The Revolutionary Flâneur

Johann Gottfried Seume, Zwey Briefe über die neuesten Veränderungen in Rußland seit der Thronbesteigung Pauls des Ersten.

Printed in Leipzig in 1797, incorrectly naming Zurich as the place of publication.


A life like that of Seume was only possible in the time of upheaval between the feudal world of countless princely courts and the bourgeois world of the Biedermeier era. His life itself would have been perfectly suitable for a novel: Johann Gottfried Seume (1763-1810) was a soldier, a lawyer, a professional tourist, a publicist and one of the most famous authors of the German Enlightenment.

Soldier Malgré Lui But Not Contre Coeur

Johann Gottfried Seume was born in 1763 as the son of a Saxon farmer. An enlightened nobleman made it possible for the intelligent boy to attend school and study theology. But becoming a priest? That wasn’t what adventurous Seume had in mind. He abandoned his studies and wanted to go to France – but his journey ended in Vacha, Saxony. There, a Hessian recruiting squad lay in waiting for strong but naive young men. When Seume woke up the next morning, he had signed a contract and was already on his way to Halifax, Canada. For the Hessian landgrave was making an excellent living by hiring out soldiers to the British. By the time Seume arrived, the war was more or less over. So he was again put on a ship and sent back to Bremen where Seume didn’t want to wait for the next kamikaze mission and deserted instead. This time, he fell into the trap of a Prussian recruiting squad, which cost him four years of his life. He spent them partly on daily guard duty in Emden (Prussia), party in prison where he served time for the failed desertion attempt.

Johann Gottfried Seume, painting by Gerhard von Kügelgen, 1806.

Seume’s life drastically changed in 1787. At that time, he got a vacation and used it to – well? – desert! He went to Leipzig to study law. He qualified as a university lecturer in 1792. Thus, he had changed sides, so to speak. He was no longer a simple soldier whose fate was determined by others: as the secretary of a Russian general, it was he who made decisions that affected the lives of those under his command. Seume wasn’t a pacifist. He was involved in the suppression of the 1794 Polish uprising as a Russian officer. In this position, he probably ordered or failed to prevent atrocities, too. Seume was present when the Third Partition of Poland took place, which marked the end of the country at the time.

But then, on 17 November 1796, Tsarina Catherine II died. Her son Paul I issued an order demanding that all Russian officers on leave return to their posts. Those who didn’t show up on the set date were dishonourably discharged. Seume was one of these Russian officers on leave. But by the time he heard about the order, the deadline had already passed. Therefore, he did not only lose his job and his officer rank, he also lost his right to a pension. For the rest of his life, Seume was to fight this with every means at his disposal. And, above all, he had to deal with a pressing question: how could he finance his livelihood?

Seume became a publicist. His small book on the Polish uprising was published as early as in 1796. The following year, he published a volume of poetry, a biography of Tsarina Catherine, and the work we present here: two letters on the latest changes in Russia since Paul I ascended the throne.

The content of this work is exactly what the title tells us. Seume wrote about day-to-day politics, which is why his publisher Georg Joachim Göschen knew that Saxon censors would pay particular attention to this work. After all, the king had been executed in France just a few years earlier. All sovereigns had been extremely nervous ever since. To avoid potential pitfalls, Göschen lied about the place of publication on the title page. Zurich wasn’t subject to the censorship regulations of the Holy Roman Empire. That’s why the title page of the “Two Letters” lists Zurich as publication place although the work was printed in Leipzig.

The Subject Judges the Performance of the Ruler

Let’s take a look at what happened in Russia after Catherine II died. Her successor, Paul I, had a set agenda. While his mother ruled the empire, he had waited for about three decades to continue the work of his assassinated father Peter III. In his opinion, his own mother had deprived him of the reign for all these years. He maintained that it was his since he was the heir of Peter III. And, in fact, Catherine – fondly referred to as “the Great” by her flatterers – deprived her husband Peter III of his power by means of a brutal coup d’état. Had she been involved in his murder too? Paul I certainly thought so. And now his hated mother was dead! Paul I had absolute power. He wanted to use it to do everything differently than his mother. And in his two letters, Seume described what this meant.

What’s remarkable about his work is how confidently Seume judges the two rulers. To him, they aren’t rulers by the grace of God whose measures cannot be questioned. On the contrary: he evaluates their performance solely based on the quality of their political decisions. Seume neither wanted to write a eulogy praising Catherine nor a smear pamphlet against Paul I. He wanted to be a neutral reporter, providing readers with facts so that they could form their own opinion. Or – as Seume says at the end of his little book: “Here you have my frank thoughts, dear friend. Weigh them on your own scales, and examine for yourself how much truth or unfounded is in them.”

Seume takes these facts from all areas of state politics. And we should be aware that he doesn’t always shares the ideals of our time. What the enlightened lawyers writes about death penalties and corporal punishments is hard to hear for modern readers: “As is well known, death penalties were abolished under the rule of Empress Catherine the Second; and except for Pugachev and some of his senior leaders, nobody was executed. Only a few were knouted to death. This kindness was humane to criminals, but I’m afraid that it was cruel to the state. … We have no news yet as to whether Paul the First will reintroduce the death penalty or confirm its abolition. I have often been unable to refrain from wishing that there was a gallows in every administrative district of Russia to do right by the great despisers of the law and of humanity.”

According to Seume, enlightened rulers should educate their ignorant subjects. Their laws promoted or hindered the welfare of the state. He considered statesmanship to be a matter of logic: those who did what’s reasonable would achieve an improvement. But in order to know what’s reasonable, one has to know about as many enlightened views as possible.

Candour Is Better than Flattery

That’s why the freedom of the press is of utmost importance to him. When it comes to press freedom, Seume’s neutral text actually does become a eulogy praising Catherine and a smear pamphlet against Paul. Thus, he writes at the very beginning of the first letter: “It is bad enough that one must usually be outside the borders of an empire to be allowed to speak and write frankly about said empire…” And he starts his second letter by making his position clear: “You reproach me, dear friend, for appearing as a criticizer and for illuminating the new measures in Russia with bitterness. You are certainly mistaken, my dear: bitterness is not at all in my character. When the truth has a somewhat bitter taste, that’s just the nature of things: one cannot sugar over it when describing it, the composition would only become even more repugnant. A neutral tone is always best; and candour is better than flattery.”

In this way, Seume summarised a basic conviction that all intellectuals of the 19th century fought for, some even died for it or spent many years in prison. They all firmly believed in human reason and that one simply had to explain to the people what was “right” in a credible way to enable everyone to do the “right” thing.

Today we see this a little differently.

A Stroll to Syracuse

Only a few of us know Johann Gottfried Seume as a great critic of Russia. Those who remember his name usually associate him with his “Stroll to Syracuse”. Between December 1801 and August 1802, he travelled from Saxony to Syracuse and back home – some 7,000 kilometres. His vivid travel description is still worth a read today, but it isn’t the subject of this article.

Seume died in June 1810 in Teplitz, Bohemia, where he hoped to cure his kidney disease. His insightful books and writings can still be read with pleasure today.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Here you can find a digitized version of Seume’s “Zwey Briefe”.

There is an entire website about Johann Gottfried Seume (in German) that provides you with many details about his life. A broad overview can also be found on Wikipedia (in English).

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