- Historic Sites
Voyage Pittoresque Aux Etats-unis De L’amÉrique.
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
As an intellectual and a seasoned traveller Svinin well knew what “ridiculous wonders and strange falsehoods” were circulating abroad about Russia and Russians, and he must have quickly realized that his country had not enjoyed a very good press in America. He immediately set about putting the record straight. Within a few months of his arrival he had two articles published in The Philadelphia Port Folio , then a leading American periodical. One was a eulogy of his sovereign, Czar Alexander I, grandson of Catherine; the other a sympathetic account of the Cossacks, and each had an illustration after a drawing by the author. Before he returned to Russia he also had published in Philadelphia a book that gave Americans a more detailed report on his native land. Like America, he explained, Russia was rapidly transforming a wilderness into attractive cities, and it, too, was rising to new and great importance in the world.
Svinin was neither the first nor the last to point out the resemblances between the bear and the eagle, but some of his arguments were unique. Like America, he observed, Russia was an asylum for the unfortunate and the persecuted, and like Americans, Russians practiced complete religious freedom. Witness to those facts was that, although immigrants from a dozen other European lands had fled to America, no Russians had found it necessary to leave the benign jurisdiction of the Czar. Later and elsewhere he explained this by pointing out that the Russian peasant who felt oppressed by the injustices of the Russian agrarian order or by the religious persecutions of the Orthodox Church could always find refuge by fleeing to remote parts of the vast empire, to Siberia if need be, without having to cross the Atlantic.
For his own favorable prejudices toward America, Svinin was very probably indebted to such writings as Radishchev’s. In any event, he found almost everything about the young nation admirable, except the Philadelphia summers, which then, as ever, were almost intolerable. His official duties apparently did not begin to fill his time. For one thing, aside from a few colleagues in the foreign service, he found no Russians in the United States, although he discovered a few impostors who for “credit or speculation” claimed to be Russians. For twenty months this cosmopolitan traveller roamed about the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Virginia, interviewing people of importance and men in the streets and shops, attending learned assemblies, art openings, camp meetings, and Indian tribal ceremonies, and sketching what particularly caught his eye.
His anecdotal approach to art was well suited to graphic journalism. He was reporting for a remote and completely alien, but curious, audience, and he caught some likenesses of the American scene overlooked by other reporting artists of the time. His fine close-ups of life in the streets of Philadelphia and on the Hudson River have the candid, romantic realism that made Currier and Ives lithographs so popular a half century later, and they were unique in their day. Only six of them were reproduced during Svinin’s own lifetime. In his last published work he made casual reference to the portfolio he had compiled, at which point it disappeared from all notice for almost a century. So, to all intents, did his writings on the New World. The dramatic and almost simultaneous rediscovery of both in the 1920’s (see page 52), was one of those “angelical conjunctions of events” (as Cotton Mather would have said) that practically never happens in the course of historical research.
Svinin was a highly competent observer. He warned his readers not to be misled by English and French accounts of the American Revolution. Conditions changed too rapidly in this new country, he cautioned, to permit any lasting and valid analysis. His own sympathies for what he was reporting, however, often weighted his judgment and led to comments that would seem incongruous from a latter-day Russian visitor. The fruits of private enterprise he found omnipresent and impressive. Just before his arrival, a New York merchant, one “Ivan Astor,” whom he subsequently interviewed, had sent an overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest for a harvest of furs, and two ships around the Horn to join the land force at an appointed rendezvous. “This expedition will cost him 250,000 rubles,” Svinin reported. “What an enterprise for a private citizen! May it be crowned with success.”
He was struck by the remarkable growth of public works—canals, roads, and, particularly, handsome bridges, some of which were “truly worthy of the glorious age of the Roman empire”—that were being engineered and promoted almost entirely without government aid. In this respect Robert Fulton’s steamboats, which he had watched in their early trials on the Hudson River, fascinated Svinin. The spectacle of the Paragon , Fulton’s third Hudson River boat, with its polished and gleaming accommodations for 150 passengers—with wine, food, and even ice cream for the most fastidious—carried Svinin to heights of exultation. Soon, he prophesied, such craft would be crossing oceans and bringing back treasures from all parts of the world. The profits from this happy invention, he noted, were already attractive—each boat returned about forty thousand rubles a year—and he tried to secure for himself a monopoly for building them in Russia, where they would, among other things, release the Volga boatmen from their endless toil along the river and put them to endless toil behind the plough, where they would do more good. But nothing came of this private enterprise.