By Paul Goble
The NLO publishing house has released a new collection of essays under the editorship of Yekaterina Boltunova and Willard Sunderland about the role of regions in the Russian Empire before 1917 (Regions of the Russian Empire (in Russian, Moscow: NLO, 2021)).
“’Region’ is one of those fundamental terms which prove elusive when anyone tries to define it,” the authors say. “We often imagine that regions are something which exist objectively.” But in reality, while regions draw on objective realities, they are imaginary communities just as much as nations (polit.ru/article/2021/11/04/ps_regions/).
The Polit.ru portal publishes an excerpt from the introduction written by Sunderland, who has appointments both at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and at the University of Cincinnati in the US. He says the book views “the region as a subject capable of offering its own view on the imperial past of Russia.”
“We begin with a simple observation: any region is a construct, “ Sunderland says. Regions don’t exist until individuals and groups see them, include them in their narratives bout themselves and do not give to them a multitude of aspects and means. But a region doesn’t appear from nowhere … it is formed within the frameworks of a complex interaction of invention and reality and between an idea and matter.”
Some regions arise on their own but others are created by official actions, although they last only when they take on a life of their own. Novorossiya was created by an act of the Russian Empire on March 22, 1764. But over the next century, it expanded and took on a new life as people and officials talked about what it meant.
This process involved both the imputation of new meanings and the destruction of old ones, with various groups, including but not limited to the state involved in deciding what the region could and should mean, the scholar says.
This collection helps fill a major gap. There have been far too few studies of regions as a an issue. In fact, it adds to the small library that does exist, a library in many ways created by Georg von Rauch’s 1953 classic Russland: Staatliche Einheit under Nationale Vielfat. Foederalistiche Kraefte und Ideen in der russischen Geschichte, a book that remains untranslated into English or Russian.