I am writing this letter to you by way of Russia; I've written to my lord the Count Kirill Razumovskii, president of the Imperial Academy of Petersburg, and asked him to have this letter sent to you, I hope he'll do me this pleasure. He is one of the greatest lords of the Russian Court, he has done us the honor of sending us all very obliging letters in good French, and he has given our three churches in Peking gifts: the Russian Empress's portrait, maps of the vast Empire of her Crown, and the journal of the Academy, one for each of our three houses in Peking. This lord has written two letters especially to me. The Russian caravan arrived here January 3, it will go back in 20 or 25 days, it is made up of 170 or 175 persons, and it has done considerable trading here.I'm stumped. I found this letter, along with several others of a very similar kind by the same author, shoved away in the middle of a folder of miscellaneous Jesuit correspondence at the Academy of Sciences archive in St. Petersburg. Of course, it's a great find, since it's essentially a smoking gun for the kind of argument I am making about intellectual exchange in the eighteenth century: that, on the level of transmission and circulation, it was tightly intertwined with geopolitical, commercial, and diplomatic questions. Gaubil, whose letters from Peking (but not these ones!) have been published in a thousand-page volume, is a great source in general, and it's great tо find more stuff dealing with Russia specifically.
The Court of Peking has great esteem for that of Russia, it admires its power and the vast extent of its States and it pays due honor to the great talent of the Sovereign who governs such a large empire with so much wisdom. The two courts of Russia and of China have many times had quarrels [des affaires à terminer?] over their frontiers in Tartary: the Court of Peking, so proud, sees itself a bit humbled to see the power of Muscovy extend itself throughout Europe all the way to America, and to see that if Russia sees fit it can send ships to China not only by the ocean [that surrounds] Europe, Africa, and Asia, but also from the vast land of Kamchatka in the east, from which same place it can send ships to the northern coast of California in America and from there to the Southern Seas, while by land it can send troops from Europe to the frontiers of Tartary, Chinese, Western, and Eastern, and far beyond that to the east. This great Russian power is giving the Court of Peking much to think about, and fills it with esteem for Russia, and, if you like, inspires a certain degree of jealousy and fear.
- Père Antoine Gaubil, French Jesuit missionary in Peking, to his nephew Jacques in Montpellier, April 21, 1755
Here's the problem. If we were to treat this letter like the fine folks at the Mapping the Republic of Letters project do theirs, everything looks really simple: sender in Peking, recipient in Montpellier, date, content: a nice, even straight line. But of course there's at least another vertex between Peking and Montpellier, as Gaubil himself says and as the letter's archival provenance suggests: the St. Petersburg Academy. The fact that the letter did not travel directly to Western Europe--that it didn't take the more traditional route south to Canton, by ship to Lisbon, and presumably overland from there--is significant for how we're supposed to read it. But how significant? And what are the relevant facts?
Specifically, the question revolves around the genuineness of Gaubil's attitude to Russia. Gaubil praises the Empire to the skies, painting it as a juggernaut that's making the Chinese quake in their boots. This is not generally the assessment contemporary historians have of Russia in 1755, when not only the great Catherinian victories but also its serviceable performance in the Seven Years' War were still to come. It was and is regarded as a backwater in the throes of a painful and not wholly successful Westernization. As a highly educated French savant, and a Catholic missionary, Gaubil would have had every reason to subscribe to this view.
On this reading, we are forced to conclude that his encomium in the letter's first two paragraphs is entirely disingenuous, meant to reassure the Russians that passing the letter on to its addressee (rather than shoving it in the back of a drawer) is a good idea for reasons other than honor or politesse. The interpretive problem here is whether Gaubil would have expected the letter to be read by the people passing the information on. Since the document preserved in the Academy archives is an eighteenth-century copy, it's clear that it was, in fact, opened and read; but would that have been a reasonable expectation? Did the original letter have a seal, which ought to have prevented opening by at least some gentlemanly standard? Moreover, if Gaubil didn't like the Russians, did he think little enough of them to expect them not to abide by genteel standards of privacy?
My worry about this view, which may or may not be decisive, is that the rest of the letter doesn't seem to justify this extraordinary game of smoke and mirrors. Gaubil reports on the status of some Christian prisoners, on progress in the construction of a little new observatory (which, curiously enough, is apparently still standing and functioning as a museum in Beijing), deals with some minutiae regarding future exchanges of correspondence. He was never a particularly worldly man, as far as I can tell, so thinking of this as some kind of elaborate spy code is a little implausible, and, after all, this letter was to his nephew in the provinces. The same pattern--glowing news of Russia and a smaller block of news about Peking--recurs throughout these unpublished letters. Why would he go to so much trouble? Moreover, he was already an old man, and within less than four years of this burst of writing he would be dead. A successful stratagem of this kind would gain him nothing, as far as I can tell, and failure would block one of the few remaining routes of communication. (Letters took about a year to travel from Peking in one direction, under relatively ideal conditions, so getting everything important down on paper was at a premium.)
I haven't been able to figure it out, and, given the difficulties involved in divining the internal mental states of people who have been dead for two hundred fifty years, it's unlikely I'll find a definitive answer. Whichever it is, it's an interesting twist for my dissertation, since it bolsters my case either way. But this particular interpretive puzzle is a nice little capsule illustration of the way that studying the nitty-gritty mechanics of how texts travel can change the way we read them. If only people paid more attention.