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Illustration Courtesy of Shamma Almansoori

Traveling to Europe: Russian Dreams and European Nightmares

The European travels of Russian writers allowed Europeans to confront their own fears and aspirations through the vessel of literature. How did this interplay of dreams and reality unfold?

Dec 12, 2021

Note: This is a Gazelle-exclusive translated version of a lecture and article by Damiano Rebecchini from Università degli Studi di Milano called Путешествия в Европу: русские мечты и европейские кошмары.
First, I would like to tell you about a fantasy. Nikolai Gogol, in his 1835 article On Present-Day Architecture, dreamt of walking down a street, each building of which would be constructed in a completely unique architectural style. The street would open with a heavy and primitive gate, possibly in Babylonian style, behind which would rise a huge Egyptian palace and a harmonious Greek building. This would be followed by a Byzantine building with flat domes and a Roman villa with various arches, a Moorish palace with rich decorations, the tallest Gothic cathedral and other structures that do not resemble each other.
Gogol's dream reveals his characteristic dislike for the monotonous architecture of St. Petersburg. The writer started working on the article almost immediately after he arrived in the capital from his small Ukrainian estate Gogol was full of expectations and even though, in his opinion, St. Petersburg turned out to be a quite modern city, it was terribly flat and monotonous. To Gogol, neoclassical buildings seemed completely identical, low, conventional and of the same type. The capital seemed to him uniform, impersonal and deeply hostile to its residents.
In an effort to overcome this monotony, Gogol proposed building streets that would combine different architectural styles. Firstly, he advised European architects to draw inspiration from two examples: Gothic architecture with its upward impulse and Eastern architecture with huge mass domes and an abundance of floral ornaments. “Europeans, in general, can borrow usefully this pyramidal or cone-shaped upward aspiration — it is a sharp distinction of the Indian style.” Gogol, of course, had not been outside of the Russian Empire, except for a very short trip to Lubeck, but he considered it reasonable to give advice to European architects. When, in the summer of 1836, he set out for the first of his long European voyages, he carried with himself a substantial amount of expectations, hopes and antipathies. The impressions he gained during the trips will be obtained as the result of his dreams meeting the reality he discovered.
I would like to put forward the following thesis: travel can be considered as a continuing fantasy in which the aspirations of each person are projected onto a new world that they are observing. Every trip is a dream during which a person transfers his desires to another reality or, on the contrary, is afraid to face their fears. As in a dream, reality and imagination mix here in unexpected ways. Both in the dream and in the journey, time changes, shrinking to a single instantaneous delightful feeling or, conversely, by excessively stretching, as in a nightmare or unbearable boredom. The external reality, i.e. the country that a person visits, with its inhabitants and culture, only serves as flimsy support on which the traveler builds his castles in the air. In this lecture, I will briefly describe the dreams of the great Russian travelers of Europe: Gogol, Herzen and Ivan Turgenev. Then we will look at how, in turn, Europe discovered its own aspirations or fears in nineteenth-century Russian literature.
Gogol spent almost 12 years outside of Russia, with brief breaks, from 1836 to 1848. The distance separating him from his homeland helped him write. In Rome, he wrote the first volume of Dead Souls, rewrote The Portrait, Taras Bulba, The Government Inspector and Marriage and worked on The Overcoat.
Gogol's first impressions of Germany were of disappointment. His expectations of German Gothic churches do not seem to have been fully met: he does not write a single word about the famous Cologne Cathedral. Part of the usual route of European travelers was a trip along the Rhine, which charmed the tourists with the picturesque views that opened up from both banks of the river. Gogol, on the other hand, showed almost no enthusiasm here. He remarked to his mother in July 1836: “Our steamer has been sailing for two days and at last I am tired of the incessant sights.” Arriving in Switzerland, another indispensable destination of the European tour in the 19th century, Gogol did not experience any joy from the contemplation of the places so vividly described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “What can I tell you about Switzerland?” he wrote to his friend Nikolai Prokopovich. “All sorts of sights so that at last, I get sick of them and if I were now to come across our dastardly and flat Russian location with its log hut and gray sky, I would be able to admire it.”
Although the capital of European tourism, Paris, struck Gogol with its luxury and modern streets with gas lamps and vibrant theatrical experiences, at the same time it repelled him with its excessive politicization of public life. “Everything is politics here, in each and every alley you find a library with magazines. You stop in the street to clean your boots, they put a magazine in your hands. They give you a magazine in the privy. Spain’s business is more concerning to them than anything of their own,” he wrote to Mikhail Pogodin in November 1836. Gogol concluded: “The local sphere is completely political and I have always escaped politics. It is not the poet's business to rub into the mundane market.”
In Europe, Gogol dreamed not of finding a brisk “crowd”, but his own lost paradise. He found it in Italy. Gogol wrote: “Whoever has been to Italy, that person can say 'goodbye' to all other countries. Whoever has been in heaven will not want to stand on the earth.” Gogol dreamed of seeing in Italy a spontaneous, harmonious society, similar to that which he himself depicted in a distant Cossack sich in Taras Bulba, that is, the opposite of Petersburg’s world. He imagined a patriarchal society made up of people who were passionate, energetic, beautiful, gifted with a whole and harmonious personality and finally, people with a strong sense of community. It was in Italy that Gogol found his real life, his native country, the fatherland of his soul and the years spent in Petersburg seem to him like a distant terrible dream that must be forgotten: “If you only knew with what joy I left Switzerland and flew to my darling, to my beautiful Italy. She is mine! No one in the world can take her away from me! I was born here — Russia, Petersburg, snows, scoundrels, department, a chair, the theater — all that was but a dream. I woke up again at home."
Gogol's Italian dream has many features associated with his childhood in a motley Little Russia. “What can I tell you about Italy in general?,” he wrote enthusiastically to his fellow countryman Alexander Danilevsky, “It seems to me that I have stopped by the old Little Russian landowners.” Like in a marvelous dream, in Italy time goes slowly, almost stops. In Rome, he often repeats, time freezes at all. "Everything here has stopped in one place and won’t go any further.” The Roman architecture itself, so rich in traces of many past centuries, with its variety of architectural styles, seemed to fulfill Gogol's long-held dream. Italy appeared to Gogol not as a historical and political reality, but as an object of psychological, aesthetic and religious experience. As Gogol wrote to Vasily Zhukovsky, this was his “promised paradise”.
In the same years, Alexander Herzen, Gogol’s contemporary, longed to find a completely different Europe. He dreamed of it in a fundamentally different language: his aspirations were not deeply personal aesthetic and religious fantasies, but political and civilian. Herzen's childhood, his relationship with his father, who served in his eyes as the quintessence of the contradictions of the old Russian aristocracy, his upbringing and education, the hard experience of arrest and exile from 1834 to 1842, formed the ideal image of the West, quite different from Gogol's.
In 1847, before leaving Russia for good, Herzen, like many other young idealists of his time, was carried away by the ideas of Saint-Simon’s utopian socialism. He dreamed of finding a free nation of equal people in Paris, where every person would be granted the inalienable rights established by the Great French revolution. In contrast to Russia, Herzen was particularly eager to meet with a civilization in which every citizen would be guaranteed his human dignity and complete freedom of speech. His dreams were based on an experience of life in Russia that differed from Gogol's. Russia seemed to him not so much flat, monotonous and hostile as, above all, profoundly unjust. He saw abuse and violence everywhere. Everywhere, people seemed to him crushed and strangled by the authorities at all levels, from the last of the officials to the emperor, who did not hesitate to use the dirty methods of the secret police — the Third Department. Yet Herzen dreamed of a free society of equal people: “Paris! How long has this name been a lodestar to people? Who did not love and worship it?”?
A few months after Herzen’s arrival in Europe, it seemed to him that his revolutionary dream was being fulfilled before his own eyes: he was in the very midst of the European revolution of 1848 and saw the birth of the Roman and Parisian republics. However, just four months later, his European dream was shattered. Faced with the new unrest of the Parisian proletarians, the newly born French Republic engaged its troops and, under the pretext of protecting the Republican ideals, shot unarmed people on the rue Faubourg-Saint-Antoine, in order to protect the privileges of the third estate that had come to power. Hiding behind false Jacobin and revolutionary ideas, "the bourgeoisie triumphed", wrote Herzen. The disappointment couldn't have been greater. He remarked: “Metternich and all the members of the Third Department of His Imperial Majesty's private Chancery are gentle children, de bons enfants, compared with a pack of growling shopkeepers”.
In the face of these incidents, Herzen did not hesitate to sacrifice his European dreams. He rejected any violence committed in the name of the future and the higher ideals, whether monarchical or republican: “It is not enough to despise the crown, one must give up respecting the Phrygian cap”, he wrote after the Paris events. The European dream was destroyed and soon — with the death of his mother, son and wife — his ideal family world collapsed too. However, Herzen did not retreat, did not consider himself defeated and did not abandon his socialist dream. In Herzen, the “pessimism of the intellect” did not crush the “optimism of the will,” as Antonio Gramsci said. In his essay From the Other Shore, Herzen’s analysis of European reality is pessimistic and devoid of illusions: the beautiful dream is over.
All these circumstances, however, did not prevent Herzen from making an energetic appearance in the arena of European emigration and recreating a new dream of Russia. In London, on the pages of Kolokol, Herzen is a relentless organizer of opposition activities and a denouncer of the abuses and injustices of the Russian regime. His remoteness from the fatherland helped him cultivate a special dream of Russia: the dream of Russian socialism based on the image of the Russian rural community. From this point on this community was increasingly viewed by Herzen as an ideal organization underlying the original Russian socialism. Its features owed more to the Slavophile doctrines than the teachings of Karl Marx: according to Herzen, “Despotism or socialism, there is no other choice. Meanwhile, Europe has shown a surprising incapacity for social revolution. We believe that Russia is not so incapable of it and in this we are at one with the Slavophiles. On this our faith in its future is founded…” Herzen's publishing activity in London, however, was not only focused on constructing a new model for Russia. He sought to introduce Europeans to his own homeland. Herzen wrote: “It is really time to acquaint Europe with Russia. Europe does not know us, it knows our government, our façade — and nothing else ... let her learn to know better a people ... which has grown in such a vigorous, marvelous fashion without losing the principle of community”.
In the middle of the century, voices in favor of Russian messianism multiplied in Russia, which expressed, albeit with different undertones, faith in Russia’s saving mission in relation to the "decaying West" — this is what Herzen and the Slavophiles, Tyutchev and Dostoevsky, thought. At the same time, Russophobia in Europe was making giant strides forward. The former image of Russia as a despotic and dangerous country, outlined in the 18th century by Rousseau and Frederick the Great, was becoming more and more established in European public opinion. Political events such as the defeat of the Polish uprising in 1831, expansion into Central Asia, suppression of unrest in Hungary in 1848 and alarmist pamphlets such as those of the Marquis de Custine reinforced the long-standing fear of Russian despotism among Westerners. Herzen noted: “Let the Europeans get to know their neighbour: they only fear him, but they should know what it is that they fear”.
The most important contribution to the discovery of Russia by Europeans was made through novels — in fact, much larger than the publications and journalistic texts of the Russian intelligentsia. A fundamental role in acquaintance with Russia was played by a novelist who lived for a long time in Europe, Ivan Turgenev and not only because of his works. The poetry of Zhukovsky and Pushkin was maybe known only to a few European erudites, who adapted it for the European public using their seldom pale adaptations. Turgenev, however, starting from the mid-1840s, introduced the prose of Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, along with the novels of Saltykov-Shchedrin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and even Pisemsky, to broader groups of readers. He helped his friend Louis Viardot translate into French Gogol’s stories, The Captain's Daughter by Pushkin and, perhaps, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, not counting, of course, his own novels. His talent as a brilliant storyteller in Parisian literary salons, where he presented Russian literary novelties, his friendly relations with great French writers — like Mérimée, Daudet, Georges Sand, Maupassant, Zola and especially Flaubert — played a crucial role in introducing the French public to Russian prose. In 1880, after sending a translation of War and Peace to the most influential French critics, Turgenev happily informed Tolstoy of Flaubert's delight at the novel. Flaubert considered the first volumes to be “sublime”, at times they reminded him of the great Shakespeare. At the same time, he noticed that in his historiographic digressions, Tolstoy was fond of “philosophizing”. Here, through the text, “the Russian” went on and on, instead of unleashing the creative force of “Nature and Humanity”. Flaubert’s French “sense of proportion” protested against Tolstoy's long “Russian” arguments.
No less significant were Turgenev's relationships with key figures of the cultural world of England and Germany. He knew Dickens, whose ability to read his works aloud Turgenev praised a lot, comparing it with Gogol's. He made friends with Henry James, who was struck by the literary form of Tolstoy's novels (he would later call them "large, loose, baggy monsters"). In addition, Turgenev wrote the foreword to the English translation of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The History of a Town. Behind all this feverish activity, there was also a hope: for art and culture to get rid of national barriers. Turgenev dreamed that Russia and Europe could unite into a single cultural space, based on the free development of human abilities and through the spread of education and literature. His liberalism was precisely cultural, not political. So, Gogol cherished primarily an aesthetic dream, Herzen, a political one, while Turgenev nurtured a great cultural dream.
Turgenev and other representatives of the Russian intelligentsia in Europe were preparing the ground for the first acquaintance with the Russian novel. Yet it wasn’t until the 1880s that what the European newspapers of that time would call a real “influx” of Russian literature to Europe took place. The initial impulse was given by a series of articles, published in the Revue des Deux Mondes magazine by Eugene-Melchior de Vogue, attaché of the French embassy in St. Petersburg. De Vogue spoke Russian (he was married to the maid of honor of the Empress Alexandra Annenkova) and interacted with some of the great Russian writers of that era, such as Leskov and Tolstoy. The merit of de Vogue, who in 1886 collected his articles in the famous book The Russian Novel, is that he offered a clear interpretation of Russian literature. He helped a disoriented French reader to understand the works, which were so emotionally saturated, dark and not quite correct from the point of view of European aesthetic canons. De Vogue's idea was that a distinctive feature of Russian literature is the desire to inspire a special feeling of Christian pity for humanity. It is this feeling, according to de Vogue, that French literature of that time needed to overcome the callous experimental novel of Zola and the cold cynicism of Flaubert's followers. Of course, this perspective was not devoid of narrowness, for example, it did not contain works of the late Dostoevsky. And yet, for the first time, it allowed the French public to appreciate the genius of many Russian writers.
In prospect, the attraction of the European reader to the great authors of Russian realism was no longer hindered by anything. This passion followed different rhythms and took different forms, depending on cultural eras and moods of European society in a series of wars, nationalist and totalitarian movements. Turgenev's relatively small works seemed harmonious to European readers, not as “frightening” as the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which became closer and more recognizable, especially at the end of the 19th century.
The genius of Tolstoy at certain moments — at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries — was appreciated primarily thanks to his essays. After the First World War and up to the present day, readers admired his literary talent more. Dostoevsky's success chronologically followed the recognition of Turgenev and Tolstoy, but his influence on many great European writers of the first half of the 20th century turned out to be more profound. We are talking about André Gide, Proust and Camus in France, about D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and Henry James in England, about Gabriele d'Annunzio, Moravia and Pasolini in Italy, not to mention Germany. Proust wrote in 1920: “If I was asked which novel, of those that I know, is the best ... perhaps I would give first place to The Idiot of Dostoevsky.” Camus spoke in similar terms about what he owes to the Russian writer:“At first I admired Dostoevsky because of what he revealed to me about human nature. Reveal is the word. Because he tells us only what we know, but refuse to see. However, soon, as I got to experience the drama of my time, I fell in love with a person in Dostoevsky who lived and expressed most profoundly our historical destiny”. Dostoevsky's influence cannot be limited only to writers: philosophers, psychologists, playwrights, directors, from Nietzsche to Freud, from Robert Bresson to Woody Allen. The entire Western culture of the 20th century evolved from reading Russian novels as a revelation.
Why such a success? What exactly did Western readers see in the Russian novel? Perhaps they saw in it a face, altered, twisted as in a bad or beautiful dream, of their deepest identity? As one critic wrote at the dawn of the "influx" of Russian literature to Europe: "Russian writers – and this is their charm — return to us, if you will, the essence of our own literature of forty or fifty years ago, changed, renewed, enriched by understanding within the framework of a mentality quite far enough from ours. Reconsidering our thoughts, they reveal them to us." Great Russian authors turned out to be important not so much because of the novelty and strangeness of their own ideas and words addressed to European readers, but because they told them about themselves: they suggested words and gave shape to secret desires and fears that readers obscurely and vaguely felt, which they did not dare to admit to themselves and which the Russians plots endowed with flesh and blood.
Reading the Demons in 1887, Nietzsche saw in Kirillov a model for his own concept of the superman: a Western man can become a God-man only then, when he kills God in himself, like Kirillov. “In my eyes there is no greater idea than the denial of God,” wrote Nietzsche in his notes on the novel.
A few decades later Freud, looking through The Brothers Karamazov, found confirmation of his own conjectures about the nature of the Oedipus complex. The novel, he thought, most clearly expressed the secret desire of Westerners — to kill their fathers. “The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written”, acknowledged Freud in 1928 and concluded: “Dostoevsky never got free from the feelings of guilt arising from his intention of murdering his father." Many other readers found in Dostoevsky's novels a reflection of their most secret and intimate desires — a passion for young girls, the attractiveness of games, a passion for debauchery and masochistic pleasure, etc. The active assimilation of Russian novels throughout the 20th century served the European reader to analyze his own dreams and nightmares, hiding something that consciousness had never reached before. It's like a long session with a psychoanalyst, during which the West settled accounts with its most shameful desires and fears. Gogol dreamed of the West, filled with all sorts of architectural styles, in order to get rid of the nightmare of flat monotony of Russia. In the same way, reading Russian novels revealed to Nietzsche and Freud the most secret desires and fears of modern European man.
Adi Baurzhanuly is a staff writer. Email him at
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