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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Letter from a Traveling Art Student

May, 1893
Dear Respected Konstantin Abramovich,

I have made it to the great city of Bukhara. The journey was long but rewarding. The days have been arid and hot and I find myself in a perpetual state of dirt-coated, heavy-lidded exhaustion. It is not the exhaustion of physical labor, for I was lucky enough to make the voyage on the back of a Tartar cotton trader’s cart. I am told that many years ago, Bukharans lived in huts made of thick clay, branches and pillars. As I sit and study the great architecture before me, I struggle to envision this intricate city in such a primitive state. As I write you now, I sit before the Samanid Mausoleum. It is the fourth Mausoleum that I have over ambitiously undertaken to draw since my arrival in this great city not more than six days ago. When I have developed these drawings to a technical level which would satisfy you, I will send them to you with a real messenger along the Silk Road route. This letter, assuming you have received it, I have chosen to send through a cotton merchant friend that I made at the market not long ago. I met this man while carrying out your wise instructions to “sketch portraits the many characters of Bukhara”. On this note, I feel it necessary to state: finding characters in this cultural metropolis has proven to be the easiest part of my journey. I have come across every brand of character here. My struggle with recording these characters lies not in a lack of usable material, but rather in a lack of stillness. This fast-paced place overflowing with all forms of craft, art, music, performance, food, and oriental luxuries bears little resemblance to the stillness of the academic setting in which I trained under you. Because of this, I have found myself feverishly writing descriptions of the people and places I encounter. I know how you will react to this news—you are surely shaking your head at me, tufts of grey hair falling into your eyes as if to cause you further irritation. But it is not as you think. I know full well that my training is as a visual artist. I know too that it was an “abomination” (as you say) that Papa secretly taught me to write. But do not despair—I have not given up on drawing the city of Bukhara. I merely am not yet fast enough with my charcoals to keep up. So I have taken to writing. What follows is a series of “portraits” of Bukharans that I have met. I hope you enjoy. (Kirichenko, 180)

Forever your devoted student and loyal training artist,
Aleksei

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