Sara Dickinson. Breaking Ground: Travel and National Culture in Russia from Peter I to the Era of Pushkin. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006. 291 pp. $75.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-420-1949-2.
Reviewed by Christian Noack (Department of History, Universitaet Bielefeld, Germany)
Published on H-Travel (March, 2007)
Defining the Bounds of Europe and Russia
Sara Dickinson's study of Russian travelogues written between the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is the first systematic attempt to analyze Russian travel writing. Against the backdrop of a growing interest in the history of travel and tourism in Eastern Europe, Dickinson's study fills an important gap in the field of literary studies.
At the outset, Dickinson defines and explains her rather narrow criteria for the sample of travelogues upon which she draws. The most import criteria, she notes, is "literariness," meaning a travelogue's "evident link with the West and marked orientation towards Western European traditions" (p. 14). For the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this means that not only does Dickinson focus on well-known authors, like Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Radishchev, Nikolai Karamzin, Vilgelm Kiukhelbeker, Vasily Zhukovsky or Alexander Pushkin, but that she also chose only to examine works about travel to Europe. Consequently, Dickinson spends less time on travel accounts of journeys within Russia. In her short introduction, Dickinson initially defines travel writing as a highly stylized literary genre, which developed and circulated in early modern Western Europe. Russian writers, she claims, did not begin to adopt the genre until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Dickinson then locates travel writing in the broader context of Russia's "Westernization." She briefly discusses the role that travel writing played in the development of a "national consciousness," stressing how travelers' descriptions and explorations of cultural differences contributed to emerging notions about "the Russian." Travel writers increasingly juxtaposed "Russians" to West Europeans, above all to either "the Germans" or to "the French." Travel writing, Dickinson emphasizes, also helped to construct the "imaginary geographies" of the Russian Empire. Dickinson compares Russian travel accounts about travel to Western Europe with those accounts about travel within Russia. She concludes that travel to the West, and writing about it, provided Russian travelers with not only metaphors but also fundamental ideas about time, space and culture, which they, in turn, transferred onto their perception of Imperial Russia.
The first chapter is divided into two parts. The first part describes the emergence of travel and the accompanying travelogues beginning during Peter I's reign at the turn of the eighteenth century and continuing into the beginning of Catherine II's reign, in the late eighteenth century. The second half of the first chapter is devoted almost entirely to Denis Fonvizin, the first Russian writer who had truly mastered the genre. As Dickinson shows, while Fonvizin's account of travels to France was firmly based on Western literary traditions, he also made fun of contemporary Russian Gallomania. Fonvizin was thus the first Russian to make inventive use of the genre by turning the travelogue into an ironic critique of pro-European sentiments and to explore travel writing as a means of constructing "Russianness."
The second chapter contrasts Catherine II's famous tours down the Volga and the Crimean Peninsula with Alexander Radishchev's vitriolic journey from Petersburg to Moscow. Without negating the original qualities of Radishchev's "Bildungsreise," Dickinson scrupulously places Radishchev's first famous domestic travelogue within the literary traditions of scientific expeditions and sentimentalism. Radishchev's text turns the journey into a psychological process and a public statement against the political and social conditions that persisted under Catherine's "enlightened despotism." The final section of the chapter deals with Radishchev's somewhat unknown diaries written during his Siberian exile. This section is a strong point in Dickinson's argument that in the eighteenth century, the literary canon--and the need to adhere to its formulas--had a stronger influence on Russian travel writers than their own, individual perception did. As Dickinson explains, Siberia muted Radishschev as a writer. For Siberia did not offer a landscape or a culture which conformed to the inherited norms of Western travel writing. Only after his return to European Russia--which in contrast to Siberia offered civilized, portrayable landscapes--did Radishchev regain his ability to express himself.
The concise third chapter on Denis Karamzin describes the climax and turning point in the Russian adaptation of Western travel writing. Karamzin displayed an intimacy with European literary traditions that was unrivalled by his peers. He masterly expressed himself within its framework, thereby elegantly demonstrating Russian parity with West European literary standards. Karamzin's legacy, as Dickinson explains, is at least twofold. On the one hand, his European erudition meant a final emancipation from the superior Western model. From then on, Russia's lettres would rely on European literary concepts as a contrast, or a means, of further demarcating what was distinctly "Russian." On the other hand, Karamzin's literary success provoked a substantial number of less gifted imitators to follow in his footsteps. Focusing on Russia for ideological or practical reasons during the Napoleonic Era, these lesser writers created sentimentalist clichés in their accounts of their domestic journeys. Nevertheless, their idealisation of Russia and its provincial dwellers foreshadowed populist attitudes of the later nineteenth century.
Against this backdrop of a turning away from West European literary constructs, Dickinson titled the chapter that follows "A Return to Europe." In this chapter, Dickinson explores Russian travelogues from the time of the war against Napoleon and the later reign of Alexander I, known as an era of intense Western influence transmitted by officers and soldiers returning to Russia. These victorious Russian officers reacted with ambivalence to the former model culture of France and were inclined to repudiate Western prejudices towards Russia with a new self-consciousness. While not exactly accounts of "leisured" travelers, Dickinson finds that the officers were thoroughly acquainted with earlier Russian and European tourists, and she observes that there was a revival of the "Grand Tour" in the postwar period. Her comparative analysis of four accounts of the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen provides a fine illustration of the power and the appeal that established clichés exerted on Russian travelers as well as the nuances emerging from the cross-references between their accounts.
The fifth and final chapter traces the development or demise, properly speaking, of travel writing during the era of Nicolas I in the early nineteenth century. It encompasses the most heterogeneous sample of travel writing in Dickinson’s work, including Fyodor Glinka's domestic travel accounts from 1810-11, Vilgelm Kiukhelbeker's impressions from mid-1820s Europe, Nikolai Gogol's reflections on Russian and Ukrainian landscapes from abroad, Alexander Pushkin's travel impression as reflected in Evgeny Onegin, and finally Vasily Zhukovsky's didactic journeys through provincial Russia with Tsarevich Aleksander Nikolaevich. Their common denominator, according to Dickinson, was their growing detachment from the corpus and rules of classical Western travelogues. Or, the other way round, all of the writers, whose work she examines in this chapter, contributed to an indigenous Russian literary tradition--a development that ultimately led to the decay of travel writing as a literary genre in Russia. Although Dickinson's points are well argued in this tour d' horizon, the chapter also displays the limits of her approach. By definition, these texts largely transcended what was initially defined as the subject of the book. Dickinson now emphasizes issues of "identity" and "geography" and uncovers a legacy of travel writing that permeated new literary genres. While this point is convincingly explained, the reader wonders whether this might or might not have been true for other literary genres. And what happened to travel writing below the standards of "high" literature? Such literature, including guidebooks to Russian cities and Russian translations of Western guidebooks, began to appear during the first half of the nineteenth century. The influence of such works on the Russian "imaginary geography" was certainly as important as those produced by Russia's literary greats.
The concluding chapter "On Firm Ground" provides an outlook on the further development of a now consolidated and genuinely "Russian" literature that plays with the genre of travel writing. Citing Lev Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dickinson reaffirms her conclusion that travel writing became an ephemeral phenomenon in Russian literature, while issues of identity and relations to the West, central to earlier travel writing, were "largely taken up in other genres. In particular, writers turned primarily to fiction--and most often to domestic landscapes.... Here, as noted, they buil[t] upon a foundation laid in large measure by literary travel writing" (p. 236).
Throughout her study, Dickinson is thus first and foremost concerned with epistemology. In fact, the author convincingly links the sujets and narrational strategies of the Russian travelogue at any stage of development to either Western models (above all Laurence Sterne's sentimental journey) or to earlier adaptations by Russian writers. Therein lies the strength of the book. Dickinson's own erudition is stupendous. She deftly locates major facets of the texts under consideration within the Russian or within the broader European literary canon. What emerges is truly a "Bildungsreise of the Russian mind" (quoted from the cover) firmly anchoring Russian cultural identity in European literary tradition. Dickinson argues that Russian travel writing was increasingly emancipated from the European example. Ultimately, she claims, travel writing was overshadowed by the emergence of genuine modern Russian literature: Pushkin, Gogol and realism. Yet, despite some minor digressions, Dickinson's account is a little bit too linear. This weakness is probably due to the fact that the sample of travel writing upon which she draws focuses almost exclusively on important writers and their close intimacy with Western letters. At least for the nineteenth century, Dickinson might have relied less on the canon "high" literature and instead explored more extensively the differences between the texts.
In my view, this approach limits the study's value as a work of cultural history. Travel and national culture, themes identified in the title's subheading, appear to be rather dependant variables. Certainly, the rise of a cultural self-consciousness in Russia is intrinsically linked to the processes of Westernisation during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. But the discussion simply seems to reiterate a truism here. I would relate this to Dickinson's use of the term "national" in its broad colloquial meaning instead of a more precise sociological or historical definition. The quest for identity becomes too easily "national" here: Dickinson herself states that proponents of a small elite were emancipating their elite culture from French or German heteronomy. Even for the first half of the nineteenth century she appropriately notes the limited social scope of defining what it meant of be a "Russian." Historically speaking, one might ask whether it would thus be more appropriate to speak of a kind of elite proto-nationalism, leaving aside the problem of whether "Russian" culture or "Russian" self-consciousness should be labelled imperial rather than national. The focus on the European model in travelogues certainly provided unique opportunities both to appreciate and to reject Western models, but Dickinson's discussion of the (proto) "national" influences of travel writing remains too vague.
Dickinson's account of the construction of national landscapes in the sense of imagined geographies is more convincing. She uncovers how domestic travel accounts well into the era of Pushkin served as a vehicle for a variety of purposes, but hardly ever transcended the (re)construction or projection of established literary landscapes onto Russia (including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Crimea). Even in early nineteenth-century Russian literature, provincial landscapes provided the writer/narrator with an individual origin rather than with a dynamic social or spatial identity. Only after having transcended the limitations of "the restrictive travelogue format for the broader range of possibilities offered by fiction" (p. 237), were Russian writers able to mold a new and dynamic relationship to imperial space. But here again one might wish that Dickinson had related her findings to other literary and non-literary genres. She mentions Christopher Ely's study of Russian nineteenth-century landscape painting--which Ely argues both denied and re-invented European models--but she fails to discuss in greater detail her findings against this backdrop.
Students of the history of travel and tourism will regret that Breaking Ground omits any discussion of Russian tourism, which began to emerge during the era of Pushkin. Thus, Dickinson's study is more a history of letters than of travel or tourism. Yet her book offers a thoroughly researched and well-written account of the rise and demise of travel literature in Russian and European culture from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. The notes and the bibliography will steer those less acquainted with Russian literature to key readings. Other forms of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century tours, like scientific expeditions and visits to spas, however, might have deserved more coverage. Only a few historical errors escaped the editors' notice, such as the "sixteenth-century takeover of Novgorod" by Moscow (1478) (p. 210). Also, unfortunately, one or two lines in the middle of the pages were badly printed throughout the reviewed copy.
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Christian Noack. Review of Dickinson, Sara, Breaking Ground: Travel and National Culture in Russia from Peter I to the Era of Pushkin.
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