Our Notes & References
A masterpiece of French Enlightenment in Catherine’s Russia: very rare early translation of Montesquieu, the first illustrated.
Completed in 1721, this important piece of French literature recounts in 161 letters the experiences of two Persian noblemen, Usbek and Rica, as they travel through France between 1712 and 1720. The two protagonists write to friends and mullahs commenting on numerous aspects of western Christian society, particularly French politics and the Moors, ending with a biting satire of the system of John Law. The work therefore provides a subtle critique of the Ancien Régime, disguised as the observations of naive foreigners.
The Lettres persanes was an immediate success and has since been frequently reedited and imitated. In Russia, the text circulated widely among upper classes, but it was available only in the original French or in other western European languages. The first complete Russian translation, by Fiodor Pospelov, was published in 1789, without any illustration, after a few extracts had appeared in 1782. This was followed closely by the present edition, with the text newly translated by the retired collegiate councillor Efim Roznotovskii (1737–92). Interestingly and paradoxically, both editions appeared during the heights of the French Revolution, which prompted in Catherine’s Russia some clampdown on free-thought – the 1789 edition being even published by the State Academy of Sciences! There will not be any further edition in the 18th century.
It is illustrated, on the title page, by an interpretation of Dassier’s famous profile of Montesquieu, captioned with the author’s name in Russian. It was engraved by Johann Christoph Nabholz (1752-c. 1796), a German artist who then lived in St. Petersburg and produced many portraits of the aristocracy. This portrait was not included in the extensive study Portraits de Montesquieu. Répertoire analytique by A. Ehrard (Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, 2014).
Very rare. WorldCat locates only two copies, in the libraries of Harvard and Cambridge Universities, while Svod. Kat. mentions 5 copies in Russian libraries.
Obolian. p.632, #264 (“Persidskiia pesni”!!); Sopikov 6303; Svod. Kat. XVIII 4334 (illustrated); the portrait not mentioned in Rovinskii, Slovar Russ. Graverov, 461-64.