Russianness Under Foreign Skies: On Edyta M. Bojanowska’s “A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada”

March 10, 2019   •   By Yelena Furman

A World of Empires

Edyta M. Bojanowska

IN THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS section of her monograph, Edyta M. Bojanowska admits that “writing a study of a single book that few people have read seemed a risky move.” The single book in question is Ivan Goncharov’s The Frigate Pallada (1858), a 700-page travelogue about the voyage of the titular ship, which sailed between 1852 and 1854 from the Gulf of Finland to England; the Cape of Good Hope; Java, Singapore, and Hong Kong; Japan and, briefly, Shanghai and the islands south of Japan; Manila and Korea; and finally Siberia, where Goncharov parted company with the crew and made an overland journey back to St. Petersburg. Commissioned by the Russian government, the sailing voyage had a “top-secret mission” that the authorities hoped would get Russia out of its mid-19th-century economic slump: “to open up Japan, a country that for two centuries had kept a strict isolation from Europeans, to western trade” before the Americans, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, could do so. In this early version of the Cold War, the Americans got to Japan first, which in the end did not matter, as the Japanese negotiated trade treaties with both. Goncharov, a well-known writer, was offered the job of secretary to the ship’s commander because the government wanted “a literary man” to produce a record of the trip for Russian readers (the mission, if successful, would not remain a secret).

After publishing The Frigate Pallada, Goncharov wrote the novel Oblomov (1859). It is ironic that this text, whose eponymous protagonist is too lazy to leave his couch and thus never accomplishes anything, was produced by someone who traveled the world. There is a further irony in terms of the success of the two works. In its day, The Frigate Pallada was a best seller due to its rather unusual nature. As Bojanowska says, Goncharov rejected the requirement of travel writing to provide detailed histories of places visited. Instead, he wrote the travelogue as an account of his personal, often humorous, impressions of lands and people, including the other crew members, structuring it as a series of letters in a conversational style to a friend back home in St. Petersburg. While some critics chastised the author for failing to provide important information, the Russian public loved his more personable approach. Anton Chekhov read the book when preparing for his own trip to the Sakhalin penal colony in Siberia. Today, however, Goncharov is primarily known for Oblomov, which has become a staple of Russian literature courses, whereas the travelogue is largely ignored.

In A World of Empires, Bojanowska makes the convincing case for resurrecting this work because of what it shows — or hides — in relation to today’s postcolonial, globalized world. Bojanowska’s monograph fills in the historical gaps that Goncharov’s more personal account leaves out. The Frigate Pallada refers, for example, to the British-Xhosa Wars in southern Africa, the Taiping Rebellion in China, which went on while Goncharov was in Shanghai, and the Crimean War, which broke out while the ship was on its voyage. But these events remain in the background, while the author’s interactions with both white colonizers and nonwhite colonial subjects take center stage. By skillfully placing The Frigate Pallada within its historical framework and analyzing its rhetorical strategies, Bojanowska reads the travelogue, as she states in her introduction, as a tool for

popularizing imperialism as such […] No mere collection of impressions, this was a book that made arguments, at times polemical ones […] The Frigate Pallada championed Europe’s and Russia’s imperial expansion and colonial activity, presenting them as hallmarks of modernity, progress, and global capitalism.

Bojanowska contends that Russia’s complicated relationship to Europe was a key factor for the nation’s expansion into Asia, as well as for Goncharov’s image of Russia in the travelogue. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853–’56) by a French and British alliance with the Ottoman Empire “made modernization a pressing concern,” ushering in the period of Alexander II’s reforms. The most famous of these was the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, but the Russian Empire also realized the need to modernize its “instruments of imperial rule,” particularly its “colonization policy.” It turned to Asia, seeking to expand its sphere of influence in a place with a less pronounced European presence. Doing so would allow Russia to compete with the European powers that had long treated it as backward — that is, insufficiently European — in the geopolitical arena of empire building. As Bojanowska writes, in her characteristically lively style:

Goncharov’s book creates a stage on which nineteenth-century European and American empires can be seen to engage in a diplomatic tango — a dance in which Russia was by no means a wallflower. Like the tango, the interaction among them was full of tense energy, dramatic lunges, and close contact, at once uncomfortable and exciting.

Goncharov presents the imperial efforts of the frigate delegation as part of a collective “civilizing” mission in which Russia participates on par with other European empires (its competition with the United States was not nearly as pronounced). The fact that the travelogue “projected this [European] affiliation strongly was a big part of its appeal” to a Russian reading public eager to see themselves on equal footing with the Europeans.

The first four chapters in Bojanowska’s book retrace the geographical trajectory of Goncharov’s travelogue. They demonstrate and analyze the ways in which he projects Russia’s image as a European nation while at times using Europe’s colonial maneuvers as a commentary on Russia’s own. The first chapter of The Frigate Pallada — which, as Bojanowska points out, Goncharov wrote last — opens in London, where the vessel had to dock unexpectedly for repairs. Goncharov’s attitude toward the British is twofold. On one hand, in a standard Russian maneuver, he criticizes them for what he perceives as un-Russian modes of behavior (for example, too practical), as well as for unnecessary cruelty toward their colonized subjects. Bojanowska suggests that such criticism stems in large part from Russia’s defeat by the British (among others) in the Crimean War, which had occurred by the time he wrote this chapter. On the other hand — and this attitude comes out more strongly — Goncharov reveres the British for their “colonizing prowess.” Later in the chapter, when he finds himself in the Cape Colony, he rigidly differentiates the enterprising British from the “lethargic Dutch,” whom he sees as unable to fulfill the imperial “civilizing” mission. “The homing beacon for Goncharov’s observations about other empires was ultimately the Russian one,” and identifying with the powerful British implied that Russia was their (potential) European equal.

Goncharov’s assertion of a Eurocentric point of view manifests itself in his racial stereotyping of Africans as less than fully human — Bojanowska takes particular note of the episode with a San prisoner, where Goncharov’s “revulsion feels visceral” — as well as in the construction of the chapter itself. In writing about the Cape Colony, he focuses on British rather than African experiences: “The Frigate Pallada summons an image less of Africa than of the European presence in Africa.” He presents the Xhosa Wars, “the most powerful anti-colonial challenge in South African history,” as disputes over stolen cattle that the British are forced to quell. But Bojanowska also argues that there is another reason for Goncharov to present the rebellion this way, a reason related to Russia’s imperial ventures in its own backyard. The Xhosa Wars, in which indigenous inhabitants fought the European occupiers over a protracted period of time, resembled Russia’s entrenched war in the Caucasus. Making an explicit connection between the two conflicts while siding with the British, Goncharov projects the image of righteous white Europeans both abroad and at home.

Following the frigate’s journey, the second and third chapters of Bojanowska’s book move to Asia. As Bojanowska writes, “Even today, Goncharov’s account of a globalized world reads as strikingly modern.” He sees Asia as a hub for migration and free trade that reinforces the workings of “international imperial elites.” The dizzying circulation of free trade is encapsulated for him in the image, thrillingly exotic for a Russian, of cheap and widely available pineapples. Given the proximate geography and shared history of Russia and Asia, Goncharov feels more at home here than he did in Africa. He becomes friendly with some of the Japanese officials who come aboard the frigate to negotiate because Japanese laws prevent foreigners from stepping onto their territory. He also aims sharp criticism at the British in China for the effects of the opium trade on the native population.

Yet ultimately Eurocentrism remains the 19th-century Russian author’s default position. While Goncharov sees Africa as a young land waiting to be colonized by its European civilizers, he views Asia as an old and tired land in desperate need of European rejuvenation (Bojanowska suggests that his stridency may be partially motivated by the captivity in which the Russians were held on the frigate). Japan in particular needs European help, since it has been closed off from the world for so long, and Goncharov “infantilizes [the Japanese] more than any other ethnicity in The Frigate Pallada.” Eager for his nation to “regain its footing in imperialism’s geopolitical race,” Goncharov proposes Russia as being uniquely suited to the challenge, while oscillating between the type of help it should provide. On one hand, in keeping with his more benign views on Asia, he proposes peaceful means, including, crucially, the introduction of Christianity. On the other, he advocates military intervention to ensure “Russia’s immediate forcible entry into Japan,” invoking “images of cannons and bayonets.” All the same, he unquestioningly presents Russia’s opening up of Japan as beneficial for the latter. Indeed, the “Japanese chapters,” Bojanowska writes, “model for the Russian public how to embark on imperial ventures and feel good about them.”

As Bojanowska’s next chapter shows, this feel-good sentiment about imperial undertakings permeates Goncharov’s discussion of Siberia, Russia’s settler colony, through which he journeys back to St. Petersburg after leaving the ship. Writing after the outbreak of the Crimean War, Goncharov is aware of the need “to project Siberia as Russia’s success story” while now differentiating Russian imperial practices from those of its European war rivals. Bojanowska demonstrates how, in talking about Siberia, Goncharov employs a sleight-of-hand rhetorical strategy. Despite the similarities in practices by the British in Africa and the Russians in Siberia, he does not present Siberia as a colony and avoids colonial terminology in referring to it, adopting the viewpoint that colonization only applies to countries other than your own. Contiguous with Russia, Siberia becomes, in this formulation, a “settlement” of indigenous people that await being brought into European Russia’s fold. “Boosterism suffuses this section,” Bojanowska writes; Goncharov issues an “invitation for Russians to come to Siberia and participate in a heroic feat” of colonizing it. By projecting Siberia not as a colony to be forcibly handled but rather as a periphery to be humanely Russianized by the center, Goncharov presents “Russia’s civilizing activities [as] marked by disinterestedness, benevolence, and peacefulness,” making Russians superior to the Europeans in the imperial game. In this way, Goncharov constructs for his readers “an idealized picture of the Russian conquest and rule in Siberia,” a myth Bojanowska sees as persisting in Russia today.

Having finished with Goncharov’s trip, Bojanowska devotes the last two chapters of her book to specific themes. The penultimate chapter deals with cultural diversity and Goncharov’s Eurocentric attitude toward differences in identity. Rather than attempting to find out what those he met were actually like, Goncharov saddled them with the racial stereotypes he brought with him. The Frigate Pallada promulgates a racial hierarchy in which the low-ranking Africans and the mid-ranking Asians need white, and obviously Christian, domestication (the few instances where Goncharov mentions Jews, he displays age-old Russian antisemitism, including using the standard derogatory term “zhid”). In this chapter, Bojanowska most forcefully fleshes out the idea running throughout her monograph: “For all the book’s humor and gregariousness, this racial and ethnic prejudice is likely to alienate modern-day readers.” Indeed, this element makes reading the travelogue a largely unpleasant experience. At the same time, she argues that it should still be read, because “[o]nly by analyzing racial and ethnic stereotypes in the texts that gave them currency can we understand these stereotypes’ legacies.” The Frigate Pallada is also a valuable document of self-identity, as the “‘Russianness’ of Russians comes into sharper focus for Goncharov under foreign skies,” both in comparison with other European nations and in the ways in which the Russians are seen by the colonized subjects.

In the last chapter, Bojanowska discusses the “afterlife” of the travelogue beyond the 19th century, focusing on its ideological uses. She notes that under Alexander II, “Goncharov’s assertion of Russia’s colonizing mission in Siberia in particular became a cornerstone of the ministry’s official ideology” for center-periphery relations; in the 20th century, as the Soviet Union declared itself an anti-imperialist state, censors excised the overtly pro-imperialist sections when republishing the travelogue; and in Putin’s Russia, where there is now an ebook and an audiobook version, the travelogue is once again being promoted because it “continues to resonate with the concerns of post-Soviet Russian culture, which is seeking its own reconnections with imperial-era grandeur.” Bojanowska’s is a meticulously researched, highly informative, engagingly written work that both elucidates Goncharov’s text and, ultimately, outshines it.


Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian-American literature, and Anton Chekhov.