Russian Orientalism concerning India through interpretation of Russian travelogues is an under-researched area. The few exhaustive Indological studies exploring Indo-Russian cultural links either shun close readings of select texts, or have not made the Indian connection of Russian ‘Orientalism’ in the Saidian sense, which burgeoned after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Consequently, with the exception of Nikitin’s Voyage Beyond Three Seas, most of the Russian travelogues predating institutionalization of Russian Orientology are not closely studied or analysed from modern interpretive perspectives.
Researches on Lebedev, the most beloved of Russian travellers in India, focus on discrete aspects of his activities in Russia and India, while Orientalist research of European- American provenance ignores him. Minor travellers like Efremov and Daniebegov suffer worse fate. Saltykov’s travelogues, letters and pictures are the most neglected. Vereshchagin’s Orientalist, anti-war art and his travelogues in Caucasus and Central Asia receive attention. But even after the current resurgence of interest in him, his travelogue of India, sponsored by his wife, where he is the main subject, lies forgotten. The diaries of Minaev are soft-pedalled, though they problematize Russian Orientalism in India most significantly.
This original study from modern social-scientific perspectives seeks to fill this gap from an Indian point of vantage, showing how these travelogues were imprisoned by, or broke free of, the stereotypes of observation called after Said as ‘Orientalism’.
Amartya Mukhopadhyay, Professor of Political Science, Calcutta University, is the author of Politics of Implementation: Mass Transportation Policy for Calcutta, 1947-1989; Politics, Society and Colonialism: An Alternative Understanding of Tagore’s Responses; and has edited Civil Society and Global Governance: The Indian Experience.
This is a book on Russian travelogues in India. While beginning with Afanasii Nikitin is an obvious choice, the end could go further to include figures like Theodore Scherbatskoy or Andrei Snesarev. But without claiming any authorial arbitrariness, I have chosen only these seven travellers including Afanasii Nikitin, Fillip S. Efremov, Rafail Daniebegov, Aleksei Dmitriyevich Saltykov, Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin and Ivan Pavlovich Minaev, because in popular and even learned imagination about Russian travel narratives in India, not academic Indology (which is not the subject of this book), the names that have been chosen are the most influential, whether because of the interest of the lay Indian in them, or be- cause of their place in troubled Indo-British colonial relations. The seven travellers who figure in this volume differ from one another far more than Russian ‘Orientalism’ does from the European meta-narratives. They differ in their social statuses, cultural upbringing, cognitive equipment, intellectual interests, purpose of visit, and in almost everything else. Nikitin, a trader, had come to India to make wealth in this fabled land of fortunes. Efremov, a Russian ensign, had also come in search of trading opportunities. Daniebegov, a wealthy Georgian had been sent by the king of Georgia to an Armenian merchant in India. Lebedev, the son of a priest and himself a musician and violinist, visited our land just because of his wanderlust and search of wealth, and only later became a self-taught Indologist. Prince Saltykov a Russian noble man and painter had set out for India via Persia in search of adventure. Vereshchagin, a member of the Russian gentry and a ‘progressive’ artist, came to India, after Caucasus and Central Asia, to search for his subjects of ‘Orientalist’ paintings and drawings. Minaev, an accomplished scholar of Pali, Buddhism and Sanskritic Indology, had come for mixed purposes of Indology and Russia’s state interest.
Some of them left nothing but travelogues of varying comprehensiveness. For some others travel writing was not the main area of their creative activities, but was (as with Saltykov) only a pastime or (as with Vereshchagin) a key to and a commentary on sketch and paintings, somewhat like Bernard Shaw’s long prologues his plays. Lebedev’s travelling experiences were kept in various forms-letters to Russian authorities and East India Company of - ficials, foreword to his books, reminiscences about his efforts constructing Calcutta’s first non-colonial proscenium, memoranda etc. For Minaev, his diaries were a record of his daily Indological activities and programmes, plus brief notes on the socio-political stirrings of contemporary India and his assessments of them from the viewpoint of Russia’s chances. Because the oeuvres of at le: four of the travellers wandered beyond travelogues, and the auth followed them in their wanderings, the preposition ‘beyond’ h been added in the title.
I posit with considerable hesitation and humility that thou, the book does not use Russian language sources, because I do n know the language, the book extends Russian Orientalism to India in a way not done before, except briefly in Alexander Morrison’s article, ‘Russian Rule in Turkestan and the Example of British India, c. 1860-1917’. Bharat-Rus by P.M. Kemp, The Image India by G.M. Bongard-Levin and A.A. Vigasin, Russia and Ina by P.M. Shastirco, or India in Russian Literature, by R.H. Star regardless of their considerable merits, offer what can be called slapdash chronicle of Indo-Russian links. With a few exceptions erudite journal articles do not give priority to the Indian connection in their studies of Russians studying the east. Besides, d: mainly to the enormous scope or limitedness of their cove rag close readings of texts is absent. Yet without such reading, it would be impossible to identify the different voices and their mix in Russian Orientalism, and to tease out their differences from British French or German Orientalism. This is precisely what this book has on offer.
I became drawn to this arcane area primarily due to my obsession since childhood with Nikitin and Lebedev. But I should also record here my gratitude to people from whom I got help and drew courage. My teacher Professor Rakhahari Chatterji provided the first inspiration by urging me to look at Lebedev from new points of view. Professor Hayat Mamud, formerly of Rajshahi University, Bangladesh, the foremost expert on Lebedev in South Asia, gave me a copy of his enormous book on Lebedev, not available in any of the Kolkata libraries. Anindita Banerjee, a faculty of the Yale University, USA, who has broken new ground in research on Nikitin, sent me her article on Nikitin. Professor Hari S. Vasudevan, one of the foremost scholars of Russian history in India, never allowed a teacher of Social Science and a non-Russianist to feel like an interloper, and came forward with books, suggestions, occasional admonitions and what is most important, acceptance. Professor Himadri Banerjee of Jadavpur University also helped with books and encouragement. Without their help this book would not have been possible.
Sincerest thanks are due to the staff of the National Library, Kolkata and to the library of the University of Calcutta, for making available books of all kind, articles and other materials. I am truly beholden to the / for the books in the public domain and others that I have used in my research. The chapter on Saltykov would not have been complete without the digital books they made available. I have recorded my acknowledgements at appropriate places.
My wife, daughter and son helped with their healthy disinterest in such dated things. My friend Satybrata Ghosh gifted a valuable book.
All these words of thanks and acknowledgement do not, how-ever, detract from my sole responsibility for the book’s lapses.
This is a book about seven Russian travel narratives in and about India, set in the general context of Russian Orientalism and Indology. One may wonder about the choice of Russian travel literature for the portrayal of Russian Orientalism. It is not, how-ever, as open to question as it might first appear. Kate Teltscher points out that between AD 1600 and 1800, travel literature predominated among the various texts written and studied, and the vogue of travel literature was ‘outrun in popularity among the reading public only by theology’. Besides, while tracing Russia’s own oriental past, Kalpana Sahni treats travelogues about Russia as the first respectable source. Even more importantly, one of the latest books on Russian Orientalism has travelogues as the single most important resource. And despite Vera Tolz’s warning that travel guides do not usually claim to convey an ‘objective depiction of the “Orient”‘, they very often contain the most private and authentic expressions of a person’s feelings that may reveal much about his country’s Orientalist beliefs and practices. The study begins with Nikitin, an obvious choice, and ends with Minaev, in which case the choice is not so obvious. But the book is mostly about travellers who with only one exception predated institutionalization of Soviet Orientology and Indology, and are at the same time most remembered in India, whether by common or by learned Indians, not counting the Russianists.
There are two reasons why ‘Orientalism’ and postcolonial theory have been chosen as the anvil on which to test the travel literatures. The first is that ever since the publication of Edward W. Said’s seminal work Orientalism (1978), postcolonial analysis has become the dominant approach to interrogating the West’s viewing of the East or ‘the Orient’. And here we are considering how Russian travellers are viewing their East. Secondly, in the backdrop of the ‘striking similarity’ between the criticism of European Oriental Studies by V. V. Barthold and ‘then more strongly and in an ideologically charged way’ by Nikolai Marr and S.F. Oldenburg, on the one hand, and by Said on the other, Tolz claims that ‘a clearly identifiable connection exists between Said and his Russian predecessors, thus arguing that one of the fashionable trends in the recent Western analysis of the history of European scholarship from the postcolonial perspective is, in fact, Russian in origin’. Our query would be if such a connection can be seen even between the earliest travellers and Said.
Talking of Said, his aim was to unearth some coherence and continuity in the West’s discourses about ‘the Orient’ or the East that legitimized a supposedly superior Western self in relation to an allegedly inferior non-Western ‘Other’, through the hidden, subterranean connection between colonial knowledge and colonial power. But in the more expansive senses ‘Orientalism’ was ‘a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”‘, adopted by a huge number of poets, novelists, philosophers, political economists, and imperial administrators, which could accommodate disparate figures like Aeschylus, Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx. It was moreover ‘a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient...by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’,” In this sense ‘Orientalism’ becomes a Foucauldian discourse. And in its most encompassive sense ‘Orientalism’ was ‘an imaginative cast of mind or style of thought’ spread over roughly two millennia of Western consciousness about the East, a vast system or inter-textual network of rules or procedures that governs anything that is, or may be, thought, written or imagined about the Orient. In Said’s conception the discourse is highly hegemonic; it silences opposition to such an unimaginable degree that no Oriental scholar or thinker could free himself or herself from its shackles. The stereotypes Orientalist discourse systematically produced about the Orientals and the Orient, such as the heat and the dust, the crowded marketplace, the terrorist, the courtesan, the Asian despot, the childlike native, the mystical East, etc., of the putative Orient, and the positional inferiority of the East that these pointed to, were bound to affect their thought processes.
Such a pessimistic view is no more taken after Homi Bhabha’s psychoanalytic approach to the claims of colonial power suggested that liberating questions can still be raised by the colonized. For, while colonial discourse pretends to be successful in its domination, below the surface of self-assured complacency the discourse conceals its radical anxiety about its declared achievements, and a lurking suspicion that the supposed difference between the West and the East cannot hide areas of sameness shown by the colonized population. Bhabha argues that this anxiety of colonial power creates large chinks in the assumed finality of colonial discourses. This could be used by the colonized to their advantage, as it leaves for them some considerable amount of agency, so that in spite of the vast structures of representational violence of the colonizers’ discourses, it enabled the former to offer some resistance to them. Said had unnecessarily minimized the spaces of such resistance. Ashis Nandy’s remarkable book about the psychology of colonialism has shown such resistance by the colonized taking place in the spatial contexts of India and England.
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