RUSSIANS HAVE ALWAYS looked ambiguously toward the West. The celebrated rift between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers of the 19th century laid out the twin poles of the debate: the West represents technical progress, material comfort and political rationality and tolerence, yet it also stands as a bastion of decadent bourgeois individualism, repelling those Slavophiles in search of an organic, spiritual community. Within the broad category of "the West," the United States occupies an equally ambiguous position, at once free from and the worst practitioner of Western European sins. Russians have admired Americans for their un-European egalitarianism while scorning us as crass materialists, more hypocritical even than the French bourgeoisie.
The translation and publication of Alesandr Lakier's account of his voyage to the United States in 1857 offers a fascinating view of America through Russian eyes. Lakier was a well-educated Russian bureaucrat, a progressive jurist interested in experiments abroad to justify the cause of reform back home. (While Lakier was traveling across America in 1857, Tsar Alexander II issued his Nazimov Rescript publicly acknowledging his commitment to end serfdom.) Lakier's comments on the New World will undoubtedly attract the attention of specialists in that period of American history, but the very Russianness of his perceptions make the book fascinating to anyone interested in foreigners' images of America. I myself had just returned from a year in the Soviet Union before I read this book, and I was impressed with the timelessness of the Russo-American dialogue. De Tocqueville is famous for predicting common yet diametrically opposed futures for Russia and America, but Lakier's book proves that other Europeans too foresaw a common destiny for these two young giants.
The best moments of the book occur when Lakier describes his travel from one city to another. Since he apparently did not know any Americans as personal friends, his only chances to share ideas with his hosts were when aboard railroad and steamboat. In embarrassed or confused confrontations (such as when he thinks his baggage has been stolen in Boston), Lakier best reveals his own prejudices and his most intimate impessions of the "men of the New World."
To Lakier America represents an experiment for Europe, a chance to start over, allowing Europeans the opportunity to build a new political community without the burden of Europe's medieval traditions. Yet Lakier, a bureaucrat who owned no land, was also interested in the current debate on free versus unfree labor. Although he never explicitly draws an analogy between slavery and serfdom, he comments on the moral horror and economic inefficiency of American servitude at every available opportunity.
Russians reading this book would gain an impression of the United States very similar to the image of America held by many Soviet people today. To our credit, Lakier depicts us as young, energetic, courageous and industrious. Our cities, mines and factories dazzle him, and the fast pace of American life leaves him breathless. Perhaps builders faced a crisis in constructing enough homes for new immigrants, but "American enterprise knows no obstacles and there is no looking back -- the job will get done."
Russians may admit that America has cornered the market on technological know-how, but they also quickly see through American hypocrisy. Like his countrymen today, Lakier lashes out at the "worship of the Almighty Dollar" which motivates the slightest activity by the avaricious Yankee. He goes on to praise the federal government for its Indian policy which "protects" the native Americans from extinction at the hands of the Yankee. If an Indian were allowed to come into contact with an American, Lakier reports, the crafty Yankee would manage to talk the unprotected Red Man out of his last cent and leave him drunk on the plains.
Lakier states his belief that Americans are so money-minded that they show no appreciation for nature, viewing it as a collection of resources to be tamed for profit. American music, he says, is so undeveloped because Yankees "prefer the sound of money." Observing the rush to speculate in money (Lakier visited America shortly after the financial crash of 1857), he sees this as the cause of Americans' psychological disorders. And the violence of American life bewilders this 19th-century traveler: In New York he is advised to purchase a revolver, but afterwards decides that the gun is so heavy that he would have to pack it in his suitcase. dThen in Kentucky a "western man" questions Lakier's traveling unarmed.
Whether or not one is interested in a Russian's attitude toward America, this book is valuable above all as a commentary on how our country has changed over the last century. A Russian visiting America today would still be impressed by our technological leadership. We can still earn foreigners' respect as a practical people. Slavery has been abolished and gamblers no longer shoot rivals in saloons -- but the underlying racism and violence remain. Whether America is still as democratic or free of class divisions as Lakier describes is a controversial question. But this book clearly shows America at one of her stronger moments, when people confidently believed that the future lay in their hands.
In 1857 the president still opened the White House doors to all citizens of the capital on New Year's Day, and department secretaries still allowed any visitor to enter their office unannounced. (Lakier explains that Americans were so preoccupied with their own business that they would not need to bother a Cabinet member unless their problem was urgent.) Would a foreigner visiting America today write of our unflagging confidence, energy and drive? Lakier's book fills the reader with pride for our youthful past and it makes one sadly reflect on the America we may have lost.