Promotion of Russian Imperialism in Travelogues

  September 21, 2021   Read time 4 min
Promotion of Russian Imperialism in Travelogues
In their travelogues about Iran, even those military men, civilian officials and scholars who were supportive of democratic and constitutional movements inside autocratic Russia became outspoken advocates of Russian imperial politics.

The direct and open connection of the majority of the travelers with Russian imperial power resulted in their strong support of the monarchy and Russian nationalism, both seen by them as essential ingredients of patriotism. Interestingly, the “civilizing mission” of the empire towards the “inferior” Orientals in general and Iranians in particular appeared to be so important to the travelers that it overshadowed their political views on the domestic development of Russia. In their travelogues about Iran, even those military men, civilian officials and scholars who were supportive of democratic and constitutional movements inside autocratic Russia became outspoken advocates of Russian imperial politics. Censorship perhaps played some role in this overnight regression in their thinking, but their emotionally charged expressions of patriotism are mainly explained by the fact that the “civilizing mission” of the empire and its expansionist imperative were seen as more important to these dutiful observers than the struggle between tsarism and liberalism back home. For these military officers and imperial officials, loyalty to the Motherland trumped domestic political leanings.

Usually any contact along the interface between two cultures leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation on both sides, due to preconceived ideas and prejudices that shape views and reactions. Relations between Russia and Iran cannot be taken outside of the context of the uneasy and countervailing relations between the Western world of Christianity and the Eastern world of Islam. By the nineteenth century, the encounter between the Russians and Iranians was one of inequality defined by the Russian colonial domination over its southern neighbor. Russian travelers to Iran arrived there with specific biases – they expected to find certain things based on those biases and in most cases they did. Their preconceived ideas and prejudices were reflected in their travel accounts and distorted the reality they observed. The Russian travelogues are subjective, as are all primary sources (to varying degrees), and while this fact hardly undermines the value of the information they provide, it must always be taken into account. An analysis of the prism through which the travelers looked at Iran and the filters through which they sifted their material must be undertaken in order to expose the prejudices that otherwise deform and devalue the testimonials they are making.

Indeed, the authors reveal a lot about themselves in their accounts, and their self-representation vis-à-vis the Iranians on one side, and the British in Iran on the other, is as important as the information they provide about Iran. The strange and seemingly hostile atmosphere of Iran becomes a forge for constructing and expressing the Russian self-identity. The position the Russian authors stake out between the Oriental “Other,” represented by the Iranians, and the European “Self,” represented by the British, attests to the deep split within their national consciousness that is analyzed in this work. Their biases against the “Orientals” are expressed more directly in their self-representation than in the rest of the material. In a way, their self-representation is an intermediate position between their biases and preconceived ideas and their representation of Iran and its people.

The complex of preconceived ideas and prejudices about the people of the Orient and the colonial practices these engendered are defined as Russian Orientalism in this book. The parallels between the Russians’ experience in Iran and the Western European concept of the Oriental “Other” suggested using the main elements of the theory of Orientalism as the point of departure for a delineation of its Russian variant. The concept of Orientalism, the theory and practice of representing the “Orient” in Western thought, has been largely seen as a Western European phenomenon, with its Eastern European or Russian variant ignored. But Russian Orientalism has its own unique context, history and features that clearly distinguish it from Western European experience and are generated by the complexity of the Russian national identity.

The concept of Orientalism became widely known after the publication in 1979 of the celebrated book of that name by the late scholar, Edward Said. According to that theory, any knowledge is socially and politically charged and is inevitably interconnected with power, which in turn is used to subjugate the Orient. Western self-identity is seen in juxtaposition to the Oriental “Other,” and the Orient is represented as different from and therefore inferior to the Western “Self.” The world is dichotomized into “us” versus “them” and therefore into civilization/barbarity, good/evil, reason/emotion, and so on. The Orient is turned into a passive, silent and weak object of study to be “civilized” by the advanced West. Similar to other colonial empires, the Russian Empire charged itself with the duty to “civilize,” or bring economic and political progress and Christianity to the peoples of Asia and the Caucasus.

Write your comment