January 01, 2007

Pyotr Semyonov-Tyanshansky

During the 18th and 19th centuries, every educated Russian dreamed of traveling Europe. Whole families took trips to the West, gradually working their way from one city to the next, admiring medieval cathedrals or the masterpieces of Raphael along the way. They went to Europe to vanquish Parisian society, to relax at a spa, or to play roulette at Baden-Baden. Political exiles emigrated to the West. Herzen established a printing house in London to spread liberal ideas, while young feminists enrolled in Swiss or German universities, since Russian ones were closed to them. 

But few thought about traveling to the East rather than the West. Beyond the Urals lay Siberia, which had been explored by Russian Cossacks in the 17th century and by the 19th century was already part of the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, it was seen as something distant and alien – a place Russians associated with the idea of exile. 

For those with a thirst for the exotic there was Crimea, still untamed and unfamiliar, and the Caucasus, with its wild mountain people, endless wars, and romantic peaks. Beyond these lands were absolutely unfathomable reaches, where the steppes were roamed by Kazakhs (who supposedly recognized the authority of the Russian tsar), beyond which lay the endless wilds of Central Asia. Few had any idea of what these lands were like. Further still lay the exotic countries of India, China, and Japan – places unimaginably distant from Russia.

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