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  • Orientalism on the MarginsThe Ottoman Empire under Russian Eyes
  • Victor Taki (bio)

Throughout its modern history, Russia was more frequently at war with the Ottoman Empire than with any other power. Russo-Ottoman wars took place between the late 17th and the late 19th centuries and were paralleled by other forms of contact, including captivity, religious pilgrimages, diplomacy, and later tourism and scientific exploration.1 The intensity of this interaction is reflected in the voluminous literature about the Ottoman Empire that was published in Russian before 1917.2 Russian and translated Western accounts of captivity, religious and secular travelogues, memoirs, and statistical descriptions are noteworthy not only because they were numerous, but because before the (remarkably late) appearance of osmanistika as a separate branch of Orientalist science devoted to Ottoman Turkey, these nonscholarly writings contained the quasitotality of Russian knowledge about the rival empire.3 Aimed at a wide audience, [End Page 321] these materials can plausibly be taken as evidence of more or less widespread assumptions that educated Russians held about Ottoman Turkey at least until the 1840s, when there appeared the first general descriptions written by professional Orientalists for nonspecialists.4 By virtue of their sheer number, these publications constituted the basic horizon for those who engaged in highbrow intellectual discussions as well as for those who limited themselves to the passive reading of thick journals and newspapers. Through them, the Ottoman Empire emerged as an element of the mental background against which Russian intellectuals later discussed their country's relation to Asia and Europe.5

An analysis of these sources is timely for at least two reasons. First, contacts with Ottoman Turkey constitute an aspect of Russia's "discovery of the Orient" that remains unappreciated in the modern historiography of Russian Orientalism. In the wake of the important work that has been done on "Russia's own Orient" in the last 15 years, it might be worthwhile to turn to the "Orient" beyond the empire's borders in order to describe its function in the Russian imperial imagination.6 Second, discussions of Russian views of "Europe" and "Asia" are sometimes [End Page 322] too quick to subsume actual political entities under these rather problematic categories. Before the "Orient" became a space of European colonial dominance (in which Russia had its own share), it bore the concrete name of Ottoman (Persian, Manchu) Empire and constituted a formidable, if diminishing, military challenge. The problem to be addressed is precisely how Orientalist discourse came to structure the perception of one continental empire by the elite of another.7

This article examines the Orientalization of the Ottoman Empire in Russian literature before the middle of the 19th century and its role in the articulation of modern Russian identity. The symbolic construction of a rival empire as the "Orient" served to sustain the representation of Russia as part of "Europe" against claims to the contrary. This perception of the "Other" did not emerge overnight. Instead, it crystallized gradually in the context of the Russian elite's conscious and systematic search for models that resulted in Russia's Westernization. Launched by Peter the Great, this process led to the discovery of differences between the empire of the sultans and other powers. These differences, in turn, served as the basis for the Orientalization of Ottoman Turkey that occurred under the combined impact of the Russo-Ottoman wars and of the Russian elite's growing familiarity with Western accounts of the Ottoman Empire. The wars demonstrated the superiority of the European military models adopted by Peter and his successors, while translations of French and British Orientalist texts provided the language to articulate this new sense of superiority.

At some point, Russian accounts of the Ottoman Empire started to follow closely the Western model of Orientalist description. While reproducing these tropes, Russian authors made their own contribution to the growing currency of Orientalist discourse—one that was distinct not so much because of Russia's special historical relationship to Asia as due to its persistent marginality within the symbolic geography of Europe.8 Continued references by Westerners to Russia's "semi-barbarous character" were merely one manifestation of this marginality.9 [End Page 323] Another...


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pp. 321-351
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