Russian Information Politics and the French Revolution

Russia’s support for right-wing politicians around the world has been in the news a lot in recent years. From Ukraine to France and the United States, Vladimir Putin has aligned Russia with political groups that oppose immigration, LGBT rights, and secularism. But this isn’t the first time a Russian leader has been the figurehead of world conservatism.1 After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Russia was known as the “gendarme of Europe” for its interventions against revolutionary forces all over the continent. Before that, Russia stood alongside Britain in leading the worldwide reaction against the French Revolution.

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The 1789 moment, though, was unprecedented. It made Russia a significant ideological actor in Europe for the first time, working from more than just self-interested geopolitical calculation. In the past, Russia had been known for its embrace of enlightened absolutism, but also for its relative pragmatism—Catherine II and her predecessors had been happy to support anti-royal factions in other countries when it suited their ends. Now Russia was venturing abroad in the service of an ideology. Such a fundamental transformation did not just happen because the ruler willed it, yet most accounts of Russia’s response to the Revolution tell a story focused on the internal politics of the empire.

Looking at information flows helps us to develop a less top-down perspective on the French Revolution in Russia. What does it take to make a country’s people—or, in the post-1789 Russian case, its cultural and political elites—feel a sense of global mission? One key ingredient is information. In 1803, a writer in the conservative St. Petersburg journal Herald of Europe mused that “Events in Asia and Africa are preparing a general revolution in those parts of the world, which will affect the fate of eons . . . [I]t is worth noting that all revolutions of the world are now being ascribed to the secret influence of France . . . [T]hey say that the army of the Chinese rebels has Frenchmen in it!”2 To draw connections between events abroad and your own ideological goals, you need to find out what’s happening abroad in the first place. If you’re a writer, that means reading the foreign press; if you’re a political figure, it helps to have access to a stream of reports from contacts and diplomats abroad.

The growth of a newspaper-reading public in Russia helped stoke the ideological fervor of reactionaries. In 1802, Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826), editor of the Herald of Europe, devoted an essay (if a rather exaggerated one) to the rise of readership in Russia in the course of the previous two decades:

Even the poorest of people subscribe to newspapers, and even the most illiterate want to know what news there is from foreign lands! One of my acquaintances happened to see some confectioners who had surrounded a reader and were attentively listening to his description of a battle between the Austrians and French. He asked and discovered that five of them pool their funds and subscribe to Moscow papers, even though four are illiterate.3

The very next article in the issue offered a skeptical analysis of Bonaparte’s policies and an account of his concordat with Pope Pius VII. The popularity of news about France was no fluke. In 1799, the nineteen-year-old poet Mariia Pospelova became a celebrity in Moscow for writing a highly ideological “Ode on the Defeat of General Masséna in Switzerland by Suvorov,” which earned her the reward of a diamond ring from the tsar himself.

Just as ordinary Russians were increasingly interested in news from abroad, Russian elites came to depend on privileged information networks that extended farther than ever before. In the eighteenth century, Russian rulers and elites had been preoccupied with dominating their immediate neighbors: Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and the Ottoman Empire. With all three vanquished, Catherine II grew more ambitious. Fearful of competition from Britain in the Pacific Ocean, she planned scientific and military expeditions there. By the early nineteenth century, the Russian American Company was expanding its presence in Alaska, Russian diplomats were defending the legitimacy of Spanish rule in Latin America, and there was even an unofficial Russian consul in the Philippines. This global turn came with a new awareness of the widening horizons of information that Russia needed to gather to maintain its global standing.4 A British embassy to China sent reverberations from St. Petersburg to Mongolia via hidden networks of diplomatic informants and frontier spies.

One man particularly captivated by this emerging phenomenon was an Irkutsk merchant named Fëdor Shchegorin (ca. 1760 – after 1832). He had traveled to Beijing as an intelligence agent attached to a Russian mission in 1794. This experience changed his life. After his return, he moved to St. Petersburg and began to peddle his “Chinese knowledge” in the form of documents to various government bodies as a state secret. His accompanying letters were festooned with tags like “top secret” and “for the emperor’s eyes only.” Despite the implausibility of these materials, which appear to have been fabricated, he was even able to get a hearing at the State Council in 1799. Shchegorin framed his insights in terms of resisting the influence of the French Revolution in Russia:

The Chinese are not at all surprised by the French Revolution or the disturbances there because this took place due to their having lost the balance or key to their monarchical rule, which has also happened to them on occasion. As for the idea of human freedom, a fiction promulgated everywhere by France, it can never disturb their society, for they never think about it, considering as an impregnable wall not the size of their armies, but their laws and the learning and general welfare of their subjects.5

To Shchegorin’s misfortune, the State Council concluded that that “these are only the creations of an overheated imagination, and dreamed up probably not by Shchegorin himself but by some bookworm who has read too many books which contain only theoretical ideas impossible to put into effect.”6 His failure aside, Shchegorin’s experience shows one way in which the cloak-and-dagger global politics of the eighteenth century were having a broader cultural effect.

Both Karamzin’s newspaper readers and Shchegorin, the wannabe secret agent, complicate some of our received ideas about the top-down nature of Russia’s reactionary turn. At the very least, we can point to a wide range of people, however fringe, who eagerly responded to the project of exporting counterrevolution to the world. But how did growing Russian information networks affect the way this project played out abroad?

In the wake of the Revolution, Russia became one of the prime destinations for French émigrés, led by the Duc de Polignac (1746–1817). Some of them lived out the rest of their lives there, whereas others simply used it as a stopping point en route to more prestigious destinations like London. Though there were plenty of foreigners in Russia before the 1790s, these émigrés helped to knit Russia into the worldwide counterrevolutionary diaspora. In an 1805 travelogue, the British writer Sir John Carr described how they, “from the highest rank, and an influence equal to that of their sovereign, have been cast into the regions of the north, by the terrible tornado of the French revolution . . . The noble fortitude of the Polignacs . . . created at this period a strong sensation in the public mind, and in no part of the world more forcibly than at Petersburg.” Carr pointed to Catherine II’s treatment of the “illuminated apostles of liberty” in Russia as a model for other states, because she had supposedly dealt with them using the “mild and ingenious project” of abducting them to a lunatic asylum and having their heads shaved for public ridicule.7

More influential than Carr was Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), who published the St. Petersburg Dialogues shortly after returning to Italy from a posting to Russia in 1817. De Maistre had become one of the intellectual leaders of European conservatism, and through the Dialogues his apocalyptic view of the Revolution’s impact had a lasting influence on reactionary culture. Set on a “beautiful night” on the Neva embankment, the dialogues are framed in a local Russian context familiar to readers as one of the most hospitable homes for the Revolution’s enemies.

Russia’s political role in revolutionary Europe, in short, was facilitated by emerging networks of travel, communication, and publishing that bound it ever more closely to other participants in the conflict. These networks can help us see beyond the ruler-centered narratives that we instinctively turn to when speaking of Russia. Counterrevolutionary absolutism was becoming a popular and widely appreciated project, thanks to the intelligence agents, journalists, and intellectuals whose stories made it seem unusually urgent in an era of global crisis.

Gregory Afinogenov is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, and he tweets under the handle @athenogenes.

  1. Following Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), I see conservatism, reaction, and counterrevolutionary thought less as separate ideologies than as facets of the same phenomenon. ↩︎
  2. [Karamzin?], Vestnik Evropy (1803), no. 11, 318–20. ↩︎
  3. Karamzin, “O knizhnoi torgovle i liubvi k chteniu v Rossii,” Vestnik Evropy (1802), no. 9, 57–71, original emphasis. ↩︎
  4. On this question, see part 4 of my Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and the Pursuit of World Power in Imperial Russia (forthcoming Spring 2020 from Harvard University Press). ↩︎
  5. Arkhiv Gosudarstvennago Soveta (Sanktpeterburg: Tip. Vtorago otd-niia Sobstvennoi E.I.V. kantseliarii, 1869), ii:760. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., ii:747. ↩︎
  7. Sir John Carr, A Northern Summer: Or, Travels Round the Baltic, Through Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Part of Germany, in the Year 1804 (London: R. Phillips, 1805), 321–49. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Gregory Afinogenov, “Russian Information Politics and the French Revolution,” History of Knowledge, May 19, 2019,