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date: 21 April 2024

Russian Orientalismfree

Russian Orientalismfree

  • Michael KemperMichael KemperDepartment of European Studies, University of Amsterdam


This entry discusses the manifestations of Orientalism in Russian Orientology (Oriental studies), as the broad umbrella discipline that studies Russia’s own Islamic heritage and Muslim societies. Russia’s geographical and political position between Europe and Asia has made Orientalism (and Westernism) an important issue in any debate on national identity and national interests, for both Russians and ethnic minorities in Russia. Orientalist forms of “othering” are found in the works of scholars who worked in academic institutions, in the writings of administrators, military officers, and Orthodox missionary Orientalists, and even Muslims themselves. But prominent Orientalist scholars from Russia—often with non-Russian backgrounds—have also offered the first comprehensive critiques of traditional Western Orientalism. These critiques peaked in the Soviet era, when the attack on western Oriental scholarship as a handmaiden of colonialism was the core mission of Soviet Oriental studies. Soviet Oriental studies were supposed to support the de-colonizing world abroad against western imperialism and provide scholarly legitimacy to Soviet development policies in the Muslim-populated regions of the USSR, in particular the Volga-Urals, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In contemporary Russia, Oriental studies is still held in high esteem, and Orientalists function as experts on the politicization of Islam in the Muslim world and on religion policies at home.


  • World/Global/Transnational

“Orientalism” and Orientology

Is there a specific Russian form of Orientalism—and if yes, what are its defining features? This article gives a brief overview of the main arguments that scholars of Russian history have raised in this debate over the past two decades. It focuses on one specific area of Orientalism, namely the study of Russia’s “own” Muslim nationalities.

In what follows, the term Oriental studies (and, synonymously, Orientology) are used for the Russian concept of vostokovedenie (literally, “the study of the East”) as an umbrella for the various academic disciplines dealing with the Muslim Orient (in particular Arabic and Persian studies, Turkology, Oriental history, archeology, and ethnography). “Orientalism” (in quotation marks) stands for Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism (which in his conceptual framework also includes popular and travel literature and, indeed, anything that is written on the “Orient”).1 Said’s critique has become a common reference point for any discussion of Russian Oriental studies, by both supporters and opponents. The term “Orientals” (equally in quotation marks) is also employed as the term denoting the non-Russian (in this case, Muslim) peoples that figure as objects of Orientology and “Orientalism.”

In his famous 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said (1935–2003) argued that “the Orient was almost a European invention,” and he defined Orientalism as an ideological “mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles,” as well as “a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient . . . by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it. In short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”2 Consequently, the agents of “Orientalism” that Said singled out in his book were not only academic scholars, but also litterateurs (like Gustave Flaubert), philosophers (including Karl Marx), economists, and politicians (like Lord Cromer and Henry Kissinger). In Said’s understanding, the West artificially created its “Oriental other” as inferior, chaotic, exotic, governed by lust, and in need of Western patrimonial guidance, which comes in the form of an enlightenment imposed through conquest, colonialism, and imperialism. The people who provide this imagery and are governed by it are Said’s “Orientalists.”

The most problematic aspect of Said’s concept of “Orientalism” is its inherent essentialism.3 For if, as Said posed, “no one [in the West] writing, thinking or acting on the Orient could do so without taking into account the limitations on thought and actions imposed by Orientalism,” would this not mean that even the most ardent opponent of “Orientalism” is still caught in the same straitjacket as those “Orientalists” whose colonial attitudes he attacks?4 In the present contribution, the starting point is that the “Orient” is a construction with fluid boundaries, just like “Europe” and “the West,” and that Orientology is indeed thoroughly connected to political issues; but Said’s Orientalism is a polemical intervention—albeit a very inspiring one.

At one point, Said implied that Russian “Orientalism,” next to its German counterpart, was different from British, French, and US “Orientalisms”; but he did not elaborate on this.5 In the meantime, serious work has been done on the history of German Oriental studies, which has had a crucial influence on Russian Orientology.6 Likewise, Said’s thesis has inspired (or at least accompanied) a whole range of scholarship on Russian colonialism and “Orientalism,” in fields such as Russian and native literatures, Russian missionary Orientology, colonial rule in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russian cultural perceptions of the Orient , and Russian academic Oriental studies.7 Finally, there is a new sub-field studying Soviet Orientalism, as an academic field connected to Soviet nationality and religion policies towards the Muslims of the USSR and abroad.8 Many Russian scholars draw comparisons with other European Orientalisms, and search for links between them.

It should be added that the scholars who pose the question of Russian Orientalism are mostly basing their arguments on Russian-language literature and archival documents; this debate thus comes out of the discipline of Russian history, with the Russian state at the center of attention. Colleagues from the fields of Turkology and Islamic studies (that is, from within Oriental studies in the traditional sense) study Oriental manuscripts and print works, in Turkic languages such as Tatar as well as in Arabic and Persian; as a rule, in these works the conceptual question of “Orientalism” is less prominent than the historical reconstruction of Muslim or other religious communities on Russian soil, their institutions, networks, and internal discourses.9 But these works also contribute to the question of Russian “Orientalism”—from the internal (“Oriental”) perspective. Muslim scholars and community leaders interacted with Russia’s Orientalists—especially when the latter also held positions as administrators in the field of education—and collected the Oriental manuscripts that are the basis of our research. “Orientalism” is also connected to the history of how academic scholars gathered, investigated, catalogued, and interpreted Muslim texts, and more specifically, to the history of the Oriental manuscript libraries in Russia.

Russian Orientalism is discussed in relation to Muslims residing on territories that, since the end of the USSR, pertain to the Russian Federation—in particular Tatars and Bashkirs in the Volga-Urals as well as Dagestanis and Chechens in the North Caucasus, and partly Kazakhs; left out of consideration here are Russian perceptions of other non-Russian peoples, nations, or religious communities, including in the North and Siberia.10 Following Said—whose focus was on the period from Napoleon’s Expedition to Egypt in 1798 to the second half of the 20th century—the following discussion will concentrate on the late Tsarist period and the Soviet era; this chronological framework crossing the political watershed of 1917 enables us to disclose continuities that often go unnoticed and that are sometimes still visible in the present-day Russian Federation.

As Said argued that Oriental studies supported colonialism and imperialism, it is imperative to first consider the specific nature of Russia’s colonialism; here the main question is in how far Russia’s relation to the Orient, both in the Tsarist era and in the USSR, has been different from Western encounters with the East. Turning to the history of Oriental institutions in Russia, and to the connection between scholarship and state policies toward Muslims in Russia, we will see that these relations were ambiguous and escape easy qualifications in the Saidian sense—at least if we take Said’s Orientalism at face value. This is particularly true for the Rozen School at the Oriental Faculty of St. Petersburg University and the Asiatic Museum in St. Petersburg, which, in the late 19th and early 20th century, developed a thorough critique of Western Orientalism long before Edward Said stimulated Western debates on the issue. One important element that is missing in Said’s 1978 book is “Oriental Orientalists”—native Muslims who participated in Russian and Soviet Oriental studies and who reflected on their own societies, including from “Western” perspectives. In fact, “Orientals” were not as voiceless as Said would have it, and they cooperated with Russian academic Orientalists to such a degree that Orientalism must be seen as a common Russian-native enterprise. Both trends—the revision of classical Orientalism, and the integration of native scholars—culminated in Soviet Orientology, which was conceived of as an anti-colonial discipline contributing to the production of sanitized, secularized national historiographies for the “Oriental” Soviet nations and nationalities liberated from Tsarist imperialism and oppression; Orientalists were providers of knowledge for Soviet foreign policies. The last section draws attention to the circumstance that Said’s Orientalism had almost no active reception among Russia’s Orientalists. Given Russia’s pioneering role in criticizing “Orientalism,” it is paradoxical that classical Orientology still enjoys an almost unquestioned respect in contemporary Russia.

Russian Colonialism

Russia has been developing in direct contact with “Oriental” peoples since antiquity, and has swallowed or incorporated them rather than keeping their territories apart as distinct entities. The Kievan Rus’—the principality that is widely regarded as the first Eastern Slavic state—was constantly trading with, and fighting against, nomadic Steppe peoples (mostly of Turkic origin) who came in waves from the East; and already the Kievan princes had organized raids into the Bulgar area of the Middle Volga (which had accepted Islam by then), as well as into the north Black Sea area (down to Danubian Bulgaria) and the Caucasus. When in 988 Grand Prince Vladimir proclaimed Orthodox Christianity to be Kiev’s state religion, this was a choice for Byzantine civilization, and for accepting the East Roman imperial model of relations between the ruler and the Church hierarchy; but with the Mongol conquest and the ensuing Golden Horde period, the Oriental vector in Russia’s policies strengthened again considerably. Under what is pejoratively called the “Tatar Yoke” (c. 1240–1480), Moscow emerged as the most powerful among Russia’s principalities. Modern scholarship emphasizes that, in relation to the Golden Horde headquarters in Saray (near present-day Astrakhan), Muscovy in fact operated as an ulus (“horde”) of the Mongol/Tatar Empire, and Moscow’s princes did their best to serve the Khans in exchange for protection and privileges (including tax exemption for the Orthodox Church). When Ivan the Terrible assumed the title of Tsar in 1549 and then started conquering the Volga-Urals area, these territories were directly attached to Muscovy and were colonized by Slavic nobility and peasants; urban Muslims were expelled from the towns, and rural communities saw their lands confiscated, leading to forced migration east and southwards. In the following centuries there were several waves of forced Christianization in the Volga-Urals. Parts of the Muslim aristocracy gave up Islam and integrated into the Russian nobility—hence the many Arabic-Tatar-origin family names of prominent Russian families. But overall relations were built on co-optation, which was the only feasible way to administer the understaffed empire.11 A discussion of Russia as a colonial state must furthermore take into consideration that Muscovy, and then Peter the Great’s Russian Empire, also “colonized” its own Slavic Christian-Orthodox population: from the 15th century up until the 1860s, most Slavic peasants were serfs of their landowners or of the state and Church, whereas serfdom was not widespread in Muslim communities.

Like the Habsburg and Ottoman states, imperial Russia emerged as a continental empire, and it conquered huge territories inhabited by a whole plethora of non-Russian nationalities.12 Local non-Russian elites were often co-opted into Russian service. Following Jürgen Osterhammel’s classification,13 some of these territories can be characterized as exploitation colonies (where raw materials were produced for Russia’s industry, such as cotton agriculture in parts of Central Asia), settlement colonies (steppe lands taken under the plough by Slavic settlers from the mainland, for example in the Volga-Urals, Siberia, the Crimea, the plains of the North Caucasus, and what is today Kazakhstan), as well as strategic colonies that Russian officers and administrators believed should not fall into the hands of other imperial powers (such as, arguably, the South Caucasus as well as the Turkmen lands in Central Asia). From the Russian conquest in 1552 of Kazan over the Great Caucasus War (c. 1800–1860s) to the Russian subjugation of the Kazakh Steppe and Central Asia (1820s to 1880s, with the two Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara remaining autonomous entities until the 1920s), Russia’s military fought many wars against Muslim peoples, with the latter resisting either in the name of their rulers’ ancient genealogical rights (Kazan, Crimea, Central Asia) or of Islam (especially in the North Caucasus, and occasionally in the South Caucasus and Central Asia).

Soviet historiography insisted that many indigenous tribes and societies “voluntarily joined” Russia, anticipating the benefits and protection that come with imperial integration. Resistance movements were mostly portrayed as illegitimate rebellions led by feudal or reactionary rulers who, for defending their personal privileges, resisted the progress that Russia brought to their subjects; or as vassals of the Ottomans or other foreign powers eager to undermine Russian rule. Only in the early USSR was it accepted to refer to anti-colonial resistance movements as fighters for liberating their communities from evil Tsarism.14

From the time of Catherine the Great’s to our days, Russia formally acknowledged the presence of Islam on its territory; with the establishment of an imperial Muftiate in Ufa (today the capital of Bashkortostan) in 1788, the empire integrated Islam into the regional administration, creating a hierarchy of Islamic scholars (ʻulama’) for staffing the mosques, and for keeping population records about birth, marriage, and death cases.15 Catherine the Great even supported the construction of new mosques in the Volga-Urals; for her, Muslims were particularly valuable as traders, including with Kazakhstan, Siberia, Central Asia, Iran, and India. Tatars were also employed as translators and in diplomatic service.16 Muslim communities in Russia had considerable internal autonomy, and were able to organize and finance their own schools; the ʻulama’ produced a fully-fledged Islamic literature (above all in Arabic for Islamic law and theology, and in Turkic/Tatar for historiography and poetry). In inner Russia, imperial rule thus provided the space for an autonomous field of Islamic cultural production, and starting in the early 1800s, a flourishing Islamic printing business came into being in Kazan. In the second half of the 19th century, Muslim intellectuals gave birth to Jadidism, a Tatar-led modernist movement that incorporated European approaches and contents into the curricula of Muslim schools (maktabs and madrasas).

The relation between state and Islam was thus to a large degree of a pragmatic nature: after conquering Muslim territories, the state had only limited means to enforce radical change among Muslim communities. Modernization came largely from within, with Islamic scholars and Muslim intellectuals as the main driving forces, often supported by what is called a native bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers. Robert Crews argued that Muslims might well have regarded the Tsar in St. Petersburg, via the imperial Muftiate in Ufa, as the patron of Muslims against abuse by local administrators, and even as the protector of orthodox (Sunni) Islam against Islamic heterodoxies.17 Only in the last decades of the 19th century, in the context of confrontations with the Ottoman Empire, the long jihad against Russia in the North Caucasus, and the specter of Pan-Islamism (another “Orientalist” construction), the state tried to establish firm control over Muslim institutions in Inner Russia, and in particular, over Islamic education.18 Yet the 1905 Revolution brought a significant relaxation of state censorship, leading to a blossoming of Muslim journalism and literary life.19 Muslim regions sent their deputies into the State Duma, where most of them cooperated with the Liberals.20 In spite of some ups and downs, Russian colonialism was thus aiming at the integration of Muslims, but employed ruthless force where it met resistance.

Scholars have discussed whether the USSR must be regarded as a colonial empire: many of the “adjacent” or “inner” colonies from Tsarist times became neatly defined Soviet national republics, and some of them stood formally on the same level as Ukraine and Belarus; but these republics continued to be dominated by the center. The Bolsheviks enforced communist ideology through modern native nationalisms: the republics should be “national in form but socialist in content,” according to Stalin’s formula. However, the center also invested heavily in those peripheries by building infrastructure (electricity and water supply, roads, housing), by spreading mass education, native literatures and culture, and by developing modern mass agriculture and, to a limited extent, industrialization.21 As Terry Martin put it, the USSR was an “affirmative action empire” that proclaimed the national emancipation of the minorities, and that catapulted Muslim natives into leading positions.22 And after the downfall of the Soviet Union, some of these mechanisms remained intact with regard to Russia’s “inner peripheries” (in the North Caucasus, the Volga-Urals, and Siberia and the Far East, many areas of which still have the status of “autonomous” republics within the Russian Federation). Consequently, it is a matter of debate when the Soviet and post-Soviet space entered the post-colonial era.23

Institutions of Imperial Orientalism: Academic, Military-Administrative, and Missionary

In Russia, modern Oriental studies began in earnest at Kazan University in 1807. The first holders of the chair of Oriental letters, Christian-Martin Frähn and Franz Erdmann, were “imported” Germans; they gave their lectures in Latin and thereby failed to establish a coherent school.24 These men studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkic manuscripts, languages, and literatures, as well as ancient coins and epigraphical materials. They were curious about the Orient, and saw themselves as members of an international scholarly community of academic enthusiasts—another major argument against Said’s oversimplification of “Orientalism” as the handmaiden of imperialism. One could claim that, by their work on old Oriental sources, Russia’s academics contributed to “Orientalism” by producing exotic images of the past and by giving priority to the study of the past over the present—but then one would have to conclude that any engagement with historical sources is better avoided.

In 1856, the Department of Oriental Studies Department of Kazan University was transferred to St. Petersburg, with the goal of bringing it closer to the government. This gave the newly created Oriental Faculty of St. Petersburg University a jump start, and it also benefitted the Asiatic Museum in St. Petersburg (est. 1818), which, as part of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, transformed into a research unit connected to the growing collection of Oriental manuscripts. A school with more practical education was the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow; established by an Armenian family in 1814, the Lazarev Institute developed into a state-financed cadre factory for translators, administrators, and officers serving in the eastern and southern parts of Russia and in imperial diplomacy.25

A number of outstanding, university-educated experts on the East found employment in the administration or in the military. There can be no doubt that Orientalists contributed to colonialism, and many Orientalists saw it as their mission to serve the state. At the same time, these scholars-cum-administrators also reflected on what the “Orient” meant for Russia’s identity, and in the Muslim peripheries, they applied concepts of ethnic and national identity that had first been developed for the Slavic populations of the empire. Nathaniel Knight has drawn attention to the St. Petersburg-trained Orientalist Vasillii V. Grigor’ev (1816–1881), who, between 1854 and 1862, was chairman of the Borderlands Commission in Orenburg, and thereby in charge of regulating Russia’s relations to the Kazakh and Bashkir communities and their elites. Grigor’ev was a staunch defender of Russian interests in the Steppe, insisting however that effective relations with the natives could only be implemented through solid knowledge of their customs and their social relations—that is, through Orientalist expertise. Alas, his superiors in the frontier town of Orenburg cared little for such expertise, prioritizing military action instead. Knight concluded that Grigor’ev’s experience “illustrates the difficulties in conceiving of orientalism as a cohesive discourse in which scholarly expertise, literary production, and imperial practice are inextricably intertwined.”26 As a counterpoint to Knight’s perspective, Adeeb Khalid demonstrated that the career of another Orientalist in imperial service in Central Asia, Nikolai P. Ostroumov (1846–1930), revealed a profile closer to the archetype of Saidian “Orientalism”; and Khalid also argued that even Grigor’ev illustrated the very nexus of knowledge and power that underlaid Said’s paradigm.27

In most cases, one finds that Orientalists in administrative duties were torn between their academic interests and state duties, and while they were often sympathetic to the natives (inorodtsy) under their tutelage, they were particularly critical of Islam. One case in point is the well-known Turkologist Wilhelm Radloff (Radlov), who, from 1872 to 1883, acted as overseer of the Muslim educational sector in the Volga area; he cooperated with local Muslim elites to get a grip on the Muslim schools.28 Radlov also introduced Tatar scholars into Kazan University’s Society of Archeology, History, and Ethnography; he even translated an Arabic paper produced by the eminent Kazan religious scholar and historian Shihab al-Din al-Marjani (1818–1889) and read it out for him at a major archeological congress in 1877.29 Likewise, Orientalists (like Bernhard Dorn, since 1842 director of the Asiatic Museum in St. Petersburg) served as censors for Muslim print publications whose job was to check Arabic and Tatar manuscripts before they received imperial permission for print. Others functioned as court experts; thus the Turkologist Nikolai Katanov reviewed the documents pertaining to the case against Baha’ al-Din Vaisov (d. 1893), the founder of the “Muslim Old Believers” heterodoxy in Kazan. Vaisov saw himself as a loyal subject of the Tsar but called for civil disobedience toward the local authorities and for segregation from modernizing Tatar society and the Muftiate—a paradoxical inversion of Orientalism/Occidentalism from within Muslim society. In his expressive Tatar poetry, Vaisov damned Radlov as a servant of the Devil.30

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the War Ministry, established teaching and research groups; a post-Soviet encyclopedia of imperial Russian “military Orientalists” contains almost 400 biographies.31 To give an example of the use of the military employing Orientalist methodologies, during the 1830s and 1840s, the Russian military administration of the North Caucasus implemented a program to collect information on local forms of customary law (ʻadat), with the goal to integrate these local data into one volume that could later, after the defeat of the Islamic resistance under Imam Shamil (ruled as imam and jihad leader from 1834–1859), be returned to the Muslim communities as a legal codex for self-administration in the whole of the North Caucasus. The publications resulting from this campaign are interesting for the historian as a reflection of the positivistic belief that individual village constitutions can be gathered, re-grouped, simplified, and then re-assembled; but as a law book they never found application.32 Similar programs on customary law were conducted by French officers in the Kabylian region of Algeria, equally conceived of as a bulwark against jihad.33 And just like British Orientalists in India, major Russian scholars edited Islamic legal compendia, in Arabic, Persian, or Tatar, to provide the colonial administration, and the lower native courts that operated under colonial rule, with a written code that would reduce the complex Hanafi tradition of numerous compendia, commentaries, glosses, and fatwas. As Alexander Morrison has argued, this kind of “applied Orientalism” was very much based on collaboration with local “Oriental” experts.34

Equally based on collaboration with natives was missionary Orientology. In the second half of the 19th century, the Orthodox Church and the state worried about the fragility of Christianity among those Tatar communities who had been baptized by force in the 16th to 18th centuries. To counter the increasing apostasy of these Tatar kreshäns (from Russ, kreshchennye, “Christianized”), Nikolai I. Il’minskii (1822–1891; formerly Grigor’ev’s co-worker in Orenburg) developed a new method to preach the Gospel among the Tatars in the Tatar language, for which he designed a Cyrillic alphabet, with some success.35 This approach was defensive and not out to convert more Muslims to the Orthodox faith. However, the Kazan Orthodox Seminary where Il’minskii worked (he also had a chair at Kazan University) maintained an “Anti-Islamic Department” whose teachers engaged in polemics with Islamic scholars. One of these missionary Orientologists, Georgii Sablukov, produced Russia’s first printed direct translation of the Quran, which remained in use even in the Soviet era. It should be noted that the polemical strategies and the language of the missionaries later fed into Soviet anti-religious propaganda.36

Already in the Tsarist empire, non-Russians of Muslim family background had found employment in Russian academia—another feature that sets Russian Orientology apart from its equivalents in the metropolises of Germany, Britain, or France. Here the prime example is Mirza Muhammad ʻAli/Aleksandr Kazembek (1802–1870); born into a noble Shii family in Resht, in Iran, and raised in Derbend (in today’s Daghestan), Kazembek converted to Protestantism at the hands of Scottish Presbytarians, in Astrakhan on the Lower Volga; obviously as a result of the ostracism he encountered from the Muslim community, he was first transferred to teach in Omsk in Siberia,37 but he made a splendid career as professor of Oriental studies first in Kazan, and then, after the transfer of the Orientology department of Kazan University to St. Petersburg in 1856, in the Russian capital. Kazembek is known for his publications in which he portrayed Islam in a comparatively mild light (for which he was criticized by Russian writers); he produced high-quality translations of Crimean and Daghestani historical chronicles and of Arabic law books (for use by the Russian administration), as well as a Tatar grammar that was even used at German universities.38 He devoted a special study to the Babi movement in contemporary Iran, and he was also the first to offer a historical analysis of “Muridism,” that is, of the Sufi links of Imam Shamil in Daghestan and Chechnya.39 These publications are prime examples of historical and linguistic scholarship that is of direct use for the Russian administration; in his teaching, Kazembek emphasized applied Orientology, that is, the transfer of knowledge useful to future colonial officers and administrators.

Native Orientalism: Jadidism

The Russian Muslimhood (russkoe musul’manstvo) is not aware of the interests of the Russian state, does not feel them; it is almost completely ignorant of [Russia’s] pain and delight, it does not understand the overall endeavors of the Russian state, its ideas. As it does not know Russian, it is remote from the Russian national idea (russkaia mysl’) and from Russian literature, which isolates it completely from human civilization (obshchechelovecheskaia kul’tura). The Russian Muslimhood is vegetating in the narrow, suffocating atmosphere of its old concepts and prejudices, as if it was cut off from the rest of mankind, and it has no other worry than to hunt after its daily piece of bread; it has no other ideal than what the belly tells it.|.|.|.40

These devastating remarks on Islam and Muslim culture do not come from the pen of a Russian colonial administrator or Orientalist; rather, they are from an 1881 Russian essay published by a Crimean Tatar and Muslim intellectual, Ismail Gasprinskii (1851–1914). Gasprinskii saw himself as a strider for prosveshchenie (education, in the sense of German Bildung) and prosvetitel’stvo (enlightenment) among Russia’s Muslims. As Gasprinskii argued, the traditional Islamic educational system continues medieval traditions and ignores contemporary challenges and opportunities. Gasprinskii emphasized that, in the past, Islam had given birth to mighty empires and a glorious civilization and literature, and that the religion itself therefore cannot be blamed for the spiritual poverty of his fellow-Tatars; at the same time, he clearly held the Muslim scholars, teachers, imams, and Sufis of his time responsible for the deplorable state of affairs in their communities. But he also blamed the Russian state, which limited its engagement with Muslims to collecting taxes and maintaining public order. The few existing “Russian-native” schools for Muslims Gasprinskii found utterly inappropriate; all time and energy was wasted on teaching Russian grammar, and little was done to familiarize its Muslim pupils with Russian and European civilization. Gasprinskii argued that progress must be instilled among the Muslims of the empire through the existing network of traditional maktabs and madrasas; if thoroughly reformed, these Muslim schools could provide basic information on Russia’s geography, societies, and state institutions, at the expense of Arabic and the traditional religious sciences. If this was all done in the native (Tatar) language, then these schools would give Russia’s Muslims a much wider intellectual horizon and make them understand the benefits of being part of the greater fatherland. A sincere interest in learning the Russian language would come automatically; this would result in a true sblizhenie (coming closer) with the majority population and identification with state interests. Gasprinskii closed his essay series with a request to fund a number of experimental schools of this type.

This essay of a Muslim intellectual was clearly a “grant proposal” directed at the Russian political elite; and while the state did not fund his school program, Gasprinskii did manage to establish a reformed maktab in 1884, in his native Bakhchisarai; soon his model was copied by other Muslim teachers, from Kazan to Tashkent, and Gasprinskii also pioneered the production of modern Tatar textbooks. At roughly the same time, he was even allowed to start the first Tatar newspaper, symbolically called Tarjuman/Perevodchik (“The Translator”), which came out between 1883 and 1914; in the first decades of its existence, the Tarjuman offered each article in both Russian and Tatar (in Arabic script).41 It seems Gasprinskii’s application for such a newspaper was successful because he gained the support of Russian Orientalist Vasilii D. Smirnov, who specialized in the history of Ottoman-Crimean relations, translated a lot of Turkish literature into Russian, and also served as imperial censor for Oriental printing in Russia.

Gasprinskii’s 1881 essay is not only the funding document of what soon became known as the Jadid movement (after the usul-i jadid, the “new method” for teaching literacy in Tatar); it is also remarkable for how he outlined the difference between modernizing Russia and the Tatars.42 In fact, Gasprinskii picked up the language of “Orientalism” to describe Muslim “backwardness” (otstalost’), which he contrasted to European/Russian “progress” and “civilization.” What we also find in this text is the “Orientalist” juxtaposition of a glorious Muslim past (here: Islamic high civilization and literature, especially during the Golden Horde period) and a stagnant present that forgot about the past; hence the need to make modern education accessible to Muslims so that they could retrieve their own past. Interestingly, Gasprinskii argued that Golden Horde (“Tatar”) rule over Russia in the 13th and 14th centuries had not just negative effects; the Tatars preserved Russia from pernicious influences (by implication, coming from the medieval and early modern West) and provided the Russians with knowledge and political techniques. If Russia would now decide to invest in the education of its Muslims, the empire would just repay its old debt.43 This way of re-thinking Russia’s indebtedness to the East came to full fruition in the ideology of Eurasianism in the early 20th century; yet while the Eurasianists insisted that Russia/Eurasia was a civilizational entity distinct from (Western) Europe, Gasprinskii’s argumentation was embedded in Russia’s Westernizing discourse of his time that saw Europe as its model, against the Slavophiles, who would be more inclined to support forced Russification of the Empire’s minorities—a policy that Gasprinskii argued was not feasible, and would just raise opposition.

The strategy of Muslim reformers to employ negative and positive “Orientalist” essentialisms for raising support for progress is also visible in the writings of Muslim intellectuals who, in the 1920s, played an important role in the establishment of secular education in the new Union republics like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and also in the “autonomous” republics within the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga-Urals as well as Dagestan in the North Caucasus. Here the prime example is the Volga Tatar “national communist” Mir-Said Sultangaleev (1892–1940), who employed the language of difference to argue for a specific Soviet approach to the USSR’s Muslim nations, up to the call for a Muslim section of the Red Army.44 Yet by the late 1930s, the most prominent Muslim secular cultural activists and politicians of Jadid backgrounds had been eliminated by Stalin’s terror machine, to be replaced by a new elite with a thoroughly Soviet training.

The question of “Orientalism” has returned indirectly in the current debates on the direction of Western scholarship, which, for a long time, studied the history of Islam in Russia solely through the prism of Jadid native historiography and critique of traditional Muslim society, implicitly sympathizing with the Jadids’s introduction of modern concepts of nationhood among the Muslim nations of Russia and the USSR. While eminent historians emphasize that the emergence of nationalism in Central Asia was largely a project developing at least in part out of Jadid debates, scholars of Islamic studies argue that Western scholarship has been “Jadidocentric,” and thereby obfuscating alternative regional or religious identities in the area, and the native Islamic traditions in general—especially since these traditions were mainly transmitted in the form of Oriental manuscripts that are not as easily accessible as the printed works of the Jadids.45

The Rozen School: Academic Critiques of “Orientalism”

Already the Slavophile Orientalist Grigor’ev had called for the establishment of a distinctly Russian tradition of Orientology—against the German-dominated academic establishment of his time (which he saw as cosmopolitan in nature), and for an approach that would help Russia’s “Orientals” maintain their culture and identity; only if a community has its own historical identity, so went the argument, could it appreciate and accept the benefits of Russian civilization. As Vera Tolz emphasized, in 1840 Grigor’ev argued that “Russians were particularly well-placed to ‘preserve [.|.|.] the tribes of Asia’, ‘set their lives in order and enlighten them’.”46

Grigor’ev’s student Viktor Romanovich Rozen (Baron Viktor Rosen, 1864–1908) took this approach further. Rozen envisaged the Russian empire as a community of a single but multi-ethnic people, combining elements of European and Asian cultural traditions; what needed to be studied are not entities in artificial isolation but their historical interactions. This view was shared by some of Rozen’s major disciples in St. Petersburg’s Oriental Faculty, including the Central Asianist Vasilii V. Bartol’d (Wilhelm Barthold, 1869–1930), the linguist and archeologist Nikolai Ia. Marr (1864–1934), and the Indologists/Buddhologists Sergei F. Ol’denburg (1863–1934) and Fedor I. Shcherbatskoi (1866–1942). Vera Tolz therefore speaks of a “Rozen School” of Orientology in St. Petersburg at the turn of the 20th century; to this group I would add the eminent Arabist Ignatii Iu. Krachkovskii (1883–1951), of the younger generation, who carried Rozen’s convictions into the post-WWII period, and who outlined its essence in his major works on the history of Soviet Arabic and Oriental studies.47 Most of these scholars were of non-Russian background: Rozen, Ol’denburg and Bartol’d were Baltic Germans, Krachkovskii was of Belarussian, and Shcherbatskoi of Polish roots; Marr’s mother was Georgian and his father a Scotsman. For all of them, their engagement with Russia’s Orient was also linked to their own place in a broader Russian nation.

This revision of Orientology included a thorough rejection of the conventional partition of the world. Vasilii Bartol’d demonstrated (to quote from Tolz) that “modern perceptions of the East-West divide fully crystallized during the Enlightenment, which linked into one narrative Roman perceptions of superiority over the ‘Orient’ and Christian prejudices against Islam, extrapolating ‘the separation [of the Europe of Western Christianity from the rest of the world] onto pre-Christian periods’. The ‘East’ began to be seen as the world that remained in antiquity outside the impact of Graeco-Roman civilization, and in more recent and contemporary periods outside the impact of the Renaissance.”48

Orientology, as the umbrella for studying the East, thereby became a discipline that, in tandem with Slavic studies, transcended East-West dichotomies and provided research on the fatherland; differences were understood as being cultural, not racial. The fatherland comprised various cultures that interact and permeate each other. By providing works on the histories and contemporary affairs of the non-Russian communities, these Orientologists also cooperated with native scholars, of various cultural and religious backgrounds. Getting to know Russia’s Orient thereby meant to support the “Orientals” in retrieving their heritage. For Marr, the archeologist of the Caucasus that he was in his early career, this meant making the sites of excavations accessible to natives, and preserving the findings in local museums—as opposed to the “arrogant” Western practice of bringing them to the metropolises.49 Orientologists would stimulate natives to appreciate their own histories and cultures as worthy contributions to Russia’s overall identity; one could not appreciate the great fatherland if that fatherland despised one’s individual small homeland in it. At the same time the Orientalists saw themselves as empire-savers as they provided an inclusive vision of the fatherland, against separatist nationalisms that would endanger the empire.

There are some paradoxes inherent in the strategies of these St. Petersburg scholars, which are partly to be explained by the Russian fin de siècle culture (which was conducive to experimenting, including with literary Orientalism) and by the changing political constellations (1905 Revolution, WWI, 1917 February and October Revolutions, Civil War, Bolshevik policies).

First, for Rozen and his disciples, the crystallization of a distinct Russian school of Orientology came in parallel with internationalization: Rozen himself had never been to the Orient but had studied in Germany, and he urged his disciples to pursue studies in the West; also, one of his foremost goals was to make Russian scholarship respected in Western Europe. This appreciation of the West suffered during WWI, which led to a general disappointment with Western (and in particular German) scholarship; in the early Soviet Union, when Ol’denburg desperately defended the autonomy of the Academy of Sciences against the Bol’shevik attempts to undermine scholarship, also his writings became staunchly anti-Western.

Second, the St. Petersburg school of Orientology argued (like Grigor’ev had done before) that state policies toward “Oriental” peoples in Russia must be informed by academic knowledge of the East; they saw the achievements of West European Orientology as resulting from the stimulus that scholarship on the East obtained from Western colonial policies. Yet, while bemoaning what they saw as the Russian government’s neglect for Russian academic Orientology, they strongly resisted the government’s request to design a more practical program of Oriental studies at the St. Petersburg Oriental Faculty; instead, they insisted that their strongly academic curriculum (oriented toward classical languages and history) was necessary training for future civil servants and military practitioners working in Russia’s East.50 While jealously protecting the autonomy of Russian Orientology as a discipline, their understanding of East and West as artificial constructs led them to the understanding that Orientology is also a misconception; eventually, Orientologist research would have to be integrated into the mainstream disciplines of history, economics, geography, ethnography, and so forth.51 Yet in 1918, when the Oriental Faculty in Petrograd was integrated into a broad Faculty of Social Sciences, the Orientologists saw this as a blow to their autonomy, national prestige, and international position.52

The most curious outcome of the Rozen school was Nikolai Marr’s “Japhetic theory,” which identified the Caucasus as a cradle of mankind, against the Indo-European theory; eccentric “Marrism” linked the history of languages to socio-economic development and became a Stalinist dogma until Stalin himself rejected it in 1950.53 A more powerful continuity can be identified in Bartol’d’s critique of Eurocentricism in historiography, and his re-evaluation of the Mongol impact on Russia; both elements provided historical arguments for the Russian Eurasianist school that emerged in European exile in the 1920s.54 Also Eurasianism, from its founders to contemporary ideologists such as Aleksandr Dugin (b. 1962), reveals features that can be subsumed under “Orientalism.” Eurasianism claims that Russia (and/or the post-Soviet space) reveals a specific spirituality that can be found in both Islam and Orthodox Christianity; as an “ideology of empire,” Eurasianism is closely connected to claims of power, mostly with the Russians as the leading nation.55

Soviet Orientalism

Bourgeois and Soviet Orientologies are diametrically opposed with regard to their object, and to the past and present of the peoples of the Orient. Bourgeois Orientology expresses the colonizing and racist world view of the European and American bourgeoisie; since its beginning, bourgeois Orientology regards the culture of the so-called ‘West’ (i.e., the culture of Europe, but then also of the USA) as standing in opposition to the culture of the ‘East’; it denounces the eastern peoples as being inferior in their race (rasovo nepol’notsennye), as if they were eternally backwards (iskonno otstal’nye), unable to take their fate into their own hands, and just objects of history, not its subjects. Bourgeois Orientology fully subordinates the study of the Orient to the colonial policies of the imperialist countries. By contrast, Soviet Orientology is guided by Marxist-Leninist methodology as well as Lenin and Stalin’s teaching on the national-colonial question, and studies the Orient from positions that are principally opposed [to bourgeois Orientology].56

This is from the 1951 Great Soviet Encyclopedia entry on “vostokovedenie.” The quote encapsulates the self-vision of Marxist Orientology in the USSR. The rest of the entry contains long quotes from Stalin, who is portrayed as the founding father of Soviet Orientology. Ten years after Stalin’s death, in 1963, the Egyptian-French political scientist Anouar Abdel-Malek (1924–2012) published his article “Orientalism in Crisis,”57 which gained certain fame in the West for its critique of Western Orientology, and its praise of Oriental studies in socialist Eastern Europe; as Vera Tolz has pointed out,58 in his first footnote Abdel-Malek referred to the above-quoted Soviet encyclopedia entry, as well as to Bartol’d’s work on the history of Orientology.59 Abdel-Malek’s article, in turn, found its way into Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism, where Said (in a chapter called “Crisis”) provided long quotes from Abdel-Malek’s critique of “Orientalism.”60 With some goodwill, one can therefore detect a Russian and Soviet lineage in Said’s Orientalism. However, what Said decided to ignore is Abdel-Malek’s celebration of what he called a new “Eastern European” trend of “Neo-Orientalism,” which in fact was Soviet ideological scholarship on the East.

Soviet claims about the supremacy of Marxist Oriental studies go back to the early 1920s, when the amateur Orientalist Mikhail Pavlovich (a former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks and became Russia’s major manager of political Oriental studies in Moscow) demonized colonial scholarship on the Muslim world and insisted that Soviet Orientology was anti-colonial in nature.61 This also had an international aspect; since the early 1920s, the Soviet Union portrayed its program for developing its Muslim peripheries as a model for the “de-colonizing world,” including Arab states, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and South East Asia. From this perspective, Western-inflicted “backwardness” in Oriental countries—above all in the economy—required Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist programs to combat it. Yet paradoxically, Marx and Engels themselves had embraced Orientalist language already in their works; their theories concerning the human past, present, and future were based on their reflections on the Western experience. And one should keep in mind that, in the same year that Said’s Orientalism came out, the issue of “Orientalism” in Marxist thinking was critiqued from Western Marxist positions, by Bryan S. Turner.62

After the traumatic experiences of WWI and a long Civil War, the Bolsheviks hoped that their victorious revolution would soon spread over the whole world; and if the capitalist world did not become socialist right away, then the world revolution would come via capitalism’s Achilles heel, the European colonies in Africa and Asia. This was to be organized by the Communist International; and at a propagandistic conference in Baku in 1920, the Bolshevik Comintern chairman Zinov’ev even called upon the “the laborers of the East” to rise up in a “holy war” (i.e., jihad) against British colonialism, thus amateurishly borrowing from the Islamic tradition.63

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Bolsheviks’ attempt to employ Islam as an ally against British colonialism stimulated a lively debate on the “class character” of Islam. In Leningrad, Moscow and Kazan, Marxist historians and sociologists engaged in debates about whether Islam was originally a religion of the Meccan traders (as argued by Mikhail Reisner, following German Orientalists), or of agriculturalists in Medina (Mikhail Tomara), or of Bedouins (as held by the Kazakh historian and politician Sandzhar D. Asfendiiarov, 1889–1938, with direct implications for how to interpret Islam among the nomadic Kazakhs). Others identified communist elements in Islamic heterodox uprisings of the medieval period. Liutsian Klimovich, Soviet Russia’s major anti-Islamic ideologist in the field of “Oriental” Soviet literatures from the late 1920s to the early 1980s, even claimed in 1930 that the personality of Muhammad was a fiction invented by the later Islamic tradition—clearly extrapolating from similar Soviet critiques of the historicity of Jesus and the prophets of Judaism. These debates were highly “Orientalist” (in Said’s sense) in so far as the authors claimed to disclose the essence of Islam, in its historical purity, from which they drew conclusions about the persistent nature of contemporary Muslim societies.64 Other scholars elaborated on the “Oriental despotism” paradigm (which appears in some works of Friedrich Engels, but which is incompatible with the five-stage model of socio-economic development that, under Lenin and Stalin, became the dogmatic guideline for classifying non-Western societies); in the Russian debates, the blueprint for the “Oriental despotism” paradigm was ancient Egypt.65

With the start of collectivization—the transformation of the Soviet countryside by forcing peasants into state farms, and by physically eliminating the traditional elites—Islam was declared to be feudal in character, and thus linked to class enemies; thousands of imams were shot, sent to the labor camps, or exiled. Practically all mosques and Islamic schools were closed down. Crude anti-Islamic propaganda continued well into the 1980s.66

After the horrors that came with the Stalinist collectivization and repression programs of the 1930s, the state relaxed its policy on religion. During WWII, Stalin even re-instituted the Muftiate for Inner Russia in Ufa and established new Muftiates in Central Asia and the Caucasus. A small number of mosques were allowed to re-open, to be staffed by imams trained in a Soviet school of Islamic studies, the Mir-i Arab Madrasa in Bukhara (Soviet Uzbekistan).67 In return, the Soviet Muftis in Ufa and Tashkent supported the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany by depicting the defense of the Soviet fatherland as a jihad, and thus as a Muslim duty.68

Academic Orientology continued to develop under control of state and party. In the 1920s and 1930s, ethnologists and historians provided the knowledge for drawing the boundaries between the new Soviet Socialist republics in Central Asia, and linguists gave advice for the enforced change of alphabets of the Muslim national languages (from Arabic to Latin in the late 1920s, and a decade later to Cyrillic), and for partitioning the common Central Asian Muslim cultural heritage into national historiographies.69 Native scholars (often with a Jadid background) were crucial in this process, as historians, writers, teachers, party activists, and administrators. In 1930, the former Asiatic Museum was transformed into the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (IVAN); in 1950, it was transferred to Moscow, in an effort to redirect its research to the contemporary world and to the liberation struggle of the peoples of the East. Only the huge manuscript collection of the Asiatic Museum remained in Leningrad, where it formed the Institute’s Leningrad Branch, with a philological and historical profile.70

The old Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow was turned into a Party school for training Communist functionaries, the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies (MIV); here training in Oriental languages was accompanied by the study of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. Likewise, the Comintern set up a Communist University of the Laborers of the East (KUTV), and a similar school for China (KUTK), where foreign cadres were trained in communist thinking and in practical work in their home regions.71 Yet the new political institutions were vulnerable to the turbulent changes in the Party line and eventually closed down (KUTV in 1938, MIV in 1954). Paradoxically, what survived was the classical academic Institute of Oriental Studies (IVAN) in Moscow, with its manuscript repository in Leningrad.

At the 20th Party Congress in 1956 (where Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” condemning parts of Stalinism), IVAN’s work was heavily attacked for being ineffective, and for being stuck in bourgeois traditions; Anastas Mikoian, a major Soviet ideologist, claimed that while the colonial world was “awakening,” and increasingly transforming into independent states, Soviet Orientology was still caught “in slumber.”72 In the Cold War context, the USSR desperately needed more knowledge and research on the contemporary Orient. The person to become IVAN’s new director, and to change the course of Soviet Oriental studies, was Bobojan Gafurov (1908–1977). Under Stalin and up to 1956, Gafurov had served as Party boss in Soviet Tajikistan, where he successfully employed the Orientalist “backwardness” argument to attract financial investment from Moscow, for Tajikistan’s infrastructure.73 Now, as the first “Muslim” to lead Soviet Orientology, Gafurov employed similar rhetoric to expand the Institute of Oriental Studies that he would direct for over two decades. Gafurov conducted “soft power” cultural diplomacy with the Muslim world and India, and attracted funds for more research on political, social and economic aspects of the contemporary Orient; but classical studies and work on Oriental manuscripts in Leningrad received more support.

In 1960, Gafurov hosted the 25th World Congress of Oriental Studies, to which hundreds of scholars from the Muslim world were invited; here Mikoian and other Soviet politicians portrayed the USSR, and Soviet Orientology, as an ally of the decolonizing nations. Some Western participants were appalled by this obvious politicization of their discipline—but many were impressed by the solid range of Soviet scholarship in the classical disciplines of Orientology.74 In the subsequent decades, Oriental studies institutes were founded in Soviet republics of Central Asia (Tashkent, 1949; Dushanbe, 1970) and the South Caucasus (Baku, 1958; Tbilisi, 1960), all specializing in the study of the respective region. In Kazakhstan, Oriental history was established with the help of Russian scholars from Leningrad.75 The “Muslim” autonomous republics within Soviet Russia did not receive such Oriental institutes; but in Kazan (Tatarstan) and Makhachkala (Daghestan), Oriental studies were in fact conducted at universities and at institutes of history connected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Significant repositories of Oriental manuscripts were preserved and expanded through collecting expeditions into the native villages.76 In these republics, the Islamic heritages of the individual nations were reinterpreted as secular cultural history, that is, as autochthonous trajectories towards secularism, national identities, and ultimately, socialism.77

In Leningrad and Moscow, Orientologist practice under central planning gave priority to collective work, often in the form of huge long-term projects for editing Oriental sources. After Stalin, Soviet Orientologists admitted that their own interpretations in fact relied on the grand works of Russian imperial Orientalists, and in particular on the Rozen school; a major achievement of post-WWII Soviet Orientology was the re-edition of the works of the towering pre-Soviet personalities such as Bartol’d and Krachkovskii. Such projects gave practical training to a new generation of scholars. In several institutes, also some Muslim philologists with a Jadid educational background found employment—in Tashkent, for instance, their expertise was necessary for the edition of classical Oriental literary works (including those of Alishir Nava’i) as well as for the compilation of manuscript catalogues.78 Equally characteristic for Soviet Orientology, especially after the war, was work in the form of yearly multi-disciplinary expeditions to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and befriended Arab countries like Yemen; here Oriental archeologists, historians, and ethnographers worked side by side with geologists and biologists.

The changing conceptual and ideological interpretation of the Orient over the 20th century is reflected in the names of the leading Orientologist journals. For the group around Rozen, the most authoritative outlet had been the journal of the Oriental Section of the Imperial Archeological Society (Zapiski Vostochnogo otdeleniia Imperskogo arkheologicheskogo obshchestva); originally, Orientology was closely related to scholarship on the ancient past, but it soon gained its own dynamics, as seen above. In the early Soviet Union, the Marxist flagship of political research on the “inner” and “foreign” East was Novyi Vostok (“The New Orient”), a title emblematic of the Bolshevik ambition to transform the Orient. In the 1960s, the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow for a few years ran under the name of “Institute of Asia and Africa,” with the leading academic journal at that time, “Problems of Orientology” (Problemy vostokovedeniia), renamed “The Peoples of Asia and Africa” (Narody Azii i Afriki). This name-change was not a reflection of any critique of “Orientalism,” however; rather, it simply responded to the circumstance that Orientology work was also done in a new Institute of China. In 1990, the same journal was again given a classical name, Vostok/Oriens. Russia’s major research center of eastern studies is still called the “Institute of Oriental Studies” (IVAN), while its former Leningrad Branch, with its manuscript repository, has become independent as an Institute of Oriental Manuscripts.

“Orientalism” in Contemporary Russia

In contemporary Russia, Orientalism is everywhere—in architecture, arts, popular literature, film, political debates on minorities and immigration, discourses on Russia’s European and Asian identity, and of course, scholarship. The question of how knowledge relates to power is, however, rarely ever discussed in the language of Said.

Edward Said’s Orientalism became regarded as an iconic work of cultural analysis also at Russian universities, but its impact on the discipline of Orientology was low. A first full Russian translation appeared as late as 2006—and was supplied with crude commentaries that celebrate Orientalism as an attack only on the West.79 Senior Russian Orientalists rejected Orientalism as a polemical work with little historical evidence.80

There are several possibilities to explain Said’s limited impact. One is to pose that Said was not necessary: the Rozen School—especially the much-revered Bartol’d—already encapsulated a critical approach to “Orientalism” from within the discipline that made the later work of a Palestinian-American literary scholar look amateurish. Bolshevik nationality policies claimed to liberate the former empire’s so-called Eastern nationalities; the Soviets gave non-Western nations their own republics and autonomies within the USSR and made Oriental studies a provider of historical knowledge for the construction of Soviet national identities. Attacks on Western Orientology remained standard until the very end of the USSR and seemingly made Said’s post-modernist “Orientalism” superfluous. At the same time, the ideological framework dictated by the Communist Party gave only limited space to a thorough critique of the USSR’s own approaches: Soviet Orientology was regularly criticized and restructured—but always for not meeting the goals of the state, and never for being too closely linked to its interests.

Also after 1991, Said did not have much of an impact in Russia’s Orientology—while in the West, it was precisely during the 1990s that the first discussions began on Russian “Orientalism,” in a Saidian sense. Said’s points of reference, like Gramsci and Foucault, were alien to most Russians; for a Russian reader, his book smacked of leftist ideologies, or of an exalted post-modernism (or relativism) that can only be maintained by authors who have the luxury of not engaging with a concrete subject matter. Paradoxically, the proximity to the Muslim world, and the existence of a huge “Orient” within the USSR and the Russian Federation, seemed to make the construction of identities a political necessity; any principled deconstruction smacked of nihilism.

One should keep in mind that in the 1990s, Russia and its Orientologists lived through a thorough crisis. The shift to a market economy led to a catastrophic economic downturn and to the reduction of the Oriental institutes and faculties. Many of the best specialists went into business, or turned their back on Russia; the rank-and-file struggled with poverty. Russia’s new democratic system led to much turmoil in a highly confrontational political landscape. In 1996, Moscow lost a devastating war against separatist Chechnya; Islamist terrorism appeared in major Russian cities. NATO moved eastward, and in post-Soviet Central Asia, Russia lost much ground to China’s economic influence. Today the Kremlin, and almost all political parties, see Russia encircled by enemies, and demand from its population a major effort to ensure Russia’s status as a world power. Against this perception of an existential threat, scholars and writers who employ post-colonial or post-modernist theories or approaches can easily appear subversive. One major Russian journal that systematically stimulated the critical application of post-colonial methods, Ab Imperio (established by an international team in 2000, and carried by historians as well as historical anthropologists and sociologists) was recently classified as a “foreign agent” and had to quit Russia.

But there is a new interest in the East. With a Muslim population currently estimated at twenty million (and growing rapidly), the country has observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The loss of influence in Ukraine in 2013—leading to the Russian incorporation of the Crimea and the outburst of war in the Donbass area of Ukraine—prompted the Russian government to proclaim a re-orientation toward the East, in particular to China. Driven by the ambition to counteract US hegemony, Russia also invests in the Middle East, and in a fragile alliance with Iran it has intervened in Syria.

This turn towards the “Orient” goes hand in hand with the politicization of religion. In the Levant, Russia blew new life into what once was the Imperial Palestinian Orthodox Society. In Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov employs Islamic symbols to cement his authority; likewise, in other parts of Russia the Kremlin supports regional Muftiates that elaborate what “traditional Islam in Russia” is supposed to be, with selected historical anchor points in the history of Russia’s Muslim communities. Like Orthodoxy, traditional Islam has to be a bulwark against Islamic militancy, but also against globalization. Orientologists in Moscow, Kazan, and elsewhere assume the role of advisors on issues of Islamic educational textbooks—quite similar to the censors of the late imperial period. At the same time also the jihadists engage in “auto-Orientalization,” to set themselves apart from Russia— and paradoxically, they do this not only by embracing Islamic/Arabic models but also by borrowing from Russia’s cultural heritage of depicting the “Orient.”81 Finally, Russia’s renewed ambition to lead the post-Soviet world has vindicated the Eurasianists, whose identity construction is based not only on “auto-Orientalism” but also on the idea of a “West” that is by nature different from the self. Geographical, cultural, and religious essentialism is also central in the “Islamic Eurasianisms” projected by Salafi, traditionalist, or modernist Islamic intellectuals and authorities in Russia.82

Further Reading

  • Bustanov, Alfrid. Soviet Orientalism and the Creation of Central Asian Nations. London: Routledge, 2015. Post-WWII Soviet Orientology in relation to Soviet nationality policies.
  • Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David. Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. Excellent overview of imperial Oriental studies and cultural manifestations of Orientalism.
  • Tolz, Vera. Russia’s Own Orient: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. On the late imperial and early Soviet eras.


  • 1. Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1978).

  • 2. Said, Orientalism, 2–3.

  • 3. Said later modified some aspects of his Orientalism and added new arguments; the reader is kindly referred to the other Orientalism sections in the present encyclopedia.

  • 4. Said, Orientalism, 3.

  • 5. Said, Orientalism, 1, 17.

  • 6. Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Ursula Wokoeck, German Orientalism: The Study of the Middle East and Islam from 1800 to 1945 (London: Routledge, 2009).

  • 7. Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Rebecca Gould, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Robert C. Geraci, Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); Austin L. Jersild, Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier (Montreal: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 2002); Vladimir O. Bobrovnikov, Musul’mane severnogo Kavkaza: obychai, pravo, nasilie. Ocherki po istorii i etnografii prava Nagornogo Dagestana (Moscow: Vostochnaia Literatura, 2002); Vladimir Bobrovnikov, “Islam in the Russian Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 2, Imperial Russia, 1699–1917, ed. Dominic Lieven (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 202–223; Paul Werth, The Tsar's Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014); Sergei Abashin, Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015); Paolo Sartori, Visions of Justice: Sharia and Cultural Change in Central Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017); David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); and Vera Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient: The Politics of Identity and Oriental Studies in the Late Imperial and Early Soviet Periods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 8. Alfrid K. Bustanov, Soviet Orientalism and the Creation of Central Asian Nations (London: Routledge, 2015); Michael Kemper and Stephan Conermann, eds., The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies (London: Routledge, 2011); and Michael Kemper and Artemy M. Kalinovsky, eds., Reassessing Orientalism: Interlocking Orientologies during the Cold War (London: Routledge, 2015).

  • 9. Allen J. Frank, Islamic Historiography and “Bulghar” Identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs of Russia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998); and Allen J. Frank, Muslim Religious Institutions in Imperial Russia: The Islamic World of Novouzensk District and the Kazakh Inner Horde, 1780–1910 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill 2001).

  • 10. Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1994).

  • 11. Michael Khodarkovsky, Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500–1800 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

  • 12. Bobrovnikov, “Islam in the Russian Empire,” and Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-ethnic History (Harlow: Longman, 2001).

  • 13. Jürgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Princeton, NJ: Wiener, 1997).

  • 14. Lowell Tillet, The Great Friendship: Soviet Historians on the Non-Russian Nationalities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

  • 15. Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  • 16. Kappeler, The Russian Empire.

  • 17. Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  • 18. Mustafa Tuna, Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire, and European Modernity, 1788–1914 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 82–88, 185–186.

  • 19. Dilara M. Usmanova, “Die tatarische Presse 1905–1918: Quellen, Entwicklungsetappen und quantitative Analyse,” Muslim Culture in Russia and Central Asia from the 18th to the Early 20th Centuries, vol. 1, ed. Michael Kemper, Anke von Kügelgen, and Dmitriy Yermakov (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1996), 239–278.

  • 20. Diliara M. Usmanova, Musul’manskie predstaviteli v Rossiiskom parlamente, 1906–1916 (Kasan, Russia: Fän, 2005).

  • 21. Artemy M. Kalinovsky, Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

  • 22. Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  • 23. David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 116, no. 1 (2001): 111–128.

  • 24. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Russian Orientalism, 96–100.

  • 25. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Russian Orientalism, 176.

  • 26. Nathaniel Knight, “Grigor’ev in Orenburg, 1851–1864: Russian Orientalism in the Service of Empire?” Slavic Review 59, no. 1 (2000): 74–100; here, 89.

  • 27. Adeeb Khalid, “Russian History and the Debate over Orientalism,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1, no. 4 (2000): 691–699. Cf. Nathaniel Knight’s response to Khalid, “Russian History and the Debate over Orientalism,” Kritika, 1, no. 4 (2000): 701–715; and Maria Todorova, “Does Russian Orientalism Have a Soul? A Contribution to the Debate between Nathaniel Knight and Adeeb Khalid”, Kritika 1, no. 4 (2000): 717–727.

  • 28. Tuna, Imperial Russia’s Muslims, 82–88, 185–186.

  • 29. Michael Kemper, Sufis und Gelehrte in Tatarien und Baschkirien, 1789–1889. Der islamische Diskurs unter russischer Herrschaft (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1998), 454.

  • 30. Kemper, Sufis und Gelehrte, 412.

  • 31. Mikhail K. Baskhanov, Russkie voennye vostokovedy do 1917 goda. Biobibliograficheskii slovar’ (Moscow: Vostochnaia Literatura, 2005).

  • 32. Michael Kemper, “‘Adat against Shari´a: Russian Approaches towards Daghestani ‘Customary Law’ in the 19th Century,” Ab Imperio 3 (2005): 147–174.

  • 33. Adolphe Hanoteau and Aristide Letourneux, La Kabylie et les coutumes kabyles, 3 vols (Paris: Paris Imprimerie Nationale, 1872–1873).

  • 34. Alexander Morrison, “‘Applied Orientalism’ in British India and Tsarist Turkestan,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 3 (2009): 619–647.

  • 35. Robert C. Geraci, Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  • 36. Vladimir Bobrovnikov, “The Contribution of Oriental Scholarship to the Soviet Anti-Islamic Discourse: From the Militant Godless to the Knowledge Society,” in The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies, ed. Kemper and Conermann, 66–85.

  • 37. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Russian Orientalism, 101–109; and Thomas S. R. O Flynn, The Western Christian Presence in the Russias and Qājār Persia, c. 1760–1870 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016), 445.

  • 38. Derbend-Nâmeh, or the History of Derbend, trans. with notes Mirza A. Kazem-Beg (St. Petersburg, Russia: 1851); and Mirza Kazim-Beg and Julius Th. Zenker, Allgemeine Grammatik der türkisch-tatarischen Sprache (Leipzig, Germany, 1848). The Russian original was published in 1839.

  • 39. Mirza A. Kazem-Bek, “Muridizm i Shamil,” Russkoe slovo 12 (1859): 182–242.

  • 40. Ismail Gasprinskii, Russkoe musul’manstvo: Mysli, zametki i nabliudeniia musul’manina (Simferopol, Crimea: Spiro, 1881), 8. This text was first published as a sequel in Tavrida, 1881, nos. 43–47.

  • 41. Edward J. Lazzerini, “Ğadidism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A View from Within,” Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique 16, no. 2 (1975): 245–277; and S. Räximov, ed., Ismägїyl Gasprinskii: tarixi-dokumental’ jїyentїq (Kazan, Russia: Jїyen, 2006).

  • 42. Ingeborg Baldauf, “Jadidism in Central Asia within Reformism and Modernism in the Muslim World,” Die Welt des Islams 41, no. 1 (2001): 72–88; Ahmet Kanlidere, Reform within Islam: The Tajdid and Jadid Movement among the Kazan Tatars (1809–1917) (Istanbul, Turkey: Eren, 1997); and Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

  • 43. Gasprinskii, Russkoe musul’manstvo, 12

  • 44. Alexandre A. Bennigsen and S. Enders Whimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

  • 45. Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); David Brophy, Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Dewin DeWeese, “It Was a Dark and Stagnant Night (‘til the Jadids Brought the Light): Clichés, Biases, and False Dichotomies in the Intellectual History of Central Asia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 59 (2016): 37–92.

  • 46. Quoted from Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 27.

  • 47. Michael Kemper, “Introduction,” in I. Y. Kratchkovsky. Among Arabic Manuscripts: Memories of Libraries and Men (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Classics in Islam, 2016), 1–24.

  • 48. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 54.

  • 49. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 41.

  • 50. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 89.

  • 51. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 98–99.

  • 52. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 99.

  • 53. Yuri Slezkine, “N. Ia. Marr and the National Origins of Soviet Ethnogenetics,” Slavic Review 55, no. 4 (1996): 826–862.

  • 54. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 62–68.

  • 55. Marlène Laruelle, Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008).

  • 56. “Vostokovedenie,” Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 9 (Moscow: Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1951), 193–202, here: 193–194.

  • 57. Anouar Abdel-Malek, “Orientalism in Crisis,” Diogenes 44 (1963): 104–112.

  • 58. Tolz, Russia’s Own Orient, 83, 100. It remains doubtful whether Abdel-Malek ever read the Russian “Vostokovedenie” entry (which he believed was entitled “Orientalistika”).

  • 59. Bartol’d, Istoriia izucheniia Vostoka v Evrope i v Rossii (1st ed., 1911); reprint in Akademik Bartol’d. Sochineniia, vol. 9, Raboty po istorii vostokovedeniia (Moscow: Nauka, 1977), 199–482.

  • 60. Said, Orientalism, 96–97, 105, 108, and passim.

  • 61. Michael Kemper, “Red Orientalism: Mikhail Pavlovich and Marxist Oriental Studies in Early Soviet Russia,” Die Welt des Islams 50, no. 3–4 (2010): 435–476.

  • 62. Bryan S. Turner, Marx and the End of Orientalism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1978).

  • 63. John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920. First Congress of the Peoples of the East (London: Pathfinder, 1993), 78.

  • 64. Michael Kemper, “The Soviet Discourse on the Origin and Class Character of Islam, 1923–1933,” Die Welt des Islams 49, no. 1 (2009): 1–48.

  • 65. Stephen P. Dunn, The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode of Production (London: Routledge, 1982).

  • 66. Shoshana Keller, To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, 1917–1941 (Westport, Connecticut; London, 2001); Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); and Islamic Education in the Soviet Union and Its Successor States, ed. Michael Kemper, Raoul Motika, and Stefan Reichmuth (London: Routledge, 2009).

  • 67. Yaacov Ro’i, Islam in the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to Gorbachev (London: Hurst, 2000); and Eren Tasar, Soviet and Muslim: The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  • 68. Eren Tasar, “A Soviet Jihad against Hitler: Ishan Babakhan Calls Central Asian Muslims to War,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 59, no. 1–2 (2016): 237–264.

  • 69. Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 2005).

  • 70. N. A. Kuznetsova and L. M. Kulagina, Iz istorii sovetskogo vostokovedeniia 1917–1967 (Moscow: Nauka, 1970), 125.

  • 71. Masha Kirasirova, “‘Sons of Muslims’ in Moscow: Soviet Central Asian Mediators to the Foreign East, 1955–1962,” Ab Imperio 4 (2011): 106–132.

  • 72. “Rech’ tov. Mikoiana”, XX S”ezd kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soiuza, 14-25 fevralia 1956 goda. Stenograficheskii otchet, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1956), 301-328, here: 324.

  • 73. Artemy M. Kalinovsky, “Not Some British Colony in Africa: The Politics of Decolonization in Soviet Central Asia, 1955–1964,” Ab Imperio 2 (2013): 191–222.

  • 74. Michael Kemper, “Propaganda for the East, Scholarship for the West: Soviet Strategies at the 1960 International Congress of Orientalists in Moscow,” in Reassessing Orientalism, ed. Kemper and Kalinovsky, 170–210.

  • 75. Bustanov, Soviet Orientalism.

  • 76. Mirkasym A. Usmanov, “The Struggle for the Reestablishment of Oriental Studies in Twentieth-Century Kazan,” in Kemper and Conermann, The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies, 169–202; and Amri R. Shikhsaidov, “Arabic Historical Studies in Twentieth-Century Daghestan,” in The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies, ed. Kemper and Conermann, 203–216.

  • 77. Alfrid K. Bustanov and Michael Kemper, “From Mirasism to Euro-Islam: The Translation of Islamic Legal Debates into Tatar Secular Cultural Heritage,” in Islamic Authority and the Russian Language: Studies on Texts from European Russia, the North Caucasus and West Siberia, ed. A. K. Bustanov and M. Kemper (Amsterdam: Pegasus 2012), 29–54; and Michael Kemper, “Ijtihad into Philosophy: Islam as Cultural Heritage in Post-Stalinist Daghestan,” Central Asian Survey 33, no. 3 (2014), 390–404.

  • 78. Bakhtiyar M. Babajanov, “ʻUlama’-Orientalists: Madrasa Graduates at the Soviet Institute of Oriental Studies,” in Reassessing Orientalism, ed. Kemper and Kalinovsky, 84–119.

  • 79. Vladimir Bobrovnikov, “Pochemu my marginaly? (Zametki na poliakh russkogo perevoda ‘Orientalizma’ Edvarda Saida),” Ab Imperio 2 (2008): 325–344.

  • 80. Sergei A. Panarin, “Edvard Said: kniga sofizmov,” Istoricheskaia ekspertiza 2, no. 3 (2015): 78–105. See also the contributions to Seied Dzhavad Miri and Vladimir O. Bobrovnikov, eds., Orientalizm vs. Orientalistika (Moscow: Sadra, 2016).

  • 81. Danis Garaev, “Jihad as Passionarity: Said Buriatskii and Lev Gumilev,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 28, no. 2 (2017): 203–218.

  • 82. Marlène Laruelle, “Digital Geopolitics Encapsulated: Geidar Dzhemal between Islamism, Occult Fascism, and Eurasianism,” in Eurasia 2.0: Russian Geopolitics in the Age of New Media, ed. Mikhail Suslov and Mark Bassin (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 81–100; and Gulnaz Sibgatullina and Michael Kemper, “Islam and Eurasianism: Geidar Dzhemal and the Islamic Revolution in Russia,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 28, no. 2 (2017): 219–236.