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  • From The EditorsHistoricizing the Social Contract

In 2019, Ab Imperio invited contributors and readers to think about the ambivalence of the phenomenon of social strife in the context of the annual program "Hybrid Conflicts and Diverse Societies: Civil Wars and Global Peace." In this issue 3/2019, "The Social Contract: In Theories and in Practices," the focus is on the constructive effect of conflicts. A conflict resolution implies reaching a compromise, so there is nothing unusual in the idea that a stable social arrangement might be the result of a prior confrontation. But a conflict itself can testify to a high degree of social integration, whether it is contested politics or frequent litigations: systematic nonviolent tensions prove that individuals and groups share a common social space. The very idea of being in conflict with someone implies a common cultural frame of references and institutionalized channels of interaction. Contributors to this issue of Ab Imperio discuss both aspects of the problem.

The "Methodology and Theory" section offers excerpts from Mark Gamsa's forthcoming book on the transcultural history of Harbin, a city that emerged as a result of Russia's colonial expansion in Manchuria and the contemporaneous migration of Chinese to this sparsely populated and protected northern periphery of the Qing Empire. Like Odessa in the south of the European part of the Russian Empire, Harbin was "no-one's-land": neither the Russians nor the Chinese (or Japanese) could really claim the city as their "own" because all of them were newcomers to this part of Manchuria. Harbin was thus an ultimate site of contestation and negotiation of belonging, identity, power, and hierarchy. Essentially, it was yet another [End Page 9] imperial middle ground where social conflict and social stability were not opposites but synchronic and overlapping states of existence. Mutual hostile cultural projections and social tensions often spoke in the language of confrontation while revealing a structural situation of spontaneous agglomeration of differences into a common hybrid social milieu. This hybridity did not negate inequality and diversity, as can be seen even in the local pidgin "tvoia-moia." However, the manifold conflicts in "Russian" Harbin can be meaningfully discussed only within a common sociocultural context of the emerging hybrid society bound by a spontaneously elaborated social contract. Conflicts changed some of this social contract's terms but did not undermine it as such. The rapidly changing social roles and mutual projections explored by Mark Gamsa demonstrate the mechanics of the social conflict and its main language of self-description –the hybrid pidgin replete with misplaced borrowings, mistranslations, and creative misunderstandings so characteristic of the middle ground.

In the "Historiography" section at the end of the issue, Sergey Glebov returns to topic of the Far Eastern region of the Russian Empire in a review essay discussing two recent books on the history of Russia's Far East: Viktor Zatsepine's Beyond the Amur: Frontier Encounters Between China and Russia, 1850–1930 (2017) and Alyssa M. Park's Sovereignty Experiments: Korean Migrants and the Building of the Borders in Northeast Asia, 1860–1945 (2019). Raising some of the themes evoked by Gamsa, Glebov discusses the challenges of writing the history of a middle ground such as the late imperial Far East. The ambivalences of the social composition and political status of the region's inhabitants problematize the application of concepts and approaches of regular national-history narratives. While the story of the Russian Far East can be written as a story of the solidification of territorial state sovereignty, this narrative (as any other telelological one) tends to exclude important historical experiences and conflicts. As in Harbin, intergroup conflicts in the Far East often testified to the emergence of ad hoc practices of cohabitation and cooperation, while attempts by the Russian administration to rationalize its irregular diversity were fraught with confrontation and even the potential for genocidal violence. As elsewhere, the "imperialness" of this situation with its uneven regimes of diversity was never articulated as a clear, coherent ideology by those who sought to accommodate and cooperate, and it was overshadowed by the elaborate if misleading language of nationhood and state sovereignty.

In the "History" section, the article by Pavel Shabley...


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