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  • The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization by Steven Sabol
  • David Moon
The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization.
By Steven Sabol. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017. ix + 288 pp. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth.

This fascinating book compares American and Russian “internal colonization” of the northern Great Plains and Kazakh steppe and the impact on the Sioux and Kazakh peoples, up to the early twentieth century. The author, a specialist in Kazakh history, turned his attention to the Northern Plains after noting similarities in their geographies and histories. Nineteenth-century Americans also noted the similarities and compared “Plains Indians” with the “Tartars of the Asiatic steppes” (145), but none sustained the comparison.

Sabol’s study reveals differences. A Kazakh scholar told him, “Kazakhs have their own country now. Where are your Indians?” (xi–xii). There were far more Kazakhs than Sioux: around 4.5 million against 30,000 at the end of the nineteenth century. The Kazakhs had engaged in nomadic pastoralism on the steppe for centuries; the Sioux took up mobile hunting only after moving to the Northern Plains in the eighteenth century. The Russian state embarked on the conquest of the Kazakh steppe in the early eighteenth century and had largely completed the process by the mid-nineteenth century, when the United States was just starting to expand onto the Northern Plains. The Russian state annexed the steppe and administered oaths of allegiance to the inhabitants; the US signed but did not honor treaties with the Indians. Russian authorities imposed taxes on the Kazakhs; the US did not raise revenue from the Sioux. The Russians sought to integrate but not assimilate the Muslim Kazakhs; Americans wanted the Indians to “stop being Indians” and embrace Christianity.

More revealing are the similarities. Both the US and Russian Empire had designs on Sioux and Kazakh land for internal colonization. Both justified their policies by constructing images of the native populations as “backward,” “barbaric,” and “savages” in need of “civilization.” (Americans “orientalized” the “West”!) Both Sioux and Kazakhs resisted, fighting “wars” or engaging in “rebellions” before succumbing. At this point, the American and Russian authorities took control of the land and curtailed the Sioux and Kazakh mobile ways of life to open up land for colonization by farmers from their heartlands.

Sedentarization was more important than Christianization. Sabol’s main achievement is to challenge decisively notions of American and Russian “exceptionalism” and to locate the “internal colonization” of their contiguous continental states into wider histories of European imperialism and colonization of overseas empires. Sabol’s book merits wide readership among specialists on both the Great Plains and the steppes and sets a high standard for future comparative and transnational studies of the two grasslands. [End Page 248]

David Moon
Department of History
University of York


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