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  • A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada by Edyta M. Bojanowska
  • Marina Mogilner (bio)
Edyta M. Bojanowska, A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018). 373 pp., ill. Index. ISBN: 978-0-674-97640-5.

Edyta Bojanowska's A World of Empires is a remarkable accomplishment. Nominally, this is a study of one author, Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov, and one travelogue – his The Frigate Pallada (1858), a description of the government-sponsored voyage around the world, a top-secret mission that was to open Japan to "western" trade before the United States and European powers had done so. Following this one author's account, the book covers an extremely vast and diverse geographical, political, artistic, and scholarly terrain. It reconstructs a truly complex and multilayered nineteenth-century discourse of empire and Russianness, globality and civilization, human difference and sameness. In fact, "following" is not the right word, as Bojanowska does not reproduce but problematizes the travelogue's structure. Each chapter of her book suggests useful interpretative frameworks for reading The Frigate Pallada as an essentially imperial, and hence internally multilayered and incoherent, narrative. Chapter 1, "From [End Page 428] London to Cape Town, or How to Run a Successful Empire," engages with Goncharov's processing of his impressions and observations from London and Dutch southern Africa's Cape Colony. Goncharov makes sense of these experiences through imperial comparisons that prompted him to elaborate complex discourses of colonialism, subjugation, civilizing mission, and resistance. Chapter 2, "Pineapples in Petersburg, Cabbage Soup on the Equator," explores the travelogue's themes of economic colonialism and exploitation, on the one hand, and emerging economic globality, exchange, and Asian economic power – on the other. In chapter 3, "Prying Open Japan, Prospecting Korea," Bojanowska shows us Goncharov and the Pallada's team in action, performing and simultaneously reflecting on colonialism, cultural and racial distances, and Russia as a "western" power in Asia. Chapter 4, "Eastward Ho!" relocates the reader to Siberia as seen by Goncharov through much the same conceptual lens he developed during the Pallada voyage. Chapter 5, "Russians Confront Human Diversity," builds on the previous chapters by zooming in on the repertoire of concepts and hierarchies of diversity available to Goncharov. Finally, chapter 6, "The Bestseller and Its Afterlife," traces the travelogue's reception from its first publication to today, exposing transformations of views on empire, colonialism, nationalism, and the place of Russia/USSR in the global world (the discussion of Soviet-era censorship of the text, which purged it of some explicitly racist language but remained blind to other problematic moments, is particularly fascinating). The vastness of the book's geographical scale and the complexity of its analytical tasks necessitate an interdisciplinary approach and familiarity with extremely diverse literatures, covering various global and local contexts and theoretical agendas. Bojanowska delivers on all accounts, as an interdisciplinary researcher and a scholar of remarkable historiographic erudition.

Reflecting on her own method in the book, Bojanowska explains that she approaches Goncharov's travelogue as a "lens." First of all, it is a lens on mid-nineteenth-century global imperial history, and hence we are introduced to many key events of the time: British wars in the Cape Colony, the Taiping Rebellion in China, the ongoing imperial economic competition, Russian diplomatic efforts in Japan (compensating for the "Perry-centrism" of traditional diplomatic history), the Crimean War, and so on. No less important, The Frigate Pallada is a lens on Russian empireness; on Siberia as a place simultaneously colonial and national; and on the formation of national Russianness. The "lens" [End Page 429] methodology excludes any possibility of approaching the travelogue as a reflection of some "objective reality." Instead, Bojanowska is busy interpreting, contextualizing, and questioning its language, genre, and objects and places selected for comparison. This makes the book a fascinating intellectual journey. It is a must-read for everyone – regardless of disciplinary affiliation – interested in how empire becomes visible in a critical discourse while at the same time remaining in the background as a context for the very act of social reflection. I read this book as a historian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2164-9731
Print ISSN
2166-4072
Pages
pp. 428-435
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-22
Open Access
No
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