Norman E. Saul, Richard D. McKinzie, eds. Russian-American Dialogue on Cultural Relations 1776-1914. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. xiv + 261 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-1097-5.
Reviewed by Philip Shashko (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee)
Published on H-Pol (February, 1999)
Russian-American Scholarly Dialogues Continue
This third volume of the Russian-American Dialogues on United States History is a welcome addition to this series, which presents American history and culture through the eyes of Soviet/Russian scholars. Like the series' predecessors that covered Soviet writings about the American Revolution and New Deal, this volume on Russian-American Dialogue on Cultural Relations 1776-1914 aspires to "offer deep insights into the mind-sets of the Soviet academic community at the height of the contentious Cold War" (p. vii). Two prefaces, editorial notes, eleven chapters, a postscript, bibliography and an index combine to familiarize American scholars with different aspects of Soviet historiography on Russian-American cultural relations from the American Revolution until World War I.
The editors arranged the chapters by subject, with articles by Soviet scholars followed by brief commentary by American historians. Chapters One and Two introduce the scholarly, literary and philosophical connections between American and Russian cultural life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an article on "Russian-American Cultural Relations: An Overview, " written especially for this volume, N.N. Bolkhovitinov, the dean of Russian Americanists, traces Russian awareness of and contacts with American culture, focusing on the suffusion of the American Idea into Russian life and Russian-American scholarly interaction. V.I. Moriakov's article on "Enlighteners and Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," examines the circulation of the ideas of Thomas Paine and other pamphleteers throughout Russia, and the connections between Paine and Russian radical Alexander Radishchev and the interrelationship between the concepts of enlightenment and revolution. The commentary by John Alexander, an American expert on eighteenth-century Russia, suggests that both Bolkhovitinov and Moriakov overstate their respective cases, Bolkhovitinov for oversimplifying the sporadic, "hit-and-miss pattern" of Russian-American cultural relations, and Moriakov for his strict use of the Marxist categories of enlightenment and revolution.
Print culture, specifically images of the United States in Russian publications, is offered by N.N. Bolkhovitinov on "The American Theme on the Pages of Dukh Zhurnalov [Sprit of Journals] and I.A. Ivanchenko's "The Development of Culture and Literature in the U.S.A. during Jacksonian Democracy in the Assessment of Russian Periodicals." Dukh Zurnalov published numerous articles on a variety of American topics. These articles often sang the praises of American culture, Bolkhovitinov argues, and by indirectly criticizing Russia ultimately led to the journal's demise. Ivanchenko suggests that stories about America in the Russian press were often written to teach Russians how to live--to either emulate or reject American behavior. This was especially true of the American educational system which was highly praised by Russian journalists for its accessibility and egalitarianism but criticized as unable to facilitate literature and the arts. J. Dane Hartgrove, in his critique, accentuates the differences between the two articles, and suggests that Ivanchenko's own description of Jacksonian America is compromised by a presentist interpretation colored by Cold War politics: "Ivanchenko is far more of a practitioner of Soviet-speak than Bolkhovitinov, with his talk of 'the cruel and predatory policy of American capitalism toward native Americans" that Russian journalists 'of progressive views' nevertheless extol under the influence of 'great-power chauvinism.'"
The American Civil War and its aftermath provide the focus for chapters Five through Seven. N.S. Kiniapina's "Russia and the U.S. Civil War" argues that "the relations between the two countries were determined by their political and economic interests" (p. 106) and that official Russia saw the United States as an ally in its relations with other European powers while the United States viewed Russia "as a counterweight to Anglo-French coalition in not only Europe but also the Americas and the Far East." Russia's moral support of the Union during the Civil War--it was the only great power to help the North--was also due to "their mutual interest in developing political and commercial ties." One of the most engaging and informative studies is A.I. Startsev's "Ivan Turchaninov and the American Civil War" about a "forgotten" Russian-American who fought for the cause of the North. Although one might dispute the author's depiction of Turchaninov and his connections to Russian radicalism, Startsev nonetheless offers an interesting and significant contribution to studies of the Civil War. Ronald J. Jensen believes that "despite a tendency to overinterpret, Startsev has made a sound contribution to the biography of a major Civil War figure." (p. 169).
Taking a narrative approach, G. P. Kuropiatnik's "Russians in the United States: Social, Cultural, and Scientific Contacts in the 1870s" traces the Russian utopian settlements in the United States and the rich literary and scientific contacts between Russians and Americans. Kuropiatnik argues that Russian intellectuals immigrated to the United States in the belief they could establish their free communes across the nation. Unable to thrive apart from the rest of American society their utopian experiments inevitably failed. In addition, he outlines a number of literary and intellectual exchanges between the United States and Russia, including the introduction of the English translation of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, the criticism of American literature by Russian writers, and the first joint Russian-American scientific project. These contacts, Kuropiatnik concludes, were the result of the cordial relations that existed during the Civil War. R. J. Jensen, in his commentary, states however that "although Kuropiatnik's subject is cultural and intellectual relations rather than political, he assumes that political relations were consistently positive in the 1870s. Outwardly this seemed the case, but government relations were not as harmonious as this piece suggests" (p. 168). Chapters Eight through Ten consider the relationship between Russian literature and American culture and politics. Two focus on writers, I.P. Dement'ev's "Leo Tolstoy and Social Critics in the United States at the Turn of the Century" and A.N. Nikoliukin "Chekhov and America." Dement'ev argues that despite the differences in political systems and circumstances between Tolstoy's Russia and that of his American critics, "the best minds of the two countries attempted to tackle similar ethical and social problems" and "their approach to problems was often the same" (p. 190) Both supported international peace, questioned the tenets of capitalism, opposed war and excessive militarism. Nikoliukin outlines the influence of Anton Chekhov's writing on American writers, critics and scholars, including Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. The chapter's argument is best summarized by its commentator, Richard M. Abrams: "Surely it was that sense of moral desolation that helps account for the extraordinarily broad influence of Anton Chekhov on American literature," but "the sources of the problem differed greatly.
For Chekhov, it was the decay of the old order in Russia under the load of an anachronistic state and social structure, and the ineffectuality of the custodians of Mother Russia's moral order for salvaging the still-cherished spiritual elements of the old order. For the Americans, it was the sense that the achievement of material abundance through industrialism, and over the bodies of too many uncompetitive souls, had left a great hole in the nation's character; that the pot at the end of the rainbow was empty" (p. 224). Finally, I.K. Mal'kova's "American History and Policy on the Pages of Delo (Cause) and Slovo (Word)" presents articles regarding two journals critical of industrialization and its consequences for the United States. Sharing some of the beliefs of the radical journals, Mal'kova believes they were written as such to prevent a similar route of industrialization in Russia.
The collection concludes with A.F.Tsvirkun's article on United States-Russia foreign relations, "Some Questions on American Foreign Policy in 1898-1914 in the Russian Bourgeois Press" and commentary by Norman E. Saul. Here Tsvirkun outlines the growing tensions between the two nations at the turn of the century as a result of increasingly overlapping imperial ambitions. Such tensions could manifest themselves in the press in several ways. Some idealized the American political system as an implicit critique of Russia's leadership; others feared a possible military conflict between the United States and European powers. Saul's commentary criticizes Tsvirkun for a simplistic outlook toward U.S.-Russian relations colored by the power struggles of the Cold War. In their "Postscript: Past, Present, and Future" Bolkhovitinov and Saul write that the articles included in this volume "offer proof of the usefulness of such broad complex approaches to the study of history of relations between Russia and the United States," and thus "contribute to change mutual ignorance to mutual knowledge and respect" (p. 244). The authors point to areas of contact such as American businessmen and travelers in Russia and Russian contributions to American culture and science that have not been adequately studied by either side. They hope that new research, especially now that archives in the former Soviet Union are open, will enable scholars to fill many of "the blank pages" that exist in American-Russian relations.
At its best, this collection injects new subjects, insights and interpretations into the study of American cultural history, much as an earlier work published in the late seventies, Soviet Historians on Latin America: Recent Scholarly Contributions, edited by Russell Bartley, made available Soviet views of the region for Western academics. Although one can find much to criticize in the writings of Soviet scholars on American-Russian cultural relations, it must be stated that until recently, very little has been done by American scholars in this field. Therefore, despite their shortcomings, each article in this volume offers something unseen before in English. Without detracting from the overall achievement of this cooperative effort, the reviewer nonetheless finds some of the American responses far too brief and excessively concerned with criticism of the obvious, that is, the ideological positions of Soviet scholars. In my opinion the dialogue might have been of even greater value had the former Soviet scholars been willing to revisit their articles today and write postscripts to their articles. Thus, the collection would have shown how an old article might be reborn under new social and political circumstances. What, if anything, would they say differently in the post-Soviet period, given both the benefit of retrospect and changed political circumstances?
This review was commissioned for H-Pol by Lex Renda <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Philip Shashko. Review of Saul, Norman E.; McKinzie, Richard D., eds., Russian-American Dialogue on Cultural Relations 1776-1914.
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