The Trans-Siberian Railroad and Russia's Asia: Literature, Geopolitics, Philosophy of History

By Banerjee, Anindita | CLIO, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Trans-Siberian Railroad and Russia's Asia: Literature, Geopolitics, Philosophy of History


Banerjee, Anindita, CLIO


The relationship between geopolitics, philosophy of history, and hypotheses of culture constitutes a central question in contemporary critical theory. Many studies have been produced in response to what Homi Bhabha calls the need to theorize "the geopolitics of the historical present"--to assess the production of abstract geographical coordinates along which notions of national past and cultural essence are conceived. (1) Increasing political currency of the term "Eurasia" in post-Soviet Russian nationalist rhetoric has lent particular impetus towards investigating the place of Asia in Russian representations of the self. Noted by scholars since the early 1990s and continuing through the present day--as recently as 2002, Alexander Dugin declaratively named his new political party "Eurasia"--the trend has generated a number of excellent studies that summarize nearly two centuries of related intellectual debates. (2) Conspicuously absent, however, is consideration of a material development that decisively influenced both Russia's presence in Asia and discourses about its liminal spatial identity between Orient and Occident: the establishment of the Trans-Siberian Railroad between 1892 and 1905, which historian Steven Marks calls European Russia's "Road to Power" in the East. (3)

The present study examines how literary imagination appropriated this precise development for advancing a geopolitical image and philosophy of history radically opposed to the perception that the Trans-Siberian Railroad signaled European Russia's unilateral and final suppression of its troublesome Asiatic face. A contextual investigation of the first elaborate literary figuration of the Trans-Siberian Railroad demonstrates that the establishment of a physical artery conjoining the extremities of European Russia and its Far Eastern territories provided both inspiration and a rich metaphor for relocating the nation to the periphery and reassessing its past and future as an Asiatic rather than Europeanized power. The focus of this essay is a poem entitled "Derevo" ("The Tree"), composed in 1921 by Velimir Khlebnikov, a Futurist poet and philosopher of history. I situate Khlebnikov's poem within three groups of texts whose production corresponds to various stages of the complex, sometimes paradoxical history of the Trans-Siberian Railroad: late-nineteenth-century philosophies of history that begin to celebrate rather than deny Russia's peripheral identity vis-a-vis Europe; fin-de-siecle preoccupations with the apocalyptic advent of Asia onto the arena of world history; and Khlebnikov's own meditations on the significance of railroads in global power structures. Charting the dialogic interaction between these texts and "The Tree" illustrates how Khlebnikov both appropriated and subverted extant discourses about the new "road to power" for advancing a profoundly revisionist view of the relationship between "European" and "Asiatic" Russia. In his literary work, the Trans-Siberian Railroad evolves from a spatial trope of imperial domination to a temporal trope of roots-searching; Asia, correspondingly, emerges from a purely geopolitical necessity for European Russia to the new locus of its identity.

Before contextualizing Khlebnikov's poem, it is worth investigating why the establishment of the Trans-Siberian Railroad would change perceptions of Asia in the Russian intellectual landscape. Examining geography and historiography produced in European Russia's cultural centers, Mark Bassin and Susi K. Frank note that between the eighteenth and late-nineteenth centuries, predications of national identity retain a modality of conscious distancing from the empire's vast territories in the East. The schism between Russia's European and Asiatic spaces is often formulated in terms of physical geography, emphasizing the continental barrier of the Ural mountains or binary oppositions between maritime European Russia, connected to the world, and isolated landlocked Asian steppe.

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