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On the Threshold of Eurasia: Intersecting Discourses of Empire and Identity in the Russian Empire


This dissertation considers the foundation of discourses of Orientalism and Postcolonialism in representations of the Caucasus in the literature of Russians and Muslims of the empire from 1828 through 1920. From the mid-nineteenth century through World War I, the Russian empire continued an era of expansion, colonizing the diverse ethnic and cultural territories of the Muslim Caucasus and Central Asia. The oil boom, the creation of an international Turkic language press, the spread of Russian language education and the construction of the Transcaspian Baku-Batumi Railroad during this period all contributed to the development of a cosmopolitan literary and artistic scene in the administrative and industrial capitals of Tbilisi and Baku. While discussions about the destiny of the Russian Empire - its relationship to the European Enlightenment, Byzantium and its own imperial acquisitions percolated in Moscow and Petersburg, debates about the role of Islam and language politics as well as Pan-Turkic, Pan-Islamic and proletarian discourses of identity dominated discussions among writers and thinkers in the Caucasus. Russian writers imagined a civic identity amidst an expanding empire, and in so doing, they represented the Caucasus as a space of freedom, heroism and spiritual enlightenment. I trace the ways in which Muslim writers and thinkers of the Caucasus translated and transformed this imaginary, debating the role of Islam and language politics in the construction of supranational discourses of cultural, ethnic and political identity. Building on Edward Said's theory of Orientalism and Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of narrative discourse, I present a portrait of the intellectual milieu between a series of intertextual encounters across Europe, Russia and the Turkic Muslim world.

My dissertation is organized into four chapters, each of which addresses intertextual encounters in these diverse literary traditions. My first chapter, "Heterodoxy and Heteroglossia: Axundov on the Threshold of Russian Literature" discusses Mirza Fatali Akhundov's contribution to the foundation of a modern Azeri literary tradition through his invocation of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin's orientalist literary legacy. Drawing upon Pushkin's representation of the Caucasian imaginary as a prophetic legacy of freedom, Axundov generates supranational texts that incorporate diverse Islamic, Russian and European theological, philosophical, cultural and political discourses. My second chapter, "Prisoners of the Caucasian Imaginary: Lermontov and Kazy-Girei's Heroes in Exile" examines the idea of heroism in Russian Romantic representations of the Caucasus through the Caucasian tales of Mikhail Iur'evich Lermontov and a Russophone story by the Adyghe writer Sultan Kazy-Girei. I illustrate the ways Kazy-Girei contests and expands the ideas of heroism embedded in Russian representations of the Caucasus through his foundational contribution to Muslim Russophone literature. My third chapter, "Textual Deviance in Russian Empire: Gogol' and Mammedquluzadeh's Parodic Innovations," discusses the comedic space of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Comparing the works of Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol and the Azeri writer Jalil Mammedquluzadeh, I discuss the role of textual deviance in Russian literature. Though Gogol's work entered a supranational Soviet literary space through his appropriation by Formalist literary critics, this chapter highlights the importance of his work in the literature of the Muslims of the Russian empire more broadly, as well the early twentieth century in the Caucasus. My final chapter, "Translating Early Twentieth Century Baku: The Romantic Poetic Futures of the Russian and Azeri Avant-gardes," examines the role of Romantic poetics in the emergence of revolutionary and early Soviet politics. I compare the works of Russian writers in Baku, including Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Eliseevich Kruchenykh, Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, and Vladimir Vladimirovich Maiakovskii to the works of the Azeri writers Abbas Sahhat, Mehammed Hadi, and Mikayil Rafili. In so doing, this chapter illustrates the role of the Baku avant-garde in shaping Soviet hegemony, as well as diverse forms of anti-imperial agency. This moment in the formation of the Soviet Union, envisioned from the vantage point of the Caucasus, frames my discussion of the architecture of a supranational literary tradition informed by Russian Orientalism, anti-imperial Soviet hegemony, and postcolonial politics.

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