Etkind: Internal Colonization

Sometimes, the only proper way to begin is from the end, and then work backwards from there. To establish an endpoint that, inevitably, leads back to an origin. To spin a phrase: everything that has an end has a beginning. And this end serves as a beginning to introduce the themes needed to be understood to understand the process that led there. As you know, all stories have beginnings, middles and ends, and two out of three is not a bad start.

Even more so when it comes to history. We have, by the nature of these things, only access to the state of things as they happened to end up, and have to backtrack from where we are. There are many stories of how things came to be, but history is not just another story. While it is tempting to reduce history to a grand story of how things came about, a proper historical understanding must take into account the various trends and forces at work over large periods of time in complex interdependent ways. A story is a way of relating a series of events; history is making sense of how the events that lead us here came to pass.

At the very end of Internal Colonization, Alexander Etkind relates very briefly a story of Leskov, wherein a young gentleman is locked into a library for protesting the treatment of peasants. Being trapped in this library, the young gentleman begins to read, and discovers all manner of subversive literature on the nature of justice and emancipation. During the course of his reading, he discovers that the official administering the punishment to the aforementioned peasants is in fact an impostor. This does not help the peasants, but it serves as a brief recap of the main theme of the book: the coexistence of a rich body of literature and a state apparatus that is in many ways orthogonal to this body. There are Russian stories, and there is Russian history, and those left to administer the Russian Empire more often than not find themselves as merely pretending to be Russian, even as they carry out their duties.

This is a subtle move for a subtle sentiment, and the choice of internal colonization as leitmotif is well made. It refers both to the colonization of the physical interior of the Russian Empire, and of the minds of the Russian subjects. An empire needs subjects in order to enact its imperial will, and it needs these subjects to be imperial subjects, with empire in and on their mind. Colonization is as much a physical as a social and mental process.

Russian history is very much the history of expansion, imperialism and colonization. It was not a bottom-up movement where the various populations of the vast territories came together in a more perfect union. Rather, the process of expansion gradually came to include territories and populations that were by definition not Russian. Some of these – most notably the Siberian tribes – were exploited and/or exterminated, while others were left more or less to their own devices, albeit under imperial administration. The imperative to expand came both from the imperial center and from the daily grind of established practices. As the exploitative and profitable business of fur trapping moved game eastward, Russia followed.

What came back from these provinces was not only wealth, manpower and other spoils of empire, but also a mentality. It is impossible to govern even small territories without a proper administrative mindset, and as these territories became ever larger, the proper changes imposed themselves. Not only in terms of gradual changes over time, but as an imperative on those who engaged in the daily everyday grind. Empire makes demands of its subjects, and even those who govern it find themselves subjected to and by these demands. The flow of goods from the periphery to the center did not leave the center unaltered, but forced it to become accustomed to the fact that colonization always returns to sender.

Etkind traces this dialectics of colonialism through the interplay between stories and history. Or, put another way, between literature and empire. Beginning with the ancient tales of Rurik and ending with the likes of Dostoyevsky, he spins a historical weave of Russian narratives. At the center of attention is the colonized subject, in the many meanings of the words. This subject becomes ever more always-already split between the demands of empire, the possibilities expressed in literature, and the actually existing social world phenomenologically available to them. This process, at its most subtle, ends up with the imperial(ized) subjects visiting the countryside to partake of the local culture and traditions – cultures and traditions that they themselves as alienated colonized subjects did not have access to. It is one thing to be a Russian imperial subject with access to the rich body of literature written by other imperial subjects; it is quite another to simply live in the Russian Empire.

This split is not alleviated by the fact that Russian literature is very adept at capturing and representing it. Rather, it is aggravated by the fact that even though it is so well documented, this doesn’t seem to do anything to ease the absurdity of everyday life. The subject does its duty, but it is not itself in doing so – it is a duty imposed for reasons hard to fathom. Over the course of fulfilling this duty, a second self emerges, one that finds itself thinking “if I wasn’t on the job, I’d do something else instead”. Yet it is the subject performing these duties that gets social recognition, and it is as such you are addressed. As Dostoyevsky framed it in The Double, it is as if another version of yourself is walking around doing things in your name. Worse, this version of you seems to be more liked and respected than you are, so you have to keep up the act in order to not lose face.

It has been said that history is not just something that happens to other people. While Etkind does write a history of imperial Russia, he also makes the point that colonization is not just something that happens to other people. You, too, are the result of the many processes of colonization, no matter whether you find yourself at the center or the periphery. And, yes, you too will have to begin from where you are and backtrack to a point of origin. Find the subject matter, as it were. –

Etkind: Internal Colonization

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