Reviews Politics of colonization. Russian imperial governance through the institution of marriage

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2019:2
Published on on juni 19, 2019

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The last twenty years have seen a renewed scholarly interest in the Russian Empire and its politics of colonization. By examining Russia’s state-sponsored colonization of the Northern Black Sea Steppe during the first half of the nineteenth century, Julia Malitska’s doctoral dissertation forms part of this imperial turn in Russian history. Following the expansion of the Russian empire to the south and west in the final years of the eighteenth century, the Russian government tried to attract foreigners to the newly acquired regions. Immigrants from the war-torn German lands were invited to settle on the steppe north of the Black Sea. These “German colonists”, who were in fact of varied ethnic origin, established colonies all over the region.

Negotiating Imperial Rule tackles the issue of imperial governance through the institution of marriage. In a commendable way, Malitska shows how the institution of marriage was used by the imperial state to control and govern the colonists, but also how the politics of marriage was encountered and managed locally in the periphery. The state desired stable households and farms that generated revenue. Thus, the economic welfare of the colonies formed the basis of the legislation and rules concerning marriage. Malitska has examined a large number of documents in regional archives to find out how the legal requirements were implemented in practice on the ground, as well as how they were negotiated by local actors. She argues that the Russian state tried to control colonist marriages and household formation through the current marriage regime (the official system of rules, rituals and procedures regarding colonist marriages), but it lacked actual means to exercise this control locally. Instead, the marriage regime was challenged and negotiated in different ways by different local actors (government officials, priests, colonial communities, and colonists). A central aim of the book is to reveal the divergences between the laws and norms of the central imperial state and the practices in the periphery.

As with many dissertations, little will be lost to the reader skipping the introductory chapter. In this case, the problem is not that the introduction contains too much abstract theory or too much sophisticated methodology, but rather that it contains too little. There are sweeping references to microhistory and discourse analysis, but these references are not followed through properly. As a result, the dissertation lacks a systematic account of the analytical method. Moreover, the contribution to previous research is not clearly stated. A more focused engagement with relevant literature would have been useful, especially regarding colonization and marriage and negotiated practices of imperial governance in a comparative perspective.

The first chapter is followed by more rewarding chapters on the history of the Black Sea Steppe and its inhabitants. Malitska describes the administration of the colonies, the status of the Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches in the Empire, the situation of the priests, and the legal status, rights and obligations of the colonists, before discussing marriages as an instrument of control and the bureaucratization of colonist marriages. From 1816, marriages involving colonists could only be concluded after permission from local authorities. The legal marriage regime was introduced to enhance productivity and to ensure the prosperity of the colonies. What is lacking here is a discussion of the possible significance of the colonists’ ethnic and cultural identity in the context of the Empire. Culture and ethnicity as analytical categories are virtually absent in the book.

The most interesting parts of Negotiating Imperial Rule are the two chapters about concrete cases of marriage among German colonists. This part of the book could well have been extended to include arguments about the “civilizing” role of marriage in the politics of colonization. Chapter 5 deals with marriages between colonists and non-colonists. Here, Malitska points to the noteworthy fact that colonist women played a rather significant role in the regulation of marriages, in a way that Russian peasant women did not. In fact, legal restrictions on marriages particularly targeted colonist women who intended to marry non-colonist men. This was due to the state loans that had been granted to the colonists, which were granted on the basis of the total members of the household regardless of sex or age, making all the household members debtors whatever their age or gender. Indebted colonist widows and daughters were prohibited from marrying non-colonists and leaving the ranks of the colonists unless their share of the debt was first repaid. Chapter 6 discusses the colonists’ problems with the marriage norm — broken marriages and divorce. Through narratives of marital breakdowns, this truly fascinating chapter allows the reader a glimpse into the lives of the colonists. Malitska presents reasons for marital breakdown and various grounds for divorce, both spiritual and secular, as well as the role of regional officials and priests in managing marital breakdowns. Reading about these cases of colonist marriages, one is struck by two interesting details. The first is the way that colonists consciously framed their petitions in order to be granted a divorce or be allowed to marry. The second is the fact that colonist women not infrequently lived in extra-marital relationships.

Malitska claims that different local actors held conflicting interests regarding colonist marriages, but this interpretation seems somewhat exaggerated. The colonial administration regarded marriage as fundamental to the economic prosperity and stability of the colonies. This was also the general view held by the colonial communities. The colonists also wanted their farms to flourish and knew well that for this both wife and husband were needed. Unsurprisingly, priests often had other motives than purely economic ones and they did come into conflict with the state at times, but this happened on only a few occasions. Even though individual colonists at times managed to marry non-colonists or escape dysfunctional marriages, the imperial state seems to have mostly got what it wanted to make the colonies economically viable (payment of debts, remarriages, transfer of farms). Thus, it is difficult to maintain that the Russian state lacked the means to exercise control over colonist marriages locally.

Nevertheless, Negotiating Imperial Rule makes an important contribution to our knowledge of Russian colonization by illuminating “German” colonist marriages and sexual relations in the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as explaining how these were managed by the colonial administration, local priests and colonial communities.≈


Negotiating Imperial Rule. Colonists and Marriage in the Nine-teenth-Century Black Sea Steppe Julia Malitska, Södertörn Doctoral Dissertations 135, Stockholm 2017, 392 pages.