Russian Colonialism, War Bounty, and Looting Colonized Peoples

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

This document is excerpted from from chapter four 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.

As soon as the Russians established their military presence in Central Asia in the 1860s and 1870s, the taking of the war bounty began. "From the earliest days of the Russian invasion, the occupation authorities and their subordinates had taken away thousands of Central Asian objects, of all sizes and kinds, as trophies or plunder which they shipped to Saint Petersburg or Moscow," says an American scholar specializing in the region. When General von Kaufman was named military governor of Turkestan, he "plundered the movable symbols of sovereignty as well as the records of intellectual life and history from Central Asia." Among the objects that depleted Uzbek history and enriched that of the Russians were the silver throne of the khans (now part of the Oruzheinaia Palata section of the Kremlin Museum), numerous medieval manuscripts (including the Qu'ran), ancient vessels from mosques, and other artistic objects. Whatever could not be taken was destroyed or desecrated: cemeteries, historical buildings, and royal tombstones.

In the 1870s, the massive looting of Turkestani art treasures was thus described by one participant in the plundering:

Many of our public collections and museums, thanks to von Kaufman, were enriched with the most precious objects . . . and . . . a huge quantity of Arabic, Persian, Central Asian, and other Eastern manuscripts. In the Aziatskii Muzei of our Academy of Science there is also a mass of precious manuscripts received from Central Asia; an abundance of gold and silver jewelry and equestrian ornaments, money, and the seal of the Khivan khans grace the collections of the Tsarskoselskii Arsenal.

Edward Allworth points out that the looting continued well into Soviet times. Thus, the Hermitage Museum received objects from Central Asia during Solzhenitsyn's lifetime. "The continuing pattern of Russian policy seemingly meant to deprive Central Asians of their most significant symbolic monuments‹ancient, medieval and modern." The looting abated in the post-Soviet period, when local protests began to be staged throughout Central Asia, including parts of the "Russian" Federation. In an archeological dig in the 1990s, several 2,500-year-old mummies, believed to be Scythian warriors, were found in the Altai area of the Federation, on the Ukok Plateau on the border of Mongolia. They were transported to Moscow, but in 1995 the Altai Republic's legislature passed a law forbidding the looting of national treasures and their removal from the region. The republic's Moscow representative, Aleksandr Manzyrov, declared, "It is our national treasure. Why should it be taken away?" The Russians responded that the mummies would be returned if their preservation could be assured. "No one is stealing anything from anyone," they assured the "natives." One recalls that a similar argument was used in regard to the Elgin Marbles when in 1816 they were transported from Greece to England and sold to the British Museum. Another act of post-Soviet defiance was a conference held in Ankara in 1993, during which scholars from all the newly independent states of Central Asia agreed to adopt the Latin alphabet, with some variations subsequently agreed upon for the Uzbek language.

Other Excerpts

References

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


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Last modified: 15 June 2000