Palestine as Reflected in Russian Culture

05 October, 2022

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies published Palestine as Reflected in Russian Culture (156 pp.) by Mohamed Diab. The book explores the perception and presence of Palestine in Russian culture, investigating the writings of Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land from the twelfth century until the beginning of the twentieth century. It investigates the works of great Russian writers, poets, and painters that depict events from Palestinian history and the writings of prominent historians and Arabists in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the publications of contemporary political researchers and commentators. The author searches for answers to questions such as: To what extent has Palestine affected the consciousness of Russians? How has that been reflected in literature, art, and political thought in Russia? How did Russian society interact with the fateful developments and events in the Holy Land? What is the importance of the role of the Russian schools that were established in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon in introducing their students to Russian culture, and their contribution to presenting an honest image of Palestine to Russian society?

An important element of Russian literature is the contribution of Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land from the 12th century onwards, which is distinguished by specific characteristics and was motivated by spiritual enlightenment, linking the holy places to the events of the Bible. For the pilgrim, the symbols of sacred space represented an incomparably more important subject than the living images of mortal time. Upon stepping foot in Palestine, the pilgrim feels liberated from the shackles of time, and the sacred erases the mundanity of daily life. In addition, literary productions devoted to Palestine and Jerusalem began to emerge mainly from the early nineteenth century. In this century, many prominent Russian writers, poets, artists, and diplomats visited Palestine, and many poems were inspired by the holy places without visiting them. Palestine served as a spiritual link that bound Russians to the Holy Land — the promised land. Ivan Bunin asked: “Is there any other land [besides Palestine] where such memories, so dear to the human heart, gather?” Stepan Ponomariov wondered: “Does Russia not have more ties and bonds with Palestine than any other country?” He reminds the reader that Kyiv is “Russian Jerusalem.” Vasilii Khitrovo said: “The names of the holy places: Jerusalem, Jordan, Nazareth, Bethlehem, have been mixed in our minds since childhood with the names of cities dear to our hearts: Moscow, Kyiv, Vladimir, Novgorod.” A literary tradition devoted to Palestine continued into the 20th century.

The Russian presence in the region cannot be discussed without mentioning the establishment of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society at the end of the nineteenth century (May 1882), to strengthen Russia’s spiritual and cultural influence in the Levant. The Society was a far-reaching reaction to the defeat suffered by Russia in the Crimean War — a station in the competition over what remained of the Ottoman legacy, over the control of the straits (the Dardanelles and the Bosporus) and the Holy Land. However, in the early post-Soviet era, writings on Palestine dwindled for a time, until a resurgence of interest from historians, political researchers, orientalists and Arabists. Contrary to the writings of historians of the Soviet era, which were generally characterized by objectivity and just sympathy with the Palestinian cause and people, contemporary Russian historians and political researchers vary from those that stand with the people of Palestine, and those who align themselves with Zionism. It is thus important that early Russian contributions are preserved and understood in the Arabic as well as the Russian language.

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