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  • Does Russian Orientalism Have a Russian Soul? A Contribution to the Debate between Nathaniel Knight and Adeeb Khalid
  • Maria Todorova (bio)

The big question looming behind the polemical exchange between Adeeb Khalid and Nathaniel Knight is the timeless question of Russian history: how unique is Russia? How applicable are general historical categories and models (especially when universalized on the basis of Western European experience) to the Russian case? Khalid's response to this question is unequivocal: Russia's uniqueness is a myth that imposes severe limitations on its historiography. It is only by engaging in "approaches that dilute Russia's historical specificity" (692) that this parochialism can be overcome. In Said's Orientalism he finds the methodological possibility for one such approach. Knight, on the other hand, while careful to discard the trope of Russia's uniqueness, premises his approach on the idea of Russia's "distinctiveness" (706), presenting this as a moderating position between the Scylla of uniqueness and the Charybdis of generic Europeanness or universalism. It seems to me that, quite apart from Said, here lies the basic difference in optics (or philosophy) between the two positions. The different interpretations of Said and the different understandings of whether/how his message should be applied are then superimposed onto this fundamental distinction. I will therefore comment separately on the two issues.

Distinctiveness versus Universalism

Let us remember that epistemology is, in practice, about heuristic devices which offer explanatory schemata that order the world so as to comprehend it. From this point of view, there is nothing immanent privileging either the universalist or the distinctiveness approach. The function and adequacy of these devices are judged in relation to an object of study, as well as the explanatory trend they want to promote. Khalid is very clear about his motives: only within a universalist approach is it possible to engage a vibrant body of interdisciplinary work, attaining truly meaningful cross-regional comparisons that would allow us to overcome "the self-imposed limitations of Russian historiography" (692). Knight's niche of distinctiveness is closer than he would allow to the approach of uniqueness; yet, he raises a classic and fundamental epistemological problem [End Page 717] facing universalizing discourses. Are they not, in the end, a discreet way of imposing hegemonic categories and models, and reducing the objects of study to variants of the primary case elevated to a normative model? He calls the danger of rejecting cultural difference "an insidious form of neo-imperialism" (715). He is, of course, to a great extent right, although there is some irony in hearing him describe an imperialism that can be subsumed precisely under the general category of Orientalism, after having pleaded against its ubiquitous application. But the problem he raises is real.

In one way or another, it is a problem that practically all non-Western European historiographies have faced at some moment in their development. To draw on my own knowledge of East European and Ottoman studies, a standing discussion that falls under this rubric is the one about periodization. Another asks whether feudalism, as developed mostly on the basis of French material, is an appropriate general category to encompass structures and relationships in the Byzantine or Ottoman empires, as well as the medieval Balkan societies. Especially with the imposition of official Marxism (in itself both a universalizing and, at the same time, a Eurocentric idiom), there was a tendency to subsume everything within a standard model, and mention local "deviations" on the side. There was also a natural tendency to resist, and yet somehow focus on, specificity. In a curious but predictable way, these efforts coincided with the search for authenticity by nationalist historiographies. The problem was, of course, how to articulate difference, and in most cases this was done by employing specific local historical categories, insisting on their non-translatability. The result of this understandable heuristic shift was a hermetic, often arcane and self-referential analysis that contributed much to the further marginalization of these historiographies.

At the same time, once these historiographies were pulled into the sphere of international exchange of historical knowledge, primarily as a result of the generalizing projects stemming, as a rule, from Western academia, the untranslatable...


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