Aeromania and Enlightenment: The Politics of Hot Air Balloons in Karamzin's "Letters of a Russian Traveler"

Rodolphe Baudin

Abstract


This paper focuses on Karamzin’s depiction, in Letters of a Russian Traveler, of Abbé Miolan’s failed hot air balloon flight in Paris in July 1784. After briefly tracing the history of aeromania in late eighteenth-century France and England, as well as its contemporary Russian reception, notably by Catherine the Great, the paper identifies Karamzin’s sources of information on the event and analyses the reasons why the Russian writer mentioned it in his travelogue. It demonstrates that Karamzin’s depiction of a physical experiment embodying European capacity for innovation in the late eighteenth century was not an expression of scientific curiosity. Instead, the young writer used the episode as a metaphor of social and political management, in order to reflect on the questions of social autonomy and the relation of the enlightened public with State power in both France and Russia. By depicting Miolan’s failed flight as a condemnable nuissance to public order, reminiscent of the revolutionary trouble he had witnessed during his journey through France, Karamzin showed his endorsement of Catherine’s conservative conception of the Enlightenment. By depicting how the French public sphere dealt with Miolan and possibly implicitly comparing it with the way Catherine had dealt with Radishchev, he nevertheless showed the superiority of self-regulation over political violence in managing the nobility’s growing longing for autonomy.

Keywords


Karamzin, Letters of a Russian Traveler, travelogue, aeromania, Miolan, Catherine the Great, political management, social order, public sphere, autonomy of the nobility, relation to State power.

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ISSN: 2333-1658