Pushkin's Journey and Russian Colonialism

Ewa M. Thompson, Professor of Slavic Studies, Rice University

This document is excerpted from chapter two of the author's Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, which the author and her publisher, Greenwood Press, have graciously shared with the readers of the PoCo Web.

Pushkin's Journey is replete with imperial pedagogy suggesting that Russia is a benevolent agent bestowing order and identity on primeval chaos. At some point, a detachment of soldiers goes to the forest to "cleanse it." The cleansing metaphor recurs in Orientalist literature dealing with the colonies; one could mention Rudyard Kipling's poem "A Song of the White Men" (1899), where the said men "go to clean the land." (If Pushkin had been a contemporary of Kipling, he could well have repeated after him: "Oh, well for the world when the White Men treat / Their highway side by side!")

Some five hundred "Turkish" prisoners wait nearby showing no signs of fear, even though within sight the Cossacks are finishing off some of the wounded: it is suggested, however, this is not so much courage as silent indifference. Circassian bodies lie everywhere. A brave Russian colonel smokes "their" pipe "in a friendly way" (druzheliubno). The inferior nature of the Turks is suggested by the mention of a "hermaphrodite" among them: we are told that such monsters appear frequently among nomads. Before departing for Russia, the poet visits a bazaar and is confronted by "a horrible beggar. He was as pale as death; from his red festered eyes tears were streaming." The poet "pushes the beggar away with a feeling of repugnance that is impossible to describe" and returns home. One is reminded here of Gustave Flaubert's graphic descriptions of the revolting medical conditions he witnessed in the Near East.

This unattractive picture is contrasted with the healthy and merry Cossacks who, pressing forward after the battle, encounter villages entirely devoid of the Turks, who have, well, disappeared. The Turks who do appear in the story are either humble servants of the Russians or have just been defeated and wait sullenly for the inevitable. A few crazy fellows shoot at the Russians but do not cause much damage. Their undignified and cowardly behavior in the streets contrasts with the "wise and cordial" (Sukhorukov) or "brave" (Burtsov) demeanor of the victors. Pushkin quotes a Turkish poem comparing the pious (and therefore presumably invincible) Arzrum to Istanbul, which is doomed to fall because it does not observe the strictures of the Qu'ran. The author of that poem turns out to be wrong: Arzrum falls to the Russians. The upcoming attack on Arzrum is announced by the commander in chief of the Russian army, General Paskevich, at a dinner for his senior officers. The Muslim stronghold is taken almost casually, with little planning and small expenditure of military force. The tag of invincibility, tossed out casually by Pushkin in a quotation from a hostile poem, returns to the colonial power in full glory.

After the conquest, Arzrum is silent; in this city of one hundred thousand, no one complains about the ten thousand Cossacks who are now in charge. The pasha's palace is looted thoroughly: sofas are torn, and there are no carpets. Pushkin suggests that the fleeing Turks themselves had caused the damage. The harem wives praise the Russians when ordered to confront them in person. This bucolic image is marred by the news that the plague had made its appearance in Arzrum.

Other Excerpts


Ewa M. Thompson. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Postcolonial OV discourseov

Last modified: 15 June 2000