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Accepted Paper:

The Art of the Great Game: Russian Colonial Narrative Revisited  
Alexey Ulko (Independent researcher)


In the first part of my talk, I will discuss how the British colonial narrative influenced Russian policies in Central Asia and how this inter-imperial dialogue was reflected in art using two examples: the photographic Turkestan Album (1870) and the Turkestan (1873) and Indian (1884) series of paintings by Vassily Vereshchagin.

The former was commissioned by the Governor-General of Turkestan to ‘show the benefits of the Russian rule’ and, according to Heather Sonntag, had ‘precedent outside the Russian empire, beginning with Governor-General John Canning, who commissioned the Peoples of India (1856-1874).’ I will briefly juxtapose these two works to identify common trends of colonial representation.

Vereshchagin’s paintings can be seen as an imperial message at the British audience (as the artist admitted in his foreword to the catalogue of his exhibition in Munich). An active participant in the occupation of Samarkand in 1868, Vereshchagin was sympathetic not only to the Russian, but also to the British colonial rule, which is evident in his Indian series and even in the controversial painting Persecution of Sepoy (1884).

I will examine the Russian colonial representation in Central Asia is through a series of paintings and photos depicting human bodies in different Central Asian contexts. I will discuss how Vasily Vereshagin’s Turkestan Series (1873) and other paintings were exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery in 2018 and commented on. Nearly all the texts about Vereshchagin produced in Russia in recent years can be sees as part of an apologetical campaign of the Russian colonial policy. Elisaveta Vereina maintains that Vereshchagin’s ‘canvases from the Turkestan series became the realistic evidence reflecting the true events in the conquered native territories… Vereshchagin, instead of Oriental bliss, depicts violence, cruelty, immorality of the real East.’ I will demonstrate how various colonial attitudes can be traced through the depiction of human figures by such artists as Alexander Volkov and Usto Mumin in the 1920s and 1930s and other Central Asian artists of the late Soviet period.

I will discuss how the Russian colonial agenda determined the choice of particular genres, topics and artistic forms in these pieces to express various political, ethnographic, orientalist and gender tropes. In conclusion, I will show how these colonial and modernist representations are being promoted in Russia and Central Asia to justify Russia’s current neo-colonial policies in the region.

Panel CULT02
(Post-)colonial and Decolonial Attitudes in Central Asian Culture
  Session 1 Thursday 6 June, 2024, -