Russia is not generally thought of as a seafaring nation. It’s not that Russians were unfamiliar with travel by water, just that for centuries this meant plying the many lakes and vast river network of the great Eurasian landmass. It wasn’t until the reign of Peter the Great in the early 18th century that Russia acquired a modern navy and Russians took to the sea. Until then, while Britannia ruled the waves, Russia ruled the steppes.
In October 1852, the Russian sailing frigate Pallada weighed anchor at the naval port of Kronstadt in the Baltic Sea on a secret diplomatic mission of utmost importance – to induce Japan to open up to Russia. The voyage of the Pallada across the North Sea and the Atlantic, south around the Cape of Good Hope and northwards past Singapore and Hong Kong towards Nagasaki, a journey that lasted nearly two years, would have amounted to nothing more than a largely forgotten chapter in Russian history had it not been for the fact that the commander’s secretary, a bored, middle-aged bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance by the name of Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov, wrote an account of it.
Today Goncharov is best remembered as the author of Oblomov, a novel that Edyta Bojanowska, a professor of literature at Yale University, neatly characterises as being ‘about a quintessential Russian couch potato’. But for a long time he was more famous in his homeland for The Frigate Pallada, his account of the voyage, which was published the year before Oblomov in 1858. Many readers of A World of Empires, a fascinating, kaleidoscopic work buzzing with insight and overflowing with ideas, will be as taken aback by that fact as I was. Goncharov’s ‘forgotten masterpiece’, as she describes it, was read by just about every Russian who could read, from Anton Chekhov to Leonid Brezhnev. In the 19th century, Oblomov went through six editions; The Frigate Pallada, ten. So influential was the book that some historians have listed it as a contributing factor in Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5.
Goncharov embarked on the Pallada at a time of intense, bloody rivalry between the world’s great powers. The Crimean War started one year into the voyage and Goncharov reached Japan in August 1853, five weeks after the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s US squadron. The glories – and dangers – of imperial expansion hovered over Goncharov’s head as he travelled the world, encountering one empire after another – British, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and American. ‘Its overriding, if implicit message,’ Bojanowska writes of The Frigate Pallada, ‘was that Russia must catch up to its colonial rivals, especially the ever-energetic British. It must become a global contender in trade, resource extraction, and access to cheap labor markets.’
Later, Soviet writers cherry-picked Goncharov’s jabs at the British in an attempt to place him in the approved tradition of the 19th-century radical intelligentsia: anticolonial and antiracist, an unflinching defender of the dispossessed. And it’s not hard to find such sentiments, as in this description of the characteristic British merchant:
With his cold and austere gaze he follows the crowds of swarthy natives of the South, who, bathed in sweat, extract the precious sap of their soil, roll barrels toward the shore, and dispatch them into the distance. The masters reward them by the right to eat bread in their own land … ‘Rule, Britannia, upon the sea!’ I saw him on the sands of Africa, supervising the work of Negroes, on the plantations of India and China, amid bales of tea, commandeering nations, ships, cannons, and activating the immense powers of nature – all with just a gaze and a word, in his own native tongue. Everywhere, this image of the English merchant floats over the elements and over the labor of man, and triumphs over nature!
Bojanowska unpacks such utterances to show that they were not motivated by a rejection of colonialism or a defence of dark-skinned peoples, but rather by a feeling of ressentiment: deep down, Goncharov wished his fellow Russians would stand up off the couch, get their act together and do like the British, and soon. Otherwise, the game would be over and it would be too late. As she quite correctly comments, ‘It is the envy of the defeated that speaks loudest in this passage, not the moral outrage at the injustice of colonialism.’
Goncharov’s work is in fact a full-throated endorsement of empire and the white man’s burden, even if he didn’t quite see it that way (Goncharov beat up an African guide; then again, he also flogged a Russian servant). He is amazed at what the British have achieved so far from home, the way they’ve managed to remake the world in their own image – to subjugate it, to ‘civilise’ it, to profit from it. He sings the praises of globalisation and proclaims the wonders of fritrederstvo (free trade) and a connected world. Goncharov, in reaction to Tsar Nicholas I’s despotic isolationism, wants a Russia open to the world, albeit from the position of master, not subject.
These are just some of the many themes Bojanowska follows, and the book is a marvel for its catholicity. It’s a pity, however, that she has little to say about the voyage itself, since she’s such an excellent guide to every subject she chooses to take up. For a book about an epic ship voyage, there are only a few hints here about what it was like to sail around the world on the Pallada. One wants to know something about the weather, the smell of the sea air, the rolling of the waves, the crew, the food and life below decks. As she notes, The Naval Review lauded Goncharov’s book upon publication for the accuracy and vividness of his descriptions of life at sea. Bojanowska’s book describes a voyage of the mind, but leaves the body back at home.
A World of Empires abounds with intelligence, wit and erudition, and it is clear that Bojanowska has not only read everything pertaining to the topics addressed in her book, but also filtered all of this information carefully, squeezing as much meaning out of Goncharov’s text as possible. The depth and subtlety of her research are beyond doubt. However, her habit of citing one authority after another in order to lay the ground for the points she makes and to let other scholars know that there’s no relevant work that’s escaped her attention becomes tiresome. In a section on globalisation, she describes the work of five scholars on a single page. At times, one’s left with the aftertaste of academese. Her own interpretations are so enlightening and her own writing so engaging that one wishes she had not genuflected with such fealty to the conventions of the scholarly monograph.
The Pallada did not fare as well as Goncharov’s book. After its cannons had been removed and presented as gifts to the Japanese, the ship was scuttled off the coast of Sakhalin island in 1856 to keep it from falling into the hands of the British. But the British, it seems, would have had little use for it: not only was the vessel in terrible condition, but it had also been based on a British design. A new Pallada was built in 1989 in an attempt to revive the old glory of the tsarist navy. The contract for the design was awarded to a Pole and the construction was outsourced to a shipyard in Gdansk.