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"Crucifying the Orient" by Kalpana Sahni: A glimpse and some remarks

Text/Translation: Maia Barkaia

Based on written correspondence with Kalpana Sahni

 “My work questions the very premise of the Enlightenment notion of a linear progression of history, economy, the concept of hierarchies, of compartmentalisation—all of which serve to valorize the colonial and imperial power and denigrate the subjugated.” – Kalpana Sahni

Kalpana Sahni’s work, Crucifying the Orient: Russian Orientalism and the Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia, explores the connection between Russian Orientalism and imperialism through a view from the periphery. The Soviet Union aspired to establish tight political relations with the colonized countries of Asia and Africa. After World War II, this political aspiration was supported by colossal cultural and propagandist publishing endeavours, which included the popularization and translation of Russian literature into the languages of the Asian and African peoples. This wave of translation brought Kalpana’s father, Bhisham Sahni, to the Soviet Union. He translated novels from Russian to Hindi, including, Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Sahni himself was the author of the novel, Tamas, considered a masterpiece of contemporary Hindi literature. The book describes the sorrowful stories of some who found themselves in the midst of mayhem during the Partition of British India. Thus, her father’s work brought Kalpana to Moscow, where she spent more than 10 years and mastered the Russian language and its literature. Later, in the 1970s, she began her teaching career at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Inspired by the work of Edward Said, Kalpana Sahni turned Russia’s gaze, directed at its frontiers, back to the metropole to examine literature and history from the standpoint of the societies that carry the imprint of imperial relations. Her work Crucifying the Orient: Russian Orientalism and the Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia was published in 1997 and is one of the first works that analyses Russia’s former colonies from the postcolonial perspective.[1] One of the merits of the book is that the author doesn’t treat the Russian Empire as a monolithic and homogenous entity but rather differentiates it between two historically distinct formations: the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. However, a comparison of their characteristics can be written upon at length.

This discussion about postcolonial and post-Soviet affinities is intricate.[2] Some question the universality of postcolonial terminology and its global applicability, whilst others call into question the uniqueness of the Russian Empire. Can we employ terms such as “imperialism”, “Orientalism”, and “coloniality” regarding the Russian Empire? The concepts of imperialism, Orientalism, and coloniality have emerged to be understood in specific historical circumstances, but as argued by some, none of them are held to only one model. Thus, they are useful analytical categories to work with if they are used not to disregard but to encompass variances of different historical formations. However, it is difficult to find such an equilibrium that overcomes both the universalization and crystallization of differences.

Eurasian postcolonial research largely treats Russia as both the object and subject of Orientalism. However, an amalgamation of these two as equal phenomena needs to be contested. Russia has never been colonized by the West, hence it lacks the predominant marker of the postcolonial condition. Therefore the (self)-Orientalisation of Russia, without its political and power constituent, is just an idea and nothing more, while the Orientalisation of its colonies by Russia is a discourse in service of power that benefits a certain political project. While Russian scholars often tend to evade a critical reflection on Russian Imperialism, there is a growing wealth of literature expounding upon Russia’s self-Orientalisation, its “subalternity”, and the benefits that the empire brought to its subjects.[3] Such a broad conception and indiscriminate employment of postcolonial concepts doesn’t stretch the analytic framework, but only obscures the violent side of the imperial expansion and its repercussions that external colonies have had to bear. Against this backdrop of discussions, we should look at Kalpana Sahni’s endeavour to focus mainly on Russia’s colonies as objects of Orientalism and not Russia itself, although she acknowledges and explores Russia’s ambiguous position, too. 

However, some question the relevance of Orientalism for Russian colonies such as Georgia, which is marked by a strong Christian identity. According to this reasoning, the Christian imprint complicates Georgia’s place in the dichotomy between the Christian West and the Islamic East. However, Georgian identity is not defined solely by Christianity, which anyway is not itself enough to avoid an Orientalist impression. Georgian writer Mikheil Javakhishvili’s novel, Lambalo and Kasha, illustrates how a Georgian doctor was unsuccessful in his attempts to dissuade a Russian Bishop from calling Georgians “savages”:

  • Your Bekauri is not an angel either. He is a savage pagan.
  • Bekauri is Georgian, therefore Christian.
  • Nevertheless, he is still a savage.

 Yet, Christianity cannot be treated as a homogenous entity either, since Orthodox Christianity finds its place in the imagined map of Orientalism. The narrow definition of Orientalism restricts its meaning to Edward Said’s definition, which isn’t always a working interpretative framework, even for the British-Indian case. Meanwhile, if we stretch the definition, it might lead us so far as to encompass all kinds of oppressed-oppressor relations[4] or to describe only the discursive manoeuvre. And yet, the postcolonial framework cannot be reduced to discussions over how applicable Orientalism is to the post-Soviet context, since it offers a set of useful analytical tools to understand the history of oppressed and struggling people. Crucifying the Orient depicts Russian Orientalism as a process of assimilation and subjugation of local epistemologies. For Sahni there is no benevolent reason that can justify imperial expansion.


An Excerpt from Kalpana Sahni’s Crucifying the Orient: Russian Orientalism and the Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia

 References to the Caucasus were often accompanied by a mention of General Aleksey Yermolov, who between 1817-27 was the Commander in Chief of both the administration and the military operations in the area. Yermolov’s claim to fame was his participation in all major wars in the latter part of the eighteenth century, including the Napoleonic War of 1812, in which he played a prominent role. A product of the eighteenth century, Yermolov took pride in his liberalism, his Jacobin ideas, and his belief in the impending age of equality. He was a living legend, famous for his outspokenness and worshipped by the younger generation, especially the Decembrists. Alexander Griboedov, in his capacity as a diplomat, served under General Yermolov in Tbilisi.

 Rarely is there a letter written from the Caucasus where Yermolov is not mentioned in the most effusive terms by Griboedov. “What a splendid person!” the diplomat would time and again repeat, sometimes comparing Yermolov to the Sphinx, at other times calling him a wise one, a patriot, a man who won over the hearts of those surrounding him. He is praised by the best poets of the land: Krylov, Ryleyev, Zhukovsky, Kyukhelbeker, Lermontov, and even Pushkin. In a letter to his brother in 1820, Pushkin is ecstatic in his praise:

 “The Caucasus, the hot border of Asia, is interesting in all respects. Yermolov has filled it with his name and beneficial genius.”

 In the epilogue to his poem, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, the poet concluded: “Submit Caucasus, Yermolov Comes”.  Eight years later in 1829 on his way to the Caucasus, Pushkin made a special detour to visit his hero. “I saw Kazbek and Terek, which are worthy of Yermolov” (details of this visit are in the writer’s Travels to Erzurum). In 1833 the poet sought permission from Yermolov to publish the then retired general’s memoirs on his Caucasian military operations: “…Your fame belongs to Russia and You have no right to conceal it.”

 How did the “benevolent spirit” of Yermolov tackle the challenge of the Caucasus? The General described his action towards the rebellious Gurians of Georgia, who rose against Russian colonialism in 1819-20:

 “Their settlements were destroyed and burnt down. Their orchards and vineyards were hacked to the root, and these traitors will not reach even primitive conditions for many years. Extreme poverty will be their punishment.”

 The Gurian uprising was the first of many. National liberation movements against Russian colonialism persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Soon after the Russian annexation, rebellions broke out in Mtiuleti (1804), Kakheti (1812), and Imereti and Guria simultaneously (1819-20). In 1832 the Georgian intelligentsia conspired to overthrow the Russians and proclaim Prince Alexander Bagration, who had fled to Persia, as their ruler. The plot failed because the tsarist authorities were forewarned. Numerous revolts in the region were dealt with by utilizing the “Yermolov technique”.

 In Yermolov’s time the Russians initiated a systematic campaign of felling trees, destroying forests that gave cover to guerrillas, razing settlements, burning food supplies, and killing all inhabitants who allegedly sheltered “insurgents”. These were known as the punitive expeditions. Chechnya, for instance, was the scene of barbaric massacres. Villages were surrounded and, on orders from Yermolov, all the inhabitants slaughtered. Captive girls were sold as slaves or distributed for the “entertainment” of the Russian army with the general setting the example. Soldiers and officers pillaged. Apart from the destruction, forcible settlement of Russians in these areas commenced. For local populations, Yermolov was the most hated man in the Caucasus. Yet the general seemed to take pride in this and was known to often boast that “in the mountains, mothers frightened their children with his name”:

 “I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains of fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death.”


 Yermolov justified his actions thus:

 “I was forced to follow many Asiatic customs and realize that the Proconsul of the Caucasus cannot curb the cruel disposition of this area by being soft-hearted…condescension in the eyes of the Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason.”

 This, then, was the voice of the ostensibly superior imperial power that misrepresented reality to justify its own barbarity. Similarly, cruelty was legitimized by equating it with “Asiatic customs”, which the Oriental allegedly understood. Yermolov was only voicing the approach of tsarist officials, “The great majority… held firmly to the view that Asiatics could understand only force.” Yermolov’s voice carried weight. Another general, A.P. Tormasov, was more explicit in expressing his disdain for the conquered: “The best remedy for the Asiatics is the same as the one meant for a mettlesome horse, a bit—it makes them obedient and docile.”

 In the eyes of the Russian administration of the early nineteenth century all the peoples inhabiting the Caucasian Mountain range and its foothills were the same: They were “scoundrels” and “villains”. In the eyes of the Russian settlers in these parts, then and later, they were all “Circassians” and of course, “insidious plunderers”.


Russia’s Mission of “Salvation”

 Like Lermontov, Pushkin and Griboedov were aware of the reality. “The Circassians hate us. We have destroyed their villages…” Pushkin wrote. “Fear can only be a temporary measure for containing them,” was Griboedov’s conclusion. Both had plans for the future of the annexed peoples. For Pushkin, the best thing to have happened was the conquest of the eastern coast of the Black Sea. This would effectively cut the Circassians’ trade links with Turkey. The next thing to be done was to introduce a samovar and some Christian missionaries to convert and enlighten them. Pushkin’s views were reflected by the Russian civil servant, Zubov, who, in his book a few years later, underlined the need for flooding the area with goods as a means of enticing the local population, converting them to Christianity, and settling the area with Russians. Zubov’s hatred of the Chechens, who refused to submit to Russian power, is reminiscent of Yermolov’s.

 “The Chechens spend their life plundering and raiding their neighbours who hate them for their ferocity… The only way to deal with this ill-intentioned people is to destroy them to the last.”

The author of Woe from Wit had more ambitious plans for the Caucasus than Pushkin. While he was working on his play in 1823, Griboedov conceived a grand and ambitious plan for the future of the Caucasus. This plan was submitted to the government in 1828. The substance of it was to create a Company along the lines of the British East India Company, with a monopoly on trade and the confiscation of lands from the local rich in the Caucasus with their transfer to the Company and the Russians. The bottleneck in this project concerned the labour force for the proposed plantations. But here too a way was found. Griboedov believed that Russian serfs could be transferred to these parts and made to sign a bond for fifty years. At the expiry of this period, they could get their freedom. The tone of the project proposal is obsequious, abounding in eulogies for the Russian tsar, praising his benevolence and mission of civilization in the conquered territories, where the rich natural surroundings had not yet been utilised by the “backward and stagnant” natives.

 Pushkin and Griboedov were both ideologically close to the Decembrists, whose abortive uprising aimed to abolish autocracy and serfdom and move towards democracy. Despite their subsequent exile, these Decembrists fully supported the tsarist annexation programme. Keeping in mind the government’s economic interests, Pestel, a colonel, suggested the deportation of the “wild Circassians” into the interiors of Russia. The Decembrist G.S. Batenkov, who was posted in Irkutsk between 1812-14 (prior to the Decembrist revolt), on his return in 1822-23 regularly contributed articles to the capital’s newspaper, Syn Otechestva, and stated the need to turn the Central Asian nomads into settlers.

 These proposals in no way contradicted the government’s annexation policies. Moreover, they were carried out, whether in forcible conversion to Christianity, deportation, Russification, confiscation of land, or an influx of Russian settlers. The writer and the state agencies acted in unison, for they had both adopted the already proven European colonial methods of subjugation and the theoretical framework rationalizing racial and cultural superiority. Similarly, justification could now be sought for the forcible transfer of Russian peasants to the depopulated lands. Linear progression, after all, adhered to the view that the poor were also the ignorant and the backward, and were meant to be led. Thus, Darwinian models applied both to the colonized and the impoverished have-nots of their own society.

 Pushkin and Lermontov were certain that the Caucasus would soon be annexed. They were mistaken. The peoples of the Caucasus put up a long and heroic struggle for their lands. Their indomitable will and a deep-rooted antipathy towards the invader were behind the heroism of these so-called savages. Neither were they enticed by Russian goods and merchandise, which Pushkin thought would act as a bait, nor were the Russification plans a success. The war might have continued forever were it not for the enormous war machinery and inhuman policies pursued by the invading colonial power. These ultimately led to the mass exodus of the Circassians, including the Shapsugs and the Ubykhs, to neighbouring Turkey, and the deportation of the Abadzekhs into the interior of Russia.

Text/Translation: Maia Barkaia

[1] Some highlights from early works on this subject matter: Susan Layton’s Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy published in 1994;  Edited volume published in 1997, Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700-1917; and Jersild’s Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917,  published in 2002.

 [2] These discussions can be roughly classified as follows: 1.1. Discussion that explores Orientalism as an academic discipline and its connection with Imperialism. For instance, Knight, N. 2000. “Grigor’ev in Orenburg, 1851-1862: Russian Orientalism in the Service of Empire?”, Slavic Review, 59 (1). Khalid, A. 2000. “Russian History and the Debate over Orientalism,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 1 (4). Tolz, V.2011. Russia’s Own Orient: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods. Oxford University Press. 1.2. Discussion that explores the broad conception of Orientalism and its relevance in the context of Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries. For instance, Todorova, M. 2009. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press. Andronikashvili, Z. et al. 2018. Landna(h)me Georgien: Studien zur Kulturellen Semantik. 2. Discussion about the global applicability of postcolonial concepts and their relevance for the post-Soviet countries. For instance, Spivak, G, et al. 2013. “Are We Postcolonial? Post-Soviet Space”, PMLA, 121 (3). Moore, D. 2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in the Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.”

 [3] For instance, see Глущенко, Е. 2001. Герои империи. Портреты российских колониальных деятелей. Москва.

 [4] We can find such a broad conception in an article by Buchowski, M. 2006. “The Specter of Orientalism in Europe: From Exotic Other to Stigmatized Brother,” Social Thought and Commentary. 79 (3).  


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