I like how in Arctic Mirrors, Yuri Slezkine shows how government rhetoric and government policy worked differently at different times. And I think it’s useful to introduce some kind of diachronic, temporal dimension into this discussion.
Yes, yes. There were the twenties, thirties, the late Soviet period, there were the eighties. Some British historian is probably also saying “Let’s take a diachronic look at the British Empire!” And as it turns out, it also had distinct stages with different policies. There is no single model for a colonial empire.
They were all quite different, adapted to different times and different conditions. And in this regard, the Soviet Union is not unique, but simply a late-stage imperial project that includes anti-colonial emancipatory practices and policies.
It always seems like we exclude non-European empires from the conversation, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire for starters. I am sure that there are many emancipatory elements of various kinds. Nevertheless, they are still empires.
Yes, there is great interest in the Ottoman Empire in particular. There’s another nuance here that I, at least, can see and it’s an issue for me — I don’t want to call everything an empire. A large state with many ethnic groups is immediately considered an empire. At that rate, we’ll find empires everywhere we look. I see the empire as an early modern project, a project of the New Age.
The Ottoman Empire still seems like a full-fledged empire.
Yes — to the extent that it adopted these European fashions and European structures, institutions, ideas, and participated in general politics in Europe or the Middle East through dialog with European empires and countries. Or Japan, which also, from the end of the 19th century, began to master this European language, fashion, technology and, in this sense, also became like an empire.
That is why, incidentally, I’d also be very hesitant about calling modern countries “empires.” When they say that today’s Russia is an empire — yes, there are references to the imperial qualities of modern Russia, and even to references to the Russian Empire outright: a peculiar trend nowadays for the Russian Empire. But still, today’s Russia is no longer an empire; it is a complex society.
Where does this line lie for you?
I’m still trying to find it. It doesn’t lie anywhere yet.
There are also the pre-Columbian empires.
Yes, yes. The pre-Columbian empires — the Mongol Empire, (Genghis Khan), the Egyptian empire. As soon as we throw these into the mix with the British and Russian Empires, that’s it, the meaning of the word “empire” is entirely lost, for me at least. Then it simply becomes a synonym for the phrase “big state,” because we will find complex hierarchies in any such state.
What about the “territorial conquest” component? It seems to me that when we talk about empires, we’re talking about the subjugation of other cultures.
In any modern state there are smaller cultures, ethnic minorities that are put in a subordinate position. Throughout history, certain states have subjugated other countries, cultures, tribes, peoples.
What’s important about the concept of an empire is that this subjugation was used to advance modern projects. We do not just subjugate, but we bring civilization, we offer modern science and technology, we build railways, we provide education and healthcare. For me, a modern empire begins with modernity, the creation of a new world. Not just “we’ve subjugated a group of people,” but “we are creating a new modern society in our colonies and in the outlying territories, we are leading them into modernity, which we ourselves have already reached.”
Today, Russia isn’t proposing any projects like this. What do they say? “The Russian World.” That’s more of a nationalist rhetoric than an imperial one.
I think we need to come up with a different conceptual language for talking about the new, current conflicts, new territorial claims, new relationships — different terms that reflect or define new global or local hierarchies and conflicts.
In your book you write: “A significant, if not the overwhelming part of Central Asian society did not and does not consider itself postcolonial.” Might this be explained by the successful social policy of the Soviet regime and nostalgia in the era of post-Soviet decline? Or is it the result of equally successful ideological brainwashing, reinforced by unprecedented repression? On one hand, you probably still encounter both of these things, even within a single person, but on the other, there most certainly is a new intellectual elite that has risen from this area. You can see this at conferences, in foreign universities — there are many Kazakh scholars, and more and more of them are women. What is your view on this situation now, in 2022?
When I wrote that book, that was how things were. Neither the Central Asian elite nor the local society saw themselves as postcolonial, nor did they talk about Soviet-era colonialism. And now we hear this conversation happening more and more frequently. In some countries, it has almost become the dominant discourse. Not only in Central Asia, but in the South Caucasus, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, people are beginning to write about coloniality and postcoloniality.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that the elite who were socialized during the Soviet times are being phased out. In the 2010s, a new generation of scholars and intellectuals entered the scene — one which read Western books and began to speak this language.
There’s another reason as well. Oddly enough, while we can view the Soviet Era as a complex time when there were a lot of colonial practices and tendencies, but also a lot of emancipatory practices built into the ideology itself, in the nineties and aughts, when these countries separated, the the relationships between them became far more colonial then they had been in Soviet times. We’ve been observing colonial practices in relations between two former republics for a year now. Before, this would have been unimaginable.