In the nineteenth century, the Orient held many temptations for Russia, the Paris-based historian Lorraine de Meaux explains in her new book. As an expansive power whose western frontier was largely fixed after the Napoleonic Wars, Russia could still conquer new lands in the East. Scholars in the empire’s nascent universities found much to study among the Asian peoples both within the empire’s borders and beyond. Meanwhile, for a nation increasingly uneasy about its Occidental identity, the Orient offered a different path. And to Russia’s poets, painters and composers, the East was an inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration.
La Russie et la tentation de l’Orient (Russia and the Oriental temptation) considers the many ways Russians looked at and thought about Asia during the last century before the Revolution. The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, which controversially argued that Orientology and colonialism are inextricably linked, generated a tidal wave of scholarship about Western perceptions of the East. However, as did Said himself, it tends to neglect Russia. Moreover, the country occupies an unusual place in this literature. Whereas most Europeans see themselves as distinct from Asia, or “the Other” in Said’s lexicon, geography considerably complicates matters for Russians. With most of its territory east of the Urals and a long history of intermarriage with a variety of Eastern peoples, for Russia the distinction between Occidental Self and Oriental Other is more complicated.
L. de Meaux logically begins with an overview of Russia’s three-pronged thrust into Asia ― the Caucasus beginning in the early 1800’s, Turkistan after the Crimean War at mid-century, and East Asia, culminating in the disastrous war against Japan of 1904-5. All profoundly shaped “the imperial myth,” a contradictory amalgam that fused ideas about mission civilisatrice, an Asian manifest destiny, and kinship with the East. She then turns her attention to the development of Orientology, “one of the most remarkable aspects of Russia’s great [nineteenth] century.” While Russian and Soviet scholars (most notably Turcologist Vasilii Barthold) have exhaustively studied the subject, L. de Meaux is among the first in the West to give the discipline the attention it deserves. Like Vera Tolz, she points out that a number of Russian Orientologists actively opposed the autocracy’s efforts to russify inorodtsy (Asian minorities) during its waning decades. Equally intriguing is her discussion of Orientology’s considerations about Russia’s own Eastern roots.
The chapters about literature and art will be relatively familiar to students of Russian culture, although they do add on the work of such writers as Susan Layton, Katya Hokanson, Dany Savelli, and Jane Sharp. However, L. de Meaux’s discussion of Asia’s role in Russia’s identity is much more original. If Mark Bassin and Marlène Laruelle have focused on specific aspects of the question, L. de Meaux provides a valuable synthesis of how the East fits into the debate about Russia and the West. She rightly points out “the Russian Idea developed against the Occident.” At the same time, Russians were hardly being original, since ideas of a Sonderweg originating in the Orient first arose among German Romantics. While L. de Meaux briefly alludes to this question, she might have traced the path from Schlegel and his contemporaries to Russia more explicitly.
Does the Saidian paradigm apply to Russia? L. de Meaux is not entirely convinced. On the one hand, she demonstrates that nineteenth-century Tsarist conquest generated a rich literature about the East, both by scholars and poets. Indeed, “the Oriental novel appears as one of the principal elements of Russian culture’s florescence.” She points out that geographers, ethnographers and archaeologists “helped their contemporaries to understand Asia’s place in the ensemble impérial,” and often worked closely with military and colonial administrators. Indeed one of the strengths of her book is the way she interweaves the study of empire with intellectual and cultural history, much as Said did for Britain and France. At the same time, L. de Meaux argues that, far from supporting the Tsarist drive into the East, authors from Alexander Pushkin to Anton Chekhov were often harshly critical of the campaigns.
Many have written about Russia’s relationship with Europe, but few have looked at the other side of the coin, namely how it regarded Asia. Much as a hundred years earlier, in the post-Soviet malaise about their place in the world, the East once again holds considerable appeal to Russians. L. de Meaux’s book is therefore a timely and important addition to the growing literature about Russian national identity.