Nikitin, Afanasy

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Famed Russian merchant and autobiographer; exact dates of birth and death unknown.

Afanasy Nikitin was a Russian merchant from Tver who left a diary of his travels to Iran and India during a four-year period between 1466 and 1475. The traveler's own account remains the primary source of information on his personal history and the purpose of his long journey. Under the title The Journey Beyond Three Seas, Afanasy's travel record is a document of great interest, both to historians studying the interactions of medieval Russians with the Muslim East, and in general as one of the first autobiographical accounts in the literature. It has been repeatedly published in the original Russian with annotations and translated into many languages.

Afanasy's notes describe how he left Tver, intending to join a trade expedition headed for the Caucasian principality of Shirvan. On the way, his party was robbed of their goods. He was rescued by the Shah of Shirvan, but, despite the high risk, decided to continue his journey to Derbent, a market familiar to him, and then to Baku, rather than return to Tver empty-handed. He went on to cross the Caspian Sea, continued his travels across Iran, and then crossed the Indian Ocean to the Deccan. After surveying the markets, customs, and courts of the Bahmani and Vijayanagar empires, he made his way back to Russia, crossing the Black Sea. Somewhere in the region of Smolensk, he met an untimely death. Merchants brought his notes to Vasily Mamyrev, secretary to Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow. The L'vov chronicler reports that he received Afanasy's notes in 1475 and incorporated them into his annalistic record, but was unable to locate any further information on the traveler.

The first historians to study his notes saw Afanasy as a daring explorer and patriot. Looking at the journey in commercial perspective, however, historian Janet Martin concludes that although Afanasy did travel farther than other Russian travelers of his era, and visitied places they did not, his notes reveal him as a cautious, even conservative merchant who made a series of discrete, limited decisions to continue his journey on the basis of information about markets conveyed by merchants that he met. He initially planned to take advantage of a lull in hostilities between Muscovy and the Great Horde to bring furs to the Caucasus and the lower Volga, a venture which had good prospects for high profits. His journey to Iran followed a well-established trade route, with extended stops at towns known for their bazaars. Afanasy indicates that his decision to continue to India was based on information from Muslim merchants whom he met in Iran. His notes on India, a market unfamiliar to Russian merchants, contain the most detailed information on goods and markets, as well as advice on finding shelter and warnings about the high customs fees exacted against Christians and the pressures to convert to Islam. This information would have been of great value to merchants considering such a venture. Only when he concluded that further travel would not bring new opportunities for commerce did he decide to return to Russia.

Long passages in creolized Arabic containing prayers and expression of fears about the traveler's inability to practice Christianity in India have inspired a variety of hypotheses. Nikolai Trubetskoy characterized Afanasy's notes as a lyrical tale of a committed Orthodox Christian who suffered from his religious isolation, but kept the faith of his homeland; the foreign terms and phrases added local color to the narrative, shaping its unique artistic structure, while concealing the traveler's most intimate thoughts from all but a handful of readers. Others questioned Afanasy's faith. Yuri Zavadovsky noted Afanasy's extensive knowledge of Muslim prayers and of the requirements for conversion to Islam. Afanasy's reports of his own behavior suggested to historian Gail Lenhoff that he was a social convert to Islam. This decision to convert appears to have been initially dictated by commercial interests, since Muslims did not have to pay taxes or customs duties and could trade more freely in the Deccan markets. His conversion obligated him to pray in Arabic and to observe Muslim customs in public. The increasing proportion of Arabic prayers in the autobiography and the existence of a final prayer of thanks to Allah for surviving a storm, uttered as he approached Christian soil and duly recorded in his diary, could indicate that by the end of his journey Afanasy had assimilated the Muslim faith.

See also: foreign trade; islam; merchants


Lenhoff, Gail and Martin, Janet. (1989). "The Commercial and Cultural Context of Afanasij Nikitin's Journey Beyond Three Seas." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 37 (3):321344.

Major, Richard H., ed. (1857). "The Travels of Athanasius Nikitin," tr. Mikhail M. Wielhorsky. In India in the Fifteenth Century. Hakluyt Society, ser. 1. volume 22. London: Hakluyt Society.

Martin, Janet. (1985). "Muscovite Travelling Merchants: The Trade with the Muslim East (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)." Central Asian Studies 4(3):2138.

Trubetskoy, Nikolay S. (1978). "Afanasij Nikitin's Journey Beyond Three Seas as a Work of Literature." In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Slavic Publications.

Gail Lenhoff

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Nikitin, Afanasy

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