Images of Russia in the Travel Letters of D. I. Fonvizin

In his book Inventing Eastern Europe, Larry Wolff examines the development of the concept and image of Eastern Europe through a detailed analysis of a variety of texts of the eighteenth century, including travel journals, letters, and works of prominent figures of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Wolff exposes the condescending and negative attitude pervading these documents, which portray the region and its people as backward, barbaric, and uncivilized. The negative image reflected in the documents presented by Wolff are crucial to the understanding of the development of the concept of Eastern Europe in Western Europe and to the understanding of the degree to which Eastern Europe adopted the negative concept of itself presented to it by Western Europe.

Many Russian writers of the eighteenth century upheld the belief that Russia was backward and in need of reform, advising Eastern Europe to look upon Western Europe, specifically France, as a model of reform, culture and enlightenment. Denis Fonvizin, however, is an outstanding exception to those who portrayed Western Europe and France as the pinnacle of civilization. His Travel Letters constitute a fruitful response and continuation of Wolff’s examination of the image of Eastern Europe. In the Travel Letters, Fonvizin presents a scathingly sarcastic, critical view of Western Europe, portraying it roughly in the same manner as Western Europe portrayed Eastern Europe: backward, uncivilized, and barbaric. His upbringing, education and career being the product of Western-style reform, Fonvizin’s criticism of Western Europe constitutes a unique parallel and contrast to the criticism leveled toward Eastern Europe in so far as he deems himself an equal of his Western European counterparts in intellect, culture and civility. Fonvizin juxtaposes the shortcomings of Western Europe with Russia, vehemently claiming the superiority of Russia over Western Europe in terms of civility, morality, culture and education. This paper examines the juxtaposition of images of Russia and France in the letters that Fonvizin wrote to his sister while traveling through France, and how the image of Russia is praised through the deprecation of the image of France. In these letters, Fonvizin’s sarcastic wit and sharp tongue are extremely biting and humorous. The impressions of France outlined in the Travel Letters are extremely important to Fonvizin’s later masterpiece, Nedorosl’. As an approach, this paper looks at the underlying distinctions presented between the nations in terms of language, civilized behavior, including cleanliness, civility, and hospitality, the concept of geographical space, morality, barbarity, and racial distinctions. Focusing on these distinctions develops a framework in which other texts of the same period can be examined in a parallel manner.