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I came across this painting last week, when I was searching for images to illustrate a lecture on the late Ottoman refugee crises. It’s the first proper lecture in an honours module I’m teaching on refugees and statelessness in world history, c.1900–1951. That ‘c.’ allows a lot of wiggle room: in this lecture I briefly go back as far as the Russian annexation of the Crimea—the first time round, that is—in 1783. But most of the lecture treats the fifty years or so from the consolidation of Russian rule in the Caucasus in the 1860s to the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913: a half-century when millions of Muslims left the Russian imperial borderlands, and the new Christian nation-states that had broken away from the Ottoman empire, and sought refuge in the empire’s truncated (but still extensive) territories. This painting is by Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky, a prince of the Georgian royal family, and therefore a member of the Russian imperial aristocracy, in the mid-nineteenth century. It surprised me somewhat for its sympathetic depiction of Muslim refugees being forced out of the Caucasus in the decades when Russia’s grip on the mountains was consolidated.
It’s striking how this painting prefigures the stereotypical image of forced migrants that appears in the print and then audiovisual media through the twentieth century and up to the present. I did a Google image search for ‘refugees’, and one of the suggested subcategories that came up was ‘refugees fleeing’—here’s what that click looked like:
There are a number of similar, and similarly ‘stock’, images on the Wikipedia page for ‘refugee‘. Here are the ones that show people trekking overland, on foot or on a cart:
Gruzinsky’s painting is a reminder that some such visual tropes have roots that long predate photoreportage and newsreels. It’s a nineteenth-century narrative painting, and if I was put on the spot and asked to trace its antecedents my first guesses would be artistic depictions, in the European tradition going back to the Renaissance at least, of the biblical exodus and the holy family’s flight into Egypt. There’s a contrast with most similar scenes in news photography, though, which is that the scale of the painting allows the figures to be depicted as individuals, clearly differentiated rather than trudging huddled masses. (The close-up image of refugees from Kibati, taken by a medical worker, is something of an exception: it was taken in a hurry, with the sound of gunfire not far away, and the person who took it was probably running too.) I wonder if Gruzinsky actually witnessed any of these scenes.
Ben White is a Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow.
*This article was originally published on Ben’s blog Singular Things on the 28th September 2015.