- Russia and Iran in the Great Game: Travelogues and Orientalism
It was Lord Curzon, that most visionary of Imperial Englishmen, who in Persia and the Persian Question famously saw the homeland of chess reduced to a pawn "on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world", the so-called "Great Game" between the British and the Russian Empires, which became an obsession for certain British imperial politicians and fiction-writers like Rudyard Kipling, and which eventually led to the division of Iran into Russian and British spheres of influence. In most accounts it has been a game of shadow chess, the Russian moves largely a matter of guesswork from the British side. It is the achievement of Elena Andreeva in this new important study to give readers of English the first thorough overview and analysis of how Russians saw their role in Iran and "the Game" (if there was one, even though the Russians cited by Andreeva clearly see themselves as rivals of the British, constantly compare themselves with them, revealing an inferiority complex, and report on their movements in Southern Iran). Andreeva has recovered more than 200 Russian travelogues describing Iran from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the majority written by military officers. She analyses this material from a number of different angles: their Russian historical and literary context; their relation to travel [End Page 584] writing as a genre and to the discourse of "Orientalism"; and – at least this is part of the stated aim of the book – what these travelogues may actually tell us about the history of Iran under the Qajar dynasty (1797-1925), a period with a paucity of historical sources which has been somewhat neglected by historians until recently, but forms an important bridge between the last great "traditional" dynasty of the Safavids and the forced "modernization" of the Pahlavis.
What looms largest in this book, however, is the relation to the discourses of Orientalism and imperial travel writing, where Andreeva bases herself on Edward Said's Orientalism from 1978 and the work of Mary-Louise Pratt and David Spurr on travel writing from the early 1990s. Said's polemical work is still controversial and capable of drawing the ire of professional Orientalists, most recently Robert Irwin in Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (2006), who has a three-pronged critique: of the concept of "discourse", Said's factual errors and his concentration on the complicity of French, British and American Orientalists in their countries' imperialist designs on "the Orient" from Morocco to Japan, but his exclusion of Russian (as well as German) Orientalism. Andreeva, almost as an answer to this, is very convincing in her demonstration of how well a Saidian discourse analysis works on the Russian material. Her over-all argument is that the Russian travellers, unsure of whether they themselves are "true Europeans" or half-Oriental "Eurasians", over-emphasize their own "Europeanness", and even more than British travellers, who form her comparison, draw attention to European superiority over the Oriental "Other" and the lack of modern amenities in Iran. Yet many of the descriptions of the bad roads, poverty and religious "backwardness" of Iran in the Russian accounts might have been taken from travel accounts from rural Russia – and these accounts were written by officers from "Cossack" regiments, who to Western Europeans have always seemed more like the descendants of the Mongolian Horde than a European army.
This evidently confirms Said's point about "Orientalist discourse", a point refined by Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire: that the descriptions of the "Oriental Other" serve as much to define the self as to provide knowledge about the culture described. This is not just a matter of prejudice and ill-will, as it is too often seen, also to a certain extent in Andreeva's analysis, but a matter of language and the way the discourse of an academic discipline and the literary genre of imperial travel...