The Imperial Plow: Settler Colonialism in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union Conference

Event time: 
Monday, May 1, 2023 - 12:00am to Tuesday, May 2, 2023 - 12:00am
Location: 
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Event description: 

Organizers: Edyta Bojanowska and Claire Roosien, Yale University
The familiar icon of Russian imperial expansion is the violent nineteenth-century conquest of the exotic mountainous region of the Caucasus. The imperial pen – of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and others – has eagerly followed the imperial bayonet to the Caucasus. Yet the imperial plow was no less a tool of conquest than the pen or the bayonet. This conference aims to shift scholarly attention away from the high drama of military conquest to the understudied processes of settler colonization and to their cultural echoes in the Russian and Soviet empires. More than anything else, it is the activities of the Russian and Soviet agricultural settler that ultimately bound various non-Russian peripheral regions to the social and cultural imaginaries of “Russia” and established enduring forms of imperial control. The idea of settler colonization came to be viewed as Russia’s manifest destiny: its mission to settle “empty” spaces, binding them to the Russian core in the process. The Slavic settler became the key Kulturträger of Russia’s civilizing mission, especially in the east and south.
We propose to examine the cultural and ideological forces that worked to legitimize settler colonialism as a peaceful and superior mode of expansion, and to challenge the notion that it was supposedly neither colonial nor particularly exploitative. In doing so, we hope to engage the emerging field of settler colonial studies, which theorizes settler colonies as distinct colonial formations possessing unique structural features, legitimation strategies, and discursive tropes. As the durable polities of Russia, the United States, or Australia show, these tropes and strategies make the settler colonial societies of continental empires particularly resistant to decolonization. Could the field of Russian and Eurasian studies, somewhat skeptical of postcolonial paradigms, find settler colonial ones to have greater relevance and explanatory power? Can the many supposed idiosyncrasies of Russian colonialism be in fact due to the preponderance of the settler colonial model in the formation of the Russian empire? What can scholars of Eurasia learn from comparative research on settler colonialism elsewhere?
Given the centrality of land as a geographic space and a material resource in settler colonial situations, we plan to engage the eco-critical turn in postcolonial studies. In what ways did settler colonialism destroy not only local cultures but also nature? Disparate forms of land use by nomads and settlers, changes in soil and hydrology caused by intensive agriculture, nuclear and chemical pollution – we ask how these ecological dimensions shaped settler colonies in material ways. We also wish to consider the impact of settler colonialism on indigenous people. What physical, spatial, legal, administrative, cultural, and symbolic means were used to eliminate or displace indigenous people in order to take their land? Along with the mythologizing of the settlers, we wish to explore the pathologizing of the nomads. To what extent are sedentarization campaigns forms of biopolitical violence that paved the way to removals? And how did artists and intellectuals – Russian and Soviet, metropolitan and indigenous – conceive both of those who wielded the imperial plow, and those who stood in its way?
Conference Sponsors: European Studies Council at the Yale MacMillan Center; Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; and the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund