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Perhaps it had to do with the fact that both Spain and Russia were the only two Nations capable of facing Napoleon at the peak of his power and defeat him –fighting two fronts at the same time might have also helped–; in any case it seems quite a coincidence that, during the XIXth century, Russian culture would develop such an interest for a relatively small, unknown and far away Nation: Spain.

The Spanish theme made its way into Russia’s readers little by little, but especially after the first translations of El Quijote, Lope de Vega and other foreign authors inspired by Spanish literature, like Merimée, were published. Then begun, just like a fever, the buying of Spanish paintings for the Hermitage and the seeking of Spanish dance troupes; proof of it were the numerous successful tours of the French-born Spanish singer Pauline Viardot, one of the most popular and dearest artists to the Russian public. Music also fell under a certain Spanish influence. Rimski-Kórsakov visiting Cádiz would eventually lead the composer to the «Spanish Overtures» or «Capriccio Espagnol».

Vasili Petróvich Botkin (1811-1869) was born into this Hispanophile Russian world. He made his living importing tea and had an incredible talent for foreign languages, also he was an enthusiastic traveler; his Russian friends called him «the Maroseika Andalusian».

Botkin analyzed the flaws he saw in an idle Nation that had fallen behind but that was still very proud and worthy. In his own words, Spain would do well by not imitating the rest of Europe, in fact quite the contrary:

«Oh!, if only Spaniards would, in exchange of that that they so eagerly and so clumsily copy of Europe, cede a bit of their timid, kind, lighthearted joy of which the rest of Europe lacks so much of.»

Botkin wrote one of the works on Spain that shocked Russian society the most. Botkin visited Spain in 1845 and stayed for three months. His book “Letters on Spain” appeared for the first time in 1857 in Saint Petersburg and was gradually published in magazines in the form of articles. During his Spanish tour, Botkin visited the North and South of the country, although the backbone of the book consists of six descriptions of the following cities: Madrid, Córdoba, Sevilla, Cádiz, Málaga and Granada. Which states the deep fascination he had for Andalucía.

Besides the description of these cities, “Letters on Spain” offers personal opinions that today, 160 years later, are still shockingly valid.

Most admired Spanish characteristics by Botkin:
“the common folk, with their extraordinary common sense, their crystal clear mind, the ease and liberty in which they express themselves”.

On politics he states:
«Government is certainly an issue for the Spaniard, oh, he speaks of it with such disdain. (…) to the Spaniard the idea of an unified state with equal rights and responsibilities sounds obscure. Catalonia and the Basque provinces consider the constitutional specter as sheer despotism. “We do well while you do badly” they say to other Spaniards “you wish to deprive us of our wealth and force us to share your utter poverty”.»

On Spaniards:
«The beauty of Spain has set firm root in its proverbs. Poets had sung for centuries to their orange and lemon trees… But, oh!, this also constitutes one of Spain’s misunderstandings. (…) It is more than likely that in this fertile soil would also grow holly oaks, tilos and chesnut trees. In Spain wealth lies before ones feet, it is only a matter of kneeling down and reach it; but Spaniards are not fond of kneeling down.»

For this state of misery “a past of misrule and capricious administrations never interested in the common good “ is to blame, says the author.

On Spain’s relationship with the rest of Europe:
«Oh!, if only Spaniards would, in exchange of that that they so eagerly and so clumsily copy of Europe, cede a bit of their timid, kind, lighthearted joy of which the rest of Europe lacks so much»

Last but not least we got to Vasili’s description of Córdoba, after spending a few days of tough boiling summer.


CÓRDOBA (Fragment)

“The city of Córdoba is entirely Mauritanian. White and low houses without balconies nor windows, narrow and twisting streets, through which one passes as if between two walls. There are no windows only doors. However, whenever a door opens one can’t avoid to stop and contemplate the heavens inside.

There are no gardens in the city and there is barely any green; behind a thick white wall one sees the top of tall palm tree; this diurnal desert, this silence, this unity among the streets, what beauty and sadness the top of the palm tree resembles against the bluest sky, wholesome, pure, absolute, rising over the immaculate white walls and houses!

There is nothing here that reminds one the uses and customs of Northern Europe. Every opened door reveals an enchanted garden: orange trees and strange flowers; usually limited by a high wall at the back which hides the marvelous green. Behind the garden a small square patio; the thin Mauritanian columns of colorful marble supports the Arab ceilings of the gallery surrounding the patio, to which windows and doors pour from the rooms inside; in the middle, a stream of water whispers from a marble fountain. The patio may have a ceiling made from vines, a dense foliage that keeps the sun rays from touching the floor during the  summer, but it could also be a white canvas.

Families are always inside the patio, for it is cool there. Walking through the streets, passing by the houses and high walls, suddenly, one finds an open door and cannot take the eyes of what’s inside! I met a Cordoba inhabitant in a cafeteria, he took me to some rich houses: some had two gardens, one had flowers the other an orchard full of fruit trees. To his kindness I owe the sight of a wonderful stable. For it is known that Córdoba is famous for its Andalusian horses. What noble and beautiful animal! Andalusian horses are bred with care and patience, they develop all their strength after their seventh year, but they are able to maintain it for a longer time. For example, it is common to see twenty year old horses still strong and full of energy.


It is a very common thing in Córdoba, as well as in the region, to see young women riding horses, their skin most of the time have a light coffee like shade, they wear no lipstick and their eyes are glistening black, their waists are flexible, their moves swift but delicate. Their dresses are even more surprising; besides clothing everything else there presents itself negligently.

These dandies (majos) riding horses are a true gift to the eyes. The head and mane of the horse are usually embellished with ribbons that match the horseman jacket; the saddle and stirrups are of oriental fashion; the horseman wears a jacket embroidered with arabesques, tight blue or brown short trousers with many metallic button on the lateral seam;  embroidered with silk arabesques gaiters go up to the knee, tied below and above the calf with tassels, but open at the center to leave the white sock in view. Resting on one ear, a low hat with a bend brim.

I am sure I have already talked about the Andalusian apparel: despite its plain shape it is extremely rich, each one creates his own fantasy. But right next to this elegant gentlemen, beside a Mauritanian arch with a palm tree rising above it, a few ragged beggars hid from the sun and look at the foreign visitor with noble pride. I can’t imagine how these people live, but out of all beggars in the world, Spanish beggars seemed the least inopportune, plus they are never without dignity.


This book has recently been translated into Spanish by Ediciones Miraguano.



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