Sunday, July 8, 2012

Russian "Orientalism"?

Keeping with this week's "cinematic" theme...

"Russian Orientalism" might sound inapplicable or ironic, given that the Russians themselves have been (and still are) the subject of the "West"'s Orientalist stereotypes and approaches, especially with regards to references such as (and those reminiscent of) "Oriental" and/or "Enlightened Despotism".

But, since everything is relative, Russians themselves have had their Orientalist stereotypes, which are still very much alive and kicking (trust the one with the "Armenian" label, on this). Just as with every other nation, these stereotypes are reflected in (and, in turn, perpetuated by) the culture, whether "high" or "popular", and often come alive in novels, poems, paintings, operas, ballets, and more recently, movies, cartoons, and TV shows (remember "imagology"?).

And, just as everywhere else, these stereotypes come in very handy for propaganda purposes, "put into effect" by the government at times of need. The RFE/RL report above does a great job summarizing this Russian "Orientalism" in the Soviet/Russian film (which, by the way, seems to be on the high, again, after the disastrous 1990s).

An important thing to remember, however, is that very often the "Star" subjects of that "Orientalism" (whether Armenian, Georgian, Kyrgyz or Tajik) themselves played into the stereotype very well, and did, actually, enjoy the fame and stardom that the thick accents and mustaches gave them (I'm sure the money helped as well, especially in the Soviet times).

A couple of questions: How does this affect the public diplomacy "semi-efforts" by countries that become subjects of such attitudes? And secondly, can the Kremlin really just "decide" some day that it is going to work on improving these stereotypes and approaches, and seriously hope to succeed? I doubt that. But well, they can try... It's just that they should really make up their mind about it, firstly, and then do their best not to shoot themselves in their own foot.

Trailer to the Kremlin-financed response
to Saakashvili's "5 Days of War"

UPDATE [7.9.2012]: I came across this book by van der Oye, from two years ago, dealing with the whole subject of Russian "Orientalism": Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration. But, seems like it covers the pre-1917 period, only. Would be very curious to see if there are any systematic studies of the subject that look at the Soviet and then, the post-Soviet periods of the last 100 years. After all, although the Soviet Union was supposedly all about "equality" and the erasure of nationalism and colonialism, there were certain member states that were "more equal than others", while racism became even more pervasive...

1 comment:

  1. There are two books that might interest you:
    Vera Tolz, Russia's Own Orient
    M. Kemper & S. Conermann, The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies.