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  • An Antidote to Nervous Juice: Catherine the Great’s Debate with Chappe d’Auteroche over Russian Culture *
  • Marcus C. Levitt (bio)

In the age of Enlightenment, when works of philosophy were often oriented toward analyzing specific political problems, travel notes played a significant part in debates over culture and politics, either providing proofs for a given theory or themselves advancing philosophical postulates. At the same time, tendentious histories and travel notes were often written—even commissioned—to serve immediate political goals. Such may well have been the case, I will argue, with the Chappe d’Auteroche’s Voyage en Sibérie (1768), 1 which provoked Catherine’s Antidote, ou Examen du mauvais livre superbement imprimé intitulé Voyage en Sibérie (1770). 2 In the analysis below I will examine two aspects of this exchange: first, I will consider Chappe d’Auteroche’s book in the context of France’s anti-Russian diplomacy of the time and locate it more generally within the context of Russia as a problem in European Enlightenment thought, with special attention to Chappe’s unique attempt to [End Page 49] ground political and cultural arguments in physiological terms. Second, I will analyze Catherine’s response, both as part of an ongoing defense of her role as Enlightener of Russia, and as a defense of the worth of the Russian state and of modern Russian literature. The state and literature, whose fates were to be so closely intertwined in the later tradition, both intellectually and institutionally, were here explicitly linked, perhaps for the first time in Russian history.

The timing of Chappe’s book was peculiar in many respects. Chappe was a French astronomer and geographer who had visited Russia in 1761–62 on behalf of the Parisian Academy of Sciences, in order to observe Venus when it passed across the sun on June 6, 1761. 3 With Russian help he organized an expedition to a superior observation site at Tobolsk. His Voyage en Sibérie, three great folio volumes lavishly published, with copious tables, maps, and beautiful engravings based on illustrations by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, appeared only six years later, in 1768. A few weeks after the book’s approval for publication by the French Academy, Chappe set out to observe the transit of Venus once again, this time from California. On June 3, 1769, he observed the eclipse near San Jose and soon after caught sick and died on August 1. 4 The Voyage en Sibérie was not merely the story of Chappe’s expedition, but included an account “Of the MANNERS and CUSTOMS of the RUSSIANS, the Present State of their Empire; with the Natural History, and Geographical Description of their Country, and Level of the Road from Paris to Tobolsky.” 5 Why the level of the road between Paris and Tobolsk is important is something to which I will return. It is possible that the lag in publication was due to the labor involved in compiling the work or to the time needed to execute and prepare Le Prince’s illustrations for the magnificent publication. 6 The time lag, however, may also have had a less innocent explanation.

Just at the time when Chappe was making his trip and compiling his book, views of Russia’s significance as an ideological problem within French Enlightenment thought were crystallizing into two opposing tendencies. 7 On one side, whose most extreme exponent was Voltaire, stood those who embraced Peter the Great’s reforms and looked to Russia as a success story, the embodiment of European Enlightenment values put into practice; as Carolyn Wilberger has written, Voltaire’s “optimism about Russia was nothing less than an affirmation of faith in the basic validity of civilization itself and in its benefits for all mankind.” 8 The mostly pro-Russia camp included Voltaire’s fellow encyclopedists Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, and Jaucourt, plus La Harpe and Marmontel; into this group also fell the travel writers Ségur, Falconet, Levesque, and De Ligne (although none of these individuals were as committed as Voltaire). Those who criticized Peter as despot and imitator took their cue from Rousseau (especially from the Social Contract of 1762) and in part from Montesquieu...

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pp. 49-63
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