Afanasiy Nikitin (?-1472) was a Russian merchant from Tver, a city not far from Moscow. Nikitin visited India in 1446-1472 and described his travels in a short travelogue known as The Journey Beyond Three Seas. The story was first discovered in a monastery by Nikolai Karamzin, one of the leading historians of 19th century Russia; and since that time, Journey has fascinated both Russian and Western historians, as well as political-thinkers who envisage Russia's special role in Asia. In fact, a bibliography of Journey exists in the Western and Russian languages. What is the significance of The Journey Beyond Three Seas? Certainly, the importance of the travelogue lies in the fact that not only had very few Westerners visited India at that time but that Nikitin was the first Russian who had seen India and provided a description of the exotic land.
The Journey Beyond Three Seas, just as any other document, could be approached from different perspectives. For some observers, it provides interesting data about the itinerary of Nikitin's travels and about 15th-century India. For others, Journey is a good example of the feelings of a person of one faith who found himself among people of entirely different religions. Still, in our view, one should look at Nikitin's travelogue from another perspective, which is to place Nikitin's narrative in a comparative context. Nikitin, as a representative of an Orthodox Christian civilization, was, in a way, a "Westerner," at least in his relationship to the Indians. For this reason, Nikitin's vision of India could well be placed in the context of the Europeans' vision of Russia in the 15th- through-17th centuries, at the time when Russia was for Europeans as exotic as India. There are structural similarities as well as clear differences in Nikitin's views of India and Europeans' views of Russia and the Orient in general; as a matter of fact, most Europeans look at Russia as being closer to Asia than to Europe.
Cover Image: monument to Afanasiy Nikitin at Revdanda, India
DR. DMITRY SHLAPENTOKH is currently Associate Professor of History at Indiana University in South Bend. He is the author of several books and more than a hundred articles. Dr. Shlapentokh holds Masters’ degrees from Moscow State University (Russia) and Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in Russian/European History from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Shlapentokh is also on the faculty at Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College.