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Not all Russian diplomats in America have had ice water in their veins and a ready “Nyet” upon their lips. One of the first of them left an illustrated record, subsequently “lost” for more than a century, which pictured a people he liked and a land he admired
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
The path of the Russian diplomat in America, like that of his American counterpart in Russia, is far from smooth. He must of necessity follow every tortuous twist and turn of international politics, and upon his shoulders he must carry the crushing burden of history. This has been particularly true since the Soviet Revolution of 1917, and the diplomat’s situation has grown even worse since the freeze in Russian-American relations that followed the brief thaw at Yalta.
It was not always so. One of the first Russians to come to America in an official capacity was an urbane and talented young man of twenty-four, Paul Svinin (to give his name its simplest Anglicized form), who joined his country’s first permanent embassy to the United States in Philadelphia in the late autumn of 1811 as secretary to the consul general, Andrey Yakovlevich Dashkov. Americans knew very little about the imperial Russia that had sent him; in the next two years Svinin did all he could to build up in their minds a favorable image of his native land, and subsequently to convey to his own countrymen some of the personal enthusiasm he developed for the nation to which he had been assigned. His spirited and informed commentaries—and his portfolio of water colors, from which those on the following pages have been selected—give a rare and valuable picture of a new republic and its people.
Such reputation as Russia had here when Svinin arrived was hardly favorable. In the early spring of 1779, when Americans were struggling for their independence, a report had reached Detroit by way of Montreal that 12,000 Russian troops—hired by George III from Catherine the Great—had landed at New York. The rumor turned out to be false, for though the King had indeed asked for Russian mercenaries, Catherine refused to become involved. On the other hand, when in 1780 the Americans in turn had tried to win her active support, she was even less responsive than she had been to the plea of their ex-king. Moreover, she refused to recognize America’s claim to independence until after England did, and when in the tragic “final” partition of Poland in 1795 her troops wounded and captured Thaddeus Kosciusko, the great Polish patriot so gratefully remembered here for his service in our own war for freedom, Americans were outraged. Catherine died the following year, and Philip Freneau, poet, editor, and irrepressible patriot, dashed off an epitaph which, with more passion than judgment, gave voice to America’s indignation:
She would have sent her Tartar bands To waste and ravage Gallic lands , She would have sent her legions o’er, Columbia! to invade your shore!
There were those in Russia who were also disenchanted with Catherine’s autocratic rule, notably an intellectual elite who found in what they had heard of the American revolutionary experience a pattern for their own political and social ideals, and a strong contradiction to the unfortunate realities of Russian life. Foremost among this group, although an aristocrat and a member of the imperial Russian government under Catherine, was Alexander Radishchev, who penned a long ode to the young republic in the New World. For this and other libertarian sentiments Radishchev earned a ten-year exile in Siberia, from which he returned unregenerate to write further passionate eulogies of American freedom, justice, and huinanitarianism. He concluded, however, that Russians did not have enough evidence to draw an “exact” picture of the American scene.
Almost a quarter of a century passed before they would have that evidence, for in the years following the Treaty of Paris the United States withdrew from “foreign entanglements” and Russia was preoccupied with problems on the Continent. As so often since, it was mutual self-interest—each wanted support from the other in meeting troubles arising out of the Napoleonic Wars—that drew the two nations together. In October of 1809, John Quincy Adams was dispatched to St. Petersburg (see “The Yankee and the Czar” in the February, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE ); Dashkov (and later Paul Svinin) was sent to America.
Svinin was a well-educated youth, master of several Western languages, and as a member of the Russian Foreign Office he was already widely travelled in Europe. He was also an artist of academic rank. Just two or three days before his departure for America he had been elected to membership in the Academy of Fine Arts at St. Petersburg, where only a few years earlier he had been a student. Some idea of the unchangeable tides of taste in Russia can be gathered from a description of his membership-winning canvas: “The celebrated hero, Suvorov, resting, after a battle, on straw, by a stream, in a tent made of cloaks fastened to Cossack spears, with a military camp and groups of horses, Cossacks, soldiers and Turkish prisoners filling the background, as morning breaks and the dawn begins to gild Nature.” Change the characters into deserving proletarians and their enemies, and it would probably still win a Soviet prize as an example of solid contemporary art.