Pyotr Semyonov-Tyanshansky: Exploring the East

Article excerpt

During the 18th and 19th centuries, every educated Russian dreamed of traveling Europe. Whole families took trips to the West, gradually working their way from one city to the next, admiring medieval cathedrals or the masterpieces of Raphael along the way. They went to Europe to vanquish Parisian society, to relax at a spa, or to play roulette at Baden-Baden. Political exiles emigrated to the West. Herzen established a printing house in London to spread liberal ideas, while young feminists enrolled in Swiss or German universities, since Russian ones were closed to them.

But few thought about traveling to the East rather than the West. Beyond the Urals lay Siberia, which had been explored by Russian Cossacks in the 17th century and by the 19th century was already part of the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, it was seen as something distant and alien--a place Russians associated with the idea of exile.

For those with a thirst for the exotic there was Crimea, still untamed and unfamiliar, and the Caucasus, with its wild mountain people, endless wars, and romantic peaks. Beyond these lands were absolutely unfathomable reaches, where the steppes were roamed by Kazakhs (who supposedly recognized the authority of the Russian tsar), beyond which lay the endless wilds of Central Asia. Few had any idea of what these lands were like. Further still lay the exotic countries of India, China, and Japan--places unimaginably distant from Russia.

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Nineteenth century Russian writers were likely to send their protagonists to Europe, to the Caucasus, or in extreme cases to America, although this destination, as was the case in Crime and Punishment, could also serve to hint at departure to "the Great Beyond." But almost nobody ever went to Asia. The Petrine impulse to orient Russia toward the West was so strong that for a long time virtually no one looked eastward except for a few wild-eyed eccentrics.

But then the empire started slowly but surely to focus its attention on Asia. This was not just a Russian phenomenon. The 19th century was the time of the "Eastern question"--a time of struggle for influence over the Balkans. Geopolitics dictated that the Balkans were critical to anyone with an interest in the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins and, consequently, the Middle East and the Caucasus. From there it was not far to Turkey and Persia. Furthermore, the great powers wanted to possess colonies. India was already a glistening jewel in the crown of the British Empire. French troops were starting to occupy Indochina.

Now it was Russia's turn, and in the mid-19th century the first military expeditions set out across the Central Asian deserts. Here, everything was alien, distant, mysterious. Soldiers died of thirst and dysentery. Military commanders were often confused about why they should be getting involved in the affairs of the rulers of Ferghana and Khiva, presenting offerings in the name of the Russian tsar, and spending hours engaged in the circumlocutionary rhetoric of oriental negotiations. At the same time, other military expeditions were working their way along the great rivers of the Far East, and the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok appeared on maps. Suddenly there was Novy Bosfor (New Bosphorus) Gulf and Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) Bay, echoing the names of important places near Istanbul. And suddenly China and Japan were close neighbors.

And the imperial impulse--to expand until impeded by a great ocean or majestic mountains--began to be felt by the ordinary folk as well. The soldiers were followed by merchants and peasants hungering for a better life and new lands. Artists discovered the fascination of eastern landscapes. Historians and philologists undertook the study of the Orient--and with such fervor that, by the end of the nineteenth century, Russian institutions of higher learning could boast some of the world's top scholars of Asian studies. …