Paradoxes Of Russian Orientalism

Russia has always had a ‘Janus’ like face, for it faces two directions simultaneously, both east and west.  Its literature is tinged with western ruggedness.  Just witness the similarities between Tolstoy and American 19th century frontier literature.  Russian architecture faces east as does its language.  This culture has always fascinated westerners for this reason, even though it miserably failed to neatly inculcate any distinct western ethos.  A militant Tsar and a militant fanatic positivism as ‘Soviet’ are the same miserable reactions:  they are enormities to western advances.

Although Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest remain the most formidable intellects in the west to understand the makings and tides that move a ‘Janus’ faced Russia, Arnold Toynbee and David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye are my favorites.  Schimmelpenninck has released a great book titled ‘Russian Orientalism: Asia In The Russian Mind From Peter The Great To The Great Migration” out from Yale University Press.  This book will help you understand how many in the west believe Russia to have an Oriental bent within a Slavic tradition.

Long before England ever had a Lawrence of Arabia, Russia had its distinguished Kazan University’s Faculty of Oriental Languages, the 19th and 20th centuries most formidable schooling for research and writing on oriental nomadic life.  Just imagine how the west today could benefit from such formidable scholars that would understand South Asian nomadic culture.  Today, we in the west are looking for ways to cut out of Pakistan and refrain from engaging the nomads that rule Central Asia.

Although he dropped out of Kazan Universities Faculty of Oriental Languages after his first year, Tolstoy’s language capabilities in Arabic and Turko-Tatar were good.  The professor that called him a total failure was Mirza Kazem-Bek an Islamic convert to Presbyterianism.  He embodies the paradoxes that is Kazan, a city only 450 miles to the east of Moscow.  Kazan was always a Muslim Tatar khanate right up until the early 19th century when Russian Tsar’s began expansion, leading up to our current conflict in Grozny.  Kazan is a mixture of both Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Muslim, it embodies the paradoxes of both east and west as Russian and Tatar.  St. Petersburg looks west, Kazan looks east.

The University of Kazan was founded by imperial decree in 1804.  It pioneered the study of Orientology, it was explicitly founded for the purpose of training Russian government officials for service in Asia.  By the 1840’s, the University had chairs in Mongolian, Kalmyk, Mandarin, Armenian and Sanskrit.  Simply put, this institution had intellectual depth and variety unmatched anywhere on the planet.

Russian geography has always influenced its foreign policy.  Its real geographic influence is in the Steppe, rather eastern than western in its grasp and desire.   It was the eastern Slavs who settled the wooded lands on Europe’s north-eastern edges in the 8th and 9th centuries that traded with the powers of the Baghdad Caliphate, Persia and Byzantium.  The earliest written source notes for Central Asian nomads are found in the monastic chronicles of medieval Kiev, where they are recorded as fierce nomadic fighters.   It was Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan who burned his way through southern grasslands up into northern Russian principalities.  This ‘Golden Horde’, the Mongol overlords of the Steppe, collected tribute and maintained order from their capital Sarai on the Caspian Steppe.  They converted to Islam in the 14th century, but were very tolerant of western orthodoxy.  They exempted western clergy from taxation in exchange for prayers for the Khan.  Five great scholars who have spent most of their lives writing and understanding such ecumenism are Vasily Barthold, Robert Irwin, Nikita Yakovlevich Bichurin (1777-1853), Dmitry Cantemir (d. 1734) and Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826).   All understood how the Central Asian Steppe arising out from Russia into Asia is unmistakably rich in studying the social and political impact of Muslim nomadic life.

Contemporary scholars are really no match for these heros of the steppe, they were Lawrence of Arabia long before there was an English Empire to brag of.

The ‘Rosen School’ of Oriental languages that dominated the foreign policy of expansionist Tzars throughout the 19th century is unmistakably beholden to Kazan’s Orientology.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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