The Singing Coachman or, The Road and Russia's Ethnographic Invention in Early Modern Times
Scholars agree that the first modern ethnographic traditions surrounding Russia developed in travel accounts written by foreigners in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. These laid the foundations for a 'national turn' in Russian belles-lettres in the late 18th century. Yet scholars have paid relatively little attention to the history of the coach system, known as the iam, that made travel writing about Muscovy possible. Many foreign travelers—as well as Imperial Russian hommes des lettres —were fascinated by the figures of Russia's iamshchiki, the state peasants who manned the state-organized coach system. The lives and expressions of these coachmen were often taken as proxies for Russia's national character. This article describes this process, demonstrating how the iam system provided a practical as well as a symbolic frame for the making of early conceptions of Russian nationality.