BOOK REVIEW Russia's tug-of-war with its Asian soul Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the
Great to the Emigration by David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
The study of Orientalism, a description of the West's approach to the study of
Asia, has re-emerged as an important subject of research. The launching pad
could well have been Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), a seminal book
that placed the study of Asia, or in this case, the Middle East, in a political
context. Said followed the general line of the prevailing post-modernists of
that time - mostly leftists - that knowledge is directly linked with power.
The subject of this book, Russian Orientalism, could well tempt
the reader to assume that the Russians were increasingly fascinated with Asia
and, in a way, identified with this part of the world.
As a matter of fact, Russia's image as a basically Asian country is quite
widespread in scholarship and public discourse, at least in the West. The book
actually gives quite a different picture of the Russians' interest in the
Orient, an approach that was quite different from Westerners' vision of Russia.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, it was quite popular among Western
intellectuals, especially the French, to see Russians as Asiatics, as the
successors to the Huns, Mongols and Turks, who had created the major threat for
Europe for centuries. European Orientalism, thus, was, in a way, shaped by the
desire of Europeans to find out about non-Europeans.
Interest in the Orient was also spurred by practical reasons - Europeans were
engaged in building empires and needed to know about the people they wanted to
conquer and control. This also could be said of the Russians. As one can tell
from the book's narrative, the Russian elite engaged in the study of Asians not
to affirm their sameness, albeit there were exceptions, but to emphasize their
differences. Russian Orientalism, even when the Russian elite adopted a sort of
Asiatic garb, was a peculiar form of Europeanism.
The Russian study of Asia was launched by Peter the Great, the Westernizer. The
policy was propagated by Peter's successors, especially by Catherine II.
Catherine II liked to demonstrate to foreign dignitaries that she had a lot of
Asians as subjects; they in no way demonstrated her Oriental nature but
emphasized her power and the extent of her empire. Her interest in China was
also a peculiar manifestation of Europeanism, for interest in China and a
certain idealization of China was quite popular in France.
True academic study of Asia, mostly of Muslim countries, was launched in the
early 19th century, and the first school to study the Orient professionally was
opened in Kazan in west-central Russia (it was later moved to St Petersburg).
The proliferation of Asian studies not only reflected a desire to imitate the
West and assure that Russia belonged to European civilization, but was again
driven by practical reasons.
Similar to Europeans, Russians had been engaged in building their own empire.
By the end of the 19th century, Russia had expanded in Central Asia and in the
Far East. This created a demand for people who either knew about the area or
could train specialists.
By that time, the Russian elite, similar to other European elites, was quite
confident that Russians could easily deal with the Asians and on occasion had
developed an ideology of a sort of benign imperialism. Ester Ukhtomski,
mentioned in the book, was one of those idealists. He assumed that Russia and
China could live in a sort of geopolitical symbiosis, but this did not mean
that Russia and China would be equal.
He hardly questioned Russia's dominant role. Still, even in the late 19th
century when Russia had no doubt that it could be the dominant force in Asia,
most Russian intellectuals looked at Asia with dread. Vladimir Solovyov, the
celebrated philosopher, theologian, and poet and son of Sergei Solovyov, an
equally well-known historian, had created his famous poem, "Pan Mongolism"
(1894), in which he predicted that hordes of Asiatics would take over Russia.
After the 1905-1907 revolution, Asia became identified (at least, this could be
seen in Andrei Bely's novel, St Petersburg - 1913, revised 1922) with
the senseless destructiveness of the revolutionaries.
The acceptance of Asians as a positive force was just a short period in the
immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. This could also be said of
present-day Eurasianism - the teaching of which emphasizes the Asian aspect of
Russian civilization, which enjoyed popularity only in the immediate aftermath
of the collapse of the Soviet regime.
By the middle of Vladimir Putin's term as president, increasing tensions
between ethnic Russians and Muslims of various ethnic origins put an end to the
idea of a Eurasian symbiosis; or at least its popularity declined sharply.
This doesn't mean, of course, that present-day Russians have lost interest in
Asia. They see in the vast region a source of a gas and oil and a market for
Russia's goods and, in the case of Iran and China, bargaining chips in dealing
with Washington. Still, here, Moscow is not much different from Paris or
Berlin. Thus, present-day Russians have returned to the approach to Asia that
had dominated the Russian elite from the 18th century to the end of the tsarist
regimes. For this reason, the author's meticulous research sheds light not just
on Russia's approach to Asia in the past but also on the present.
Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the
Emigration by David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye. Yale University Press
(April 20, 2010). ISBN-10: 0300110634. Price US$40, 312 pages.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)