At a Glance:
Bird names: 5
Siberia, Central and East Asia
Content note: this profile includes quotes from its subject, which contain exceptionally racist depictions of Central and East Asian peoples and antisemitism. An antisemitic slur and an anti-Chinese slur in the original quote have been redacted with asterisks.
Przevalski’s Finch (Urocynchramus pylzowi)
Przevalski’s Nuthatch (Sitta przewalskii)
Przevalski’s Parrotbill (Sinosuthora przewalskii)
Przevalski’s Partridge (Alectoris magna)
Przevalski’s Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus)
In the west, we often have a bit of a bias when we think about colonialism. When we think of the heyday of 19th century expansion, we tend to think of the Scramble for Africa, or Manifest Destiny, or British India. But one of the most hotly contested regions was Central Asia, the map on which Britain and Russia played their so-called Great Game. And just like in the other areas that colonial powers were eagerly claiming, Central Asia had its own legendary explorers, as renowned in their day and as problematic as the Stanleys or Lewises we still remember. One of these, who championed Russian expansion in Asia, was Nikolay Przhevalsky.
Przhevalsky– also spelled Przevalski, as in the birds which bear his name, or Przewalski, as in the horse which does likewise, along with a few more dated transliterations– was from a noble family of Polish origin. Przhevalsky (1839-1888) seems to have had an early interest in geography. He requested and received permission for his first expedition in 1867, which led to four more. Each was a multi-year affair, and he traveled extensively: Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang. Throughout his journeys he was a prolific collector, and was noted both during his lifetime and after his death as being particularly attentive in that area.
But Przhevalsky wasn’t setting out on these treks for simple scientific curiosity. Although he disdained urban life and preferred to be in the wilderness, proclaiming like many a Tinder bio of a certain genre that a few days in the city was enough to make him physically ill, he was certain that there was only one type of civilization worth having: European. His writings frequently paint the people he encounters as savage, filthy, and stupid, such as his depiction of the residents of a portion of Xinjiang:
“The inhabitant of this country is as poor and weak morally as he is physically. His thoughts and ideas are limited by the narrow framework of his surroundings, and he knows nothing beyond. Boats, nets, fish, ducks, and reeds, these are the only things step-mother nature has endowed him with. Under such circumstances, it may be easily imagined how incapable he becomes of developing his faculties, excluded as he is from all intercourse with an outer world. He thinks of, hopes for nothing beyond his native lake, the rest of the world does not exist for him. A constant conflict with want, hunger, and cold has laid a stamp of apathy and moroseness on his character. He hardly ever laughs, nor do his thoughts soar above the necessities of the present– fishing, hunting, and the routine of his daily life. Many of these people are unable to count up to a hundred; a few, however, of the more civilized among them are artful and cunning in ordinary transactions.”From Kulja, across the Tian Shan to Lob-Nor. pp. 110-111. [link]
Most of the depictions of local residents, from Siberia to Tibet, are of a similar vein. Nor are the urban inhabitants he encounters, which one imagines would at least have the benefits of “intercourse with an outer world” whose lack he partially attributes to the perceived shortcomings of the lake dwellers of Xinjiang, any more kindly considered. His depiction of the Chinese when he arrives in Beijing is particularly disgusting, combining vicious racism with gratuitous antisemitism (quote contains slurs, which have been redacted):
“The first impressions are enough to say unmistakably that it is unimaginable foulness. The same clay and wattle houses as on the Ussuri. Unimaginable filth and stench, people squatting relieving themselves right and left in the street…the Chinese here are ten times worse than our Amur ones. On the Amur at least they’re kept in fear and trembling while here they call all Europeans to their faces or behind their backs nothing but devils…Crookery and fraud are developed to the extremes. The C******n here is a k**e plus a Muscovite pickpocket, both squared.”Letter to Przhevalsky’s mother. Versions of this quote are found where the slurs are softened; however, it seems clear that the original words used were much closer to the vulgar version quoted here.
Przhevalsky’s “solution” to all of this was simple: Russia must invade the region. He seized on the newly spreading scientific zeitgeist of the day to describe Asian peoples as evolutionarily backward, destined to be conquered and ruled by Europeans.
Przhevalsky never quite made it to his ultimate goal: the holy city of Lhasa. Ironically, he was refused entry by Tibetan officials due in part to his status as an outsider (and presumably an unbearably rude one at that). That Przhevalsky, assuming himself the obviously superior party, could be denied something he sought by people who were as dismissive of he as he was of them, was unthinkable to the explorer, and he raged about the incident. He complained about the “barbaric prejudices and the fanaticism of this foolish people”, oblivious to how fittingly he was describing himself. But he had to turn back regardless of his arrogance, as the Dalai Lama’s envoys sent a group of soldiers after the party to enforce the ruling.
Przhevalsky would complete another expedition to the Yangtze in the coming years before dying of typhus in Kygyrstan as he was set to begin yet another journey. His name would live on in the names of numerous birds, mammals, and towns; but his ideas would far more worrying live on too, influencing European perceptions of and Russian expansion in the region for decades to come.
Przhevalsky’s name has been transliterated in multiple ways in different publications. I have cited his own works under the spelling used throughout this profile, but provided the spelling used at the time of publication for ease of searching.
Bodger, Alan. 1977. Review: The dream of Lhasa: the life of Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-88), explorer of Central Asia by Donald Rayfield. Slavonic and East European Review 55(1), pp. 120-122. [link]
Maurer, Petra. 2016. Journeys in the Himalayas. Journal of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. pp. 95-121. [link]
Przhevalsky (Prejevalsky), Nikolay. 1876. Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet: being a narrative of three years’ travel in eastern high Asia. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. [link]
Przhevalsky (Prejevalsky), Nikolay. 1879. From Kulja, across the Tian Shan to Lob-Nor. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. [link]
Rayfield, Donald. 1976. The dream of Lhasa: the life of Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-88) explorer of Central Asia. Ohio University Press. [link]