Douglas Smith

Before Oblomov

A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate 'Pallada'


Harvard University Press 384pp £25.95 order from our bookshop

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.

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