wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Orlando Figes

Natasha's Dance

Fonvizin did not set out as a nationalist. Fluent in several languages, he cut the figure of a St Petersburg cosmopolitan, with his fashionable dress and powdered wig. He was renowned for the sharpness of his tongue and his clever wit, which he put to good effect in his many satires against Gallomania. But if he was repelled by the trivialities and false conventions of high society, this had less to do with xenophobia than with his own feelings of social alienation and superiority. The truth was that Fonvizin was a bit of a misanthrope. Whether in Paris or St Petersburg, he nursed a contempt for the whole beau monde—a world in which he moved as a senior bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry. In his early letters from abroad Fonvizin depicted all the nations as the same. 'I have seen,' he wrote from France in 1778, 'that in any land there is much more bad than good, that people are people everywhere, that intelligence is rare and idiots abound in every country, and that, in a word, our country is no worse than any other.' This stance of cultural relativism rested on the idea of enlightenment as the basis of an international community. 'Worthwhile people,' Fonvizin concluded, 'form a single nation among themselves, regardless of the country they come from.' In the course of his second trip, however, Fonvizin developed a more jaundiced view of Europe. He denounced its achievements in no uncertain terms. France, the symbol of 'the West', was Fonvizin's main target, perhaps in part because he was not received in the salons of its capital. Paris was 'a city of moral decadence', of 'lies and hypocrisy', which could only corrupt the young Russian who came to it in search of that crucial 'comme il faut'. It was a city of material greed, where 'money is the God'; a city of vanity and external appearances, where 'superficial manners and conventions count for everything' and 'friendship, honesty and spiritual values have no significance'. The French made a great deal of their 'liberty' but the actual condition of the ordinary Frenchman was one of slavery for 'a poor man cannot feed himself except by slave labour, so that "liberty" is just an empty name'. The French philosophers were fraudulent because they did not practise what they preached. In sum, he concluded, Europe was a long way from the ideal the Russians imagined it to be, and it was time to acknowledge that 'life with us is better':
If any of my youthful countrymen with good sense should become indignant over the abuses and confusions prevalent in Russia and in his heart begin to feel estranged from her, then there is no better method of converting him to the love he should feel for his Fatherland than to send him to France as quickly as possible.
The terms Fonvizin used to characterize Europe appeared with extraordinary regularity in subsequent Russian travel writing. 'Corrupt' and 'decadent', 'false' and 'superficial', 'materialist' and 'egotistical'—such was the Russian lexicon for Europe right up to the time of Herzen's Letters from France and Italy (1847-52) and Dostoevsky's Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862), a travel sketch which echoed Fonvizin's. In this tradition the journey was merely an excuse for a philosophical discourse on the cultural relationship between Europe and Russia. The constant repetition of these epithets signalled the emergence of an ideology-a distinctive view of Russia in the mirror of the West. The idea that the West was morally corrupt was echoed by virtually every Russian writer from Pushkin to the Slavophiles. Herzen and Dostoevsky placed it at the heart of their messianic visions of Russia's destiny to save the fallen West. The idea that the French were false and shallow became commonplace. For Karamzin, Paris was a capital of 'superficial splendour and enchantment'; for Gogol it had 'only a surface glitter that concealed an abyss of fraud and greed'. Viazemsky portrayed France as a 'land of deception and falsity'. The censor and litterateur Alexander Nikitenko wrote of the French: 'They seem to have been born with a love of theatre and a bent to create it—they were created for showmanship. Emotions, principles, honour, revolution are all treated as play, as games.' Dostoevsky agreed that the French had a unique talent for 'simulating emotions and feelings for nature'. Even Turgenev, an ardent Westemizer, described them in A Nest of Gentlefolk (1859) as civilized and charming yet without any spiritual depth or intellectual seriousness. The persistence of these cultural stereotypes illustrates the mythical proportions of 'Europe' in the Russian consciousness. This imaginary 'Europe' had more to do with the needs of defining 'Russia' than with the West itself. The idea of 'Russia' could not exist without 'the West' (just as 'the West' could not exist without 'the Orient'). 'We needed Europe as an ideal, a reproach, an example,' Herzen wrote. 'If she were not these things we would have to invent her.'

The Russians were uncertain about their place in Europe (they still are), and that ambivalence is a vital key to their cultural history and identity. Living on the margins of the continent, they have never been quite sure if their destiny is there. Are they of the West or of the East? Peter made his people face the West and imitate its ways. From that moment on the nation's progress was meant to be measured by a foreign principle; all its moral and aesthetic norms, its tastes and social manners, were denned by it. The educated classes looked at Russia through European eyes, denouncing their own history as 'barbarous' and 'dark'. They sought Europe's approval and wanted to be recognized as equals by it. For this reason they took a certain pride in Peter's achievements. His Imperial state, greater and more mighty than any other European empire, promised to lead Russia to modernity. But at the same time they were painfully aware that Russia was not 'Europe'—it constantly fell short of that mythical ideal—and perhaps could never become part of it. Within Europe, the Russians lived with an inferiority complex. 'Our attitude to Europe and the Europeans,' Herzen wrote in the 1850s, 'is still that of provincials towards the dwellers in a capital: we are servile and apologetic, take every difference for a defect, blush for our peculiarities and try to hide them.' Yet rejection by the West could equally engender feelings of resentment and superiority to it. If Russia could not become a part of 'Europe', it should take more pride in being 'different'. In this nationalist mythology the 'Russian soul' was awarded a higher moral value than the material achievements of the West. It had a Christian mission to save the world.