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Humboldt in Siberia
The terrible proximity to princes

© Erika Torres, 2019.

In 1829, Alexander von Humboldt set off his journey to the Russian Empire, probably the most repressive state in Europe at the time. Even though he succeeded in subtly undermining the strict censorship in his notes, the insight lingered on: knowledge is the flip side of power, the scientist a collaborator of empire.

As a young scientist, Alexander von Humboldt had cautioned against getting too involved with the powerful. He explained that "proximity to the prince robs even the most brilliant men of their mind." This almost revolutionary statement can be found in a "narrative" which he published in 1795 in Schiller's journal Die Horen (i.e. The Horae): Die Lebenskraft oder der Rhodische Genius (i.e. Vital Force, or the Rhodian Genius). It is the natural scientist's only fictional text. Its political import was to prove bitterly true for him personally.

Three and a half decades later, in 1829, Humboldt travelled to the Russian Empire, probably the most repressive state in Europe. There he entered into a precarious "proximity to the prince". The government of Nicholas I financed his expedition. They expected the mining expert to provide advice on the exploitation of mineral resources. Humboldt was to serve the Tsar as a treasure hunter, but he was to exercise restraint politically. "It goes without saying", he promised the Russian Minister of Finance that he would "confine himself to dead nature and avoid everything that relates to human institutions and the situation of the lower classes". 

Humboldt thus submitted to censorship, or more precisely to self-censorship. And even his youthful warning was censored in Russia. Translations of his “narrative” either modified or suppressed that critical sentence. The Russian version of 1829 merely states that "when frequenting the wider world, talent often loses its magic". And in the 1856 version the sentence was completely deleted. There is no longer any talk of "proximity to the prince" - precisely because in Russia it apparently "robs even the most brilliant men of their mind".

Between science and raw materials, human rights and export interests

Humboldt was confronted with the dilemma of today's correspondents and diplomats between science and raw materials, human rights and export interests. The research team was constantly monitored during the six-month expedition, which led through Central Asia and Siberia to the Chinese border. "The government's precautions for our trip cannot be put into words," Alexander von Humboldt wrote to his brother Wilhelm, "a perpetual 'hello, there!', a riding ahead and behind us of police officers, administrators, Cossack guards, is in place! Unfortunately, however, scarcely a moment of solitude, not a step without one's being taken under the armpit like a sick person!”

Humboldt sent two series of letters from the stops on his journey: diplomatic letters to the Russian Minister of Finance and his wife as well as to the Prussian envoy in St. Petersburg, and personal letters to his brother Wilhelm in Berlin and his friend François Arago in Paris. Humboldt's diary also reveals what he had seen, and what he was supposed to keep quiet about: "souls dragged away", "innocent to Siberia".

Despite this, in Asie centrale, his main work on the Russian journey of 1843, Humboldt subtly undermined the censorship. He developed a technique of covert writing as we know it from authors in more recent dictatorships. The dedication to the Tsar is laden with irony. The "Introduction" speaks of an "uprising of the masses", which ostensibly refers to a mountain range while imparting a political imagery to the geology at the same time.

Dialectic of colonialism 

In the further course of his Asian endeavours Humboldt unfolds a dialectic of colonialism: conquest promotes research - and vice versa. Knowledge, he realises, is the flip side of power, the scientist a collaborator of empire.

Humboldt found a way to indirectly criticise the situation in Russia. While visiting mines in Siberia, he was in a position to observe how energy production affected nature. The inefficient enterprises, which belonged to the state and exploited serfs, consumed far too much firewood and caused extensive "deforestation".

Humboldt sums up by saying that "changes" are to be observed "which humans produce on the surface of the continents by cutting down forests, altering the distribution of water, and in the centres of industrial culture blasting large quantities of vapours and exhaust gases into the atmosphere". These were "significant changes in the composition of the earth's hull", i.e. the atmosphere. Here Humboldt is developing nothing less than a theory of anthropogenic climate change. His research on nature is highly political: he recognised the destruction of the environment as the product of a fallacious economic method in an unjust social order.

In his novella, The Russian Letters of the Huntsman Johann Seifert (Die russischen Briefe des Jägers Johann Seifert) of 1980, Christoph Hein skilfully shifts Humboldt's surveillance to the GDR. In fictitious communications, Humboldt's servant describes the expedition "from below". Letters are "opened and copied", and finally Seifert is even asked to write an informant's report on his boss, about his "thoughts" and "collusions with banished people and all manner of insubordinate persons".