Impérial, national, colonial : pratiques intellectuelles et sociales d'appropriation des territoires et des peuples dans l’Empire russe du long XIXe siècle.

Session 1

8/10/2020, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

G. Durinova “The concepts of tolerance and diversity
in Russian ethnographic discourse of the late imperial period”


Despite scholar’s interest in modern Russian history from the (post)colonial point of view and in the history of Russian imperialism, having resulted in quite a number of fundamental works,  the question of how those factual conjecture defined the “imaginary geography” of Russian empire, the semantics of social roles and the principles of their attribution still not explored enough. From this perspective it is particularly challenging to explore the conceptual systems emerging in parallel with the fundamental transformations of society during the Great reforms, which “were including the attempts to nationalize the political body of Empire within cultural and administrative russification, taking various forms” [Tolz 2012: 185]. 

The present article shares the results of a close-reading approach to the program text in the first issue of the ethnographic review “Zhivaya starina” – the large “Introduction” by the editor-in-chief and philologist V. Lamansky. By analysing the textual organisation and its key-concepts, I was hoping to gain a visibility on how Lamansky, as a public intellectual and an official (as RGO was the state institution) during the crucial period of the tsarist Russia, how and in what terms such a person was thinking? 

“Zhivaya starina” is the Russian Imperial Geographic society’s second periodical exclusively dedicated to ethnographic material and the third one of this genre on the scale of Russian Empire. Its first issue appears in 1890, a year after the “Ethnographic observer”, started by Moscow university’s Society of Devotees of Natural Science, Anthropology, and Ethnography. 

One may thus judge that the apparition of another ethnographic review on a wave of florescence of this young science is nothing but a routine publishing business, yet no institutional financial support for the edition was provided. The edition depended completely on individual donations and subscriptions. This reveals a certain initiative and enthusiasm for the whole enterprise, and let presuppose the existing of some kind of social demand for the project. 

The close-reading approach to Lamansky’s article will show how the concepts of “nationality”, “ethnicity”, “inorodtsy” were interconnected and what hierarchy they were establishing. What makes possible this purely inductive approach to those rather “big” questions, is that behind the text of this genre, there was a certain vision of what the new Russian society might become, how exactly these new categories of the liberated serfs and integrated (or not) inorodtsy will contribute to the new social structure. One of those visions was what I call the “ethnographic project” of Russian society, which we can see rather clearly by analysing Lamansky’s text. Within this “project” the nation (narodnost’) doesn’t exclude, but rather embraces the “alieness” (inorodchestvo). It seems that such a category wasn’t exactly created “on orders from above”, neither was it a conscious creation of a particular person or institution. It appeared as a result of multifactorial conceptual conjecture during the studying period, within its particular social and political contexts. 


Session 2

5/11/2020, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

M. Matras “The populists exiled in Siberia turned ethnographers: a socialist version of evolutionism?”


My presentation is restrained to one object of 19th century ethnographic knowledge: customary law. Within that sphere of ethnographic investigation, I have pinpointed a quite common notion for 19th century ethnographers, the notion of “clan”. I will try to figure out how the socialist-populist Nikolaj Vitaševskij (1857-1918), who took part in the Sibirjakov expedition (1894-1896) during his exile in Jakutsk, relies on the notion of “clan” to draw conclusions on Jakut customary law. At the beginning of my presentation I intend to make clear what was so important about customary law in the end of 19th century in general in Russian ethnography and why “clan” became an object of inquiry of non-Russian people of the Empire. For me, “clan” is the equivalent of the “extended family”, which was investigated by ethnographers in Slavic peasant part of Russian empire. Then, relying on archival material and publications, I will show Nikolaj Vitaševskij’ s own conception of customary law. I’ll give an example of his field work: the study of “of system of gifts and debts” in civil law in Jakutia. Thanks to his understanding of customary law as the basic material of any social organization, Nikolaj Vitaševskij is able to study Jakut civil law from the inside, as a living social phenomenon, and not as a mere set of traditions. Moreover, I’ll show that his interest in Russian peasants makes him bring together Russian and non-Russian customary laws as multiple variants of social regulations. While Vitaševskij clearly believes in the universality of progress paths, and clearly implies that Russian-Western way of development is a universal model, his interest in contemporary Russian peasant life constraints him to admit that basic popular material (custom, popular habits) can coexist with more formal set of juridical norms. As such, one can develop the hypothesis that Vitaševskij doesn’t conceive of human progress as a mere succession of stages but as a “kaleidoscopic” transformation of basic social material which exists in every human society, whether Russian or Jakut. 

Session 3

26/11/2020, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

K. Takasaeva “Reading Waclaw Sieroszewski: decolonizing approaches to the colonial studies”


The topic “ Yakutian works by Wacław Sieroszewski in the context of the transformation of Sacha (Yakuts) national consciousness ” presented in the field of cultural studies. This piece attempts to analyse Wacław Sieroszewski's body of work on Sacha culture, within the context of the transformation of the consciousness of successive generations of Yakutians over two centuries. The aim was to present a perspective that would differ from the existing conceptualizations of this Polish writer's work, and would al low us to see the possibility of new interpretations of the interdisciplinary heritage of the author’s book “ Twelve year in the Yakut country ”, 1900. This approach is useful for the study of contemporary Sacha culture, including the overlapping of many dis ciplines - cultural studies, ethnography, history, psychology, literature, oriental studies, anthropology and linguistics. From the insider's native perspective the author analyses the materials devoted to Sacha culture as collected and compiled in this late nineteenth century exile's research. It should be noted that this is the first analysis of Sieroszewski's writing heritage in the Polish language by a Yakutian researcher (that is to say, from the perspective of a "native" in the colonial context). This academic project seeks to balance the complex, heterogeneous nature of colonialist narratives against the ongoing struggle of the Sacha for effective dialogue on the cutting edge of post - colonialist territorial realit y. This work attempts to analyse the contemporary and current perception of Russian influence, although the process of colonization is not the centre of attention research. The work has also used postcolonial discourse, which is an important aspec t of supposed “mental decolonisation” (or the mental process of removal of “Empire”. This PhD study analysing the Yakutian legacy of the Polish writer's themes emerged from the assertion that the main goal of Wacław Sieroszewski works was the criticism of imperialism and colonialism, the formulation of themes of cultural independence.

Session 4

21/01/2021, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

Ulrich Hofmeister  "The Ambiguity of Civilization: Russian Notions of Imperial Rule in Central Asia, ca. 1860-1917"



The civilizing mission idea was the main legitimation of European colonialism during the 19th and early 20th century. The Russian Empire shared this discourse by claiming that its rule in the newly conquered province of Turkestan fulfilled Russia’s moral obligation to help Muslims to advance on their path towards progress and the implementation of universal values. In my talk I am going to analyze the Russian civilizing mission discourse on Central Asia by focusing on three main aspects: Firstly, I will discuss how Russia – a country that itself struggled with the repute of being backward and uncivilized – was styled into the civilizer of Central Asia, and what consequences this had for the practice of Russian rule in Turkestan. Secondly, I will show that the civilizing mission concept was an ideologically open tool that was not restricted to a certain political orientation. It could rather be adopted (and equally rejected) by actors with the most diverse political and ideological backgrounds. Finally, I will analyze the implicit limitations of the civilizing mission concept which make it in the long term unsuitable for the legitimation of colonial rule. Accordingly, during the last years of Tsarist rule, doubts were cast on Russia’s civilizing ambitions in Central Asia, so that more and more observers called to restrict the civilization of Central Asia’s Muslims.

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Session 5

18/02/2021, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

Ayur Zhanaev “Buddhist didactic literature of the Buryats (XIX. c.) and the notion of social order: what place for the Russian Empire?”


My presentation will be based on the Buddhist didactic texts (yosun-u šastir or surgal, bičig, üge) which were in circulation in the Buryat regions during the pre-Soviet period. These are small works in classical Mongolian script (from couple to 100 or more pages of text), published in the form of printed or manuscript books addressed mainly to the laity. Lamas had a goal to “improve” (sayjiraqu) society according to their project of human social order (yosun) - which is why I consider them as a source of reflexivity of the pre-modern Buryat elites on the social issues. The lamas used didactic texts as a means to spread basic elements of Buddhist moral principles and notions of social order which they wanted lay people to apply in their daily lives. In this presentation I will try to present what the didactic literature propagated about the notion of “state” and “empire”. While analyzing this material, I will try to find out whether the Russian Empire was being perceived as a part of this “social project” and what are the categories the Empire was conceived in. 

Session 6

25/03/2021, 14h-15h30 (CET), via ZOOM

Anastasiia Kozyreva “An Empire's National Poet (the case of Pushkin's Ruslan and Ludmila)”


The process of construction of the national idea in the Russian Empire in the 19th century goes alongside with the formation of the corpus of the “national literature”.  According to Anne-Marie Thiesse, “literature as well as music and painting participates in the dawn and in the stability of the nation” (A.-M. Thiesse, 2019). Writers and poets - as the main actors forming national consciousness while creating and enriching their native language - play therefore an important role. However, not all the authors are fated to become “national” and “canonic”.

The critics which defines the public opinion and “labels” the attitudes of a salon form what Gérard Genette called the “épitexte”. The épitexte thus becomes a powerful institutional tool for creating the writer’s literary reputation.

By analyzing the reception of Alexander Pushkin’s poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820) I will demonstrate the mechanisms of the creation of the “national poet” mythology and the way Pushkin participates in the definition of “the Russian idea. “