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Yankees in Petrograd, Bolsheviks in New York
America and Americans in Russian Literary Perception
In Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, one of the protagonists feigns suicide and goes to America. In Fedor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov, announces: “I’m going to America,” then commits suicide. When in America—“on the other shore,” as Russians sometimes put it—Russian émigré characters and writers often feel that, although they have now acquired a new life, this life approximates a posthumous experience. Although the country across the ocean had already begun to acquire concrete historical features in the Russian mind by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, connotations of the Other World, the land on the other side of earthly existence, still lurk in the background of literary texts about the New World. This mythological perception of the New World is not exclusively Russian, but in Russia the mythological concept gained a specificity and a concrete form that persisted through many eras and appeared in the works of very different authors.
Yankees in Petrograd, Bosheviks in New York examines the myth of America as the Other World at the moment of transition from the Russian to the Soviet version. The material on which Milla Fedorova bases her study comprises a curious phenomenon of the waning nineteenth and early twentieth centuries —pilgrimages to America by prominent Russian writers who then created travelogues. The writers’ missions usually consisted of two parts: the physical journey, which most of the writers considered as ideologically significant, and the literary fruit of the pilgrimages.
Until now, the American travelogue has not been recognized and studied as a particular kind of narration with its own canons. Arguing that the primary cultural model for Russian writers’ journey to America is Dante’s descent into Hell, Federova ultimately reveals how America is represented as the country of “dead souls” where objects and machines have exchanged places with people, where relations between the living and the dead are inverted.
Milla Fedorova is Assistant Professor in Russian Literature at Georgetown University.
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