America and Russia: Dialogue from a Distance

Article excerpt

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.

BOLIVAR'S HAT

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. …