About Sears Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire

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Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire.
New York: Robert Sears, 1855. 686 pages.


Written and published by an American author of numerous religious texts and pictorial descriptions of America (1855), England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the British Isles (1852), An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire is a self-proclaimed attempt to create a descriptive work on Russia in the English language that extends beyond heretofore tourist accounts of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Although many histiographers and writers have documented the government, institutions and multiple regions of the Empire, these subjects have been examined as seperate pieces of work. Therefore, what Sears sets out to accomplish is to present an accessible, carefully condensed knowledge of "Russia and the Russians" within the covers of a single volume (pp. 4).

His hope of creating a piece of work accessible to every class of readers leads Sears to include several maps, courtesy of Morse’s Geographical Establishment,[1] as well as dozens of illustrations from William Roberts, a reputable artist, that portray Russian landscapes, architecture, animals and dress. However, although the visual images of Russia imply the personal observation of both the illustrator and author, neither Sears nor Roberts ever journey beyond the libraries of America and Europe; the entire account is a result of Sears’ perusal of the previously mentioned documentations of other historians on different regions and aspects of Russian life. The only explanation Sears provides as to how he is able to establish conclusions based on references from varied and frequently conflicting authorities is that he relies on “every work that promise[s] any additional or more recent information, or which might serve to verify that already in hand ” (pp. 4). Yet, the absence of a bibliography or reference list leaves the reader wondering exactly where Sears receives his insight.

Published during the Crimean War,[2] Sears notes that the conflict between Western Europe and Russia pushed the publication date of the text forward, due to the fact that publications printed after 1854 portrayed a skewed view of the Russian Empire as a vile and hostile force, thus negating their legitimacy for Sears’ supposedly unbiased work.

The resultant work includes 26 detailed chapters with descriptions ranging from the Baltic Provinces to Russian Poland to Siberia to the Caucasian Provinces with scores of information on such topics as the wild animals of Livonia, the habits of the Russian nobility, the history of the Greek Church, the sources of the Volga River, Jews in the Baltic provinces, the suburbs of Warsaw, the mausoleum of the Khans, the Russian stove and double windows, ship building in St. Petersburg, Siberia as a penal colony and the imperial judicial system. (LB 2005)

[1] This organization serves to continue the work of American geographer Jedidiah Morse, who died in 1826 and was known for his production of authentic and accurate maps.

[2] Great Britain, France and the newly formed Kingdom of Sardinia launched the Crimean War in 1854 against Russia in order to save the Ottoman Empire from Tsarist encroachment. The campaign resulted in a disastrous military defeat for Russia. While St. Petersburg could boast that it commanded the largest army in Europe, poor roads, antiquated weapons and low morale prohibited the effective use of its awesome potential power. The defeat proved to the Tsarist autocracy that Russia had fallen dangerously behind its Western neighbors, making it vulnerable to future attack and invasion.

Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855