Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

by Alexander Radishchev, translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman

reviewed by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

While Alexander Radishchev’s 1790 Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow is ostensibly traveler’s notes from the 450-or-so miles between the two resplendent centers of the late eighteenth-century Russian Empire, it is not a compilation of ethnographic observations. Instead, readers travel through a highly crafted reflection on the Enlightenment ideals of equality, justice, and progress. The most famous work by a career civil servant who also wrote poetry, nonfiction, and philosophy, the sui generis Journey collages together monologues from fellow travelers, found texts describing utopian social reform, and surreal dream visions to indict Russian society under the rule of Catherine the Great—especially for its reliance on the labor of enserfed peasants.

The brazen text earned its author a death sentence, later commuted to exile for life, though Radishchev may not have expected such a harsh response. Since taking the throne in 1762, Catherine had modeled herself as the ideal enlightened autocrat. The actual overthrow of the French monarchy cooled her progressive fervor, however, and Radishchev’s timing was unfortunate. His Journey was censored out of print for the duration of the nineteenth century, but after the Bolshevik revolution, its author was sanctified as Russia’s first anti-monarchist martyr.

Despite the book’s historical importance, it is virtually unknown outside of Russian studies. One reason is that it is notoriously difficult to read in Russian, written in sometimes intentionally archaic language with complex syntax and page-long sentences. The previous English translation, published in 1958, replicates all of this awkwardness and none of its style. In this new translation by Irina Reyfman and Andrew Kahn, Radishchev’s circuitous locutions are presented, for the first time, in idiosyncratic but eminently readable English. Recognizing the opacity of Radishchev’s prose as a purposeful stylistic choice, as Reyfman and Kahn do in their excellent introduction, not only makes the text newly accessible to a wide readership; it is also crucial to understanding its meaning.

Journey begins with a revelation: “I felt within myself strength enough to resist error; and—unspeakable joy!—I sensed that everyone has the ability to participate in doing good for his equal.” This is both a starting and ending point: the narrative that follows seeks to produce in its reader the same revelation, but it will take some work on the reader’s part. Throughout Journey, when physical beauty, social harmony, and material finery appear, they are almost always revealed as illusory. These trappings obscure the core equality of all people, and hence the moral blight of serfdom. Readers must come to feel this moral outrage viscerally within themselves—that every pleasure and privilege enjoyed by the noble class is, in essence, drinking “peasants’ tears”—rather than simply knowing it with their reason. Radishchev wants his reader to taste the salt.

The narrator’s journey takes place as much within his psyche as it does in physical space. In an early chapter, the narrator dreams he is a great ruler, surrounded by finery and fawning subjects. An old woman comes to see him; she is the “Straight Seer and Eye Doctor.” She cures his “cataracts” and transforms his perception. The King realizes he is covered in literal rot: “On my fingers I could see the remains of a human brain, my feet stood in mire. Those standing around me looked even more vile. Their entire innards looked black and consumed by the dull flame of insatiability.” Radishchev’s travelogue is meant to serve as a truth serum of the kind served up by the Straight Seer. Its readers will struggle to understand it, but that is precisely the point: thanks to the struggle, the truth will be felt, rather than mistaken for another illusory surface. Upon waking, the narrator has a message for the “rulers of the world”: “if in reading my dream you should smile sarcastically or furrow your brow, know this: the female wanderer I saw has flown away far from you and shuns your palace.” One begins to imagine the Empress’s enraged response.

Although formally unique, Journey belongs squarely to the history of European Enlightenment thought; Laurence Sterne is one influence, as are the philosophical writings of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The new translation will be an important addition to courses on Russian literature and history and the European Enlightenment. But Radishchev’s Journey is also worth reading for anyone seeking to square a belief in the goodness of humanity with the reality of structural injustice that is as much the basis of contemporary American society, as it was of Imperial Russian society in 1790. Reyfman and Kahn have preserved the strange, stilted style of Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow while also capturing the searing moral outrage that motivated its writing. One gets the sense that, whether or not Radishchev knew that he would invoke his ruler’s wrath, he did not much care: what he wrote, he had to write.

Published on April 16, 2021