In the first half of the nineteenth century the polyethnic nature of the Russian Empire was not a serious problem for its ruling elite. However, ongoing modernization processes and various nationality problems forced the government to pay attention to the ethnic variety of the state. Endeavours to rule the large empire more effectively and certain political reasons led to the taking of nationality censuses. The present paper deals with the causes of the censuses in the Northwest Province of the Russian Empire (in what is now Lithuania and Belarus) in the mid-nineteenth century, with the changes that the gathering of the material underwent and with the use of the collected data for political purposes.
Nationality statistics should not be seen merely as an ideological tool. The authorities were in need of nationality statistical data to ensure more effective administration and assessment of the results of their nationality policies. Nevertheless, nationality censuses served ideological aims, too. That was attested by the increasing mistrust of the authorities in statistical data, presented by ‘the Poles’ (mostly by the Catholic clergy). Although Russian ethnographers had placed emphasis on language as a criterion handy for the imperial government in the definition of the nationality of the common people, even in the mid-nineteenth century priority was often given to faith rather than language. That demonstrated how deep-rooted was the equation between faith and nationality in Russian public discourse at that time. Meanwhile as far as the social elite was concerned, national identity was specified by faith, culture, political aspirations and language, too. Although ideologically it was sometimes more convenient to emphasize the Russian or Lithuanian origin of the majority of the gentry, ethno-political reality prevented this from being done with any consistency.
Nationality statistics were used in order to ‘prove’ that the region was allegedly not Polish but Russian. Other arguments, largely historical, were used as well.
The object of this article is to study Russian ‘nationality policy’. It investigates the social content of the concept of ‘the Pole’ in the Northwest Territory in the 1860s, in the interpretation of state officials and influential publicists. The study is also to reveal the treatment of the Lithuanians and Belorussians (i.e., peasants) and to establish whether they were treated as the allies of the regime or identified with ‘the Poles’. A conclusion is reached that in the 1860s a tendency (but not a general rule) prevailed that any Catholic, born in the Northwest Territory and not belonging to the peasant estate, was considered a Pole. That definition was current in the political conception of the nation prior to the modern times. Thus, at least in the 1860s the strategy propagated by Mikhail Katkov and other representatives of the Russian ruling elite to distinguish between Catholicism and Polis/mess did not gain ground.