Jul 6, 2007

Book Review: A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow, Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev, Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Ради́щев Radishchev, Alexander; translated by Leo Wiener, with an introduction by Roderick Page Taylor

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958, 286 pages

Born into a minor noble family in Moscow in 1749, Alexander Radishchev studied at the University of Leipzig and returned to Russia in 1771, carrying with him the ideals of the Enlightenment. Radishchev worked on A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow over a period of at least ten years, beginning in 1780. Despite the professed interest of Empress Catherine II in the writings of the philosophes, and her desire to create an image of herself as an enlightened monarch, post-Pugachev Russia was a nation in which radical concepts of equality and liberty were seen as dangerous quantities. Radishchev decided to publish A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in an anonymous fashion, though authorities quickly learned the identity of the author. Though Catherine commuted Radishchev’s death sentence, the writer spent six years in Siberian exile for this text, and the despondent Radishchev later committed suicide following what he saw as his failure to spark Russian reforms.

The book should be viewed as a series of parables and critiques of Russian society, rather than as a literal travel narrative. At each “stop” on the journey – which mirrored similar real-life trips that Radishchev took – the author engaged in conversations with fellow travelers, manorial serfs, and government officials. Perhaps conscious that his ideas would be seen as threatening by the imperial government, Radishchev used a variety of literary devices to distance himself from authorship.

In a lengthy passage criticizing the Russian Table of Ranks established by Peter the Great, Radishchev created characters who he “overhears” engaging in a heated debate about this despised feature of civil life. In a section critical of the vapid Muscovite aristocracy, Radishchev created a grieving father bidding goodbye to his military-bound sons, imploring them not to become like the decadent nobles with whom they were soon to associate. As narrator, Radishchev described finding on the ground a lengthy essay entitled “A Project for the Future,” which was equal parts an anti-tyrannical polemic and a vision of a future Russia. One of the most damning passages on the evils of serfdom was contained in a poem that a companion at Tver supposedly handed to Radishchev to read. It is unclear if Radishchev believed that these devices would allow him to evade the censors, but the technique is reminiscent of Montesquieu’s similar techniques in Persian Letters.

Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev, Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Ради́щевLeft: Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev

The text contains vignettes of people Radishchev encountered in his travels, and serve readers as indicators of social conditions in the regions the author described (or at least as examples of rural life as viewed by a Russian aristocrat). Admittedly, Radishchev created his rhetorical portraits with an eye toward illuminating his ideas, but passages such as the following help readers understand life in rural settings in eighteenth-century Russia; the author is describing the new wife of an acquaintance with questionable business dealings:
Praskov’ya Denisovna, his bride, is white and red. Her teeth are as black as coal. Her eyebrows are as thin as thread and blacker than soot. In company she sits with down cast eyes, but all day long she never leaves the window, where she stares at all the men. In the evening she stands at the gate. She has one black eye – a first-day present from her beloved bridegroom; if you are quick witted, you will know what for.
While inspired by the American Revolution and its leaders - especially George Washington, who Radishchev described as the very embodiment of Liberty – the author attacked the hypocrisy of a United States that promoted freedom and equality while simultaneously enslaving people of African descent. Radishchev’s condemnation of American slavery works as both an abolitionist jeremiad and a historical overview of the forced bondage of Africans by Europeans in the New World, closing with a prophetic admonition of the failure by Russians to heed the warning:
Having massacred the Indians at a swoop, the raging Europeans, the preachers of peace in the name of the God of truth, the teachers of meekness and charity, by acquiring slaves through purchase have grafted the cold-blooded murder of slavery upon the root of the furious murder of conquest. These unfortunate victims from the torrid banks of the Niger and Senegal, torn from their homes and families, transported to foreign lands, groaning under the heavy yoke of authority, tear up the fertile fields of the America that scorns their labors. And we call this land of destruction happy because its meadows are not overgrown with thorns and its fields abound in plants of every variety. We call that country happy, where one hundred haughty citizens wallow in luxury, while thousands have no secure subsistence nor proper protection against heat and cold. Oh, that those prosperous lands might become wilderness again! Oh, that thorns and thistles might send their roots down deep and destroy all the precious products of America! Tremble, my beloved ones, lest they say of you: “Change the name, and the story may be told of you.”

Portrait of Russian empress Catherine II, Catherine the Great, Екатерина II Великая, by Alexei Antropov, Алексей Петрович АнтроповPortrait of Russian empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) by Alexei Antropov

One of the most intriguing aspects of this particular edition of A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow is the inclusion by the editors of the text of notes composed by Empress Catherine II. While Catherine certainly was a writer in her own right, and something of a literary critic, it says something of the power of Radishchev’s words – and their perceived danger to Russian society – that the Russian monarch herself undertook a page-by page critique of the text. Radishchev, she declared in the introduction of her critique, was a writer “infected and full of the French madness” whose goal was to “break down respect for authority and the authorities, to stir up in the people indignation against their superiors and against the government.” Catherine believed that that Radishchev must have been a disgruntled courtier whose motive was that of a spurned outsider; Radishchev, she concluded, was merely a bitter person chagrined that “he does not have entrée to the palace.” Defending the Russian version of serfdom so derided by Radishchev, Catherine argued that “our peasants who have good masters are better off than any in the world.” Moreover, concluded Catherine, in writing this text Radishchev must have “appointed himself the leader… in snatching the scepters from the hands of monarchs,” an act of treason deserving of death. Readers get a glimpse into the mind of an eighteenth-century Russian autocrat in Catherine’s notes, and the impressions are of a micromanaging monarch who was paranoid of another peasant rebellion, and even more wary of written texts that might foment the rise of another Pugachev.

This edition contains a cross-referenced index that is helpful for readers seeking specific information, and Thaler provided a lengthy introduction that brings alive the character of Radishchev. Thaler also included a selected bibliography that includes translations of A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow as well as secondary literature on Radishchev and his works. Especially useful are the lengthy endnotes, helping readers make sense of archaic Russian terms and Radishchev’s sometimes-obscure literary references.

While the Radishchev’s prose in A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – especially the contrived dialogue between created characters - occasionally slips into a maudlin Romanticism, the text remains an important example of early Russian radicalism, as well as a document that demonstrates the pervasiveness of Enlightenment writers such as Rousseau and Mirabeau. The revolutionary fervor that overthrew monarchies on both sides of the Atlantic spread around the globe, and unleashed a Pandoran box of ideas that continue to influence political movements in the twenty-first century. A clear line can be drawn between Radishchev and later Russian revolutionaries, and his work brought together ideas only hinted at by earlier Russian writers.


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Historychic said...

Sounds like a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing the review.

Anonymous said...

Where can you purchase this book? I have searched the internet and come up empty-handed.

I highly recommend the NPR special done using the premise of this book to drive the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It is available on Audible.com and is called "A Russian Journey."


historymike said...

Hi Bryan:

In scanning the booksellers, it appears that there are only a few high-priced English language editions available. I suggest hitting local and university libraries for a copy, which is where I found mine.

There are also Russian-language editions available at low cost, but I am assuming that Russian is not an option for you.

Anonymous said...

I've been dieing to read this book for a long, long time. But it never shows up at second-hand book-stores and it is excruciatingly expensive... I have the bad habit of wanting to own a book, so I'll be waiting until I'm either rich or lucky, I guess. Too bad there's no market for these kinds of publications.

Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

Great review, seriously thank you