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  • Die Bürde des Weißen Zaren: Russische Vorstellungen einer imperialen Zivilisierungsmission in Zentralasien by Ulrich Hofmeister
  • Hilary Howes
Die Bürde des Weißen Zaren: Russische Vorstellungen einer imperialen Zivilisierungsmission in Zentralasien
By Ulrich Hofmeister. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019.

The title of this work translates as The White Tsar's Burden: Russian Ideas of an Imperial Civilizing Mission in Central Asia.1 It is a clever play on words, combining "The White Man's Burden," Rudyard Kipling's notorious poetic encapsulation of the British Empire's supposed duty to "civilize" its colonial subjects, with the term "White Tsar" (belyi tsar'), used since the sixteenth century to "legitimate Russia's claims to dominion over... Inner and Eastern Asia."2 In The White Tsar's Burden, Hofmeister interrogates "Russian-language debates about Central Asia" (present-day southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) from the region's conquest by the Russian Empire in the 1860s to the Bolshevik coup in 1917, using Foucauldian discourse analysis to illuminate "the forms taken by the concept of the civilizing mission under differing historical and ideological conditions" (16).

The book is divided into eight chapters, including the introduction—comprising a literature review, discussion of methodology and a note on sources—and conclusion. In addition to three very useful geopolitical maps of Central Asia in the mid-1800s, 1914 and 1936 respectively, a handful of black-and-white figures and a series of colour plates accompany the text. There is also an appendix containing short biographical sketches of key individuals, a detailed bibliography, an index of persons and a subject index.

Chapter Two, "Theoretical and Historical Background," discusses the concept of the "civilizing mission," its core assumptions, its application by Western imperial powers—the examples given are drawn primarily from the French and British empires, in particular British India—and the parallel development of cognate Russian concepts, concluding with an historical overview of Russian intervention in Central Asia. Hofmeister argues that Russian ideas of a civilizing mission in Asia were not simply borrowed from "the rhetoric of Western colonial powers" (46) but developed largely independently at around the same time. As he points out, the Russian term liudskost' appeared in a 1759 report on Russian policy towards Kazakh nomads, a mere three years after the first known usage of its French equivalent civilisation. Moreover, in the Russian text this term was used in a context suggesting "a kind of civilizational stepladder thinking"; the authors argued that the gradual adoption by Bashkirs, over two hundred years of subservience to Russia, of liudskost' in place of their original "savagery" proved that a similar alteration of the Kazakh "national character" was also possible (46).

Hofmeister's reference to "civilizational stepladder thinking" clearly describes a version of what is commonly termed "stadial theory" in English. He offers American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan's description, in Ancient Society (1877), of a "universally valid... linear process" from savagery through barbarism to civilization as a "particularly influential" example of such a model (32). That may well be true, but I found it strange that Hofmeister makes no reference to stadial theories developed from the 1750s to the 1770s by civic humanist philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment and their French contemporaries.3 Given the congruence in timing between their development and the appearance of the Russian term liudskost', as well as documented examples of the diffusion of Enlightenment thought between Western Europe and Russia via direct encounters between scholars and translations of key texts, it is at least conceivable that such theories influenced Russian thinking about savagery and civilization.4

I found Chapter Three, "Othering: The discursive construction of civilizational difference," particularly compelling. Here Hofmeister discusses the motivations for differentiating between colonizers and colonized—particularly important for the Russian Empire, given the lack of a "clear border [e.g. an ocean] between centre and periphery" and the already "multi-ethnic" nature of Russia's elite (68, 70)—the various Russian terms used to denote these categories, and the range of tropes employed. His careful analysis reveals the profoundly, even absurdly contradictory nature of this discourse. Russian colonizers could characterize themselves in one breath as "European," a term associated with progress and...


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