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
The inventiveness of Americans in general, an inevitable consequence of insufficient manpower in a land of enormous resources and limited capital, he found remarkable. Everything from sawing rocks and making bricks to cobbling shoes and milling flour, he said extravagantly, was done by machine. Yet almost everyone worked hard. Money was the American’s god, but piety and the natural wealth of the land sustained his morals.
In spite of barbaric electioneering practices and political party feuds, the nation’s laws were wise and just, and the people had proved themselves worthy of their dearly won liberties. Because of lack of experience the army was in poor shape, but the individual soldiers were brave, and given adequate training they would excel the armies of other countries. The multiplicity of races and religious sects gave strange and wonderful testimony to a spirit of true tolerance and of humanitarianism, a spirit Svinin noted elsewhere in the numerous and well-managed charitable institutions and the notably progressive penal institutions. Thanks to the broadening influence of popular education, every American muzhik could intelligently discuss an astonishing range of topics. And so on.
As in Freneau’s time, an influential part of the American press was again beating the drums against the Russian menace. While Svinin was still here, the War of 1812 broke out. As we struggled with England, Russia—allied with our enemy and others—swept into France, banished Napoleon to Elba, and won new importance in the European balance of power.
Thomas Jefferson’s friend Czar Alexander, who earlier had offered to negotiate a just peace in our own war, had rather given support to our adversary, and his barbarians had covered themselves with French watches as booty from a more civilized world (in much the same way, Soviet troops would collect wristwatches during World War II). To Hezekiah Niles, editor of the influential Niles Weekly Register , the worst was only too true. Catherine, he reminded his readers, had murdered her husband and afterward lived in “open whoredom” with “a regiment of male prostitutes”; Alexander was a parricide; and the Cossacks were bloodthirsty savages “but little milder than some of the Indians of North America.” “God help the world,” wailed the editor, “when religion, order , and law are to be supported by Russians.” In keeping with this sorry estimate of the Russian character, the Russian consul general was arrested and briefly jailed in Philadelphia the following year on a charge of having raped a twelve-year-old servant girl.
However ineffective his reports on Russia were in America, Svinin’s reports on the United States seem to have fared well enough abroad. His Picturesque Voyage in North America , published in St. Petersburg in 1815, went into a second edition within a few years and was promptly translated into Dutch and German. As the first eyewitness reports by an intelligent and perceptive Russian, his writings must have been read with particular interest by his liberal-minded countrymen. In 1818 Svinin established the review Otechesteenniya Zapiski , to which he occasionally contributed articles on American history and affairs until the publication folded in 1830. In all events, the romantic admiration for America that helped to fire the most enlightened Russian revolutionaries did not diminish after Svinin’s return to his homeland. One of the most prominent and radical of them, who was shortly afterward hanged for conspiracy against the czarist regime, wrote an opinion which history has underscored with irony: “There are no good governments but in America.”
Across the Atlantic, the old specter of a Russian invasion gradually faded from public memory, to be replaced by a different and completely contrary image, and one that had no more real substance. For generations of Americans, Catherine came to be remembered not as that “ravenous she-bear” whose hordes once threatened our shores, but rather as the “mother” of our independence who had refused her troops to George III and whose policy of armed neutrality had done so much at a critical period of the American Revolution to distract England’s sea power. On both counts, of course, Catherine’s unselfish interest in our cause was vastly overrated. As well she might, she had been playing her own game.
Nevertheless, during the waning months of World War I, American liberals chose to remember her refusal to provide an invasion force and on this score protested the use of American doughboys in Siberia and North Russia to aid in suppressing the Bolshevists. But international relationships at the level of state diplomacy are not and never have been directed by sentimental motives. Over the course of a century and a half, until quite recent years, Russia (like continental China) remained one of the most constant, traditional friends of the United States because there was no actual conflict of national interest. What would have been the difference in history, one wonders, if hireling Cossacks had come to America instead of the substitute Hessians? Conversely, one wonders how different the course of more recent American-Russian relations might have been had the two nations always exchanged envoys with the open mind and superb powers of observation that characterized young Paul Svinin.