Oriental Russia: Colonialism and the Politics of Identity
Slager, Michael A.
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This thesis shows how Russia’s culture can be construed as a hybrid space because it is both central and peripheral, not simply East or West. From a cultural point of view, the center and the periphery were and are a kind of slippery palimpsest throughout the nation's history since it was (and is) both colonizer and colonized. The Russian elite’s obsession with the West and efforts to westernize itself can be interpreted as postcolonial since it was intellectually and culturally colonized on the part of European intellectuals beginning in the early eighteenth century. Educated Russians exhibited many of the features of a postcolonial society such as mimicry that becomes mockery, psychological displacement, sustained preoccupations with cultural authenticity, the search for an alternate national identity, and the adopting of the colonizer's language as its primary modes of discourse. I show that Russia shares these critical postcolonial features with other, similar societies, especially as reflected in both literary and non-literary texts. The discourse I counter is one that claims that Russians were simply aping the West in and unthinking way that reflected some ephemeral fashion of the day. The general denigration and neglect of Russian traditions on the part of Russians was, I claim, a response to the West's orientalizing of the country, the primary mode of its cultural colonization. However, the Russian authors I examine also adopted what were considered positive Oriental features that they pressed into service for the construction of an ideal national identity. The educated members of its society subsequently sought to become members of a “civilized” Western fraternity of nations. This makes Russia unique because it was both center and periphery, colonizer and colonized.