Today on the Ramblings sees a return to one of my favourite types of reading matter – something Russian! It’s been a little while since anything from that country graced the blog (well, a week since I directed you to Shiny New Books!), and I always fear dipping into RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency…) Fortunately, one particular publisher is always on hand to help rectify that – the very wonderful Columbia University Press with their Russian Library imprint. I’ve covered a number of their titles (several for Shiny New Books) and they issue some really fascinating works which are not so well known as all the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys that a certain pair of celebrity translators keep going back to again and again and again… (ahem…) Today’s book is a case in point; I’ve never come across either author or title before, but it was an absolutely fascinating read.

“Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by Alexander Radishchev (here translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman) was first published in 1790, the time of Catherine the Great, and it caused a stir; so much so that the author was initially condemned to death although this was eventually commuted to Siberian exile. So why should what is ostensibly a travel book cause so much uproar, and have such radical results for its author?

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family, and his book recounts a fictional journey between the two great cities of Russia. The path is along the postal route, with the narrator halting at points along the way, encountering many different types during his journey and exploring the good and bad points of Russian society. This framing device allows the author to have his character take a look at the social and economic issues facing the country, including the problem which seems to be the one which usually occupies the Russian intellectual – the evils of serfdom.

How much good can it do you, boyars, that you eat sugar while we go hungry? Children are dying, adults die too. But what can you do – you grieve for a while, you grieve but do what your master orders.

The book’s format is wonderfully flexible, allowing the author to include sentimental stories, poetry, theatrical plots, essays on history, theories on how to best raise children, and of course many meditations on the structure of Russian society and politics, with the corruption that runs through it. All of this makes for a fascinating and entertaining read, and I can see why it was considered so subversive. The author/narrator is particularly concerned with the ethical and moral, and his views on the evils of serfdom were considered very radical at the time. Although the book was apparently seen as a challenge to Catherine the Great, Radishchev did not think of himself as a radical; he simply recorded what he saw. And what he witnessed is actually quite shocking, whichever way he tells it; the serfs had a terrible life, being no more than slaves, and it’s not surprising that anyone wanting change knew that freedom for the serfs was vital.

One particularly striking section is where the narrator dreams of being all-powerful, a regal power ruling over an obsequious court. This power goes to his head and he’s on the point of ordering the invasion of another country when the figure of truth appears in the form of a “Straight Seer and Eye Doctor” to show him the error of his ways. So it’s not surprising that Catherine perceived the book as a threat, is it?

Although medication always traveled with me just in case, it was according to the proverb “each wise man has his share of foolishness”: I was not forearmed against delirium, which is why my head, when I arrived at the postal station, was in worse shape than a wig stand.

“Journey…” was a fascinating read from start to finish (and often unexpectedly entertaining!), and I’m not surprised that it’s considered the precursor of all the subversive literature which followed in Russia, right up to Solzhenitsyn in the 20th century. It’s a text which I believe has been little known to the general reader of Russian literature up until now (certainly I hadn’t heard of it), so it’s particularly pleasing to have it rendered so readably into English by Kahn and Reyfman (I have heard that the Russian here is not always easy to translate). As with all CUP Russian Library titles, there’s an excellent introduction (here by the translators), plus copious supporting notes.

Radishchev (Public Domain – By Unidentified painter – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1265966)

Radishchev did not live a long life; on return from his exile to Siberia he was confined to his estate, but continued to try to work on political reforms in his country. Despite his efforts, he was unable to make changes, and in 1802, after mention of another possible exile, he took his own life. His most famous work, however, remains, as a wonderful insight into the Russia of Catherine the Great, its politics, its social issues and the suffering of the serfs. A fascinating book, and an essential read for anyone interested in the society, thought and literature of the time!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)