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A colonial experiment in cleansing: the Russian conquest of Western Caucasus, 1856-65

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In the course of colonial conquest, Russian military policy underwent a process of radicalization which culminated in the expulsion of most of the local population. This policy was explicitly referred to as “cleansing” by Russian contemporaries. Even though imperial Russian officials did not yet think in ethnic terms and were not backed up by biologistic concepts, their images of Northern Caucasians had become highly essentialized. In the case of the Circassians from Western Caucasus, this essentialization led to their exclusion from the “civilized” world and turned them into objects to be dispensed with. This article seeks to explain the origins of Russian “resettlement” and “cleansing” by locating them within the emerging field of governmentality and tracing their further development. It argues that Russian colonial authorities, in conducting their strategy of “final subjugation,” created a new, supplementary instrument of state power that could be used where other, less openly violent techniques of domination and control had failed. In contradiction to widespread assumptions, in Northern Caucasus the mission to civilize and the intent to destroy could exist side by side and even came to complement each other.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 June 2009

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