Guilt, Victimhood, and the Emotional Pleasures of the Literary Tableau in Radishchev’s Letters to Count Vorontsov

Abstract

This paper examines Alexander Radishchev’s letters from Siberia to his patron count Alexander Vorontsov. After he was exiled for publishing his incendiary Journey from Petersburg to Moscow (1790), Radishchev initiated a bilingual correspondence with his patron, which lasted until his return to Russia in 1797 and beyond. In his letters to Vorontsov, Radishchev used various rhetorical means to diminish and even erase his guilt, in order to self-fashion himself exclusively as a victim. While doing so, he resorted to short epistolary narratives about his and his family’s misfortunes, meant at moving his patron and securing his durable protection. The paper contends that these short narratives intentionally reminded of visual representations of virtue tormented or rewarded, taken from the sentimental repertoire of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s canvases, a French painter whose work was popularized throughout Europe by countless engravings and commented on in contemporary Russian journals. Radishchev’s aim in favouring visual narratives was to enhance the emotional and moral pleasure of Vorontsov by offering him the status of consumer of moving tableaux, a particularly enjoyable position for eighteenth-century men of feelings.

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