This month's Hidden Europe's Newsletter (travel writing on obscure parts of Europe) starts:
In Dostoevsky's last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters declares "I want to go to Europe," going on to say "I do know that I'm going to a graveyard, but it's a precious graveyard." It's an interesting formulation, somehow suggesting that Russia is not quite Europe. More than a century earlier Catherine the Great had observed that "Russia is a European power," but obviously Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov never quite took the point on board (or faith in its veracity had been shaken by Russia's unhappy defeat in the Crimea War). Anyway, Karamazov speaks of Europe as somewhere beyond Russia, just like generations of Russians since. We have Russian friends who still talk of "going to Europe" when they hop on the train in their home town for the overnight journey to Berlin. It is as if there are seven continents plus Russia.Russia has had phases of looking West for ideas and solutions (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, various Tsars) alternating with finding its own distinctive destiny often labelled with some eastern characteristic.
This Russian perception of global affairs is of course nicely mirrored in British discourse where popular parlance refers to Europe as if the British Isles were somehow a place apart. A government poster campaign in Britain used the banner "Going to Europe?" as the prelude to reminding citizens of the importance of securing health cover prior to crossing the English Channel.
Russian perceptions of Europe are much in the news this month in the wake of Moscow's response to the Tbilisi government's ill-considered adventure in South Ossetia. And yet Russian popular perceptions are shaped not merely by Kremlin dictates but by several centuries of Russian writing about western Europe. A contemporary of Dostoevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, wrote wittily of his stays at decadent German spa towns in Across the Border, while Dostoevsky himself, in his Winter Notes, offered a polemic on France and Britain that powerfully shaped Russian understanding of its western neighbours. Winter Notes is a plea for Russia to affirm its distinctive position and a warning of the dangers of being seduced by too cosy a relationship with western Europe.
I decided I didn't like the anti-Russian state of mind I had got into, thinking Russia just had to be like the West. This is one of the problems with the EU at the moment, since the EU 15 allowed the rest in on the assumption that they were just the same, only to find out that they weren't and came with their own ideas, culture and historical baggage. Very inconvenient of them.
So I have been busy choosing books to take back to Georgia to read to reorientate myself a bit and do some critical thinking.
This discussion of Russia linked or separate from Europe must have links to Edward Said's "Orientalism", and the definition of the Orient as the "Other". Said uses the term to describe a tradition, both academic and artistic, of hostile and deprecatory views of the East by the West, shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. He claims that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts, but through imagined constructs that see all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar, all sharing crucial characteristics unlike those of "Western" societies, thus, this 'a priori' knowledge established the East as antithetical to the West. Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.
The book has sparked a great deal of critical debate, even with Said's own arguments being turned on him, that he has set up the West as a stereotypical creation whereas it exists in several forms, just as the Orient does.
Orientalism was one book I had been meaning to read for a long time, from references picked up from Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova. It seems interesting to explore to what extent the Cold War made Russia the "Other". Of course criticisms of Said have pointed out the existence of "nested orientalisms" a term coined by Milica Bakic-Hayden, especially with regard to the former Yugoslavia, where chaos and the east starts on the eastern border of whatever country you are considering at the moment, but not in that country.
So also on my reading list are:
Tolstoy The Cossacks/Happy Ever After/The Death of Ivan Ilich (read a long time ago)
Lermontov A Hero of our Time (new)
Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (new)
Kurban Said Ali and Nino (well referenced in Stories I stole by Wendell Steavenson, which I enjoyed rereading recently in Tbilisi)
I also got Ken Loach's film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" to remind me that the British approach to separatism and independence has also been brutal.
Incidentally, Hidden Europe has recent articles on Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the travel point of view.