Monthly Archives: April 2007

‘Arctic Mirrors’

Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North.
Yuri Slezkine.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Unlike most of the major powers of Europe, Russia failed to establish a network of profitable overseas colonies, focussing its meagre resources on exploring and settling the vast north Asian landmass. Slezkine’s book is an account of the meeting, and tempestuous co-existence, of Great Russians and the native people of Siberia. His text does not, however, tell the story of the Siberians themselves; it is explicitly about the Russians, using contact with the ‘small peoples’ as a distorting mirror to reflect back the image that the Tsarist and Bolshevik empires offered of themselves. The autochthonous Siberians are not entirely neglected, however, and whilst it lacks for nuance and depth in its treatment of their histories, it is sufficiently rich to capture the imagination and provide a sense of what these cultural encounters might have been like.

Moving chronologically through three centuries of contact, Slezkine begins with early exploits of Cossack explorers. Through the 16th and 17th centuries the Tsarist régime treated the Siberians as foreigners (41), viewing them as different only in language, faith, and culture. Most were forced to pay tribute (iasak) but were otherwise left as found. The modernising reforms of Peter I changed this relationship forever, as the transition envisaged by the Tsar “seemed to require a missionary crusade” (48). Adopting the concept of linear universal time, the Siberians became ‘backward’ (53) and their practices examined and ranked (‘useful’ to ‘stupid’; 57-8). Enlightenment was a watchword for Russification, and as trade increased Russians worked to implant new concepts, such as political élites.

Interest waned under Peter’s successors, and gave way to a policy of ‘gradual and voluntary change’ (88). This shifted in turn as Russians absorbed the ‘white man’s burden’ (96) and social Darwinism (119-120). The Revolution brought violence and anarchy to the taiga (131), and the attempt to enlist the impoverished settlers to manage the region (135) would prove disastrous. Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks a more enlightened nationalities policy briefly flourished, with the Siberian peoples recognised as distinct nations endowed with natural rights. This did not, however, prevent them from rationalising the continued Russian domination; for party ideologues, the ‘gift of self-determination was a gesture of repentance that would eventually lead to national forgiveness and therefore to the end of nationalist paranoia and therefore to the end of national difference’ (142). And as any rate, the ‘gift’ would be short-lived.

The rise of Stalinism saw the abandonment of all ‘gradualist’ plans for modernisation, and the peculiar fixations of that period found their analogues in Siberia: shamans became oppressive priests and were disenfranchised and persecuted; women became proletarians and were encouraged to rebel against traditional culture; and anyone with the slightest material edge over his neighbours was branded a ‘kulak’, with predictable consequences (190-1). This despite the presence of a well-developed form of ‘primitive communism’, under which there were no poor or hungry who went unaided (200). The absence of social classes was incomprehensible to Marxist theorists, so Stalinist policies simply began to create them. The ‘cultural revolution’ in Siberia ultimately failed to produce new Russian workers, but succeeded in destroying much of the native culture (219-255); worse, the forced settlement and collectivization led to massive starvation. Finally, being no longer seen as essentially different, the Siberians were treated to Purges that saw perhaps 36% of the adult population ‘removed’ by the NKVD (291). That same lack of difference was put into sharp relief by the subsequent rise in Great Russian nationalism during and after the Great Patriotic War (303-7).

Throughout Slezkine underscores the ways in which the terms of contact changed in response to Russian cultural developments. Indeed, the text is primarily an archaeology of Russian perception, which is most apparent in the last third of the book, where direct reference to the Siberians disappears in favour of an extended treatment of Soviet anthropology. There is a problem of execution, however, in that the text is torn betwixt being a history of the discipline of anthropology and being a cultural and intellectual history of conquest and administration; for much of the book these aims move in graceful tandem, but the latter is lost for the post-WWII period. Little is done early on to develop a coherent theoretical position, and without such a scheme the rush of jargon in the conclusion came off badly; however, his concluding position is admirable despite the awkward rhetoric. Slezkine wonders if it is possible to confront the Other on a position of both equality and difference, noting that attempts to remove hierarchical power relations often result only in a return to simple myths and a lack of understanding; the Foucaultian power-knowledge binary seems to underwrite the entire project.