Our Notes & References
First edition of this richly illustrated account of the Southern Indian Subcontinent, written by an extraordinary Russian ‘amazon’ “exploring and internationalizing the world in the late nineteenth […] century” (Aust).
Besides being an adventurous traveller to places rarely frequented by her compatriots, Princess Olga Scherbatova (1857-1944), née Stroganova, was known as a great huntress, markswoman and a horse connoisseur. A great-granddaughter of Natalia Petrovna Golitsina who became the prototype of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, Scherbatova spent almost 20 years travelling with her husband, Prince Aleksandr Grigorievich Scherbatov (1850-1915), across Asia, the Middle-East and Arabia (including a trip across the Arabian desert on horseback). She wrote three books about her travels, Po Indii i Tseilonu being her first publication.
“Erudition and exploration seem to have combined as motives for her travel to far-away regions and continents; [these aspirations] add her to a prominent group of European women who experienced Oriental travel as a departure into a realm of freedom, [away] from gendered European constraints: […] in Russia, universities and learned societies – such as the Imperial Geographical Society – were dominated by men. In Russian Asia only men performed the roles of discoverers, whereas Russian noble women were limited to perform the role of their husband’s helpful support.” (Aust).
During the 1890-91 trip to Asia, the Scherbatovs went to Bombay, Ceylon, Madras, Udaipur, Delhi, Lahore, Agra, Gwalior and travelled across the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway — one of the wonders of the world in the 19th century. Their trip coincided with the voyage to Japan of Tsesarevich Nikolai Aleksandrovich, the future Nicholas II; they are said to have met in India, but we could not confirm this.
As a result of their long travel, Shcherbatova wrote an extensive, wide-ranging travel account, also remarkable for the wealth and quality of its illustrations. It includes in particular a specific chapter on the architecture, as well as many ethnographic details about the locals’ everyday life, and the religious customs of the Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Muslims. Together with her husband, she also met the local elite: the book includes their portraits together with Shcherbatova’s stories about them.
Other illustrations cover people, architecture, landscapes, cities – and flora: “on all the voyages she took along a camera to take photographs not merely of well-known sites but also of a huge range of plants. […]” (Aust).
Prince Scherbatov contributed to the book his review of the history of the colonisation of India by Britain and the state of British colonial institutions at that time. Interestingly, “this chapter makes for fascinating reading in relation to other publications by Aleksandr Grigorevich on Russia and her future. It seems that looking into the Indian mirror Prince Aleksandr Grigorevich saw all his anxiety about Russia’s destiny: [to] be colonized financially by other European powers” (Aust).
The thick volume ends with a bibliography of 34 titles, almost exclusively in English, and short dictionary of “foreign words”.
A pleasant, fresh example of this scarce publication: we could not find any example at auction. Worldcat locates six holdings (BL, Cornell, LoC, Amherst College, Ohio State University and Universität Basel).
Avenir Nizoff (a pianist who lived in Edmonton, Canada, in the second half of the 20th century, and gathered a large, wide-ranging library of Russian works, especially covering art, history and literature, with a strong representation of émigré works).
Martin Aust, “On Parallel Tracks at Different Speeds: Historiographies of Imperial Russia and the Globalized World around 1900”, Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung 29(2019) Heft 2, S. 78–105.