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A Note on Comparisons

Although the present work is not explicitly a work of comparative history, it cannot avoid engaging with scholarship on other colonial empires. This is especially the case for South Asian history, a field in which, as Tony Ballantyne has noted, “the knowledge/power relationship has become a central preoccupation.”45 Making such comparisons, however, flies in the face of a Sonderweg-ish preoccupation with the unique nature of Russian imperialism and runs the risk of effacing the real historical differences between the Russian Empire and its contempo- raries.46 Some meditation on the nature of the comparison thus seems warranted.

Many of the more commonly employed arguments in favor of and explanations for the Russian Empire’s purported “uniqueness” fall apart on closer inspection. There is, first, a regrettable trend of simply repeating the rhetoric of tsarist colonizers as though it were historical fact; these claims for the uniquely benevolent nature of tsarist imperialism may be dismissed out of hand.47 More serious is Alexander Etkind’s recent argument that the Russian Empire’s urban elites had a quasi-imperial relationship with the Orthodox peasantry of rural Russia, but this argument leaves important questions unanswered when looking at the Kazak steppe (or, for that matter, at Turkestan), where ethnic Russians came to enjoy significant legal preferences over indigenous people.48 The Russian Empire was continental, not a thalassocracy, but it is unclear why the journey from, say, Moscow to Omsk (1,500 slow miles over bad roads) should have been easier, or less productive of a sense of otherness, than the short steam route from Marseilles to Tunis. Russia had a long and complex historical relationship with the lands it ultimately conquered and colonized, but readers of, for example,

Benjamin Disraeli’s Tancred will understand that this was also the case for the imperial powers of western Europe. The elite of the tsarist empire was multiethnic in a limited way, but the Scots who rose to high positions in British India would dispute that there was anything new or unique in that.

Ultimately, the Kazak steppe existed in a legally discriminatory regime, as an object to be conquered, pacified, and civilized. By 1917, more than a million Slavic settlers took advantage of this legal discrimination to expropriate land from Kazak nomads. All the while, there were practical (if not always explicit and legal) barriers to the advancement of “Asiatics” in local administration. Tsarist administrators wrote of a metropoliia and koloniia and were clear that the steppe provinces fell into the latter category. Of course, the steppe had its particularities, and in this it differed not a whit from any colony that has ever existed. But it is clear that, if the colonial empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a genus, the Russian Empire was one more species of them.49

The differences that existed between Russian imperialism, in the form that it took on the Kazak steppe, and the imperialism of other European powers only add some local particularities to this study, rather than invalidating engagement with other historiographies. The weakness of the tsarist state, relative to some of its counterparts, made it if anything particularly dependent on non-Russian intermediaries. The diversity of legal arrangements to which the metropolitan core of the empire came with different ethnic groups and territories; the weak and late development of mass Russian nationalism; and the persistence of a dynastic, rather than nation-state, model of imperialism all lent unusual strength to local actors’ demands that their knowledge, experience, and visions of the future be taken seriously. At the same time, in a highly illiberal state like the Russian Empire, local knowledge did not have to count for anything. Policy could be, and was sometimes, formulated arbitrarily. Thus the position of intermediaries and the expertise they claimed to provide was always precarious, and ultimately subject to the whims of district chiefs, governors, and ministers. In this precarious position lie the reasons for the closing of the space Kazak intermediaries had made for themselves after the turn of the twentieth century.

 
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