Book Reviews

Crucifying the Orient

The Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia

by
Kalpana Sahni

1997. 300 pp., numerous illustrations and 4 maps. 21.5 x 15.2 cm., Hardbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8299-50-3 $39.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8299-50-1



Crucifying the Orient

Review by Galina Yemelianova (Asian Affairs, London, June 1998)

This excellent book is, as far as I am aware, one of the first comprehensive English-language studies of the history and nature of Russia’s uneasy and complex relations with the Orient. Its original research abounds in fascinating data drawn from diverse and rare sources, which Professor Sahni handles with competence and elegance. It combines historical study of Russian scholarship on, and policies and attitudes towards, the East with analysis of some of the outstanding literary works on the Caucasus and Central Asia by Russian and non-Russian poets and writers.
   The first part, on the rise of Russian Orientalism, traces Russia’s interaction with the East from the 10th century AD until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. It offers insights into the centuries of mutual cultural and societal influence between Russians and their Eastern neighbours which persisted till the end of the 17th century. Coercive Europeanisation of Russia by Peter the Great was the watershed of Russian history. The Petrine reforms created a widening cultural hiatus between the ruling elite, which became mentally colonised by Europe, and the masses. Professor Sahni argues that this facilitated the development of Russian Orientalism, as the Orientalist attitudes already prevalent in Western Europe were absorbed by the Russian gentry and subsequently employed to downgrade their Asian and Caucasian subjects. Later on, romanticised images of the wild, passionate and noble Orient were popularised in the works of major Russian poets and writers of the 19th century.
   The second part deals with Russian-Eastern relations during the Soviet period, focusing on the impact of Marxism on Soviet national doctrine, practices and Soviet literary production. The author traces the continuity between the policies of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet state towards its non-Russian subjects and citizens and reveals the discrepancies between the official rhetoric and actual practice. In her analysis of Soviet literary works on the subject the author selects extracts from both Russian and non-Russian writers in which the romanticised Russian hero is juxtaposed with the crude, barbaric and backward Oriental Other.
   The theoretical framework of Sahni’s research, productive though it is, is vulnerable to criticism. Using Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism, she perceives Russian-Oriental interaction as being made up exclusively of relations of power and domination. In doing so, however, she seems to exploit the same Eurocentric and reductionist approach in her own analysis that she accuses the Russians of employing in their relations with the East. This results in considerable structural and narrative gaps, the selective nature of the material researched and the misrepresentation, or sometimes complete omission, of some inconvenient facts.
   She thus oversimplifies the civilisational uniqueness of Russia, which generated alongside Orientalism other forms of interaction with the Orient. Such fundamental elements of Soviet Orientalism as national/Islamic communism, the adaption of Marxism to the conditions of agrarian society, and the theory of the socialist orientation and non-capitalist development of pre-industrial Asian societies are ignored. Nor does the author refer to such significant external manifestations of Soviet Orientalism as the activities of the Eastern Bureaeu of the Comintern, its educational infrastructure for Asian-African leftwingers, or the massive Soviet technical, military, economic and educational assistance to the Orient in order to ensure their independent survival.
   The lack of enthusiasm and bewilderment among the vast majority of Soviet Orientals in the face of the break-up of USSR in 1991 is described in terms of a “popular revolt” which provoked the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union (pp. XIV, 123). At the same time it is hard to accept the author’s conclusion about the Orientalist characteristics of Russian/Soviet scholars, in particular their Eurocentrism, their dependence on linear models, and their alleged ignorance of Oriental languages (pp.222-4). Alongside an undoubted strand of linear progressive thinking the Russian Orientalist school was famous for its civilisational methodology and for its submergence in the culture, language and mentality of Eastern peoples.

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