THE ANCESTOR: RADISHCHEV
I N May, 1790, when Catherine II had been on the throne twenty-eight years, copies of a new book, entitled A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, found their way into one or two bookstores in the Russian capital. The few people who bought it must have gaped as they turned the pages of the bulky volume duly provided with the censor's imprimatur. Indebted to the technique of Sterne Sentimental Journey, this medley of narrative, argument, invective, and homily, enlivened by thumbnail character sketches sharply drawn and an occasional digression into surprisingly frank autobiography, was least of all a rambling travelogue. It was a political tract of unprecedented boldness. Here spoke, in the rhetorical and tearful accents of the period, not only a sensitive heart that bled at the sight of suffering and swelled with indignation -- an indignation not free from selfrighteousness -- at the spectacle of injustice, but also a mind committed to the ideas of a revolutionary age.
While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed, nor the vernacular used to voice sentiments so unbecoming a subject of the Empress and a member of the Orthodox Church. One chapter intimates that the gaudy façade of Catherine's rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime. By innuendo her favourites, notably Potemkin, are told off as a pack of greedy, incompetent sycophants, mercilessly plundering the people. Nor does the author mince words in denouncing the criminal negligence and venality of lesser officialdom. He is no gender with those who wear a crown. Of Emperor Joseph II he writes: 'He was a king. Tell me, then, in whose head can there be more absurdities than in a king's?' His political ideal, government by law, is compatible with monarchy. But there is not a little in the book to suggest that the nation would be best off if the throne were to be swept away.