Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Race and other antiquated concepts

One of the most interesting things about reading nineteenth and early twentieth century (and, unfortunately, even many contemporary) historians and anthropologists is their focus upon -- even obsession with -- race and ethnicity. Luigi Villari, in his 1906 account of the Caucasus, spends approximately half of the first chapter detailing the "races" who live in the area, stating, among other absurd notions, that he can "scientifically" classify them into two major categories: white and yellow. I found this passage particularly interesting, as Villari, with his Western European concepts of nationality and race, is confronted with the older, more sane ideas of race as found in the Russian Empire in his day:
Russia does not distinguish between the various levels of civilization, or between racial and religious differences. In theory the Empire is one and indivisible, and every one has the same rights (or absence of rights) and the same duties, except in the case of the Poles and the Jews who are in a position of exceptional disability, and of the Finns who, until a few years back, enjoyed a wide measure of autonomy which they have recently regained. The Russians have none of that feeling of racial superiority over their non-Russian subjects, even when the latter are of a different religion and colour, such as the English feel with regard to the natives of India. A Georgian, an Armenian, an Osset, even a Tartar or a Persian may aspire to the highest ranks in the army or the bureaucracy. Russian soldiers, officers, and officials have no repugnance to serving under a non-Russian chief, whether he is white, brown, or yellow, Christian or Mohammedan. Thus we find Georgian generals like Prince Chavchavadze and Prince Orbeliani, Armenian generals like Lazareff, Loris Melikoff, Argutinsky, and Tergukassoff, Tartar generals like Alikhanoff Avarsky, Georgian governors like Tsitsiani and Nakashidze, not to mention many officers and civil servants of lower rank. Nor is there even any objection to non-Russians receiving appointments among peoples of their own race. Socially, too, they are treated as equals, and Georgian, Tartar, and Armenian magnates are received in the highest circles of Russian society, and even intermarry with the Russian aristocracy, although intermarriage does not occur between Christians and Mohammedans. But in order to obtain these advantages, a native of the Caucasus must conform with Russian ideas and become more or less Russified, and almost forget his own nationality, not because the Russian is a chauvinist, but because he suspects the loyalty of every one who is not a Russian in sentiment if not by race.

Luigi Villari, Fire and Sword in the Caucasus (1906)

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