. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Robinson Crusoe: An Un-Russian Survivor

The story of Robinson Crusoe which has been paraphrased and retold to children is a novel that is entirely for adults and has never lost its topicality. Since Daniel Defoe's first volume of collected works was first published in 1719, it has, to use a modern term, remained a European bestseller. This was, by the way, not without the help of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was so delighted by the book's description of the unity with nature that he did much to publicize it.


Rousseau was right. The book is truly remarkable. The only thing that takes away from this impression is the antipathy that the main character evokes at the start. Frankly, Crusoe is a most unpleasant type. He is a narrow and intractable puritan. When during his travels he laments his fate and weeps, we do not believe in his sincerity for a moment. The hero is an entrepreneur and adventurer. And to see him as a sufferer can only be exasperating. We cannot forgive him for stepping out of character. It is only his inability to suffer that allows him to survive and prevents him from sharing the fate of a certain Alexander Selkirk, who spent not 28, but four years on a deserted island, became unsociable and nearly lost his ability to speak, and whom Defoe is said to have met. (Much doubt has been cast on this legendary meeting, but this did not prevent the imaginative writer from making use of the incident which was described in a London newspaper.)


"Rule, Britannia, rule the waves." Defoe thought up his novel on the basis of crude financial considerations. He believed that the average middle-class Englishman at the time would immediately purchase such a useful book, with all its lists, accounts and moral and religious counsel as well as detailed business advice on how to get rich by setting off to some colony or protectorate. It would be considered not as an imaginary work but as a true-life case. Defoe therefore disguised his reputation as a gentleman, and his publisher presented the book in documentary form. At first sight, it hardly seemed a literary work at all. When the deception was revealed, a scandal arose. But it was much too late: Defoe's business partners had already raked in the money; Europe became agitated; Rousseau was delighted. This is how bestsellers are made. Literary scandals of this kind can only be welcomed.


Indeed, one man turned wild and the other did not. Robinson Crusoe is a solitary man on an island in the middle of the ocean. He is part German and part English and could in fact be an American or simply a Westerner. What would a normal person do in such circumstances? A normal, average person -- a Russian, let's say -- who does not come from the woods would begin to think about the vicissitudes of fate and the unjust change of fortune. Robinson also thought about this, but only on the 13th day of his arrival on the island. During the first 12 days he goes off on an expedition on a half-sinking raft and sets about carrying out heavy tasks. The average person is also capable of seizing the unseizable and lifting the unliftable, but 12 days in a row? Without any days of rest?


For children, one of the most moving moments in the book is when Robinson succeeds in surviving on the boat. And it is hard not to gain some satisfaction in reading the list of items he found: muskets, hunting rifles, kegs of rum, carpentry tools, compasses, sailors' chests and money. He held on to the money even though he speculated that given his dire circumstances, it would do him little good. He also had taken along several bibles, including ones in foreign languages.


He carried much with him and stocked a good many items. Was this the result of some kind of automatic tendency to hoard? Or a simple animal response to squirrel things away? Or perhaps it is simply foreign to the Russian way of thinking. Everything was kept, nothing was wasted, and in time, everything came in handy. The idea of celebrating foresight seems silly to us, even repellent or soulless. We thus want to cry out: "What good can the money do you now? Don't you see your life is ruined? Throw it overboard." But Robinson keeps the money in a chest. If he were to think that the money is in essence useless and would gladly give, for example, all his gold for a good pipe, we would then understand him.


The Western man has no other thought than spending his time reading the Bible, during those hours when it is too hot to hunt. What else does he do? He travels, of course. He patrols his property. Robinson never doubted for a moment that the island he landed on belonged to him. After all, he was not a savage. Naturally, he had a cottage in the forest. And most naturally of all, he worked and worked.


There are other curious details. He consumes his rum economically: at the end of 28 years there is still some left! He learns how to make raisins, which he found gave him much energy. In other words, he thought about his health and how to eat properly. He also devised his famous wooden calendar, with an incision on the table that read: For 28 years I was mistaken by one day. He was tormented by not knowing where this day had gone. For goodness' sake, one day. And, of course, his home was his castle. He put up a fence, a hidden ladder and increased the firepower of his muskets. His home was impenetrable.


The return of Robinson to his native land at the end is the triumph of Puritan or Western honor. There are whole pages -- not printed in the children's edition -- that are not so much fiction as balance sheets that list the profits that the hero has made in his absence through the efforts of his honest business associate. Everything is listed in such detail that a suspicion arises that these pages were meant to express the very core of the novel.


Max Weber should have included these pages of "Robinson" in his research on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. In his methodical work from day to day and year to year, Robinson is the embodiment of both. When he spends years building a boat for his return home, only to discover that it is too heavy to move to the sea, he does not despair or pour ashes over himself. After abandoning the idea of building a canal, he simply builds a smaller boat closer to the sea. For he is not at all inclined toward the metaphysical. He is a true survivor.


What would a Russian do in Robinson's place? He would most likely die. Or he would become a hermit. He might even thrive. That is, he might reach some higher metaphysical state. But it is unlikely that he would ever rearrange his surroundings. He is too soulful. And we can despair of this lot or praise it. But we should understand it. Robinson is incomprehensible to us, even unpleasant. But one cannot but respect him.


The Americanism "survivor" is not very easy to translate: "One who lives" sounds too passive, and there is no such word as "one that survives" in Russian. There is only "hanger-on."





Vladimir Potapov is deputy editor of Nedelya. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.