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Afanasy Nikitin’s Voyage Beyond Three Seas


The Voyage Beyond Three Seas by the Tver merchant Afanasy Nikitin is a work that stands alone in the literature of the fifteenth century. Outwardly it resembles the accounts of pilgrimages to the Holy Land which had existed since the twelfth century or the description of journeys to church councils. Nikitin’s voyage was not a pilgrimage to Christian lands, however, but a trading mission to distant India and could not be regarded as an act of piety worthy of a corresponding description.

Afanasy Nikitin’s journey to India in the late 1460s and early 1470s was not undertaken at anyone’s request. It was the merchant’s private initiative. In setting off for the “Shirvan land” (the Northern Caucasus) with letters from his sovereign, the Prince of Tver, Nikitin hoped to join the caravan of the Moscow merchant Vasily Papin, but failed to meet up with him. At Astrakhan Nikitin and his companions were robbed by the Nogai Tartars; he appealed for help in Derbent to the local prince and the Muscovite envoy who had arrived earlier, but did not receive any. “And we wept and dispersed; those of us who owned something in Rus left for Rus, and those who had debts there went wherever they could.”32[1]

Among those who had debts in Russia and for whom the way home was evidently closed for fear of ruin and servitude, was Afanasy Nikitin. He went from Derbent to Baku, thence to Persia and then via Hormuz and the “IndianSea” to India. Having set off for India because of “the many misfortunes”, Nikitin does not appear to have done any successful trading there. The item that he was hoping to sell in India, a horse transported by him with great difficulty, brought him more misfortune than gain: the khan took the horse away from him, demanding that Nikitin should adopt the Islam faith, and only the assistance of a Persian merchant with whom he was acquainted helped the voyager from Tver to regain his property. When Nikitin, six years after beginning his voyage, eventually returned to Russia with great difficulty (he died somewhere near Smolensk before reaching his native town of Tver), he was hardly more capable of repaying his debts than at the beginning of his journey. The only fruits of Nikitin’s wanderings were his notes.

Preserved in a miscellany of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and also in an independent chronicle compilation of the 1480s (the Sophia Second and Lvov chronicles), Nikitin’s Voyage Beyond Three Seas was a completely unofficial piece of writing; consequently it was entirely lacking in the features characteristic of religious or official secular literature. Only a few points linked it with the “voyages” and “pilgrimages” of preceding centuries: the listing of geographical place-names with an indication of the distances between them and notes on the riches of this or that country. In fact, however, Nikitin’s Voyage was a travel diary, notes about his adventures, while writing which the author did not know how they would end: “Four Easter Sundays have already passed in the Moslem land, but I have not forsaken the Christian faith; and God knows what may yet happen… In Thee I trust, О God, save me, О Lord! I know not my way. Whither shall I go from Hindustan?” Later Nikitin set off back to Russia and found a way “from Hindustan”, but here too the record of his wanderings follows the course of his journey closely and breaks off with his arrival in Caffa (Theodosia) in the Crimea.

In recording his impressions abroad, the Tver merchant was probably hoping that his Voyage would one day be read by his “Christian brothers of Rus”. Fearing hostile eyes, he wrote his most daring thoughts in a language other than Russian. But he saw these readers as appearing in the future, perhaps after his death (which was in fact the case). For the time being Nikitin simply recorded his experiences: “And that is where the land of India lies, and where everyone goes naked; the women go bareheaded and with breasts uncovered, their hair plaited into one braid. Many women are with child… The men and women are all dark. Wherever I went I was followed by many people who wondered at a white man.”

The merchant from Tver by no means understood all that he saw in that strange land. Like most people who find themselves abroad, he was prone to see everything, even the most unusual things, as an example of strange local customs. A certain gullibility is evident in his accounts of the “ghuggu” bird spitting fire and a “monkey prince” who has his own army and sends hosts of warriors against his enemies.

When Afanasy Nikitin is basing his notes not on stories that he has been told, but on his own observations, his views are sober and reliable. The India that Nikitin saw by no means resembled the land “full of all manner of riches” from The Tale of the Indian Empire, in which everyone was happy and there were “no thieves, no robbers, no envious men”. The India that Nikitin saw was a distant land with its own scenery and its own customs, but its system was the same as that of all the other lands with which the Russian voyager was familiar: “The land is very populous; the countrymen are very poor, but the boyars are rich and live in luxury.” Nikitin was clearly aware of the difference between the conquerors, the Moslems, and the indigenous population, the people of Hindustan. He also noticed that the Moslem ruler “rides on men”, although “he has many elephants and fine horses”, and “the people of Hindustan go on foot … and are all naked and barefoot”. A foreigner with no rights and insulted by a Moslem ruler, Nikitin informed the Indians that he was not a Moslem. He notes, not without a touch of pride, that the Indians who carefully concealed their everyday life from the Moslems, “did not hide from me when eating, trading, praying, or doing something else, did not conceal their wives”.

Nikitin was lonely and homesick in foreign parts, of course. The theme of nostalgia for one’s country is perhaps the central one in the Voyage. It is present not only in Nikitin’s words about there being no other land like Russia “although the princes of Russia are not like brothers to each other…” (this remark was written in a Turkic tongue to be on the safe side), but also in other passages where his homesickness is expressed indirectly, rather than directly. Nikitin curses the “Moslem dogs” who assured him that there were “a lot of wares” (i.e., wares suitable for sale in Russia) in India, and urged him to make this difficult journey. He complains about how expensive everything is: “And to live in Hindustan would mean to spend all that I have, because everything is expensive here; alone I spend on food two and a half altins a day. As for wine or mead, I have drunk none of it here.” The thing that oppressed Nikitin most of all was being far away from his native language and his faith, which for him was indissolubly linked with his native land and the way of life to which he was accustomed. He was depressed not only by the direct attempts to convert him to Islam, but also by the impossibility of observing his native customs abroad: “I have nothing—no book; we took books with us from Rus, but when I was robbed the books were seized too.” Particularly striking are the meditations into which Nikitin falls after one of his Moslem companions tells him that he is not a Moslem but nor does he know Christianity: “And then I thought it over a great deal, and said to myself: ‘Woe to me, miserable sinner, for I have strayed from the true path and knowing no other, must go my ways. Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth, turn not Thy face from Thy servant who sorrows… God and Protector, Most High, Merciful and Gracious. Praise be to God…’” The last few words are written in Persian. After beginning by addressing God in Russian, Nikitin goes over to a Moslem prayer.

Similar addresses to Allah in Oriental languages and also the Moslem prayer with which the Voyage Beyond Three Seas ends have even led some specialists to suggest that the Moslems were eventually successful in converting Nikitin to Islam.33 This is unfounded. We have no reason to doubt the truth of Nikitin’s frequent statements in his notes that despite all the pressure from the Moslems, he remained true to Christianity. His contact with other religions did exert a certain influence on Nikitin’s outlook, however. After describing the successes of the Moslem Sultan and the “Mohammedan faith” in India, Nikitin wrote: “As for the true faith, God alone knows it, and the true faith is to believe in one God, and to invoke His name in purity in every pure place.” This viewpoint of the merchant from Tver would certainly not have been regarded as orthodox in his homeland and might have got him into serious trouble (as might his statement that there was “little justice” in the land of Russia), had he not died on the return journey home.

Written for himself, Nikitin’s notes are one of the most individual works of Old Russia: we know Afanasy Nikitin and can imagine his personality far better than that of most Russian writers from early times to the seventeenth century. The autobiographical and lyrical elements in the Voyage Beyond Three Seas, which conveys the emotional suffering and mood of the author, were new features in Old Russian literature and characteristic of the fifteenth century. In its directness and concreteness the VoyageBeyondThreeSeas is reminiscent of Innocentius’ account of the last days of Paphnutius of Borovsk discussed above. But Afanasy Nikitin is a much more striking and interesting figure than Innocentius, of course. The personal nature of the Voyage, the author’s ability to show us his emotions, his inner world, all these features of Afanasy Nikitin’s diary re-emerge two centuries later in one of the finest monuments of Old Russian literature, the Life of Archpriest Avvakum.

[1] Quoted from Afanasy Nikitin’s VoyageBeyondThreeSeas, Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1985.