Just like England: On the Liberal Institutions of the Circassians, by Paul Manning

Comparative Studies in Society and History 2009;51(3):590–618.

Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History

Upper Abun, Monday, 5th June, 1837.—We staid for three days with the host at Ankhur ,who demurred, and then we moved a little distance westward to the hamlet of three brothers, in a richer portion of the plain, whose clumps of stately oaks, verdant meadows, and heavy crops of corn, brought England vividly before me. Mr. L. has frequently exclaimed, “This is just like England!”
——James Stanislaus Bell, Journal of a Residence in Circassia (1840.1: 135).

INTRODUCTION

With Pushkin’s narrative poem Prisoner of the Caucasus (1822), Circassians entered the Russian imperial imaginary as exemplary personifications of the savagery and freedom of the Caucasus as a whole (Layton 1994; 1997; Grant 2005; 2007). Accordingly, the Russian imagination of Circassian polity, now as egalitarian “free societies,” now as hierarchical aristocracies, now as “noble savages,” now as ignoble brutes, Muslim “fanatics,” or “Asiatic despots,” was a microcosm of the Russian colonial engagement with the Caucasus as a whole, often as not reflecting tensions in the self-perception of imperial autocracy and its elites more than indigenous political organization of Caucasian groups like Circassians in reality (Layton 1997; Jersild 2002; Grant 2005). Inasmuch as such imperial imaginings informed the fantasies of young men, causing them to enlist in search of the poetry of warfare, or informed fantasies of conquest among agents of the Russian state, these imaginings became real in their consequences for various Caucasian groups (Layton 1994; 1997). Nor was the exemplary alterity accorded Circassians limited to Russian audiences; it exerted a considerable fascination across Europe as well (King 2007: 241–45).

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