Chappe d’Auteroche’s Voyage en Sibérie, fait par ordre du Roi en 1761. 1768. Engineer and astronomer Chappe’s illustrated voyage to Siberia. Its critical description of Russia’s brutalities triggered an immediate printed response by tsarina Catherine II. Estimate 10,000–12,000 EUR.

- Chappe d’Auteroche’s Voyage en Sibérie is full of reflections about a country that was the subject of as much fascination and prejudice in the 18th century as it is today. In 1761, at the behest of the French Academy of Science, this astronomer priest embarked on an epic journey to the far-off land at the confines of Europe and Asia. His account of his travels, which disturbingly foreshadows the misconceptions that surround Russia to this day, prompted a keen reaction from Catherine the Great – who seized her imperial plume to refute Chappe d’Auteroche herself, chapter by chapter. As an avowed admirer of the Enlightenment, the Empress was determined to burnish her country’s reputation and pursue Western-style reforms. Chappe d’Auteroche subconsciously evoked this ambiguity of a Russia torn between Western and Slavophile leanings. He had been brought up on disciplined French values, and was taken aback by the Slav temperament – if not shocked and intrigued by its excesses.

He depicted an enigmatic people who seemed close to Westerners yet, at the same time, could be disconcertingly abrupt. Such mutual incomprehension between Russians and Europeans still exists. Who are these excessive, excitable neighbours who share our continent? How should we approach their harsh, vast country? We often forget that Russia stands at the crossroads between two worlds, Europe and Asia, and is perpetually questioning its own identity (something many Europeans are unaware of). Voyage en Sibérie, and the lively reaction it prompted from Catherine II, sheds light on the complexity of the culture-clash between West and East: a clash which – with its differences and similarities, fear and fascination – we are still struggling to come to terms with over 200 years on.

Sotheby’s France – Carlo de Poortere Library
Auction: Thursday 6 November at 2:30pm