"Internal Colonization" — Re-colonization

September 2011
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What is not completely understood in general is the marked binarism that Etkind employs, consistently contrasting the Russian and the European imperial experiences. It is unclear why he strives so persistently to dismiss the issue of external colonization. To achieve this, Etkind resorts to the rhetorical device of fashioning an imaginary distinction. And even so he attempts to formulate this distinction in the most unexpected and paradoxical form possible to obtain discursive power over the realia of historical, cultural, and social life, and in this manner — through power — brings about a re-colonization of the object being described. Because of this, the imaginary difference or “cultural difference” (and this, Etkind underscores, is precisely the mechanism of colonial politics) has a dual sense: on one hand it absolutizes the foreignness of the imperial European experience of external colonization, and on the other hand it minimalizes the role of Russian external colonization. In contrast to European empires, which exploited conquered territories, the Russian empire, he says, conversely “gave economic and political privileges to its colonies, creating opportunities for them for self-rule and self-preservation.” “Not colonial or at least not completely colonial” is his perception of the character of the campaigns to subjugate the Caucasus — a region “which after the annexation of Georgia found itself in the middle of imperial territory” (“Foucault and the Thesis of Internal Colonization”). Apparently “not completely colonial” is also thought to apply to the colonization experience of Little Russia, a component of which was the liquidation of the Hetmanate’s autonomy. Neither is anything said of the various strategies to transform external colonization into internal colonization, for example through conferring noble rights on Little Russian Cossack officers, etc.

Etkind does not neglect to point out that the significance of the imperial seizures lies precisely in a formation of “ever new differences among those subjugated,” and the essence of imperial power is located in the creation of “various strategies for manipulating these differences.” In fact, we see a certain manipulation of the facts by Etkind himself. In the very posing of the question of “when Russian colonization began,” he offers a dilemma on the basis of which we are required to choose an answer: “with the occupation of ethnically foreign Kazan, or of ethnically similar Novgorod?” Actually the author is not interested in historical reality; rather the issue is one of a discourse imposed on the reader. He asks: “Where were the Russian colonies — in foreign territories like the Urals and Siberia, where a classical process of mixing of migrant and native populations was taking place, or in Little Russia, where the opposite was true and the inhabitants ethnically resembled those of the Mother Country, shaping cultural-political differences which will prove decisive?” Ultimately he presents the colonization of Ukrainians are an example of non-classical colonization, when an ethnically homogeneous (apparently by its own wishes) population is blended into the empire, forming cultural-political differences of “other-but-self.” Thus in mentioning “cultural-political differences which will prove decisive” he pays tribute to political correctness, but actually does not supply an answer to the question of where, in fact, these Russian colonies were. Neither does he see any particular problem in the external colonization of Little Russia, since its population, he says, is “ethnically similar to that of the Mother Country.”

Etkind’s rhetorical maneuvers grow, constructing their “cultural distances” and devising successive differences, which in reality turn out to be rules of identity and (hidden) power. Ethnic and racial differences in the Russian Empire were not significant, the argument goes, which is why the geographical and economic continuity of the empire “outweighed all other differences — ethnic, linguistic, religious — melting them in a shared imperial pot” (“Russian Literature, the Nineteenth Century: The Novel of Internal Colonization”). But in the meantime there was no melting in this “imperial pot,” nor disappearance either of cultural-political opposition to Russian colonization, or of the struggle for the right to exist of Ukrainian-language literature, theater and scholarship — a struggle that lasts through the entire nineteenth century and continues even in the twentieth.

Having elegantly recognized Ukrainians as almost “self,” Etkind turns to an analysis of the famous painting by Ilya Repin, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.” On the one hand, having accepted the logic of appropriating the distinction of the Little Russians as “other-but-self," Etkind now contrasts them with the completely “foreign,” namely the Turks. On the other hand, he still indicates the Little Russians' “oriental character.” Etkind notes that although the Cossacks are also Eastern, this East is indigenous, Russian (or Little Russian). So it turns out that one’s own people, one’s own other-- which is how, following the author’s thinking, the Russian elite implemented its internal orientalization--are the Ukrainians themselves. Within the bounds of “internal orientalism” Etkind juxtaposes this indigenous East with a more remote and more foreign East — the Turkish one. Moreover, the angle of perspective that creates all cultural distances and differences in the painting “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” is, to his mind, entirely rational and Western, and is embodied in the person situated at the center of the picture — the scribe.

The plenipotentiary representatives of the people, the Cossacks, are depicted as an Eastern element, as children of nature, unlettered creators of folk culture. Their abusive exertions are addressed to a subject even more oriental than they themselves: the Turkish sultan. He is absent from the picture, there is only his name, but his distant presence/absence motivates all the participants: a situation characteristic of 'Eastern despotism.' The scribe, who does not look like the Cossacks (but does resemble Gogol), attempts to convey the carnival of folk culture in proper clerical language.

In the person of the scribe between the East of the Cossacks and the East of the sultans stands the West with its literacy and rationality. Every one here is Rusian [i.e. from Rus – Ed.] (or Little Russian); but the cultural distance between the Cossacks and the scribe is obviously not less than to the sultan. The Cossack in the center of the painting is clearly pointing to the back: that is where the sultan is, the letter’s addressee, and that is the geographical east.

Accordingly, the West stands in front of the picture in the person of its author, and also of the viewer. The painting edifies the latter, declaring the powerlessness of writing before the spoken word, of professional culture before folk culture, of the West before the East. But the East is divided in two, which for us is what is most important in all of history: the East of the Cossacks, an object of popular fascination, is radically different from the East of the sultan, an object of traditional orientalism. The subject is refined and ironic. It also contains a parable about the indispensability of the West and of writing: even the Cossacks (and the sultan) need the scribe, and all of them need the painter and the viewer.

In other words, the subject is read both as an oriental utopia of a Eurasian type, and also as its mocking deconstruction. The Second World is addressing the Third World, but they cannot do it without the First.

This rather lengthy quote not only characterizes the object of investigation, namely an other orientalism developed by imperial Russian discourse, but also demonstrates that the critic indisputably identifies himself with the First World (with the West and its methods of deconstruction). And this identification leaves the history of colonial relations and the outlook of the colonialized other outside of his field of vision. But it is worth observing that Repin (who was himself a native of Ukraine) does not portray abstract Cossack characters, but actual persons of that time. The distance between the scribe and the Cossacks, therefore, is not so great at all. Repin found quite a few of his prototypes in the Katerynoslav region, but some of them are simply taken from his St. Petersburg surroundings. In particular, these were the painter Ivan Tsiongliskyi (instructor at the School of the Imperial Society for the Promotion of the Arts, and nephew of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka); the painter Porfirii Martynovych, who was also a student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts; St. Petersburg Conservatory professor Oleksandr Rubets; Mariinsky Theatre soloist Fyodor Stravinsky (father of Igor Stravinsky). Also pictured in the painting is the Ukrainian landowner and philanthropist Vasyl Tarnovsky, proprietor of the Kachanivka estate, where Gogol and Kulish were guests, and also Georgii Alekseev, Marshal of the Nobility in Katerynoslav province and Chief Chamberlain of His Majesty’s Court. The prototype for the koshovyj Sirko was the Kiev general Mykhailo Drahomyrov, later the Governor-General of Kiev.

Thus it is neither “others” nor “the people” that we see in Repin’s painting, but representatives of Russia’s imperial elite and of the Little Russian elite that was integrated into the imperial culture. And the portrayal of the scribe, in which Etkind envisages a Gogolian type, is taken from Dmytro Yavornytsky, the well-known Ukrainian ethnographer, historian and writer, who was a devoted scholar of Cossackdom and Repin’s principal consultant. So to look for a scribe who “does not look like the Cossacks (but does resemble Gogol)” in the painting is naiveté: the “others” are almost all “Cossacks,” for which Ukrainians, Great Russians, and Tatars all served as prototypes. And Gogol could be present in it perhaps as an artifice which would point to the style of the picture itself — namely, colonial masquerade. After all, Gogol is the creator of an essentially new genre in imperial literature: the genre of colonial stylization, of which Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a textbook example.

Another question arising in connection with Repin’s painting concerns the perspective of the image itself. The scribe (Yavornytsky) really does command writing, and whereas he represents the colonialization of the subject, that means that it is precisely the colonial subject who commands authentic writing. Is he a foreigner at this colonial masquerade? Yes and no. He is not a stranger among the other Cossacks, since he shares with them the element of carnival laughter. In his memoirs Repin says that he picked up and recreated Yavornytsky’s smile while he was perusing a magazine with humorous illustrations. But the scribe is also a stranger among the “Cossacks” — the others have dressed up for a masquerade and have taken on their roles, but he, almost like an author among his heroes, exists both within the picture and also outside of it. And his mission is not, as Etkind says, to convey the curse-laden oral language of the Cossacks “in correct clerical language.” More likely the scribe himself invents the next phrase while they are laughing at the preceding one.

An important role is played here by an impulse of muscles associated with laughing. As the famous theoretician of anti-colonialism Frantz Fanon noted, in encountering the colonial order a colonized aborigine feels entrapped, and this is expressed as a distinctive sustained muscular tension. It is as if he were waiting patiently for the colonizer to find himself undefended and then attack. This kind of perpetual muscle tonus is reinforced by the native’s persistent desire to take the place of the colonizer. The colonizer, in turn, is an exhibitionist by nature. He is simply excessively concerned with his own security, and therefore constantly demonstrates his power and in every moment reminds the subjugated of his authority. Such relations resemble a certain symbiosis and demonstrate a mutual psycho-affective dependency between the subjugated and the subjugator. These relations are built on an extreme and irreconcilable contraposition, which forms and continuously supports an aggressiveness that requires release and manifests itself both in muscles and body. Release of the tension accumulated in the aborigine’s muscles flares up as bloody encounters of inter-tribal strife and interpersonal conflicts. But one of the forms of anti-colonial resistance, especially at the stage of its rise and separation from the mass of rebel-leaders, becomes laughter, which brings muscular relaxation to the subjugated and at least momentarily liberates him from dependency. Laughter is a privilege of the colonial elite; it allows the expression of desires and reorganizes aggressiveness, substituting for it feelings of community, and especially national community. If Repin’s painting is perceived as a colonial masquerade, then the scribe conveys in his letter this same psycho-affective liberation from colonial tension, achieved through the help of laughter.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka