At the end of the first part of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville arrived at the famous conclusion that ‘there are on earth today two great peoples . . . the Russians and the Americans’—and, in seeming anticipation of the Cold War, suggested that ‘each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe’. Nor was the juxtaposition simply guided by landmass or population: America and Russia represented two opposed political and social structures for Tocqueville, the one an energetic ferment of democratic practices, the other the domain of unending tyranny and mute servility.
Iurii Lotman observed that Russia and America formed the outer limits of the European Enlightenment, its imaginative periphery; indeed, although Russia’s obsessive uncertainty about itself has a long history, its fascination with America could be seen as deriving originally from West European concerns. But by the 1820s, the future Decembrists were devising federal structures for Russia borrowed directly from the New World, and by the time of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the stark contrast between Nikolaevan repression and the freedoms of the nascent United States was becoming ever clearer, and the notion of America as Russia’s looking-glass counterpart or Manichean double was firmly in place. Aleksandr Etkind’s Tolkovanie puteshestvii: Rossiia i Amerika v travelogakh i intertekstakh (Interpretation of Voyages: Russia and America in Travelogues and Intertexts) is a fascinating and elegant attempt to trace, from a Russian perspective, the subsequent dynamics of the two countries’ perceptions of each other. Rather than attempt a systematic overview, however, Etkind opts for a series of case studies, on subjects ranging from Pushkin’s reaction to Tocqueville to the web of connexions between Vladimir Nabokov and Boris Pasternak, via discussions of Russian visitors to the US, American fellow travellers in the early Soviet period, and the friendship between Mikhail Bulgakov and William Bullitt, the first US ambassador to the USSR. The book overflows with intriguing details and often brilliant insights, and confirms Etkind as one of the most intellectually distinguished representatives of present-day Russian liberalism; but he is nonetheless not immune to certain of the latter’s symptomatic delusions.
In Russia, Tocqueville’s reflections—published in extracts in Russian or smuggled into the country in French—joined an ongoing debate about national destiny. In 1829 Petr Chaadaev had written in the first of his Lettres philosophiques that Russia was so backward as to be irrevocably shut out from history itself; but after being locked up in a mental asylum by Nicholas I, Chaadaev recanted—arguing, in his Apologie d’un fou of 1837, that it was precisely this distinctive backwardness that offered hope for the future, and that, in compensation for Russia’s present world-historical insignificance, destiny was preparing for the country a messianic role. The Marquis de Custine, meanwhile, visiting Russia in 1839 in an attempt to find counter-arguments to Tocqueville, arrived at the same conclusion as Chaadaev, but in a more sinister declension: ‘to cleanse itself of the shameful sacrifice of all personal and civil liberty, the kneeling slave dreams of world domination.’ Etkind begins with a triangulation of Tocqueville, Chaadaev and Pushkin. Chaadaev agreed with Tocqueville on Russia and America being, in world-historical terms, children—‘still in the act of growth’, in Tocqueville’s phrase; each was a tabula rasa awaiting the script of destiny. Chaadaev saw Russia’s adoption of Orthodox Christianity as the cause of its captivity in an endlessly recurring pre-history, but praised Peter the Great’s reforms as marking a point of historical origin, an attempt to shunt Russia into the flow of history. (Indeed, the Petrine reforms were for Chaadaev analogous to Columbus’s discovery of America—a parallel which has proved persistent in Russian culture, Moscow’s legendarily ugly statue of Peter by Zurab Tsereteli only the most recent example.) Peter the Great also held a fascination for Pushkin, as a revolutionary who broke the power of the old boyar nobility, creating in its place a service nobility that would fulfil the role of the bourgeoisie in Europe. In an unsent letter to Chaadaev, which the latter may have read after the poet’s death in 1837, Pushkin wrote that
until the time of Catherine II our rulers continued Peter’s revolution, instead of consolidating it . . . Aleksandr himself was a Jacobin revolutionary . . . The present emperor [Nicholas I] was the first to raise a bulwark (still very weak) against an inundation of democracy worse than that in America.
It was this notion that Russia had already had the necessary revolution that led Pushkin to react so negatively to Tocqueville, appalled at his phlegmatic contemplation of the horrors of democracy, and at an aristocrat’s surrender to mere bourgeois graft. Etkind reconstructs Pushkin’s reaction not only from direct references to Tocqueville—including a bizarre misrepresentation of Tocqueville’s views in a review of John Tanner’s sensationalist An Indian Captivity—but also from poems written at the time, and in particular ‘From Pindemonti’, in which Pushkin spurns the freedom to debate taxes: ‘I require a different, better freedom.’