by Paolo Sartori, Vienna, ÖAW

On May 10, 1886, one Qari Rahmatullah ibn ‘Ashur Muhammad, an accomplished scholar otherwise known with the nom de plume Vāzih (‘The Resplendent’) left his hometown of Bukhara to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon his return a year later, Vāzih committed his travel impressions to a book intended as a gift for the Bukharan emir ʿAbd al-Ahad. Like most of his predecessors had done before the age of steam travel, he first proceeded on horseback, and followed the overland route via Charjuy and Merv, a tedious pathway through the sands of the East Karakum desert. As he reached Merv, in what is today Turkmenistan, Wāzih disclosed major concerns about Russian imperialism and the effects of cosmopolitan culture on Muslims:

“On the fifth day of my traveling”, he writes, “I entered the new city of Merv, which is a possession of the Russian Empire. [….] The city has been erected along a river and lots of palaces and shops have been built. People from everywhere have now gathered in this city for purposes of commerce. […] Business thrives here but there are also problems: Muslims have been brought to live together with Jews, Armenians, and Russians and to live a life according to the rules of sharia is difficult because Christian women do not have the habit of covering their faces; alcoholism, gambling, and other forms of debauchery have no obstacles here and seem to be held in great esteem among all the available amenities.”

Once he left Merv, Vāzih proceeded to Astarabad where he boarded a steamboat heading to Baku. The global routes of Hajj brought him first to Batumi and Istanbul, then to Alexandria where he purchased a ticket for Jeddah. While travelling back to Transoxiana he dallied en route by visiting the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Mashhad noting down rituals of saint veneration. Thus conceived, his travelogue reads like an ethnographic account of sorts, a collection of wonders that must have elicited great interest at the court of the emir. Equally, his pausing to reflect on what he saw in Merv among Muslims living under colonial rule must have sounded like a terrible warning for his audience in Bukhara then under Russian ‘protection.’

Entitled ‘Marvellous Stories along a Wonderful Journey,’ Vāzih’s work did not circulate just in manuscript form. In fact, it gained the attention of readers beyond the Manghit court in Bukhara who had it printed in Kagan (New Bukhara) in 1904. It is unclear, however, what made this travelogue so appealing to the Persian-reading public. Most probably, those days stories of other fellow Muslims living under independent Islamic sovereign countries (Qajar Iran and the Ottoman empire) made for attractive reading. Indeed, while many in Central Asia adopted a quietist approach towards Russian rule, there was no shortage of voices cursing the government of the ‘White Emperor’. Indeed – and this must be emphasised – Central Asians did not welcome the prospect of Russian rule. To wage a holy war against the Russian tyrant in order to preserve the integrity of Islam was a sacred duty: thus, for instance, Khudayar Khan reminded his Khivan ‘brother’ Muhammad Amin Khan in 1864 when sharing the alarming news about the advancement of the ‘infidels’ into the territory of the Khanate of Khoqand.

We know how this story ended, however: the empire subdued the three khanates and the region was left in the hands of the Russian military which, in turn, devolved the administration of local institutions (legal, educational, charitable) to representatives of the indigenous population. For almost five decades Russians pursued a civilising mission in the heart of Asia and claimed to be doing so by ‘ignoring Islam’ to avoid stirring up the sort of resistance that they had encountered in the Caucasus. They ruled by example, they said, with the belief that one day locals would embrace Russian culture and abandon Islam. While historians have repeatedly noted that Central Asia, like other regions of the Tsarist empire, represented a typical colonial situation, at the same time after the invasion of Ukraine many observers of things Russian have called for ‘decolonising Russian history’. Is it possible at all to decolonise a colonial past, one wonders? And if so, how should one go about pursuing such a project?

Thinking about history in terms of decolonisation isn’t new, to be sure. This intellectual engagement with the past has gained traction first in Great Britain several years ago when, in the wake of public demonstrations to remove monuments erected to immortalise the exploits of former colonial officials, historians promoted a discussion about the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ to teach British imperial history. This movement has led many historians in the UK to refashion their syllabi by including more scholarship produced in the former colonies of the British empire and making space for revisionist narratives that emphasize the violent and racist premises upon which the edifice of British imperialism was built. When seen from this perspective, invitations to decolonise Russian history seem to suggest that so far little has been done to acknowledge that Tsarist and Soviet history have a lot in common with the experience of Western colonial empires.

While there is little doubt that the Putin’s regime is now pursuing an imperialist project in Ukraine, it is equally unclear what the actual objectives of the decolonisation of Russian history really are. Part of the problem is that this idea of ‘decolonisation’ means different things to different academic constituencies, and therefore risks conflating a range of distinct agendas under a single terminology. Let me outline these agendas in turn.

The first agenda could be said to be addressed to ‘people nostalgic for the imperial past.’ Some have urged to decolonise Russian history in order to push state officials, public intellectuals, propagandists, and academics in Russia to recognise the colonial nature of Tsarist and Soviet rule in regions such as Central Asia, the Caucasus, Siberia, and Manchuria. This is understandable, of course, because many in Russia still defend the fallacious idea – itself a trope of Soviet historiography – that Russians were naturally immune against the germ of colonialism, that the Tsarist move East and Southward should be instead regarded as a natural expansion of a powerful state needing more land to feed its subjects, and that local populations welcomed the Russian empire because it liberated them from the shackles of Oriental despotism. Following this view, there are those who keep rehearsing Kliuchevskii’s adage that Russia colonised itself, those who claim that Russians merely expressed their Eurasianist sentiments, and others who are just proud of Russia’s imperialism and Soviet supremacy in Asia. While it is indeed worrying that many in Russia today cling to these views, one wonders whether to call for the decolonisation of Russian history is going to convince them to think otherwise. In fact, this sounds like trying to persuade white supremacists that to do American history without taking stock of the galaxy of Afro-American voices doesn’t make any sense.

The second agenda, meanwhile, addresses ‘Chairs of Eastern European History.’ Calls for the decolonisation of Russian history have produced a domino effect among historians of Russia and are becoming a concern within the walls of Eastern European History departments. From the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Robert Kindler, Tobias Rupprecht, and Sören Urbansky, for example, have reminded us that there is a broad consensus among historians in the West that both Tsardom and the USSR represented imperialist projects. At the same time, they have noted, and rightly so, that much more could be done to connect the history of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union to the global history of empires. One way to do this, I think, would require making Eastern European History more capacious. By privileging Slavic-language speaking majority countries of the former Socialist bloc, historians of Eastern Europe have in fact created, often unknowingly, an epistemic hierarchy of significance whereby the histories of, say, the Caucasus, Central Asia or Manchuria are regarded as peripheral to the academic projects of historicising the Russian empire and the USSR. Things have changed over the last decade, to be sure, with a new breed of scholars showing awareness that Poland, Finland and the Baltics, let alone Ukraine, are the areas that have already received adequate attention from historians of Eastern Europe, and that it's the non-European regions that are more urgently in need of attention. However, in Europe the discipline of Eastern European History tends to be impermeable to historians who specialise, for example, in the history of the so-called confessional minorities of the Russian empire. Indeed, more often than not, historians with expertise on Jewry, the Armenian and Muslim communities under tsarist rule are advised to look elsewhere for a place in academia with the assumption that a specialisation in core-Russian history ensures a ‘broader’ vision on and a deeper understanding of Tsarist and Soviet history. Can the decolonisation of Russian (read Eastern European) history change this situation? This is difficult to say: at least this is going to push specialists of the Socialist bloc to include, say, the history of the Kazakh famine or explore further the connected histories of Armenian revolutionaries.

Third target group: ‘Historians of Central Eurasia.’ For all the colleagues urging to decolonise Russian history, there are also some good news! If to decolonise Russian history means to reflect on Tsarist and Soviet versions of colonialism here broadly understood as variations on the theme of European mission civilisatrice, then one should simply acknowledge that historians have begun almost thirty years ago to do precisely that and they have achieved significant results. Indeed, not only have scholars of the Russian empire and the USSR been deeply affected by the various turns in the historical craft (imperial, global, archival, emotional, etc.), but they have also embraced the ethos of post-colonial theory. Indeed, specialists of the Caucasus or Central Asia have repeatedly put in great relief that the intrinsic colonial character of Tsarist and Soviet imperialism lies in the systemic distortion and programmatic effacement of local histories. No one in the West today would be able to publish an academic work on these regions without reflecting on the process of historical erosion produced by Tsarist and Soviet archives and emphasizing the historical agency of Central Asians and Caucasians. The post-colonial approach is such a widespread phenomenon that not only in the West, but also in Russia original scholarship is being produced today to debunk the myth of Tsarist and Soviet Sonderweg, itself hidden behind the figleaf of modernizing projects. This does not mean, of course, that the debate on Tsarist and Soviet experiences of colonialism is closed. Far from being empirically and theoretically exhausted, such a debate can open up new vistas on the history of Russia, especially by synchronizing the historiographies of the ‘colonies’ with historical scholarship on European Russia.

Colonialisms are like humans, a colleague once told me, for they all look simultaneously different and alike. This observation provides encouragement to excavate further the archives of Russian colonialism and make sense of the stories hidden therein without resting on too facile comparisons. Together with appreciating the voices and narratives of the subalterns, however, to de-colonise Russian history also requires that one pause to reflect on the ways in which Russians themselves inhabited their colonial worlds. In 1912 St Petersburg University dispatched the Turkologist Nikolai Samoilovich to Central Asia on a survey mission. Samoilovich’s main interest at that time was in Turkmen folklore and literature. After a long train journey he stopped in Tashkent to work in the libraries and consult with fellow Orientalists. He spent a great deal of time in the company of Alexander Semënov, a connoisseur of Persian literature and one of the most distinguished Russian specialists of the region. Samoilovich’s diaries mention several encounters with him, but there is one in particular, which I find revealing: it is revealing of the fact that, in spite of decades of cohabitation, Russians like Semënov lived in a perennial state of fear of Muslims. The diary entry reads as follows:

“August 3rd! In the morning I acquired [a copy of Abulghazi’s] ‘Genealogy of the Turks’ (Shajara-yi Tarākīma) from a Tatar scribe for 5 roubles and 50 kopecks. I wanted to pay a visit to Kalmykov so I went to see Semënov [at the Public Library] to find out the address, but with little success. […] Talking to Semënov is scary: he always frightens [me] with something. When I asked him how things fare in Ashkhabad with the artillery, he said that a couple of months ago everything looked quite but who knows… He then added that we are guests in Turkestan, and that the same [kind of rebellion] that the British experienced in India in the 1850s is waiting for us. Let’s see!”

There are many ways of course to comment on this diary, but nothing is more fitting than what Herman Melville noted in his Moby-Dick, or the Whale: ‘ignorance is the parent of fear.’