Monthly Archives: September 2016

A modified version of this essay was published in Vol. 4, No. 1 of “Interplay: A Journal of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature.”

Note: This is an extended essay on a topic which has been discussed already on this blog. If interested, please read parts one, two, and three

The Balkans occupy a contested middle-ground in studies on orientalism since they are neither Western nor do they fit into Edward Said’s conceptions of the “Orient.” Instead, they have historically been pulled by three distinct axes of power: the West, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Although not traditionally colonized, the logic of colonialism and orientalism still operate via representation and identity. In order to understand how this logic operates, we must most importantly understand how the Balkans were known to those outside of it. By looking at travelogues from Western and Russian/Orthodox travelers, this essay will seek to understand how to account for the similarities and differences present in these works.

The first instances of Western travel interest in the Balkan region began in the late 16th century, mostly among the British upper-class. Their observations proved to be meager, totalizing, and nebulous; interest in the Balkans as a cultural space was secondary to exploring the Ottoman East. After a century-long lull of interest in Western circles, Balkan travelogues began once-again reappearing during the 19th century amidst a changing political landscape in Europe. The so-called “Eastern Question,” the multiple Russo-Turkish wars, the 1856 Treat of Paris, rising Balkan nationalisms, and the uprisings in Bosnia and elsewhere during the latter-half of the century all put the Balkans back on the Western map.

This essay places us in this century of sweeping change. For these European travelers, the Balkans served as an in-between space and a testing ground for their own inter-cultural analyses and observations, including on how “Europe” proper should be defined. When considering the origin and journey of each traveler, one can begin to piece together the discourse on the Balkans as a separate space. The discursive basis for the Balkans as separate from Europe was constructed partly through the travelogue, more so than is commonly understood, and the travelers themselves used the Balkans as a vehicle with which to make political criticisms of their host country and as a means through which to indict all of Ottoman influence on Southeast Europe.

I. Orientalism in Balkan Historiography

As has been mentioned, the Balkans occupy a disputed middle-ground between the two categories in Edward Said’s schema of orientalism: Europe (the West) and its constitutive other, the Orient. Part of the issue is that the Balkans have significant historical baggage, and “what we know about the Balkans cannot be separated from how we know it”[1]. Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova calls the specificity of this historical dilemma as uniquely called balkanism which, although related to Said’s orientalism, diverges from it on account of historical difference. What makes the Balkans categorically different from Said’s conception of the Orient is that the Orient “has an intangible character, [whereas] the Balkans have a tangible and concrete existence in Western historical accounts”[2]. Another point of difference is that, “the Orient […] is portrayed in Western accounts as Europe’s complete opposite, [whereas] the Balkans are construed as an ambiguous category on the periphery of Europe,” as an “incomplete self”[3]. This is why Western travelogues oftentimes prescribe cultural purification or Western occupation as the necessary political antidote, so that the Balkans can, presumably, finally “complete itself” and join the greater, Christian European community.

Discourse on the Balkans thus has its own unique rhetorical arsenal which it defers to when being discussed, and its representation operates through centuries-old Western histories, travelogues, literature, and journalism. Balkan representation operates within the bounds of how it was known. Indeed, this was, and is still, internalized by its people, a phenemon called  “nesting orientalism” by historian Milica Bakić-Hayden [4]. “Nesting orientalism” describes a discourse where the Other is appropriated by those who were themselves designated as this category within orientalist discourse. Naturally, this has been the butt of many self-aware jokes, by Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek and others, on how Slovenes view themselves “more Western” than Croats, who feel similarly towards Serbs, and Serbs who view themselves as “less Eastern” than Albanians, and so it goes [5]. It would seem that, even for the people living there, the Balkans lack concrete, geographic boundaries; instead, what is Balkan is often “not-us,” depending on who one asks. The land thus constantly finds itself historically displaced as if it lies suspended outside of Europe proper, despite being located in it.

This phenomenon of self-orientalism was not unknown to Edward Said, who used such language to describe Sigmund Freud in Freud and the Non-European. Freud, an Eastern Europe Jew, also “saw himself the subject of stereotyping that today might as well be designated ‘orientalist'” despite now falling squarely in the Western canon [6]. Interestingly, this same psychoanalytic language was employed by Radovan Karadžić and others to articulate a common European subjectivity for Serbs to justify inter-ethnic violence during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. What Karadžić found useful in psychoanalysis was its idea of the “split subject” which he viewed as the subjective articulation of the objective, split historical subject of the Balkans itself. However, Karadžić understood reclaiming this “European subjectivity” through the violent ripping apart of his regional multi-faith communities so the Serbs could, once again, become one people who could then be made intelligible in proper European discourse [7]. Psychoanalysis and poetry was used to describe the “purification” of one’s people, seen as removing the taint which bound them to their split consciousness and relegated them as the abject of Europe and the West. This articulation of identity is particular to the Balkans, and cannot be captured through just orientalism. Instead, Todorova’s concept of balkanism is a more appropriate, given the Balkans’ peculiar historical position as the “in-between” and “incomplete” entity between Europe proper and the perceived “Orient.”

II. The Traveling British Aristocrat

If we cannot separate the actual, geographic Balkan space from how it was known, our first task must then be to uncover how it was described and narrativized. Travelogues grant us with the best means with which to do so, since they provide the link between the geographic space, passed through during the traveler’s journey, and the presentation through which the Balkans are known by to Western audiences. The stock traveler in Balkan travelogue literature is the British aristocrat, many of whom traveled through Ottoman Rumelia either as their destination, or en route to Istanbul. In these travelogues, as will soon be demonstrated, many travelers may pass through the same space but deduce from it different lessons and political prescriptions. As was often the case for these travelers, the writings say less about the actual material conditions of Ottoman Rumelia, and speak more of the traveler’s own audience, their journey, and ideological and historical predilections. Thus, many travelers pass through the Balkans not out of impartial interest, but rather with the intention of inscribing their view of the culture, people, and land onto the space itself – which, in turn, became branded onto Western perceptions and was then, in many cases, internalized and appropriated by the people living in the Balkans themselves.

It was during the 19th century that Southeast Europe emerged in public British imagination as “a peripheral zone of barbarism and conflict” largely through travelers’ accounts, and this imagining began to interact with the British state.[8] These travelers journeyed amidst the so-called Eastern Question in British politics, and they were determined to participate and provide a constant stream of information, none of which truly clarified the issue. These stances did not all make up one coherent political ideology, and the travelogues themselves vary in their political prescriptions and allegiances. Despite being politically disparate, all of these travelogues led themselves to a specific manifestation of power. Instead of being construed as their young Italian and German neighboring nation-states, the Balkans were constructed through discourse “developed primarily, though not exclusively, for usage on the colonial object.”[9] Regardless of their political affiliations, most if not all of these British travelers agreed on the subordinate status of the lands they were visiting through cultural signifiers, evoking “a place of comedy, romance, or imminent threat.”[10]

Such is the line that follows through these traveling accounts. Robert Manuro concluded his journey through the Western Balkans by praising the improvements brought about by Austro-Hungarian rule[11]; R. Arnold speaks of Serbia and the Danube providences as needing to “fall beneath the crown of the Kaiser” rather than have their autonomy continue;[12] Sir Arthur Evans writes that the “hated government of the [Ottoman] must be severed” and that the “ultimate form of Bosnian government is a question of secondary importance to the paramount necessity of establishing order in that unhappy land.”[13] For all of these British writers, the necessity of a foreign force to establish order is the highest priority, whatever their reasoning for it may be. Underneath it all, the fact that these are still Europeans fills these travelers with psychological fears, and their narratives include “threatening moments of self-recognition in which some aspect of Eastern Europe reminds them of the British Isles.”[14] This fear was even reciprocated by the British state; Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously proclaimed that the League of Three Emperors “was beginning to treat England ‘as if we were Montenegro or Bosnia.’”[15]

In the past decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Victorian women travelers who were previously often relegated to a mere footnote to their male journeying counterparts. For these women “foreign travel was a means of redefining themselves, assuming a different persona and becoming someone who did not exist at home.”[16] Traveling to Eastern Europe had a phantasmic quality to it for these travelers, as if it were an adventurous fiction novel. Emily Gerard compares her travels through Transylvania with the “experiences of Robinson Crusoe on the deserted island and of a fairy-tale princess who was carried off to gnomeland.”[17] Not just women, but many British travelers expressed such imperial imagination as a motive for exploration, falling spell to the “indolent charm and drowsy poetry of this secluded land.”[18] Traveling also offered these aristocratic women a subtle means with which to influence public discourse. Georgina Muir Mackenzie and Adeline Paulina Irby, traveling in the 1860s, remarked that “they found it to be ‘much more exciting […] to be two Englishwomen in the wilds of Turkey than to be at home in England.’”[19] Their book Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe became critically acclaimed in England and was used by William Gladstone in speeches and parliamentary debates on the Eastern Question.[20] Given that the knowledge of southeastern Europe was marginal in British public life, Travels is said to have brought a virtually unknown subject to British popular discourse. These women writers came to the Balkans with different expectations than their male counterparts, but their observations inevitably overlap as is expected. Just as Sir Arthur Evans writes in his account, Mackenzie and Irby focused their writing on the perceived injustices committed against the Christians by their Ottoman overlords, and ultimately all of these authors come to the same conclusion: that fellow Christians are being persecuted, and that the Ottoman influence must be removed from southeast Europe. However, Mackenzie and Irby do not prescribe foreign occupation as the solution for the Balkans as some other male British travelers did; instead, we see a condescending argument for national sovereignty on the basis of, for example, the Bulgarians being “shrewd,” “eager for intelligence,” and possessing an “industrious approach to agriculture.”[21] Both of them expressed similar opinions towards the Serbs, and wished that both Montenegro and Serbia “draw Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina into ‘one Serbian fatherland.’”[22] Muir Mackenzie and Adeline Paulina Irby thus prescribe here a political solution that would frankly become the basis for multiple Balkan wars in the succeeding century, imposing their conceptions of Western nationhood as the only possible political solution.

Irby and Mackenzie also pass judgement on the social mores of the Balkan lands in proto-feminist engagement. They “lament the restrictions on female education, the oppressiveness of marriage expectation, and the abuses of traditional rural customs.”[23] However, these same critiques are simultaneously critiques of the gendered social mores they faced at home in Victorian Britain. Traveling gave these aristocratic British women travelers an opportunity through which they could make political criticisms – it was the journey that granted these women an entry point into British political discourse and many of their political prescriptions for the Balkans are, conversely, for Britain itself rather than exclusively the Balkans. In other words, the Balkans served as the vehicle through which they could make political commentary. This same logic applies to all of these British traveling writers: in prescribing their political solutions to the plight of the Balkans, they are simultaneously drawing on Britain as their reference, and thus their Balkan criticisms intersect with their criticisms of British society. They are of the same discourse, and their standards are unequivocally British. Their goal is to ultimately see that these people break from the yoke of Ottoman rule. Their criticisms of the Balkans thus oscillate between two camps. One the one hand, their criticisms of social mores and life in the Balkans are inadvertently also criticisms of their Victorian British society; and, on the other hand, they indict the Ottoman Empire for the perceived wretchedness of the Balkan lands. These two lines of argumentation – an indictment of Ottoman influence and/or a critique of British society vis-a-vis a critique of Balkan life – runs parallel throughout all of these travelogues.

III. Russian Travelers Who Journeyed through the Balkans

Thus far, only British travelogues have been discussed to understand how the Balkans were known. One must consider, however, contrasting travelogues to bring truth to the claim that these traveling accounts had more to do with opposition to Ottoman rule and the traveler’s origins, rather than the Balkans themselves.

Maria F. Korlova was an upper-class Muscovite traveler who journeyed to Macedonia and Albania in 1868 and documented her observations. Despite hailing from Russia, her observations draw similarity to Mackenzie and Irby and other Victorian travelling women. Like them, she remarks on the lack of “female emancipation,” a concept she associates with European modernity and progress.[24] She made these remarks decades before women’s emancipation became a central issue in Russia. Her essay is not a case study on Eastern-Western relations, but instead demonstrate how “gender and class can be inserted into debates about Russian identity and Russia’s place in Europe’s symbolic map of modernity.”[25] She remarks that had traveled in a country not yet visited by a “single Russia female” establishing an authoritative voice via gender, social status, and nationality.[26] As has been mentioned thus far, Korlova’s account bears a striking resemblance to other upper-class women travelers of the Balkans at this time. However, this begs the question: how did these women, living in different regions, all come to similar conclusions in their Balkan travels? Arguably, it is because they all belonged to the same social milieu: “they were all concerned with enhancing women’s status and commented on their national identity and notions of European belonging.”[27] It was during the 19th century that a trans-European class consciousness was developing among the upper-class, and these women belonged to this particular historical moment on account of their class. Most of them were of the same stock as those that participated in the Grand Tour where upper-class men would travel Europe and mingle with the upper-crust of polite European society. A class dimension across the entire continent of Europe is what united these women, not their country of origin.  Most of these women travelling writers in the Balkans thus intersect on three major points: (1) they make criticisms of gendered social mores which they could not do in their home country, (2) there is an emphasis on being the “first visitor,” and (3) a Eurocentric belief in being a part of a superior culture, and always trying to cross cultural boundaries but never class boundaries.

However, other travelling writers in the Balkans visited with the intention of reaffirming their place of origin. For those Russians travelling to Bulgaria in the 1840s, they “saw it as the cradle of Slavic civilization and written culture.”[28] Their travels focused more on Bulgarian archives and monasteries, oftentimes pillaging them so their materials could be brought back to Russia. The shift in Russian travel literature noticeably changes during the rising tides of nationalism. Whereas, “in 1810 some Russian travelers empathized with the Turks, few travelers did after 1840.”[29] Here, again, we have an instance of travelogues illuminating more about their host country and culture than the space they are said to be describing. The drastic change in opinion towards the Balkans in Russia is not that Serbia had accelerated in its economic development from the 1810s to the 1840s; rather, the political climate in Russia changed as did geopolitics. Slavophilism became a popular political ideology in Russia, along with the souring of relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire culminating in multiple wars during the 19th century.

Comparing these Russian and British travelogues illuminate a stark different between them which are products of history, rather than individual differences between the travelers themselves. Across the board, with Mackenzie and Irby as notable exceptions, the Western travelogues prescribe that the Balkans must remove their Ottoman character and be civilized by a foreign power, along the lines of Austria-Hungary as is mentioned by the French traveler Emile De Laveleye in his text The Balkan Peninsula.[30] All of these Western travelogues, however, are outright hostile to Ottoman influence, no matter their intended audience. The aristocratic travelers who journeyed to the Balkans belonged to the same milieu, and a trans-European upper-class was developing its own separate consciousness apart from the rest of Europe. Therefore, similar topics are touched on in all of these accounts, namely criticisms of Balkan social mores, the perceived oppression of Christians, the “backwardness” of its people, and outright hostility towards anything Ottoman. The Russian travelers, on the other hand, documented their journeys in different light and instead, after the 1830s, focused on the Slavic elements of Balkan society and elevated them. In doing so, they were acting in accords with the nationalist movements of their time, and they paid particular attention to how these lands related back to their native country of origin. A notable exception to this rule was Maria F. Korlova, who wrote her account similar to other aristocrats of her milieu, as they did across Europe. This, thus, is the point of divergence between these aristocratic travelers and other more marginal travelers, Russian or otherwise: the former highlighted their European identity, as a cross-continental elite with the same interests, but others were influenced by the burgeoning nationalisms of their host country, and took this perspective in their travels. These travelogues thus demonstrate the two different ideological strains taking root in Europe in the 19th century, one being the trans-European identity as was made conscious in the upper-crust of European society, and the other is the nationalist undercurrent that inspired some Russian and Orthodox travelers to journey to the Balkans to find lost cultural treasures for their respective nationalist histories. This contradiction of interests between the nationalists and pan-Europeanism would come to a head many times over in Europe, starting from the nationalist revolutions of 1848.

IV. Conclusions

Reviewing these travelogues forces one to ask: Can any traveler write of regional history without falling into the trap of generalizing peoples into a pathology in an effort to describe them? Moreover, which of these travelogues are “more true?” Ultimately, the problem lies in how one approaches this question. This essay was written without falling into the trap of comparisons on which travelogues are more accurate; all of them are steeped in their respective opinions, molded by the history that preceded and enveloped them. Arguably, no travelogue can escape the trap of essentializing and projecting onto the land. So, we are left with these fleeting reflections on a particular historical moment in the Balkans, molded by the respective socio-economic milieu of each traveler.

However, we can deduce a few truths from these many travelogues. Firstly, as has been demonstrated by the British travelogues alone, these reflections had a real impact on discourse and public policy back home. It brought the Balkans to an audience who had previously not known much, if at all, about it. Secondly, the similarity in these travelogues demonstrate that the travelers were using the Balkans as a vehicle with which to make their own political criticisms and observations, many of which reflected the politics from whence they came. For the aristocratic traveler, Maria F. Korlova and others, the observations were strikingly formulaic and similar, as if they were products of the same society despite living in disparate places. This was a consequence of their class-basis, and this can be taken to be wholly explanatory of the similarity in form and content. However, what unites all of these travelogues, albeit for different reasons, is their animosity towards Ottoman influence. For the Russian travelers, the Slavic character was elevated as their own, and Ottomanism was seen as a corrupting influence; Western travelers also despised the Ottoman foothold in Europe, but they prescribed a different solution more-aligned with their country’s interests, i.e. foreign occupation. Whatever their political orientation, all of these travelogues deferred to the geopolitical interests of their host country, and it is therefore difficult for anyone to read these and take their observations at face-value as representative of what was actually-happening in the Balkans at this time. As has been stated in this essay repeatedly, what we know about the Balkans cannot be separated from how we know it. Therefore, these travelogues altogether provide us a discursive basis from which we can understand how the Balkans were perceived during the 19th century, and this, in turn, brings us one step closer to understanding the space as it was actually lived by the people there. We can then begin to unravel the Balkans from orientalist historiography, and find it that occupies something separate from Said’s schema, as is articulated by Maria Todorova’s concept of balkanism. However, this can only ever be done piecemeal, since we cannot encapsulate the entire scope of history, not to speak of the Balkans but of any space. Therefore, all we are left with are these travelogues, as historical fragments, to attempt to illustrate a historical reality as accurate as one can.


[1] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation (Slavonic & Eastern European Review, vol. 87, No. 3, 2009), 489.

[2] Vasiliki P. Neofotistos, “The Balkans’ Other within”: Imaginings of the West in the  Republic of Macedonia (History and Anthropology, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2008), 19.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation, 490.

[5] Vasiliki P. Neofotistos writes of this in “The Balkans’ Other within”: Imagining of the West in the Republic of Macedonia where she recounts: “The ’Balkans’ included Greece when my Macedonian friends suggested that Greeks and Macedonians shared the same ‘Balkan mentality’ … and also Bulgaria and Turkey when my Albanian friends who had taken a bus trip from Skopje via Bulgarian towns to Istanbul, where they visited relatives, recounted how convenient it was to get around ‘the Balkans’ by bus” (pp. 18).

[6] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation, 491.

[7] In the West, the Balkans are commonly construed by overlooking any differences that might exist between their peoples and cultures; therefore, for the ethnic-religious nationalists of the 1990s, the first step was to separate themselves from this lumped Balkan identity, in this case through violence, so as to be recognized in Western discourse as separate peoples, not signified by the Balkan region. This tragedy was caused by the appropriation of orientalist discourse by the people it originally described, and by the Balkan’s indeterminate position as an “incomplete” part of Europe; thus, the ethnic violence that ensued is predicated on a desire to complete what was prescribed by the very logic of Western orientalist discourse.

[8] Andrew Hammond, The Uses of Balkanism: Representation and Power in British travel Writing, 1850 – 1914 (The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2004), 602.

[9] Ibid., 603.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Munro, Rambles and Studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dalmatia with an Account of the Proceedings of the Congress of Archaeologists and Anthropologists Held at Sarajevo, August 1894  (Edinburgh and London, 1895), 390.

[12] R. Arnold, From the Levant, the Black Sea, and the Danube (Vol. 2, London, 1868) 235 – 236.

[13] Neval Berber, Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).

[14] Katarina Gephardt, “The Enchanted Garden” Or “The Red Flag”: Eastern Europe in Late Ninetieth-Century British Travel Literature (Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2005), 295.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Andrew Hammond, Memoirs of Conflict: British Women Travelers in the Balkans (Studies in Travel Writing, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2010), 57.

[17] Katarina Gephardt, “The Enchanted Garden” Or “The Red Flag”: Eastern Europe in Late Ninetieth-Century British Travel Literature, 295.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Andrew Hammond, Memoirs of Conflict: British Women Travelers in the Balkans, 59.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 60.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Evguenia Davidova Gender and Culture in the Turkish Providence: Observations of a Russian Woman Traveler (Aspasia, vol. 6, 2012), 80.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 83.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sarah McArthur, Slavophile Ideology and Representations of Serbia in Russian  Travel Writing, 1810 – 1850 (Budapest, 2007), 2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Emile De Laveleye, The Balkan Peninsula (Bibliolife, 2008), 72.


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