Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism

By Ewa M. Thompson | Go to book overview

Nicholas I and his narrow soldier's bed are a sideshow to the same drama. The imagined ritual of self-imposed humiliation added to the luster of the tsar's power.

If one looks at War and Peace as a work reconfirming the Russian imperial identity, then Tolstoi's success in reshaping and representing history assumes greater importance than suggested by those critics who take the imperial privilege for granted. Postcolonial theory is typically concerned with deconstructing this privilege and looking at the seamy side of the imperial narrative. Seen from this perspective, War and Peace appears to be a colonialist novel in many respects, one that expresses Russia's self-confidence as a colonial empire while at the same time suppressing the narratives of the defeated peoples. It is also, to borrow an expression from Lyotard, a grand narrative of legitimization of Russia's imperial status. It presents Russia as a country possessed of a well- developed national consciousness, and it does so not by invoking that consciousness directly and therefore weakening its appeal to foreigners (as Dostoevskii does in The Idiot when Prince Myshkin recites the advantages of being Russian), but by contributing to the consolidating power of national mythology.

To produce an imperial novel, i.e., a novel that reinforces imperial identity, the author has to represent and refashion the national memory both vertically, or across all classes of society, and laterally, or within the elite; and then show this united nation facing the Other. While Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment are better structured and probe greater psychological depths, they are not as essential to the modern Russian self-perception as War and Peace. The novel put the finishing touches on the portrait of the Russian nation produced by imperial success. It so convincingly mediated between Russia's colonial practices and its self-image as a magnificent and much-put-upon nation-state that it congealed into the canonical version of Russian history not only for Russians but also for readers worldwide. Very few nations have ever succeeded in fashioning the world's image of themselves in this way.


NOTES
1.
Said, Culture and Imperialism, xiv.
2.
Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime ( New York: Scribners, 1974), 13.
3.
This may be one of the reasons why the discourse that was critical of the fundamentals of the Russian state became radicalized so soon and resulted in a violent revolution. In Russia, in order to criticize, one had to leave the boundaries of an acceptable discourse, and thus the boundaries of everything that was permitted. While in the West political and economic radicalism became one of the subcurrents of the mainstream, in Russia the rupture was so complete that the radicals did not feel anchored in any Russian social institutions whatever; thus they rejected them all, wished to abolish all and start from ground zero.
4.
N. N. Strakhov, quoted in Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy ( New York: Vintage, 1960), vol. 1, 313. Russian text of Strakhov's remark in N. N. Strakhov, Kriticheskiia stat'i ob I. S. Turgeneve i L. N. Tolstom. Kiev: Izd. I. P. Matchenko, 1901. Reprinted by Mouton ( The Hague, 1968).

-106-

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Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgment vii
  • Introduction: - Nationalism, Colonialism, Identity 1
  • Notes 12
  • 1 - The Problem 15
  • Notes 47
  • 2 - Engendering Empire 53
  • Notes 81
  • 3 - The Consolidating Vision: War and Peace As the New Core Myth Of Russian Nationhood 85
  • Notes 106
  • 4 - The Central Asian Narrative In Russian Letters 109
  • Notes 125
  • 5 - Imperial Desire In the Late Soviet Period 129
  • Notes 150
  • 6 - Scholarship and Empire 153
  • Notes 193
  • 7 - Deconstructing Empire: Liudmila Petrushevskaia 199
  • Notes 221
  • Selected Bibliography 223
  • Index 233
  • About the Author *
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