Multiethnic empire? Colonialism? These aren’t topics that we associate with Russian literature. And yet, a sprawling, expansionist, multiethnic empire was a determining factor of Russian history since at least the mid-sixteenth century.
Hundreds of ethnic groups found themselves within Russia’s borders, making ethnic Russians, in the census of 1897, a minority in their own empire. Among modern times, the Russian empire rivaled the British one in size, and at various points included Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska. To this day, as a result of this process, the Russian Federation remains territorially the largest country on earth.
In recent decades, the history of Russia’s imperial expansion and management has come into greater focus. But this empire’s cultural self-image remains elusive. What were the cultural echoes of this process? With what images and ideas did Russian literary classics dress up (or dress down) the empire? What are the Russian equivalents of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?
Contrary to its popular image, Russian literature has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion. Such issues predominated not only in Russian popular culture, but also evoked diverse engagements from all major Russian writers of the tsarist era, running the full gamut from propagandistic to anti-colonial. These writers include such major figures as Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Sometimes, the imperial themes of their well-known works have been ignored. At other times, the texts that engage these themes, though popular in their own time, have been sidelined in the process of canonization—especially as commandeered by the Soviet authorities, which by and large sought to minimize both tsarist and Soviet imperialisms or to portray them as strictly benevolent.
The case of Ivan Goncharov (1812–91), on whom this article will focus, is of the second variety: a writer whose fabulously popular imperially themed classic has since been sidelined. Today, Goncharov is best known for his novel Oblomov (1859), about a paradigmatic Russian couch potato, a man so sedentary in his ways that he renounces the woman he loves because marriage would entail the hassle of moving to a bigger apartment. How surprising that this author, who often chastised his own sloth as Oblomov-like, undertook a daring and arduous circumnavigation of Africa and Asia in the years 1852–55, returning to St. Petersburg over land through Siberia! The sheer scope of the voyage, which allowed Goncharov to see firsthand so much of the world, makes him unique among major Russian writers, who tended to confine their international itineraries to Europe. Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels in a two-volume literary travelogue named after the ship on which he sailed, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57); “Pallada” means “Pallas” in Russian).
The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan, which then observed a strict policy of isolation. Goncharov served as a secretary to the expedition’s commander, Vice-Admiral Evfimy Putiatin. The mission was conceived as Russia’s response to increased British, French, and American imperial activity in East Asia. Indeed, Putiatin’s American rival Commodore Perry outraced the Russians by three weeks and is now credited with “opening” Japan. Russia’s diplomatic mission was further complicated by the outbreak of the Crimean War, in 1855, which was a clash of European empires over control of the Black Sea. The Pallada had to duck attacks by British and French ships. Yet Putiatin eventually negotiated a better deal for Russia through the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda.
The Frigate Pallada is a fascinating cultural document that reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers. Read by few nonspecialists today, in the nineteenth century, The Frigate Pallada was in fact a greater bestseller than Oblomov. It offered Russian readers a synthetic portrait of a global imperial world order based on colonial expansion and competition, in which the Russian empire increasingly asserts itself. Goncharov takes Russian readers on a grand tour of the colonial world and acquaints them with the maritime colonizing empires—British, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch—that have transformed the life of much of the globe. The Frigate Pallada surveys these competitors’ practices, ponders how the Russian empire fits in, and what it can learn.
Above all, the travelogue argues that Russia must catch up to its colonial rivals, especially the ever-energetic British. Including the Russians emphatically in the European civilizational community (he kept his doubts private), Goncharov impresses upon his readers a confident civilizing mission, in Russia’s own Siberian Orient and Asia more generally, as their birthright and supreme duty. The book is a densely textured primer of imperial ideology. In its descriptions of colonial sites and peoples, it richly partakes of classic rhetorical tropes of European colonialism.
Goncharov opens his travelogue with images of a rapidly interlocking world: Chinamen clothed in Irish linen, French hotels on the Hawaii Islands, Russian cabbage soup available on the equator. The Pallada encounters commercial vessels filled to the brim with European migrants headed for Australia, or with Chinese coolies headed for San Francisco. Manila’s European street life appears to him the same as in Moscow, Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris. Goncharov’s visits to Asian ports, opened to European trade after Britain’s Opium Wars, cement this vision of a globalized world born of modern imperialism. He presciently diagnoses globalization in terms recognizable to us today: labor integrated with commodity, global capital, and vibrant trade, all moving the world closer to uniformity.
Considering comfort and civilization nearly synonymous, Goncharov writes: “In the north, a pineapple costs five to ten rubles, while here—a mere kopeck. The goal of civilization is to quickly ship it to the north and drive down the price to five kopecks, so that you and I can treat ourselves to our heart’s content.” This is a juicy metaphor indeed. It joins in a memorable nexus modern bourgeois comfort, a mercantilist ethos, and the civilizing prerogatives of those who direct this traffic—Europeans. This is also a vision that fits remarkably well with our own contemporary world. Today, Goncharov’s paean to a globally traded pineapple would fit quite well in a press release by any price-cutting CEO of corporations such as Walmart.
Before reaching Asia’s global marketplace, Goncharov visited the Cape Colony in South Africa. There, he focused on the pacification of resistant populations, which he related to Russia’s own concurrent war in the Caucasus. Seeking instructive lessons for Russia’s own colonization projects, he also compared the Dutch subsistence colonization to Britain’s profit-oriented model, equating the latter with head-spinning material and civilizational progress. Goncharov’s account of his trip into the colony’s interior unfolds as a procession of idyllic spaces created by the industrious white settler. He impresses his Russian readers with the economic benefits of colonization by reporting on the income of Dutch farmers, which would have been a rough equivalent of a ministerial salary in Russia.
In Japan, Goncharov mingles descriptions of Japanese lands and manners with muscular realpolitik that shows him to be more gung-ho about militaristic imperialism than the average Russian bureaucrat. An arsenal of classic colonial tropes, such as the discursive emptying of Japanese lands of people, or these people’s infantilization, or manipulative recasting of conquest as a benevolent humanitarian action, assist Goncharov’s bold assertion of Russia’s civilizing mission in Japan and in Asia. He presents cannons as blandishments of civilization. He also presciently identifies Korea as a future arena of imperial rivalry and recommends that Russia should quickly snatch it. The Russians make themselves quite at home in Korea, barging into Korean homes and conducting land surveys (as Koreans shower them with rocks). Just as Commodore Perry graced the Edo (Tokyo) Bay with names such as Perry Island or Mississippi Bay, the Russian crew chose Russian eponyms for Korean landmarks, one of them becoming the Island Goncharov.
The tenor of Goncharov’s Siberian chapters changes significantly. Siberia emerges as a showcase of Russia’s colonizing prowess, and hence of its European credentials. It is presented as a superior counter-model to British colonialism, which Goncharov now portrays as ruthless and greedy. Suddenly, profit is bad and Russia’s activities in the region are claimed to be benevolent and selfless. The vocabulary of colonialism, freely used in reference to Western European possessions, vanishes in Goncharov’s descriptions of Siberia, which was Russia’s most classic colony. Conquered in 1582, it was exploited for natural resources that enriched the Russian metropole, its indigenous inhabitants decimated by smallpox, a rapacious tribute system, or explicitly genocidal wars. Though his private writings show that he knew otherwise, Goncharov sanitizes Siberia’s image in The Frigate Pallada, hiding uncomfortable truths about the Russians’ conduct toward the aborigines, or the probity and effectiveness of Russian administrators. Instead, he promotes a boosterist propaganda to encourage further Russian colonization (calling it “resettlement”). Most importantly, The Frigate Pallada Russifies Siberia’s cultural image, presenting its land, consistent with Russia’s version of Manifest Destiny, as eo ipso Russian, a vast arena in which Russian national destiny was unfolding.
The cultural heritage of works such as The Frigate Pallada influenced Russian imperial history by shaping attitudes and aspirations that survive to this day. The widely publicized Russian alphabet video, issued as part of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, proudly displayed “Empire” for the Russian letter “I” with which the word’s Russian equivalent begins (“Imperiia”). At the time of writing, the world is anxiously watching Russia’s reaction to the political changes in Ukraine. To this day, whether in state pageantry, politics, or contemporary culture, nineteenth-century Russia continues to supply Russians with revered national icons that inform their vision of the larger world and their own place in it.