"Internal Colonization" — Re-colonization

September 2011
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Russian-literature scholars Alexander Etkind and Mark Lipovetsky diverge in their understanding of what brought about the trauma in Russian post-Soviet literature: the individual experience of totalitarianism or the entire modernization experience of Russia, which was marked by an “internal colonization” of its own people. [1]

In recent times the concept of “internal colonization” has been acquiring a noticeable resonance in the Russian humanities. This theory makes use of the achievements of Western postcolonial studies, in particular the analysis of "orientalism" from Edward Said's work. However, it is the position of the colonizer —that is, the one who forms oppositions and appropriates positions of the center  — that dominates in this analysis. It is also worth looking at this theory from the position of the subjugated and colonized “other,”  which creates yet another perspective for an evaluation of the Russian imperial experience. And what is under discussion here above all is the question about vectors of colonialization itself, both internal and external.

The formation of the Russian Empire was a complex and prolonged process. Paul Bushkovitch states that during the Petrine period a transition was already taking place from the dynastic principle of self-determination to a state-based one, and the concept of All-Russian Empire and Great Russian Empire appears in diplomatic documents of that time. The affirmation of an imperial consciousness is especially associated with Russia’s campaigns against the Turks, and also with conquests in the Caucasus. Generally the external colonization of various peoples (Baskirs, Kalmycks, Don Cossacks, Ukrainians, Finns, Crimean Tatars) is inseparable from the imperial Russian project. True, some regions of the Russian Empire, such as Turkestan or Siberia, resembled colonies more, while others — Finland, the Baltic provinces — did so less.

Contemplating textbook subjects of Russian literature in “a comparative context of colonial politics of the 19th century” Alexander Etkind appeals to the experience of the imperial history of Russia, saying: “Second only to the British Empire, Russian possessions stretched from Finland and Poland to Alaska and Manchuria, spanning the later boundaries of the USSR. The wars waged by Russia from 1815 to 1917 were almost all colonial wars, conflicts over territories lying outside the national borders of the participating countries.” [2] However, Etkind notes that “the main paths of Russian colonization were aimed not outside, but at the interior of the metropolis: not into Turkey, not into Poland, and not even at Siberia, but into the villages of Tula, Pomerania, and Orenburg. Here the state distributed landed estates and subdued uprisings. Here community was discovered and folklore was recorded. Ancient customs and strange religions were studied here. From here the capital’s collections obtained deformities and rarities.” [3] Etkind’s conclusion, which he formulates following Chaadaev, is that the taking of control over Russia’s internal regions is analogous to the acquisition of its overseas colonies; hence it is possible to speak about a form of “internal colonization.” [4]

Etkind complements his thesis about “internal colonization,” formulated on the basis of Michel Foucault’s theory of power, with a thesis about “internal orientalism” referencing Edward Said and the idea of knowledge as power. “Knowledge directs colonial power and is in turn generated by it,” he writes. In Etkind’s opinion, the principal difference between Russian orientalism and Western orientalism lies in the fact that “Russia colonized itself, took control over its own people. That was an internal colonization, self-colonization, a secondary colonization of its own territory,” which led to orientalization of its own people as its “other.” This is precisely why Russia’s orientalism is directed into its own people and not into the overseas colonies, in Etkind’s view. An impression arises that under the semblance of “internal colonization” lies a new form of populism — a very influential intellectual and spiritual trend in Russian philosophical thought of the 19th and 20th centuries.

One of the fundamental mechanisms of colonial politics, Etkind stresses, is “work with the cultural distance between power and its subjects — its study, exaggeration, demonstration, minimalization, negation.” (“Foucault and the Thesis of Internal Colonization”) Along with this the peculiarity of Russian modernization and the colonization associated with it is, he believes, “the cultural difference between upper and lower classes — a legacy of an agrarian society,” which constitutes the principal distinction from Western societies and empires. The upper classes, the mainstay of a centralized state, act based on a written culture, while the lower classes act on the basis of an oral one. According to Etkind, these two worlds “were separated by an abyss,” and “communication between them, if it was even possible, turned out to be distorted, risky, and limited,” which is attested by Russian literature from The Captain’s Daughter to Klima Samgina.

Thus, Russian ethnography as an imperial study of the other differs from its British counterpart because it investigates its own people as the other. Russian populism, which became a love affair between the Russian intelligentsia and the people, undoubtedly arose from the conjoining “of social guilt, artistic hopes, and scientific curiosity, all with respect to one’s own people.” Ultimately the populists saw in the people, uncivilized and infantile, a guarantee of a different, non-European path of development. This is precisely what Etkind calls “orientalization of one’s own culture.”

The conclusions to which the author leads consist in the following:

 ● Russia did not venture into distant imperial conquests — “the dynasty is opposed to all attempts at overseas expansion, considering them too difficult, profitless, or immoral: a strange attitude in light of the multidirectional colonialism which in precisely those decades was typical for all allies and adversaries”;

 ● “in cultural, social, and economic dimensions the empire developed from the outside in”;

 ● colonization in Russia has a character of populating, not acquisition — which is why the word “colonization” “is used in two opposite ways when applied to Russia and Europe,” and the paths of Russian and European colonization, according to Etkind, were sufficiently different from one another that it is not easy to reduce them to a single concept;

 ● revolution in Russia and America coincides with decolonization, but in the American case “external decolonization” leads to “national maturation,” while in the Russian case internal decolonization leads to “cyclic processes of its [colonization’s] re-creation in new forms” (“Foucault and the Thesis of Internal Colonization”).

But despite abundant argumentation, the thesis about “internal colonization,” like the thesis concerning orientalism in relations with one’s own other, that is, one’s-own-not-one’s-own people, poses more questions than it gives answers. This was also particularly demonstrated at the conference “Russia’s Internal Colonization,” organized by Alexander Etkind 23-25 March 2010 in Passau (Germany). Most of the speakers emphasized that despite the obvious oneness of internal colonization and modernization, the relationships among external, internal, and self-colonization remain less than entirely clear. Dirk Uffelmann emphasized that "external orientalization can lead to self-orientalization just as it can to self-colonialization.” Etkind tried to introduce a moment of hybridization into the notion of internal colonization (following Homi Bhabha), and Stefan Rodewald, critiquing the binariness of the proposed opposition between the internal and external vectors of colonization, proposed some terminological modifications, in particular regarding discursive strategies. Up to the 1860s he suggests speaking of “an imaginary external colonization of the internal,” and in later discourses — especially in those “which concern south- and west-Russian lands” — of “an imaginary internal colonization of the external.” [5]

In truth, it would be a great simplification to ignore, for example, the distinctiveness of a national consciousness in Ukraine (and related features of anti-colonial movements) at the beginning of the 19th century when, in view of the dual (imperial) identity of the Ukrainian elite, it is still possible to speak about a certain imaginary colonization of Ukraine/Little Russia as its own “internal,” and towards the end of the century when we can certainly speak only of an imaginary internal colonization of the “external.” [6]

Andreas Kappeler, in his article “Mazepites, Little Russians, and Khokhols: Ukrainians in the Ethnic Hierarchy of the Russian Empire,” notes that from the late 18th century, when the Cossack elite began to be co-opted into the imperial nobility, we can say that the center no longer viewed Little Russians as “an independent ethnic group”: “From the time that Little Russia’s nobles were gaining equal status with Russian nobility and was increasingly perceived as Russian, all Ukrainians of the former Hetmanate were considered to be a regional variant of Russians and were dropped from the ethnic hierarchy entirely.” Moreover, an internal colonization of ethnic Ukrainians took place: the majority of them were identified with the peasantry, the uncivilized mass of the common people, the khokhols. However, the rise of nationalism and the formation of the modern Ukrainian nation at the end of the 19th century altered the character of colonization from an internal to an external one. The Russian government changed its tactics of cooperation with the non-Russian elite: not only did the Ukrainian language fall under suspicion after the Polish uprising, but so did the representatives of the Ukrainian political and cultural elite. This fostered an anti-imperial disposition, federalism, and nationalism even among Ukrainian intelligentsia of an all-Russian or pro-Russian inclination (for example Drahomanov and Hrushevsky). Eventually the entire twentieth century abounded with anticolonial movements — on one side liberation struggles of Ukrainians for independence, and on the other various strategies of external colonization to which the governments of the Russian, and later Soviet, empires resorted.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka