Internal Colonization, Russia’s Imperial Experience Alexander Etkind, Wiley and Polity Books, 21,60 €
Walls have often been used not only to defend one’s people from foreign attacks but also and especially to keep people under scrutiny and prevent them from seceding. Some of those walls are physical structures, made of stones, such as Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Wall, or the Great Wall of China. Others are subjective, built in the minds of the Emperor’s citizens... symbolic, philosophical, aimed at framing a common consciousness of a shared identity. This book is the story of a wall. Nothing new, apparently! One more wall. But Alexander Etkind highlights what is at the core of the Russian Empire building process. Beyond objective specific facts – it was the largest in space and the most durable in time, and fast ships meant that lands were less easily controlled than overseas territories– the author goes deep into Russian history and culture to emphasize and explain that heuristic idea “how to colonize oneself.” Violence and wars do a lot, and did it particularly towards non-Russians during the 19th Century. But there is also, historically, a kind of “colonization by consent” for those who were to become the “Russians”, subjects of the Tsar. To serve that audacious and non-chronological argument, Etkind offers a profusion of literary references, from, of course, most of the famous Russian writers to, among others, Defoe, Tocqueville, Kipling and Girard. It is delightful to remember those beautiful insights and read how they apply to Russia’s identity. We may regret, however, that some of them are already too familiar and we feel the constraints of academism in a book whose topic may have benefited from a greater liberty of writing and style.