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Degenerate Europe : Africans, the French Quadrille and Russian Identity


University of Surrey, England

Index matières

Keywords: symbolism, diary, Africa, Russia, modernity, racism, ethnicity

Texte intégral

Andrej Belyj’s African Diary (Африканский дневник) [Afrikanskij dnevnik],[1] after sitting unpublished in the archive for decades, has recently received some scholarly attention. The purpose of this article is to analyse Belyj’s purported concern with the impact of France’s African possessions on the metropolitan culture of the colonising mother country. It is my intention to show that these travel notes use the theme of the African-French engagement as a pretext to re-articulate, in the wake of dozens of writers in the nineteenth century, that Russia is a European state and one which safeguards the values of some fast-disappearing “golden age” of the past.[2] My discussion will frame Belyj’s writing within Russian literature of foreign travel –the main site in Russian discourse for debating the issue of national identity.

Belyj’s literary diary dates back to 1911, the year in which he and his partner, Asya Turgeneva, travelled to Southern Europe. From Italy, they crossed over to Tunis and spent two months in a small village. Then they went to Alexandria, Cairo and the pyramids. Finally they returned to Odessa, calling in at the Holy Land on their way. Belyj was very pleased with the travel diary he had produced and wanted to see it published as soon as possible. He did indeed manage to release the first half of his notes in the journal Sovremennik. Then Sirin, the publisher who had first produced the novel Peterburg, was considering issuing a volume of the complete text of the African Diary. The unexpected closing of this publishing house, on account of the outbreak of the first world war, however, resulted in African Diary’s remaining in the writer’s archive unpublished until 1991, when it finally appeared in the first issue of the newly established, post-Soviet, periodical Rossijskij arhiv.[3]

The African Diary, in addition to Belyj’s other texts which refer to Africa, is the subject of Gwen Walker’s article, Adumbrations of the End in Andrei Belyi’s Treatment of Africa.[4] Her analysis evinces sensitivity to the development of symbols related to the writer’s oeuvre. The article, however, fails to question or challenge several dubious ideological certainties in the text, a deficiency the present study aims to make good. If we disrupt the –at times– highly ornamental, eccentric writing to focus on the text’s implied racial[5] and nationalistic assertions, the potential arises to expose an underlying narrative about Russian identity. This could quite crudely be summarised as follows: post-Petrine Russia is a civilised European empire whose metropolitan centres, Petersburg and Moscow, possess the same level of civilisational competence as London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Brussels. In the African Diary both Russian capitals appear as equals in lists of cities representing the core of European cultural, commercial and military power.[6] Western European states, the text suggests, obtain colonies to which they export culture. The assumption, buttressed by Hegelian philosophy, is that the populations of colonies have no history: they are just savages waiting to be civilised/colonised by Europe. The Europeans, however, consider Russia backward and barbaric; but Russians, in fact, are spiritually enriched, unlike the greedier and shallower cultures in the West.

This kind of identity narrative feeds on binary oppositions. Jurij Lotman’s theory about the binary structure of representation in Russian discourse will assist my evaluation and assessment of Belyj’s emotionally charged, often proselytising and hypostatising, racist imagery in which an ironical, hyperbolised profile of Africa and the French Empire emerges. As in Bal’mont’s and Gumilëv’s texts on Africa, in Belyj too, black people are understood to be outside history and to speak not in different African languages but in «Negro».[7] They are subalterns who possess less than the full subject-status that is apportioned to the Russian self and its French (Western European) other.[8] The latter’s bizarre representation strongly furthers the engagé project of implying a desirable configuration of Russian national identity.

Like all good writers, Belyj revealed his originality and talent by uniquely mixing elements of discourse. Each culture constructs at all times what Michel Foucault referred to as a “genealogy” or an “archaeology” of knowledge that is an understanding of itself in the context of the rest of the world.[9] Hence, conceptions in Russian of Russia, Europe, America, Asia etc. are being re-formulated at all times; each memorable articulation, such as texts in the literary canon, simultaneously draws upon and modifies what constitutes the content of knowledge.[10]

In Russian culture’s symbolic economy, fantasies of global domination tend to be configured in terms of East-West developments,[11] that is to say, within a binary structure of representation. It is helpful here to consider Michael Urban’s analysis of Lotman’s argument regarding the mutual interdependence of binary representation with auto-communication and the non-referentiality of signs.[12] Auto-communication implies a collective subject of articulation (“we”), standing for a “great word” (“Russia”). It aims primarily not to transmit information but instead to direct the message back to itself, in effect producing textual redundancies which reinforce the signifying power of the cipher (the “great word”).[13]

Belyj’s African Diary draws upon an inherited, essentialist understanding of both race and Russian identity, often preferring abstraction to specific details: assumptions based on references to such generalisations as, for example, “the life of the Arab”, are normative in the text.[14] In his intellectual map of Africa, Belyj tends to rely heavily on constantly shifting signifiers of the self and its other. In his large-scale projections about the future of civilisation, he tends to approve of the familiar and reject the alien. The unknown can be familiar if it can be related to the known; hence the references to “наш Кремль [our Kremlin]”, “наша Одесса [our Odessa]”.[15] “Туземные” –the natives or savages– become non-threatening when “culture” is imposed on them by Europeans.[16] In the first section of the African Diary, entitled “Вместо предисловия [instead of a preface]”, Belyj writes:

Пребывание в тихой арабской деревне, в Радесе мне было огромнейшим откровением, расширяющим горизонты: отсюда я мысленно путешествовал в недра Африки, в глубь столетий, слагавших еë современную жизнь; эту жизнь мы уже чувствуем, тысячи нитей связывают нас с Африкой.[17]

Filling the absence in the text of Africa as a geographical and historical entity and of its population, made up of individuals with their own subjectivity, Belyj offers symbolist speculations on his emotional reactions elicited by his physical presence on the continent. We read at the beginning of the section, entitled “Двадцать две ‘Франции’ [Twenty Two ‘Frances’]”, which is of primary interest in this study:

Вы не знаете Франции : европейская Франция –малый кусочек, отросток гигантского тела, лежащего в Африке, –малый кусочек, закинутый как попало в Европу, отломанный кручами Гибралтара; и –брошенный за Испанию. Знаю наверное я: никогда не пришло вам на ум точно вымерить Францию; вымерил я –отношение еë европейских частей к африканским... равняется дроби 1/22. Марокко, Алжир и Тунис открывают вам мало известную Францию... невероятно раздутое тело желтеет раздутым своим животом –сахарийским бельмом; вся Сахара есть Франция ; за Сахарой– Франция; эти Франции –кипень горластых, цветных, беспокойных народностей: толоко толков и морок цветов: –туареги, арабы; и негры, и –негры, и –негры... [18]

The first person singular, or plural, narrating voice assumes the air of speaking on behalf of, and thus inscribes a “legitimate” interpretation for, the “non-resisting” Russian readers.[19] Such a manner of discussing the foreign and the “exotic” typified much of Russian travel writing and philosophical discourse in the nineteenth century. Bely’s travel notes rely on presenting “quintessences”. In actual fact, his trip to Africa was brief and superficial: visiting Tunis and a few touristy sites in Egypt and then claiming to glean from these experiences insight into what Africa “means” can hardly be considered as an intellectually rigorous exercise. Sections devoted to discussing the Horn of Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa are based on such popular travel writing of the time as Robert Hichens’s, Victor Piquet’s or the Russian A.V. Eliseev’s books. Identity narratives disguised as philosophical contemplation or commentary about other countries –often in travel writing– appeared frequently for the reading public in nineteenth-century Russia. Global projections about “the” West or Europe typify this type of discourse. Herzen, for one, inspired by the logic of German Romantic nationalism, considered China as the universal symbol of “poshlost’” (turgid and self-complacent, banal mediocrity), arguing in the light of John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty that Europe will become another China and its demise will be owing to the resulting stagnation.[20] We now call this kind of prejudiced argumentation racism.

Defensiveness about Russia’s general failure in its colonising efforts across the globe and in building a world empire has been implicit in cultural and academic discourses over the past 300 years. Vera Tolz has argued that during this period, the views of Russian intellectuals and also the government about Russia’s past and putative future were shaped by an uneasy comparison with the successful colonisers of the West.[21]

It has been highlighted recently that a large hiatus exists in the scholarly study of Russia and its culture from the viewpoint of its colonial context.[22] Ewa Thompson sees the reason for this in the relative paucity of epistemologically informed approaches to Russian culture.[23] It comes as no surprise therefore that discourse-based semiotics, post-structuralism or post-colonialism have not been welcome in Russia or even among many foreign scholars of Russia for fear of fragmenting identity or dissecting the grand narratives of History, Christianity, Nationality or Communism.[24] A great deal of discussion about Russian history and culture has been invested in these authoritarian narratives, the dismissal of whose claimed universality could result in an intimidating discursive vacuum.

Instead, it has proved more customary to analyse culture by reference to a unified human subject (the self) or the purported intentions and aspirations of the author.

Kotrelev and the publisher of African Diary, S. Voronina,[25] interpret Belyj by relying on the writer’s own theories, his attempts to proceed into the world of the noumena from the world of phenomena in search of symbols capable of showing the way to a spiritual explanation of the world. No awareness of postcolonial theory of any kind informs the extensive annotations attached to the text of the African Diary. The problem that, for example, a reader of African origin might concretise the text very differently from the intended Russian readership has not to date been considered. A good example of this kind of blindness presents itself in the footnotes to the 1991 publication. In one place, the text reads:

Европа мулатится, собираясь онегриться [Europe is becoming a mulatto, intending to become Negro].»[26] The corresponding footnote on the same page states:

Во время написания этих строк автор не подозревал о том, что через десятилетие произведение негра Морана будет удостоено Гонкуровской премии.[27]

It would appear that the scholars annotating the text wish to emphasise how prophetic and correct Belyj’s projection of Western Europe’s future was. The fact that the “Negro” René Maran –the first French Black writer to receive the prestigious Goncourt prize in 1921 for his novel Batoula, seems indeed to be proof to Belyj’s editors in Rossijskij arhiv that France’s racial “purity” was (is?) being threatened by Africans. Or consider the footnote explaining the following line in the text: “вовсе раздетая шаша на тощие рëбра напялила там... (вы представте себе!)... пиджачëк” [“A fully undressed chacha was squeezing his scraggy ribs (imagine!) into a small jacket”]. And the note, confirming the supposed accuracy and scholarly merit of Belyj’s observation, explains: “Иные туземцы действительно надевают пиджак на абассию, выглядя шутами” [“Some natives indeed put on a jacket on top of their loose overall, looking like fools”].[28]

Belyj’s descriptions of Africa and France, together with the annotations attached to the posthumous publication of African Diary, dehumanise black people and the absurd generalisations about black supremacy completely ignore geopolitical realities, blinding Russian readers to the truth of Africa’s systematic and seemingly irreversible destruction predominantly by British, French, Portuguese and Belgian colonialism. This is evidence of the same kind of self-obsession and lack of empathy which also buttress, for example, the misogyny in the symbolism of the novel Kotik Letaev.[29] Whether or not Bely, as indeed any author at the time of writing his/her text, was conscious of the problem of race, gender, class and the like, cannot of course determine whether readers of a different historical period take issue with such matters.

Bely’s African Diary shows affinities with the type of Russian travel writing where the action takes place in a foreign setting and Russian characters/narrators observe action from the side, or do not participate in the story at all, as demonstrated in such stories as for example Tolstoj’s Lucerne, Bunin’s Господин из Сан-Франциско [The Gentleman from San Francisco] or Братья [Brothers]. Dostoevskij’s purportedly non-fictional Зимние заметки на летних впечатлениях [Winter Notes of Summer Impressions], similarly to literary fiction about foreign civilisations, endows the subject of articulation with the taxonomising, normalising gaze, thereby disguising the ideological biases of the observations. As we have suggested before, Belyj is not really writing either about Africa or about France but is articulating a position of Russian spiritual superiority. As the logic of the African Diary would have it, France has greedily acquired nearly half of the African continent for her Empire. Africans are gradually replacing the whites in the management of the Empire and this will lead to the disappearance first of the French and then of the entire white “race”:

судьба Франции ужасает меня; или она –механически нагроможденная глыба: колосс глиноногий, который рассыплется скоро (не может не рухнуть он); Францию очень скоро постигнет удар в этом случае; и –мне жалко еë;если ж Франция есть организм, а не двадцать две Франции плюс “европейская Франция”, то –вдвойне еë жалко; ведь белая кожа культуры обварится в африканском котле, почернеет зловеще ожогами негрской культуры. [30]

The ironical implications of transposed degeneracy seem to “force” the writer to exclaim repeatedly: “бедная Франция” [“poor France”]. Furthermore, we learn that the latter process has already produced a banal and vulgar mass culture in France, witnessed in the popularity of such “African” dances as the foxtrot, the cakewalk and the one which seems to exercise Belyj most, the cancan:

Франция быстро толстеет, она –негритянка; не гальский петух еë символ; и не кадриль еë танец, скорей еë символ –жираф; еë танец– канкан... мы знали одно про Канкан: “Это танец! Последнее слово культуры пленительной Франции.” И не знали мы вовсе, конечно, -насколько то слово есть слово последнее- Франции Абельярда, Ришелье, Д’Аламбера, Мольера, Расина; и –прочих французов; и –первое слово (младенческой Франции) будущих Самори, Бандиугу-Диар... «неофранцузов», –французов с ожогом лица, –образующих негрской кровью своей –прожег на лице белой, нежной Европы; Европа сгорит, может быть, в динамите тропических стран, ей доставшихся, как наследие... от чëрта. [31]

African vulgarity, the argument goes on, descends upon the French “bourgeoisie”, embodied by the democratically elected representative:

А между тем: отблеск молний –в звуке «Канкан». Отблеск молний –жесты взлетающих ног буржуа депутата; в кафе-кабаре; эти жесты потом повторялись у нас –среди купчиков; и летучее слово “Канкан” облетело Россию. [32]

The reader is advised that Africa, having corrupted France, has now also “infected” other Europeans, such as Russians, even as far as in the provinces. The text of course assumes for the reader that the author-narrator –frequently using the first person plural– represents supposedly jeopardised European core values and that Russians are Europeans. The editors again testify in a footnote to Belyj’s ostensibly prophetic abilities, confirming that indeed black soldiers were soon to appear on European soil. The text reads: “В будущей европейской войне негритянская армия будет оплотом фрацузов. Мы ахнем!” [“In future European wars a Negro army will be the bulwark of France. We sigh!”].[33] The footnote of the post-Soviet Russian scholars annotating the text explains as follows: “Опять-таки: близкое будущее показало, что автор, пишущий в 1912 году эти строки, был-таки прав: в 1914 году чернокожие показались в Европе; позднее они были в России (в Одессе –так кажется)” [“Again, the near future was to show that the author, writing these lines in 1912, was right after all: in 1914 the black-skinned appeared in Europe; later they came to Russia (to Odessa, it would seem)”].[34]

The ironical, censuring and slightly offended tone criticising the aberrations of the West against an implied (Russian) norm of civilised European behaviour appears throughout many Russian texts about travel to the West and about encounters with the English and the French: the names of such authors as Fonvizin, Karamzin, Gončarov, Dostoevskij, Bunin perhaps come most immediately to mind.

Belyj’s arguments, then, need to be put into context. In order for Russia to justify its imperialism, it must be seen –at least by its colonised– as a distributor of European civilisational values. Dostoevskij argued this point very clearly in his essay, Что такое для нас Азия [What Does Asia Mean for Us], written in 1881, following the massacre of Turkmens by General Skobelev.[35] In his view, Russians in Europe are seen as barbarians but in Asia they too may be able to appear as Europeans, destined to rule.[36]

The subtext of the desire to colonise in Africa -exotic and full of treasures- appears in the text’s surface when reference is made to the supposed religious similarity with peoples in the Horn of Africa. In the second half of the nineteenth century Russia placed a great deal of emphasis on this “kinship” so as to develop good relations with the Abyssinian emperors with the aim of obtaining a foothold in the continent:

Ты уходишь, о Африка; тайны свои мне открой; я хочу в Тимбакту, в Диеннейю, на озеро Чад, или даже... в Габеш; где, как мы, православный король чернокожих украшен венцом белых перьев, и где золотистые шкуры прыгучих и злых леопардов слетают с плечей, как плащи. [37]

But, again, Russian imperial ambitions were thwarted by the Western Europeans. It comes as little surprise that Russian texts about Africa, perhaps without exception, incorporate the theme of England and/or France, the two powers whose technological and social advancement stood in the way of Russian expansion in lucrative territories overseas.

The image of England constructed principally in the Russian literature of the nineteenth century in the works, for example, of Karamzin, Gončarov, Leskov and, of course, Dostoevskij highlights the spiritual emptiness, superficiality, condescension and greed imputed to this culture. Russia’s inability to compete with England and France in colonising the world creates defensiveness in identity narratives. In African Diary it is not otherwise. A recurring feature in writing of this kind is the incorporation of foreign words in the Russian prose to mock the described Western culture and to produce an alienating effect in the text:

фыркают “шики”, косясь на неё, ожидая когда наезжающий лорд из Шотландии вместо мечети посадит коттедж, чтобы снежные денди и нежные леди, и белые беби в летающих локонах на перелетной коляске к нему подъезжали, смеясь. [38]

These comments may well be witty on their own terms, but the incontrovertible racism in African Diary and the idealised projection of the self are in far too much bad taste for the originality of idiom or the perceptive observations to alleviate the almost propagandistic qualities of the text. The penultimate unit (followed by “Последние впечатления” [“Final Impressions”]) is entitled “Лорды” [“The Lords”] and is devoted to a detailed description of the writer’s discomfort in a restaurant full of British patrons. Less well-dressed than other guests, the narrating author and his partner feel out of place and despised. The reader is subsequently lectured about the spiritual shallowness of the diners and the writer’s greater appreciation of the world’s cultural heritage than that among the British colonial rulers of Egypt. Creating the Egyptian waiter’s point of view out of his own, Belyj’s narrating voice imagines the waiter is wondering “что мы, ‘русские’, ищем в фешенебельном месте” [“what are we, ‘Russians’, doing in a fashionable place”].[39] He also imagines that he will tell the waiter that, unlike the immaculate tails and evening dresses the English wear for the meal, his and his partner’s dusty, shabby clothes could reveal to all that the couple have only just returned from the dusty desert they had visited in search of the monuments of ancient Egypt. The British, however, the argument continues, are solely interested in showing off their expensive clothes and in consuming elaborate meals. The incident, nevertheless, ends without confrontation and we learn that Belyj “тотчас же снисходительным тоном заказал дорогого вина” [“immediately ordered and expensive wine in a condescending tone of voice”].[40] The aporia as to why Belyj and Asja Turgeneva are so troubled by the way some English hotel guests or the waiters look at them or may think of them, if they feel certain that they are intellectually and spiritually superior, remains unresolved.

The writing produces ample textual redundancies to make its point about French “weakness” and uncultured English philistinism. The many suggestions about the death of “Le France” (sic) appear essentially as a manifestation of Schadenfreude.[41]

Little is explicitly said about the Russian subject, but then the writer and his partner provide of course the norm-setting point of view. As has been said before, the frequent use of “we” tends to suggest that a consensus of the educated Russian metropolitan elite underpins the opinions voiced.

The profound racism and derisive dismissal of the African other enables the Russian subject to represent itself as part of the supposedly superior, European self. Bely’s imagery typifies Russian culture’s frequent representation of Africa as a continent inhabited by semi-humans. Tropes equating blacks with monkeys occur in contemporary writings about Puškin and his great grandfather, Ibrahim Gannibal and have since enjoyed common currency in Russian informal as well as literary discourse, as for example in Gončarov, the Symbolists, Gumilёv, Zamjatin but also in the work of such Russian cultural celebrities today as Prochanov or Nikolaj Lukinskij.[42] For all his supposedly democratic and socialist principles, even Herzen, over a century earlier, in his “Письмо первое” [“First Letter”] in Письма из Франции и Италии [Letters from France and Italyi] contrasts the “educated European” with the “savages”:

Видно, образованный человек может только не скучать между дикими людьми и ручными зверями, в Африке и в Jardin des Plantes; там люди похожи на обезьян, здесь обезьяны похожи на людей.[43]

This kind of witticism contains some stereotypical views about Africa and Black people which have gone, almost entirely, unchallenged in Russian discourse to the present day.[44] The debunking of Africa and its people and the Russian Empire’s non-presence in Africa in Belyj’s handling are synthesised into the suggestion that the successful colonising European states are “vulnerable”. The concept of old Europe under threat, enables the author to shape the image of Russian identity into a representation he finds usable. Post-Petrine Russia attempted to domesticate a certain form of French behaviour to serve as a model for a code of social conduct for the nobility to adopt. Hence Belyj’s references to the world of the elegant French quadrille represent a level of civilisation that the higher echelon in Russia has acquired. This elegant, European, Russian society –whose spokesman, no doubt, Belyj sees himself to be, is appalled by the “new” vulgar, degenerate, ethnically impure France, made foul by the influx, and takeover, of Africa. It would appear that Belyj is unaware of another aporia, namely that Russia has also accommodated foreign mores –exactly the same crime of which France is being accused. The trope of “importing civilisation” conveniently turns back on itself proving that the case of racism cannot be argued logically.

We then come across the trope “Европа юнеет” [“Europe is becoming young”].[45] The metaphor of age for evaluating European cultural values keeps recurring in political and cultural, expository and artistic writing; its use is confusing and contradictory. In Письма из Франции [Letters from France] Fonvizin, to whom on account of his nationalist zeal Pushkin referred as “из перерусских русский” [“the most excessively Russian Russian”], predicted that France was facing imminent demise but here, unlike in Belyj well over a century later, this was owing to its old age.[46] Fonvizin was in fact the first in a long line of followers to imply that Russia’s social and technological backwardness from Europe somehow signified youthfulness and was therefore an advantage, implying that its glorious future was yet to come.[47]

In Russian narratives about the identity of the self and the other, whether overt or less explicit –such as Belyj’s African Diary– the positive or negative valorisations of age and youthfulness, Western Europe, Africa or Russia itself keep shifting: the only consensus that arises is one of a much greater uncertainty of identity than in the civilisations Russia has rivalled. The ideology that buttresses Belyj’s views about Africa and France seems alive and well in present-day discussions among Russian nationalists. Seeking scapegoats responsible for the coming unstuck of the supposedly wholesome ways of yesteryear does not of course limit itself to the culture of Russian nationalism. Yet it is unsurprising that so many intellectuals in Russia today worry as racism and intolerance seem to be spiralling out of control. This article has considered Belyj’s text as a cultural product and subjected it to an analysis clearly not intended by its author nor approved of by some of his present-day readers. Belyj has in recent decades been the object of many aesthetically-driven or hermeneutics-oriented explications. My focus on illuminating and interrogating silences in African Diary will hopefully contribute, not only to a fuller knowledge of the writer’s oeuvre and his place of his country’s intellectual history, but also to our understanding of the dialogue between Russians and Europeans.



[1]   Henceforth African Diary. Page references will be to Belyj Andrej, Afrikanskij dnevnik, ed. N. Kotrelev and S. Voronina, Rossijskij arhiv, Moscow, Tritè, vol. 1, 1991, pp. 330-454. In each reference to this text, Belyj’s name will be followed by the page numbers of the citation. Quotations within quotations will be in inverted commas. All translations are mine.

[2]   See De Jonge Alex, Desire, Dostoevsky and Adolf Hitler, The European Foundations of Russian Modernism, ed. Peter I. Barta, Lewiston NY, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991, pp. 1- 24.

[3]   For a history of the publication of the complete text, see Kotrelev N., “Afrikanskij dnevnik Andreâ Belogo. Zlosčastnaâ sud’ba sčastlivoj knigi. K istorii putevyh zapisok Andreâ Belogo”, Rossijskij arhiv, Mosxow, Tritè, vol. 1, 1991, pp. 227-230. The complete text of the African Diary follows, incorporating Belyj’s proofs, in the edition of N. Kotrelev and S. Voronina: ibid., pp. 330-454.

[4]   The Russian Review, vol. 60, July 2001, pp. 381-403. See also Walker Gwen, Silver-Age Writers on the “Black” Continent: Russia, Africa and the Celebration of Distance, PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.

[5]   On racist representations of Black people in Russian culture, see my article “Africans in Russia: Ibrahim’s Journey from Fragment to Film”, The McNeese Review, 2005, pp. 17-34.

[6]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 350, p. 432.

[7]   See the footnote of the publisher explaining the word “nianza”: “негритянское слово, обозначающее скопление вод”, p. 414.

[8]   For an informed discussion of the relationship between “history”, the subaltern and the question of the human subject, see Spivak Gayatri Chakravorty, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Towards the History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999.

[9]   Foucault Michel, The Archeology of Knowledge, London, Routledge, 1972.

[10]   Rutherford Jonathan, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, p. 225.

[11]   Sandomirskaja Irina, “‘One Sixth of the World’: Avantgarde Film, Revolutionary Language, and the Colonization of the Periphery in the USSR during the 1920s”, Keynote Lecture, From Orientalism to Postcoloniality, Conference at Södertörn University College, Stockholm, Sweden, 27-30 April 2006.

[12]   Urban Michael, Post-Soviet Political Discourse and the Creation of Political Communities, Lotman and Cultural Studies. Encounters and Extensions, ed. Andreas Schönle, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, pp. 115-135.

[13]   Ibid., pp. 126-128.

[14]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 344.

[15]   Ibid., pp. 337-338; 341.

[16]   Ibid., p. 346.

[17]   Ibid., p. 330. “The stay in the quiet, Arab village, Rades, meant a great discovery for me which broadened my horizons: from here I travelled mentally to the heart of Africa, into the depth of the centuries which shaped its present life; we already sense this life, thousands of threads tie us to Africa.”

[18]   Ibid., p. 366. “You do not know France: European France is but a tiny fragment, an extension of the gigantic body which lies in Africa, – tiny piece of land which was broken off by the cliffs of Gibraltar and as it happens, tossed into Europe: behind Spain. I know: it probably never occurred to you to take an exact measurement of the size of France; I measured it: the proportion of the size of its European parts as opposed to its African parts amounts to 1 in 22. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia will uncover for you a little-known France…. its inflated belly, its Saharan wall-eye are turning its incredibly inflated body yellow; all of the Sahara is France; these Frances are a boiling amalgam of noisy, coloured, restless nationalities: nonsensical babble and a confusion of colours: Tuaregs, Arabs and Negroes, and Negroes, and Negroes…”

[19]   Hall Stuart et al., Encoding/Decoding, Culture, Media, Language, London, Hutchinson, 1980, p. 135.

[20]   Lim Susanna Soojung, “Chinese Europe: Alexander Herzen and the Russian Image of China”, Intertexts, vol. 10:1, 2006, pp. 51-64; Herzen Alexander, My Past and Thoughts, New York, Alfred Knopf, vol. 3, pp. 1080-1081.

[21]   Tolz Vera, Russia. Inventing the Nation, London, Arnold, 2001, p. 130.

[22]   Thompson Ewa, Imperial Knowledge, Westport, Greenwood Press, 2000.

[23]   Ibid., pp. 15-52.

[24]   Jean-François Lyotard has argued against the validity of any theory offering universal explanations of history or society; Sim Stuart, Postmodernism, Abingdon, Routledge, 2006, p. 226.

[25]   The authorship of the footnotes in the published text of African Diary is not stated but presumably they are the work of S. Voronina. It is apparent that they are not by the author himself, however.

[26]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 367.

[27]   “At the time of writing these lines the author did not suspect that in ten years’ time the Negro Maran’s work will be awarded the Goncourt prize. ”

[28]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 413. Belyj uses the term “chacha” to refer to a member of the indigenous population.

[29]   Barta Peter I. “Kotik Letaev” and the “Flight of the Witches”, Women and Russian Culture, Ed. Rosalind Marsh, Oxford, Bergdahn Publishers, 1998, pp. 212-227.

[30]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 367. “France’s fate frightens me: France is a mechanically piled-up heap; a long-legged colossus which will fall into pieces (it is not possible for it not to collapse); in this case France will shortly suffer a stroke –and I am sorry for her; if France should, after all, be an organism and not twenty-two Frances plus “European France” then I am doubly sorry for her; after all the white skin of culture gets scolded in the African cauldron; the sores braught on by burning in Negro culture will turn her ominously black.”

[31]   Ibid., p. 366, p. 370. “France is getting fat fast –she is a Negress. Its symbol is not the Gallic rooster and its dance is not the quadrille; rather, its symbol is the giraffe and its dance is the cancan. We used to know only one thing about cancan: ‘It was a dance! The latest cultural trend coming from fascinating France.’ And we did not know at all of course to what an extent this latest trend is the last one ever to come from the France of Abelard, Richelieu, D’Alembert, Moliere, Racine and other Frenchmen, and the first utterance (of the infant France) of the future Samori, Bandiugu-Diar… the new-French; the French with a burnt face who will –thanks to their negro blood– burn a black hole on the face of white, delicate Europe. Europe will burn down perhaps as a result of the dynamite of the tropical countries, acquired as a legacy from the devil.”

[32]   Ibid., p. 370. “Incidentally, the reflection of lightning is in the sound of the cancan. Lightning is reflected in the rising legs of the bourgeois representative in the cabaret café; these body movements then came to be repeated in our country-among banal trades people; and the fleeting word ‘cancan’ spread all over Russia.”

[33]   Ibid., p. 368.

[34]   Ibid.

[35]   Ram Harsha, The Imperial Sublime. A Russian Poetics of Empire, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 24.

[36]   Dostoevskij F. M., Čto takoe dlâ nas Aziâ? Dnevnik pisatelâ, 1881. Polnoe sobranie sočinenij v tridcati tomah, Leningrad, Nauka, vol. 27, pp. 36-37.

[37]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 359. “Oh Africa, you are disappearing; reveal your secrets to me. I want to go to Timbuktu, to Diennea, to Lake Chad or even… to Gabes, where the black-skinned king is Pravoslav, like we are, and he wears a crown of white feathers; in his place the golden skins of jumping, evil leopards fly off people’s shoulders like raincoats.”

[38]   Ibid., p. 412. “The ‘cheeks’ are snorting, glancing at her, waiting to see when the arriving Lord from Scotland will replace the mosque with a cottage in order for snow-white dandies and tender ladies and white babies with fleeting curls in their prams to approach him laughing.”

[39]   Ibid., p. 451.

[40]   Ibid., p. 451.

[41]   Ibid., p. 371.

[42]   Barta Peter I., “Un nouveau ‘classique’ et un vieux theme: l’Afrique chez Alexandre Prokhanov” in Le Premier quinquennat de la prose russe du xxie siècle, ed. Hélène Melat, Paris, Institut d’études slaves, 2006, pp. 123-134; Barta Peter I., “Africa in Context”, Essays in Poetics, vol. 25, 2000, pp. 153-168.

[43]   Gercen A. I., Pismo pervoe. Pisma iz Francii i Italii. Sobranie sočinenij v tridcati tomach, Moskva, Izdatelstvo akademii nauk SSSR, 1954-1965, vol. 5, pp. 15-27. “I am grateful to Derek Offord for drawing my attention to these remarks. Clearly, an educated person may avoid boredom only among savage people and pets: in Africa and in the Jardin de Plantes; in the former people resemble monkeys whereas in the latter, the monkey look like people.”

[44]   Consider Nikolaj Lukinskij’s racist show pieces (Monolog negra, Negr bezrabotnyj) broadcast in recent years on central television in Russia.

[45]   Belyj A., op. cit., p. 367.

[46]   Tolz V. , Russia, Inventing the Nation, London, Arnold, 2001, p. 23, p. 74. Regarding the recent controversy about the political use of “Old Europe” and “New Europe” in the context of the war in Iraq, see Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe. Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War, London, ed. Daniel Levy et al., Verso, 2005.

[47]   The logic behind this type of argument, claiming that France and England are old whereas Russia is young, seems obtuse. See Carr E. H., “Russia and Europe” as a Theme of Russian History, Essays Presented to Sir Lewis Namier, eds. Richard Pares and A. J. P. Taylor, London, Macmillan, 1956, p. 370.


Pour citer cet article

Peter Barta, « Degenerate Europe : Africans, the French Quadrille and Russian Identity », colloque La Russie et l’Europe : autres et semblables, Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV, 10-12 mai 2007 [en ligne], Lyon, ENS LSH, mis en ligne le 26 novembre 2008. URL : http://institut-est-ouest.ens-lsh.fr/spip.php?article115