Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Russian Imperialism

Depending on your perspective, Soviet Roulette is either a history of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 or a series of detours, digressions, withdrawals, and flights from that great event.  Whether these retreats are strategic feints or cowardly retreats isn't for me to say.  But thus far these movements away from ground zero--what Victor Serge called Year One of the Revolution--haven't strayed all that far from Russian history and literature as a whole. In recent weeks I've considered the possibility of making more extended forays away from Russia.  This thought fills me with some sadness, for Russia has become my touchstone over the past six or seven years.  I've changed jobs, homes, cities, families, and marriages, but read Russian history through it all.

In the past couple of weeks I've been reading about new approaches to the British empire, and empires in general.  The experience is vertiginous insofar as I've left Russia behind (though re-reading Anna Karenina is a comfort).  The overall lessons of this new approach to history are varied, but I'll try to sum up a few, mostly gleaned from essays in a couple of Antoinette Burton's books.

The first point of this new imperial history is that the nation-state isn't necessarily the best framework for conceptualizing the past.  In the first place, it's an artificial construct.  Indeed, anybody who has ever prepared for a preliminary examination in European history understand this, even without reference to imperial or global perspectives.  When you take a preliminary examination, or the coursework leading up to that examination, you are invariably asked to write extensively about only three or four countries, namely France and Germany, with occasional references to Great Britain, Russia, and Italy.  As you prepare for the exams, you can't help but wonder why it is that you don't really need to know what was going on in Belgium, Holland, or Portugal, to say nothing of Eastern European states or stateless peoples.

But it's not only that French and German people aren't representative of the whole of European experience.  The problem is that emphasizing the history of nation-states isn't an ideologically neutral enterprise.  Nation-states are even now manifestly interested in ensuring that historians don't "jump" over the fences that divide people, past and present.  The American nation-state, for instance, is supremely interested in reminding its citizens of a myth of origins, and similar myths of separation.  The American government, like many other governments, doesn't just leave history to its own devices.  It would more than anything like to see that its citizens continue to conceptualize their past as unique and distinct from that of all other peoples, although it sometimes likes to see affinities with the history of other nation-states and even empires, as Burton reminds us whenever she discusses America's so-called "special relationship" with Great Britain.

The interesting thing about the new histories of imperialism is their dual and somewhat paradoxical approach to empire.  On the one hand, postcolonial perspectives on empire ask us to take a truly global view of how empires operated.  See, for example, Antoinette Burton's After the Imperial Turn:  Thinking with and through the Nation. In previous accounts of the British Empire, everything seemed to center around the metropole.  Ideas and people flowed out from the center of power and influenced the peripheries of empire. In the new view, London can only be understood as a piece of a larger circuitry.  If ideas and people and goods flowed out from London, they also flowed into London.  More than that, various parts of the empire communicated with one another, so that what was happening in Ireland influenced what was happening in India, and what was happening in India was influencing what was happening in New Zealand.  And here again, the truly global perspective allows us to note that what was happening in South Africa might well relate to what was happening in French Africa, or indeed in French Indochina.

So empire is a more global phenomenon than we previously believed it to be.  The concept of empire transcends the historical category of the nation-state in important ways.  But a postcolonial perspective on empire also asks us to treat individuals and their bodies more seriously than we did previously. See for example Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballanytine's Moving Subject:  Gender, Mobility, and Intimacy in an Age of Global Empire in which a variety of authors follow Foucault and feminist writers in demonstrating how empire operated on individual lives and even inscribed itself on individual bodies.

Burton, Ballanytine, and other postcolonial and feminist scholars argue that empires don't just operate on the macro level, pushing armies and navies across the globe like so many Risk pieces. Instead, empires manifest their power in the most startlingly intimate ways imaginable.  The power of empires flows everywhere, including medical practices, cultural traditions, and marriage patterns.  If this sounds a little too cutely theoretical, consider my wife's experience just yesterday.  As an immigrant seeking American citizenship, she was asked to submit to a comprehensive physical examination.  Why did the state require a thorough investigation of her vagina?  Without the benefit of either Foucault or Burton, this Tunisian realized that entering into America meant that America would  soon need to enter her.  This theory of power operating on bodies isn't therefore all that theoretical.  It's something that really happens.  Yes, if a Tunisian is wealthy, healthy, educated, and married to an American, she might be offered shelter in the United States of America.  But the state gives nothing for free:  with citizenship comes discipline, surveillance, and just a dash of humiliation.  So in some ways the story of one lone immigrant's body can reflect the everyday dynamics of empire as accurately as any map of American armies in Afghanistan can do.

What does any of this have to do with Russia?  Very little, I'm sorry to say.  I can only say for now that I am wondering how and why I neglected to think seriously about Russian imperialism when the phrase is almost redundant.  Maybe the issue is that Soviet power was never discrete, seldom insidious.   Soviet power was brutally manifest in almost every facet of Soviet life.  At any rate, if this blog post disappoints, remember:  not every post can be a B minus.

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