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Comparative Literature Studies 38.3 (2001) 264-266

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Book Review

Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism

Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism. By Ewa M. Thompson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. viii + 239 pp. $59. 95.

Ewa Thompson's book, Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, addresses an important issue for scholars of Russian literature: to what extent have Russian readers (and readers of Russian literature) neglected to understand Russian literature in its context as an imperial literature, a literature of colonization? Thompson recommends this view not only in reading literary texts which obviously engage sites of colonization, such as Pushkin's and Lermontov's "Caucasian" works, but also in interpreting such texts as Tolstoy's War and Peace, which Thompson reads as a narrative of the legitimation of Russia's imperial status. Tolstoy's novel, Thompson argues, simultaneously builds up the view of Russian heroes such as Kutuzov, while tearing down otherwise major historical figures such as Napoleon, and suppressing such issues as the economic factors that precipitated the war and widespread Polish support for Napoleon. Tolstoy further upholds Russian imperial goals by portraying the lives of wealthy, serf-owning noblemen as if they were representative of Russians as a people, Thompson argues.

Thompson also critiques Valentin Rasputin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Dmitrii Likhachev for their imperialistic, state-supporting narratives, charging that Rasputin, while admirably environmentalist, upholds Russia's claim to control Siberia and treats Siberian native peoples as mere footnotes. Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, set in Tashkent, pays no attention to the specificity or imperialist history of the locale, Thompson notes, and indiscriminately calls the Uzbeks and Kazakhs of the region "Tatars." Likhachev is found guilty of mischaracterizing Russian culture in order to make it seem as if it were on equal terms with that of Western Europe.

Thompson describes and rightly critiques such problems as the Western confusion between "russkii" and "rossiiskii," which frequently leads to the neglect, suppression, or misidentification of nationalities and identities that are not Russian in ethnicity or identification, but only in government. Thompson emphasizes the speed and rapacious growth of the Muscovite, later Russian imperial and then Soviet empires, synthesizing an illuminating narrative of this growth in a way that is seldom emphasized in scholarship. She also describes the "white on white" imperialism of Russia's expansion and political colonization to the West, which is frequently understood only in political terms, or regarded (in the distant past) as a form of Russia's "manifest destiny." These Western lands' generally "superior" culture was both an anomaly within the typical metropolis/periphery [End Page 264] paradigm and a contradiction in the commonly understood colonizer/colonized relationship.

While I believe that Thompson's overall project is worthy in its intent, and that she identifies and critiques blind spots in Russian and American scholarship, her readings of the literature itself tend toward the reductive and do not take into account many recent works of criticism. Frequently, she provides an interpretation based on her reading of the original text but without citing any scholarship produced in the past twenty to forty years, either in Russian or in English, which would either support or contradict her interpretations. Many important works of criticism that would tend to support some of Thompson's claims do not appear even in Thompson's bibliography, such as Susan Layton's Russian Literature and Empire (Cambridge UP, 1994), Daniel Brower and Edward Lazzerini's Russia's Orient (Indiana UP, 1997), as well as texts by such scholars as Mark Bassin, and Thomas Barrett. Russian commentators on these issues, such as Iurii Lotman, Natan Eidel'man, Leonid Grossman, and V. Vatsuro, to name only a few, are also almost entirely absent.

While Thompson accuses Russian writers, and often Russians themselves, of jingoism, Polonophobia, racism and even a lack of rational thought, the accused are not given any chance to defend themselves. Unfortunately, the effect is that Thompson herself performs a Western orientalist operation on Russians, labeling them inferior, irrational, and driven by base motives. Were one to substitute "Africa," "China" or "Japan" for Russia in Thompson's text...


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