Dittmar Schorkowitz
Dittmar Schorkowitz
Senior Research Fellow
Phone: +49 (0) 345 29 27 217

Dittmar Schorkowitz

Dealing with Nationalities in Eurasia. How Russian and Chinese Agencies Managed Ethnic Diversity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

Research Group EMSE
Ethnic Minorities and the State in Eurasia: Relations and Transformations
Dittmar Schorkowitz

The Project

Central institutions set up to regulate the various relationships (tribute, tax, service to state, legal system, elite cooptation, etc.) of ethnic minorities with the state have strong traditions in Russia and China. Bearing different names between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, these institutions, of which the better known include the early Soviet People’s Commissariat of Nationalities (NarKomNac) and the Qing Chinese Court of Colonial Affairs (Lifanyuan), are at the centre of this project. Comparing the historical development of both, their changing functions, tasks, and ideological bases over time, the research will sharpen our view on the similarities and variations of these crucial interfaces between minority and state in two vast regions of Eurasia.
Of particular interest are questions as to how far the nationalities’ aspirations were actually perceived and represented within these governmental bodies, and the extent to which they were used as instruments of social engineering, reinforcing governmental conceptions of ethnicity, cultural diversity, and national cohesion. We thus shall explore the classification of minority groups in the late tsarist and early Soviet Russia and the Qing Empire and the consequences of these dynamics for the minorities and the ethnic identity policies in twentieth century socialist states.

Imperial Formations

With a contribution on imperial formations in Eurasia, Jane Burbank recently stressed Russia’s position as a continental colonial power that survived the epochal break in 1917. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, large parts of the former empire remained intact, except for peoples in the southern Caucasus und Central Asia who withdrew from the former Russian hegemony sphere. In this respect, however, Russia’s postsocialist development differs from China’s, the other continental colonial power in Eurasia, as China was able to preserve its colonial heritage (Southern Mongolia, East Turkestan, and Tibet) up to the present. China was spared the shock that Russia endured with the collapse of socialism.
The background of similar phenomena and yet different development paths begs the question as to how the imperial institutions were structured. Where are continuities, and what are the authority-exercising mechanisms? Can similar criteria for the formation of the institutions be identified for both Russia and China? Epochal breaks, as experienced by both the Russian (1598-1613, 1917, 1989-91) and Chinese (1644, 1911) Empires, provide an excellent starting point for these research questions, since they clearly reveal the resources that multi-national countries have at their disposal to deal with crises, and especially with respect to their ethnic and cultural diversity.

Institutions Do Not Die

For sure, the survival of imperial interests is guaranteed by certain traditions that buffer the collapse of identity, forming dynasties and that pave the way into the socialist era. But which factors constitute this (trans-)continuity? Especially regarding Russia’s and China’s differing ascents to modernity in the twentieth century, it is worth to ask what significance structural configurations and persons from the ancien régime had. Which developments were based on established ruling strategies, and which were rooted in the continuity of state institutions?

<p>Czarevich Nicholas II with Buryat Deputies from Aga District, Trans-Baikal (17.6. 1891).</p> Zoom Image

Czarevich Nicholas II with Buryat Deputies from Aga District, Trans-Baikal (17.6. 1891).

The capacity for the reorganisation of state coherence can be well measured by looking at administrative structures, legal systems and ideologies, and the institutions and networks of the political elite. For Russia and China this is especially true for the administration of ethnic minorities and nationalities. As early as in the seventeenth century, both countries had central agencies and strategies for the integration of their increasing colonial assets.
In earlier times, the administration of these colonial assets was still divided among a number of agencies. However, processes soon ensued to inventory, classify, and homogenise the diverse groups according to linguistic, racial, and cultural criteria. In the nineteenth century, this standardisation and centralisation of the special colonial administrations intensified, and the legal and cultural spheres of the ethnic minorities were adapted to the norms and values of the metropolises. This eventually led to the consolidation of the administrative structures into institutions that were exclusively responsible for the colonised. It is precisely these institutions’ longevity and adaptability to changing imperial formations, that testify to their significance for „internal colonialism”.

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