O'Keeffe on Offord, 'Journeys to a Graveyard: Perceptions of Europe in Classical Russian Travel Writing'

Derek Offord
Brigid O'Keeffe

Derek Offord. Journeys to a Graveyard: Perceptions of Europe in Classical Russian Travel Writing. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005. xxvi + 287 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4020-3908-9.

Reviewed by Brigid O'Keeffe (History Department, New York University) Published on H-Travel (February, 2007)

Russia Confronts the Barbarous West

In his travelogue of his journey to Russia in 1839, the Marquis de Custine declared a visit to Russia to be the perfect antidote for anyone left uninspired by France, or as he clearly implied, by the resplendent glow of "Western" civilization. Any foreigner visiting Russia, Custine explained, would depart "content to live anywhere else."[1]

In Derek Offord's engaging study of Russian accounts of travel to western Europe, Custine's scathing appraisal of the Russian empire is turned on its head, as Russian travelers voice disillusionment with a Europe that is at once both constitutive of and alien to their native land. Offord explores the thorny inheritance bequeathed not only to Russians, but to historians of Russia as well, by Peter the Great's orchestrated cultural revolution: the question of how Russia has entered the narrative of Europe both as a prideful and dutiful progenitor and as a disdainful, rebellious child. Offord provides a fascinating account of how Russian elites, weighed down to varying degrees by their inferiority complexes vis-à-vis the West, constructed Russian identities while confronting western European "superiority" head on.

Offord deconstructs published travel writings composed by eight Russian elites over a period spanning the rise of Peter the Great's empire in the late seventeenth century to the early reign of Alexander III in the late nineteenth. The travelers whom Offord studies were variously motivated to undertake journeys to England, France, the German States, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. These travel writers, Offord argues, contributed to the establishment of the travelogue as a distinctive literary genre in Russian literature as they pursued the political debates that animated them at home with equal--if not renewed--vigor on the road. They weaved the insights gained during their travels into polemics written for domestic audiences on the nature of European civilization and Russia's place within it. Most importantly for Offord, the accounts produced by these elite Russian travelers show the power of travel writing "as a vehicle for national self-definition" (p. xix). Offord's sources provide ample material from which he draws a lively discussion of how Russian elites grappled with the anxieties, challenges, offenses, and triumphs that "westernization" posed to them and to Russia. Travel provided these elites with a yardstick by which they measured other cultures' degrees of "civilization" as well as their own.

Offord first explores the travel diary of P.A. Tolstoi, a Muscovite commissioned by Peter I in 1697 to study maritime technology and cartography in Venice. The architectural grandeur, luxurious food, and technological sophistication found in Venice awed Tolstoi, yet religious differences occupied his mind the most. Tolstoi compiled lists of differences between Orthodox and Catholic practices, but limited his rebuke to the non-Christians he encountered. At the outset of Peter I's westernization campaign, Offord suggests, Russian elites were as yet little troubled by notions of inferiority or superiority vis-à-vis the West and thus Tolstoi was "less defensive about his native land and less hostile toward foreign lands" than the Russian travelers who succeeded him (p. 47).

D.I. Fonvizin, the foremost playwright in the age of imperial expansion and state-building overseen by Catherine the Great, is discussed in chapter 2. Fonvizin appraised French society on the eve of the Revolution, finding French theatre and love of country admirable but nearly all else deplorable. The French, he found, were sycophantic, hypocritical, oversexed, and unjustified in their immense pride. Their cities were filthy, noisy, stinking, and overflowing with beggars. Injustice reigned as all French people had "been made to be either a tyrant or a victim" (p. 64). Uncorrupted Russia, Fonvizin believed, had the advantage of being "backward" and could thus foresee a future superior to that of "enlightened" France.

Chapter 3 focuses on the travel writings of N.M. Karamzin, an eminent historian who published during the reign of Alexander I. Though a significantly more sympathetic traveler than Fonvizin, Karamzin also felt his moral, political, and olfactory senses insulted by western Europe. Writing in the age of romanticism, Karamzin found purity in the rural Swiss landscape and in the English domestic hearth, but was shocked by the filth, cruelty, and anarchy of industrial Parisian life. Karamzin's travels instilled in him a belief that Peter I's peerless genius had endowed Russia with the historic task of not merely matching western achievement but of surpassing it.

M.P. Pogodin, V.P. Botkin, and A.I. Herzen, treated successively in chapters 4-6, produced their travel accounts between 1839 and 1851--a time when "Russia had reached the zenith of her military power and self-confidence as a European nation" and when these travelers were immersed in Russia's weighty debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles (p. 11). Pogodin, a Slavophile historian and journalist, traveled to western Europe in 1839, finding little worthy of importation. The West was a cesspool wracked by savage social inequality and bourgeois materialism. Here, capitalism had wrought dehumanization while modern "liberal" politics served as an empty substitute for spirituality. A benevolent autocrat, on the other hand, ruled Russia, presided over a well-ordered state, and brought glory to subjects who were generous, uncorrupted souls. Herzen, a leading Westernizer and radical proponent of utopian socialism, found in his travels throughout western Europe certain common ground with Slavophiles. Like Pogodin, Herzen saw decay and dehumanization in the materialist, mechanical West and considered the western bourgeois order corrupt and moribund. Yet he believed that Russia's uniquely harmonious peasant commune was the answer to bypassing capitalism in Russia and to bringing socialism, and hence salvation, to Europe as a whole. Only the Westernizer Botkin, heir to a wealthy merchant family, believed that Russia's European future lay in the cultivation of its own bourgeoisie. Likening Russia to a Spain he regarded as exhilaratingly exotic, isolated, and backward, Botkin concluded that the two, though uncorrupted, were languishing on Europe's periphery. The future of both countries, he believed, hinged on the creation of a bourgeois order that would advance the two economically without effacing the spiritual wealth bestowed upon them by the innocence of backwardness.

The writers whose work is explored in chapters 7 and 8, F.M. Dostoevskii and M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, produced their travel accounts in the aftermath of Russia's humiliating defeat in the Crimean War. Dostoevskii's Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) introduced many of the ideas later espoused by his Underground Man. Western civilization's Crystal Palace, as rendered by Dostoevskii, was as much a temple to crude materialism, hypocrisy, and the bourgeois obliteration of the individual as it was a triumph of western technology. Fortunately for Russia, Dostoevskii believed, westernization had been imposed there only superficially, and indeed was a "phantasmagoria" (p. 211). Russia could still hope to achieve reconciliation between its cultured, westernized elites and simple masses and thus find salvation in a spiritual brotherhood.

The Westernizer Saltykov-Shchedrin, however, shared little of Dostoevskii's optimism. While Saltykov-Shchedrin delighted in western freedoms and even in the splendor of Haussmann's Paris during his travels in 1880-1881, he was disillusioned by the French bourgeoisie's perceived avarice and licentiousness and by the rising militarism of the newly established German nation-state. Unlike so many of his forebears, however, Saltykov-Shchedrin did not envision Russia as a counterexample to a West that he no longer considered progressive. In his view, Russia was an oppressive police state that, despite its backwardness, was fated to pass through the historical development already traversed by its western counterparts. The romanticized Russian commune failed to convince Saltykov-Shchedrin that Russia would somehow fare any better. In his mind, the reactionary response to Alexander II's assassination in 1881 further justified his pessimism. Offord's foray into the travel writing of imperial Russia's elites thus ends with Saltykov-Shchedrin's pained recognition that Europe's shining future seemed to lay neither in the bourgeois West nor in autocratic Russia.

Offord's book will interest readers concerned with travel writing as a literary form and as a conduit for defining the self as much as the Other. His work likewise contributes to the intellectual history of imperial Russia, providing new fodder for discussions of Russian involvement in a pan-European effort to construct hierarchies of civilization and backwardness in an age of empire- and nation-building. The Russian elites who inform Offord's study, with the exception perhaps of Saltykov-Shchedrin, could after all empathize with the reflection of their fellow European, the Marquis de Custine: "When I estimate myself, I am modest; but when I compare myself, I am proud."[2]


[1]. Astolphe marquis de Custine, Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 619.

[2]. Ibid.

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Citation: Brigid O'Keeffe. Review of Offord, Derek, Journeys to a Graveyard: Perceptions of Europe in Classical Russian Travel Writing. H-Travel, H-Net Reviews. February, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12844

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