“A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada” by Edyta M Bojanowska

The Pallada in Nagasaki The Pallada in Nagasaki

Anton Chekhov, it appears, was not the first Russian literary luminary to visit Hong Kong. Chekhov had stopped off in October 1890 and wrote about its “wonderful bay”. English-language literature had to wait until Somerset Maugham came through more than a quarter-century later. But Chekhov was beaten to the punch by Ivan Goncharov who stopped by in 1853.

Goncharov is now best now known for his novel Oblamov, but his bestseller at the time was a 700-page tome of travel-writing called The Frigate Pallada. Goncharov had been taken, as a sort of official scribe, on the Russian naval expedition sent to “open Japan”. If that sounds like American Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition, it very much was: the Pallada arrived in Japan several weeks after Perry.

The Pallada was supposed to have gone from St Petersburg around the Horn, but was delayed for repairs in England and missed the winds. It therefore went the other way—as did, interestingly enough, Perry—via the Cape of Good Hope, Java, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, with side-trips to Manila, Korea and the Ryukyus. They had intended to continue on to Russian America, but the boat was in too poor a condition to continue. To make things worse, the Crimean War had broken out and while the Pacific was not a major theatre of the war, British and French vessels harassed Russian ships when they came across them.

Russia’s Pacific history is little known.

A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate PalladaEdyta M. Bojanowska (Harvard University Press, April 2018)
A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada, Edyta M Bojanowska (Harvard University Press, April 2018)

Edyta M Bojanowska relates all this, and much more, in A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada. This uncategorizable book is part literary criticism, part discourse on colonialism, imperialism and globalization, part social history and part straight history. Bojanowska uses Goncharov’s travelogue as a window on Russia, a window through which to view the European, and particularly British, imperial project and as window, as it were, into Goncharov’s (apparently very Russian) soul. The eclectic nature of the book is, paralleling perhaps the book it is based on, both its strength as well as it main drawback.

Russia’s Pacific history is little known, perhaps even in Russia. This is possibly because circumstances seem to have conspired to keep it anecdotal: fascinating, sometimes important, but often as a prologue or prerequisite for something far more significant that came along later. Russia itself paid only sporadic attention to the region.

In the library of a Mexican consulate, I once came across a book entitled La Frontera ruso-mexicana: “The Russian-Mexican Border”. There actually was one in what is now California in the first part of the 1800s. Nikolai Rezanov had tried to open Japan in 1804; he got nowhere. (He did however continue on to North America and all the way down to San Francisco where he got engaged to Conchita, the beautiful and vivacious daughter of the Spanish governor, a story which became a late Soviet-era rock opera.)

Alaska ended up being sold to the United States a decade or so after Goncharov’s voyage. Japan did indeed “open” to Russia soon after the agreement with the Americans, and before anyone else, but Russia never developed any significant commerce with Japan and in 1905 suffered the ignominy of being the first European state of the modern era to lose a war to an Asian one.

Reading Bojanowska’s new book will go a long way in both filling these holes and tantalizing the imagination, but can’t do very much about the fact that none of it seems, Goncharov’s boosterism notwithstanding, to have had much wider significance. “The Frigate Pallada,” she writes, “strains to project an image of Russia as a confident and competent peer of European colonial empires.”

And yet one is left with the following anomaly: of all the “unequal treaties” in which the Qing ceded territory to European imperial powers, only those with Russia were not revoked: the territory—the far side of the Amur ceded in the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, soon after the Pallada’s voyage and in which it played a role—is still very much Russian, albeit still very much underdeveloped.

The Pallada (through Western eyes), 1847 watercolor by Alexey Bogolyubov
The Pallada (through Western eyes), 1847 watercolor by Alexey Bogolyubov

Bojanowska is at pains to portray Goncharov was a fully paid-up member of the European manifest destiny club. As much as he is entranced by the foreign climes he visits, he is certain that civilization can only come from a firm European hand on the tiller.

It is however unclear why this should surprise anyone: Goncharov was a product of his age. He was furthermore an anglophile and thought that the British had on the whole the right ideas about empire. (He did however find their ubiquity annoying: his idyll on Madeira is ruined by seeing so many of them. “They’re here too?” he wrote.) He would occasionally take the imperialists to task for some particularly egregious injustice, but he never questioned the enterprise. He just thought Russia should have a piece of the action.

Here the discussion becomes somewhat confused: Goncharov settled on Korea as a good potential target for Russia (“Goncharov Island” is now known as Mayang-do Island, the site of a North Korean missile base), but most of his mental energy is directed at Siberia. Most people would consider Siberia, now an integral part of Russia, rather different from British imperial territories in India or East Asia: geographically disjoint, Britain never quite annexed these places. Goncharov seems unsure whether Siberia is a colony—which might at some point achieve independence—or is, or is to be, part of Russia proper.

Goncharov, as Bojanowska notes, is inconsistent and contradictory on any number of matters and viewpoints:


Much of The Frigate Pallada is powered by alternating currents of sympathy and revulsion, benevolence and malice, sympathy and hostility, understanding and prejudice, altruism and aggression, ethnographic detachment and comedic ridicule.


Goncharov would further state as writ things he could not possibly have known giving the facts in his possession, and based conclusions on preconceived ideas and received wisdom rather than actual observation—characteristics that have recently and unfortunately re-entered political discourse.

Exactly what did a Russian see in mid-19th century East Asia?

Goncharov in the 1860s
Goncharov in the 1860s

But the man could write. The book hit the ground running, went through ten editions by the end of the century, and seems never really to have been out of print, even all the way through the Soviet period, during which Goncharov somehow got himself cast as a sort of anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, a reading that, even after considerable Soviet editing, bemuses Bojanowska.

The book, and indeed the boat in a modern namesake, are having a new lease on life in post-Communist Russia. If The Frigate Pallada is informing Russian views on the Pacific, it behooves us to know more about it. But Bojanowska is so focused on analysis that she does not include a great deal of the original material, relate much of what Goncharov did in these various places or even give a clear chronology of the voyage. That is not her purpose, so fair enough, but the relatively few details she does provide tantalize: exactly what did a Russian see in mid-19th century East Asia? Japan is covered in detail, but the stopover in Manila gets little more than a paragraph; Hong Kong is viewed through mostly a picaresque passage of Goncharov’s companion propositioning a teenage Tanka girl, which becomes the catalyst for a discussion of Goncharov’s and his companions’ imperialist, European blinders and general boorishness. (The full Hong Kong chapter is available online in translation from the Royal Asiatic Society.)

Singapore gets a slightly fuller treatment. Goncharov marvels at the pineapples piled up “like turnips”. “The goal of civilization,” Bojanowska quotes him, is to get these pineapples up to St Petersburg where they were currently unheard of luxury items. (Goncharov’s equating of capitalism with tropical fruit is reminiscent of the the Soviet fascination with bananas.)

Bojanowska is dismissive of existing English translations of The Frigate Pallada. If nothing else, A World of Empires makes the case, perhaps inadvertently, that the voyage, as a voyage, is deserving of a full treatment.

The best way to get from one end of Russia to the other was by going around Africa.

Bojanowska, via Goncharov, paints a tantalizing picture of a mid-19th-century globalizing, if not quite globalized, world. The differences, however, remain quite striking: no one really knew much of anything about Japan, the British military did not know Sakhalin was an island, the best way to get from one end of Russia to the other was by going around Africa. Mail arrived in Yakutsk only once per month. Russia “owned” a huge chunk of North America.

Goncharov’s Oblomov came out in 1859, soon after his return overland via Siberia; Oblomov is, in Bojanowska’s words, the “quintessential couch-potato”. She notes that he wears “an oriental dressing gown” that for Goncharov “signals the Asian provenance of Russia’s chief failing…: a propensity for apathetic aimlessness.” It is hard to imagine anyone now thinking that Asia today has anything to do “apathetic aimlessness”.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.