Travel Writing: an Aperture to Unknown People

  January 04, 2022   Read time 4 min
Travel Writing: an Aperture to Unknown People
Travel writing gives an exceptional opportunity to study the process of creating self-identity in the context of confrontation with the “Other.” The Self is constructed as different from or even opposed to the foreign and strange Other.

Travel can be viewed as “a trial of identity” and the travel book as an account of “the writer’s identity, that is, thrown into relief against the foreign landscape, or filtered through the foreign context.” Contact with the Oriental Other reveals the reaction of the Russian travelers to the contradiction between the West-oriented and East-oriented sides of the split Russian national identity. The travelers’ efforts to conceal the sense of inferiority resulting from that split and their efforts to reject the Eastern elements in the national consciousness led to their overemphasizing their Europeanness and their equivalence to the Western Europeans. Most of the travelogue authors try to prove that being Russian means being European. Their repeated attempts to prove this are indicative of their subconscious uncertainty. Most of the travelers refer to themselves as European rather than as Russian, which would be more natural; they constantly remember that they are European and remind their readers of it.

Russia’s affiliation with the rest of Europe seems to be very significant to them. “I looked at Persia not as an Orientalist, nor as a scholar, but simply as a European who went to Asia and wrote down everything that caught my eye,” writes Baron Korf in the introduction to his travelogue. Like many other authors, he never tires of talking about his European taste, European eye, European ear, and European notions Il’ia Berezin directly contrasts the Orient and Europe: “In its customs, the Orient is the opposite of Europe: almost everything that we consider white Persians see as black, and vice versa.” The travelers draw an impassable border between “Us” (Europeans) and “Them” (Orientals) and seem to use the formula “We Europeans . . .” more than their narratives require.5 “Life [in Tehran] – especially for us Europeans – is absolutely like in a desert or a monastery,” an anonymous author tells his readers. Many authors claim to miss the comfort of what they see as signs of true “civilization” – the development of modern European transportation and technology. Baron Bode complains: A European who, after his travels on the railroad, is used not only to comfort but even to luxury will have difficulty understanding that in the Orient, at least in Persia, neither post coaches, nor steamers nor railroads are known.

Ivan Blaramberg states: “In Persia, they do not have large factories as we in Europe do.” It is hard to believe that all the authors were unaware of the underdevelopment of modern industry in Russia compared to the western European countries, which became striking by the late nineteenth century. Yet, they consider it irrelevant when confronted with the Orient. Eurocentrism is characteristic of the travelogues: everything is seen and judged from the European point of view, because that is perceived as the only correct way of doing things and the sole criterion by which anything has to be judged. The implication behind the comparison of everything Iranian with everything European is that Russia is Europe in its opposition to Iran, or to the East in general. For example: “Houses in Tehran are startlingly uncomfortable, from the European point of view,” or “There are no large stores in Tehran, from the European point of view.” The writer Pavel Ogorodnikov complains that in the conditions of life in Iran not a single element can be found “that can meet the needs of a European.”
Cities, streets, houses, people and climate in Iran do not satisfy their requirements which, as implied, all Europeans share. Lieutenant-Colonel Domontovich comments: “For a European, Tabriz must be a very unattractive city. It is a purely Asiatic city, and life in it for any foreigner not absorbed in trade deals is too hard.”11 N. Shavrov considers life in Iran “very difficult for a European because the country and the people are primitive and uncivilized, and also because of the climate.” E. Belozerskii talks about the “inner emptiness” of the Iranians who are therefore of no interest to the Europeans, who have a “rich individual psychological life.” Even S. Lomnitskii, who tried to be positive and tolerant in most of his judgments, did not hesitate to state: “When a Persian gets into a European family, as a servant, for example, and lives under the different conditions for a very long time, [his] human feelings come to life and develop little by little.”

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