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Asunto:NoticiasdelCeHu 31/12 - How Imperial Russia wooed Asia
Fecha:Martes, 17 de Enero, 2012  15:09:33 (-0800)
Autor:Alexander von Humboldt <cehumboldt>

NCeHu 31/12

How Imperial Russia wooed Asia
Russia's own Orient: The politics of identity and Oriental studies in the Imperial and early Soviet periods by Vera Tolz

Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh

The West's military predicament in Asia is worsening as United States departs from Iraq, leaving it mostly to Iran - and prepares to leave Afghanistan with an unstable government in Kabul. Even in Libya, an apparent victory could fade as the country slides into the chaos with jihadis most likely taking advantage.

Still military defeat could pale in comparison to the consequences of economic decline, with even the East under threat.

American pundits such as Paul Krugman from The New York Times say China, the economic and increasingly political center of Asia, will soon face instability due to global economic woes. Other pundits assert that China is heading for a "hard landing".

The increasing role of Asia on the world stage leads to non-Asian countries being increasingly seen through an Asian prism, and Russia is no exception. Moscow continues to flirt with Iran and China, while seeking a "Eurasian" union.

As a result, several works on Russians' study of Asia and perceptions of Asia have been published. Vera Tolz's Russia's own Orient: The politics of identity and Oriental studies in the Imperial and early Soviet periods, deals with the study of the Orient in Russia in the last decade of the czarist regime, and the impact that these studies had on early Soviet Russia.

The work is meticulously researched, with a wealth of materials taken from many different sources, Russia's archives among them. However, the abundance of material and details could distract the reader from the book's main focus.

As Tolz implies, the Russian government's desire to develop Oriental studies was not so much pragmatic interest, ie desire to have a qualified personnel for imperial bureaucracy. The Russian academy often did not help the government in this respect.The relationship between Russian academics and the imperial administration was rather tense, at least in comparison with the West.

The reason the imperial bureaucracy introduced Oriental studies was a desire to imitate the West; Russia should have everything that one could find in Europe. Thus Russian "Orientalism" was a peculiar form of Westernism. The desire to imitate the West was followed not just by imperial bureaucracy but also by Russian scholars.

However, there was a substantial difference between them and their Western colleagues in one important aspect: they eagerly included in their ranks the indigenous people of the empire. Asians emerge here not just as subjects - as was often the case in Western studies - but as colleagues accepted as peers.

Russian scholars engaged in academic training of quite a few minorities. The specificity of the Russian scholars' approach was related to the peculiar milieu of late imperial Russia, where the intelligentsia glamorized anyone who was seen as downtrodden.

The image of the minorities was tightly connected here with the image of the Russian masses. One, of course, could find a glamorous image of the masses in the West by the end of the nineteenth-early twentieth century. Indeed, the glamorous vision of the industrial proletariat constituted the very nature of the Marxist world view.

Still, Western thought at the time was different. For prominent Western intellectuals as Gustave Le Bon and Impolite Taine, the masses were hardly heroic and benign. Taine noted in his detailed account of the French Revolution that this group were the "last full gorillas".

Nothing of this sort was found in Russian Oriental studies from this era. Indeed, even the majority of conservative intellectuals regarded the Russian populace as being basically benign with revolutionary activities a result of harmful outside influence.

This was seen in the academic treatment of minorities of the empire, with Jews among the few exceptions. Minorities were seen as wholesome subjects of the czar basically happy under the wing of the Russian eagle. According to Tolz, these benign views of the minorities by Russian academia, who trained/incorporated quite a few in their rank, played an extremely important role after the Bolshevik Revolution.

She rightfully notes the exceptionally good treatment of minorities by the Bolshevik authorities already in the very beginning of the regime's existence. But, still one could question the author's notion that this was due to the training of minorities to become part of the scientific/bureaucratic establishment in imperial Russia.

This could play a role, but it had no part in determining the regimes' policy toward minorities, at least from the reviewer's perspective. Indeed, the emerging Bolshevik regime was absolutely alien from the majority of the population.

Consequently, minorities - especially Jews, Letts and others - were one of the major early props of the Soviet regime. Later, when the regime's position became more stable, the minorities' role in politics and consequently the ideological construction of the regime started to decline.

To sum up, one of course could agree or disagree with this or that notion but the book's observations are sound and based on a wealth of new materials.

Russia's own Orient: The politics of identity and Oriental studies in the Imperial and early Soviet periods by Vera Tolz. Oxford University Press, USA (April 8, 2011). ISBN-10: 0199594449. Price US$99, 224 pages.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

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