Involuntary Orientalists: Polish Exiles in the Russian Empire as Scholars and Administrators of the Kazakh Steppe and Turkestan

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Beginning in the 1860s, a major source of European information about the geography and ethnography of the Kazakh steppe came from former Polish-Lithuanian political exiles, who had mastered Turkic languages and served as agents of the Russian Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century. Bronisław Zaleski’s La vie du Steppes Kirghises (Paris, 1865), the letters of Adolf Januszkiewicz (Berlin, 1861), and Adam Suzin’s Wycieczka w stepy kirgiskie (Warsaw, 1870) provide some more famous examples of the numerous accounts, both scientific and personal, of life on the still unsettled Russian-Kazakh frontier. Though some Polish speakers migrated voluntarily to Central Asia in search of employment, many found themselves dispatched to Orenburg and Omsk, the administrative capitals of the steppe, as a result of connections to alleged secret societies or participation in the 1830 uprising. For these exiles, mastery of “oriental” languages and cultures proved the primary means of escaping life in a prison battalion or a secretarial desk, and the Russian Empire’s desperate lack of qualified officials on the borderlands meant that the state was willing to grant latitude and autonomy to the talented. Russian supervisors remained suspicious of their former-exile Polish cadres, around whom many conspiracy theories of collaboration with the Kazakhs and other Turkic peoples developed. Some exiles did indeed view the Kazakh steppe as a site of freedom, and there were attempts to unite with the Kazakhs in alliance against the Russians, just as the Hotel Lambert aimed to inspire anti-imperial uprisings among the Balkan and Caucasus peoples. Nonetheless, it seems that the more educated and culturally-aware of the “involuntary orientalists,” including Witkiewicz and Iwaszkiewicz, adopted the position of the empire and its expansionist, civilizing mission with regard to the Turkic peoples rather than seeing themselves as common victims of colonialism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Imperial Gaze: Eastern European Conceptions of the Non-European World
Publication statusIn preparation - Dec 2019

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