Reviews

The author of this pioneering survey of Russian expansion in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas has succeeded in taming his complicated and major historical field.  For writing in an elegant style such a compact work, the author, now Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, has taken up two challenges.  First, he has chosen to explore the “long duration” of an extensive historical process running from the eleventh to the end of the nineteenth century, a period during which the link between Russia and the Steppe drastically changed.  The second challenge was to perceive these modifications simultaneously in collective imagination and in the policies implemented in the area.  The method of inquiry is well-adapted to such a purpose:  Using central and provincial archives of Russia and Ukraine, chronicles, travellers’ accounts and settlers’ testimonies, the author shows with full details the ambiguities and complexities of this long process of continental colonisation.  To the Eastern Slavs and to the princes of Muscovy, the steppe was a “wild field” peopled by non-Orthodox Turkic nomads regularly raiding the cities of Rus’.  For Catherine ii it was an empty space that Peter the Great had failed to incorporate into the Russian state, and that she had to promote both economically and culturally.  After the mid-nineteenth-century reforms the steppe colonisation became an agricultural matter, its southern provinces being considered an indistinct part of Russia as a whole.  Considering the problematic duality of expansion and colonisation in the Russian context, the book offers a convincing interpretation of the imperial history of Russia.  Moreover, deconstructing the myth of Russian expansion to the south as an organic process, it focuses on the particularities of Russian colonisation and places Russia in the international pattern of state-building.

The first chapter (“Frontier colonisation”) is a historical overview of the primary stage of cohabitation between the Muscovites and the nomadic populations of the steppe.  The description of the “familiar realpolitik” is particularly stimulating despite the unfortunate lack of consideration for the impact of the “Tatar yoke” on the Russian perception of nomadic peoples.  Until the middle of eighteen century, the Russian Tsars favoured pragmatic approached, letting mostly untouched the autochthonous institutions of their new subjects.  Together with the preservation of trade connections, marriages and military alliances were frequently concluded between the sedentary and nomadic powers and the construction of a defence line by Russians did not mean, as the author argues, that relations with nomads were systematically hostile.  On that point, an interesting statement of the book concerns the difficulties for the Russian government to keep an army on the steppe and so the need to rely on nomadic and Cossack allies.  Inspired by Marc Raeff’s works on Peter’s “revolution”, the author describes the radical change that occurred under the reign of Peter the Great with the adoption of Western ways of ruling and knowing.  Included in the new imperial cartography, the old “field” was renamed “steppe (step’)” and transformed in an object of rational administration.  A pertinent analysis is proposed of this cultural shift and its multidimensional consequences on Russia’s colonial policy.  Next to the Orenburg expedition in 1734, the foundation in 1738 of Stavropol by two thousand Kalmyks who adopted agriculture and Orthodoxy is a good example of the new official desire to control and transform people and territory.  In continuity with this involvement in the steppe affairs, the second chapter describes the enlightened colonisation promoted during Catherine’s reign.  There are incisive pages on the symbolic appropriation of the militarily conquered western steppe (Turkic names being replaced with Hellenic ones, whence “Krym” became “Tauride”) and clear explanations on efforts to promote sedentarisation as part of the civilising mission toward backward natives.

However, considering that almost half a million people moved to the Steppe under Catherine, the effects of the 1762 decree on settlement could have been more detailed.  For instance, the Pugachev uprising deserves only one page of the book and the participation of some Bashkir tribes in this movement is reduced to the minimum.  More generally, the history of steppe colonisation proposed by the author remains mostly built from a Russian point of view and tends to swamp the particularities of local groups in a common history of “steppe peoples”.  When exploring the terms of bureaucratic and reformist colonisation, the third and fourth chapters convincingly presents the state requirement for a legal and rational colonisation and at the same time the concrete impossibilities to fulfil such an idealistic purpose.  A growing central bureaucracy (especially the new Ministry of State Domains) took in charge the colonisation process and statistical information got during the revisions helped to determine which ethnic groups of settlers would be most useful in which places.  Unfortunately nothing is said of the tensions emerging at the end of the nineteenth century among the various ethnic groups that populated the steppe.  In the same way, the author pays not enough attention to the appropriation by Turkic and Muslim elites of these statistical and ethnographical categories used by Russian officials for systematising their administration.  More surprisingly, the submission of the three confederacies and the Kazakh revolts are not mentioned.  The emergence of ethno-nationalist discourses on the base of land claims would have been a wonderful complement to the fifth chapter dealing with the impact of economic development on steppe societies.  With the rapid urbanisation and mechanisation (steamships on the Volga River, a university in Odessa . . .), resettlement was seen as a tool of agricultural policy and the steppe was becoming more and more like Russia, this traditional empire involved in a difficult modernisation.

The conclusion of the book is a masterpiece of historical reflexion in which the author concisely resumes all the complexity of Russian colonisation and draws a sounding comparison with European overseas imperialism.  The clear distinction established between imperialism and colonialism and the solid historical illustration provided on this point make this excellent book a major contribution to the history and understanding of empire in Russia.

Xavier Le Torrivellec, National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations, Paris
CER: I-3.4.C-313