Impressions of the Duab (Russian Turkestan)

A reflection on Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers‘ famous 1907 lecture to the Central Asian Society

The region, which is the subject of the following piece and about which the German explorer Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers reports in his lecture text, is the Turkestan General Government, in Russian Туркестанское генерал-губернаторство or Туркестанский Край. It was established in 1868 in the course of the Russian Empire’s conquest of Central Asia. Tashkent became its capital. The history of the territory overlaps with that of the Steppe General Governorate, to which it bordered to the south. It existed until the replacement of the Tsarist rule in 1917. The region itself is also called West Turkestan and Russian Turkestan and corresponds to the later Soviet Central Asia or Soviet Central Asia. Rickmer-Rickmers travelled several times through the region accompanied by his wife, the mountaineer von Ficker, who had already accompanied him on the Caucasus expedition, and a guide from Tyrol. Furthermore, he had with him an interpreter named Makandaroff, whom he also knew from the Caucasus expedition.

Six horses carried the photographic outfit, which consisted of one full-plate and two quater-plate cameras, and 1,000 glass plates. Now exploring with a big camera is beset with difficulties which sorely tax endurance and temper. To get this heavy artillery into position six or ten times during a hot day is a good test for nerves and will. I confess that I could never have done it were it not for the help of my wife and our friend. In the beginning, it took over half an hour to unload the photo-horse to unpack and prepare the camera, to pack and load up again. Later on, a record of nine minutes and a half was obtained.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

Picture postcard written by Rickmer-Rickmers dated June 2, 1913 from Garm East Bukhara from the later Pamir expedition with the signatures of the expedition members Klebelsberg, Deimler, von Ficker, Dr. Kaltenbach and Kuhlmann addressed to the Breslau Section of the Alpine Club. The aim of the expedition was to explore the mountains and passes of the southern slopes of the Garm valley, the Khingob valley and the Garmo glacier, and the mountain passes leading to Vanch and Muksu (Source:

From a European perspective, these images of ‘Turkestan’ condense discovery, exploration, construction and projection of a place of longingin its longue durée. On closer inspection it is possible to perceive in them an inner relation between space (Turkestan) and narrative (image of Turkestan). (…) In the early 20th century, German and Austrian researchers played a key role in the spatial construction of ‘Turkestan’. At the same time these actors found in Turkestan a welcome canvas onto which to project their own fears of loss. These had their roots in frantic modernisation and the structural change that accompanied it, from an agrarian to an industrial society that swept through Europe in the early 20th century. Often this development led to a loss of orientation, to flight and the search for some primitive or untainted place.

Scharr, An Image of Foreignness (2009)

Mabel Rickmers in front of Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand (dated 1896-1913), today Usbekistan. Alpenarchiv D.A.V. NAS 1 FF/582/0; “Ficker and Klebelsberg 1913. In the Middle a Tadshik, to the right a Usbek.” (Rickmers 1930, Alai-Alai, 16); “In the Valley of Serafshan.” (Ficker 1908, Turkestan; Photo W. R. Rickmers) (Source:

As early as the 1870s, Fjodorovič Ošanin (1844-1917) had the idea of naming West Pamir ‚Peter the Great‘ as the Russian Empire’s conquest progressed. The expeditions of the German-Austrian Alpine Club differentiated toponymy on a large scale, as Scharr (2009) summarizes. He mentions here, among others, the geophysicist Heinrich v. Ficker’s proposal to divide the Romanov Mountains into two ranges, that of Peter the Great and that of Catherine the Great. The expeditions led by the Alpine Club in 1913 and 1928 then established other specific territorial markers bearing German names, named after excursion participants, or given symbolic names such as ‚Notgemeinschaftsgletscher‘ (Engl. ‚emergency association glacier‘, named by German Research Association – Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and ‚Akademiegletscher‘ (Soviet Academy of Sciences) (cf. Scharr 2009).

The Duab – The concept of Turkestan as a plain canvas

Right from the beginning, the German explorer Rickmer-Rickmers names the region Duab with a colonial gesture in his lecture text to the Royal Asian Society.

The word means ‚two rivers’, and was chosen by me on the analogy of Punjab, or ‘five streams’. Its outline is easily remembered, for the two mighty rivers, the Oxus, or Amu, and the Yaxartes, or Syr, form the greater part. To complete this boundary, we have only to draw a straight line connecting the estuaries in the sea of Aral, and another, along the watershed from the sources of the Oxus to where the Naryn, or Upper Syr Darya, comes out of the Ferghana Mountains.

Rickmer-Rickers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

According to Scharr (2009), Rickmers was well aware that he was only constructing a supposedly homogeneous cultural space in the ‚Duab‘ concept. Objective criteria, however, were only of a physiogeographical nature: the location between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya and the natural contrast of dry steppes and deserts on the one hand and glaciated high mountains on the other. The Zeravshan River (Russian Зеравшан) stands for the connection of the water-rich mountains in the southeast and the dry areas of the northwestern plains – it represents the natural link between the cultural centres of Samarkand and Bukhara.

In the alpinist exploration of the vertical aspect, the European spatial ascriptions of the Orient merged with the blank spots on the map and the high mountains as ‘virgin’ and therefore ‘romantic’ place of specific longings. Rickmers wrote about it in the journal of the Alpenverein (which, at the turn of the century, had more than 80,000 members in the German-speaking countries – which says something about the enormous impact of this publication)

Scharr, An Image of Foreignness (2009)

Rickmer-Rickmers, as well, called the region the ‚California of Russia‘ in 1907 because of the enormous agricultural potential of irrigated farming. He found it positive that the land was entirely controlled by the strict Russian rule and was increasingly developed by railways, roads and canals. Industrialisation and modern urban development were, in Rickmer-Rickmer’s view, only a matter of time. However, he also foresaw a future in which the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya would no longer reach the Aral Sea.

The Near East – Industries and Comunications (Carmelite House 1910)

After the commercial boom will come industry and mining. But, above all this, there looms large the work of the country – the result of a century – irrigation. The waters of the Oxus and Yaxartes still flow into Lake Aral. The great task of the future will provide work until the last drops of these rivers have been diverted to agriculture. Realize this: not until Lake Aral is dry, we need to expect an end to the development of the country between the rivers; until then we can expect a steady increase of produce and population. Realize this, and you then know what it means to speak of the future of the ‘Duab’.

Rickmer-Rickers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

The short passages in which Rickmer-Rickmers refers to cotton growing in Russian Turkestan show how closely speaking about space is linked to the practices carried out in it. Rickmer-Rickmers already speaks of an almost hysterical attitude of the English press, business and military towards tsarist Russia’s economic and military measures in Central Asia.

However, the people living in the region who are assumed to be culturally homogeneous appear in this perspective only as caricatures of the ‚Oriental Other‘ who, thanks to the Russian mission of civilization, now have better times ahead of them (cf. Hofmeister 2016).

Just as the houses and the men of Scotland have grown from the hard grey granite of the North, so the Sart and his character have risen from the yellow clay. He thrives where the sun shines and water flows, but his progress and destiny are shaped by a few strong men or conquerors. His energy never goes beyond the mere up-keep of a life which allows him as many idle hours as possible. Take away the hand of a good ruler, the main irrigation canals will run dry, and the great public buildings will crumble; the Sart and his work return to what they were – dry mud (…). He can work, when he must; he can work very hard, and then sits with vengeance. (…) And he really loves work – that which other people do for him. (…) Constant opression has killed all enterprise in these people. Their experience was that anything permanent only made things more comfortable for the blood-suckers. In this way they have become past-masters in the art of improvisation; their houses, their roads, their institutions, their very lifes are improvised.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

Central Asia as a conflict Zone of English and Russian interests

It is interesting to note that one third of Rickmer-Rickmer’s lecture text is not about his travel impressions, but about the relationship of Tsarist Russia and the colonial power England as competitors in the wider space and Rickmer’s view of it. It seems to be completely clear to him that he has to explain his political standpoint in detail to his audience before he can come to his actual topic. He addresses his audience directly as „cool and clear-headed people, whose opinion on the recent rapprochement between Russia and England must be extremely valubale, seeing that Central Asia is the region where the frontiers of the two countries touch.“ (Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907). Of course, Rickmer-Rickmers assures, he is interested and attentive to any discussion about the development of the relationship between the two nations.

I must myself refrain from expressing definite political views, many of which would also be against the feeling of this country. As a German subject, I dare not utter criticisms of this country’s politics; I might not be considered impartial. Those who know me, know that I am a friend of the English people; those who know me in Russia are sufficiently convinced that I am a true admirer of the Russian people. You are doubtless aware that the population of this island is divided into two types, the disagreeable Englishman and the agreeable Englishman; the latter beeing in a very large majority. Exactly the same in Russia. During my intercourse with these delightful majorities, I have discovered that there is not much difference between them; the human foundation is the same, the differences are only words.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)
Russische Eroberungen (engl. Russian conquestsMeyers Conversationslexikon 1906)

How one should behave as a member of the so-called ‚reasonable class‘ of a ’nation‘ given the circumstances, he describes in the following passage:

Such a man fights shy of politics. He believes that they are the private affairs of the governments; he gives his vote, be it the unconscious vote og his character and his work, be it the conscious vote of the ballot-box. Discussions he leaves to professional politicians, or those who have nothing else to do.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

Rickmer-Rickmers recommends this attitude above all for the scientist and traveller, whose concerns, he assumes, are of lasting interest and more reasonable in their expression. He compares them with the interests of the world of commerce and finance, for which it would be true that each should mind his own business and not interfere in that of others. As the influence of the British financial sector in Russia is constantly growing, one should be all the more careful not to interfere in Russian politics. In Rickmer-Rickmer’s opinion, however, the English press repeatedly makes this mistake. Any sensible person would find their interference in the internal affairs of Tsarist Russia repugnant; he seems to be sure that his audience agrees with him.

All this talk of Russian oppression, and the comparing of it to the British liberty, is gratious insult; absolutely no practical purpose is served by it, and let me mention, to those who speak of ideals, that the ideal results are nil. The Russians want to arrange their own affairs, and do not care for our opinion. Talk is cheap; it is rediculous when not backed up by sacrifice. Therefore let us mind our own business at home, and we shall be able to increase our trade in Russia. Instead of vapouring against rotten things abroad, one had better py closer attention to rotten things in the glass-house.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

With respect to Rickmer-Rickmers, I do not want to quote any further passages that are neither very profound nor intelligent, and I certainly would not to claim that he does not know about the connection between politics and economics; above all, that he does not know about the economically motivated interference of external parties in the political affairs of nation-states. Indeed, he is simplifying to create an attitude that will allow him, supported by various donors, to carry out, with the consent of the respective target countries, the great excursions that lie ahead of him.

Far worse, from today’s perspective, must appear the following: The concerns of Central Asia’s people are not mentioned, anywhere in the text. Nowhere are these people described in a differentiated way. In Rickmer-Rickmer’s words, they have neither a place among the ‚disagreeable‘ nor among the ‚agreeable‘ people of the ethnic groups, village communities or the urban population of the landscapes between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which are the subject of Rickmer-Rickmer’s lecture. They only play a role as figures in Russia’s business concept and its possible partners from England, Germany, or other civilized countries. Only under the wise guidance of superior powers can they become – in the distant future – members of a civilized society; the way to this goal there lies in working for those who have already attained this higher stage of civilization (cf. Hofmeister 2016). At any rate, this is the impression one must get from reading Rickmer-Rickmer’s text. This attitude stems not least from the ideologically grounded spatial concept of his time.

Spatial concept – the landscape shapes the pratices and character of people

Rickmer-Rickmers follows a concept of space as advocated by the German geographers Alfred Hettner (1859-1941), Albrecht Penck (1858-1854) and Alfred Philippson (1864-1953). Since the 1890s, a movement developed to improve regional geography, „which, under the leadership of Alfred Hettner, aimed above all to introduce causal research, which had characterized general geography, into regional geography as well. They wanted to make regional geography an equal part of the subject of geography“ (cf. Wardenga 2002). Once the space to be treated had been defined, the facts contained in it only had to be described and explained according to a specific pattern, for which later the name ‚regional geography scheme‘ became established. Geography thus became an independent and distinctive university discipline by being defined as a spatial science. Moreover, because contemporary intellectual communication was deeply steeped in spatial schemas, such as the nation-state debate and the colonialism issue, it provided an opportunity for geographers‘ knowledge to connect to everyday world discussions. Last but not least, it served to homogenize and stereotype subjects – in this way, the world could also be appropriated from the perspective of a specifically German striving for great power. All these perspectives can be found in Rickmer-Rickmer’s text (see above and below).

The Zeravshan is history, history of the landscape, history of mankind. Do you want to hear it, the silent snowflake of conception, the power of solid ice, the thunder of the river birth, the lust of youth, the manly calm stream and the dying murmur! – Then go and listen to the waters of the Zeravshan.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

For Rickmer-Rickmers, the entire cultural area can be understood as the relationship between the glaciers of the high mountains and the rivers flowing from the glacial waters that connect Bukhara and Samarkand’s cities and finally find their way into the Aral Sea. Nothing more needs to be said about the people’s cultural practices, and accordingly, Rickmer-Rickmer’s descriptions are limited to those of successful or unsuccessful agricultural activities.

This is the people which lives in the cities and villages, in the fruit-gardens and the vineyards, in the rice-fields of teh great plains. It lives on the bounty of the Zarafshan, which has worked hard to collect water and earth in the mountains which are our goal.

Rickmer-Rickmers, Impressions of the Duab (1907)

Landscape photographs from the mountain range east of Urgut on the present-day border with Tajikistan (Applis 2008)

Accordingly, he can see the region’s people only as elements of the landscape, as passive subjects, subordinate to the respective leadership of superior powers. If these powers are ‚good powers‘ in the sense of cultivated ones like the Russian, English, or German people, the doing of the natives can also be turned into successful doing. This perspective corresponds precisely to what Edward Said in 1978 criticised as ‚Orientalism‘. In Rickmer-Rickmer’s lecture text, the stereotypical position repeatedly has clear racist tendencies.

Over this cultivated region is spread a population of settlers partly Aryan, speaking Persian dialects, partly of Tartar origin with a turkish language. Their mode of life, however is uniform, the town-dweller and villager, irrespective of race, being known by the name of Sart. He is a product of the loess.

Impressions of the self-sufficient agricultural landscape of the mountain region; typical are grazing of cows, sheep and goats, nut tree cultures and cereal cultivation (Applis 2008)

Brief conclusion

Rickmer-Rickmer’s 1907 lecture text is fascinating if one wants to analyze space as a social-communicative action product. It is a document of contemporary thinking and shows ideal typically how, according to Edward Said’s critique, the production of the Oriental Other takes place by homogenizing and stereotyping spaces and subjects. In this way, it serves primarily to reassure one’s own self rather than to understand cultural practices that differ from one’s conceptions of the External World. Of course, the European self-referentiality and the claim to superiority associated with it repeatedly reach their limits even in travellers‘ reports.

On the one hand, the European but also the Imperial Russian and later the Soviet expeditions all tried to define this space, to order it and thus to constitute and construct it externally. Internally the aim was to inventory its content and thus take it over symbolically as well as physically. On the other hand, and involuntarily, the Europeans discovered in their idea of Turkestan a corrective of their own supremacy claims to the world. European self-assuredness and hegemonial concepts of occidental supremacy took a massive blow as the Oriental high cultures and their long history became better understood.

Scharr, An Image of Foreignness (2009)

Later, the colonial perspective, albeit integrated into a different ideological concept, is continued by the Soviet power. For example, Ella Maillart’s much more detailed reportages, which are far less determined by a colonial view of Central Asia, give an exciting insight into the reconstruction of the region during the First Five-Year Plan period.


Hofmeister, U. (2016). Civilization and Russification in Tsarist Central Asia, 1860–1917. Journal of World HistoryVol. 27, No. 3, SPECIAL ISSUE: Preaching the Civilizing Mission and Modern Cultural Encounters (September 2016), pp. 411-442 (32 pages).

Rickmer-Rickmers, W. (1907). Impressions of the Duab. Proceedings of the Central Asian Society. Read March 27, 1907.

Scharr, K. (2009). An Image of Foreignness: The German-Austrian Alpine Club and its 1913 Turkestan Expedition. Central Asia Journal No. 67,

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Pantheon Books, New York.

Wardenga, U. (2002). Räume der Geographie. Wissenschaftliche Nachrichten Nr. 120 – November/Dezember 2002.

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