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.’

Etkind seeks a definition of what this other freedom might be via Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative and positive liberty—freedom from interference, or freedom for self-realization. For Berlin the two forms of liberty were often in conflict, with the former deserving constant protection as the fundament of liberal society, and the latter to be approached with caution, lest it serve as a royal road to an all-pervasive despotism. Etkind argues that for Pushkin, in the repressive conditions of the 1830s in Russia, even negative liberty became an unattainable ideal, a Romantic idyll of unassailable refuge figured in his works by his protagonists’ constant departures into the unknown.

But if Pushkin thought the Russian service nobility, from whose ranks he came, were sufficient to the task fulfilled in Europe and in Tocqueville’s America by the bourgeoisie, he had more difficulty finding a Russian counterpart for the religion that held American democracy together. As Chaadaev pointed out, the Orthodox Church stood outside society as part of the state. For Pushkin, this state was the only possible agent of progress in Russia, but others looked to the multiplicity of sects dissenting from Orthodoxy, as a suppressed ‘popular Church’ amounting to a fragmentary Russian Reformation. Etkind’s earlier work, Khlyst (1998), takes its title from one of these sects—a group of flagellants who held property in common and practised sexual abstinence, except during moments of collective divine inspiration—and argues that Russian Modernism was greatly influenced by the sectarian tradition, and by its attempts to address key issues of property, familial and sexual relations. Here Etkind moves onto a discussion of the influence of sects on early Russian radicals, and in particular the connexion between Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s ideas and the ‘Biblical communism’ of John Humphrey Noyes. Members of Noyes’s community in Oneida, NY held all property in common, and practised ‘complex marriage’—the unlimited exchange of sexual partners—combined with ‘male continence’, to prevent the formation of family groups within the community. Noyes’s ideas were imported to Russia by an American citizen called Ivan Grigorev, who set up experimental communities among the khlysts and the Bible-reading molokan sects of Samara in the late 1850s. Chernyshevsky would have known about Noyes and Grigorev when writing What is to be Done? in 1863, in which the main character, Vera Pavlovna, has a sequence of dreams depicting a gleaming future in which people live in a crystal palace and relations between the sexes are unbounded by monogamy; her ideas are informed by Rakhmetov, recently returned from America.