(The following post is by Matthew Young, Russian Reference Specialist, European Division.)
A book’s first edition holds a special place for bibliophiles, especially if the book is a classic novel. In some cases, the circumstances of a novel’s publication can be even more legendary than the novel itself. This is true for the first edition of Alexander Radishchev’s remarkable 1790 novel “Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu” (A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow). The Rare Book & Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress has a rare first edition of the novel that is one of only 13 known copies. This rarity is due to the fact that the novel was banned in Russia for over 100 years after it was first published.
Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802) was born in Moscow into a well-respected gentry family. At the age of 14, Radishchev entered service into the Imperial Corps of Pages for Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796). In 1766, Catherine sent Radishchev to Leipzig (in present-day Germany) to study at the city’s university.
During his studies, Radishchev absorbed many of the ideas developed by Western European philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Enlightenment ideals of social equality and individual liberty had a profound effect on the young Radishchev and would later influence his novel.
Upon returning to Russia, Radishchev served in a number of civic posts, including assignments in the St. Petersburg Senate (not a legislative body, but an assembly that enforced laws) and the Office of Customs. These positions gave Radishchev a chance to evaluate how well law and order functioned in practice in Russian society. Appalled by the injustice and corruption he believed to be pervasive, Radishchev wanted to write a novel that would address these problems. He was particularly disturbed by the institution of serfdom, a practice that compelled field laborers to work exclusively on a specific farm or estate. By Radishchev’s day, the practice had transformed into a kind of slavery, with a serf’s well-being left to the whims of his or her gentry owner.
Inspired by Laurence Sterne’s popular 1768 novel “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy,” Radishchev decided to write his own travelogue set in Russia. On the surface, the novel’s plot is as simple as that: a traveler makes his way from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
The actual ideas conveyed in the novel, however, are far more complicated. In each chapter, Radishchev tackles a particular social or political issue, expressing opinions that were often quite radical for the time. Although some of his ideas might strike us as odd today (Radishchev, for example, believed that young ladies of virtue had no need to brush their teeth), many of them remain relevant, including notions about the freedom of speech, justice and equal rights. In a particularly daring stance, Radishchev even argued for the abolition of serfdom, a viewpoint that would not sit well with the Empress. After being rejected by the censorship office in Moscow, Radishchev decided to publish the novel himself at his home in St. Petersburg. Using his own printing press, Radishchev printed about 650 copies of the novel, sending 26 of them to a bookseller and a few others to personal acquaintances.
Surprisingly, the novel was approved by the censorship office in St. Petersburg, mainly due to its innocuous-sounding title that was enough to satisfy the person in charge, Nikita Ryleev, who did not actually read the book. When the novel reached Catherine the Great, she was furious and demanded Radishchev’s arrest. Before his arrest, Radishchev destroyed about 600 copies of the novel, now an illegal commodity, leaving only a small number to circulate clandestinely in Petersburg high society.
Catherine’s affront at the novel had serious consequences for Radishchev. Initially sentenced to death, the Empress decided instead to exile the author to Siberia, where he would remain for the next 10 years. For us today, this punishment seems a bit harsh for the crime of writing a novel. What caused Catherine to react so severely? Some scholars believe that the reason was intensely personal. Radishchev, whose education and career were supported by Catherine herself, was now seemingly rewarding this largesse with blatant criticism. It is also important to remember the broader political context of when the book was published in 1790. The French Revolution had just broken out the previous year and Catherine, as with other European monarchs, wanted to stamp out anything back home that had the slightest whiff of rebellion. The turbulent serf revolt led by Pugachev in 1773-75 was also fresh in the mind of the Empress.
Later monarchs of Russia would deem Radishchev’s novel dangerous enough that the full ban on its publication would not be lifted until 1905. Due to this ban and the scarce number of copies that had escaped destruction, the novel became a kind of Holy Grail for Russian book collectors. Some even conducted meticulous detective work to track down every known copy. One such study is D. N. Anuchin’s 1918 “Sud’ba pervogo izdaniia ‘Puteshestviia’ Radishcheva” (The fate of the first edition of Radishchev’s ‘Journey’) which includes a description of the very copy held by the Library of Congress. To collect information about the copy, Anuchin wrote to the Library to inquire about its binding and general condition. The Library had acquired a copy of the novel in 1906 as part of its acquisition of the Yudin collection. This collection consisted of the large personal library amassed by the Siberian merchant Gennadi Yudin. According to Anuchin, Yudin purchased Radishchev’s novel for 500 rubles from the famous St. Petersburg bookseller Pavel Shibanov. Making its way from St. Petersburg to Siberia to Washington, DC, this first edition of Radishchev’s novel represents one of the great treasures of the Library’s Russian collection.
Luckily, you don’t need to take a journey to DC yourself to see Radishchev’s novel. It has been digitized in full by the Library and is available here in Russian.
D. N. Anuchin, “Sud’ba pervago izdaniia “Puteshestviia” Radishcheva.” Moskva: Kn-vo Prolegomeny, 1918.
David Marshall Lang, “The First Russian Radical, Alexander Radishchev, 1749-1802.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Alexander Radishchev, “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.” Translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman. New York: Columbia University Press, (forthcoming in November 2020).