THE lands of America set alight by the Conquest were still blazing when, at the other end of the world, in distant Muscovy, a theologian by the name of Maximus the Greek (1475-1556) had already recounted the exploits of the Spanish and Portuguese. His information was inaccurate, to say the least, and he did not even mention the name of Columbus. Nevertheless, he grasped the significance of the Discovery and predicted that a new human community would emerge from the coming-together of the Europeans and the indigenous peoples.
News from America was slow to reach Russia and what little there was came piecemeal from European sources. It was not until the eighteenth century, during the reign of Peter the Great, that the Russians set up trading links with the American territories and came into contact with the inhabitants of California, which at that time was a province of the Vice-royalty of New Spain. They were thus able to add to their geographical knowledge and gain a clearer picture of America.
Russian society was above all interested in the Conquest as an event of global significance, and it was as such that it came to feature in the works of such leading authors as the poet and scientist Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), the dramatist Aleksandr Sumarokov (1718-1778), the great fable-writer Ivan Krylov (1769-1844), and the poet Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816). Sumarokov puts forward a highly personal view of the Conquest in his "Conversation in the Kingdom of the Dead", consisting of a dialogue between Cortes and Montezuma, in which the conquistador claims that he owes his victory to the hatred for the Aztec emperor felt by his own subjects. The moral which the author, as a freethinker and fierce critic of absolutism, draws is perfectly clear: rulers must take care not to lapse into tyranny.
These eighteenth-century writings bleed with compassion for enslaved and oppressed indigenous peoples. They denounce the shackles of colonialism, but what their authors are really doing is to use America to point an accusing finger at RuSsian serfdom, which is likened to the institution of slavery in the American colonies.
This analogy is also drawn in the celebrated Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, by Aleksandr Radischev (1749-1802), the first plea for the abolition of serfdom in a country where two-thirds of the population were deprived of all rights. In one passage, Radischev recalls the summer afternoons when he lingered on the quayside, watching the ships from America that had brought back their rich cargoes of sugar, coffee, dyes and other precious fruits of the earth, still damp from the sweat, blood and tears of the people who had grown them. In this connection, the author makes an oblique allusion whose meaning only later becomes plain, when he writes: "Remember, as a friend once told me to do, that the coffee you pour in your cup and the sugar you dissolve in it were the cause of the martyrdom of your fellow-men and the reason for untold torture and outrage".
Radischev's pamphlet incurred the wrath of the Empress Catherine II and he was hauled before the courts. It was only then that the name of the unknown friend who had denounced the fruits grown with the sweat and blood of the American slaves became known. Radischev admitted that he had drawn inspiration from the Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, which had been published in 1770 by the abbe Guillaume Raynal, a French philosopher. It is hardly surprising that Radischev should have referred to a thinker of the French Enlightenment, since Russian culture in the eighteenth century was profoundly influenced by that movement and embraced the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Marmontel, among others.
The Enlightenment reached Spanish America at the end of the eighteenth century, at the very outset of the anti-colonialist movement, which made Raynal's work the spearhead of its struggle against Spain. Here again, France was the go-between in the dialogue that was established between Russia and the Ibero-American world.
In Russia, Simon Bolivar became an almost legendary figure and enjoyed a vast reputation, which gave rise to a widespread fashion for a type of broad-brimmed hat imported from France. This exotic headgear is even mentioned in one of the masterworks of Russian literature, Eugene Onegin, the verse novel by Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837). The structuralist and semiologist Yuri Lotman has pointed out that the hat, which had been taken as a symbol by the Spanish American rebels, was used for the same purpose by the French liberals and was sported by the freethinkers and dandies of St. Petersburg, where it was known as a bolivar.
FROM THE RUSSIAN STEPPES 10 THE ALTIPLANO
Later, Russian visitors to America were particularly struck by the originality of the continent. However, their fascination with the splendour of the landscape did not prevent them from voicing their opposition to slavery. The exaltation of nature and the urge for freedom that were the characteristic features of nineteenth-century Romanticism profoundly influenced their view of the Latin American world.
As well as the logs kept by mariners, which are full of vivid although necessarily brief descriptions, there are more substantial accounts whose authors have not so much attempted to describe the landscapes as to analyse their views on the new social, political and ethnic issues which they encountered.
Aleksandr Rotchev, a writer who visited several Caribbean countries at this period, saw for himself the danger which Notch American expansionism represented for Central America and was appalled at "the cruelty of the customs and the intolerable treatment which the North Americans meted out to the natives of the country".
In the meantime, at the other end of the continent, Russian travellers repeatedly expressed their astonishment at the gauchos. In his "Voyage across the pampa of Buenos Aires", Platon Chikhachov, who crossed the vast plains of La Plata, admitted to feeling a mixture of admiration and fear for these proud, intrepid horsemen, with their haughty independence.
The accounts of Russian travellers in the New World are so varied that it is difficult to draw any general conclusions from them. However, nearly all of them, no matter how great their sense of wonderment at the landscapes, were unable to stifle their nostalgia for their far-off homeland.
There are insistent echoes of the siren call of Russia in "Through South America", a monumental work by the writer and diplomat Aleksandr Ionin, who lived in the region from 1892 to 1896. Ionin had a sharp and enquiring mind and described his experiences with a somewhat lofty detachment, although without losing sight of the finer points of detail. However, the interest and originality of this major work lies in the ideas he developed in it. These are encapsulated in his prose poem "Lake Titicaca", in which he departs from the Eurocentric view of history. At an altitude of 4,000 metres, beside a lake close to the sky, he experiences a kind of revelation. As he contemplates the natural wonders, he suddenly realizes that nature and culture are inseparably linked and that rational thinking stands condemned because it has been unwilling to recognize that fact. He writes: "I then saw that my native steppes, like these high plateaux, do not conform to the theories of life drawn from the writings of the Old World and that they both have to inspire us to look for new ways of thinking and reasoning."
Another illustrious visitor to the New World was the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who arrived in Mexico in 1905 and immersed himself in the atmosphere of the ancient Indian civilization which, he confessed, filled him with "feelings of magic". Like Ionin, he calls on his readers to acknowledge the limitations of the self-absorbed European view of things and urges them "to look out on plains and valleys, not from little Mont Blanc swarming with tourists but from the volcanic heights of gigantic Chimborazo and its snow-capped peaks, at the feet of which the Peruvians built temples of gold to the Sun and of silver to the Moon".
A NEW DIALOGUE
At the end of the nineteenth century, what had hitherto been an embryonic dialogue really began to take shape with the publication of the classics of Russian literature in Latin America, where the works of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gorky aroused considerable interest. The Latin Americans discovered the harsh predicament of the Russian people, weighed down by the burden of social and spiritual bondage, and succumbed to the attraction of the "naturalist mysticism" in which "these vast and mysterious fastnesses" are steeped. The Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri sees the Russian people as having "secret affinities in terms of their sensibility, fatalistic outlook and taste for the tragic", which links them to the people of Latin America.
It is perhaps in these affinities that we should look for an explanation for the extraordinary commotion which the Russian Revolution of 1917 caused in Latin America. It was not by chance that Pablo Neruda and Jorge Amado should have been the first to acquaint the Russians with their wild continent and its tragic beauty and life-enhancing energy. Russian readers were enthralled by Amado's Tetras do Sero-Fin (The Violent Land) and moved by the exuberant poetry of Neruda's Canto General, in whose stanzas the entire history of Latin America unfolds.
The creative freedom of the new novel, as practised by Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vatgas Llosa, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a source of fascination to Soviet writers. Chingiz Aitmatov said that, after having read Garcia Marquez, he could no longer write in the same way as before. Whereas some fifty years earlier Latin Americans felt a spiritual kinship with the characters of the Russian novel, Russians now see something of themselves reflected in the Latin American novel.
The publication of the Russian translation of El senor Presidente (The President) by Miguel Angel Asturias, with its gripping portrait of a small country ground down by dictatorship, alerted us to the machinery of death operated by tyrannical Latin American regimes. In the 1970s, three other novels on the same subject had a resounding success. These were El Recurso del metodo (Reasons of State) by Alejo Carpentier, Yo, el Supremo (I, the Chief) by Augusto Roa Bastos, and El Otono del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No matter how exotic Russian readers may have found the characters and settings of these novels, they still saw something chillingly familiar in their historical plots and the unfolding of the action.
The Autumn of the Patriarch has been read all over the world, but the Russians were the only ones to shed tears when they recognized the features of the diabolical and insane dictator as those of the totalitarian regime that was trampling them underfoot. Only the Russians--or rather the Soviets--have had to submit to myth-making and mendacity raised to a system of government.
The phenomenal success of Garcia Marquez in our country reminds me of the words of the Russian linguist and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who claimed that "a culture only reveals itself in its full magnitude and depth when it is looked at by another culture". He also stressed that dialogue between cultures is the driving force behind the spiritual progress of mankind. This idea is a very topical one for, as humanity approaches the five-hundredth anniversary of the encounter between two worlds, it is at last beginning to realize that the world to which it belongs is actually one and the same.
VERA KUTEISCHIKOVA, of the CIS, is a literary historian and a specialist in Latin American studies. A member of the Academy of Sciences and of the Gorky Institute of World Literature, Moscow, she is also co-director of the Latin American Literature Project of the American Council of Learned Societies of the USA. She is the author of many articles and books, notably on twentieth-century Latin-American fiction.…