July 17th 2009 · Prague Watchdog / Kirill Kobrin · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Orientalism versus Imperialism - the Caucasus versus the North

Orientalism versus Imperialism - the Caucasus versus the North

By Kirill Kobrin, special to Prague Watchdog

Some thirty years ago, a book by Edward Said called Orientalism provoked a stormy public reaction and laid the foundations of an entire new academic discipline in the English-speaking world – that of postcolonial studies. It was translated into dozens of languages, and produced an enormous secondary literature of refutations and apologetics.

The book traces the history of how Europeans (and later also Americans) formed a relation to an Other which they called the “Orient”, and which we now know as the Middle East. This historical and cultural construction, which became established in the European consciousness around the end of the eighteenth century, turned into a giant machine for the creation of ideas and for their discussion and interpretation. The machine’s additional function was to turn these ideas into political solutions, which were embodied in hundreds of thousands of soldiers, diplomats, entrepreneurs and colonial officials. To all of this, Said gave the name “Orientalism”.

If we examine the concept from the point of view of how it manifested itself in Russia, the Russian Empire and the consciousness that developed from it, we find that there are several versions. One of these was based on the perception that in the Russian Empire – unlike the empires of the British or the French – the metropolitan centre was never separated from the colonies by seas and oceans. From the nineteenth century onwards, the Russian ruling class constructed its own "Orient” inside its own country. The role of the mysterious turban-wearing Turks and mummified Pharaohs was played by Russia’s own so-called "people”. This object was endowed with a variety of attributes which together may be characterized as "extreme exoticism”. The Russian “muzhik" was the principal bearer of exoticism in the Russian society of the time. In nineteenth century works of literature he appears as a figure in homespun coat and bast shoes who is not only quite impossible to understand but also bear no external resemblance to the author in his frock-coat or civil service uniform. He is the Other.
Adherents of a different approach to Russian imperial thinking perceive the Other in the south-west, and Ukraine. Here, of course, a fateful role was played first by Pushkin in his narrative poem Poltava, and then by Gogol with his Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and his Mirgorod stories. For Pushkin, the Ukrainians of the eighteenth century were akin to the Red Indians of American romantic authors like Philip Freneau and James Fennimore Cooper. The story of Ivan Mazepa, who deserts the Russians for the Swedes, is little different from that of some Huron or Iroquois chief who deserts the British for the French during the Seven Years’ War. The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Gypsies, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Poltava are “colonial poems”, “colonial” in the same sense as prose works like Journey to Arzrum. In all of these, Pushkin appears, as it were, in a pith helmet, holding a stake, on a hill surrounded by native orderlies, sepoys and Zulu tribesmen.

With Pushkin, we arrive at the Caucasus. Here, too, we should recall the fateful birth of "Orientalism." While for the West it entailed Napoleon’s adventure in Egypt, for Russia it meant the Treaty of Georgievsk, which established Georgia as a protectorate of the Russian crown. This valuable territorial acquisition had only one drawback – between Russia and Georgia lay the Caucasus, unbowed, alien and restless.

The author Lev Tolstoy was the forerunner of colonial writers like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. But Orientalism was a disappointment. The romantic veil of the East became absorbed into the mass culture that was already emerging in those days, in the form of advertising and commercial art and, some fifty or seventy years later, in cinema and pop music. The “Orient” split into tiny details and individual human beings, each with their own fate, psychology, social status, digestion and sexuality. The inhabitants of the Caucasus turned from being imaginary savages, morally neutral barbarians, into ordinary folk for whom one could feel both pity and revulsion. The colonizer and the colonized became indistinguishable – this is the path traversed by Tolstoy in his Caucasus novellas, from The Raid and The Wood-Felling to Hadji-Murat.

At first sight, the Russian (Soviet) Empire does not look much different from the British or the French one, from Rome or Byzantium. On closer inspection, however, we observe that from the sixteenth (or seventeenth) to the twentieth century Russia experienced a period of vigorous territorial expansion – but to call it "colonial" would be stretching a point. While the Caucasian wars and the accession of Central Asia were typical colonial conflicts, if we look at the map we can see that Russia’s southward expansion looks quite modest compared with its subjugation of the East, and – of course – the North. Actually, Russia’s territorial expansion was primarily an “acquisition of lands” and only afterwards a "capture of states" and a "subjugation of peoples." And the principal object of that expansion was not people, but physical space.

The capture and acquisition of new territories has always been considered a feature both of imperialism and of colonialism. The two concepts are often confused: also, colonialism can exist without imperialism (it is sufficient to remember the colonies of Ancient Greece) and imperialism without colonialism. Colonialism is a deliberate pragmatic policy aimed at the capture and exploitation of territories, and the subjugation of the local population. Imperialism is also related to territory and physical space, but is ideological throughout. It is therefore often both a cause and a consequence of colonialism. Moreover, unlike colonialism, imperialism is associated more with the giant expanses of territory and physical space which are under the control of the metropolitan centre. Imperialism can be seen as the realization of the idea of power over immense geographical areas ( "The empire on which the sun never sets”).

Russian (or rather Soviet) imperialism found its primary expression in the so-called "acquisition of the North". In itself the idea is not a colonial one, but is based in imperialism. From the Middle Ages until our own time the North has been viewed as a realm of emptiness, the mastery of which can give a sense of pure power which bears almost no relation to power over conquered peoples. Mastery of the North is to some extent a metaphor for power in general, power per se, an ideal power that has a subject but no object. In Western tradition, however, the imaginary “Orient” (which embraced both the geographical East and the geographical South) was strictly speaking the object not of imperialism, but of colonialism: it involved peoples, their religions, cultures, trade and resources. While the North was empty and homogenous, the East was rich and varied.

Russia’s colonization of the North gave way to Russian imperialism in the second half of seventeenth century, when the colonizers reached the eastern geographical limit – the Pacific Ocean. It was then that expansion finally turned to the North – an empty region of eternal ice and snow. Colonization was replaced by a “pure" imperialism which had no pragmatic component. The more deserted and uninhabited the geographical space acquired, the greater was the role of the Russian state. When the North was also finally "conquered", it was replaced by outer space, in the apotheosis of the new imperialism that became known as the "conquest of the cosmos". On an everyday level, the Soviet fashion for polar explorers was supplanted by the vogue of cosmonauts. Whenever there was a light lull in the fighting in Chechnya during the past ten years, the Russian authorities began to send expeditions to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.


(Translation by DM)




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