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Voyage Pittoresque
Aux Etats-unis De L’amÉrique.

June 2024
11min read

Not all Russian diplomats in America have had ice water in their veins and a ready “Nyet” upon their lips. One of the first of them left an illustrated record, subsequently “lost” for more than a century, which pictured a people he liked and a land he admired

The path of the Russian diplomat in America, like that of his American counterpart in Russia, is far from smooth. He must of necessity follow every tortuous twist and turn of international politics, and upon his shoulders he must carry the crushing burden of history. This has been particularly true since the Soviet Revolution of 1917, and the diplomat’s situation has grown even worse since the freeze in Russian-American relations that followed the brief thaw at Yalta.

It was not always so. One of the first Russians to come to America in an official capacity was an urbane and talented young man of twenty-four, Paul Svinin (to give his name its simplest Anglicized form), who joined his country’s first permanent embassy to the United States in Philadelphia in the late autumn of 1811 as secretary to the consul general, Andrey Yakovlevich Dashkov. Americans knew very little about the imperial Russia that had sent him; in the next two years Svinin did all he could to build up in their minds a favorable image of his native land, and subsequently to convey to his own countrymen some of the personal enthusiasm he developed for the nation to which he had been assigned. His spirited and informed commentaries—and his portfolio of water colors, from which those on the following pages have been selected—give a rare and valuable picture of a new republic and its people.

Such reputation as Russia had here when Svinin arrived was hardly favorable. In the early spring of 1779, when Americans were struggling for their independence, a report had reached Detroit by way of Montreal that 12,000 Russian troops—hired by George III from Catherine the Great—had landed at New York. The rumor turned out to be false, for though the King had indeed asked for Russian mercenaries, Catherine refused to become involved. On the other hand, when in 1780 the Americans in turn had tried to win her active support, she was even less responsive than she had been to the plea of their ex-king. Moreover, she refused to recognize America’s claim to independence until after England did, and when in the tragic “final” partition of Poland in 1795 her troops wounded and captured Thaddeus Kosciusko, the great Polish patriot so gratefully remembered here for his service in our own war for freedom, Americans were outraged. Catherine died the following year, and Philip Freneau, poet, editor, and irrepressible patriot, dashed off an epitaph which, with more passion than judgment, gave voice to America’s indignation:

She would have sent her Tartar bands To waste and ravage Gallic lands , She would have sent her legions o’er, Columbia! to invade your shore!

There were those in Russia who were also disenchanted with Catherine’s autocratic rule, notably an intellectual elite who found in what they had heard of the American revolutionary experience a pattern for their own political and social ideals, and a strong contradiction to the unfortunate realities of Russian life. Foremost among this group, although an aristocrat and a member of the imperial Russian government under Catherine, was Alexander Radishchev, who penned a long ode to the young republic in the New World. For this and other libertarian sentiments Radishchev earned a ten-year exile in Siberia, from which he returned unregenerate to write further passionate eulogies of American freedom, justice, and huinanitarianism. He concluded, however, that Russians did not have enough evidence to draw an “exact” picture of the American scene.

Almost a quarter of a century passed before they would have that evidence, for in the years following the Treaty of Paris the United States withdrew from “foreign entanglements” and Russia was preoccupied with problems on the Continent. As so often since, it was mutual self-interest—each wanted support from the other in meeting troubles arising out of the Napoleonic Wars—that drew the two nations together. In October of 1809, John Quincy Adams was dispatched to St. Petersburg (see “The Yankee and the Czar” in the February, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE ); Dashkov (and later Paul Svinin) was sent to America.

Svinin was a well-educated youth, master of several Western languages, and as a member of the Russian Foreign Office he was already widely travelled in Europe. He was also an artist of academic rank. Just two or three days before his departure for America he had been elected to membership in the Academy of Fine Arts at St. Petersburg, where only a few years earlier he had been a student. Some idea of the unchangeable tides of taste in Russia can be gathered from a description of his membership-winning canvas: “The celebrated hero, Suvorov, resting, after a battle, on straw, by a stream, in a tent made of cloaks fastened to Cossack spears, with a military camp and groups of horses, Cossacks, soldiers and Turkish prisoners filling the background, as morning breaks and the dawn begins to gild Nature.” Change the characters into deserving proletarians and their enemies, and it would probably still win a Soviet prize as an example of solid contemporary art.

As an intellectual and a seasoned traveller Svinin well knew what “ridiculous wonders and strange falsehoods” were circulating abroad about Russia and Russians, and he must have quickly realized that his country had not enjoyed a very good press in America. He immediately set about putting the record straight. Within a few months of his arrival he had two articles published in The Philadelphia Port Folio , then a leading American periodical. One was a eulogy of his sovereign, Czar Alexander I, grandson of Catherine; the other a sympathetic account of the Cossacks, and each had an illustration after a drawing by the author. Before he returned to Russia he also had published in Philadelphia a book that gave Americans a more detailed report on his native land. Like America, he explained, Russia was rapidly transforming a wilderness into attractive cities, and it, too, was rising to new and great importance in the world.

Svinin was neither the first nor the last to point out the resemblances between the bear and the eagle, but some of his arguments were unique. Like America, he observed, Russia was an asylum for the unfortunate and the persecuted, and like Americans, Russians practiced complete religious freedom. Witness to those facts was that, although immigrants from a dozen other European lands had fled to America, no Russians had found it necessary to leave the benign jurisdiction of the Czar. Later and elsewhere he explained this by pointing out that the Russian peasant who felt oppressed by the injustices of the Russian agrarian order or by the religious persecutions of the Orthodox Church could always find refuge by fleeing to remote parts of the vast empire, to Siberia if need be, without having to cross the Atlantic.

For his own favorable prejudices toward America, Svinin was very probably indebted to such writings as Radishchev’s. In any event, he found almost everything about the young nation admirable, except the Philadelphia summers, which then, as ever, were almost intolerable. His official duties apparently did not begin to fill his time. For one thing, aside from a few colleagues in the foreign service, he found no Russians in the United States, although he discovered a few impostors who for “credit or speculation” claimed to be Russians. For twenty months this cosmopolitan traveller roamed about the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Virginia, interviewing people of importance and men in the streets and shops, attending learned assemblies, art openings, camp meetings, and Indian tribal ceremonies, and sketching what particularly caught his eye.

His anecdotal approach to art was well suited to graphic journalism. He was reporting for a remote and completely alien, but curious, audience, and he caught some likenesses of the American scene overlooked by other reporting artists of the time. His fine close-ups of life in the streets of Philadelphia and on the Hudson River have the candid, romantic realism that made Currier and Ives lithographs so popular a half century later, and they were unique in their day. Only six of them were reproduced during Svinin’s own lifetime. In his last published work he made casual reference to the portfolio he had compiled, at which point it disappeared from all notice for almost a century. So, to all intents, did his writings on the New World. The dramatic and almost simultaneous rediscovery of both in the 1920’s (see page 52), was one of those “angelical conjunctions of events” (as Cotton Mather would have said) that practically never happens in the course of historical research.

Svinin was a highly competent observer. He warned his readers not to be misled by English and French accounts of the American Revolution. Conditions changed too rapidly in this new country, he cautioned, to permit any lasting and valid analysis. His own sympathies for what he was reporting, however, often weighted his judgment and led to comments that would seem incongruous from a latter-day Russian visitor. The fruits of private enterprise he found omnipresent and impressive. Just before his arrival, a New York merchant, one “Ivan Astor,” whom he subsequently interviewed, had sent an overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest for a harvest of furs, and two ships around the Horn to join the land force at an appointed rendezvous. “This expedition will cost him 250,000 rubles,” Svinin reported. “What an enterprise for a private citizen! May it be crowned with success.”

He was struck by the remarkable growth of public works—canals, roads, and, particularly, handsome bridges, some of which were “truly worthy of the glorious age of the Roman empire”—that were being engineered and promoted almost entirely without government aid. In this respect Robert Fulton’s steamboats, which he had watched in their early trials on the Hudson River, fascinated Svinin. The spectacle of the Paragon , Fulton’s third Hudson River boat, with its polished and gleaming accommodations for 150 passengers—with wine, food, and even ice cream for the most fastidious—carried Svinin to heights of exultation. Soon, he prophesied, such craft would be crossing oceans and bringing back treasures from all parts of the world. The profits from this happy invention, he noted, were already attractive—each boat returned about forty thousand rubles a year—and he tried to secure for himself a monopoly for building them in Russia, where they would, among other things, release the Volga boatmen from their endless toil along the river and put them to endless toil behind the plough, where they would do more good. But nothing came of this private enterprise.

The inventiveness of Americans in general, an inevitable consequence of insufficient manpower in a land of enormous resources and limited capital, he found remarkable. Everything from sawing rocks and making bricks to cobbling shoes and milling flour, he said extravagantly, was done by machine. Yet almost everyone worked hard. Money was the American’s god, but piety and the natural wealth of the land sustained his morals.

In spite of barbaric electioneering practices and political party feuds, the nation’s laws were wise and just, and the people had proved themselves worthy of their dearly won liberties. Because of lack of experience the army was in poor shape, but the individual soldiers were brave, and given adequate training they would excel the armies of other countries. The multiplicity of races and religious sects gave strange and wonderful testimony to a spirit of true tolerance and of humanitarianism, a spirit Svinin noted elsewhere in the numerous and well-managed charitable institutions and the notably progressive penal institutions. Thanks to the broadening influence of popular education, every American muzhik could intelligently discuss an astonishing range of topics. And so on.

As in Freneau’s time, an influential part of the American press was again beating the drums against the Russian menace. While Svinin was still here, the War of 1812 broke out. As we struggled with England, Russia—allied with our enemy and others—swept into France, banished Napoleon to Elba, and won new importance in the European balance of power.

Thomas Jefferson’s friend Czar Alexander, who earlier had offered to negotiate a just peace in our own war, had rather given support to our adversary, and his barbarians had covered themselves with French watches as booty from a more civilized world (in much the same way, Soviet troops would collect wristwatches during World War II). To Hezekiah Niles, editor of the influential Niles Weekly Register , the worst was only too true. Catherine, he reminded his readers, had murdered her husband and afterward lived in “open whoredom” with “a regiment of male prostitutes”; Alexander was a parricide; and the Cossacks were bloodthirsty savages “but little milder than some of the Indians of North America.” “God help the world,” wailed the editor, “when religion, order , and law are to be supported by Russians.” In keeping with this sorry estimate of the Russian character, the Russian consul general was arrested and briefly jailed in Philadelphia the following year on a charge of having raped a twelve-year-old servant girl.

However ineffective his reports on Russia were in America, Svinin’s reports on the United States seem to have fared well enough abroad. His Picturesque Voyage in North America , published in St. Petersburg in 1815, went into a second edition within a few years and was promptly translated into Dutch and German. As the first eyewitness reports by an intelligent and perceptive Russian, his writings must have been read with particular interest by his liberal-minded countrymen. In 1818 Svinin established the review Otechesteenniya Zapiski , to which he occasionally contributed articles on American history and affairs until the publication folded in 1830. In all events, the romantic admiration for America that helped to fire the most enlightened Russian revolutionaries did not diminish after Svinin’s return to his homeland. One of the most prominent and radical of them, who was shortly afterward hanged for conspiracy against the czarist regime, wrote an opinion which history has underscored with irony: “There are no good governments but in America.”

Across the Atlantic, the old specter of a Russian invasion gradually faded from public memory, to be replaced by a different and completely contrary image, and one that had no more real substance. For generations of Americans, Catherine came to be remembered not as that “ravenous she-bear” whose hordes once threatened our shores, but rather as the “mother” of our independence who had refused her troops to George III and whose policy of armed neutrality had done so much at a critical period of the American Revolution to distract England’s sea power. On both counts, of course, Catherine’s unselfish interest in our cause was vastly overrated. As well she might, she had been playing her own game.

Nevertheless, during the waning months of World War I, American liberals chose to remember her refusal to provide an invasion force and on this score protested the use of American doughboys in Siberia and North Russia to aid in suppressing the Bolshevists. But international relationships at the level of state diplomacy are not and never have been directed by sentimental motives. Over the course of a century and a half, until quite recent years, Russia (like continental China) remained one of the most constant, traditional friends of the United States because there was no actual conflict of national interest. What would have been the difference in history, one wonders, if hireling Cossacks had come to America instead of the substitute Hessians? Conversely, one wonders how different the course of more recent American-Russian relations might have been had the two nations always exchanged envoys with the open mind and superb powers of observation that characterized young Paul Svinin.

The first Russian to publish an eyewitness report of the American scene was Paul Svinin, a graduate member of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and a widely travelled polyglot in his country’s foreign service. During his stay of twenty months in the United States, from the autumn of 1811 to the late summer of 1813, Svinin compiled a portfolio of fifty-two water colors of American subjects. In 1814, as he paused in London en route to Russia, Svinin received “advantageous offers” to publish his sketches together with an account of his experiences in the new republic. But the outspoken anti-American bias of the English publisher was so completely contrary to the Russian artist’s own sentiments that he rejected the proposal. Rather, he averred, his own fatherland should “reap the first fruits of my labors.” His Picturesque Voyage in North America was in fact published in St. Petersburg in 1815, almost immediately after his return to Russia, and he wrote other reports in subsequent years. Of the water colors, however, only a very few were reproduced in his own lifetime—in Russia—and upon his death in 1839 the portfolio disappeared from view for almost a century. So to all intents did the published accounts of his American experiences, which apparently remained completely unknown in this country.

In the early 1920’s the water colors returned to the United States in the luggage of an American Red Cross worker who had purchased them while serving in Russia during the agonizing days that followed the Bolshevist revolution. They entered the collection of R. T. Haines Halsey, an American collector, who recognized them as a unique and unheard-of graphic account of our republic in its early years. By an unparalleled coincidence, at almost the same time Avrahm Yarmolinsky and H. M. Lydenburg of the New York Public Library, on a buying trip in Russia, stumbled across a copy of Svinin’s published report on America in which six of the water colors were rather poorly reproduced. A reference to the “lost” portfolio turned up in another of Svinin’s books, and while Dr. Yarmolinsky from the New York library canvassed the museums of Russia to locate the portfolio, Halsey, not far from Yarmolinsky’s base in New York, was making equally determined efforts to identify and fill in the background of the hitherto unknown artist.

Inevitably the two men met, and the separate halves of the story were pieced together. Almost everything that is known of Svinin was brought to light by Dr. Yarmolinsky; most of the quotations in the accompanying article are from his published translations of Svinin’s writings. The Russian diplomat’s charming water colors are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.

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