Keywords: Central Asian intellectual elites, Chokan Valikhanov, orientalism.
When he returned to England in 1858, after more than a decade living and travelling in Russia, Central Asia and Siberia, Thomas Witlam Atkinson was the toast of the town. His first travel book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858), profusely illustrated with lithographs and woodcuts taken from his astonishing paintings, had just been published and everyone was talking about it. It described his seven years of travel in some of the harshest environments known to man – a total of more than 40,000 miles – much of it on horseback.
After an interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful career as an architect, Thomas was now feted wherever he went in London society. This former stonemason- turned architect-turned writer and artist was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, proposed by that great geographer and geologist Sir Roderick Murchison himself. Fellowships of the Geological Society and the Ethnographic Society soon followed. There was a private audience with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, where she asked after the health of her cousin, the Tsar Alexander II. No doubt Thomas flourished the emerald and diamond ring the Tsar had presented to him personally in recognition of his incredible achievements. He in turn had dedicated his first book to the Tsar.
No less extraordinary were the achievements of the woman Thomas had married in Moscow in the winter of 1848. Lucy Sherrard Finley, the daughter of a schoolmaster from Stepney in East London and 15 years younger than her husband, had given up her job as a governess to a prominent Russian aristocratic family in St Petersburg to marry this open and approachable Yorkshireman. For five years she had travelled with him across the boundless steppes and through the taiga of southern Siberia.