Decadent Aesthetics and Imperial Identities: Netherlands Indies of the 1890s as Seen by the Russian Consul

Savitskiy E.E.


Describing the diplomatic service of the Russian consul, M.M. Bakunin, in the Netherlands East Indies in the 1890s, the article focuses on two themes – on the peculiarities of Bakunin’s perception of the colony’s life and his understanding of the Russian imperial identity. The main source of the paper is Bakunin’s book «Tropical Holland» (1902). Looking at Bakunin’s descriptions of the nature of Java and various parts of the settlement of Batavia, the author identifies the characteristic features of Bakunin’s narrative in comparison with earlier orientalists texts. This peculiarity manifests itself in the use of gloomy decadent aesthetics, in deliberate attention to the pictures of decline and decay, in the images of empty spaces and morbidity of everything around. Bakunin’s description of various aspects of Dutch everyday life, such as food, clothing, leisure activities, bodily practices, etc., suggests that in his thinking on colonial politics the Russian consul was under the influence of M. Nordau’s theory of degeneration. The theme of degeneration in Bakunin’s book is also compared to its presentation in the Dutch texts of the time, studied by A.L. Stoler, and the Russian reception of degeneration ideas, explored by R. Nicolosi. Particular attention is paid to the way Bakunin defined the place of the Russian observer in the colony, this place being opposed both to the natives and the local Dutch, but also to the British with their colonial practices. What’s also noteworthy is that, along with the hierarchies of non-Europeans usual for colonies, Bakunin attempted to define the local hierarchies of Europeans, in which the Russian official comes very close to a standard of Europeanness. By this token, concludes the author, the Russian diplomat constructed the image of Russian culture as a European one.


Netherlands East Indies; Batavia; Modest Bakunin; degeneration; imperial identity; colonies; racism; history.

DOI: 10.31249/rsm/2019.04.10

Download text