Nicholas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers

May 30, 2008
I've been pretty busy lately preparing to leave New York, and one of the many tasks I've been tackling has been returning to Columbia's library the dozens of books I've got stacked all over my apartment and office. There are a number of books about which I'd like to write a few lines, without going through the bother of writing a full review, and this site seems like a good place to do it.
Nicholas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus (2005) focuses mostly upon the experiences of Dukhobor colonizers in the south Caucasus, although other Christian sectarian groups, such as the Molokans, are also discussed. There were a lot of things about this book that I really liked, and in general I believe that the appearance of so many studies in recent years which examine the empire from the perspective of the regions has been a great development for the field of Russian history. However, there are also a couple of points about this book that I'd like to bring up, mainly with respect to its depiction of the relations between the sectarian colonizers and the indigenous populations.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a great expansion in scholarship pertaining to the more peripheral regions of the Russian Empire and their (often non-Russian) populations. In Heretics and Colonizers, Breyfogle discusses the changing relationships between the tsarist state and a number of pacifist (Christian) sectarian communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The communities are sent to the newly conquered Caucasus as colonizers, originally as a punishment for their non-conformist behavior. As Breyfogle writes on p. 46:

Even though tsarist authorities did come to see the sectarians as "model" colonial settlers over the succeeding decades, their potential contribution as colonizers was a mior factor in sending them to the region. Indeed, the decision to relocate Russians to the Transcaucasus was far more an effort to rid the interior provinces of people for whom tsarist Russia could find no place within its national, corporate framework of religious affiliation.
Over time, however, tsarist officials working in a variety of departments came to depend upon the sectarian communities in the realization of their imperial project. Sectarian villages were instrumental in the setting up of the regional postal system (p. 132), provided material and medical support to Russian troops in the region (139), and dominated the regional transportation trade (104-107), in addition to farming the land and providing sundry other services to tsarist administrators and officers. In return, sectarian communities often became quite wealthy.
All of this is very useful and important information with regard to improving our understanding of the colonial endeavor. But in this book, as is the case with many other studies that have appeared recently in Russian historiography, the primary perspective offered is that of state officials and Russian communities. When it comes to assessing events involving non-Russian communities, this book becomes a bit more problematic.
The main problem with Breyfogle's treatment of sectarian-indigenous relations is that the colonialist narrative is the only one presented. When violence occurs between colonizers and indigenous populations, the colonialist undertaking itself is ignored while violence is presented as having originated with the native response to colonization. Thus, incidences of violence between native populations and sectarian colonizers are described primarily in terms of native violence and colonial response. The Dukhobors, writes Breyfogle, abandoned their pacifist ideals and "started to meet their attackers on their own violent terms" (194). The colonizers "began to fight back" (194), appropriated "local forms of violence" (197), and "reacted" with aggression towards Muslims in the region (197), a "response" which, Breyfogle writes, was undertaken with the hope of "ward[ing] off future mistreatment" (197).

The issue that I have with all of this lies in Breyfogle's presentation of this violence as originating with the native populations, while the violence inherent to colonialism itself is, for the moment, left to one side. Tsarist forces had taken the region by force of arms and had brought in Russian populations to settle the region. Land which had once been freely used by native populations was now the property of the colonizers and the state. This was all part of the violence of colonialism, yet in Breyfogle's account it appears as if the violence all began with the Muslims.

My point here is not to put all of the blame upon the sectarians for this violence, and absolve the indigenous populations of any responsibility for it--I'm not interested in engaging in that sort of scholarly finger-pointing. However, the violence of colonialism itself cannot be ignored when discussing the types of response it engenders.

Indeed, Breyfogle's discussion of colonialist-indigenous violence in this respect is not terribly different from the attitudes of the colonial administrators in Russia and elsewhere responsible for administering colonized populations. This sort of narrative is also common to many accounts of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, in which Palestinian violence against Israel is presented as an opening salvo, rather than as a response to conditions that have been imposed upon them.

It seems to me that a far more compelling argument that Breyfogle could have made here would be one which relates to the nature of colonialism itself. I wish Breyfogle had used this information to argue that the violence of colonialism had managed to turn even these settlers, who had often suffered greatly for their steadfast adherence to pacifist principles, into violent colonizers. This, I think, is one of the great lessons of Breyfogle's book, but it is an argument that is never made. Rather than bending over backwards to absolve the sectarians of their violence by constantly presenting it as a reluctant response to the violence visited upon them by Muslims, Breyfogle could have served this topic much better by explicitly demonstrating how the violence of colonialism can corrupt even the most idealistic and pacifist of communities.

To conclude, there is a lot that I liked about Breyfogle's book, even if I haven't talked very much about the book's many good points here. Moreover, I should emphasize that the question of colonizer-native relations is a minor one in this book. The arguments that Breyfogle does make and the topics which receive greater attention from him are generally handled very well, and the book is a valuable contribution to Russian imperial historiography. Nevertheless, for people who work firsthand upon the colonized populations of the empire (or other empires), the issue of native-colonizer relations is an important one. Even if the non-Russian response to colonization is not of primary concern to Russianist historians, this issue must still be treated with more nuance.


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