When I saw Anatoly’s post (in Russian) about some amazing finds on Google Books, notably the first edition (1800) of the Slovo o polku Igoreve (the classic Old East Slavic epic poem known in English as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign or The Lay of the Host of Igor) and the first Russian novel, Fedor Emin’s Nepostoyannaya fortuna [‘Inconstant fortune’] (1763), I knew I was going to blog it. But it was when I started investigating the latter that I really got hooked. In the first place, it surprised me that I’d never heard of Emin. I looked him up in my Russian biographical dictionary, but he wasn’t there—the author of the first Russian novel didn’t merit an entry? Then I went to D. S. Mirsky’s superb A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 and found only this brief mention: “The first Russian novelist was Fëdor Emin (c. 1735-70), who wrote didactic and philosophical romances of adventure in a florid and prolix literary prose.” The first Russian novelist disposed of in one sentence, without even a mention of the name of the first Russian novel? (This in a book that devotes a long paragraph to Vasily Narezhny, 1780-1825, before concluding “He was in fact little read, and his influence on the development of the Russian novel is almost negligible.”) What’s going on here?

Fortunately, Brockhaus and Efron (published a century ago and still as invaluable as the 1911 Britannica) has a good article (in Russian) on Emin, which answered some of my questions and told a fascinating tale. It seems Emin (whose name and patronymic are given as Fedor Aleksandrovich) was not Russian at all, and little is known of his life before he arrived in Russia in his mid-twenties. B&E surmise that he may have been of South Slavic origin and mention that he spent eight years wandering in Austria, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Portugal, and France, perhaps visiting Algiers and Tunis. In Turkey he converted to Islam and became a janissary. In 1761 he turned up in London at the doorstep of Prince Golitsyn, the Russian ambassador, converted to Orthodoxy (!), and was sent to Russia, where he quickly learned Russian and became first a teacher at the Corps des Pages (where the nobility were trained to be officers) and then a translator in the Foreign Ministry. He also became a prolific littérateur, turning out “satirical works,” novels both translated and original, and “an interesting Description of the Ottoman Porte,” edited the satirical journal Adskaya pochta [‘The Infernal Post’], and finally produced “the patriotic but strange Rossiiskaya istoriya [‘Russian History’] in three volumes, in which he referred to nonexistent books and evidence” (!!), as well as “a book of theological-philosophical content, Put’ ko spaseniyu [‘The Path to Salvation’], which continued to be reprinted until recently.”

Of his seven novels, say B&E, “six belong to the type of ‘adventure novel’ widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the reader knows the hero will emerge triumphant from the most difficult circumstances, virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. Only the novel Pis’ma Ernesti i Doravry [‘The Letters of Ernest and Doraura’] was composed under the influence of the new currents, notably La Nouvelle Héloise of J.-J. Rousseau. The novels of E., the first Russian novelist, had undoubted success, some of them even having new editions; in memoirs can be found references to the heroes of his novels; Karamzin in his youth could not tear himself away from them… His theory of the usefulness of literary works was an undoubted service to Russian society… E. touched on the acute problems of his day: the horrors of serfdom, disorders in law courts and administrative institutions, the general servility towards all sorts of benefactors. The pages dedicated by E. to these painful issues are distinguished from the articles in satirical journals by their considerably greater sharpness. The novelist placed his ideas in the mouths of heroes carrying on their activities in Greece, Algiers, and so on, which enabled him to speak more freely. In some novels (the autobiographical Nepostoyannaya fortuna, ili Priklyucheniya Miramonda [‘Inconstant Fortune, or the Adventures of Miramonde’], Priklyucheniya Miramonda [‘The Adventures of Miramonde’], and others) entire social programs are provided.” There is a discussion of his satirical writings, his relations with other authors of the day (he and Sumarokov had particularly fraught relations), and his Adskaya pochta, which they call “one of the best satirical journals of that time”; they end by saying “The literary activity of E. has been little studied,” and that apparently continues to be true.

And why is that? He was clearly an active participant in the literary life of his day, with an influence that considerably outlasted the few years given to him. He was much read and reprinted. And he wrote the first Russian novel, for Pete’s sake. I think the answer is clear: he wasn’t Russian. He was not only a foreigner but a convert, and Russian was probably not among his first half-dozen languages—yet he learned it well, and in an amazingly short time. How embarrassing for national amour propre! Best to sweep him under the carpet with a muttered sentence or two and hurry on to Karamzin. Me, I’d like to see a full biography. Why did he decide to convert to Orthodoxy on a visit to London, and spend the rest of his career in a Russia viewed as irremediably backward by the rest of Europe? And what’s the story with the invented historical evidence?

Incidentally, I started reading Nepostoyannaya fortuna and found myself caught up in the adventures of its hero, brought up in Constantinople and sent off to Algiers to adopt a new identity with the intention of being educated in Europe (where no one would teach him anything if they thought he was a Turk); it’s a good thing I don’t have time to read any further, because the copy at Google Books is wretchedly scanned, with some pages completely illegible (as you can see from the selected pages shown here.) I suppose it’s too much to hope for an improved scan…


  1. John Emerson says

    Sounds extremely interesting (a bit reminiscent of Potocki) but I got diverted to the Golytsin family, which I know only from “Khovanshchina”.
    It turns out that they were the senior heirs of the pagan Gedminid regime in Lithuania. (Christianized Gedminids of the Jagiellon branch ruled most of Central Europe around 1500.)

  2. It’s no worse than the fact that American and Australian writers are routinely excluded from surveys of “English literature”, as if it meant “the literature of England” — although the North and West Britons are reluctantly allowed in as long as they avoid being too ethnic.

  3. In England we have Tracey Emin who is of Turkish origin. She is a well-known ‘artist’and sells to gullible buyers and for vast amounts of money installations comprising her soiled bed linen and samples of her bodily wastes.
    I wonder whether the Emins are related? We should certainly be told.

  4. Looks like the New York Public Library has a copy, and Columbia has it on microfilm

  5. Throbert McGee says

    “The first Russian novelist was Fëdor Emin (c. 1735-70), who wrote didactic and philosophical romances of adventure in a florid and prolix literary prose.”

    And thus a tradition was established…
    (Would it not have been shorter to say simply, “the first Russian novelist, Fëdor Emin, was notable for writing like a Russian novelist”?)

  6. Terry Collman says

    Saif is being naif (or nasty). Tracy Emin is admired enough to have been made a Royal Academician http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Emin
    Emin, incidentally, means either “trustworthy” or “confident” in Turkish.
    If I remember corectly (which means I can’t be bothered to Google it), Turks only took up surnames as we in the Western European tradition understand them at the insistence of Ataturk after the fall of the Ottoman empire. Tracy Emin’s father was a Turkish Cypriot, however and thus not, as Saif claims, “of Turkish origin” …

  7. And since Fedor Emin was a convert to Islam, it wasn’t his family name anyway.

  8. More off-topic: Musorgsky disliked Tchaikovsky and always referred to him as “Sadik Pasha”, after the Polish anti-Czarist renegade Czajkowski, who fled to Turkey and converted to Islam.
    The Turkey / Russia / Austria interface produced a lot of exoticism. Not a generally happy or prosperous part of the world, but it sure is an interesting one.

  9. “American and Australian writers are routinely excluded”
    Not so much any more; every edition of the Norton includes more ethnic literature. (And they’ve liked the Pearl-Poet and D. H. “Mouldiwarp” Lawrence from the start.)

  10. There seems to be a whole class of writers who are sort of Irish, for example Swift. Probably the pre-XIXc practice was to count all the good ones as English, but then when the nationalist and independence movements arose, everything became confused.

  11. I was surprised by LH’s apparent surprise that someone would convert to Orthodoxy. It seems to me that growing up in the Ottoman Empire it seems very possible Emin was originally born Orthodox – whether Serb, Bulgar, Greek, etc. I suppose we may never know. He may well have converted to Islam purely out of expediency (and of course may have converted back for the same reason). Certainly plenty of room here for lots of unwarranted speculation. A Slavic/Orthodox background could certainly explain why he chose to go to Russia, which backward as it was, still was the most powerful independent Orthodox (or Slavic) state in existence at the time. I wonder if his writing style might give some clues as to what his native language actually was?

  12. Terry: given the choice I’d always prefer to be nasty rather than naif!

  13. I was surprised by LH’s apparent surprise that someone would convert to Orthodoxy.
    Oh, not in general—Orthodoxy is a fine religion, and I’ve found Russian Orthodox services extremely impressive—it just seems so sudden and unmotivated in the context of a brief dash through Emin’s biography. If he’d wound up somehow in Russia and then converted, sure, but why on a visit to London of all places? Doubtless there would be a good explanation if one knew more, which is why I’d like to read a good biography, but at this remove in time it may be impossible to discover.

  14. I think a lot of people get new religions in London. There are plenty to choose from within a short walk of each other, and their officials are often quite willing and competent to accept a stranger. Seems quite sensible to me.

  15. Not quite a biography, but a quick trawl through the Bodleian produceds David Budgen’s The works of F.A. Emin (1735-70) : literary and intellectual transition in eighteenth-century Russia, which might be of some interest. Unfortunately, it’s Budgen’s DPhil thesis, so it’s quite possible that it’s not easily obtainable outside Oxford.

  16. It does indeed sound interesting! The School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies Budgen Collection page says “Unrestricted access” and “Copies, subject to the condition of the original, may be supplied for research use only,” but I imagine a copy of “1 volume, typescript photocopy, 338 pp” would cost me an arm and a leg. Come on, Oxford, digitize those theses!
    Hmm, I’ve found the e-mail address of a Budgen who may be the same guy; I think I’ll write and ask him if he is.

  17. My curiosity’s been piqued enough that I’ve called it up from the stacks;I don’t have time to pop into the Bodleian today, but I ought to be able to take a look at it tomorrow.

  18. Budgen’s thesis is by no means a complete biography, but given the dearth of other sources I’d say it’s worth a look. Most of the thesis deals with literary analysis, but the first chapter tries to assemble what is known of Emin’s life.
    There are three contemporary sources for his life: Emin’s own account, in his Petition to be accepted for employment in Russia of May, 1791, a substantially different account in Novikov’s Opyt istorichiskogo slovarya o rossiiskikh pisatelyakh, and third version written by Petr Bogdanovich, the editor of some of Emin’s works and (alledgedly) a friend of his. None of the three are complete or wholly convincing accounts, although elements of Emin’s and Bogdanovich’s stories are coherent and plausible.
    Novikov and Bogdanovich place Emin as having been raised by Jesuits and spending a lot of his childhood travelling around Europe, coverting to Islam either as a lapsed Jesuit or out of convenience, before eventually winding up in London. Emin’s version is a bit wild and fairly complicated. Emin says his granfather was a Pole who converted to Islam. His father, Husein, married an orthodox slave-girl in Constantinople and held a variety of government positions. Emin, born Meh(e)met Ali, was educated in Latin and Polish by his father and then sent to Venice in his teenage years to finish his education in Italian. Later on he became a slave, escaped thanks to a pirate attack on the ship carrying him, studied in a Jesuit college in Lisbon, and then came to the Russian embassy London in 1761 and asked to convert to Orthodoxy and move to Russia. At this point he took the name Fedor Aleksandrovich Emin.
    Budgen’s account of his life and work in Russia is a good deal clearer and more factual, although for the sake of brevity I won’t go into any detail.

  19. Thanks! I guess there’s no way of knowing the details for sure, but what a life!

  20. Sergei M. Soloviev devoted some space to Emin’s “History of Russia” in his “Russian History Writers of the 18th Century.” I don’t have Soloviev’s text before me but as far as I remember, he doesn’t take Emin seriously, partly because of Emin’s childish attempts at comparative linguistics and other extravagances. The spirit of Emin’s derivations survived into the 21st century, apparently showing itself in Anatoly Fomenko’s “Phoenicia is Venice” insight, and claims by various Ukrainian and Russian hotheads that their nation, the oldest in the world, is derived from the Etruscans. However, unlike his latest imitators, Emin was indeed a polyglot.
    Soloviev makes another mention of Emin in his History, this time as a satirist and an opponent of the theater.

  21. David Marjanović says

    that their nation, the oldest in the world, is derived from the Etruscans.

    What! Not from the Sumerians!?! I’m deeply disappointed.

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