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  • Russian History and the Debate over Orientalism
  • Adeeb Khalid (bio)

Nikolai Petrovich Ostroumov arrived in Tashkent in 1877 to take up the post of director of schools in the newly created province of Turkestan. He had been recommended to the Governor General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman by Nikolai Ivanovich Il'minskii, the famous Kazan' missionary and Orientalist, whose student Ostroumov had been. Ostroumov had trained in Islam and Turkic languages, and this knowledge very quickly made him a confidant of Kaufman. Ostroumov retained this proximity to power all through the tsarist period. Until 1917, Ostroumov served the state in various capacities. In 1883, he was appointed the editor of the Turkiston viloyatining gazeti, the vernacular official gazette, through which he sought to shape the contours of local cultural debates in the direction of Russian state interests. He acted as a censor for local-language publications, and his opinion on "native" affairs was routinely sought by local administrators.1 At the same time, he produced a vast corpus of scholarly writing on the ethnography and history of Central Asia, and on Islam. Ostroumov translated the Bible into Chaghatay and wrote anti-Islamic polemics in Russian. His private papers include correspondence with fellow Orientalists in Russia and abroad,2 and his writings give ample evidence of his involvement in the international enterprise of Orientalism.

Ostroumov's use of the authority of his Orientalist knowledge and his easy embrace of imperial service brings to mind, of course, the work of Edward Said, who has argued for the close connection between knowledge and power in the imperial enterprise.3 Said's critique of Orientalism has been immensely influential in the last two decades. Research agendas in many disciplines, from literary criticism through anthropology and history, have been redefined as a result of the concerns outlined in Orientalism. Given the immense diversity of the Russian [End Page 691] empire, the debate over Orientalism would seem to be very pertinent to the Russian field. Yet, the response has been muted at best. A few scholars in literary studies have drawn on the Orientalism debate to situate 19th-century Russian literature in its imperial context.4 Among historians, engagement with the problems raised by Said has been sparse. Some excellent work in the last decade has examined colonial encounters in the Russian empire in a broad comparative framework and used insights drawn from the study of other modern European empires.5 At the same time, there remains considerable unease about using approaches that dilute Russia's historical specificity. Nathaniel Knight, in perhaps the first extended engagement with Said's argument in the Russian field, has examined the career of another Orientalist from another imperial frontier and another decade, to argue that "the framework put forward by Said for understanding western Orientalism should be applied with caution, if at all, to the Russian context."6

In this essay, I seek to suggest some ways in which many insights arising from the debate over Orientalism are indeed relevant to our understanding not just of Russia's relationship to its empire, but of Russia itself. I do so in part by offering a critique of Knight's argument, which I do not find compelling, although my main interest lies in re-framing Russian history in a broader comparative perspective. I write not as a historian of Russian ethnography, but as a scholar primarily of Central Asia, for whom questions of representation and authority are inescapable. I do not argue for the uncritical adoption of a universal "model," but for greater engagement with a vibrant body of interdisciplinary work that would help break down some of the self-imposed limitations of Russian historiography. Such engagement ought to be reciprocal, helping to clarify the concept itself by bringing the Russian empire into comparative focus. It [End Page 692] should also rescue post-colonial studies from its basic Eurocentrism that comes from having generated the vast bulk of its literature from the experience of just two empires.7

Said and Orientalism

For Said, Orientalism is several different things. It is the academic discipline that takes as its subject the study of the Orient; but it is also a broader, older "style of thought...


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