The Janus-faced Empire Distorting Orientalist Discourses: Gender, Race and Religion in the Russian/(post)Soviet Constructions of the ”Orient”

Madina Tlostanova

A long time has passed since E. Said wrote his famous book on orientalism (Said 1978), there emerged many adherents and opponents of Said’s position. It would be ridiculous to deny its importance but at the same time it is crucial to realize its contextuality and avoid imposing Said’s orientalist conception on all other cultural and epistemic locales of modernity Thus, it refers to Russia and its many former and present colonies where instead of the western forms of orientalism we find secondary orientalism which is the direct result of the secondary eurocentrism — and old and incurable Russian disease. Both of then reflect and distort the western originals in the Russian cultural and mental space. Orientalist constructs in this case turn out not only more complex but also built on the principle of double mirror reflections, on the copying of western orientalism with a slight deviation and necessarily, with a carefully hidden, often unconscious feeling that Russia itself is a form of a mystic and mythic Orient for the West. As a result, both mirrors – the one turned in the direction of the colonies and the one tuned by Europe in the direction of Russia itself — appear to be distorting mirrors that create a specific unstable sensibility of Russian intellectuals, writers, artists. It can be defined as balancing between the role of object and that of the subject in the epistemic and existential sense. This complication of orientalist discourses in Russia and its colonies is connected with its complicated imperial-colonial configuration in modernity.

For the quasi-Western subaltern Russian and Soviet empire the secondary eurocentrism and the imperial (and not just colonial) difference with the more successful capitalist empires of modernity (the British empire, France, Germany) steps forward in the shaping of subjectivity of both the colonizer and the colonized. On the global scale this imperial difference mutates into the colonial one as Russia becomes an example of the external imperial difference. The Russian imperial discourses demonstrate the double-faced nature of this empire which feel itself a colony in the presence of the West, at the same time acting as a half-hearted and caricature “civilizer” in its own non-European colonies (Tlostanova 2003).

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