Trading Perceptions, Changing Stereotypes: the United States in the Travelogues of Mixail Zadornov and Igor Svinarenko

Olga Mesropova, Iowa State University

Travelogue, a genre that encompasses fiction, tour guides, and epic quest, is commonly shaped by the cultural “mental luggage” of the writer (Stanzel 1). Coalesced with official ideology, imagery of a foreign nation in travel literature maps the hetero-image (image of the other) as well as the auto-image (image of the self) at a certain period in history (Chew 1). The two travelogues that I will analyze exemplify how social and political changes in Russia of the late 1990s affected the stylistic tenor of satire in travel writings depicting the United States. Mixail Zadornov’s “Coming Back (Travel Notes as if about America)” (“Vozvraščenie [Putevye zametki jakoby ob Amerike]”) (1991), reflecting the pro-American euphoria of the early 1990s – coupled with the so-called sovok complex – mocks the “primitivism” and “backwardness” of Soviet existence. Zadornov’s work opposes Soviet culture to a glorified and idealized “American way of life.” Later in the decade, Igor Svinarenko’s “Moscow across the Ocean” (“Moskva za okeanom”, 2000) is shaped by a strong sentiment of cultural anti-Americanism of the late 1990s. While satirizing Russian economic and political chaos, Svinarenko simultaneously targets American culture’s lack of sophistication and depth, particularly as tested against its Russian counterpart.

I will place my analysis of these two travelogues within the framework of several theories: (1) “post-tourism” (Feifer) as a response to technological advances in global communications and – in Russia of the 1990s – the sudden accessibility of travel overseas; (2) imagological analysis of the “grammar” of national stereotypes (Leersen) in the context of contemporary Russian culture; (3) linguistic “mention” theory (Sperber and Wilson) applied to ironic representations of the “other”; and (4) the concept of exaggerations and distortions that are endemic to travel literature (Adams). 

Neither Svinarenko nor Zadornov are traditional belles-lettres writers (the former is a prominent journalist, the latter – a popular stand-up comedian). Therefore I will analyze their works as examples of low culture and audience-oriented praxis that are simultaneously shaped by and reflexive of changing public opinions and new cultural trends as they pertain to Russian perception of the United States. 

Selected Bibliography

Adams, Percy G. Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel. Lexington: University Press of  Kentucky, 1983.

Chew, William L. III. “’Literature, History, and the Social Sciences?’: an Historical-Imagological Approach to Franco-American Stereotypes.” National Stereotypes in Perspective: Americans in France, Frenchmen in America. Ed. William L. Chew III. Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001, 1-54.

Feifer, Maxine. Tourism in History: From Imperial Rome to the Present. New York: Stein and Day, 1986.

Leerssen, Joep. “The Rhetoric of National Character: a Programmatic Survey.” Poetics Today 21:2 (Summer 2000): 267-92.

Sperber, Dan, and Deidre Wilson. “Irony and the Use-Mention Distinction.” Radical Pragmatics. Ed. Peter Cole. New York: Academic Press, 1981, 295-318.

Stanzel, Franz Karl. “National Stereotypes in Literature.” Images of Central Europe in Travelogues and Fiction by Northern American Writers. Tübingen: Stauffenbourg Verlag, 1995, 1-10.