David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye

Russian Orientalism

Yale University Press 2010

New Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network October 8, 2010 Marshall Poe

There’s a saying, sometimes attributed to Napoleon, “Scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar.” I’ve scratched a Russian (I won’t say anything more...

There’s a saying, sometimes attributed to Napoleon, “Scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar.” I’ve scratched a Russian (I won’t say anything more about that) and I can tell you that the saying is false: all I found was more Russian. It’s true, however, that Russians have always known a lot about Tatars because they’ve lived cheek-by-jowl with them for many centuries. Before the beginning of European contact with Russia in the sixteenth century, Russians didn’t really think the Tatars were terribly exotic. They were just neighbors, albeit occasionally hostile and profoundly heretical ones. The same could be said of the early modern Russian view of, say, Poles and Germans.

Things changed, however, when the Russians decided they weren’t just “Russians” but were also “Europeans.” That happened, roughly, in the eighteenth century. The Europeans, not being terribly experienced with the peoples of eastern climes, had some rather odd notions about the folks they often called “Orientals.” Over time, the Europhilic Russian elite began to assimilate the Europeans’ views of “Orientals.” The process by which they did so, and the cultural consequences thereof, are the topic of David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye‘s lucid, witty, and thought-provoking Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration (Yale UP, 2010). David explores how the Russians came to construct their own unique “Orient,” one that wasn’t exactly like the Western version and yet was clearly different from the thing itself. For unlike their imaginative European counterparts, the Russians–in my reading–could never really accept the Western image of “Orientals.” They knew the Tatars and other Asian peoples too well and could see that the Western view didn’t match. And then there was the needling suspicion that they themselves were “Orientals”. Thus Russian “Orientalism” was hardly the supposedly subtle yet powerful tool of pith-helmeted, empire-building, expansionists, but instead an attempt at self-understanding.

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