the huge budgetary and human losses that the Russians accepted before finally turning them into integral parts of the empire by the 1860s. The authors also cover the history of semi-peripheral and often independent entities such as the Crimean Khanate or Derbent, which comprised large swaths of the steppe and mountain frontier. The authors adopt varied, to some extent opposite approaches, mostly inspired by cultural history and anthropology. Yuriy Malikov openly challenges Michael Khodarkovsky’s earlier work on the imperial frontier, arguing against his contention that “the Russian and nomadic civilizations constituted ‘two different worlds,’ which ‘continued to stand apart long after their initial encounter’ ”(294).1 Khodarkovsky, meanwhile, takes up this challenge and restates his view that the “two worlds” of Russia and the steppe—“the world of the highly centralized empire-state and indigenous, kinship-based societies with rudimentary political organizations”—were “structurally incompatible.” He allows for “continuous learning processes by both sides” while underscoring that “each side projected upon [the] other its own values and expectations” (13).
Malikov and Khodarkovsky thus arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions. To Malikov, “the ability to become a man in between cultures was a prerequisite for an individual’s success in the Russian borderlands” (294). By contrast, Khodarkovsky argues that his protagonist, the Cossack officer Semen Atarshchikov, a man proficient in the idioms and cultures of both sides of the North Caucasus border, never got a chance to fully establish himself. Rather, he maintained his position as a translator and cultural mediator fostering loyalties to the tsar and the local people just beyond the fortified line to the end, and his back-and-forth between them proved to be his undoing. This is mainly why Khodarkovsky has chosen Atarshchikov’s biographical materials as the basis of his book: he has aimed to write a previously unavailable history of three centuries of the North Caucasus under Russian rule. The book comprises the whole ethnic mosaic of this divisive region, which would be challenging to the most attentive student without the biographical framing narrative provided by Atarshchikov’s roaming life. Khodarkovsky masters the task successfully, describing the efforts to bridge the gap between local [End Page 898] cultures and the imperial center as well as the significant obstacles involved, both personal and structural.
In their approaches to the frontier Malikov and Khodarkovsky primarily answer to international discourses. Their achievements and shortcomings fall squarely within the...