Russian Perspective vs. European Perceptions

  September 21, 2021   Read time 5 min
Russian Perspective vs. European Perceptions
Generally speaking, divergences between Russian and Western European perceptions are a function of the peculiar Russian national identity, which combines Western and Eastern elements.

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the historical evolution and geographical position of Russia had led to a crisis of national identity, which manifested itself in a split between pro-Western and pro-Eastern concepts. The most important developments in the history of Russia that influenced the formation of its national identity were the influence of Byzantium, especially through the adoption of Eastern Christianity at the end of the tenth century, the Mongol conquest and its aftermath starting in the thirteenth century and the westernizing reforms of Peter the Great in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. As a result, Asian elements and Western influence interpenetrated Russian history and culture and led to a painful crisis of national identity that reached its peak by the nineteenth century. After a century of Westernization, Russia had developed a colonialist outlook on expansion into alien lands. Her victory over Napoleon in 1812, the recurrent Russo-Turkish wars, the expansion into the Eastern territories, including the Caucasus and Central Asia – all resulted in an intellectual and political engagement with the nagging dilemma of Russian cultural identity. The Oriental Renaissance, or fascination with everything Oriental, and the development of Orientalism as an academic discipline in the early nineteenth century also stimulated this engagement.

Russian intellectuals had difficulty defining “us” versus “them,” or the “Orientals,” because Russia’s position in the “East–West” system was a complicated one. The debate about national identity, which became an important part of Russian cultural life, itself evidenced this unresolved dichotomy. Russia’s geographical position, her diplomatic and economic connections, the system of education and culture of her intellectual elite, her Christian religion, dynastic kinship, colonization of the Orient and “civilizing mission” there – all pointed to her being a part of Europe. However, the absolute monarchy, absence of a constitution and parliament until the early twentieth century, absence of basic civil rights and freedoms and delayed development of capitalism, especially in agriculture, logically placed Russia among the Eastern countries. Asian peoples had been a part of the Russian Empire since at least the fifteenth century, and it was impossible to separate Asian and European elements in many aspects of Russian life. For a Russian, the Orient was both Self and Other, it embraced both “us” and “them.” According to the oft-cited words of Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, a nineteenth-century Russian writer, “a two-faced Janus, ancient Russia simultaneously looked toward Europe and Asia. Its way of life comprised a link between the settled activity of the West and the nomadic indolence of the Orient.” Some famous Russian intellectuals stressed Russia’s femininity, passivity and submissiveness when faced with foreign, specifically Western European, masculinity – making Russia look even more like a part of the Orient that is usually portrayed as feminine and surrendering to the masculine West. Interestingly, some British travelogues about Russia and Iranian views of the intruding foreigners reflect the same hesitation – they are unable explicitly to place Russia in either the Western or Asian category.

The duality of national identity led to multiple consequences that manifest themselves in the Russian travelogues about Iran – the most profound being a distinct sense of inferiority. When they travel abroad, the travelogue authors try to hide any feeling of inferiority by attempting to prove that they are equal to the Western Europeans, especially the British, and that the Russian Empire is as great and civilized as its Western European counterparts. In order to compensate for their inferiority complex, they overemphasize their Europeanness, usually referring to themselves as “European” instead of “Russian.” They compare everything they observe and experience in Iran to the way it is done in Europe and frequently refer to their “European eye,” “European ear,” and European notions. One of their favorite formulations is “We Europeans . . .” Doing things differently from Europe means doing them the wrong way – and their repeated attempts to prove that being Russian means being European are a clear sign of their subconscious uncertainty. By contrast, the British travelers of the same period do not stress their Europeanness or even their Westernness in their accounts because it is obvious to them and, in their opinion, to everybody else, therefore, it does not require any proof. The Russian travelers, on the other hand, stress their personal affinity with the British in order to prove their Europeanness, although they never forget that they are opponents in the Great Game. In the eyes of the Russians, the British symbolize the true European “Self” with their extensive experience of colonization and the “civilizing” mission. This underlying bond with the British also made the Russian travelers feel safer in the often “threatening” milieu of Iran.

Another way the Russian travelers try to conceal the sense of inferiority engendered by their split national identity is to overemphasize their adherence to Christianity. Being an Orthodox Christian was the defining element of Russian self-identity inside the Russian empire. Being Russian meant being Orthodox Christian, especially vis-à-vis the non-Christian colonized peoples of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Central Asia and the Catholic Poles whose country was occupied by Russia between the late eighteenth century and 1917. The Russians did not feel threatened by the Muslim subjects found within the empire, who were seen as inferior but were usually tolerated without much hostility. Self-representation abroad, in Iran, was different, however. There the travelers felt “threatened” by Islam and tried to prove their Europeanness by posing as generic Christians. In a way similar to their transformation from supporters of liberalism to ardent proponents of tsarism as soon as they crossed the border of the Russian Empire, they attacked Islam and present themselves as representatives of Europe and members of its Christian community. They saw denouncing Islam as a part of their “civilizing mission” and as one of their duties. Just as they thought of themselves as generally European in Iran, being Christian as opposed to Orthodox or Eastern there provided a sense of superiority and security based on their affiliation with Western Europe. Throughout their accounts, the Russian authors refer to themselves as Christian and European, instead of the more natural and familiar form of self-representation when inside the empire – as Orthodox and Russian.