Faces of Eurasia
Faces of Eurasia
Crossroads between Europe and Asia
For centuries, Eurasia was a crossroads between Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century, the Russian Empire – and later the USSR – embraced about one third of the continent of Asia, including its entire northern region (Siberia), the western section of Central Asia, and part of the Middle East in the region of the Caucasus. This huge territory is inhabited by various peoples (Kyrgyzs, Tatars, Uzbeks, and many others) with rich historical, cultural, and religious traditions. There are also some Muslim groups in the European part of Russia, namely in the Volga and Ural regions. Eurasia has a remarkably interesting history and for centuries has been a meeting place for different cultures, religions, languages, and peoples. The geographical and strategic position of these regions, in which the interests of almost all the great powers contended, was of immense value. The history of the exploration and the colonization of these regions is full of dramatic and sometimes controversial events. Siberia, for instance, was not only a place of exile and concentration camps, but also a mysterious land offering the chance to escape from the burden of the authoritarian state.
For centuries, these regions aroused the wildest speculations among Europeans. Like Russia before the reforms of Peter the Great, these regions were perceived as mysterious worlds blessed with unheard-of wealth and inexhaustible natural resources, yet inhabited by barbarians who lived at odds with the most sacred values of humanity. Rumors about giants, cynophales, and other monsters continued to tickle the European imagination until more reliable accounts became available and pushed the frontier of modern civilization further east. Since the sixteenth century – the beginning of the modern period of expansion – travel literature has recorded what was seen, mapped, and could be useful for the world. These sources are especially valuable because the detached stranger was able to observe many of life's details and nuances of which the local residents were not aware. These scientists, diplomats, businessmen, spies and adventurers who traveled through these new cultures were there both novel and little known. The collection includes, for instance, material written by the Americans Lieutenant Richard Bush and journalist George Kennan – participants in the 1865-1867 Siberian "telegraph expedition", which was organized by the Western Union telegraph company – and by the English priest Henry Lansdell, who went to Russia with mainly philanthropic purposes (he distributed the Gospel and other religious literature en route from Petersburg to Vladivostok).
The mysterious world of wildness
The first descriptions to convey travelers' impressions first hand were perhaps less spectacular than the sometimes bizarre accounts that we find in Herodotus or Pliny the Elder. However, they were not necessarily more favorable. Adam Olearius – the Holsteinian ambassador who traveled several times to Moscovia and Persia between 1633 and 1639 – was appalled by the Russians who, in his eyes, "had no civility" and were "marvelously well versed in the quality of cheating and lying." Still more barbaric, according to the Dutch painter and traveler Cornelis de Bruin, were the Samoyeds (Lapps) who lived on the northern shore and still worshipped idols. In highly developed Persia, de Bruin was shocked by the population's "infidelity and ingratitude."
As Russia's contacts with Western Europe intensified as a result of the reforms under Peter the Great, the Western image of Russia and Eurasia in general became somewhat more balanced. Though travel accounts stressing Russia's backwardness and despotic government continued to appear well into the nineteenth century, other descriptions – such as John Bell's Travels from St Petersburgh in Russia, to Various Parts of Asia (1763) – took a more benevolent view that was more in line with the regime's enlightened and civilized self-image. At the same time, the empire's military expansion toward the east and south during the eighteenth and the nineteenth century created the conditions for further exploration of the Russian hinterland and its neighboring regions. With the annexation of large parts of the North Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire became home to Persian-speaking Jews, Turkic-speaking nomads, and a large population of Muslims. On the eve of World War I, Russia had acquired a cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity that only its equally expansionist successor – the Soviet Union – would surpass.
The works in the present collection were once important sources of information that helped European and American governments to formulate their foreign policy toward the Russian Empire. These sources were especially significant for foreign policy departments and politicians, because the majority of the works describe the Russian expansion in Asia. Scholars who are interested in the colonization of Eurasia and the geopolitical strategies employed in that process will certainly find something to their taste here. The collection will also be a gold mine for those studying the origins and the development of national stereotypes, and will contribute to our understanding of the ways in which European travelers perceived the Russian Orient.