In Conversation

Through overlooked travelogue, Yale Slavist rereads Russia’s imperial past

An illustration of “The Frigate Pallada,” from the book cover of Bojanowska’s "A World of Empires"

Russian novelist Ivan Goncharov is best known today for his 1859 novel “Oblomov,” an inventive satire of the waning Russian nobility, embodied in its title character, who is so sedentary and slothful that “Oblomovism” is still synonymous with “laziness.”

Goncharov’s portrayal of his fallible hero was so warm that readers have often taken it for a slightly exaggerated self-portrait of the author, said Edyta Bojanowska, Yale professor of Slavic languages and literatures and chair of the European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center, while the hero’s fictional foil, the globe-trotting Stolz, has alienated Russian readers, coming off as an overly Westernized busybody. Familiar with this reading of Goncharov’s most famous novel, the scholar of Slavic literature said that it came as a big surprise when — while working on a larger review of 19th-century Russian literature with a focus on empire — she stumbled upon an oft-forgotten detail of Goncharov’s own biography.

It turns out that before completing “Oblomov,” Goncharov served as secretary to Vice-Admiral Evfimy Putiatin, the commander of an 1852 Russian semi-circumnavigation aboard the three-masted frigate Pallada, and lived to tell the 700-page tale. His 1858 travelogue “The Frigate Pallada,” documents Putiatin’s historic voyage, ostensibly to check up on Russia’s “North American possessions.” Putiatin’s true directive was the same as the American Commodore Matthew Perry’s: to push the frontiers of global imperialism in Japan, a country then closed to Westerners for two centuries, by forcing it to open up to Western trade. Indeed, the two expeditions overlapped while in Japan. The journey took the Russians to Japan by way of the Cape Colony, Dutch Java, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where Goncharov observed Western European colonial powers in action. Goncharov then separated from the crew at Korea and returned to St. Petersburg overland via Siberia.

The Frigate Pallada” made Goncharov a bestseller in his own lifetime; in the 19th century, it ran through ten printings to “Oblomov”’s six. Setting sail on the Pallada also allowed Goncharov to see more of the world than any of his writer contemporaries, said Bojanowska, making him the least Oblomovian novelist of his day. In fact, Goncharov’s account of the voyage asserted that, “in order to keep up with the imperial Joneses, Russia must become a nation on the move, a nation of Stolzes, itinerant doers, apprised of the wider world,” said Bojanowska.

Published 160 years later, “A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada” (2018) is Bojanowska’s rereading of the travelogue through dual literary and historical lenses. YaleNews sat down with Bojanowska to discuss her insights about Goncharov’s portrayal of Russia stepping out into a globalizing world. Here is a condensed and edited transcript.

Edyta Bojanowska
Edyta Bojanowska

What is “A World of Empires” about, and what are its main takeaways?

It is about a famous mid-19th century Russian naval voyage around Africa and Asia, as described by its self-proclaimed “Homer,” the novelist Goncharov, in his travelogue “The Frigate Pallada.”  My book about this voyage is interdisciplinary. It conjoins literary and historical scholarship, with hefty doses of postcolonial theory, history of race, and theories of travel writing mixed in. Writing it has been an incredible intellectual adventure! It took me far beyond my training as a Slavist. The material proved so captivating that I decided to write this book not just for academics but also for a general audience. While I do make scholarly arguments, I don’t presuppose any specialized knowledge. 

What I’m trying to do is to bring attention to this amazing Russian classic, one that slipped through the canonizing sieve because it was an in-between genre — between document and fiction — hence not literature proper, and we all know how obsessed the Russian canon is about the novel. The second thing I do in this book is use Goncharov’s travelogue as a lens into global imperial history, showing the imperializing and globalizing world of the mid-19th century from a Russian perspective. This is not just a book about Russia, but about Russia on a global stage. My key metaphor is a “diplomatic tango” between representatives of British, French, Spanish, American, and Russian imperial regimes. Like the tango, their interaction on imperial frontiers in Africa and Asia was full of tense energy, dramatic lunges, and close contact that was both uncomfortable and exciting. And Russia was by no means a wallflower in this dance.

The Frigate Pallada” was not a novel, as you just pointed out, but a travelogue. Why should the Russian canon include this kind of writing too?

My goal is less to canonize this book than to simply make people read and study it more. Thanks to my work, a new English translation of “The Frigate Pallada” is currently underway (the old one, by St Martin’s Press, contrary to the publisher’s assurances, is based on an expurgated Soviet edition). As to why attention to such books as Goncharov’s travelogue is important, the simple answer is that in the 19th century, this was the most socially significant genre. We have lost sight of that because our modern literary hierarchies privilege fully fictional genres. But travel books had the biggest print runs and were widely excerpted in journals and newspapers. Some of the most famous travel writers, such as Henry Stanley and David Livingstone, became celebrities largely thanks to their travel writing. Public donations for the monument of the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky rivaled those for the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin. In the 19th century, Mark Twain was known as primarily a travel writer and less so as a novelist. Travel books were everyone’s favorite reading because they were like a Reader’s Digest. In one exciting narrative, you got a mix of adventure, and literary descriptions of exotic sites, some ethnography, history, a bit of politics and international relations, and even — if you’re Charles Darwin — natural science. It was a very synthetic form full of information but which also had the advantage of being a really colorful yarn. We have to remember that at that point there were huge parts of the world about which European and American audiences knew very little. This form of writing was the main vehicle for them to learn about faraway places — the places that were being explored and colonized but which few regular people could actually reach.

Even if travel writing was so ubiquitous in the 19th century, what makes Goncharov’s travelogue special and worth reading today?

Goncharov’s travelogue is actually great literature, a masterpiece of 19th-century Russian prose.  It was also an imperial-era bestseller that became a model for all subsequent travel writing in Russia, including the government-sponsored kind. The book was widely read by regular readers and governmental officials, both adults and young kids. It was taught at schools and military academies. It helped shape generations of Russian readers, and their sense of the wider world, well into the Soviet period. Young Chekhov read and reread it; the Orientalist painter Vasily Vereshchagin was obsessed with it; and Nabokov mentions it in his novel “The Defense” as a staple of middlebrow, pre-revolutionary reading. The Soviet party leader Kalinin recommended it to young writers in 1934, and even Brezhnev mentions it in his autobiography. Goncharov himself called it his own favorite, “a rose without thorns.”  If you’re interested in connections between literature and society — as I am — this is a book for you.

Because travelogues do fall “between document and fiction,” what should their readers be wary of?

Travelogues are, as one critic said, “economical with the truth.” One can never trust their representations. Racial, ethnographic, political, or religious biases are quite common, especially in 19th-century narratives of exploration. These narratives tell us a lot about the traveler’s mentality and individual experience and, to some extent, they tell us something about the culture that produced the traveler. But one has to be very circumspect about assuming that they reliably represent the peoples and places that the traveler describes. Extracting empirical reality out of travelogues is a very complex and delicate task, and arguably not the most interesting one.

In that case, what does Goncharov’s narrative of the Pallada voyage reveal about his mentality and the culture that produced him? What messages was he pushing?

The book is a rich document of a Russian imperial worldview that broadly resonated with tsarist-era publics. One of its goals was to champion Europe’s and Russia’s imperial expansion and colonial activity, presenting them as hallmarks of modernity, progress, and global capitalism. The book promoted imperial globalization and free trade, as well as Europe's and Russia's civilizing missions. Goncharov’s overriding, if implicit, argument is that Russia must catch up to its colonial rivals, especially the British. It must become a global contender in resource extraction, trade, and access to cheap labor markets. It must become more present in the global imperial enterprise. That was the main message of this book, which Goncharov delivered amazingly well. The extraordinary popularity of the book likely means that this message struck a chord. Russian readers also loved that Goncharov marvelously combined his Russianness with Europeanness. He carried himself under foreign skies as a self-confident European. Yet he also saw the world through a distinctly Russian lens; readers found his ways of seeing the world “relatable,” and as such, far superior to Western travel writers they’d been reading in translation.

What surprised you most when examining Goncharov’s book?

What surprised me is how keenly this 1850s Russian traveler saw the gathering forces of globalization, how perceptive he was about this upswell of interconnections between various parts of the world and about a different, more globalized world emerging from the economic, political, and diplomatic phenomena that he saw firsthand in these various Asian and African ports. I did not expect to open a Russian book from 1858 and basically see a vision of the world that I know so well. Recently, an excellent new biography of Joseph Conrad was published by Maya Jasanoff, a Harvard historian. In it, she highlights how unusual, how prescient Conrad was to draw attention to these forces of globalization. And here, with Goncharov and “The Frigate Pallada,” I have a Russian author who beat Conrad to it by five decades!

What was most challenging?

The most challenging thing was to write about race. The ways in which the book engages in racializing Asians and Africans is a very difficult thing to confront from our contemporary point of view. The publisher of the book’s existing English translation felt it necessary to include a disclaimer that disassociates the press and the translator from the books’ offensive attitudes.  And that publisher was working with the Russian edition that already sanitized some of the most egregious passages. 

True, Goncharov is no worse than any other European at the time, but I don’t buy the argument that, “Well, everyone was doing it, so what’s the point of talking about it?” We do need to talk about this, and especially in the academic context, because there is this myth that, because race was not a category of institutional practice within Russia or the Soviet Union, Russians did not and do not think of the world in racialized terms. That’s simply not true. And Goncharov’s book shows this very well.

And yet, you explain how the Russians were better received in Japan than their imperial peers, who were, in this case, Commodore Perry’s Americans. Why? And how did Goncharov represent that encounter?

Yes, one of the strange things about the book’s relationship to the actual voyage, especially with regard to the Japanese leg of the journey, is that in reality the Russian crew was actually much less racist and much more respectful towards local Japanese customs than were the cannon-toting Americans. The Japanese themselves viewed the Russians as the lesser of the two evils. The Russians were much more conciliatory and respectful of the Japanese customs and protocol. Goncharov’s account of that encounter, however, is fairly racist, Eurocentric, and arrogant. In a way, he gives the Russian crew a bad name, at least by our own standards today.

"A World of Empires" book cover.

But standards were different in the 19th century. Goncharov additionally takes upon himself a job of self-fashioning, of projecting Russianness as fully compatible with Europeanness. And “acting European,” especially on imperial frontiers in Africa and Asia, meant to project racial hierarchies that placed white Europeans at the top, and to lord over one’s superiority over supposedly benighted natives. Now, since Russians were acutely aware of being treated as “second-class Europeans” by their Western peers on Europe’s old turf, there was a lot of emotional gratification to being treated as an equal. In Asia and Africa, all of a sudden, the Russians are readily admitted into a club of European elites on an equal footing. So, in order to pose as a fully-fledged European, Goncharov heaps condescension on Africans and Asians, portraying them through a very prejudiced lens. Demeaning other people was meant to show that you’re more sophisticated, cultured, civilized, etc.

Contextualize “A World of Empires” in terms of your greater scholarly goals. Why study empire in Russian culture? 

Now that this book is done, I’m planning to return to my larger project where I am looking at the work of all major 19th-century Russian writers, especially those of the second half of the 19th century, in order to show that empire was not a peripheral concern of Russian culture. On the contrary, every single major writer of the era took it upon himself to confront the question of Russia’s imperial ambitions and the various challenges and dilemmas of running an empire. The goal of both “A World of Empires” and that larger project is not only to make imperial questions more central to the study of Russian culture but also to insert Russia into the conversation within the European humanities from which Russian imperialism has been strangely absent — to make the case of Russia more visible to the wider community of scholars who explore the imperial histories of Europe.

Moreover, the political events of the past several years show that while we can speak about the decolonization of British and French empires, Russia seems to be the only old empire that is re-colonizing: Its annexation of Crimea was the first territorial annexation in Europe since World War II. I think that shows the extent to which the task of re-examining ideas about imperialism in Russian culture is all the more relevant. The kinds of texts that I work on and look at with my students are not some musty archival trivia. They are brought to bear on contemporary political debates in the public sphere and social media, and speak directly to the preoccupations of contemporary Russian society.

What do you hope these projects will do for conversations about empire in your own discipline, Slavic studies?

Despite important research that has been done on imperial aspects of Russian culture, we barely scratched the surface in uncovering the full picture of Russian culture’s engagement with imperial themes, especially as compared to other fields, such as English or Spanish. The Caucasus, which is Russia’s paradigmatic “Orient,” is most well studied, but the Russian empire was not just the Caucuses. Siberia was also empire, and so were Central Asia, and Ukraine, and the Baltics, and the Far East. We need to move beyond the Caucuses to really capture the full geographical span of the Russian imperial imagination. I also believe that attending to this aspect of Russian culture would help invigorate Slavic literary studies by making it less Russo-centric and less focused on nationalist questions. We already know that Russians disagreed robustly about their nation. We now should be studying how they disagreed about their empire.

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Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu, 203-836-4226