INTRODUCTION: Natasha’s Dance

Chapter 1.  European Russia

1. Founding of St. Petersburg
2. ‘Fountain House’ and the Sheremetev family
3. Praskovya Sheremeteva and the Serf Artist
4. The Russian Split Personality
5.  The Superfluous Man
6.  The Grand Tour

7.  Impact of the French Revolution

Chapter 2: Children of 1812

1. The Decembrists: Birth of the Intelligentsia/ Liberal Russian Nationalism
2. The Decembrist Revolt
3. Exile to Siberia
4. The Vogue for Russian Nationalism
5. Noble Childhood
6. Competing Myths of Russian History
7. Volkonsky’s Return from Exile and Emancipation

Chapter 3. Moscow! Moscow!

1. Moscow
2. St. Petersburg
3. Moscow: A city of gourmands and massive banquets
4. ‘Neo-Russian’ style in crafts, architecture and music
5. The Debate over Russian Identity in the Arts
6.  Moscow Becomes a Metropolis: Rise of the Merchant Class
Moscow’s paradox - a progressive city whose mythic self-image was in the distant past
8. The Moscow Arts Theatre and Chekhov’s Plays
9. Moscow: the Centre of the Avant-garde

Chapter 4. The Peasant Marriage

1. the ‘going to the people’ movement
2. Stasov’s troika:  Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor Antokolsky
3. Tolstoy’s Ambivalence about the Peasants
4. Noble vs. Peasant Marriage
5. Bleaker Views of the Peasants after 1900
6. the World of Art movement and the Ballet Russes
7. Stravinsky, The Peasant Wedding

Chapter 5.   In Search of the Russian Soul

1. 19th c. religious revivalism: the Old Believers
2. Nikolai Gogol and Dead Souls
3. Belinsky’s Retort: Russians are pagans
4. Dostoevsky’s Socialism: Father Zosima’s Russian Church
5. Tolstoy vs. Chekhov on Faith and Death

Chapter 6.  Descendants of Genghis Kahn

1. Kandinsky and the Mongol Tradition
2. The Mongol Inheritance (despite the Eurocentric national myth
3. Orientalism and the Conquest of Siberia
4. Russian Orientalism: Lermontov, Balakirev, Stasov, Rimsky-Korsakov
5. Chekhov’s Report from Sakhalin; his Travel Writing: The Russian Landscape
6. Manifest Destiny, Russian Style
7. Kandinsky: Scythian Shamanism and the Symbolists

Chapter 7.  Russia Through a Soviet Lens

1. Akhmatova at Fountain House
2.  Homo Sovieticus
3.  Eisenstein’s Montage; Meyerhold’s Bio-mechanics and Mayakovsky’s Poetry
4. Socialist Realism, the Great Purges and Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’

5.  The Great Patriotic War
6.  Post WWII Repression: The Cold War and the Arts
7. Soviet Science Fiction
8. Akhmatova’s Final Years

INTRODUCTION: Natasha’s Dance

    In Tolstoy’s War and Peace there is a famous and rather lovely scene where Natasha Rostov and her brother Nikolai are invited by their ‘Uncle’ (as Natasha calls him) to his simple wooden cabin at the end of a day’s hunting in the woods. There the noble-hearted and eccentric ‘Uncle’ lives, a retired army officer, with his housekeeper Anisya, a stout and handsome serf from his estate, who, as it becomes clear from the old man’s tender glances, is his unofficial ‘wife’. Anisya brings in a tray loaded with homemade Russian specialities: pickled mushrooms, rye-cakes made with buttermilk, preserves with honey, sparkling mead, herb-brandy and different kinds of vodka. After they have eaten, the strains of a balalaika become audible from the hunting servants’ room. It is not the sort of music that a countess should have liked, a simple country ballad, but seeing how his niece is moved by it, ‘Uncle’ calls for his guitar, blows the dust off it, and with a wink at Anisya, he begins to play, with the precise and accelerating rhythm of a Russian dance, the well-known love song, ‘Came a maiden down the street’. Though Natasha has never before heard the folk song, it stirs some unknown feeling in her heart. ‘Uncle’ sings as the peasants do, with the conviction that the meaning of the song lies in the words and that the tune, which exists only to emphasize the words, ‘comes of itself.’  It seems to Natasha that this direct way of singing gives the air the simple charm of birdsong. ‘Uncle’ calls on her to join in the folk dance.

    ’Now then, niece!’ he exclaimed, waving to Natasha the hand that had just struck a chord. Natasha threw off the shawl from her shoulders, ran forward to face

    ’Uncle’, and setting her arms akimbo, also made a motion with her shoulders and struck an attitude.


    Where, how, and when had this young countess, educated by an emigree French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit, and obtained that manner which the pas de chale (shawl dance) would, one would have supposed, long ago have effaced? But the spirit and the movements were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones that ‘Uncle’ had expected of her. As soon as she had struck her pose and smiled triumphantly, proudly, and with sly merriment, the fear that had at first seized Nikolai and the others that she might not do the right thing was at an end, and they were all already admiring her.

She did the right thing with such precision, such complete precision, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who had at once handed her the handkerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched this slim, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets and so different from herself, who yet was able to understand all that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.1

    What enabled Natasha to pick up so instinctively the rhythms of the dance? How could she step so easily into this village culture from which, by social class and education, she was so far removed? Are we to suppose, as Tolstoy asks us to in this romantic scene, that a nation such as Russia may be held together by the unseen threads of a native sensibility? The question takes us to the centre of this book. It calls itself a cultural history. But the elements of culture which the reader will find here are not just great creative works like War and Peace but artefacts as well, from the folk embroidery of Natasha’s shawl to the musical conventions of the peasant song. And they are summoned, not as monuments to art, but as impressions of the national consciousness, which mingle with politics and ideology, social customs and beliefs, folklore and religion, habits and conventions, and all the other mental bric-a-brac that constitute a culture and a way of life. It is not my argument that art can serve the purpose of a window on to life. Natasha’s dancing scene cannot be approached as a literal record of experience, though memoirs of this period show that there were indeed noblewomen who picked up village dances in this way. But art can be looked at as a record of belief- in this case, the write’s yearning for a broad community with the Russian peasantry which Tolstoy shared with the ‘men of 1812’, the liberal noblemen and patriots who dominate the public scenes of War and Peace.


    Russia invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of artistic appearance. For the past two hundred years the arts in Russia have served as an arena for political, philosophical and religious debate in the absence of a parliament or a free press. As Tolstoy wrote in ‘A Few Words on War and Peace’ (1868), the great artistic prose works of the Russian tradition were not novels in the European sense. They were huge poetic structures for symbolic contemplation, not unlike icons, laboratories in which to test ideas; and, like a science or religion, they were animated by the search for truth. The overarching subject of all these works was Russia - its character, its history, its customs and conventions, its spiritual essence and its destiny. In a way that was extraordinary, if not unique to Russia, the country’s artistic energy was almost wholly given to the quest to grasp the idea of its nationality. Nowhere has the artist been more burdened with the task of moral leadership and national prophecy, nor more feared and persecuted by the state. Alienated from official Russia by their politics, and from peasant Russia by their education, Russia’s artists took it upon themselves to create a national community of values and ideas through literature and art. What did it mean to be a Russian? What was Russia’s place and mission in the world? And where was the true Russia? In Europe or in Asia? St Petersburg or Moscow? The Tsar’s empire or the muddy one-street village where Natasha’s ‘Uncle’ lived? These were the ‘accursed questions’ that occupied the mind of every serious writer, literary critic and historian, painter and composer, theologian and philosopher in the golden age of Russian culture from Pushkin to Pasternak. They are the questions that lie beneath the surface of the art within this book. The works discussed here represent a history of ideas and attitudes - concepts of the nation through which Russia tried to understand itself. If we look carefully, they may become a window on to a nation’s inner life.

    Natasha’s dance is one such opening. At its heart is an encounter between two entirely different worlds: the European culture of the upper classes and the Russian culture of the peasantry. The war of 1812 was the first moment when the two moved together in a


national formation. Stirred by the patriotic spirit of the serfs, the aristocracy of Natasha’s generation began to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and search for a sense of nationhood based on ‘Russian’ principles. They switched from speaking French to their native tongue; they Russified their customs and their dress, their eating habits and their taste in interior design; they went out to the countryside to learn folklore, peasant dance and music, with the aim of fashioning a national style in all their arts to reach out to and educate the common man; and, like Natasha’s ‘Uncle’ (or indeed her brother at the end of War and Peace), some of them renounced the court culture of St Petersburg and tried to live a simpler (more ‘Russian’) way of life alongside the peasantry on their estates.

    The complex interaction between these two worlds had a crucial influence on the national consciousness and on all the arts in the nineteenth century. That interaction is a major feature of this book. But the story which it tells is not meant to suggest that a single ‘national’ culture was the consequence. Russia was too complex, too socially divided, too politically diverse, too ill-defined geographically, and perhaps too big, for a single culture to be passed off as the national heritage. It is rather my intention to rejoice in the sheer diversity of Russia’s cultural forms. What makes the Tolstoy passage so illuminating is the way in which it brings so many different people to the dance: Natasha and her brother, to whom this strange but enchanting village world is suddenly revealed; their ‘Uncle’, who lives in this world but is not a part of it; Anisya, who is a villager yet who also lives with ‘Uncle’ at the margins of Natasha’s world; and the hunting servants and the other household serfs, who watch, no doubt with curious amusement (and perhaps with other feelings, too), as the beautiful countess performs their dance. My aim is to explore Russian culture in the same way Tolstoy presents Natasha’s dance: as a series of encounters or creative social acts which were performed and understood in many different ways.

    To view a culture in this refracted way is to challenge the idea of a pure, organic or essential core. There was no ‘authentic’ Russian peasant dance of the sort imagined by Tolstoy and, like the melody to which Natasha dances, most of Russia’s ‘folk songs’ had in fact come from the towns. Other elements of the village culture Tolstoy pictured may have come to Russia from the Asiatic steppe - elements


that had been imported by the Mongol horsemen who ruled Russia from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century and then mostly settled down in Russia as tradesmen, pastoralists and agriculturalists. Natasha’s shawl was almost certainly a Persian one; and, although Russian peasant shawls were coming into fashion after 1812, their ornamental motifs were probably derived from oriental shawls. The balalaika was descended from the dombra, a similar guitar of Central Asian origin (it is still widely used in Kazakh music), which came to Russia in the sixteenth century. The Russian peasant dance tradition was itself derived from oriental forms, in the view of some folklorists in the nineteenth century. The Russians danced in lines or circles rather than in pairs, and the rhythmic movements were performed by the hands and shoulders as well as by the feet, with great importance being placed in female dancing on subtle doll-like gestures and the stillness of the head. Nothing could have been more different from the waltz Natasha danced with Prince Andrei at her first ball, and to mimic all these movements must have felt as strange to her as it no doubt appeared to her peasant audience. But if there is no ancient Russian culture to be excavated from this village scene, if much of any culture is imported from abroad, then there is a sense in which Natasha’s dance is an emblem of the view to be taken in this book: there is no quintessential national culture, only mythic images of it, like Natasha’s version of the peasant dance.

    It is not my aim to ‘deconstruct’ these myths; nor do I wish to claim, in the jargon used by academic cultural historians these days, that Russia’s nationhood was no more than an intellectual ‘construction’. There was a Russia that was real enough - a Russia that existed before ‘Russia’ or ‘European Russia’, or any other myths of the national identity. There was the historical Russia of ancient Muscovy, which had been very different from the West, before Peter the Great forced it to conform to European ways in the eighteenth century. During Tolstoy’s lifetime, this old Russia was still animated by the traditions of the Church, by the customs of the merchants and many of the gentry on the land, and by the empire’s 60 million peasants, scattered in half a million remote villages across the forests and the steppe, whose way of life remained little changed for centuries. It is the heartbeat of this Russia which reverberates in Natasha’s dancing


scene. And it was surely not so fanciful for Tolstoy to imagine that there was a common sense which linked the young countess to every Russian woman and every Russian man. For, as this book will seek to demonstrate, there is a Russian temperament, a set of native customs and beliefs, something visceral, emotional, instinctive, passed on down the generations, which has helped to shape the personality and bind together the community. This elusive temperament has proved more lasting and more meaningful than any Russian state: it gave the people the spirit to survive the darkest moments of their history, and united those who fled from Soviet Russia after 1917. It is not my aim to deny this national consciousness, but rather to suggest that the apprehension of it was enshrined in myth. Forced to become Europeans, the educated classes had become so alienated from the old Russia, they had so long forgotten how to speak and act in a Russian way, that when, in Tolstoy’s age, they struggled to define themselves as ‘Russians’ once again, they were obliged to reinvent that nation through historical and artistic myths. They rediscovered their own ‘Russianness’ through literature and art, just as Natasha found her ‘Russianness’ through the rituals of the dance. Hence the purpose of this book is not simply to debunk these myths. It is rather to explore, and to set out to explain, the extraordinary power these myths had in shaping the Russian national consciousness.

    The major cultural movements of the nineteenth century were all organized around these fictive images of Russia’s nationhood: the Slavophiles, with their attendant myth of the ‘Russian soul’, of a natural Christianity among the peasantry, and their cult of Muscovy as the bearer of a truly ‘Russian’ way of life which they idealized and set out to promote as an alternative to the European culture adopted by the educated elites since the eighteenth century; the Westernizers, with their rival cult of St Petersburg, that ‘window on to the West’, with its classical ensembles built on marshland reclaimed from the sea - a symbol of their own progressive Enlightenment ambition to redraw Russia on a European grid; the Populists, who were not far from Tolstoy, with their notion of the peasant as a natural socialist whose village institutions would provide a model for the new society; and the Scythians, who saw Russia as an ‘elemental’ culture from


the Asiatic steppe which, in the revolution yet to come, would sweep away the dead weight of European civilization and establish a new culture where man and nature, art and life, were one. These myths were more than just ‘constructions’ of a national identity. They all played a crucial role in shaping the ideas and allegiances of Russia’s politics, as well as in developing the notion of the self, from the most elevated forms of personal and national identity to the most quotidian matters of dress or food, or the type of language one used. The Slavophiles illustrate the point. Their idea of ‘Russia’ as a patriarchal family of homegrown Christian principles was the organizing kernel of a new political community in the middle decades of the nineteenth century which drew its members from the old provincial gentry, the Moscow merchants and intelligentsia, the priesthood and certain sections of the state bureaucracy. The mythic notion of Russia’s nationhood which brought these groups together had a lasting hold on the political imagination. As a political movement, it influenced the government’s position on free trade and foreign policy, and gentry attitudes towards the state and peasantry. As a broad cultural movement the Slavophiles adopted a certain style of speech and dress, distinct codes of social interaction and behaviour, a style of architecture and interior design, their own approach to literature and art. It was all bast shoes and homespun coats and beards, cabbage soup and kvas, folk-like wooden houses and brightly coloured churches with onion domes.

    In the Western imagination these cultural forms have all too often been perceived as ‘authentically Russian’. Yet that perception is a myth as well: the myth of exotic Russia. It is an image first exported by the Ballets Russes, with their own exoticized versions of Natasha’s dance, and then shaped by foreign writers such as Rilke, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, who held up Dostoevsky as the greatest novelist and peddled their own versions of the ‘Russian soul’. If there is one myth which needs to be dispelled, it is this view of Russia as exotic and elsewhere. Russians have long complained that the Western public does not understand their culture, that Westerners see Russia from afar and do not want to know its inner subtleties, as they do with the culture of their own domain. Though based partly on resentment and wounded national pride, the complaint is not unjustified. We are inclined to consign Russia’s artists,


writers and composers to the cultural ghetto of a ‘national school’ and to judge them, not as individuals, but by how far they conform to this stereotype. We expect the Russians to be ‘Russian’ - their art easily distinguished by its use of folk motifs, by onion domes, the sound of bells, and full of ‘Russian soul’. Nothing has done more to obscure a proper understanding of Russia and its central place in European culture between 1812 and 1917. The great cultural figures of the Russian tradition (Karamzin, Pushkin, Glinka, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Repin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chagall and Kandinsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Pasternak, Meyerhold and Eisenstein) were not simply ‘Russians’, they were Europeans too, and the two identities were intertwined and mutually dependent in a variety of ways. However hard they might have tried, it was impossible for Russians such as these to suppress either part of their identity.

    For European Russians, there were two very different modes of personal behaviour. In the salons and the ballrooms of St Petersburg, at court or in the theatre, they were very ‘comme il faut’  (accepted; proper): they performed their European manners almost like actors on a public stage. Yet on another and perhaps unconscious plane and in the less formal spheres of private life, native Russian habits of behaviour prevailed. Natasha’s visit to her ‘Uncle’s‘ house describes one such switch: the way she is expected to behave at home, in the Rostov palace, or at the ball where she is presented to the Emperor, is a world apart from this village scene where her expressive nature is allowed free rein. It is evidently her gregarious enjoyment of such a relaxed social setting that communicates itself in her dance. This same sense of relaxation, of becoming ‘more oneself in a Russian milieu, was shared by many Russians of Natasha’s class, including her own ‘Uncle’, it would seem. The simple recreations of the country house or dacha - hunting in the woods, visiting the bath house or what Nabokov called the ‘very Russian sport of hodit’ po gribi (looking for mushrooms)’ - were more than the retrieval of a rural idyll: they were an expression of one’s Russianness. To interpret habits such as these is one of this book’s aims. Using art and fiction, diaries and letters, memoirs and prescriptive literature, it seeks to apprehend the structures of the Russian national identity. ‘Identity’ these days


is a fashionable term, but it is not very meaningful unless one can show how it manifests itself in social interaction and behaviour. A culture is made up not simply of works of art, or literary discourses, but of unwritten codes, signs and symbols, rituals and gestures, and common attitudes that fix the public meaning of these works and organize the inner life of a society. So the reader will find here that works of literature, like War and Peace, are intercut with episodes from daily life (childhood, marriage, religious life, responses to the landscape, food and drinking habits, attitudes to death) where the outlines of this national consciousness may be discerned. These are the episodes where we may find, in life, the unseen threads of a common Russian sensibility, such as Tolstoy had imagined in his celebrated dancing scene.

    A few words are in order on the structure of the book. It is an interpretation of a culture, not a comprehensive history, so readers should beware that some great cultural figures will perhaps get less than their full pages’ worth. My approach is thematic. Each chapter explores a separate strand of the Russian cultural identity. The chapters progress from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, but the rules of strict chronology are broken in the interest of thematic coherence. There are two brief moments (the closing sections of chapters 3 and 4) where the barrier of 1917 is crossed. As on the other few occasions where periods of history, political events or cultural institutions are handled out of sequence, I have provided some explanation for readers who lack detailed knowledge of Russian history. (Those needing more may consult the Table of Chronology.) My story finishes in the Brezhnev era. The cultural tradition which it charts reached the end of a natural cycle then, and what has come afterwards may well be the start of something new. Finally, there are themes and variations that reappear throughout the book, leitmotifs and lineages like the cultural history of St Petersburg and the family narratives of the two great noble dynasties, the Volkonskys and the Sheremetevs. The meaning of these twists and turns will be perceived by the reader only at the end.

Chapter 1. European Russia

Benjamin Paterssen: Vue de la grande parade au

Palais de L’Empereur Alexander a St Petersburg, c.1803



Chapter 1.  European Russia

1. Founding of St. Petersburg
2. ‘Fountain House’ and the Sheremetev family
3. Praskovya Sheremeteva and the Serf Artist
4. The Russian Split Personality
5.  The Superfluous Man
6. The Grand Tour

7. Impact of the French Revolution

1. Founding of St. Petersburg

    On a misty spring morning in 1703 a dozen Russian horsemen rode across the bleak and barren marshlands where the Neva river runs into the Baltic sea. They were looking for a site to build a fort against the Swedes, then at war with Russia, and the owners of these long-abandoned swamps. But the vision of the wide and bending river flowing to the sea was full of hope and promise to the Tsar of landlocked Russia, riding at the head of his scouting troops. As they approached the coast he dismounted from his horse. With his bayonet he cut two strips of peat and arranged them in a cross on the marshy ground. Then Peter said: ‘Here shall be a town.’

    Few places could have been less suitable for the metropolis of Europe’s largest state. The network of small islands in the Neva’s boggy delta were overgrown with trees. Swept by thick mists from melting snow in spring and overblown by winds that often caused the rivers to rise above the land, it was not a place for human habitation, and even the few fishermen who ventured there in summer did not stay for long. Wolves and bears were its only residents. A thousand years ago the area was underneath the sea. There was a channel flowing from the Baltic sea to lake Ladoga, with islands where the Pulkovo and Pargolovo heights are found today. Even in the reign of Catherine the Great, during the late eighteenth century, Tsarskoe Selo, where she built her Summer Palace on the hills of Pulkovo, was still known by the locals as Sarskoe Selo. The name came from the Finnish word for an island, saari.

    When Peter’s soldiers dug into the ground they found water a metre or so below. The northern island, where the land was slightly higher, was the only place to lay firm foundations. In four months of furious activity, in which at least half the workforce died, 20,000 conscripts built the Peter and Paul Fortress, digging out the land with their bare hands, dragging logs and stones or carting them by back, and carrying the earth in the folds of their clothes.3 The sheer scale and tempo of construction was astonishing. Within a few years the estuary became an energetic building site and, once Russia’s control of the coast had been secured with victories over Sweden in 1709-10, the city took on a new shape with every passing day. A quarter of a million serfs


and soldiers from as far afield as the Caucasus and Siberia worked around the clock to clear forests, dig canals, lay down roads and erect palaces.4 Carpenters and stonemasons (forbidden by decree to work elsewhere) flooded into the new capital. Hauliers, ice-breakers, sled-drivers, boatsmen and labourers arrived in search of work, sleeping in the wooden shacks that crowded into every empty space. To start with, everything was done in a rough and ready fashion with primitive hand tools: axes predominated over saws, and simple carts were made from unstripped trunks with tiny birch-log wheels. Such was the demand for stone materials that every boat and vehicle arriving in the town was obliged to bring a set tonnage of rock. But new industries soon sprang up to manufacture brick, glass, mica and tarpaulin, while the shipyards added constantly to the busy traffic on the city’s waterways, with sailing boats and barges loaded down with stone, and millions of logs floated down the river every year.

    Like the magic city of a Russian fairy tale, St Petersburg grew up with such fantastic speed, and everything about it was so brilliant and new, that it soon became a place enshrined in myth. When Peter declared, ‘Here shall be a town’, his words echoed the divine command, ‘Let there be light.’ And, as he said these words, legend has it that an eagle dipped in flight over Peter’s head and settled on top of two birch trees that were tied together to form an arch. Eighteenth-century panegyrists elevated Peter to the status of a god: he was Titan, Neptune and Mars rolled into one. They compared ‘Petropolis’ to ancient Rome. It was a link that Peter also made by adopting the title of ‘Imperator’ and by casting his own image on the new rouble coin, with laurel wreath and armour, in emulation of Caesar. The famous opening lines of Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833) (which every Russian schoolchild knows by heart) crystallized the myth of Petersburg’s creation by a providential man:

    On a shore by the desolate waves
    He stood, with lofty thoughts,
    And gazed into the distance…5

    Thanks to Pushkin’s lines, the legend made its way into folklore. The city that was named after Peter’s patron saint, and has been renamed three times since as politics have changed, is still called simply ‘Peter’ by its residents.*

    * The name in Russian is pronounced ‘Pyotr’ - so ‘Peter’ (from the original Dutch spelling and pronunciation of ‘Sankt Piter Burkh’) suggests a certain foreignness which, as the poet Joseph Brodsky pointed out, somehow sounds correct for such a non-Russian town (see Joseph Brodsky, ‘A Guide to a Renamed City’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays (London, 1986), p. 71).


    In the popular imagination the miraculous emergence of the city from the sea assigned to it a legendary status from the start. The Russians said that Peter made his city in the sky and then lowered it, like a giant model, to the ground. It was the only way they could explain the creation of a city built on sand. The notion of a capital without foundations in the soil was the basis of the myth of Petersburg which inspired so much Russian literature and art. In this mythology, Petersburg was an unreal city, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, an alien kingdom of the apocalypse. It was home to the lonely haunted figures who inhabit Gogol’s Tales of Petersburg (1835); to fantasists and murderers like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). The vision of an all-destroying flood became a constant theme in the city’s tales of doom, from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman to Bely’s Petersburg (1913-14). But that prophecy was based on fact: for the city had been built above the ground. Colossal quantities of rubble had been laid down to lift the streets beyond the water’s reach. Frequent flooding in the city’s early years necessitated repairs and reinforcements that raised them higher still. When, in 1754, building work began on the present Winter Palace, the fourth upon that site, the ground on which its foundations were laid was three metres higher than fifty years before.

Shifting the huge granite rock for the pedestal of The Bronze Horseman.
Engraving after a drawing by A. P. Davydov, 1782

A city built on water with imported stone, Petersburg defied the natural order. The famous granite of its river banks came from Finland and Karelia; the marble of its palaces from Italy, the Urals and the Middle East; gabbro and porphyry were brought in from Sweden; dolerite and slate from lake Onega; sandstone from Poland and Germany; travertine from Italy; and tiles from the Low Countries and Liibeck. Only limestone was quarried locally.6 The achievement of transporting such quantities of stone has been surpassed only by the building of the pyramids. The huge granite rock for the pedestal of Falconet’s equestrian statue of


Peter theGreat was twelve metres high and nearly thirty metres in circumference. Weighing in at some 660,000 kilograms, it took a thousand men over eighteen months to move it, first by a series of pulleys and then on a specially constructed barge, the thirteen kilometres from the forest clearing where it had been found to the capital.7 Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman turned the inert monument into an emblem of Russia’s destiny. The thirty-six colossal granite columns of St Isaac’s Cathedral were cut out of the ground with sledgehammers and chisels, and then hauled by hand over thirty kilometres to barges on the gulf of Finland, from where they were shipped to St Petersburg and mounted by huge cranes built out of wood.8 The heaviest rocks were shifted during the winter, when snow made hauling easier, although this meant waiting for the thaw in spring before they could be shipped. But even then the job required an army of several thousand men with 200-horse sleigh teams.9

    Petersburg did not grow up like other towns. Neither commerce nor geopolitics can account for its development. Rather it was built as a work of art. As the French writer Madame de Stael said on her visit to the city in 1812, ‘here everything has been created for visual perception’. Sometimes it appeared that the city was assembled as a giant mise-en-scene - its buildings and its


people serving as no more than theatrical props. European visitors to Petersburg, accustomed to the melange of architectural styles in their own cities, were particularly struck by the strange unnatural beauty of its ensembles and often compared them to something from the stage. ‘At each step I was amazed by the combination of architecture and stage decoration’, wrote the travel writer the Marquis de Custine in the 1830s. ‘Peter the Great and his successors looked upon their capital as a theatre.’10 In a sense St Petersburg was just a grander version of that later stage production, the ‘Potemkin villages’: cardboard cut-out classic structures rigged up overnight along the Dnieper river banks to delight Catherine the Great as she sailed past.

    Petersburg was conceived as a composition of natural elements - water, stone and sky. This conception was reflected in the city panoramas of the eighteenth century, which set out to emphasize the artistic harmony of all these elements.11 Having always loved the sea, Peter was attracted by the broad, fast-flowing river Neva and the open sky as a backdrop for his tableau. Amsterdam (which he had visited) and Venice (which he only knew from books and paintings) were early inspirations for the layout of the palace-lined canals and embankments. But Peter was eclectic in his architectural tastes and borrowed what he liked from Europe’s capitals. The austere classical baroque style of Petersburg’s churches, which set them apart from Moscow’s brightly coloured onion domes, was a mixture of St Paul’s cathedral in London, St Peter’s in Rome, and the single-spired churches of Riga, in what is now Latvia. From his European travels in the 1690s Peter brought back architects and engineers, craftsmen and artists, furniture designers and landscape gardeners.* Scots, Germans, French, Italians - they all settled in large numbers in St Petersburg in the eighteenth century. No expense was spared for Peter’s ‘paradise’. Even at the height of the war with Sweden in the 1710s he meddled constantly in details of the plans. To make the Summer Gardens ‘better than Versailles’ he ordered peonies and citrus trees  from Persia, ornamental fish from the Middle East, even singing birds from India, although few


survived the Russian frost.12 Peter issued decrees for the palaces to have regular facades in accordance with his own approved designs, for uniform roof lines and prescribed iron railings on their balconies and walls on the ‘embankment side’. To beautify the city Peter even had its abattoir rebuilt in the rococo style.13

    * The main architects of Petersburg in Peter the Great’s reign were Domenico Trezzini (from Italy), Jean Leblond (from France) and Georg Mattarnovy (from Germany).

    ‘There reigns in this capital a kind of bastard architecture’, wrote Count Algarotti in the middle of the eighteenth century. ‘It steals from the Italian, the French and the Dutch.’14  By the nineteenth century, the view of Petersburg as an artificial copy of the Western style had become commonplace. Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century writer and philosopher, once said that Petersburg ‘differs from all other European towns by being like them all’.15 Yet, despite its obvious borrowings, the city had its own distinctive character, a product of its open setting between sea and sky, the grandeur of its scale, and the unity of its architectural ensembles, which lent the city a unique artistic harmony. The artist Alexander Benois, an influential figure in the Diaghilev circle who made a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg, captured this harmonious conception. ‘If it is beautiful’, he wrote in 1902, ‘then it is so as a whole, or rather in huge chunks.’16 Whereas older European cities had been built over several centuries, ending up at best as collections of beautiful buildings in diverse period styles, Petersburg was completed within fifty years and according to a single set of principles. Nowhere else, moreover, were these principles afforded so much space. Architects in Amsterdam and Rome were cramped for room in which to slot their buildings. But in Petersburg they were able to expand their classical ideals. The straight line and the square were given space to breathe in expansive panoramas. With water everywhere, architects could build mansions low and wide, using their reflections in the rivers and canals to balance their proportions, producing an effect that is unquestionably beautiful and grandiose. Water added lightness to the heavy baroque style, and movement to the buildings set along its edge. The Winter Palace is a supreme example. Despite its immense size (1,050 rooms, 1,886 doors, 1,945 windows, 117 staircases) it almost feels as if it is floating on the embankment of the river; the syncopated rhythm of the white columns along its blue facade creates a sense of motion as it reflects the Neva flowing by.


    The key to this architectural unity was the planning of the city as a series of ensembles linked by a harmonious network of avenues and squares, canals and parks, set against the river and the sky. The first real plan dates from the establishment of a Commission for the Orderly Development of St Petersburg in 1737, twelve years after Peter’s death. At its centre was the idea of the city fanning out in three radials from the Admiralty, just as Rome did from the Piazza del Popolo. The golden spire of the Admiralty thus became the symbolic and topographical centre of the city, visible from the end of the three long avenues (Nevsky, Gorokhovaia and Voznesensky) that converge on it. From the 1760s, with the establishment of a Commission for the Masonry Construction of St Petersburg, the planning of the city as a series of ensembles became more pronounced. Strict rules were imposed to ensure the use of stone and uniform facades for the palaces constructed on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. These rules underlined the artistic conception of the avenue as a straight unbroken line stretching as far as the eye could see. It was reflected in the harmonious panoramas by the artist M. I. Makhaev commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city in 1753. But visual harmony was not the only purpose of such regimentation: the zonal planning of the capital was a form of social ordering as well. The aristocratic residential areas around the Winter Palace and the Summer Gardens were clearly demarcated by a series of canals and avenues from the zone of clerks and traders near the Haymarket (Dostoevsky’s Petersburg) or the workers’ suburbs further out. The bridges over the Neva, as readers who have seen Eisenstein’s film October (1928) know, could be lifted to prevent the workers coming into the central areas.

    St Petersburg was more than a city. It was a vast, almost Utopian, project of cultural engineering to reconstruct the Russian as a European man. In Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoevsky called it ‘the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world’.17 Every aspect of its Petrine culture was intended as a negation of ‘medieval’ (seventeenth-century) Muscovy. As Peter conceived it, to become a citizen of Petersburg was to leave behind the ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ customs of the Russian past in Moscow and to enter, as a European Russian, the modern Western world of progress and enlightenment.


    Muscovy was a religious civilization. It was rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Eastern Church which went back to Byzantium. In some ways it resembled the medieval culture of central Europe, to which it was related by religion, language, custom and much else besides. But historically and culturally it remained isolated from Europe. Its western territories were no more than a toehold on the European continent: the Baltic lands were not captured by the Russian empire until the 1720s, the western Ukraine and the lion’s share of Poland not until the end of the eighteenth century. Unlike central Europe Muscovy had little exposure to the influence of the Renaissance or the Reformation. It took no part in the maritime discoveries or the scientific revolutions of the early modern era. It had no great cities in the European sense, no princely or episcopal courts to patronize the arts, no real burgher or middle class, and no universities or public schools apart from the monastery academies.

    The dominance of the Church hindered the development in Muscovy of the secular art forms that had taken shape in Europe since the Renaissance. Instead, the icon was the focal point of Muscovy’s religious way of life. It was an artefact of daily ritual as much as it was a creative work of art. Icons were encountered everywhere - not just in homes and churches but in shops and offices or in wayside shrines. There was next to nothing to connect the icon to the European tradition of secular painting that had its origins in the Renaissance. True, in the late seventeenth century Russian icon-painters such as Simon Ushakov had started to abandon the austere Byzantine style of medieval icon-painting for the classical techniques and sensuality of the Western baroque style. Yet visitors from Europe were invariably shocked by the primitive condition of Russia’s visual arts. ‘Flat and ugly’, observed Samuel Collins, English physician to the Russian court, of the Kremlin’s icons in the 1660s; ‘if you saw their images, you would take them for no better than gilded gingerbread’.18 The first secular portraits (parsuny) date from as late as the 1650s. However, they still retain a flat iconic style. Tsar Alexei, who reigned from 1645 to 1676, is the first Russian ruler for whom we have anything remotely resembling a reliable likeness. Other types of painting (still life, landscape, allegory, genre) were entirely absent from the Russian repertoire until Peter’s reign, or even later still.


    The development of other secular forms of art was equally impeded by the Russian Church. Instrumental music (as opposed to sacred singing) was regarded as a sin and was ruthlessly persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities. However, there was a rich folk tradition of minstrels and musicians, or skomorokhi (featured by Stravinsky in Petrushka), who wandered through the villages with tambourines and gusli (a type of zither), avoiding the agents of the Church. Literature as well was held back by the omnipresent Church. There were no printed news sheets or journals, no printed plays or poetry, although there was a lively industry of folk tales and verse published in the form of illustrated prints (lubki) as cheap printing techniques became available towards the end of the seventeenth century. When Peter came to the throne in 1682 no more than three books of a non-religious nature had been published by the Moscow press since its establishment in the 1560s.19

    Peter hated Muscovy. He despised its archaic culture and parochialism, its superstitious fear and resentment of the West. Witch hunts were common and foreign heretics were burned in public on Red Square - the last, a Protestant, in 1689, when Peter was aged seventeen. As a young man, Peter spent a great deal of his time in the special ‘German’ suburb where, under pressure from the Church, Moscow’s foreigners were forced to live. He dressed in Western clothes, shaved his beard and, unlike the Orthodox, he ate meat during Lent. The young Tsar travelled through northern Europe to learn for himself the new technologies which Russia would need to launch itself as a continental military power. In Holland he worked as a shipbuilder. In London he went to the observatory, the arsenal, the Royal Mint and the Royal Society. In Konigsberg he studied artillery. From his travels he picked up what he needed to turn Russia into a modern European state: a navy modelled on the Dutch and the English ones; military schools that were copies of the Swedish and the Prussian; legal systems borrowed from the Germans; and a Table of (civil service) Ranks adapted from the Danes. He commissioned battle scenes and portraits to publicize the prestige of his state; and he purchased sculptures and decorative paintings for his European palaces in Petersburg.


    Everything in the new capital was intended to compel the Russians to adopt a more European way of life. Peter told his nobles where to live, how to build their houses, how to move around the town, where to stand in church, how many servants to keep, how to eat at banquets, how to dress and cut their hair, how to conduct themselves at court, and how to converse in polite society. Nothing in his dragooned capital was left to chance. This obsessive regulation gave St Petersburg the image of a hostile and oppressive place. Here were the roots of the nineteenth-century myth of the ‘unreal city’ - alien and threatening to the Russian way of life - which was to play a central role in Russian literature and art. ‘In Petersburg’, wrote Benois, ‘there is that same Roman spirit, a hard and absolute spirit of order, a spirit of formally perfect life, unbearable for the general Russian slovenliness, but unquestionably not without charm.’ Benois compared the city to a ‘sergeant with a stick’ - it had a ‘machine-like character’ - whereas the Russians were like a ‘dishevelled old woman’.20 The nineteenth-century image of the Imperial city was defined by the notion of its regimentation. De Custine remarked that Petersburg was more like ‘the general staff of an army than the capital of a nation’.21 And Herzen said that its uniformity reminded him of a ‘military barracks’.22 This was a city of inhuman proportions, a city ordered by the abstract symmetry of its architectural shapes rather than by the lives of its inhabitants. Indeed, the very purpose of these shapes was to regiment the Russians, like soldiers, into line.

    Yet underneath the surface of this European dream world the old Russia still showed through. Badgered by the Tsar to build classical facades, many of the nobles allowed animals to roam in the courtyards of their palaces in Petersburg, just as they did in their Moscow yards, so that Peter had to issue numerous decrees forbidding cows and pigs from wandering on to his fine European avenues.23 But even the Nevsky, the most European of his avenues, was undone by a ‘Russian’ crookedness. Designed as a formal ‘prospekt’ running in a straight line from the Admiralty, at one end, to the Alexander Nevsky monastery, three kilometres away at the other, it was built by separate crews from either end. But they failed to keep the line and when it was completed in 1715 there was a distinct kink where the two teams met.24


2. ‘Fountain House’ and the Sheremetev family

    The Sheremetev palace on the Fontanka river is a legendary symbol of the Petersburg tradition. The people of that city call it ‘Fountain House’. The poet Anna Akhmatova, who lived there, on and off, in an annexe flat from 1926 to 1952, thought of it as a precious inner space which she co-inhabited with the spirits of the great artistic figures of the past. Pushkin, Krylov, Tiutchev and Zhukovsky - they had all been there.

I don’t have special claims
On this illustrious house,
But it happens that almost my whole life
I have lived under the celebrated roof
Of the Fountain Palace… As a pauper
I arrived and as a pauper I will leave…25

    The history of the palace is a microcosm of the Petrine plan to set down Western culture on Russian soil. It was built on a plot of marshland granted in 1712 by the Tsar to Boris Sheremetev, the Field Marshal of Peter’s army at the battle of Poltava. At that time the site was on the edge of Petersburg and its forests gave the palace a rural character. Peter’s gift was one of several to distinguished servitors. They were ordered to construct European-style palaces with regular facades on the Fontanka side as part of the Tsar’s plan to develop Petersburg. Legend has it that the land was empty in 1712. But Akhmatova believed that a Swedish farmstead had been there, since she distinguished oak trees from pre-Petrine times.26

    By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Sheremetev family was already well established as a hugely wealthy clan with close connections to the court. Distantly related to the Romanovs, the Sheremetevs had been rewarded with enormous tracts of land for their loyal service to the ruling house as military commanders and diplomats. Boris Sheremetev was a long-standing ally of Peter’s. In 1697 he had travelled with the Tsar on his first trip to Europe, where he remained as Russian ambassador to Poland, Italy and Austria. A veteran of the wars against the Swedes, in 1705 he became Russia’s first appointed count (graf) - a title


Peter imported from Europe as part of his campaign to Westernize the Russian aristocracy. Boris was the last of the old boyars, the leading noblemen of Muscovy whose wealth and power derived from the favour of the Tsar (they had all but disappeared by the end of Peter’s reign as newly titled nobles superseded them). Russia did not have a gentry in the Western sense - an independent class of landowners that could act as a counterbalance to the power of the Tsar. From the sixteenth century the state had swept away the quasi-feudal rights of the local princes and turned all nobles (dvoriane) into servants of the court (dvor). Muscovy was conceived as a patrimonial state, owned by the Tsar as his personal fiefdom, and the noble was legally defined as the Tsar’s ‘slave’.* For his services the nobleman was given land and serfs, but not as outright or allodial property, as in the West, and only on condition that he served the Tsar. The slightest suspicion of disloyalty could lead to demotion and the loss of his estates.


    *Even as late as the nineteenth century noblemen of every rank, including counts and barons, were required to sign off their letters to the Tsar with the formulaic phrase ‘Your Humble Slave’.


    Before the eighteenth century Russia had no grand noble palaces. Most of the Tsar’s servitors lived in wooden houses, not much bigger than peasant huts, with simple furniture and clay or wooden pots. According to Adam Olearius, the Duke of Holstein’s envoy to Muscovy during the 1630s, few Russian noblemen had feather beds; instead, ‘they lie on benches covered with cushions, straw, mats, or clothes; in winter they sleep on flat-topped stoves… [lying] with their servants… the chickens and the pigs’.27 The nobleman seldom visited his various estates. Despatched from one place to another in the Tsar’s vast empire, he had neither the time nor the inclination to put down roots in one locality. He looked upon his estates as a source of revenue, to be readily exchanged or sold. The beautiful estate of Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, for example, exchanged hands over twenty times during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was lost in games of cards and drinking bouts, sold to different people at the same time, loaned and bartered, mortgaged and remortgaged, until after years of legal wrangling to settle all the questions of


its ownership, it was bought by the Volkonsky family in the 1760s and eventually passed down through his mother to the novelist Tolstoy.28 Because of this constant state of flux there was little real investment by the nobles in the land, no general movement to develop estates or erect palaces, and none of what took place in Western Europe from medieval times: the gradual concentration of a family domain in one locality, with property passed down from one generation to the next, and ties built up with the community.


    The cultural advancement of the Muscovite boyars was well behind that of the European nobles in the seventeenth century. Olearius considered them ‘among the barbarians… [with] crude opinions about the elevated natural sciences and arts’.29 Dr Collins complained that ‘they know not how to eat peas and carrots boiled but, like swine, eat them shells and all’.30 This backwardness was in part the result of the Mongol occupation of Russia from about 1230 to the middle of the fifteenth century. The Tatars left a profound trace on boyar customs and habits. For over three hundred years, the period of the Renaissance in the


West, Russia was cut off from European civilization. The country which emerged from the Mongol period was far more inward-looking than it had been at the start of the thirteenth century, when Kievan Rus’, the loose confederation of principalities which constituted the first Russian state, had been intimately linked with Byzantium. The old princely families were undermined and made more servile to the state of Muscovy, whose economic and military power provided the key to Russia’s liberation from the Mongol khans. The Russian nobleman of the Muscovite era (c. 1550-1700) was not a landed lord in the European sense. He was a servant of the Crown. In his material culture there was little to distinguish him from the common folk. He dressed like the merchant in the semi-oriental kaftan and fur coat. He ruled his family, like the merchant and the peasant, via the patriarchal customs of the Domostroi - the sixteenth-century manual that instructed Russians how to discipline their households with the Bible and the birch. The manners of the Russian nobleman were proverbially boorish. Even magnates such as Boris Sheremetev could behave at times like drunken louts. During Tsar Peter’s trip to England his entourage resided at the villa of the diarist John Evelyn at Sayes Court, Kent. The damage which they caused in their three-month stay was so extensive - lawns dug up, curtains torn, furniture destroyed, and family portraits used for target practice by the visitors - that Evelyn was obliged to present the Russian court with a large bill.31 The majority of the nobility could not read and many of them could not even add up simple sums.32 Little travelled or exposed to Europeans, who were forced to settle in a special suburb in Moscow, the nobleman mistrusted new or foreign ways. His life was regulated by the archaic rituals of the Church - its calendar arranged to count the years from the notional creation of the world (with the birth of Adam) in 5509 bc

*  With Peter’s reformation of society, the nobleman became the agency, and his palace the arena, of Russia’s introduction to European ways. His palace was much more than a noble residence, and his estate was far more than a noble pleasure ground or economic entity: it became its locality’s centre of civilization.


    * Peter the Great introduced the Western (Julian) calendar in 1700. But by 1752 the rest of Europe had changed to the Gregorian calendar - thirteen days ahead of the Julian calendar (which remained in force in Russia until 1918). In terms of time, Imperial Russia always lagged behind the West.




2. Seventeenth-century Muscovite costumes. Engraving, 1669



    Peter laid the basis of the modern absolutist (European) state when he turned all the nobles into servants of the Crown. The old boyar class had enjoyed certain rights and privileges that stemmed from its guardianship of the land and serfs - there had been a Boyars’ Council, or Duma, that had approved the Tsar’s decrees, until it was replaced by the Senate in 1711. But Peter’s new aristocracy was defined entirely by its position in the civil and military service, and its rights and privileges were set accordingly. Peter established a Table of Ranks that ordered the nobles according to their office (rather than their birth) and allowed commoners to be given noble status for their service to the state. This almost military ordering of the nobles had a deep and lasting effect on their way of life. As readers of Gogol will know, the Russian nobleman was obsessed by rank. Every rank (and there were fourteen in Peter’s Table) had its own uniform. The progression from white to black trousers, the switch from a red to a blue ribbon, from silver to gold thread, or the simple addition of a stripe, were ritual events of immense significance in the nobleman’s well-ordered life. Every rank had its own noble title and mode of address: ‘Your High Excellency’ for the top two ranks; ‘Your Excellency’ for those in ranks three and four; and so on down the scale. There was a strict and elaborate code of etiquette which set out how nobles of each rank should address the other ranks, or those older or younger than themselves. A senior nobleman writing to a younger nobleman could sign off his letter with simply his surname; but the younger nobleman, in his reply, was expected to add his title and rank to his surname, and failure to do so was considered an offence which could end in scandal and a duel.33 Etiquette further demanded that a nobleman in the civil service should pay his respects at a superior civil servant’s household on the namedays and the birthdays of his family, as well as on all religious holidays. At balls and public functions in St Petersburg it was considered a grave error if a young man remained seated while his elders stood. Hence at the theatre junior officers would remain standing in the slips in case a senior officer entered during the performance. Every officer was said to be on duty at all times. G. A. Rimsky-Korsakov (a distant forebear of the composer) was kicked out of the Guards in 1810 because at


a dinner following a ball he loosened the top button of his uniform.34 Rank also carried considerable material privileges. Horses at post stations were allocated strictly according to the status of the travellers. At banquets food was served first to the higher-ranking guests, seated with the hosts at the top end of the Russian P (n)-shaped table, followed by the lower ranking at the bottom end. If the top end wanted second helpings, the bottom ends would not be served at all. Prince Potemkin once invited a minor nobleman to a banquet at his palace, where the guest was seated at the bottom end. Afterwards he asked him how he had enjoyed the meal. ‘Very much, Your Excellency,’ the guest replied. ‘I saw everything.’35


    The Sheremetevs rose very quickly to the top of this new social hierarchy. When Boris Sheremetev died in 1719, the Tsar told his widow that he would be ‘like a father’ to his children. Pyotr Sheremetev, his sole surviving son, was brought up at the court, where he became one of the few selected companions to the heir to the throne (Peter II).36 After a teenage career in the Guards, Sheremetev became a chamberlain to the Empress Anna, and then to the Empress Elizabeth. Under Catherine the Great, he became a senator and was the first elected Marshal of the Nobility. Unlike other court favourites, who rose and fell with the change of sovereign, Sheremetev remained in office for six consecutive reigns. His family connections, the protection he enjoyed from the influential courtier Prince Trubetskoi, and his links with Catherine’s diplomatic adviser Count Nikitza Panin, prevented him from being made a victim to the whim of any sovereign. He was one of Russia’s first noblemen to be independent in the European sense.


    The fantastic wealth of the Sheremetev clan had a lot to do with this new confidence. With land in excess of 800,000 hectares and more than 200,000 ‘census serfs’ (which meant perhaps a million actual serfs), by the time of Pyotr’s death in 1788, the Sheremetevs were, by some considerable distance, the biggest landowning family in the world. In monetary terms, with an annual income of around 630,000 roubles  in the 1790s, they were just as powerful, and considerably richer than, the greatest English lords, the Dukes of Bedford and Devonshire, Earl Shelburne and the Marquess of Rockingham, all of whom had annual incomes


of approximately Lb. 50,000.37 Like most noble fortunes, the Sheremetevs’ was derived in the main from enormous Imperial grants of land and serfs in reward for their service to the state. The richest dynasties of the aristocracy had all stood near the summit of the Tsarist state during its great territorial expansion between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries and had consequently been rewarded with lavish endowments of fertile land in the south of Russia and Ukraine. These were the Sheremetevs and the Stroganovs, the Demidovs and Davydovs, the Vorontsovs and Yusupovs. Like a growing number of magnates in the eighteenth century, the Sheremetevs also made a killing out of trade. In that century the Russian economy grew at a fantastic rate, and as the owners of vast tracts of forest land, paper mills and factories, shops and other urban properties, the Sheremetevs earned huge profits from this growth. By the end of the eighteenth century the Sheremetevs were almost twice as rich as any other Russian noble family, excluding the Romanovs. This extraordinary wealth was in part explained by the fact that, unlike the majority of Russian dynasties, which divided their inheritance between all the sons and sometimes even daughters, the Sheremetevs passed the lion’s share of their wealth to the first male heir. Marriage, too, was a crucial factor in the Sheremetevs’ rise to the top of the wealth league - in particular the brilliant marriage in 1743 between Pyotr Sheremetev and Varvara Cherkasskaya, the heiress of another hugely wealthy clan, through whom the Sheremetevs acquired the beautiful estate of Ostankino on the outskirts of Moscow. With the immense fortune that was spent on it in the second half of the eighteenth century by their son Nikolai Petrovich, the first great impresario of the Russian theatre, Ostankino became the jewel in the Sheremetev crown.


   The Sheremetevs spent vast sums of money on their palaces - often much more than they earned, so that by the middle of the nineteenth century they had amassed debts of several million roubles.38 Extravagant spending was a peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy. It derived in part from foolishness, and in part from the habits of a class whose riches had arrived through little effort and at fantastic speed. Much of this wealth was in the form of Imperial grants designed to create a superb court that would compare with Versailles or Potsdam.


To succeed in this court-centred culture the nobleman required a fabulous lifestyle. The possession of an opulent palace, with imported works of art and furniture, lavish balls and banquets in the European style, became a vital attribute of rank and status that was likely to win favour and promotion at court. A large part of the Sheremetevs’ budget went on their enormous household staffs. The family retained a huge army in livery. At the Fountain House alone there were 340 servants, enough to place a chamberlain at every door; and in all their houses combined the Sheremetevs employed well in excess of a thousand staff.39 Such vast retinues were the luxury of a country with so many serfs. Even the grandest of the English households had tiny servant numbers by comparison: the Devonshires at Chatsworth, in the 1840s, had a live-in staff of just eighteen.40 Foreigners were always struck by the large number of servants in Russian palaces. Even Count Segur, the French ambassador, expressed astonishment that a private residence might have 500 staff.41 Owning lots of servants was a peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy - and perhaps a reason for their ultimate demise. Even middling gentry households in the provinces would retain large staffs beyond their means. Dmitry Sverbeyev, a minor civil servant from the Moscow region, recalled that in the 1800s his father kept an English carriage with 6 Danish horses, 4 coachmen, 2 postilions and 2 liveried footmen, solely for the purpose of his short annual journey to Moscow. On the family estate there were 2 chefs, a valet and an assistant, a butler and 4 doormen, a personal hairdresser and 2 tailors, half a dozen maids, 5 laundrywomen, 8 gardeners, 16 kitchen and various other staff.42 In the Selivanov household, a middling gentry family in Riazan province, the domestic regime in the 1810s continued to be set by the culture of the court, where their ancestor had once served in the 1740s. They retained an enormous staff - with eighty footmen dressed in dark green uniforms, powdered wigs and special shoes made from plaited horse-tail hair, who were required to walk backwards out of rooms.43


    In the Sheremetev household clothes were another source of huge extravagance. Nikolai Petrovich, like his father, was a dedicated follower of continental fashions and he spent the equivalent of several thousand pounds a year on imported fabrics for his clothes. An inventory of his wardrobe in 1806 reveals that he possessed no less than thirty-seven different types of court


uniform, all sewn with gold thread and all in the dark green or dark brown cashmere or tricot colours that were fashionable at that time. There were 10 sets of single-breasted tails and 18 double-breasted; 54 frock coats; 2 white fur coats, one made of polar bear, the other of white wolf; 6 brown fur coats; 17 woollen jackets; 119 pairs of trousers (53 white, 48 black); 14 silk nightgowns; 2 dominoes made of pink taffeta for masquerades; two Venetian outfits of black taffeta lined with blue and black satin; 39 French silk kaftans embroidered in gold and silver thread; 8 velvet kaftans (one in lilac with yellow spots); 63 waistcoats; 42 neck scarves; 82 pairs of gloves; 23 tricorn hats; 9 pairs of boots; and over 60 pairs of shoes.44


    Entertaining was a costly business, too. The Sheremetev household was itself a minor court. The two main Moscow houses - Ostankino and the Kuskovo estate - were famous for their lavish entertainments, with concerts, operas, fireworks and balls for several thousand guests. There was no limit to the Sheremetevs’ hospitality. At the Fountain House, where the Russian noble custom of opening one’s doors at mealtimes was observed with unstinting generosity, there were often fifty lunch and dinner guests. The writer Ivan Krylov, who dined there frequently, recalled that there was one guest who had eaten there for years without anybody ever knowing who he was. The phrase ‘on the Sheremetev account’ entered into the language meaning ‘free of charge’.45


    Nearly everything in the Sheremetev household was imported from Europe. Even basic items found abundantly in Russia (oak wood, paper, grain, mushrooms, cheese and butter) were preferable, though more expensive, if from abroad. Information about Peter Sheremetev’s foreign purchases between 1770 and 1788 has been preserved in the archives. He bought from foreign merchants in St Petersburg, or through agents especially commissioned to import goods for him. Clothes, jewels and fabrics came directly from Paris, usually from the tailor to Versailles; wines came from Bordeaux. Chocolate, tobacco, groceries, coffee, sweets and dairy products came from Amsterdam; beer, dogs and carriages from England. Here is one of Sheremetev’s shopping lists:



kaftan of downy material

    camisole sewn with gold and pearls

kaftan and trousers made of silk in puce plus yellow camisole

kaftan made of red cotton with blue on both sides

    blue silk camisole sewn with gold

kaftan and trousers in fabric with camisole in raspberry silk sewn

    with gold and silver kaftan and trousers in chocolate colour with green velour camisole black velvet frock coat tails in black velvet with speckles tails with 24 silver buttons 2 pique camisoles sewn with gold and silver 7 arshins* of French silk for camisoles 24 pairs of lace cuffs for nightshirts

    12 arshins of black material for trousers and 3 arsbins of black velvet various ribbons

    150 pounds of superior tobacco 60 pounds of ordinary tobacco 36 tins of pomade 6 dozen bottles of capillary syrup golden snuffbox 2 barrels of lentils 2 pounds of vanilla 60 pounds of truffles in oil 200 pounds of Italian macaroni 240 pounds of parmesan 150 bottles of anchovies 12 pounds of coffee from Martinique 24 pounds of black pepper 20 pounds of white pepper 6 pounds of cardamom 80 pounds of raisins 160 pounds of currants 12 bottles of English dry mustard various kinds of ham and bacon, sausages moulds for blancmange

    600 bottles of white burgundy

    600 bottles of red burgundy

    200 bottles of sparkling champagne

    100 bottles of non-sparkling champagne

    100 bottles of pink champagne.46


* One arshin is 71 centimetres.



    If Boris Sheremetev was the last of the old boyars, his son Pyotr was perhaps the first, and certainly the grandest, of Russia’s European gentlemen. Nothing demonstrated more clearly that a nobleman had made the transition from Muscovite boyar to Russian aristocrat than the construction of a palace in the European style. Under its grand roof the palace brought together all the European arts. With its salon and its ballroom, it was like a theatre for members of the aristocracy to play out their airs and graces and European ways. But it was not just a building or a social space. The palace was conceived as a civilizing force. It was an oasis of European culture in the desert of the Russian peasant soil, and its architecture, its paintings and its books, its serf orchestras and operas, its landscaped parks and model farms, were meant to serve as a means of public enlightenment. In this sense the palace was a reflection of Petersburg itself.


    Fountain House, like Russia, was originally made of wood, a single-story dacha hurriedly erected by Boris Sheremetev in his final years. Pyotr rebuilt and enlarged the house in stone during the 1740s - the beginning of the craze for palace building in St Petersburg, after the Empress Elizabeth had ordered the construction of her own great Imperial residences there: the Summer Palace on the Fontanka river (1741-4), the Great Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (1749-52), and the Winter Palace (1754-62) which we know today. All these baroque masterpieces were built by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who had come to Russia at the age of sixteen. Rastrelli perfected the synthesis of the Italian and Russian baroque styles which is so characteristic of St Petersburg. That essential style - distinguished from its European counterparts by the vastness of its scale, the exuberance of its forms and the boldness of its colours - was stamped on the Fountain House, which may have been designed by Rastrelli himself;


certainly the building work was overseen by Rastrelli’s main assistant at Tsarskoe Selo, Savva Chevakinsky, a minor nobleman from Tver who had graduated from the Naval School to become Russia’s first architect of note. The classical facade was ornately decorated with lion masks and martial emblems trumpeting the glories of the Sheremetev clan, and this theme was continued on the iron railings and the gates. Behind the palace were extensive gardens, reminiscent of those at Tsarskoe Selo, with paths lined by marble statues from Italy, an English grotto, a Chinese pavilion, and, with a more playful touch, fountains to reflect the house’s name.47


    Inside, the house was a typical collection of European sculpture, bas-relief, furniture and decor, reflecting a taste for expensive luxury. Wallpaper (from France) was just coming into fashion and was used, it seems, for the first time in Russia at the Fountain House.48 Pyotr Sheremetev was a follower of fashion who had the house redecorated almost every year. On the upper floor was a grand reception hall, used for balls and concerts, with a parquet floor and a high painted ceiling, lined on one side by full-length windows that looked on to the water and, on the other, by enormous mirrors with gold-leaf candelabras whose wondrous effect was to flood the room with extraordinary light. There was a chapel with valuable icons in a special wing; a parade gallery on the upper floor; a museum of curiosities; a library of nearly 20,000 books, most of them in French; a gallery of family and royal portraits painted by serf artists; and a collection of European paintings, which the Sheremetevs purchased by the score. The galleries contained works by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Vernet and Rembrandt. Today they are found in the Hermitage of the Winter Palace.49


    Not content with one palace, the Sheremetevs built two more, even more expensive ones, at Kuskovo and at Ostankino, on the western outskirts of Moscow. The Kuskovo estate, to the south of Moscow, though it had a relatively simple wooden house which gave the place a rural feel, was extraordinarily ambitious in its conception. In front of the house there was a man-made lake, large enough to stage mock sea battles watched by up to 50,000 guests; a hermitage that housed several hundred paintings; pavilions and grottoes; an open amphitheatre for the summer season; and a larger inside theatre (the most advanced in Russia when it was constructed in the 1780s) with a seating capacity of 150 people and a stage deep enough for the scene changes of


French grand opera.50 Nikolai Petrovich, who took the Sheremetev opera to its highest levels, had the theatre rebuilt at Ostankino after the auditorium at Kuskovo burnt down in 1789. The Ostankino theatre was even larger than the Kuskovo one, with a seating capacity of 260 people. Its technical facilities were much more sophisticated than those at Kuskovo; it had a specially designed contraption that could transform the theatre into a ballroom by covering the parterre with a floor.



3. The Sheremetev theatre at Ostankino. View from the stage.
The parterre is covered by the floor, which was used for balls



3. Praskovya Sheremeteva and the Serf Artist


    The civilization of the aristocracy was based upon the craftsmanship of millions of serfs. What Russia lacked in technology, it more than made up for in a limitless supply of cheap labour. Many of the things that make the tourist gasp at the splendour and the beauty of the Winter Palace - the endless parquet flooring and abundance of gold leaf, the ornate carpentry and bas-relief, the needlework with thread finer than a human hair, the miniature boxes with their scenes from fairy tales set in precious stones, or the intricate mosaics in malachite - are the fruits of many years of unacknowledged labour by unknown serf artists.



    Serfs were essential to the Sheremetev palaces and their arts. From the 200,000 census serfs the Sheremetevs owned, several hundred were selected every year and trained as artists, architects and sculptors, furniture makers, decorative painters, gilders, engravers, horticulturalists, theatrical technicians, actors, singers and musicians. Many of these serfs were sent abroad or assigned to the court to learn their craft. But where skill was lacking, much could be achieved through sheer numbers. At Kuskovo there was a horn band in which, to save time on the training of players, each musician was taught to play just one note. The number of players depended on the number of different notes in a tune; their sole skill lay in playing their note at the appropriate moment.51


    The Argunov family had a vital role in the development of the Russian arts. All the Argunovs were Sheremetev serfs. The architect and sculptor Fedor Argunov designed and built the main reception rooms at Fountain House. His brother Ivan Argunov studied painting with Georg Grot at the Imperial court and quickly established his reputation as one of the country’s leading portrait painters. In 1759 he painted the portrait of the future Empress Catherine the Great - a rare honour for a Russian artist at a time when the court looked to Europe for its portrait painters. Pavel Argunov, Ivan’s eldest son, was an architect who worked with Quarenghi at Ostankino and Fountain House. Yakov Argunov, Ivan’s youngest son, was well known for his 1812 portrait of the Emperor Alexander. But the most important of the three Argunov brothers was the second, Nikolai, who was indisputably one of Russia’s finest painters of the nineteenth century.52


    The position of the creative serf was complicated and ambiguous. There were artists who were greatly valued and rewarded by their lords. Prized chefs and singers were the highest paid in the Sheremetev world. In the 1790s Nikolai Petrovich paid his chef an annual salary of 850 roubles (four times the amount paid to the best chefs in English houses), and his best opera singer 1,500 roubles. But other serf artists were extremely poorly paid: Ivan Argunov, who was placed in charge of all artistic matters at the


Fountain House, received a mere 40 roubles a year.53 Serf artists had a higher status than the other household staff. They lived in better housing, received better food, and they were allowed to work sometimes as freelance artists on commissions from the court, the Church, or other noble families. Yet, like any serf, they were the property of their master and they could be punished just like any other serf. Such servitude was a dreadful obstacle to those artists who strived for independence. As the artistic manager of the Fountain House, Ivan Argunov was responsible for supervising the frequent changes to the palace’s interior design, for organizing masquerades and costume balls, for painting sets for theatrical productions, for firework displays, as well as countless menial household tasks. His own artistic projects were constantly abandoned so that he could perform some minor duty on his master’s summons and, if he failed in this, the count would have him fined or even flogged. Ivan died a serf. But his children would be freed. According to the will of Nikolai Petrovich, twenty-two domestic serfs, including Nikolai and Yakov Argunov, received their liberty in 1809. Nine years later Nikolai Argunov was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts, the first Russian artist of serf origin to be honoured by the state.54


    One of Argunov’s most memorable portraits represents another former Sheremetev serf: Countess Praskovya Sheremeteva. Argunov painted her in a red shawl with a sparkling miniature of her husband, Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, suspended from her neck. At the time of this portrait (in 1802) the marriage of the count to his former serf, the prima donna of his opera, was concealed from the public and the court. It would remain so until her death. In this prescient and moving portrait Argunov conveyed their tragedy. It is an extraordinary story that tells us a great deal about the obstacles confronting the creative serf and about the mores of society.


   Praskovya was born to a family of serfs on the Sheremetev estate at Yukhotsk in Yaroslav province. Her father and grandfather were both blacksmiths, so the family had been given the name of Kuznetsov (‘blacksmith’), although Ivan, her father, was known by all the serfs as ‘the hunchback’. In the mid-1770s Ivan became the chief blacksmith at Kuskovo, where the family was given its own wooden house with a large allotment at the back. He sent his first two sons to train as tailors, while the third became a


musician in the Sheremetev orchestra. Praskovya was already noted for her beauty and her voice, and Pyotr Sheremetev had her trained for the opera. Praskovya learned Italian and French, both of which she spoke and wrote with fluency. She was trained to sing and act and dance by the finest teachers in the land. In 1779, at the age of eleven, she first appeared on stage as the servant girl in the Russian premiere of Andre Gretry’s comic opera L’Amitie a l’epreuve and, within a year, she had been given her first leading role as Belinda in Antonio Sacchini’s La Colonie.55 From that point on she nearly always sang the leading female role. Praskovya possessed a fine soprano voice, distinguished by its range and clarity. The rise of the Sheremetev opera to pre-eminence in Russia in the last two decades of the eighteenth century was intimately linked with her popularity. She was Russia’s first real superstar.



SERF ARTISTS. Nikolai Argunov: Portrait of Praskovya Sheremeteva (1802).
At the time of this portrait the serf singer’s marriage to Count Sheremetev
(whose image is depicted in the miniature) was concealed from the public and the court.
Argunov was the first Russian artist of serf origin to be elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts.


    The story of Praskovya’s romance with the count could have come straight out of a comic opera. The eighteenth-century stage was filled with servant girls who had fallen for young and dashing noblemen. Praskovya herself had sung the part of the young serf girl in Anyuta, a hugely popular opera in which the humble background of the charming heroine prevents her marrying the prince. Nikolai Petrovich was not handsome or dashing, it is true. Nearly twenty years Praskovya’s senior, he was rather short and stout and suffered from poor health, which brought on melancholia and hypochondria.56 But he was a romantic, with fine artistic sensibilities, and he shared a love of music with Praskovya. Having watched her grow up as a girl on the estate, then blossom as a singer in his opera, he recognized her spiritual qualities as much as her physical beauty. Eventually he fell in love with her.


‘I felt the most tender and passionate feelings for her,’ he wrote in 1809, ‘but I examined my heart to know whether it was seeking pleasures of the flesh or other pleasures to sweeten the mind and soul apart from beauty. Seeing it sought bodily and spiritual pleasures rather than friendship, I observed the qualities of the subject of my love for a long time, and found a virtuous mind, sincerity, love of mankind, constancy and fidelity. I found an attachment to the holy faith and a sincere respect for God. These qualities charmed me more than her beauty, for they are stronger than all external delights and they are extremely rare.57



    Not that it started out that way. The young count was fond of hunting and of chasing girls; and until his father died in 1788, when he took up the running of the family estates, Nikolai Petrovich spent most of his time in these sensual pursuits. The young squire often claimed his ‘rights’ over the serf girls. During the day, while they were at work, he would go round the rooms of the girls on the estates and drop a handkerchief through the window of his chosen one. That night he would visit her and, before he left, would ask her to return his handkerchief. One summer evening in 1784 Praskovya was driving her father’s two cows down to the stream when some dogs began to chase her. The count, who was riding home after a day’s hunting, called the dogs away and approached Praskovya. He had heard that her father was intending to marry her off to a local forester. She was sixteen years of age - relatively old for a serf girl to marry. The count asked her if this was so and, when she replied that it was, he said he would forbid any such marriage. ‘You weren’t born for this! Today you are a peasant but tomorrow you will become a lady!’ The count then turned and rode away.58


    It is not exactly clear when the count and Praskovya became de facto ‘man and wife’. To begin with, she was only one of several divas given special treatment by her master. He named his favourite singers and dancers after jewels - ‘The Emerald’ (Kovaleva), ‘The Garnet’ (Shlykova) and ‘The Pearl’ (Praskovya) - and showered them with expensive gifts and bonuses. These ‘girls of my house’, as Sheremetev called them in his letters to his accountant, were in constant attendance on the count. They accompanied him on trips to St Petersburg during the winter and returned with him to Kuskovo during the summer.5 Everything suggests that they were the count’s harem - not least the fact that just before his marriage to Praskovya he had the rest of them married off and gave them all dowries.60


    Serf harems were extremely fashionable in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Among Russian noblemen the possession of a large harem was ironically seen as a mark of European manners and civilization. Some harems, like Sheremetev’s, were sustained by gifts and patronage; but others were maintained by the squire’s total power over his own serfs. Sergei Aksakov, in his Family Chronicle (1856), tells the story of a distant relative who established a harem among his female serfs:


anyone who tried to oppose it, including his own wife, was physically beaten or locked up.61 Examples of such behaviour abound in the memoir literature of the nineteenth century.62 The most detailed and interesting such memoir was written by Maria Neverova, a former serf from the harem of an octogenarian nobleman called Pyotr Koshkarov. Twelve to fifteen of his prettiest young serf girls were strictly segregated in a special female quarter of his house and placed under the control of the main housekeeper, a sadistic woman called Natalia Ivanovna, who was fiercely devoted to Koshkarov. Within the harem was the master’s room. When he went to bed he was joined by all his girls, who said their prayers with him and placed their mattresses around his bed. Natalia Ivanovna would undress the master and help him into bed and tell them all a fairy tale. Then she would leave them together for the night. In the morning Koshkarov would dress and say his prayers, drink a cup of tea and smoke his pipe, and then he would begin ‘the punishments’. Disobedient girls, or the ones it simply pleased him to punish, would be birched or slapped across the face; others would be made to crawl like dogs along the floor. Such sadistic violence was partly sexual ‘play’ for Koshkarov. But it also served to discipline and terrorize. One girl, accused of secret liaisons with a male servant, was locked for a whole month in the stocks. Then, before the whole serf community, the girl and her lover were flogged by several men until each collapsed from exhaustion and the two poor wretches were left as bloody heaps upon the floor. Yet alongside such brutality Koshkarov took great care to educate and improve his girls. All of them could read and write, some of them in French; Neverova even knew by heart Pushkin’s Fountain of Bakhchisarai. They were dressed in European clothes, given special places in church, and when they were replaced in the harem by younger girls they were married to the master’s hunting serfs, the elite of his male servants, and given dowries.63


    By the beginning of the 1790s Praskovya had become Sheremetev’s unofficial wife. It was no longer just the pleasures of the flesh that attracted him to her but, as he said, the beauty of her mind and soul as well. For the next ten years the count would remain torn between his love for her and his own high position in society. He felt that it was morally wrong not to marry Praskovya but his aristocratic pride would not allow him to do so.


Marriages to serfs were extremely rare in the status-obsessed culture of the eighteenth-century Russian aristocracy - although they would become relatively common in the nineteenth century - and unthinkable for a nobleman as rich and grand as him. It was not even clear, if he married Praskovya, whether he would have a legitimate heir.


    The count’s dilemma was one faced by noblemen in numerous comic operas. Nikolai Petrovich was a man susceptible to the cult of sentimentalism that swept over Russia in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Many of the works which he produced were variations on the conflict between social convention and natural sentiment. One was a production of Voltaire’s Nanine (1749), in which the hero, Count Olban, in love with his poor ward, is forced to choose between his own romantic feelings and the customs of his class that rule against marriage to the humble girl. In the end he chooses love. The parallels in his own life were so obvious that Nikolai Petrovich gave the role of Nanine to Anna Izumudrova, even though Praskovya was his leading actress at this time.64 In the theatre the public sympathized with the unequal lovers and applauded the basic Enlightenment ideal that informed such works: that all people are equal. But it did not take the same view in real life.


    Praskovya’s secret relationship with the count placed her in an almost impossible position. For the first few years of their liaison she remained his serf and lived among the other serfs at Kuskovo. But the truth could not be concealed from her fellow serfs, who became resentful of her privileged position and called her spiteful names. Her own family tried to take advantage of the situation and cursed her when she failed to make their petty requests to the count. The count, meanwhile, was entertaining thoughts of leaving her. He would tell her of his duties to his family, of how he had to marry someone equal in status, while she would try to conceal her torment, listening silently and bursting into tears only after he had gone. To protect Praskovya and himself from malicious gossip, the count built a special house, a simple wooden dacha, near the main mansion so that he could visit her in privacy. He forbade her to see anyone, or to go anywhere except to the theatre or to church: all she could do to while away the days was play the harpsichord or do needlework. But this could not prevent the gossip of the serfs from spreading to the public in


Moscow: visitors would come to snoop around her house and sometimes even taunt the ‘peasant bride’.65 For the count this was reason good enough to abandon Kuskovo. Sometime during 1794-5 he moved to the new palace at Ostankino, where he could accommodate Praskovya in more luxurious and secluded apartments.


    Yet even at Ostankino Prasvovya’s situation remained extremely difficult. Resented by the serfs, she was also shunned by society. It was only through her strength of character that she managed to retain her dignity. It is symbolic that her greatest roles were always those of tragic heroines. Her most celebrated performance was as Eliane in Les Manages Samnites, put on for the visit by the newly crowned Emperor Paul to Ostankino in April 1797.66 The plot of Gretry’s opera could have been the story of Praskovya’s life. In the Samnite tribe there is a law forbidding girls to show their feelings for a man. Eliane breaks the law and declares her love to the warrior Parmenon, who will not and cannot marry her. The Samnite chief condemns and bans her from the tribe, whereupon she disguises herself as a soldier and joins his army in its battle against the Romans. During the battle an unknown soldier saves the life of the Samnite chief. After the victorious Samnite army returns home, the chief orders that this unknown man be found. The soldier is revealed as Eliane. Her heroic virtues finally win over Parmenon, who, in defiance of the tribe’s conventions, declares his love for her. It turned out to be Praskovya’s final role.


    Shortly before Les Manages Nikolai Petrovich had been summoned to the court by the Emperor Paul. The count was an old friend of the Emperor. The Sheremetev household on Millionaia Street, where he had grown up, was a stone’s throw away from the Winter Palace and in his childhood the count used to visit Paul, who was three years his junior and very fond of him. In 1782 he had travelled incognito with the future Emperor and his wife abroad. Sheremetev was one of the few grandees to get along with Paul, whose outbursts of rage and disciplinarian attitudes had alienated most of the nobility. On his assumption of the throne in 1796 Paul appointed Sheremetev Senior Chamberlain, the chief administrator of the court. The count had little inclination towards court service - he was drawn to Moscow and the arts - but he had no choice. He moved back to Petersburg and


Fountain House. It was at this stage that the first signs of Praskovya’s illness became clear. The symptoms were unmistakable: it was tuberculosis. Her singing career was now at an end and she was confined to the Fountain House, where a secret set of rooms, entirely segregated from the reception and official areas, was specially constructed for her use.


    Praskovya’s confinement to the Fountain House was not just the result of her illness. Rumours of the serf girl living in the palace had caused a scandal in society. Not that people of good taste talked of it - but everybody knew. When he first arrived in Petersburg, it was naturally assumed that the count would take a wife. ‘Judging by the rumours,’ his friend Prince Shcherbatov wrote to him, ‘the city here has married you a dozen times, so I think we will see you with a countess, which I am extremely glad about.’67 So when this most eligible of men was found to have wasted himself on a peasant girl, the disappointment of the aristocracy was compounded by a sense of anger and betrayal. It seemed almost treasonable that the count should be living with a serf as man and wife - especially considering the fact (which had since attained a legendary status) that he had once turned down an offer by the Empress Catherine the Great to arrange a marriage between him and her granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna. The count was isolated by society. The Sheremetevs disowned him and descended into squabbles about what would happen to the legacy. The vast reception rooms of the Fountain House were devoid of guests - and the only people who remained as friends were loyal childhood comrades such as Prince Shcherbatov or artists, like the poet Derzhavin and the architect Quarenghi, who rose above the snobbish prejudices of society. The Emperor Paul also was in this category. Several times he arrived incognito at the back entrance of Fountain House - either to visit the count when he was sick or to hear Praskovya sing. In February 1797 she gave a recital in the concert hall of Fountain House attended by the Emperor and a few close friends. Paul was enchanted by Praskovya and presented her with his own personal diamond ring, which she wore for her portrait by Argunov.68



    The moral support of the Emperor must have been a factor in the count’s decision to flout social conventions and to take Praskovya as his legal wife. Nikolai Petrovich had always believed that the Sheremetev family was different from other aristocratic clans, a little bit above the social norm, and this arrogance undoubtedly provoked some of the hostile views held about him in society.69 In 1801 the count gave Praskovya her liberty and then at last, on 6 November, he married her in a secret ceremony at the small village church of Povarskaya on the outskirts of Moscow. Prince Shcherbatov and a few close friends and servants were the only witnesses. The wedding was kept so discreet that the marriage certificate remained buried in the local parish archives until 1905.70


    One year later Praskovya gave birth to a son, Dmitry, who was christened, like his father, in the private chapel of the Fountain House. But she was weakened by the birth and, already suffering from advanced tuberculosis, she died after three weeks of painful suffering. Six years later, still struck down by grief, the count recalled her death in his testimony to his son:


The easy pregnancy of your mother heralded a happy resolution; she brought you into the world without pain, and I was overjoyed, seeing her good health did not falter after giving birth to you. But you must know, dearest son, that barely did I feel this joy, barely had I covered your tender infant face with my first father’s kisses when severe illness struck your mother, and then her death turned the sweet feelings of my heart into bitter grief. I sent urgent prayers to God about saving her life, summoned expert doctors to bring back her health, but the first doctor inhumanely refused to help, despite my repeated requests, and then the illness worsened; others applied all their efforts, all the knowledge of their art, but could not help her. My groans and sobbing almost took me to the grave as well.71


    At this moment, the most desperate time in his life, the count was abandoned by the whole of Petersburg society. In preparation for the funeral he publicized the news of Praskovya’s death and, in accordance with the Orthodox ritual, gave the times for visitors to pay their last respects before her open coffin at Fountain House.72 Few people came - so few, in fact, that the


time for viewing the coffin was reduced from the customary three days to just five hours. The same small group of mourners - small enough for them all to be listed by name - were at the funeral and accompanied the coffin from the Fountain House to the Alexander Nevsky monastery, where it was buried next to the grave of the count’s father. Present were close friends of Praskovya, mainly serf performers from the opera; some domestic servants from the Fountain House who had been her only form of social contact in the final years; several of the count’s illegitimate offspring from previous serf lovers; one or two church clerks; Praskovya’s confessor; the architect Giacomo Quarenghi; and a couple of the Count’s aristocratic friends. There was no one from the court (Paul had been murdered in 1801); no one from the ancient noble families; and perhaps most shockingly of all, no one from the Sheremetev family.73 Six years later it was still a source of bitterness and sorrow to the count.


I thought I had friends who loved me, respected me and shared my pleasures, but when my wife’s death put me in an almost desperate state I found few people to comfort me and share my sorrow. I experienced cruelty. When her body was taken to be buried, few of those who called themselves my friends displayed any sensitivity to the sad event or performed the Christian duty of accompanying her coffin.74


    Lost in grief, the count resigned from the court, turned his back on society and, retreating to the country, devoted his final years to religious study and charitable works in commemoration of his wife. It is tempting to conclude that there was an element of remorse and even guilt in this charity - perhaps an attempt to make amends to the enserfed ranks of people from which Praskovya came. He liberated dozens of his favourite domestic serfs, spent vast sums on building village schools and hospitals, set up trusts for the care of orphans, endowed monasteries to give the peasants food when the harvest failed, and reduced the payments levied from the serfs on his estates.75 But by far his most ambitious project was the alms house which he founded in Praskovya’s memory on the outskirts of Moscow - the Strannoprimnyi Dom, which at that time, in 1803, was by some way the largest public hospital in the Empire, with sixteen male and sixteen female wards. ‘My wife’s death,’ he wrote, ‘has shocked me to the point that the only way I know to calm my suffering spirit is to devote myself to fulfilling her behest of caring for the poor man and the sick.’76



For years the grief-stricken count would leave the Fountain House and walk incognito through the streets of Petersburg distributing money to the poor.77 He died in 1809, the richest nobleman in the whole of Russia, and no doubt the loneliest as well. In his testimony to his son he came close to rejecting root and branch the civilization embodied in his own life’s work. ‘My taste and passion for rare things,’ he wrote,


was a form of vanity, like my desire to charm and surprise people’s feelings with things they had never seen or heard… I came to realize that the brilliance of such work could only satisfy for a short time and vanished instantly in the eyes of my contemporaries. It did not leave the remotest impression on the soul. What is all this splendour for? 78


    On Praskovya’s death the count wrote to the new Emperor, Alexander I, to inform him of his marriage and appealed to him (successfully) to recognize the rights of Dmitry as his sole legitimate heir.79 He claimed that his wife had only been the ward of the blacksmith Kuznetsov and that she was really the daughter of an ancient Polish noble family called the Kovalevskys, from the western provinces.80 The fiction was in part to distinguish Dmitry’s claim from that of all the older sons he had begotten with various serf women (there were six in all, as far as one can tell from the many claims).81 But it was also uncannily like the denouement of a comic opera - it was in fact the ending of Anyuta - where the servant girl in love with the nobleman is finally allowed to marry him, at which point it is revealed that she is, after all, of noble origins and had only been adopted by her humble parents as an orphaned little girl. The count, it seems, was attempting to tie up the ends of his own life as if it was a work of art.


    Praskovya was blessed with a rare intelligence and strength of character. She was the finest singer in the Russia of her day, literate and conversant with several languages. Yet until a year before her death she remained a serf. What were her feelings? How did she respond to the prejudice she met? How did she reconcile her deep religious faith, her acceptance of the sin of sexual relations outside marriage, with her feelings for the count? It is very seldom that one gets the chance to hear the confession of a serf. But in 1863 a document was found among the papers of the recently deceased Tatyana Shlykova, the opera singer


(Sheremetev’s ‘Garnet’) and Praskovya’s lifelong friend, who had raised Dmitry, as if her own son, at the Fountain House after 1803. The document, in Praskovya’s own neat hand, was written in the form of a ‘prayer’ to God, clearly in the knowledge that she was about to die. It was handed by Praskovya to her friend before her death with instructions not to let the count see it. The language of the prayer is disjointed and obscure, its mood delirious with guilt and repentance, but the intense cry for salvation is unmistakable:


… O merciful Lord, the source of all goodness and endless charity, I confess to you my sins and place before your eyes all my sinful and unlawful deeds. I have sinned, my Lord, and my illness, all these scabs upon my body, is a heavy punishment. I bear a heavy labour and my naked body is defiled. My body is defiled by sinful bonds and thoughts. I am bad. I am proud. I am ugly and lascivious. A devil is inside my body. Cry, my angel, my soul has died. It is in a coffin, lying unconscious and oppressed by bitterness, because, my Lord, my base and unlawful deeds have killed my soul. But compared with my sins the power of my Lord is very great, greater than the sand in all the seas, and from the depths of my despair I beg you, Lord Almighty, do not reject me. I am begging for your blessing. I am praying for your mercy. Punish me, my Lord, but please don’t let me die.82





4. The Russian Split Personality


    The musical life of eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by the court and by small private theatres such as Sheremetev’s. Public theatres, which were long-established in the towns of western Europe, did not really feature in the cultural life of Russia until the 1780s. The aristocracy preferred their own society and they rarely attended the public theatres, which catered mainly to the clerks and traders of the towns with vaudevilles and comic operas. ‘In our day,’ one Princess Yankova recalled, ‘it was considered more refined to go [to the theatre] by the personal invitation of the host, and not to one where anyone could go in exchange for money. And who indeed among our intimate friends did not possess his own private theatre?’83



    There were serf theatres on 173 estates, and serf orchestras on 300 estates, between the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.84 Besides the Sheremetevs, the Goncharovs, the Saltykovs, the Orlovs and Shepelevs, the Tolstoys and Nashchokins all had large serf troupes and separate theatre buildings that could be compared with the court theatres of Catherine the Great (the Hermitage Theatre in the Winter Palace and the Chinese Theatre at Tsarskoe Selo) from which they took their cue. Catherine set the pattern for the theatre in Russia. She herself wrote plays and comic operas; she began the fashion for the high French style in the Russian theatre; and it was she who first advanced the Enlightenment idea of the theatre as a school of public manners and sensibilities. The serf theatre played a central role on the noble estate during Catherine’s reign.


    In 1762, the Empress liberated the nobility from compulsory service to the state. She wanted her nobility to resemble a European one. It was a turning point in the cultural history of the aristocracy. Relieved of their stately duties, many noblemen retired to the country and developed their estates. The decades following the emancipation of the nobility were the golden age of the pleasure palace, with galleries for art, exquisite parks and gardens, orchestras and theatres appearing for the first time in the Russian countryside. The estate became much more than just an economic unit or living space. It became an island of European culture on Russian peasant soil.


    The Sheremetev serf troupe was the most important theatre of its kind, and it played a major role in the development of the Russian opera. It was ranked on a level with the court theatre in Petersburg and was considered far superior to the leading company in Moscow, whose theatre was located on the site of the Bolshoi Theatre today. The Moscow theatre’s English director, Michael Meddox, complained that Kuskovo, which did not charge admission, had deprived his theatre of an audience.85 Pyotr Sheremetev had established the serf troupe at Kuskovo in the 1760s. He was not an artistic man, but the theatre was a fashionable addition to his grand estate and it enabled him to entertain the court. In 1775 the Empress Catherine attended a performance of the French opera in the open-air theatre at Kuskovo. This encouraged Sheremetev to build a proper theatre, large enough to stage the foreign operas so beloved by the Empress, between 1777 and 1787. He left its direction to his son,


Count Nikolai Petrovich, who was well acquainted with the French and Italian opera from his European travels in the early 1770s. Nikolai trained his serf performers in the disciplined techniques of the Paris Opera. Peasants were selected at an early age from his various estates and trained as musicians for the theatre orchestra or as singers for the troupe. There was also a German who taught the violin, a French singing teacher, a language instructor in Italian and French, a Russian choir master, and several foreign ballet masters, most of them from the court. The Sheremetev theatre was the first in Russia to stage ballets on their own, rather than as part of an opera, as was common in the eighteenth century. Under the direction of Nikolai Petrovich it produced over twenty French and Russian ballets, many of them receiving their first performance in Russia, long before they were put on at court.86 The Russian ballet was born at Kuskovo.


    So, too, was the Russian opera. The Sheremetev theatre began the practice of performing operas in Russian, which stimulated the composition of native works. The earliest, Anyuta (premiered at Tsarskoe Selo in 1772.), was produced at Kuskovo in 1781; and Misfortune from a Carriage by Vasily Pashkevich, with a libretto by Kniazhnin (first put on at the Hermitage Theatre in 1779) was seen at Kuskovo within a year.* Before the final quarter of the eighteenth century, opera was imported from abroad. Italians made the running early on. Giovanni Ristori’s Calandro was performed by a group of Italian singers from the Dresden court in 1731. The Empress Anna, enchanted by this ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’, recruited Francesco Araia’s Venetian company to entertain her court in Petersburg, which staged La Forza dell’amore in the Winter Palace on the Empress’s birthday in 1736. Starting with Araia, Italians occupied the post of maestro di capella at the Imperial court, with just two exceptions, until the nineteenth century. Consequently, the first Russian composers were strongly influenced by the Italian style. Maxim Berezovsky, Dmitry Bortnyansky and Yevstignei Fomin were all taught by the Italians of St Petersburg, and then sent to study in Italy itself. Berezovsky was Mozart’s fellow student in the composition school of Padre Martini. **


* Stepan Degterov, the composer of Minin and Pozharsky (1811), was a former Sheremetev serf.


**  Berezovsky was elected to the Accademia Philharmonica in Bologna. He returned to Russia in 1775 and, two years later, committed suicide. Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia (1983) is a commentary on exile as told through the story of Berezovsky’s life. It tells of a Russian emigre in Italy engaged in research on his doppelganger and fellow countryman, an ill-fated eighteenth-century Russian composer.



    The love affair between Petersburg and Venice was continued by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. It was ironically a Venetian, Catterino Cavos, who pioneered the Russian national opera. Cavos came to Petersburg in 1798 and immediately fell in love with the city, which reminded him of his native town. In 1803 the Emperor Alexander took control of the public theatres and placed Cavos in charge of the Bolshoi Kamenny, until then the only public opera house and exclusively reserved for Italian opera. Cavos built the Bolshoi Kamenny into a stronghold of Russian opera. He wrote works such as Ilya Bogatyr (1807) on heroic national themes with librettos in Russian, and his music was strongly influenced by Russian and Ukrainian folk songs. Much of Glinka’s operatic music, which the nationalists would champion as the foundation of the Russian tradition, was in fact anticipated by Cavos. The ‘national character’ of Russian music was thus first developed by a foreigner.+


+ This was not the end of the Cavos connection with the Russian opera. Catterino’s son, the architect Alberto Cavos, redesigned the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow after it was burned down in 1853. He also built the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. His daughter, Camille Cavos, married the court architect and portrait painter Nikolai Benois, whose family had fled to St Petersburg from the French Revolution in the 1790s, and their son, Alexander Benois, established the Ballets Russes with Sergei Diaghilev.


    The French were also instrumental in the development of a distinctive Russian musical style. Catherine the Great had invited a French opera troupe to the Petersburg court as one of her first acts on the assumption of the throne in 1762. During her reign the court opera was among the best in Europe. It staged the premiere of several major works, including Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782). The French comic opera, with its rustic village setting and its reliance on folk dialect and music, was a major influence on early Russian operas and Singspiels like Anyuta (similar to Favart’s Annette et Lubin), St Petersburg


Bazaar and The Miller Magician (based on Rousseau’s Le devin du village). These operas were the staple of the Sheremetev repertoire: huge numbers of them were performed at Kuskovo and Ostankino. With their comic peasant characters and their stylized motifs from folk song, they gave voice to an emerging Russian national consciousness.


    One of the earliest Russian operas was specially commissioned by the Sheremetevs for the open-air theatre at Kuskovo in 1781. Green with Jealousy, or The Boatman from Kuskovo was a panegyric to the Sheremetev palace and its park, which served as a backdrop to the opera on the stage.87 The production was a perfect illustration of the way in which the palace had itself become a kind of theatre for the acting out of Russian noble life, a huge stage set for the display of wealth and European ways.


    The design and the decor of the palace and its park contained much theatricality. The high stone archway into the estate marked the entrance into another world. The landscaped gardens and the manor house were laid out, like the props upon a stage, to create a certain emotion or theatrical effect. Features such as sculptured ‘peasants’ or ‘cattle’ in the woods, or temples, lakes and grottoes in the English park, intensified this sense of being in a place of make-believe.88 Kuskovo was full of dramatic artifice. The main house was made of wood that was carved to look like stone. In the park Fedor Argunov’s extraordinary grotto pavilion was full of playfulness: its internal walls were lined with artificial shells and sea creatures; and (in a reference to the house in Petersburg) its baroque cupola was constructed in the form of a fountain.


    In its everyday routines and public entertainments the palace was a kind of theatre, too. The daily ceremonies of the nobleman - the rituals connected with his morning prayer, his breakfast, lunch and dinner, his dressing and undressing, his office work and hunting, his washing and his bed - were performed from a detailed script that needed to be learned by the master and a huge supporting cast of domestic serfs. Then there were certain social functions which served as an arena for the ritualized performance of cultivated ways, the salon or the ball where the nobles demonstrated their European manners and good taste. Women put on wigs and beauty spots. They were conscious of the need to take a leading role - dancing, singing at the piano, playing the


coquette. Dandies turned their social lives into performance art: every mannered pose was carefully rehearsed. They prepared themselves, like Eugene Onegin, as actors going out before an audience.


At least three hours he peruses
His figure in the looking-glass.89


    Etiquette demanded that they hold themselves and act in the directed form: the way they walked and stood, the way they entered or left a room, the way they sat and held their hands, the way they smiled or nodded their heads - every pose and gesture was carefully scripted. Hence in the ballroom and reception hall the walls were lined with mirrors for the beau monde to observe their performance.


    The aristocracy of eighteenth-century Russia was aware of acting out its life as if upon a stage. The Russian nobleman was not born a ‘European’ and European manners were not natural to him. He had to learn such manners, as he learned a foreign language, in a ritualized form by conscious imitation of the West. Peter the Great began it all - reinventing himself and his aristocracy in the European mould. The first thing he did on his return from Europe, in 1698, was to order all the boyars to give up their kaftans for Western codes of dress. In a symbolic rupture with the past, he forbade them to wear beards, traditionally seen as a sign of holiness, and himself took the shears to reluctant courtiers.* Peter commanded his nobles to entertain after the European fashion: with his head of police he personally supervised the lists of guests at balls to be thrown by his selected hosts. The aristocracy was to learn to speak in French, to converse politely and to dance the minuet. Women, who had been confined to private quarters in the semi-Asiatic world of Muscovy, were to squeeze their bodies into corsets and grace society.


    * In the Orthodox belief the beard was a mark of God and Christ (both were depicted wearing beards) and a mark of manhood (animals had whiskers). Because of Peter’s prohibition, wearing beards became a sign of ‘Russianness’ and of resistance to his reforms.



    These new social manners were expounded in a manual of etiquette, The Honourable Mirror to Youth, which Peter had adapted and embellished from the German original. It advised its readers, among other things, not to ‘spit their food’, nor to ‘use a knife to clean their teeth’, nor ‘blow their nose like a trumpet’.90 To perform these manners required a conscious mode of action very different from the unself-conscious or ‘natural’ behaviour of the Russian; at such moments the Russian was supposed to be aware of acting differently from the way he would behave as a Russian. Books of etiquette like The Honourable Mirror advised the Russian nobleman to imagine himself in the company of foreigners while, at the same time, remaining conscious of himself as a Russian. The point was not to become a European, but rather to act as one. Like an actor with an eye to his own image on the stage, the nobleman was told to observe his own behaviour from a Russian point of view. It was the only way to judge its foreignness.91


    The diaries and memoirs of the aristocracy are filled with descriptions of how young nobles were instructed to act in society. ‘The point was not to be but to appear,’92 recalled one memoirist. In this society, external appearances were everything and success was dependent on a subtle code of manners displayed only by those of breeding. Fashionable dress, good comportment, modesty and mildness, refined conversation and the capacity to dance with elegance - these were the qualities of being ‘comme il faut’. Tolstoy boiled them down to first-class French; long, well-kept and polished nails; and ‘a constant expression of elegant and contemptuous ennui’.93 Polished nails and a cultivated air of boredom were also the defining features of the fop, according to Pushkin (this was how the poet was depicted in the famous portrait by Orest Kiprensky which appears to have been painted in the Fountain House).


    The European Russian had a split identity. His mind was a state divided into two. On one level he was conscious of acting out his life according to prescribed European conventions; yet on another plane his inner life was swayed by Russian customs and sensibilities. The distinction was not absolute, of course: there could be conscious forms of ‘Russianness’, as the Slavophiles would prove, just as it was possible for European habits to be so ingrained that they appeared and felt ‘natural’. But generally speaking, the European Russian was a ‘European’ on the public stage and a ‘Russian’ in those moments of his private life when, without even thinking, he did things in a way that only Russians did. This was the legacy from his ancestors which no European


influence could totally erase. It enabled a countess like Natasha to dance the Russian dance. In every Russian aristocrat, however European he may have become, there was a discreet and instinctive empathy with the customs and beliefs, the habits and the rhythms of Russian peasant life. How, indeed, could it not be so when the nobleman was born in the countryside, when he spent his childhood in the company of serfs, and lived most of his life on the estate - a tiny island of European culture in a vast Russian peasant sea?


    The layout of the palace was a map of this divide in the nobleman’s emotional geography. There were the grand reception rooms, always cold and draughty, where formal European manners were the norm; and then there were the private rooms, the bedrooms and the boudoirs, the study and the parlour, the chapel and the icon room, and the corridors that ran through to the servants’ quarters, where a more informal, ‘Russian’ way of life was to be found. Sometimes this divide was consciously maintained. Count Sheremetev rearranged the rooms at the Fountain House so that all his public life was conducted on its left, or embankment, side, while the right side and the rooms that faced on to the garden at the rear were sealed off for his secret life. These private rooms were entirely different in their feel and style, with warm-coloured fabrics, wallpaper, carpets and Russian stoves, compared to the cold and stoveless public rooms with their parquet floors and marble mirrored walls.94 It was as if the count was attempting to create an intimate, domestic and more ‘Russian’ space in which to relax with Praskovya.


    In 1837 the Winter Palace in St Petersburg was gutted by a fire so immense it could be seen from villages some eighty kilometres away. It began in a wooden basement room and soon spread to the upper floors, which all had wooden walls and cavities behind the stone facades. The symbolism of the fire did not go unnoticed in a city built on myths of apocalypse: the old Russia was wreaking its revenge. Every palace had a ‘wooden Russia’ underneath its grand reception rooms. From the brilliant white ballroom in the Fountain House you could exit through a concealed mirror door and descend by a staircase to the servants’ quarters and another world. Here were kitchens where the open fires raged all day, a storehouse in the yard where peasant carts delivered farm produce, a carriage house, a smithy, workshops, stables, cow sheds, an aviary, a large greenhouse, a laundry and a wooden banya or bath house.95



4. Gerard de la Barthe: A Cure Bath in Moscow, 1790


    Going to the banya was an old Russian custom. From medieval times it was popularly seen as a national institution, and not to bathe in one at least three times a week was practically taken as a proof of foreign origins. Every noble household had its own steam house. In towns and villages there was invariably a communal bath, where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another, according to the custom, with young birch leaf whips, and cooling themselves down by rolling around together in the snow. Because of its reputation as a place for sex and wild behaviour, Peter the Great attempted to stamp out the banya as a relic of medieval Rus’ and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St Petersburg. But, despite heavy taxes on it, noblemen continued to prefer the Russian bath and, by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every palace in St Petersburg had one.96



    The banya was believed to have special healing powers - it was called the ‘people’s first doctor’ (vodka was the second, raw garlic the third). There were all sorts of magical beliefs associated with it in folklore.97 To go to the banya was to give both your body and your soul a good cleaning, and it was the custom to perform this purge as a part of important rituals. The banya was a place for giving birth: it was warm and clean and private, and in a series of bathing rituals that lasted forty days, it purified the mother from the bleeding of the birth which, according to the Church and the popular belief that held to the idea of Christ’s bloodless birth, symbolized the fallen state of womanhood.98 The banya’s role in prenuptial rites was also to ensure the woman’s purity: the bride was washed in the banya by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals. They were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court in the final decades of the seventeenth century. According to the customs of the 1670s Tsar Alexei’s bride was washed in the banya on the day before her wedding, while a choir chanted sacred songs outside, after which she received the blessing of a priest.99 This intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals was equally pronounced at Epiphany and Shrovetide (‘Clean Monday’), when ablution and devotion were the order of the day. On these holy days it was customary for the Russian family, of whatever social class, to clean the house, washing all the floors, clearing out the cupboards, purging the establishment of any rotten or unholy foods, and then, when this was done, to visit the bath house and clean the body, too.


    In the palace, the salon upstairs belonged to an entirely different, European world. Every major palace had its own salon, which served as the venue for concerts and masked balls, banquets, soirees, and sometimes even readings by the greatest Russian poets of the age. Like all palaces, the Fountain House was designed for the salon’s rituals. There was a wide sweeping driveway for the grand arrival by coach-and-four; a public vestibule for divesting cloaks and furs; a ‘parade’ staircase and large reception rooms for the guests to advertise their tasteful dress and etiquette. Women were the stars of this society. Every salon revolved around the beauty, charm and wit of a particular hostess - such as Anna Scherer in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Having been excluded from the public domain under Muscovy, women took up leading roles in the European


culture of the eighteenth century. For the first time in the history of the Russian state there was even a succession of female sovereigns. Women became educated and accomplished in the European arts. By the end of the eighteenth century the educated noblewoman had become the norm in high society - so much so that the uneducated noblewoman became a common subject of satire. Recalling his experience as the French ambassador in Petersburg during the 1780s, Count Segur believed that Russian noblewomen ‘had outstripped the men in this progressive march towards improvement: you already saw a number of elegant women and girls, remarkable for their graces, speaking seven or eight languages with fluency, playing several instruments, and familiar with the most celebrated romance writers and poets of France, Italy and England’. The men, by comparison, had nothing much to say.100


    Women set the manners of the salon: the kissing of the hand, the balletic genuflections and the feminized apparel of the fop were all reflections of their influence. The art of salon conversation was distinctly feminine. It meant relaxed and witty conversation which skipped imperceptibly from one topic to another, making even the most trivial thing a subject of enchanting fascination. It was also de rigueur not to talk for long on serious, ‘masculine’ topics such as politics or philosophy, as Pushkin underlined in Eugene Onegin:


The conversation sparkled bright;
The hostess kept the banter light
And quite devoid of affectations;
Good reasoned talk was also heard,
But not a trite or vulgar word,
No lasting truths or dissertations
- And no one’s ears were shocked a bit
By all the flow of lively wit.101


    Pushkin said that the point of salon conversation was to flirt (he once claimed that the point of life was to ‘make oneself attractive to women’). Pushkin’s friends testified that his conversation was just as memorable as his poetry, while his brother Lev maintained that his real genius was for flirting with women.102



    The readership of literature in Pushkin’s age was by and large female. In Eugene Onegin we first meet the heroine Tatiana with a French book in her hands. Russian literary language, which developed at this time, was consciously designed by poets such as Pushkin to reflect the female taste and style of the salon. Russia barely had a national literature until Pushkin appeared on the literary scene (hence his god-like status in that society). ‘In Russia’, wrote Madame de Stael in the early 1800s, ‘literature consists of a few gentlemen.’103 By the 1830s, when Russia had a growing and vibrant literature, the persistence of attitudes like this had become a source of literary satire by patriotic writers such as Pushkin. In his story The Queen of Spades (1834), the old countess, a lady from the reign of Catherine the Great, is astonished when her grandson, whom she has requested to bring her a new novel, asks if she would like a Russian one. ‘Are there any Russian novels?’ the old lady asks.104 Yet at the time when de Stael was writing the absence of a major literary canon was a source of great embarrassment to literate Russians. In 1802 the poet and historian Nikolai Karamzin compiled a ‘Pantheon of Russian Writers’, beginning with the ancient bard Bojan and ending in the present day: it stretched to only twenty names. The literary high points of the eighteenth century - the satires of Prince Antioch Kantemir, the odes of Vasily Trediakovsky and Pavel Sumarokov, the tragedies of Yakov Kniazhnin and the comedies of Denis Fonvizin - hardly amounted to a national literature. All their works were derived from genres in the neoclassical tradition. Some were little more than translations of European works with Russian names assigned to the characters and the action transferred to Russia. Vladimir Lukin, Catherine’s court playwright, russified a large number of French plays. So did Fonvizin in the 1760s. In the last three-quarters of the eighteenth century some 500 works of literature were published in Russia. But only seven were of Russian origin.105


    The absence of a national literature was to haunt Russia’s young intelligentsia in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Karamzin explained it by the absence of those institutions (literary societies, journals, newspapers) that helped constitute European society.106 The Russian reading public was extremely small - a minuscule proportion of the total population in the eighteenth century - and publishing was dominated by the Church and the court. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for a writer


to survive from his writings. Most Russian writers in the eighteenth century were obliged, as noblemen, to serve as state officials, and those like the fabulist Ivan Krylov who turned their backs on the civil service and tried to make a living from their own writings nearly always ended up extremely poor. Krylov was obliged to become a children’s tutor in the houses of the rich. He worked for some time at the Fountain House.107


    But the biggest impediment to the development of a national literature was the undeveloped state of the literary language. In France or England the writer wrote largely as people spoke; but in Russia there was a huge divide between the written and the spoken forms of the language. The written language of the eighteenth century was a clumsy combination of archaic Church Slavonic, a bureaucratic jargon known as Chancery, and Latinisms imported by the Poles. There was no set grammar or orthography, and no clear definition of many abstract words. It was a bookish and obscure language, far removed from the spoken idiom of high society (which was basically French) and the plain speech of the Russian peasantry.


    Such was the challenge that confronted Russia’s poets at the beginning of the nineteenth century: to create a literary language that was rooted in the spoken language of society. The essential problem was that there were no terms in Russian for the sort of thoughts and feelings that constitute the writer’s lexicon. Basic literary concepts, most of them to do with the private world of the individual, had never been developed in the Russian tongue: ‘gesture’, ‘sympathy’, ‘privacy’, ‘impulsion’ and ‘imagination’ - none could be expressed without the use of French.108 Moreover, since virtually the whole material culture of society had been imported from the West, there were, as Pushkin commented, no Russian words for basic things:


But pantaloons, gilet, and frock
-These words are hardly Russian stock.109



    Hence Russian writers were obliged to adapt or borrow words from the French to express the sentiments and represent the world of their readers in high society. Karamzin and his literary disciples (including the young Pushkin) aimed to ‘write as people speak’ - meaning how the people of taste and culture spoke, and in particular the ‘cultivated woman’ of polite society, who was, they realized, their ‘principal reader’.110 This ‘salon style’ derived a certain lightness and refinement from its Gallicized syntax and phraseology. But its excessive use of French loan words and neologisms also made it clumsy and verbose. And in its way it was just as far removed from the plain speech of the people as the Church Slavonic of the eighteenth century. This was the language of social pretension that Tolstoy satirized in the opening passages of War and Peace:


Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St Petersburg, used only by the elite.111


    Yet this salon style was a necessary stage in the evolution of the literary language. Until Russia had a wider reading public and more writers who were willing to use plain speech as their literary idiom, there would be no alternative. Even in the early nineteenth century, when poets such as Pushkin tried to break away from the foreign hold on the language by inventing Russian words, they needed to explain these to their salon audience. Hence in his story ‘The Peasant Girl’, Pushkin had to clarify the meaning of the Russian word ‘samobytnost” by adding in parenthesis its French equivalent, ‘individualite’.112



5.  The Superfluous Man


    In November 1779 the Hermitage court theatre in St Petersburg staged the premiere of Kniazhnin’s comic opera Misfortune from a Carriage. It was an ironic venue for this hilarious satire on the slavish imitation of foreign ways. The sumptuous theatre, recently constructed by the Italian Quarenghi in the Winter Palace, was the home of the French Opera, the most prestigious of the foreign companies. Its elite public was impeccably turned out in the latest French clothes and hairstyles. Here was precisely the sort of Gallomania that Kniazhnin’s opera blamed for the moral corruption of society. The opera tells the story of a pair of


peasant lovers, Lukian and Anyuta, who are prevented from getting married by their master’s jealous bailiff, Klimenty, who desires Anyuta for himself. As serfs, the pair belong to a foolish noble couple called the Firiulins (the ‘Ninnies’) whose only aim in life is to ape the newest fashions in Paris. The Firiulins decide that they must have a new coach that is all the rage. To raise the cash they instruct Klimenty to sell some of their serfs into military service. Klimenty picks Lukian. It is only when the lovers plead with their owners in the sentimental language of the Gallicized salon that Lukian is finally released. Until then, the Firiulins had regarded them as simply Russian serfs, and hence, they assumed, entirely unaffected by such emotions as love. But everything is put into a different perspective once Lukian and Anyuta speak in French cliches.113


    Kniazhnin’s satire was one of several to equate the foreign pretensions of Petersburg with the moral ruin of society. The Petersburg dandy, with his fashionable clothes, his ostentatious manners and effeminate French speech, had become an anti-model of the ‘Russian man’. He was the butt of comedies, from the character of Medor in Kantemir’s satire A Poor Lesson (1729) to Fonvizin’s Ivan in The Brigadier (1769). These comedies contained the ingredients of a national consciousness based on the antithesis of foreign and native. The decadent and artificial manners of the fop were contrasted with the simple, natural virtues of the peasantry; the material seductions of the European city with the spiritual values of the Russian countryside. Not only did the young dandy speak a foreign language to his Russian elders (whose inability to understand his Gallicisms was a source of comic misunderstanding), he also lived by a foreign moral code that threatened Russia’s patriarchal traditions. In Kheraskov’s comedy The Detester, which ran in Petersburg during the same year as Misfortune from a Carriage, the dandy figure Stovid advises a friend, who is unable to persuade a young girl to go out with him against her parents’ wishes, to ‘convince her that in Paris a child’s love for her parents is considered philistine’. The impressionable girl is won over by this argument, and Stovid then relates how he heard her tell her father: ‘“Stay away! In France fathers do not keep the company of their children, and only merchants let their hands be kissed by their daughters.” And then she spat at him.’ 114



    At the heart of all these satires was the notion of the West as a negation of Russian principles. The moral lesson was simple: through their slavish imitation of Western principles, the aristocrats had lost all sense of their own nationality. Striving to make themselves at home with foreigners, they had become foreigners at home.


    The nobleman who worships France - and thus despises Russia -was a stock character in all these comedies. ‘Why was I born a Russian?’ laments Diulezh in Sumarokov’s The Monsters (1750). ‘O Nature! Are you not ashamed to have given me a Russian father?’ Such was his contempt for his fellow countrymen that in a sequel to the play, Diulezh even challenges an acquaintance to a duel because he had dared to call him a ‘fellow Russian and a brother’.115 Fonvizin’s Ivan, in The Brigadier, considers France his ‘spiritual homeland’ for the simple reason that he was once taught by a French coachman. Returning from a trip to France, Ivan proclaims that ‘anyone who has ever been in Paris has the right not to count himself a Russian any more’.116


    This literary type continued as a mainstay of the nineteenth-century stage. Alexander Griboedov’s Chatsky in Woe from Wit (1822-4) becomes so immersed in European culture on his travels that he cannot bear to live in Moscow on his return. He departs again for Paris, claiming there is no longer any place for him in Russian life. Chatsky was a prototype of those ‘superfluous men’ who inhabit nineteenth-century Russian literature: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin (the Hero of Our Times (1840)), Turgenev’s Rudin (1856); the root of all their troubles a sense of alienation from their native land.


    There were many Chatskys in real life. Dostoevsky encountered some of them in the Russian emigre communities of Germany and France in the 1870s:


[T]here have been all sorts of people [who have emigrated] but the vast majority, if not all of them, have more or less hated Russia, some of them on moral grounds, on the conviction that ‘in Russia there’s nothing to do for such decent and intelligent people as they’, others simply hating her without any convictions - naturally, one might say, physically: for her climate, her fields, her forests, her ways, her liberated peasants, her Russian history: in short, hating her for absolutely everything.117



    But it was not just the émigrés - or the almost permanent encampment of wealthy Russians in the spa and sea resorts of Germany and France - who became divorced from their native land. The whole idea of a European education was to make the Russian feel as much at home in Paris as in Petersburg. This education made for a certain cosmopolitanism, which was one of Russia’s most enduring cultural strengths. It gave the educated classes a sense that they belonged to a broader European civilization, and this was the key to the supreme achievements of their national culture in the nineteenth century. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky - they all combined their Russianness with a European cultural identity. Writing from the summit of the 1870s, Tolstoy evoked the almost magic charm of this European world as seen through the eyes of Levin as he falls in love with the Shcherbatsky household in Anna Karenina (1873-6):

Strange as it may seem, Levin was in love with the whole family - especially the feminine half of it. He could not remember his mother, and his only sister was older than himself, so that in the Shcherbatskys’ house he encountered for the first time the home life of a cultured, honourable family of the old aristocracy, of which he had been deprived by the death of his own father and mother. All the members of the family, in particular the feminine half, appeared to him as though wrapped in some mysterious, poetic veil, and he not only saw no defects in them but imagined behind that poetic veil the loftiest sentiments and every possible perfection. Why the three young ladies had to speak French one day and English the next; why they had, at definite times and each in her turn, to practise the piano (the sound of which reached their brothers’ room upstairs, where the boys were studying); why those masters of French literature, music, drawing, and dancing came to the house; why at certain hours the three young ladies accompanied by Mademoiselle Linon were driven in a barouche to the Tverskoy boulevard wearing satin pelisses - long for Dolly, shorter for Natalie, and so short for Kitty that her shapely little legs in the tightly pulled-up red stockings were quite exposed; why they had to walk up and down the Tverskoy boulevard accompanied by a footman with a gold cockade in his hat - all this and much more that happened in their mysterious world he did not understand; but he knew that everything was perfect, and he was in love with the mystery of it all.118



    Yet this sense of being part of Europe also made for divided souls. ‘We Russians have two fatherlands: Russia and Europe,’ Dostoevsky wrote. Alexander Herzen was a typical example of this Westernized elite. After meeting him in Paris Dostoevsky said that he did not emigrate - he was born an emigrant. The nineteenth-century writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin explained this condition of internal exile well. ‘In Russia,’ he recalled of the 1840s, ‘we existed only in a factual sense, or as it was said then, we had a “mode of life”. We went to the office, we wrote letters to our relatives, we dined in restaurants, we conversed with each other and so on. But spiritually we were all inhabitants of France.’119 For these European Russians, then, ‘Europe’ was not just a place. It was a region of the mind which they inhabited through their education, their language, their religion and their general attitudes.


    They were so immersed in foreign languages that many found it challenging to speak or write their own. Princess Dashkova, a vocal advocate of Russian culture and the only female president ever of the Russian Academy of Sciences, had the finest European education. ‘We were instructed in four different languages, and spoke French fluently,’ she wrote in her memoirs, ‘but my Russian was extremely poor.’120 Count Karl Nesselrode, a Baltic German and Russia’s foreign minister from 1815 to 1856, could not write or even speak the language of the country he was meant to represent. French was the language of high society, and in high-born families the language of all personal relationships as well. The Volkonskys, for example, a family whose fortunes we shall follow in this book, spoke mainly French among themselves. Mademoiselle Callame, a French governess in the Volkonsky household, recalled that in nearly fifty years of service she never heard the Volkonskys speak a word of Russian, except to give orders to the domestic staff. This was true even of Maria (nee Raevskaya), the wife of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, Tsar Alexander’s favourite aide-de-camp in 1812. Despite the fact that she had been brought up in the Ukrainian provinces, where noble families were more inclined to speak their native Russian tongue, Maria could not write in Russian properly. Her letters to her husband were in French. Her spoken Russian, which she had picked up from the servants, was very primitive and full of peasant slang. It was a common paradox that the most refined and cultured Russians could speak only the peasant form of


Russian which they had learnt from the servants as children.121 Here was the European culture of Tolstoy’s War and Peace - a culture in which Russians ‘spoke in that refined French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought’.122 They conversed in their native Russian as if they were Frenchmen who had only been in Russia for a year.


    This neglect of the Russian language was most pronounced and persistent in the highest echelons of the aristocracy, which had always been the most Europeanized (and in more than a few cases of foreign origin). In some families children were forbidden to speak Russian except on Sundays and religious holidays. During her entire education Princess Ekaterina Golitsyn had only seven lessons in her native tongue. Her mother was contemptuous of Russian literature and thought Gogol was ‘for the coachmen’. The Golitsyn children had a French governess and, if she ever caught them speaking Russian, she would punish them by tying a red cloth in the shape of a devil’s tongue around their necks.123 Anna Lelong had a similar experience at the Girls’ Gymnasium, the best school for noble daughters in Moscow. Those girls caught speaking Russian were made to wear a red tin bell all day and stand like dunces, stripped of their white aprons, in the corner of the class; they were forced to remain standing even during meals, and received their food last.124 Other children were even more severely punished if they spoke Russian - sometimes even locked in a room.125 The attitude seems to have been that Russian, like the Devil, should be beaten out of noble children from an early age, and that even the most childish feelings had to be expressed in a foreign tongue. Hence that tiny yet revealing episode in the Oblonsky drawing-room in Anna Karenina, when Dolly’s little daughter comes into the room where her mother is in conversation with Levin:


    ‘You are very, very absurd!’ Dolly repeated, tenderly looking into his face.

    ‘Very well, then, let it be as though we had not spoken a word about it. What

is it, Tanya?’ she said in French to the little girl who had come in. ‘Where’s my spade, Mama?’

    ’I am speaking French, and you must answer in French.’ The little girl tried to, but she could not remember the French for spade; her mother prompted her, and then told her in French where to look. All this made a disagreeable impression on Levin.


    Everything in Dolly’s house and children struck him now as by no means so charming as before.

    ‘Why does she talk French with the children?’ he thought. ‘It’s so affected and unnatural. And the children sense it. Learning French and unlearning sincerity,’ he thought to himself, unaware that Dolly had reasoned over and over again in the same fashion and yet had decided that, even at the cost of some loss of sincerity, the children must be taught French in that way.126


    Such attitudes continued to be found in high-born families throughout the nineteenth century, and they shaped the education of some of Russia’s most creative minds. As a boy in the 1820s, Tolstoy was instructed by the kind of German tutor he portrayed so memorably in Childhood (1852). His aunt taught him French. But apart from a few of Pushkin’s poems, Tolstoy had no contact with Russian literature before he went to school at the age of nine. Turgenev was taught by French and German tutors, but he only learned to read and write in Russian thanks to the efforts of his father’s serf valet. He saw his first Russian book at the age of eight, after breaking into a locked room that contained his father’s Russian library. Even at the turn of the twentieth century there were Russian noblemen who barely spoke the language of their fellow countrymen. Vladimir Nabokov described his ‘Uncle Ruka’, an eccentric diplomat, as talking in a fastidious combination of French, English and Italian, all of which he spoke with vastly more ease than he did his native tongue. When he resorted to Russian, it was invariably to misuse or garble some extremely idiomatic or even folksy expression, as when he would say at table with a sudden sigh: ‘Je suis triste et seul comme une bylinka v pole (as lonesome as a “grass blade in the field”).’127 Uncle Ruka died in Paris at the end of 1916, the last of the old-world Russian aristocracy.


    The Orthodox religion was equally remote from the consciousness of the Westernized elites. For religion played but a minor role in the upbringing of the aristocracy. Noble families, immersed in the secular culture of the French Enlightenment, thought little of the need to educate their children in the Russian faith, although by force of habit and conformity they continued to baptize them


in the state religion and observed its rituals. The Voltairean attitudes that ruled in many noble households brought a greater sense of religious tolerance - which was just as well since, with all their foreign tutors and their peasant serfs, the palace could be home to several different faiths. Orthodoxy, in so far as it was practised mainly in the servants’ quarters, came at the bottom of the social pile - below the Protestantism of the German tutors and the Catholicism of the French. This pecking order was reinforced by the fact that there was no Russian Bible - only a Psalter and a Book of Hours - until the 1870s. Herzen read the New Testament in German and went to church in Moscow with his Lutheran mother. But it was only when he was fifteen (and then only because it was an entry requirement for Moscow University) that his father hired a Russian priest to instruct him in the Orthodox religion. Tolstoy received no formal religious education as a child, while Turgenev’s mother was openly contemptuous of Orthodoxy, which she saw as the religion of the common people, and instead of the usual prayers at meals substituted a daily reading from a French translation of Thomas a Kempis. This tendency to patronize Orthodoxy as a ‘peasant faith’ was commonplace among the aristocracy. Herzen told the story of a dinner-party host who, when asked if he was serving Lenten dishes out of personal conviction, replied that it was ‘simply and solely for the sake of the servants’.128


    Set against this domination by Europe, satires such as Kniazhnin’s and Kheraskov’s began to define the Russian character in terms which were distinct from the values of the West. These writers set up the antithesis between foreign artifice and native truth, European reason and the Russian heart or ‘soul’ that would form the basis of the national narrative in the nineteenth century. At the heart of this discourse was the old romantic ideal of the native soil - of a pure ‘organic’ Russia uncorrupted by civilization. St Petersburg was all deceit and vanity, a narcissistic dandy constantly observing its own reflection in the Neva river. The real Russia was in the provinces, a place without pretensions or alien conventions, where simple ‘Russian’ virtues were preserved.



    For some this was a question of the contrast between Moscow and St Petersburg. The roots of the Slavophile movement go back to the late eighteenth century and the defence of the old gentry culture of Moscow and its provinces against the Europeanizing Petrine state. The landed gentry, it was said, were closer to the customs and religion of the people than Peter’s courtiers and career bureaucrats. The writer Mikhail Shcherbatov was the most vocal spokesman of the old nobility. In his Journey to the Land of Ophir (1784) he portrays a northern country ruled by the king Perega from his newly founded city of Peregrab. Like St Petersburg, the intended object of Shcherbatov’s satire, Peregrab is cosmopolitan and sophisticated but it is alien to the national traditions of Ophir, whose people still adhere to the moral virtues of Kvamo (read: Moscow), their former capital. At last the people of Peregrab rise up, the city falls and Ophir is returned to Kvamo’s simple way of life. Such idyllic views of the unspoilt past were commonplace in Rousseau’s age. Even Karamzin, a Westernist who was certainly not nostalgic for the old nobility, idealized the ‘virtuous and simple life of our ancestors’, when ‘the Russians were real Russians’, in his story Natalia (1792).


    For others, Russia’s virtues were preserved in the traditions of the countryside. Fonvizin found them in the Christian principles of the ‘old thinker’ Starodum, the homespun village mystic in his satire The Minor (1782). ‘Have a heart, have a soul, and you’ll always be a man,’ advises Starodum. ‘Everything else is fashion.’129 The idea of a truly Russian self that had been concealed and suppressed by the alien conventions of Petersburg society became commonplace. It had its origins in the sentimental cult of rural innocence - a cult epitomized by Karamzin’s tearful tale of Poor Liza (1792). Karamzin tells the story of a simple flower girl who is deceived in love by a dandy from St Petersburg and kills herself by drowning in a lake. The tale contained all the elements of this vision of a new community: the myth of the wholesome Russian village from which Liza is ejected by her poverty; the corruption of the city with its foreign ways; the tragic and true-hearted Russian heroine; and the universal ideal of marriage based on love.



    Poets like Pyotr Viazemsky idealized the village as a haven of natural simplicity:


    Here there are no chains,

    Here there is no tyranny of vanity.130


    Writers like Nikolai Novikov pointed to the village as the place where native customs had survived. The Russian was at home, he behaved more like himself, when he lived close to the land.131 For Nikolai Lvov, poet, engineer, architect, folklorist, the main Russian trait was spontaneity.


In foreign lands all goes to a plan,
Words are weighed, steps measured.
But among us Russians there is fiery life,
Our speech is thunder and sparks fly.132


    Lvov contrasted the convention-ridden life of the European Russians with the spontaneous behaviour and creativity of the Russian peasantry. He called on Russia’s poets to liberate themselves from the constraints of the classical canon and find inspiration from the free rhythms of folk song and verse.


    Central to this cult of simple peasant life was the notion of its moral purity. The radical satirist Alexander Radishchev was the first to argue that the nation’s highest virtues were contained in the culture of its humblest folk. His proof for this was teeth. In his Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790) Radishchev recalls an encounter with a group of village women dressed up in their traditional costumes for a holiday - their broad smiles ‘revealing rows of teeth whiter than the purest ivory’. The ladies of the aristocracy, who all had rotten teeth, would ‘be driven mad by teeth like these’:


Come hither, my dear Moscow and Petersburg ladies, look at their teeth and learn from them how they keep them white. They have no dentists. They do not scrape their teeth with brushes and powders every day. Stand mouth to mouth with any one of them you choose: not one of them will infect your lungs with her breath. While yours, yes yours may infect them with the germ - of a disease… I am afraid to say what disease.133



6. The Grand Tour


    In eighteenth-century panoramas of St Petersburg the open sky and space connect the city with a broader universe. Straight lines stretch to the distant horizon, beyond which, we are asked to imagine, lies the rest of Europe within easy reach. The projection of Russia into Europe had always been the raison d’etre of St Petersburg. It was not simply Peter’s ‘window on to Europe’ - as Pushkin once described the capital - but an open doorway through which Europe entered Russia and the Russians made their entry to the world.


    For Russia’s educated elites Europe was more than a tourist destination. It was a cultural ideal, the spiritual source of their civilization, and to travel to it was to make a pilgrimage. Peter the Great was the model of the Russian traveller to the West in search of self-improvement and enlightenment. For the next two hundred years Russians followed Peter’s journey to the West. The sons of the Petersburg nobility went to universities in Paris, Gottingen and Leipzig. The ‘Gottingen soul’ assigned by Pushkin to Lensky, the fashionable student in Eugene Onegin, became a sort of emblem of the European outlook shared by generations of Russian noblemen:


Vladimir Lensky, just returning
From Gottingen with soulful yearning,
Was in his prime - a handsome youth
And poet filled with Kantian truth.
From misty Germany our squire
Had carried back the fruits of art:
A freedom-loving, noble heart,
A spirit strange but full of fire,
An always bold, impassioned speech,
And raven locks of shoulder reach.134


    All the pioneers of Russia’s arts learned their crafts abroad: Trediakovsky, the country’s first real poet, was sent by Peter to study at the University of Paris; Andrei Matveev and Mikhail Avramov, its first secular painters, were sent to France and Holland;


and, as we have seen, Berezovsky, Fomin and Bortnyansky learned their music in Italy. Mikhail Lomonosov, the nation’s first outstanding scholar and scientist, studied chemistry at Marburg, before returning to help found Moscow University, which today bears his name. Pushkin once quipped that the polymath ‘was our first university’.135


   The Grand Tour was a vital rite of passage for the aristocracy. The emancipation of the nobles from obligatory state service in 1762 had unleashed Russia’s more ambitious and curious gentry on the world. Gaggles of Golitsyns and Gagarins went to Paris; Dashkovs and Demidovs arrived in droves in Vienna. But England was their favourite destination. It was the homeland of a prosperous and independent landed gentry, which the Russian nobles aspired to become. Their Anglomania was sometimes so extreme that it bordered on the denial of their own identity. ‘Why was I not born an Englishwoman?’ lamented Princess Dashkova, a frequent visitor to and admirer of England, who had sung its praises in her celebrated Journey of a Russian Noblewoman (1775).136 Russians flocked to the sceptred isle to educate themselves in the latest fashions and the designs of its fine houses, to acquire new techniques of estate management and landscape gardening, and to buy objets d’art, carriages and wigs and all the other necessary accoutrements of a civilized lifestyle.


    The travel literature that accompanied this traffic played a vital role in shaping Russia’s self-perception vis-a-vis the West. Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller (1791-1801), the most influential of this genre, educated a whole generation in the values and ideas of European life. Karamzin left St Petersburg in May 1789. Then, travelling first through Poland, Germany and Switzerland, he entered revolutionary France in the following spring before returning via London to the Russian capital. Karamzin provided his readers with a panorama of the ideal European world. He described its monuments, its theatres and museums, celebrated writers and philosophers. His ‘Europe’ was a mythic realm which later travellers, whose first encounter with Europe had been through reading his work, would look for but never really find. The historian Mikhail Pogodin took the Letters with him when he went to Paris in 1839. Even the poet Mayakovsky responded to that city, in 1925, through the sentimental prism of Karamzin’s work.137 The Letters taught the Russians how to act and feel as cultivated Europeans. In his letters Karamzin


portrayed himself as perfectly at ease, and accepted as an equal, in Europe’s intellectual circles. He described relaxed conversations with Kant and Herder. He showed himself approaching Europe’s cultural monuments, not as some barbaric Scythian, but as an urbane and cultivated man who was already familiar with them from books and paintings. The overall effect was to present Europe as something close to Russia, a civilization of which it was a part.


    Yet Karamzin also managed to express the insecurity which all the Russians felt in their European self-identity. Everywhere he went he was constantly reminded of Russia’s backward image in the European mind. On the road to Konigsberg two Germans were ‘amazed to learn that a Russian could speak foreign languages’. In Leipzig the professors talked about the Russians as ‘barbarians’ and could not believe that they had any writers of their own. The French were even worse, combining a condescension towards the Russians as students of their culture with contempt for them as ‘monkeys who know only how to imitate’.138 At times such remarks provoked Karamzin to exaggerated claims for Russia’s achievements. As he travelled around Europe, however, he came to the conclusion that its people had a way of thinking that was different from his own. Even after a century of reform, it seemed to him that perhaps the Russians had been Europeanized in no more than a superficial way. They had adopted Western manners and conventions. But European values and sensibilities had yet to penetrate their mental world.139


    Karamzin’s doubts were shared by many educated Russians as they struggled to define their ‘Europeanness’. In 1836 the philosopher Chaadaev was declared a lunatic for writing in despair that, while the Russians might be able to imitate the West, they were unable to internalize its essential moral values and ideas. Yet, as Herzen pointed out, Chaadaev had only said what every thinking Russian had felt for many years. These complex feelings of insecurity, of envy and resentment, towards Europe, still define the Russian national consciousness.


    Five years before Karamzin set off on his travels, the writer and civil servant Denis Fonvizin had travelled with his wife through Germany and Italy. It was not their first trip to Europe. In 1777-8 they had toured the spas of Germany and France looking for a


cure for Fonvizin’s migraines. On this occasion it was a stroke, which paralysed his arm and made him slur his speech, that compelled the writer to go abroad. Fonvizin took notes and wrote letters home with his observations on foreign life and the character of various nationalities. These Travel Letters were the first attempt by a Russian writer to define Russia’s spiritual traditions as different from, and indeed superior to, those of the West.


    Fonvizin did not set out as a nationalist. Fluent in several languages, he cut the figure of a St Petersburg cosmopolitan, with his fashionable dress and powdered wig. He was renowned for the sharpness of his tongue and his clever wit, which he put to good effect in his many satires against Gallomania. But if he was repelled by the trivialities and false conventions of high society, this had less to do with xenophobia than with his own feelings of social alienation and superiority. The truth was that Fonvizin was a bit of a misanthrope. Whether in Paris or St Petersburg, he nursed a contempt for the whole beau monde - a world in which he moved as a senior bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry. In his early letters from abroad Fonvizin depicted all the nations as the same. ‘I have seen,’ he wrote from France in 1778, ‘that in any land there is much more bad than good, that people are people everywhere, that intelligence is rare and idiots abound in every country, and that, in a word, our country is no worse than any other.’ This stance of cultural relativism rested on the idea of enlightenment as the basis of an international community. ‘Worthwhile people,’ Fonvizin concluded, ‘form a single nation among themselves, regardless of the country they come from.’140 In the course of his second trip, however, Fonvizin developed a more jaundiced view of Europe. He denounced its achievements in no uncertain terms. France, the symbol of ‘the West’, was Fonvizin’s main target, perhaps in part because he was not received in the salons of its capital.141 Paris was ‘a city of moral decadence’, of ‘lies and hypocrisy’, which could only corrupt the young Russian who came to it in search of that crucial ‘comme il faut’. It was a city of material greed, where ‘money is the God’; a city of vanity and external appearances, where ‘superficial manners and conventions count for everything’ and ‘friendship, honesty and spiritual values have no significance’. The French made a great deal of their ‘liberty’ but the actual condition of the ordinary


Frenchman was one of slavery - for ‘a poor man cannot feed himself except by slave labour, so that “liberty” is just an empty name’. The French philosophers were fraudulent because they did not practise what they preached. In sum, he concluded, Europe was a long way from the ideal the Russians imagined it to be, and it was time to acknowledge that ‘life with us is better’:


If any of my youthful countrymen with good sense should become indignant over the abuses and confusions prevalent in Russia and in his heart begin to feel estranged from her, then there is no better method of converting him to the love he should feel for his Fatherland than to send him to France as quickly as possible.142


    The terms Fonvizin used to characterize Europe appeared with extraordinary regularity in subsequent Russian travel writing. ‘Corrupt’ and ‘decadent’, ‘false’ and ‘superficial’, ‘materialist’ and ‘egotistical’ - such was the Russian lexicon for Europe right up to the time of Herzen’s Letters from France and Italy (1847-52) and Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862), a travel sketch which echoed Fonvizin’s. In this tradition the journey was merely an excuse for a philosophical discourse on the cultural relationship between Europe and Russia. The constant repetition of these epithets signalled the emergence of an ideology - a distinctive view of Russia in the mirror of the West. The idea that the West was morally corrupt was echoed by virtually every Russian writer from Pushkin to the Slavophiles. Herzen and Dostoevsky placed it at the heart of their messianic visions of Russia’s destiny to save the fallen West. The idea that the French were false and shallow became commonplace. For Karamzin, Paris was a capital of ‘superficial splendour and enchantment’; for Gogol it had ‘only a surface glitter that concealed an abyss of fraud and greed’.143 Viazemsky portrayed France as a ‘land of deception and falsity’. The censor and litterateur Alexander Nikitenko wrote of the French: ‘They seem to have been born with a love of theatre and a bent to create it - they were created for showmanship. Emotions, principles, honour, revolution are all treated as play, as games.’144 Dostoevsky agreed that


the French had a unique talent for ‘simulating emotions and feelings for nature’.145 Even Turgenev, an ardent Westernizer, described them in A Nest of Gentlefolk (1859) as civilized and charming yet without any spiritual depth or intellectual seriousness. The persistence of these cultural stereotypes illustrates the mythical proportions of ‘Europe’ in the Russian consciousness. This imaginary ‘Europe’ had more to do with the needs of defining ‘Russia’ than with the West itself. The idea of ‘Russia’ could not exist without ‘the West’ (just as ‘the West’ could not exist without ‘the Orient’). ‘We needed Europe as an ideal, a reproach, an example,’ Herzen wrote. ‘If she were not these things we would have to invent her.’146


    The Russians were uncertain about their place in Europe (they still are), and that ambivalence is a vital key to their cultural history and identity. Living on the margins of the continent, they have never been quite sure if their destiny is there. Are they of the West or of the East? Peter made his people face the West and imitate its ways. From that moment on the nation’s progress was meant to be measured by a foreign principle; all its moral and aesthetic norms, its tastes and social manners, were defined by it. The educated classes looked at Russia through European eyes, denouncing their own history as ‘barbarous’ and ‘dark’. They sought Europe’s approval and wanted to be recognized as equals by it. For this reason they took a certain pride in Peter’s achievements. His Imperial state, greater and more mighty than any other European empire, promised to lead Russia to modernity. But at the same time they were painfully aware that Russia was not ‘Europe’ - it constantly fell short of that mythical ideal - and perhaps could never become part of it. Within Europe, the Russians lived with an inferiority complex. ‘Our attitude to Europe and the Europeans,’ Herzen wrote in the 1850s, ‘is still that of provincials towards the dwellers in a capital: we are servile and apologetic, take every difference for a defect, blush for our peculiarities and try to hide them.’147 Yet rejection by the West could equally engender feelings of resentment and superiority to it. If Russia could not become a part of ‘Europe’, it should take more pride in being ‘different’. In this nationalist mythology the ‘Russian soul’ was awarded a higher moral value than the material achievements of the West. It had a Christian mission to save the world.




7. Impact of the French Revolution


    Russia’s idealization of Europe was profoundly shaken by the French Revolution of 1789. The Jacobin reign of terror undermined Russia’s belief in Europe as a force of progress and enlightenment. ‘The “Age of Enlightenment”! I do not recognize you in blood and flames,’ Karamzin wrote with bitterness in 1795.148 It seemed to him, as to many of his outlook, that a wave of murder and destruction would ‘lay waste to Europe’, destroying the ‘centre of all art and science and the precious treasures of the human mind’.149 Perhaps history was a futile cycle, not a path of progress after all, in which ‘truth and error, virtue and vice, are constantly repeated’? Was it possible that ‘the human species had advanced so far, only to be compelled to fall back again into the depths of barbarism, like Sisyphus’ stone’?150


    Karamzin’s anguish was widely shared by the European Russians of his age. Brought up to believe that only good things came from France, his compatriots could now see only bad. Their worst fears appeared to be confirmed by the horror stories which they heard from the émigrés who had fled Paris for St Petersburg. The Russian government broke off relations with revolutionary France. Politically the once Francophile nobility became Francophobes, as ‘the French’ became a byword for inconstancy and godlessness, especially in Moscow and the provinces, where Russian political customs and attitudes had always mixed with foreign convention. In Petersburg, where the aristocracy was totally immersed in French culture, the reaction against France was more gradual and complicated - there were many liberal noblemen and patriots (like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace) who retained their pro-French and Napoleonic views even after Russia went to war with France in 1805. But even in the capital there was a conscious effort by the aristocracy to liberate themselves from the intellectual empire of the French. The use of Gallicisms became frowned upon in the salons of St Petersburg. Russian noblemen gave up Cliquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, haute cuisine for cabbage soup.

    In this search for a new life on ‘Russian principles’ the Enlightenment ideal of a universal culture was finally abandoned for the national way. ‘Let us Russians be Russians, not copies of the French’, wrote Princess Dashkova; ‘let us remain patriots and retain


the character of our ancestors’.151 Karamzin, too, renounced ‘humanity’ for ‘nationality’. Before the French Revolution he had held the view that ‘the main thing is to be, not Slavs, but men. What is good for Man, cannot be bad for the Russians; all that Englishmen or Germans have invented for the benefit of mankind belongs to me as well, because I am a man’.152 But by 1802 Karamzin was calling on his fellow writers to embrace the Russian language and ‘become themselves’:


Our language is capable not only of lofty eloquence, of sonorous descriptive poetry, but also of tender simplicity, of sounds of feeling and sensibility. It is richer in harmonies than French; it lends itself better to effusions of the soul… Man and nation may begin with imitation but in time they must become themselves to have the right to say: ‘I exist morally’.’153


    Here was the rallying cry of a new nationalism that flourished in the era of 1812.


Chapter Two: Children of 1812


Adolphe Ladurnier: View of the White Hall in the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, 1838


Chapter 2: Children of 1812

1. The Decembrists: Birth of the Intelligentsia/ Liberal Russian Nationalism
2. The Decembrist Revolt
3. Exile to Siberia
4. The Vogue for Russian Nationalism
5. Noble Childhood
6. Competing Myths of Russian History
7. Volkonsky’s Return from Exile and Emancipation

1. The Decembrists: Birth of the Intelligentsia/ Liberal Russian Nationalism

    At the height of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in August 1812, Prince Sergei Volkonsky was delivering a report to the Emperor Alexander in St Petersburg. Alexander asked the young aide-de-camp about the morale of the troops. ‘Your Majesty!’ the prince replied. ‘From the Supreme Commander to the ordinary soldier, every man is prepared to lay down his life in the patriotic cause.’ The Emperor asked the same about the common people’s mood, and again Volkonsky was full of confidence. ‘You should be proud of them. For every single peasant is a patriot.’ But when that question turned to the aristocracy, the prince remained silent. Prompted by the Emperor, Volkonsky at last said: ‘Your Majesty! I am ashamed to belong to that class. There have been only words.’ It was the defining moment of Volkonsky’s life - a life that tells the story of his country and his class in an era of national self-discovery.

    There were many officers who lost their pride in class but found their countrymen in the ranks of 1812. For princes like Volkonsky it must have been a shock to discover that the peasants were the nation’s patriots: as noblemen they had been brought up to revere the aristocracy as the ‘true sons of the fatherland’. Yet for some, like Volkonsky, this revelation was a sign of hope as well - the hope that in its serfs the nation had its future citizens. These liberal noblemen would stand up for ‘the nation’ and the ‘people’s cause’ in what would become known as the Decembrist uprising on 14 December 1825.* Their alliance with the peasant soldiers on the battlefields of 1812 had shaped their democratic attitudes. As one Decembrist later wrote, ‘we were the children of 1812’.2   

 * They shall be referred to here as the Decembrists, even though they did not gain that name until after 1825.

    Sergei Volkonsky was born in 1788 into one of Russia’s oldest noble families. The Volkonskys were descended from a fourteenth-century prince, Mikhail Chernigovsky, who had attained glory (and was later made a saint) for his part in Moscow’s war of liberation against the Mongol hordes, and had been rewarded with a chunk of land on the Volkona river, to the south of Moscow, from which the dynasty derived its name.3 As Moscow’s empire grew, the Volkonskys rose in status as military commanders and governors


in the service of its Grand Dukes and Tsars. By the 1800s the Volkonskys had become, if not the richest of the ancient noble clans, then certainly the closest to the Emperor Alexander and his family. Sergei’s mother, Princess Alexandra, was the Mistress of the Robes to the Dowager Empress, the widow of the murdered Emperor Paul, and as such the first non-royal lady of the Empire. She lived for the most part in the private apartments of the Imperial family at the Winter Palace and, in the summer, at Tsarskoe Selo (where the schoolboy poet Pushkin once caused a scandal by jumping on this cold and forbidding woman whom he had mistaken for her pretty French companion Josephine). Sergei’s uncle, General Paul Volkonsky, was a close companion of the Emperor Alexander and, under his successor Nicholas I, was appointed Minister of the Court, in effect the head of the royal household, a post he held for over twenty years. His brother Nikita was married to a woman, Zinaida Volkonsky, who became a maid of honour at Alexander’s court and (perhaps less honourably) the Emperor’s mistress. His sister Sophia was on first name terms with all the major European sovereigns. At the Volkonsky house in Petersburg - a handsome mansion on the Moika river where Pushkin rented rooms on the lower floor - there was a china service that had been presented to her by the King of England, George IV. ‘That was not the present of a king,’ Sophia liked to say, ‘but the gift of a man to a woman.’4 She was married to the Emperor’s closest friend, Prince Pyotr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, who rose to become his general chief-of-staff.

    Sergei himself had practically grown up as an extended member of the Imperial family. He was educated at the Abbot Nicola’s on the Fontanka, an institute established by the émigrés from France and patronized by the most fashionable families of Petersburg. From there he graduated to the Corps des Pages, the most elite of the military schools, from which, naturally, he joined the Guards. At the battle of Eylau in 1807 the young cornet was wounded by a bullet in his side. Thanks to his mother’s lobbying, he was transferred to the Imperial staff in St Petersburg, where he joined a select group of glamorous young men - the aides-de-camp to the Emperor. The Tsar was fond


of the serious young man with charming manners and softly spoken views, even though his idol-worship of Napoleon - a cult shared at that time by many noblemen (like Pierre Bezukhov at the start of War and Peace) - was frowned upon at court. He called him ‘Monsieur Serge’, to distinguish him from his three brothers (who were also aides-de-camp) and the other Volkonskys in his entourage.5 The prince dined with the Emperor every day. He was one of the few who were permitted to enter the Emperor’s private apartments unannounced. The Grand Duke Nicholas - later to become Tsar Nicholas I - who was nine years younger than Sergei, would, as a boy, ask the aide-decamp to position his toy soldiers in the formation of Napoleon’s armies at Austerlitz.6 Two decades later he sent his playmate to Siberia.

    In 1808 Volkonsky returned to the army in the field and, in the course of the next four years, he took part in over fifty battles, rising by the age of twenty-four to the rank of major-general. Napoleon’s invasion shook the Prince from the pro-French views he had held in common with much of the Petersburg elite. It stirred in him a new sense of ‘the nation’ that was based upon the virtues of the common folk. The patriotic spirit of the ordinary people in 1812 - the heroism of the soldiers, the burning-down of Moscow to save it from the French, and the peasant partisans who forced the Grande Armee to hurry back to Europe through the snow - all these were the signs, it seemed to him, of a national reawakening. ‘Russia has been honoured by its peasant soldiers,’ he wrote to his brother from the body-littered battlefield of Borodino on 26 August 1812. ‘They may be only serfs, but these men have fought like citizens for their motherland.’7

    He was not alone in entertaining democratic thoughts. Volkonsky’s friend (and fellow Decembrist), the poet Fedor Glinka, was equally impressed by the patriotic spirit of the common folk. In his Letters of a Russian Officer (1815) he compared the serfs (who were ‘ready to defend their motherland with scythes’) with the aristocracy (who ‘ran off to their estates’ as the French approached Moscow).8 Many officers came to recognize the peasant’s moral worth. ‘Every day,’ wrote one, ‘I meet peasant soldiers who are just as good and rational as any nobleman. These simple men have not yet been corrupted by the absurd conventions of our society, and they have their


own moral ideas which are just as good.’9 Here, it seemed, was the spiritual potential for a national liberation and spiritual rebirth. ‘If only we could find a common language with these men’, wrote one of the future Decembrists, ‘they would quickly understand the rights and duties of a citizen.’10

    Nothing in the background of these officers had prepared them for the shock of this discovery. As noblemen they had been brought up to regard their fathers’ serfs as little more than human beasts devoid of higher virtues and sensibilities. But in the war they were suddenly thrown into the peasants’ world: they lived in their villages, they shared their food and fears with the common soldiers, and at times, when they were wounded or lost without supplies, they depended on those soldiers’ know-how to survive. As their respect for the common people grew, they adopted a more humanitarian approach to the men under their command. ‘We rejected the harsh discipline of the old system,’ recalled Volkonsky, ‘and tried through friendship with our men to win their love and trust.’11 Some set up field schools to teach the soldiers how to read. Others brought them into discussion circles where they talked about the abolition of serfdom and social justice for the peasantry. A number of future Decembrists drew up ‘army constitutions’ and other proposals to better the conditions of the soldiers in the ranks. These documents, which were based on a close study of the soldier’s way of life, may be seen as embryonic versions of the ethnographic works which so preoccupied the Slavophile and democratic intelligentsia in the 1830s and 1840s. Volkonsky, for example, wrote a detailed set of ‘Notes on the Life of the Cossacks in Our Battalions’, in which he proposed a series of progressive measures (such as loans from the state bank, communal stores of grain and the establishment of public schools) to improve the lot of the poorer Cossacks and lessen their dependence on the richer ones.12

    After the war these democratic officers returned to their estates with a new sense of commitment to their serfs. Many, like Volkonsky, paid for the upkeep of the soldiers’ orphaned sons on their estates, or, like him, gave money for the education of those serfs who had shown their potential in the ranks of 1812.13 Between 1818 and 1821 Count Mikhail Orlov and Vladimir Raevsky, both members of the Union of Welfare out of which the Decembrist conspiracy would evolve, established schools for soldiers in which they


disseminated radical ideas of political reform. The benevolence of some of these former officers was extraordinary. Pavel Semenov dedicated himself to the welfare of his serfs with the fervour of a man who owed his life to them. At the battle of Borodino, a bullet hit the icon which he had been given by his soldiers and had worn around his neck. Semenov organized a clinic for his serfs, and turned his palace into a sanctuary for war widows and their families. He died from cholera in 1830 - an illness he contracted from the peasants in his house.14

    For some officers it was not enough to identify themselves with the common people’s cause: they wanted to take on the identity of common men themselves. They Russified their dress and behaviour in an effort to move closer to the soldiers in the ranks. They used Russian words in their military speech. They smoked the same tobacco as their men; and in contravention of the Petrine ban, they grew beards. To some extent such democratization was necessary. Denis Davydov, the celebrated leader of the Cossack partisans, had found it very hard to raise recruits in the villages: the peasants saw his glittering Hussar uniform as alien and ‘French’. Davydov was forced, as he noted in his diary, to ‘conclude a peace with the villagers’ before he could even speak to them. ‘I learned that in a people’s war it is not enough to speak the common tongue: one must also step down to the people’s level in one’s manners and one’s dress. I began to wear a peasant’s kaftan, I grew a beard, and instead of the Order of St Anne, I wore the image of St Nicholas.’15 But the adoption of these peasant ways was more than just a strategy of quick-thinking officers. It was a declaration of their nationality.

    Volkonsky took command of a partisan brigade and pursued Napoleon’s troops as far as Paris during 1813-14. The next year, with 20,000 roubles in his chest, a carriage and three servants provided by his mother, he travelled to Vienna for the Peace Congress. He then returned to Paris, where he moved in the circles of the political reformers Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant, and went on to London, where he saw the principles of constitutional monarchy in operation as he watched the House of Commons discuss the lunacy of George III. Volkonsky had planned to go to the United States - ‘a country that had captured the imagination of all Russian youth because of its independence and democracy’ - but the resumption of the war with Napoleon’s escape from Elba obliged him to return to Petersburg.16


None the less, like those of many Decembrists, Volkonsky’s views had been deeply influenced by his brief encounter with the West. It confirmed his conviction in the personal dignity of every human being - an essential credo of the Decembrists which lay at the foundation of their opposition to the autocratic system and serfdom. It formed his belief in meritocracy - a view strengthened by his conversations with Napoleon’s officers, who impressed him with their free thought and confidence. How many Neys and Davouts had been stifled by the rigid caste system of the Russian army? Europe made him think of Russia’s backwardness, of its lack of basic rights or public life, and helped him focus his attention on the need to follow Europe’s liberal principles.

    The young officers who came back from Europe were virtually unrecognizable to their parents. The Russia they returned to in 1815 was much the same as the Russia they had left. But they had greatly changed. Society was shocked by their ‘rude peasant manners’.17 And no doubt there was something of a pose - the swagger of the veteran - in these army ways. But they differed from their elders in far more than their manners and dress. They also differed from them in their artistic tastes and interests, their politics and general attitudes: they turned their backs on the frivolous diversions of the ballroom (though not their own revelry) and immersed themselves in serious pursuits. As one explained: ‘We had taken part in the greatest events of history, and it was unbearable to return to the vacuous existence of St Petersburg, to listen to the idle chatter of old men about the so-called virtues of the past. We had advanced a hundred years.’18 As Pushkin wrote in his verse ‘To Chaadaev’ in 1821:

The fashionable circle is no longer in fashion.
You know, my dear, we’re all free men now.
We keep away from society; don’t mingle with the ladies.
We’ve left them at the mercy of old men,
The dear old boys of the eighteenth century.19


    Dancing, in particular, was regarded as a waste of time. The men of 1812 wore their swords at formal balls to signal their refusal to take part. The salon was rejected as a form of artifice. Young men retreated to their studies and, like Pierre in War and Peace, went in search of the intellectual key to a simpler and more truthful existence. Together, the Decembrists formed a veritable ‘university’. Between them they had an encyclopaedic range of expertise, from folklore, history and archaeology to mathematics and the natural sciences, and they published many learned works, as well as poetry and literature, in the leading journals of their day.

    The alienation felt by these young men from their parents’ generation and society was common to all ‘children of 1812’, poets and philosophers as well as officers. It left a profound imprint on the cultural life of Russia in the nineteenth century. The ‘men of the last century’ were defined by the service ethic of the Petrine state. They set great store by rank and hierarchy, order and conformity to rational rules. Alexander Herzen - who was actually born in 1812 - recalled how his father disapproved of all emotional display. ‘My father disliked every sort of abandon, every sort of frankness; all this he called familiarity, just as he called every feeling sentimentality.’20 But the children who grew up in Herzen’s age were all impulsiveness and familiarity. They rebelled against the old disciplinarianism, blaming it for ‘Russia’s slave mentality’, and they looked instead to advance their principles through literature and art.21 Many withdrew from the military or civil service with the aim of leading a more honest life. As Chatsky put it, in Griboedov’s drama Woe from Wit, ‘I’d love to serve, but I am sickened by servility.’

    It is hard to overstate the extent to which the Russian cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century entailed a revolt against the service ethic of the eighteenth century. In the established view, rank quite literally defined the nobleman: unlike all other languages, the word in Russian for an official (chinovnik) derived from that for rank (chin). To be a nobleman was to take one’s place in the service of the state, either as a civil servant or as an officer; and to leave that service, even to become a poet or an artist, was regarded as a fall from grace. ‘Service now in Russia is the same as life’, wrote one official in the 1810s: ‘we leave our offices as if we are going to our graves.’22 It was inconceivable for a nobleman to be an artist or a poet, except in his spare time after office work, or as a gentleman enthusiast on his estate. Even the great eighteenth-century poet Gavril Derzhavin combined his writing with a military career, followed by appointments as a senator and provincial governor, before ending up as Minister of Justice in 1802-3.


    During the early nineteenth century, as the market for books and painting grew, it became possible, if not easy, for the independent writer or artist to survive. Pushkin was one of the first noblemen to shun the service and take up writing as a ‘trade’; his decision was seen as derogation or breaking of ranks. The writer N. I. Grech was accused of bringing shame upon his noble family when he left the civil service to become a literary critic in the 1810s.23 Music too was thought unsuitable as a profession for the nobleman. Rimsky-Korsakov was pushed into the naval service by his parents, who looked upon his music ‘as a prank’.24 Musorgsky was sent to the Cadet School in Petersburg and was then enrolled in the Preobrazhensky Guards. Tchaikovsky went to the School of Jurisprudence where his family expected him to graduate to the civil service and not forget but put away his childish passion for music. For the nobleman to become an artist, then, was to reject the traditions of his class. He had, in effect, to reinvent himself as an ‘intelligent’ - a member of the intelligentsia - whose duty was defined as service to ‘the nation’ rather than to the state.

    Only two of the great nineteenth-century Russian writers (Goncharov and Saltykov-Shchedrin) ever held high rank in the government service, although nearly all of them were noblemen. Goncharov was a censor. But Saltykov-Shchedrin was a tireless critic of the government, and as a vice-governor and a writer he always took the side of the ‘little man’. It was axiomatic to this literary tradition that the writer should stand up for human values against the service ethic based on rank. Thus in Gogol’s ‘The Diary of a Madman’ (1835), the literary lunatic, a humble councillor, ridicules a senior official: ‘And what if he is a gentleman of the court? It’s only a kind of distinction conferred on you, not something that you can see, or touch with your hands. A court chamberlain doesn’t have a third eye in the middle of his forehead.’ Similarly, in Chekhov’s story ‘Abolished!’ (1891) we are meant to laugh at the retired major (Izhits) who is thrown into confusion by the abolition of his former rank: ‘God knows who I am,’ the old major says. ‘They abolished all the majors a year ago!’25


    Unwilling to conform to their fathers’ rules and bored by the routines of the civil service, the young men of Pushkin’s generation sought release in poetry, philosophy and drunken revelry. As Silvio remarks in Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (1831), wild behaviour ‘was the fashion in our day’.26 Carousing was perceived as a sign of freedom, an assertion of the individual spirit against the regimentation of the army and bureaucracy. Volkonsky and his fellow officers demonstrated their independence from the deferential customs of high society by mocking those who followed the Emperor and his family on their Sunday promenades around St Petersburg.27 Another officer, the Decembrist Mikhail Lunin, was well known for his displays of free will. On one occasion he turned his brilliant wit against a general who had forbidden his officers to ‘offend propriety’ by bathing in the sea at Peterhof, a fashionable resort on the Gulf of Finland near St Petersburg where there was a garrison. One hot afternoon Lunin waited for the general to approach. He leapt into the water fully clothed, and stood at attention and saluted him. The bewildered general asked what this was all about. ‘I am swimming,’ Lunin said, ‘and so as not to disobey Your Excellency’s order, I am swimming in a manner not to offend propriety.’28

    The young men of the Decembrist circles spent much time in revelry. Some, like the serious Volkonsky, disapproved. But others, like Pushkin and his friends of the Green Lamp, a loose symposium of libertines and poets, saw the fight for freedom as a carnival. They found liberty in a mode of life and art that dispensed with the stifling conventions of society.29 When they were playing cards or drinking and debating with their friends, they were able to relax and express themselves, ‘as Russians’, in the easy language of the street. This was the idiom of much of Pushkin’s verse - a style that fused the language of politics and philosophical thought with the vocabulary of intimate emotion and the crude colloquialisms of the whorehouse and the inn.

    Friendship was the saving grace of these wild orgies, according to Pushkin:

For one can live in friendship
With verses and with cards,

with Plato and with wine,
And hide beneath the gentle cover

of our playful pranks
A noble heart and mind.30


    Volkonsky said the same of his fellow officers. They happily transgressed the public code of decency, but in their dealings with each other they kept themselves in moral check through the ‘bonds of comradeship’.31 There was a cult of brotherhood in the Decembrist camp. It evolved into the cult of the collective which would become so important to the political life of the Russian intelligentsia. The spirit was first forged in the regiment - a natural ‘family’ of patriots. Nikolai Rostov in War and Peace discovers this community on his return from leave.

Suddenly he felt for the first time how close was the bond that united him to Denisov and the whole regiment. On approaching [the camp] Rostov felt as he had done when approaching his home in Moscow. When he saw the first hussar with the unbuttoned uniform of his regiment, when he recognized red-haired Dementyev and saw the picket ropes of the roan horses, when Lavrushka gleefully shouted to his master, ‘The Count has come!’ and Denisov, who had been asleep on his bed, ran all dishevelled out of the mud hut to embrace him, and the officers collected round to greet the new arrival, Rostov experienced the same feeling as when his mother, his father, and his sister had embraced him, and tears of joy choked him so that he could not speak. The regiment was also a home, and as unalterably dear and precious as his parents’ house.32

    Through such bonds young officers began to break away from the rigid hierarchies of the service state. They felt themselves to belong to a new community - a ‘nation’, if you will - of patriotic virtue and fraternity where the noble and the peasant lived in harmony. The nineteenth-century quest for Russian nationhood began in the ranks of 1812.

    This outlook was shared by all the cultural figures in the orbit of the Decembrists: not just by those in its leading ranks, but by those, more numerous, who sympathized with the Decembrists without actively engaging in plans for a rebellion (‘Decembrists without December’). Most of the poets among them (Gnedich, Vostokov, Merzliakov, Odoevsky and Ryleev, though less so Pushkin) were preoccupied with civic themes. Renouncing the aesthetics and the frivolous concerns of Karamzin’s salon style, they wrote epic verses in a suitably spartan style. Many of them compared the soldiers’ bravery in the recent wars to the heroic deeds of ancient Greece and Rome.


    Some monumentalized the peasants’ daily toil; they raised it to the status of patriotic sacrifice. The duty of the poet, as they saw it, was to be a citizen, to dedicate himself to the national cause. Like all the men of 1812, they saw their work as part of a democratic mission to learn about and educate the common people so as to unite society on Russian principles. They rejected the Enlightenment idea that ‘all the nations should become the same’ and, in the words of one critic, called on ‘all our writers to reflect the character of the Russian folk’.33

    Pushkin holds a special place in that enterprise. He was too young - just thirteen in 1812 - to fight against the French, but as a schoolboy at the lycee he watched the Guards from the garrison at Tsarskoe Selo march off to war. The memory remained with him throughout his life:

You’ll recollect: the wars soon swept us by,
We bade farewell to all our elder brothers,
And went back to our desks with all the others,
In envy of all those who had gone to die
Without us…34

    Though Pushkin, unlike them, had never been to Europe, he breathed the European air. As a boy he had immersed himself in the French books of his father’s library. His first verse (written at the age of eight) was composed in French. Later he discovered Byron’s poetry. This European heritage was strengthened by the years he spent between 1812 and 1817 at the lycee at Tsarskoe Selo - a school modelled on the Napoleonic lycees that drew heavily on the curriculum of the English public schools, stressing the humanities: classical and modern languages, literature, philosophy and history. The cult of friendship was strong at the lycee. The friendships he formed there strengthened Pushkin’s sense of European Russia as a spiritual sphere:

My friends, our union is wondrous!
Like a soul, it will last for eternity -
Undivided, spontaneous and joyous,
Blessed by the muse of fraternity.
Whatever partings destiny may bring,
Whatever fortunes fate may have in hand,
We are still the same: the world to us an alien thing,
And Tsarskoe Selo our Fatherland.35


    Yet, for all his Western inclinations, Pushkin was a poet with a Russian voice. Neglected by his parents, he was practically brought up by his peasant nurse, whose tales and songs became a lifelong inspiration for his verse. He loved folk tales and he often went to country fairs to pick up peasant stories and turns of phrase which he then incorporated in his poetry. Like the officers of 1812, he felt that the landowner’s obligation as the guardian of his serfs was more important than his duty to the state.36

    He felt this obligation as a writer, too, and looked to shape a written language that could speak to everyone. The Decembrists made this a central part of their philosophy. They called for laws to be written in a language ‘that every citizen can understand’.37 They attempted to create a Russian lexicon of politics to replace imported words. Glinka called for a history of the war of 1812 to be written in a language that was ‘plain and clear and comprehensible by people of all classes, because people of all classes took part in the liberation of our motherland’.38 The creation of a national language seemed to the veterans of 1812 a means of fostering the spirit of the battlefield and of forging a new nation with the common man. ‘To know our people’, wrote the Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, ‘one has to live with them and talk with them in their language, one has to eat with them and celebrate with them on their feast days, go bear-hunting with them in the woods, or travel to the market on a peasant cart.’39 Pushkin’s verse was the first to make this link. It spoke to the widest readership, to the literate peasant and the prince, in a common Russian tongue. It was Pushkin’s towering achievement to create this national language through his verse.


2. The Decembrist Revolt

    Volkonsky returned to Russia in 1815 and took up the command of the Azov regiment in the Ukraine. Like all the Decembrists, he was deeply disillusioned by the reactionary turn taken by the Emperor Alexander, on whom he had pinned his liberal hopes. In the first years of his reign (1801-12) Alexander had passed a series of political reforms: censorship was immediately relaxed; the Senate was promoted to the supreme judicial and administrative institution in the Empire -an important counterbalance to the personal power of the sovereign; a more modern system of government began to take shape with the establishment of eight new ministries and an upper legislative chamber (the State Council) modelled on Napoleon’s Conseil d’Etat. There were even some preliminary measures to encourage noblemen to emancipate their serfs. To the liberal officers, Alexander seemed like one of them: a man of progressive and enlightened views.

    The Emperor appointed his adviser Mikhail Speransky to draw up plans for a constitution that was largely based on the Code Napoleon. Had Speransky got his way, Russia would have moved toward becoming a constitutional monarchy governed by a law-based bureaucratic state. But Alexander hesitated to implement his minister’s proposals and, once Russia went to war with France, they were condemned by the conservative nobility, which mistrusted them because they were ‘French’. Speransky fell from power - to be replaced by General Arakcheev, the Minister of War, as the outstanding influence on Alexander’s reign in its second half, from 1812 to 1825. The harsh regime of Arakcheev’s military settlements, where serf soldiers were dragooned into farming and other labour duties for the state, enraged the men of 1812, whose liberal sympathies had been born of respect for the soldiers in the ranks. When the Emperor, against their opposition, persevered with the military camps and put down the peasants’ resistance with a brutal massacre, the Decembrists were enraged. ‘The forcible imposition of the so-called military colonies was received with amazement and hostility’, recalled Baron Vladimir Steigel. ‘Does history show anything similar to this sudden seizure of entire villages, this taking over of the houses of peaceful cultivators, this expropriation of everything which they and their forefathers earned and their involuntary transformation into soldiers?’40 These officers had marched to Paris in the hope that Russia would become a modern European state. They had dreamed of a constitution where every Russian peasant would enjoy the rights of a citizen. But they came back disappointed men - to a Russia where the peasant was still treated as a slave. As Volkonsky wrote, to return to Russia after Paris and London ‘felt like going back to a prehistoric past’.41


    The prince fell into the circle of Mikhail Orlov, an old school friend and fellow officer from 1812, who was well connected to the main Decembrist leaders in the south. At this stage the Decembrist movement was a small and secret circle of conspirators. It began in 1816, when six young Guards officers formed what they initially called the Union of Salvation, a clandestine organization committed to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and a national parliament. From the start the officers were divided over how to bring this end about: some wanted to wait for the Tsar to die, whereupon they would refuse to swear their oath of allegiance to the next Tsar unless he put his name to their reforms (they would not break the oath they had already sworn to the present Tsar); but Alexander was not even forty years of age and some hotheads like Mikhail Lunin favoured the idea of regicide. In 1818 the society broke up - its more moderate members immediately regrouping as the Union of Welfare, with a rather vague programme of educational and philanthropic activities but no clear plan of action for revolt, although Count Orlov, a leading member of the Union, organized a brave petition to the Tsar calling for the abolition of serfdom. Pushkin, who had friends in the Decembrist camp, characterized their conspiracy as no more than a game in these immortal (but, in Tsarist times, unpublishable) lines intended for his novel Eugene Onegin, whose action was set in 1819:

‘Twas all mere idle chatter
‘Twixt Chateau-Lafite and Veuve Cliquot.

Friendly disputes, epigrams
Penetrating none too deep.
This science of sedition
Was just the fruit of boredom, of idleness,
The pranks of grown-up naughty boys.42

    Without a plan for insurrection, the Union concentrated on developing its loose network of cells in Petersburg and Moscow, Kiev, Kishinev and other provincial garrison towns like Tulchin, the headquarters of the Second Army, where Volkonsky was an active


member. Volkonsky had entered Orlov’s conspiracy through the Masonic Lodge in Kiev - a common means of entry into the Decembrist movement - where he also met the young Decembrist leader, Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Pestel.

    Like Volkonsky, Pestel was the son of a provincial governor in western Siberia (their fathers were good friends).43 He had fought with distinction at Borodino, had marched to Paris, and had returned to Russia with his head full of European learning and ideals. Pushkin, who met Pestel in 1821, said that he was ‘one of the most original minds I have ever met’.44 Pestel was the most radical of the Decembrist leaders. Charismatic and domineering, he was clearly influenced by the Jacobins. In his manifesto Russian Truth he called for the Tsar’s overthrow, the establishment of a revolutionary republic (by means of a temporary dictatorship if necessary), and the abolition of serfdom. He envisaged a nation state ruling in the interests of the Great Russians. The other national groups - the Finns, the Georgians, the Ukrainians, and so on - would be forced to dissolve their differences and ‘become Russian’. Only the Jews were beyond assimilation and, Pestel thought, should be expelled from Russia. Such attitudes were commonplace among the Decembrists as they struggled in their minds to reform the Russian Empire on the model of the European nation states. Even Volkonsky, a man of relatively enlightened views, referred to the Jews as ‘little yids’.45

    By 1825 Pestel had emerged as the chief organizer of an insurrection against the Tsar. He had a small but committed band of followers in the Southern Society, which had replaced the Union of Salvation in the south, and an ill-conceived plan to arrest the Tsar during his inspection of the troops near Kiev in 1826, and then march on Moscow and, with the help of his allies in the Northern Society in St Petersburg, seize power. Pestel brought Volkonsky into his conspiracy, placing him in charge of coordinating links with the Northern Society and with the Polish nationalists, who agreed to join the movement in exchange for independence should they succeed. The Northern Society was dominated by two men: Nikita Muraviev, a young Guards officer in 1812, who had built up good connections at the court; and the poet Ryleev, who attracted officers and liberal bureaucrats to his ‘Russian lunches’, where cabbage soup and rye bread were served up in preference to European dishes, vodka toasts were drunk to Russia’s liberation from the foreign-dominated


court, and revolutionary songs were sung. The Northern Society’s political demands were more moderate than those of Pestel’s group - a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and civil liberties. Volkonsky shuttled between Petersburg and Kiev, mustering support for Pestel’s planned revolt. ‘I have never been so happy as I was at that time’, he later wrote. ‘I took pride in the knowledge that I was doing something for the people - I was liberating them from tyranny.’46 Although he was in love with, and then married to, Maria Raevsky, he saw very little of his beautiful young bride.

    Maria was the daughter of General Raevsky, a famous hero of 1812 who had even been praised by Napoleon. Born in 1805, Maria met Volkonsky when she was seventeen; she had extraordinary grace and beauty for her years. Pushkin called her the ‘daughter of the Ganges’ on account of her dark hair and colouring. The poet was a friend of the Raevskys and had travelled with the general and his family to the Crimea and the Caucasus. As one might expect, Pushkin fell in love with Maria. He often fell in love with beautiful young girls - but this time it was serious, judging by the frequency with which Maria appeared in his poetry. At least two of Pushkin’s heroines - Princess Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1822) and the young Circassian girl in The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1820-21) - had been inspired by her. It is perhaps significant that both are tales of unrequited love. The memory of Maria playing in the waves in the Crimea inspired him to write in Eugene Onegin:

How I envied the waves -
Those rushing tides in tumult tumbling
To fall about her feet like slaves!
I longed to join the waves in pressing
Upon those feet these lips… caressing.47

    Volkonsky was given the task of recruiting Pushkin to the conspiracy. Pushkin belonged to the broad cultural circles of the Decembrists and had many friends in the conspiracy (he later claimed that, had it not been for a hare that crossed his path and made him superstitious about travelling, he might well have gone to Petersburg to join his friends on Senate Square). As it was, he had been banished to his estate at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov, because his poetry had inspired them:


There will rise, believe me, comrade
A star of captivating bliss, when
Russia wakes up from her sleep
And when our names will both be written
On the ruins of despotism.48

    It seems, however, that Volkonsky was afraid of exposing the great poet to the risks involved - so he did not carry out this promise to Pestel. In any case, as Volkonsky no doubt knew, Pushkin was so famous for his indiscretion, and so well connected at court, that he would have been a liability.49 Rumours of an uprising were already circulating around St Petersburg, so, in all likelihood, the Emperor Alexander knew about the Decembrists’ plans. Volkonsky certainly thought so. During an inspection of his regiment, the Emperor gently warned him: ‘Pay more attention to your troops and a little less to my government, which, I am sorry to say, my dear prince, is none of your business.’50

    The insurrection had been scheduled for the late summer of 1826. But these plans were hastily brought forward by the Emperor’s sudden death and the succession crisis caused by the refusal of the Grand Duke Constantine to accept the throne in December 1825. Pestel resolved to seize the moment for revolt, and with Volkonsky he travelled up from Kiev to St Petersburg for noisy arguments with the Northern society about the means and timing of the uprising. The problem was how to muster the support of the ordinary troops, who showed no inclination towards either regicide or armed revolt. The conspirators had only the vaguest notion of how to go about this task. They thought of the uprising as a military putsch, carried out by order from above; as its commanding officers, they based their strategy on the idea that they could somehow call upon their old alliance with the soldiers. They rejected the initiatives of some fifty junior officers, sons of humble clerks and small landowners, whose organization, the United Slavs, had called upon the senior leaders to agitate for an uprising among the soldiers and the peasantry. ‘Our soldiers are good and simple’, explained one of the Decembrist leaders. ‘They don’t think much and should serve merely as instruments in attaining our goals.’51 Volkonsky shared this attitude. ‘I am convinced that I will carry my brigade’, he wrote to a friend on the eve of the revolt, ‘for the simple reason that I have my soldiers’ trust and love. Once the uprising commences they will follow my command.’52


    In the end, the Decembrist leaders carried with them only some 3,000 troops in Petersburg - far less than the hoped-for 20,000 men, but still enough perhaps to bring about a change of government if well organized and resolute. But that they were not. On 14 December, in garrisons throughout the capital, soldiers were assembled for the ceremony of swearing an oath of allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas I. The 3,000 mutineers refused to swear their oath and, with flags unfurled and drums beating, marched to Senate Square, where they thronged in front of the Bronze Horseman and called for ‘Constantine and a Constitution’. Two days earlier, Nicholas had decided to take the crown when Constantine had made it clear that he would not. Constantine had a large following among the soldiers, and when the Decembrist leaders heard the news, they sent out leaflets misinforming them that Nicholas had usurped the throne, and calling on them to ‘fight for their liberty and human dignity’. Most of the soldiers who appeared on Senate Square had no idea what a ‘constitution’ was (some thought it was the wife of Constantine). They displayed no inclination to capture the Senate or the Winter Palace, as envisaged in the hasty plans of the conspirators. For five hours the soldiers stood in freezing temperatures, until Nicholas, assuming the command of his loyal troops, ordered them to commence firing against the mutineers. Sixty soldiers were shot down; the rest ran away.

    Within hours the ringleaders of the insurrection had all been arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress (the police had known who they were all along). The conspirators might still have had some chance of success in the south, where it was possible to combine with the Poles in a march on Kiev, and where the main revolutionary forces (something in the region of 60,000 troops) were massed in garrisons. But the officers who had previously declared their support for an uprising were now so shocked by the events in Petersburg that they dared not act. Volkonsky found only one officer who was prepared to join him in the call for a revolt, and in the end, the few hundred troops who marched on Kiev on 3 January were easily dispersed by the government’s artillery.53 Volkonsky was arrested two days later, while on his way to Petersburg to see Maria one last time. The police had an arrest warrant signed in person by the Tsar.


    Five hundred Decembrists were arrested and interrogated, but most of them were released in the next few weeks, once they had provided evidence for the prosecution of the main leaders. At their trial, the first show trial in Russian history, 121 conspirators were found guilty of treason, stripped of their noble titles and sent as convict labourers to Siberia. Pestel and Ryleev were hanged with three others in a grotesque scene in the courtyard of the Fortress, even though officially the death penalty had been abolished in Russia. When the five were strung up on the gallows and the floor traps were released, three of the condemned proved too heavy for their ropes and, still alive, fell down into the ditch. ‘What a wretched country!’ cried out one of them. ‘They don’t even know how to hang properly.’54

    Of all the Decembrists, none was closer to the court than Volkonsky. His mother, the Princess Alexandra, could be found in the Winter Palace, smiling in attendance on the Dowager Empress, at the same time as he sat, just across the Neva river in the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prisoner detained at His Majesty’s pleasure. Nicholas was harsh on Volkonsky. Perhaps he felt betrayed by the man he had once played with as a boy. Thanks to the intervention of his mother, Volkonsky was spared the death sentence handed down to the other leaders. But twenty years of penal labour followed by a lifetime of compulsory settlement in Siberia was a draconian enough punishment. The prince was stripped of his noble title and all his medals from the battlefields of the wars against France. He lost control of all his lands and serfs. Henceforth his children would officially belong to the category of ‘state peasants’.55

    Count Alexander Benckendorff, the Chief of Police who sent him into exile, was an old school friend of Volkonsky. The two men had been fellow officers in 1812. Nothing better illustrates the nature of the Petersburg nobility, a small society of clans in which everybody knew each other, and most families were related in some way.* Hence the shame the Volkonskys felt on Sergei’s disgrace. None the less, it is hard to comprehend their attempt to erase his memory.

    * In 1859 Volkonsky’s son Misha would marry the granddaughter of Count Benckendorff. One of his cousins would marry Benckendorff’s daughter (S. M. Volkonskii, O dekabristakh: po semeinum vospominaniiam, p. 114).


    Sergei’s elder brother, Nikolai Repnin, disowned him altogether, and in the long years Volkonsky spent in Siberia he never sent him a single letter. A typical courtier, Nikolai was worried that the Tsar might not forgive him if he wrote to an exile (as if the Tsar was incapable of understanding the feelings of a brother). Such small-minded attitudes were symptomatic of an aristocracy which had been brought up to defer all values to the court. Sergei’s mother, too, put her loyalty to the Tsar before her own feelings for her son. She attended the coronation of Nicholas I and received the diamond brooch of the Order of St Catherine on the same day as Sergei, with heavy chains around his feet, began the long journey to Siberia. An old-fashioned lady of the court, Princess Alexandra had always been a stickler for ‘correct behaviour’. The next day she retired to her bed and stayed there, crying inconsolably. ‘I only hope,’ she would tell her visitors, ‘that there will be no other monsters in the family.’56 She did not write to her son for several years. Sergei was profoundly wounded by his mother’s rejection: it contributed to his own rejection of the mores and the values of the aristocracy. In his mother’s view, Sergei’s civil death was a literal death as well. ‘Il n’ya plus de Serge,’ the old princess would tell her courtly friends. ‘These words’, Sergei wrote in one of his last letters in 1865, ‘haunted me throughout my life in exile. They were not just meant to satisfy her conscience but to justify her own betrayal of me.’57

    Maria’s family was just as unforgiving. They blamed her for her marriage and attempted to persuade her to use her right to petition for its annulment. They had reason to suppose that she might do so. Maria had a newborn son to think about and it was far from clear whether she would be allowed to take him with her if she followed Sergei to Siberia. Besides, she did not appear to be entirely happy in the marriage. During the past year - only the first year of their marriage - she had hardly seen her husband, who was absent in the south and preoccupied with the conspiracy, and she had complained to her family that she found the situation ‘quite unbearable’.58 Yet Maria chose to share her husband’s fate. She gave up everything and followed Sergei to Siberia. Warned by the Tsar that she would have to leave her son behind, Maria wrote to him: ‘My son is happy but my husband is unhappy and he needs me more.'


    It is hard to say exactly what was in Maria’s mind. When she made her choice she did not realize that she would be stripped of the right to return to Russia if she followed Sergei - she was told only when she reached Irkutsk, on the border between Russia and the penal region of Siberia - so it is possible that she was expecting to return to Petersburg. That indeed was what her father thought. But would she have turned back if she had known? Maria acted out of her sense of duty as a wife. Sergei appealed to this when he wrote to her from the Peter and Paul Fortress on the eve of his departure for Siberia. ‘You yourself must decide what to do. I am placing you in a cruel situation, but chere amie, I cannot bear the sentence of eternal separation from my lawful wife.’60 Such a sense of duty was ingrained in Maria by her noble upbringing. Romantic love, though by no means uncommon, was not a high priority in the conjugal relations of the early nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy. And nor does it seem to have played a major role in Maria’s decision. In this sense she was very different from Alexandra Muraviev, the wife of the Decembrist Nikita Muraviev, who came from a rather less aristocratic background than Maria Volkonsky. It was romantic love that compelled Alexandra to give up everything for a life of penal exile in Siberia - she even claimed that it was her ‘sin’ to ‘love my Nikitishchina more than I love God’.61 Maria’s conduct, by contrast, was conditioned by the cultural norms of a society in which it was not unusual for a noblewoman to follow her husband to Siberia. Convoys of prisoners were frequently accompanied by carts carrying their wives and children into voluntary exile.62 There was a custom, moreover, for the families of officers to go along with them on military campaigns. Wives would speak about ‘our regiment’ or ‘our brigade’ and, in the words of one contemporary, ‘they were always ready to share in all the dangers of their husbands, and lay down their lives’.63 Maria’s father, General Raevsky, took his wife and children on his main campaigns - until his young son was injured when a bullet pierced his breeches as he gathered berries near the battlefield.64

    It has also been suggested that Maria was responding to the literary cult of heroic sacrifice.65 She had read Ryleev’s poem ‘Natalia Dolgorukaya’ (1821-3), which may indeed have served as the moral inspiration for her own behaviour. The poem was based on the true story of a young princess, the favourite daughter of Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev, who had followed her husband, Prince Ivan Dolgoruky, to Siberia when he was banished there by the Empress Anna in 1730.*

    *Allowed to return to St Petersburg in the 1730s, Natalia Dolgorukaya became the first woman in Russian history to write her memoirs.


I have forgotten my native city,
Wealth, honours, and family name
To share with him Siberia’s cold
And endure the inconstancy of fate.66

    Maria’s doting father was convinced that the reason she followed Sergei to Siberia was not because she was ‘a wife in love’ but because she was ‘in love with the idea of herself as a heroine’.67 The old general never stopped suffering over his beloved daughter’s voluntary exile - he blamed Sergei for it-  and this led to a tragic break in their relationship. Maria felt her father’s disapproval in his infrequent letters to Siberia. No longer able to suppress her anguish, she wrote to him (in the last letter he received before his death) in 1829:

I know that you have ceased to love me for some time, though I know not what I have done to merit your displeasure. To suffer is my lot in this world - but to make others suffer is more than I can bear… How can I be happy for a moment if the blessing which you give me in your letters is not given also to Sergei? 68

    On Christmas Eve Maria said farewell to her son and family and left for Moscow on the first leg of her journey to Siberia. In the old capital she stopped at the house of her sister-in-law Princess Zinaida Volkonsky, a famous beauty and close friend of the late Emperor Alexander, called by Pushkin the ‘Tsarina of the arts’. Zinaida was the hostess of a dazzling literary salon where, unusually for that time, no French verses were declaimed. Pushkin and Zhukovsky, Viazemsky and Delvig, Baratynsky, Tiutchev, the Kireevsky brothers and the Polish poet Mickiewicz were all habitues. On the eve of Maria’s departure there was a special evening where Pushkin read his ‘Message to Siberia’ (1827):


In deep Siberian mines retain
A proud and patient resignation;
Your grievous toil is not in vain
Nor yet your thought’s high aspiration.

Grief’s constant sister, hope, is nigh,
Shines out in dungeons black and dreary
To cheer the weak, revive the weary;
The hour will come for which you sigh,

When love and friendship reaching through
Will penetrate the bars of anguish,
The convict warrens where you languish,
As my free voice now reaches you.

Each hateful manacle and chain
Will fall; your dungeons break asunder;
Outside waits freedom’s joyous wonder
As comrades give you swords again.69

    One year after Maria had arrived in Siberia, her baby boy Nikolenka died. Maria never ceased to grieve for him. At the end of her long life, after thirty years of penal exile, when someone asked her how she felt about Russia, she gave this reply: ‘The only homeland that I know is the patch of grass where my son lies in the ground.’70


3. Exile to Siberia: Gestation of the Slavophile Ideal

    Maria took eight weeks to travel to Nerchinsk, the penal colony on the Russian-Chinese border where her exiled husband, Sergei Volkonsky, was a convict labourer in the silver mines. It was about 6,000 kilometres across the snow-bound steppe by open carriage from Moscow to Irkutsk, at that time the last outpost of Russian civilization in Asia, and from there a hazardous adventure by cart and sledge around the icy mountain paths of Lake Baikal. At Irkutsk the governor had tried to dissuade Maria from continuing with her journey, warning her that, if she did so, she would be deprived of all her rights by a special order of the Tsar for all the wives of the


Decembrists. By entering the penal zone beyond Irkutsk, the Princess would herself become a prisoner. She would lose direct control of her property, her right to keep a maid or any other serfs, and even on the death of her husband, she would never be allowed to return to the Russia she had left. This was the import of the document she had signed to join her husband in Nerchinsk. But any doubts she might have had about her sacrifice were immediately dispelled on her first visit to his prison cell.

At first I could not make out anything, it was so dark. They opened a small door on the left and I entered my husband’s tiny cell. Sergei rushed towards me: I was frightened by the clanking of his chains. I had not known that he was manacled. No words can ever describe what I felt when I saw the immensity of his suffering. The vision of his shackles so enraged and overwhelmed my soul that at once I fell down to the floor and kissed his chains and feet.71

    Nerchinsk was a bleak, ramshackle settlement of wooden huts built around the stockades of the prison camp. Maria rented a small hut from one of the local Mongolian settlers. ‘It was so narrow,’ she recalled, ‘that when I lay down on my mattress on the floor my head touched the wall and my feet were squashed against the door.’72 She shared this residence with Katya Trubetskoi, another young princess who had followed her Decembrist husband to Siberia. They survived on the small income the authorities allowed them from their dispossessed estates. For the first time in their lives they were forced to do the chores that had always been performed for them by the huge domestic staff in their palaces. They learned to clean clothes, bake bread, grow vegetables and to cook their food on the wood stove. They soon forgot their taste for French cuisine and began to live ‘like Russians, eating pickled cabbage and black bread’.73 Maria’s strength of character - reinforced by the routines of the culture she had left behind - was the key to her survival in Siberia. She scrupulously observed all the saints’ days and the birthdays of the relatives in Russia who had long forgotten hers. She always made a point of dressing properly, in a fur hat and a veil, even on her journeys to the peasant market in Nerchinsk. She played the French
clavichord she had carefully packed up and carted all the way across the frozen Asian steppes, no doubt at enormous inconvenience. She


kept up her English by translating books and journals sent out in the post; and every day she took dictation from the prisoners, who as ‘politicals’ were strictly barred from writing letters in the camp. They called Maria their ‘window on to the world’.74

    Siberia brought the exiles together. It showed them how to live truly by the principles of communality and self-sufficiency which they had so admired in the peasantry. In Chita, where they moved in 1828, the dozen prisoners and their families formed themselves into an artel, a collective team of labourers, and divided up the tasks between themselves. Some built the log huts in which their wives and children were to live, later to be joined by the prisoners themselves. Others took up trades like carpentry, or making shoes and clothes. Volkonsky was the gardener-in-chief. They called this community their ‘prison family’ and in their imaginations it came close to re-creating the egalitarian simplicity of the peasant commune.75 Here was that spirit of togetherness which the men of 1812 had first encountered in the regiment.

    Family relations became closer, too. Gone were the servants who had taken over child care for the noble family of the eighteenth century. The Siberian exiles brought up their own children and taught them all they knew. ‘I was your wet nurse,’ Maria told her children, ‘your nanny and, in part, your tutor, too.’76 Misha, a new son, was born in 1832; Elena (‘Nellinka’), a daughter, in 1834. The following year the Volkonskys were resettled in the village of Urik, thirty kilometres outside Irkutsk, where they had a wooden house and a plot of land, just like all the other villagers. Misha and Elena grew up with the local peasant children. They learned to play their games - hunting for birds’ nests, fishing for brown trout, setting rabbit traps and catching butterflies. ‘Nellinka is growing up a true Siberian’, Maria wrote to her friend Katya Trubetskoi.

She talks only in the local dialect and there is no way of stopping her doing so. As for Misha, I have to allow him to go camping in the woods with the wild boys from the village. He loves adventure; he wept uncontrollably the other day because he had slept through an alarm caused by the appearance of a wolf on our doorstep. My children are growing up a la Rousseau, like two little savages, and there is very little I can do about it except to insist that they talk French with us when at home… But I must say that this existence suits their health.77


 The boy’s father took a different view. Full of pride, he told a friend that Misha had grown up a ‘true Russian in feeling’.78

    For the adults, too, exile meant a simpler and more ‘Russian’ way of life. Some of the Decembrist exiles settled in the countryside and married local girls. Others took up Russian customs and pastimes, in particular hunting in the game-rich forests of Siberia.79 And all of them were forced, for the first time in their lives, to become fluent in their native tongue. For Maria and Sergei, accustomed as they were to speak and think in French, this was one of the hardest aspects of their new existence. On their first encounter in that Nerchinsk prison cell they were forced to speak in Russian (so that the guards could understand), but they did not know the words for all the complex emotions they were feeling at that moment, so their conversation was somewhat artificial and extremely limited. Maria set about the study of her native language from a copy of the Scriptures in the camp. Sergei’s Russian, which he had written as an officer, became more vernacular. His letters from Urik are littered with Siberian colloquialisms and misspellings of elementary words (‘if, ‘doubt’, ‘May’ and ‘January’).80

    Sergei, like his son, was ‘going native’. With every passing year he became more peasant-like. He dressed like a peasant, grew his beard, rarely washed, and began to spend most of his time working in the fields or talking with the peasants at the local market town. In 1844 the Volkonskys were allowed to settle in Irkutsk. Maria was immediately accepted into the official circles of the new governor, Muraviev-Amursky, who made no secret of his sympathy for the Decembrist exiles and looked upon them as an intellectual force for the development of Siberia. Maria welcomed this opportunity to become integrated in society again. She set up several schools, a foundling hospital and a theatre. She hosted the town’s main salon in their house, where the governor himself was a frequent visitor. Sergei was seldom there. He found the ‘aristocratic atmosphere’ of Maria’s household disagreeable and preferred to remain at his farm in Urik, coming into Irkutsk just for market days. But after twenty years of seeing his wife suffer in Siberia, he was not about to stand in her way.


    The ‘peasant prince’, for his part, was widely viewed as an eccentric. N. A. Belogolovy, who grew up in Irkutsk in the 1840s, recalls how people were shocked ‘to see the prince on market days sitting on the seat of a peasant cart piled high with flour bags and engaged in a lively conversation with a crowd of peasants whilst they shared a grey bread roll’.81 The couple had constant petty arguments. Maria’s brother, A. N. Raevsky, who had been entrusted with the management of her estates, used the rents to pay his gambling debts. Sergei


accused Maria of siding with her brother, who had the support of the Raevskys, and in the end he made legal provisions to separate his own estates from hers so as to secure his children’s legacy.82 From the annual income which they received from their land back in Russia (approximately 4,300 roubles) Sergei assigned 3,300 roubles to Maria (enough for her to live comfortably in Irkutsk), leaving just 1,000 roubles for himself to manage on his little farm.83 Increasingly estranged, Sergei and Maria began to live separately (in his letters to his son, Sergei later called it a ‘divorce’)84 - although at the time only the ‘prison family’ was aware of their arrangements.* Maria had a love affair with the handsome and charismatic Decembrist exile Alessandro Poggio, the son of an Italian nobleman who had come to Russia in the 1770s. In Irkutsk Poggio was a daily visitor to Maria’s house, and, although he was a friend of Sergei, he was seen there much too often in her husband’s absence for the gossip not to spread. It was rumoured that Poggio was the father of Misha and Elena - a suggestion which still bothered Sergei in 1864, the year before his death, when he wrote his final letter to his ‘dear friend’ Poggio.85 Eventually, to keep up the appearance of a married life, Sergei built a wooden cabin in the courtyard of Maria’s house, where he slept and cooked his meals and received his peasant friends. Belogolovy recalls a rare appearance in Maria’s drawing room. ‘His face was smeared with tar, his long unkempt beard had bits of straw, and he smelled of the cattle yard… Yet he still spoke perfect French, pronouncing all his “r’s” like a true Frenchman.’86

    * Their marital problems were later covered up by the Raevsky and Volkonsky families by excising whole chunks of their correspondence from their family archives, and this was continued in the publications of the Soviet period, when the Decembrists were heroized. None the less, traces of their separation are still to be found in the archives.

The ‘peasant prince’: Sergei Volkonsky in Irkutsk.
Daguerreotype, 1845

    The urge to lead a simple peasant life was shared by many noblemen (Volkonsky’s distant cousin, Leo Tolstoy, comes to mind). This very ‘Russian’ quest for a ‘Life of Truth’ was more profound than the romantic search for a ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’ existence which motivated cultural movements elsewhere in Europe. At its heart was a religious vision of the ‘Russian soul’ that encouraged national prophets - from the Slavophiles in the 1830s to the Populists in the 1870s – to worship at the altar of the peasantry. The Slavophiles


believed in the moral superiority of the Russian peasant commune over modern Western ways and argued for a return to these principles. The Populists were convinced that the egalitarian customs of the commune could serve as a model for the socialist and democratic reorganization of society; they turned to the peasants in the hope of finding allies for their revolutionary cause. For all these intellectuals, Russia was revealed, as a messianic truth, in the customs and beliefs of its peasantry. To enter into Russia, and to be redeemed by it, entailed a renunciation of the sinful world into which these children of the gentry had been born.

Volkonsky, in this sense, was the first in a long line of Russian noblemen who found their nation, and their salvation, in the peasantry, and his moral quest was rooted in the lessons he had drawn from 1812. He turned his back on what he saw as the false relations of the old class-based society and looked with idealistic expectations towards a new society of equal men. ‘I trust no one with society connections’, he wrote to Ivan Pushchin, his old Decembrist friend, in 1841. ‘There is more honesty and integrity of feeling in the peasants of Siberia.’87

    Like all the Decembrist exiles, Volkonsky saw Siberia as a land of democratic hope. Here, it seemed to them, was a young and childlike Russia, primordial and raw, rich in natural resources. It was a frontier land (an ‘America’) whose pioneering farmers were not crushed by serfdom or the state (for there were few serf owners in Siberia), so that they had retained an independent spirit and resourcefulness, a natural sense of justice and equality, from which the old Russia might renew itself. The youthful energy of its unbridled peasants contained Russia’s democratic potential. Hence the Decembrists immersed themselves in the study of Siberian folklore and history; they set up village schools or, like Maria, taught the peasants in their homes; and, like Sergei, they took up peasant crafts or worked the land themselves. The Prince found comfort and a sense of purpose in his peasant toil. It was a release from the endlessness of captive time. ‘Manual labour is such a healthy thing’, Volkonsky wrote to Pushkin. ‘And it is a joy when it feeds one’s family and is of benefit to other people too.’88

    But Volkonsky was more than a farmer; he was an agricultural institute. He imported textbooks and new types of seed from European Russia (Maria’s letters home were filled with lists of gardening needs) and he spread the fruits of his science to the peasants, who came


to him for advice from miles around.89 The peasants, it would seem, had a genuine respect for ‘our prince’, as they called Volkonsky. They liked his frankness and his openness with them, the ease with which he spoke in their local idiom. It made them less inhibited than they normally were with noblemen. 90

    This extraordinary ability to enter into the world of the common people requires comment. Tolstoy, after all, never really managed it, even though he tried for nearly fifty years. Perhaps Volkonsky’s success is explained by his long experience of addressing the peasant soldiers in his regiments. Or perhaps, once the conventions of his European culture were stripped away, he could draw on the Russian customs he had grown up with. His transformation was not unlike the one that takes place in Natasha in the scene in War and Peace when she suddenly discovers in her ‘Uncle’s‘ forest cabin that the spirit of the peasant dance is in her blood.


4.  The Vogue for Russian Identity

    As readers of War and Peace will know, the war of 1812 was a vital watershed in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. It was a war of national liberation from the intellectual empire of the French - a moment when noblemen like the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys struggled to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and began new lives on Russian principles. This was no straightforward metamorphosis (and it happened much more slowly than in Tolstoy’s novel, where the nobles rediscover their forgotten national ways almost overnight). Though anti-French voices had grown to quite a chorus in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the aristocracy was still immersed in the culture of the country against which they were at war. The salons of St Petersburg were filled with young admirers of Bonaparte, such as Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace. The most fashionable set was that of Counts Rumiantsev and Caulaincourt, the French ambassador in Petersburg, the circle in which Tolstoy’s Helene moved. ‘How can we fight the French?’


asks Count Rostopchin, the Governor of Moscow, in War and Peace. ‘Can we arm ourselves against our teachers and divinities? Look at our youths! Look at our ladies! The French are our Gods. Paris is our Kingdom of Heaven.’ 91 Yet even in these circles there was horror at Napoleon’s invasion, and their reaction against all things French formed the basis of a Russian renaissance in life and art.

    In the patriotic climate of 1812 the use of French was frowned upon in the salons of St Petersburg - and in the streets it was even dangerous. Tolstoy’s novel captures perfectly the spirit of that time when nobles, who had been brought up to speak and think in French, struggled to converse in their native tongue. In one set it was agreed to ban the use of French and impose a forfeit on those who made a slip. The only trouble was that no one knew the Russian word for ‘forfeit’ - there was none - so people had to call out ‘forfaiture’. This linguistic nationalism was by no means new. Admiral Shishkov, sometime Minister of Public Education, had placed the defence of the Russian language at the heart of his campaign against the French as early as 1803. He was involved in a long dispute with the Karamzinians, in which he attacked the French expressions of their salon style and wanted literary Russian to return to its archaic Church Slavonic roots.* For Shishkov the influence of French was to blame for the decline of the Orthodox religion and the old patriarchal moral code: the Russian way of life was being undermined by a cultural invasion from the West.

    * These disputes over language involved a broader conflict about ‘Russia’ and what it should be - a follower of Europe or a unique culture of its own. They looked forward to the arguments between the Slavophiles and the Westerners. The Slavophiles did not emerge as a distinct grouping for another thirty years, but the term ‘Slavophile’ was first used in the 1800s to describe those, like Shishkov, who favoured Church Slavonic as the ‘national’ idiom (see Iu. Lotman and B. Uspenskii, ‘Spory o iazyke v nachale XIX v. kak fakt russkoi kul’tury’, in Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii, 24, Uchenye zapiski tartuskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, vyp. 39 (Tartu, 1975), pp. 210-1 1).


    Shishkov’s stock began to rocket after 1812. Renowned as a card player, he was a frequent guest in the fashionable houses of St Petersburg, and between rounds of vingt-et-un he would preach the virtues of the Russian tongue. Among his hosts, he took on the status of a ‘national sage’ and (perhaps in part because they owed him gambling debts) they paid him to tutor their sons.92 It became a fashion for the sons of noblemen to learn to read and write their native tongue. Dmitry Sheremetev, the orphaned son of Nikolai Petrovich and Praskovya, spent three years on Russian grammar and even rhetoric as a teenager in the 1810s - as much time as he spent on learning French.93 For lack of Russian texts, children learned to read from the Scriptures - indeed, like Pushkin, they were often taught to read by the church clerk or a local priest.94 Girls were less likely to be taught the Russian script than boys. Unlike their brothers, who were destined to become army officers or landowners, they would not have much business with the merchants or the serfs and hence little need to read or write their native tongue. But in the provinces there was a growing trend for women as well as men to learn Russian. Tolstoy’s mother, Maria Volkonsky, had a fine command of literary Russian, even writing poems in her native tongue.95 Without this growing Russian readership the literary renaissance of the nineteenth century would have been inconceivable. Previously the educated classes in Russia had read mainly foreign literature.

    In the eighteenth century the use of French and Russian had demarcated two entirely separate spheres: French the sphere of thought and sentiment, Russian the sphere of daily life. There was one form of language (French or Gallicized ‘salon’ Russian) for literature and another (the plain speech of the peasantry, which was not that far apart from the spoken idiom of the merchants and the clergy) for daily life. There were strict conventions on the use of languages. For example, a nobleman was supposed to write to the Tsar in Russian, and it would have seemed audacious if he wrote to him in French; but he always spoke to the Tsar in French, as he spoke to other noblemen. On the other hand, a woman was supposed to write in French, not just in her correspondence with the sovereign but with all officials, because this was the language of polite society; it would have been deemed a gross indecency if she had used Russian expressions.96 In private correspondence, however, there were few set rules, and by the end of the eighteenth century the aristocracy had become so bilingual that they slipped quite easily and imperceptibly from Russian into French and back again. Letters of a page or so could switch a dozen times, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence, without prompting by a theme.


    Tolstoy played on these differences in War and Peace to highlight the social and cultural nuances involved in Russian French. For example, the fact that Andrei Bolkonsky speaks Russian with a French accent places him in the elite pro-French section of the Petersburg aristocracy. Or that Andrei’s friend, the diplomat Bilibin, speaks by preference in French and says ‘only those words in Russian on which he wished to put a contemptuous emphasis’ indicates that Bilibin was a well-known cultural stereotype that readers would easily recognize: the Russian who would rather he were French. But perhaps the best example is Helene - the princess who prefers to speak in French about her extramarital affairs because ‘in Russian she always felt that her case did not sound clear, and French suited it better’.97 In this passage Tolstoy is deliberately echoing the old distinction between French as the language of deceit and Russian as the language of sincerity. His use of dialogue has a similarly nationalist dimension. It is no coincidence that the novel’s most idealized characters speak exclusively in Russian (Princess Maria and the peasant Karataev) or (like Natasha) speak French only with mistakes.

    Of course, no novel is a direct window on to life and, however much it might approach that realist ideal in War and Peace, we cannot take these observations as an accurate reflection of reality. To read the correspondence of the Volkonskys - of course not forgetting that they became the Bolkonskys of War and Peace - is to find a far more complex situation than that presented by Tolstoy. Sergei Volkonsky wrote in French but inserted Russian phrases when he mentioned daily life on the estate; or he wrote in Russian when he aimed to underline a vital point and emphasize his own sincerity. By inclination, particularly after 1812, he wrote mostly in Russian; and he was obliged to in his letters from Siberia after 1825 (for his censors only read Russian). But there were occasions when he wrote in French (even after 1825): for example, when he wrote in the subjunctive mode or used formal phrases and politesses; or in passages where, in contravention of the rules, he wanted to express his views on politics in a language the censors would not understand. Sometimes he used French to explain a concept for which there was no Russian word - ‘diligence’, ‘duplicite’ and ‘discretion’.98


    In its customs and its daily habits the aristocracy was struggling to become more ‘Russian’, too. The men of 1812 gave up feasts of haute cuisine for spartan Russian lunches, as they strived to simplify and Russianize their opulent lifestyle. Noblemen took peasant ‘wives’ with growing frequency and openness (what was good for a Sheremetev was also good for them) and there were even cases of noblewomen living with or marrying serfs.” Even Arakcheev, the Minister of War who became so detested for his brutal regime in the army, kept an unofficial peasant wife by whom he had two sons who were educated in the Corps des Pages.100 Native crafts were suddenly in vogue. Russian china with scenes from rural life was increasingly preferred to the classical designs of imported eighteenth-century porcelain. Karelian birch and other Russian woods, especially in the more rustic stylings of serf craftsmen, began to compete with the fine imported furniture of the classical palace, and even to displace it in those private living spaces where the nobleman relaxed. Count Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy, a military hero of 1812, was the owner of a magnificent mansion on the English Embankment in St Petersburg. The reception rooms had marble walls and mirrors with sumptuous decorations in the French Empire style, but after 1812 he had his bedroom lined with rough wooden logs to give it the appearance of a peasant hut.101

    Recreations were going Russian, too. At balls in Petersburg, where European dances had always reigned supreme, it became the fashion to perform the pliaska and other Russian dances after 1812. Countess Orlova was renowned for these peasant dances, which she studied and performed at Moscow balls.102 But there were other noblewomen who, like Natasha Rostov, had somehow taken in the spirit of the dance, as if they had breathed it ‘from the Russian air’. Princess Elena Golitsyn danced her first pliaska at a New Year’s Ball in Petersburg in 1817. ‘Nobody had taught me how to dance the pliaska. It was simply that I was a “Russian girl”. I had grown up in the country, and when I heard the refrain of our village song, “The Maid Went to Fetch the Water”, I could not stop myself from the opening hand movements of the dance.’103

    Rural recreations were another indication of this newfound Russian-ness. It was at this time that the dacha first emerged as a national institution, although the country or suburban summer house did not become a mass phenomenon until the final decades of the nineteenth


century (Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard was famously cut down for dacha building land). The high aristocracy of Petersburg was renting dachas in the eighteenth century. Pavlovsk and Peterhof were their preferred resorts, where they could escape the city’s heat and take in the fresh air of the pinewood forests or the sea. The Tsars had elaborate summer palaces with immense pleasure gardens in both of these resorts. During the early nineteenth century the dacha fashion spread to the minor gentry, who built more modest houses in the countryside.

    In contrast to the formal classicism of the urban palace, the dacha was constructed in a simple Russian style. It was usually a double-storeyed wooden building with a mezzanine verandah that ran all round the house with ornate window and door-frame carvings seen more commonly on peasant huts, although some of the grander dachas might incongruously add a Roman arch and columns to the front. The dacha was a place for Russian relaxations and pursuits: picking mushrooms in the woods, making jams, drinking tea from the samovar, fishing, hunting, visiting the bath house, or spending the whole day, like Goncharov’s Oblomov, in an oriental khalat. A month in the country allowed the nobleman to throw off the pressures of the court and official life, to become more himself in a Russian milieu. It was common to dispense with formal uniforms and to dress in casual Russian clothes. Simple Russian food took the place of haute cuisine, and some dishes, such as summer soup with kvas (okroshka), fish in aspic and pickled mushrooms, tea with jam, or cherry brandy, became practically synonymous with the dacha way of life.104

    Of all the countryside pursuits, hunting was the one that came the closest to a national institution, in the sense that it united nobleman and serf as fellow sportsmen and fellow countrymen. The early nineteenth century was the heyday of the hunt - a fact that was connected to the gentry’s rediscovery of ‘the good life on the estate’ after 1812. There were noblemen who gave up their careers in the civil service and retired to the country for a life of sport. The Rostovs’ ‘Uncle’ in War and Peace was typical:

 ‘Why don’t you enter the service, Uncle?’
‘I did once, but gave it up. I am not fit for it…I can’t make head or tail of it. That’s for you-  I haven’t brains enough. Now hunting is another matter…


There were two kinds of hunting in Russia - the formal chase with hounds, which was very grand, and the simple type of hunting by a man on foot with a solitary hound and a serf companion, as immortalized in Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852). The formal chase was conducted in the manner of a military campaign, sometimes lasting several weeks, with hundreds of riders, huge packs of dogs and a vast retinue of hunting serfs camping out on the estates of the nobility. Lev Izmailov, Marshal of the Riazan Nobility, took 3,000 hunters and 2,000 hounds on his ‘campaigns’.106 Baron Mengden kept an elite caste of hunting serfs with their own scarlet livery and special Arab horses for the hunt. When they left, with the baron at their head, they took several hundred carts with hay and oats, a hospital on wheels for wounded dogs, a mobile kitchen and so many servants that the baron’s house was emptied, leaving his wife and daughters with only a bartender and a boy.107 This type of hunting was dependent on the gentry’s ownership of vast serf armies and virtually all the land - conditions which persisted until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Like the English hunt, it was serious and stuffy, rigidly observing the social hierarchy, with the hunting serfs, if not running with the hounds, then clearly in a subservient role.

    By contrast, Turgenev’s type of hunting was relatively egalitarian -and it was so in a distinctly Russian way. When the nobleman went hunting with his serf companion he left behind the civilization of his palace and entered the world of the peasantry. Squire and serf were brought together by this type of sport. They dressed much the same; they shared their food and drink when they stopped along the way; they slept side by side in peasant huts and barns; and, as described in Turgenev’s Sketches, they talked about their lives in a spirit of companionship that often made them close and lasting friends.108 There was much more to this than the usual ‘male bonding’ around sport. As far as the squire was concerned, the hunt on foot was a rural odyssey, an encounter with an undiscovered peasant land; it was almost incidental how many birds or beasts were shot. In the final lyrical episode of the Sketches, where the narrator sums up all the joys of hunting, there is barely mention of the sport itself. What emerges from this perfect piece of writing is the hunter’s intense love of the Russian countryside and its changing beauty through the different seasons of the year:


And a summer morning in July! Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn? Your feet leave green imprints in grass that is heavy and white with dew. You push aside wet bushes - the warm scent accumulated in the night almost smothers you; the air is impregnated with the fresh bitter-sweet fragrance of wormwood, the honeyed scent of buckwheat and clover; far off an oak forest rises like a wall, shining purple in the sunshine; the air is still fresh, but the coming heat can already be felt. Your head becomes slightly dizzy from such an excess of sweet scents. And there’s no end to the bushes. Away in the distance ripening rye glows yellow and there are narrow strips of rust-red buckwheat. Then there’s the sound of a cart; a peasant drives by at walking pace, leaving his horse in the shade before the sun gets hot. You greet him, pass on, and after a while the metallic rasping of a scythe can be heard behind you. The sun is rising higher and higher, and the grass quickly dries out. It’s already hot. First one hour, then another passes. The sky darkens at the edges and the motionless air is aflame with the prickly heat.109

Perov, Hunters at Rest (1871)

    Russian forms of dress became the height of fashion after 1812. At balls and receptions in St Petersburg, and from the 1830s at the court as well, society ladies began to appear in national costume, complete with the sarafan tunic and kokoshnik head-dress of old Muscovy. The Russian peasant shawl was hugely popular with noblewomen in the 1810s. There had been a fashion for oriental shawls in Europe during the last decades of the eighteenth century which the Russians had copied by importing their own shawls from India. But after 1812 it was Russian peasant shawls that became the rage, and serf workshops emerged as major centres of the fashion industry.110 The Russian gown (kapot), traditionally worn by peasant and provincial merchant wives, entered haute couture slightly earlier, in the 1780s, when Catherine the Great took to wearing one, but it too was widely worn from about 1812. The kaftan and khalat (a splendid sort of housecoat or dressing gown in which one could lounge about at home and receive guests) came back into fashion among noblemen. The podyovka, a short kaftan traditionally worn by the peasantry, was added to the wardrobe of the nobleman as well. To wear such clothes was not just to relax and be oneself at home; it was, in the words of one memoirist, ‘to make a conscious


statement of one’s Russianness’.111 When, in 1827, Tropinin painted Pushkin wearing a khalat (plate 22), he was portraying him as a gentleman who was perfectly at ease with the customs of his land.

Vasily Tropinin: Portrait of Pushkin (1827).
Wearing a
khalat, the writer is portrayed as a European gentleman yet
perfectly at ease with the customs of his native land.

    A fashion for the ‘natural’ look took hold of noblewomen in the 1820s. The new ideal of beauty focused on a vision of the purity of the female figures of antiquity and the Russian peasantry. Fidel Bruni’s portrait of Zinaida Volkonsky (1810) illustrates this style. Indeed, according to society rumour, it was precisely her simplicity of dress that had attracted the amorous attentions of the Emperor,112 who was himself susceptible to all of Nature’s charms. * Women took to wearing cotton clothes. They dressed their hair in a simple style and rejected heavy make-up for the pale complexion favoured by this cult of unadorned Nature.113 The turn toward Nature and simplicity was widespread throughout Europe from the final decades of the eighteenth century. Women had been throwing out their powdered wigs and renouncing heavy scents like musk for light rose waters that allowed the natural fragrance of clean flesh to filter through. There it had developed under the influence of Rousseau and Romantic ideas about the virtues of Nature. But in Russia the fashion for the natural had an extra, national dimension. It was linked to the idea that one had to strip away the external layers of cultural convention to reveal the Russian personality. Pushkin’s Tatiana in Eugene Onegin was the literary incarnation of this natural Russianness - so much so that the simple style of dress worn by noblewomen became known as the ‘Onegin’.114 Readers saw Tatiana as a ‘Russian heroine’ whose true self was revealed in the memories of her simple childhood in the countryside:

‘To me, Onegin, all these splendours,
This weary tinselled life of mine,
This homage that the great world tenders,
My stylish house where princes dine -
Are empty… I’d as soon be trading
This tattered life of masquerading,
This world of glitter, fumes, and noise,
For just my books, the simple joys
Of our old home, its walks and flowers,
For all those haunts that I once knew…
Where first, Onegin, I saw you;
For that small churchyard’s shaded bowers,
Where over my poor nanny now
There stands a cross beneath a bough.’115

    * The Emperor Alexander began taking a daily promenade along the Palace Embankment and the Nevsky Prospekt as far as the Anichkov bridge. It was, in the words of the memoirist Vigel, a ‘conscious striving by the Tsar for simplicity in daily life’ (F. F. Vigel’, Zapiski, chast’ 2 (Moscow, 1892.), p. 32.). Before 1800, no self-respecting nobleman would go anywhere in Petersburg except by carriage, and (as Kniazhnin’s comic opera testified) vast personal fortunes would be spent on the largest carriages imported from Europe. But, under Alexander’s influence, it became the fashion in St Petersburg to ‘faire le tour imperial‘.


    Pushkin’s masterpiece is, among many other things, a subtle exploration of the complex Russian-European consciousness that typified the aristocracy in the age of 1812. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky said that Eugene Onegin was an encyclopaedia of Russian life, and Pushkin himself, in its final stanzas, developed the idea of the novel as life’s book. In no other work can one see so clearly the visceral influence of cultural convention on the Russian sense of self. In many ways, indeed, the novel’s central subject is the complex interplay between life and art. The syncretic nature of Tatiana’s character is an emblem of the cultural world in which she lives. At one moment she is reading a romantic novel; at another listening to her nanny’s superstitions and folk tales. She is torn between the gravitational fields of Europe and Russia. Her very name, Tatiana, as Pushkin underlines in a footnote, comes from the ancient Greek, yet in Russia it is ‘used only among the common people’.116 In the affairs of the heart, as well, Tatiana is subject to the different cultural norms of European Russia and the peasant countryside. As a rather young and impressionable girl from the provinces, she inhabits the imaginary world of the romantic novel and understands her feelings in these terms. She duly falls in love with the Byronic figure of Eugene and, like one of her fictional heroines, she writes to declare her love to him. Yet when the lovesick Tatiana asks her nanny if she has ever been in love, she becomes exposed to the influence of a very different culture where romantic love is a foreign luxury and obedience is a woman’s main virtue. The peasant nurse tells Tatiana how she was married off at the age of just thirteen to an even younger boy whom she had never seen before:


I got so scared… my tears kept falling;
And weeping, they undid my plait,
Then sang me to the churchyard gate.117

    This encounter between the two cultures represents Tatiana’s own predicament: whether to pursue her own romantic dreams or sacrifice herself in the traditional ‘Russian’ way (the way chosen by Maria Volkonsky when she gave up everything to follow her Decembrist husband to Siberia). Onegin rejects Tatiana - he sees her as a naive country girl - and then, after killing his friend Lensky in a duel, he disappears for several years. Meanwhile Tatiana is married to a man she does not really love, as far as one can tell, a military hero from the wars of 1812 who is ‘well received’ at court. Tatiana rises to become a celebrated hostess in St Petersburg. Onegin now returns and falls in love with her. Years of wandering through his native land have somehow changed the former dandy of St Petersburg, and finally he sees her natural beauty, her ‘lack of mannerisms or any borrowed tricks’. But Tatiana remains faithful to her marriage vows. She has come, it seems, to embrace her ‘Russian principles’ - to see through the illusions of romantic love. Looking through the books in Onegin’s library, she understands at last the fictive dimension of his personality:

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak,
Compendium of affectation,
A lexicon of words in vogue…
Mere parody and just a rogue? 118

    Yet even here, when Tatiana tells Onegin,

I love you (why should I dissemble?);
But I am now another’s wife,
And I’ll be faithful all my life  119


we see in her the dense weave of cultural influences. These lines are adapted from a song well known among the Russian folk. Thought in Pushkin’s time to have been written by Peter the Great, it was translated into French by Pushkin’s own uncle. Tatiana could have read it in an old issue of Mercure de France. But she could also have heard it from her peasant nurse.120 It is a perfect illustration of the complex intersections between European and native Russian culture during Pushkin’s age.

    Pushkin himself was a connoisseur of Russian songs and tales. Chulkov’s ABC of Russian Superstitions (1780-83) and Levshin’s Russian Tales (1788) were well-thumbed texts on Pushkin’s shelves. He had been brought up on the peasant tales and superstitions of his beloved nanny, Arina Rodionova, who became the model for Tatiana’s nurse. ‘Mama’ Rodionova was a talented narrator, elaborating and enriching many standard tales, judging by the transcripts of her stories that Pushkin later made.121 During his years of exile in the south in 1820-24 he became a serious explorer of the folk traditions, those of the Cossacks in particular, and then, when exiled to his family estate at Mikhailovskoe in 1824-6, he carried on collecting songs and tales. Pushkin used these as the basis of Ruslan and Liudmila (1820), his first major poem, which some critics panned as mere ‘peasant verse’, and for his stylized ‘fairy tales’ like Tsar Sultan which he composed in his final years. Yet he had no hesitation in mixing Russian stories with European sources, such as the fables of La Fontaine or the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers. For The Golden Cockerel (1834) he even borrowed from the Legend of the Arabian Astrologer which he had come across in the 1832 French translation of The Legends of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. As far as Pushkin was concerned, Russia was a part of Western and world culture, and it did not make his ‘folk tales’ any less authentic if he combined all these sources in literary re-creations of the Russian style. How ironic, then, that Soviet nationalists regarded Pushkin’s stories as direct expressions of the Russian folk.*

    * Akhmatova was denounced by the Soviet literary authorities for suggesting, quite correctly, that some of Pushkin’s sources for his ‘Russian tales’ were taken from The Thousand and One Nights.


    By Pushkin’s death, in 1837, the literary use of folk tales had become commonplace, almost a condition of literary success. More than any other Western canon, Russian literature was rooted in the oral narrative traditions, to which it owed much of its extraordinary strength and originality. Pushkin, Lermontov, Ostrovsky, Nekrasov, Tolstoy, Leskov and Saltykov-Shchedrin - all to some degree could be thought of as folklorists, all certainly used folklore in many of their works. But none captured the essential spirit of the folk tale better than Nikolai Gogol.

    Gogol was in fact a Ukrainian, and, were it not for Pushkin, who was his mentor and gave him the true plots of his major works, The Government Inspector (1836) and Dead Souls (1835-52), he might have written in the peasant dialect of his native Mirgorod, where Gogol’s father was well known (though unpublishable under Tsarist laws) as a writer in Ukrainian. During his childhood Gogol fell in love with the earthy idiom of the local peasantry. He loved their songs and dances, their terrifying tales and comic stories, from which his own fantastic tales of Petersburg would later take their cue. He first rose to fame as ‘Rudy [i.e. redhead] Panko, Beekeeper’, the pseudonymous author of a bestselling collection of stories, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831-2), which fed the growing craze for Ukrainian folk tales. Aladin’s Kochubei, Somov’s Haidamaki and Kulzhinsky’s Cossack Hat had all been great successes in the Russian capital. But Gogol was nothing if not ambitious and, in 1828, when barely out of school, he came to Petersburg in the hope of making his own literary name. Working during the day as a humble clerk (of the sort that filled his stories), he wrote at night in his lonely attic room. He badgered his mother and sister to send him details of Ukrainian songs and proverbs, and even bits of costume which he wanted them to buy from the local peasants and send to him in a trunk. Readers were delighted with the ‘authenticity’ of Evenings on a Farm. Some critics thought that the stories had been spoilt by a ‘coarse’ and ‘improper’ folk language. But the language of the stories was their principal success. It echoed perfectly the musical sonorities of peasant speech - one of the reasons why the stories were adapted by Musorgsky for the unfinished Sorochintsy Fair (1874-) and for St John’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867), and by


Rimsky-Korsakov for May Night (1879) - and it could be understood by Everyman. During the proof stage of Evenings on a Farm Gogol paid a visit to the typesetters. ‘The strangest thing occurred’, he explained to Pushkin. ‘As soon as I opened the door and the printers noticed me, they began to laugh and turned away from me. I was somewhat taken aback and asked for an explanation. The printer explained: “The items that you sent are very amusing and they have greatly amused the typesetters.”’122

    More and more, common speech entered literature, as writers like Gogol began to assimilate the spoken idiom to their written form. Literary language thus broke free from the confines of the salon and flew out, as it were, into the street, taking on the sounds of colloquial Russian and ceasing in the process to depend on French loan words for ordinary things. Lermontov’s civic poetry was filled with the rhythms and expressions of the folk, as recorded by himself from peasant speech. His epic Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov (1837) imitates the style of the bylina; while his brilliantly patriotic Borodino (1837) (written to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon’s army) re-creates the spirit of the battlefield by having it described from the peasant soldiers’ point of view:

For three long days we fired at random,
We knew that we had not unmanned them,
And neither meant to yield.
Each soldier thought it should be ended:
For had we fought or just pretended?
And then it was that night descended
Upon that fateful field .123

    Russian music also found its national voice through the assimilation of folk song. The first Collection of Russian Folk Songs was assembled by Nikolai Lvov and annotated by Ivan Prach in 1790. The distinctive features of the peasant chant - the shifting tones and uneven rhythms that would become such a feature of the Russian musical style from Musorgsky to Stravinsky - were altered to conform to Western musical formulas so that the songs could be performed with conventional keyboard accompaniment (Russia’s piano-owning classes needed their folk music to be ‘pleasing to the ear’).124 The Lvov-Prach collection was an instant hit, and it quickly went through


several editions. Throughout the nineteenth century it was plundered by composers in search of ‘authentic’ folk material, so that nearly all the folk tunes in the Russian repertory, from Glinka to Rimsky-Korsakov, were derived from Lvov-Prach. Western composers also turned to it for exotic Russian colour and themes russes. Beethoven used two songs from the Lvov collection in the ‘Razumovsky’ string quartets (opus 59), commissioned in 1805 by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, at the height of the Russo-Austrian alliance against Napoleon. One of the songs was the famous ‘Slava’ (‘Glory’) chorus -later used by Musorgsky in the coronation scene of Boris Godunov - which Beethoven used as the subject for a fugue in the scherzo of the opus 59 number 2 quartet. It was originally a sviatochnaya, a folk song sung by Russian girls to accompany their divination games at the New Year. Trinkets would be dropped into a dish of water and drawn out one by one as the maidens sang their song. The simple tune became a great national chorus in the war of 1812 - the Tsar’s name being substituted for the divine powers in the ‘Glory’ choruses; in later versions, the names of officers were added, too.125

    The Imperial recruitment of this peasant theme was equally pronounced in Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). Its climactic version of the same ‘Glory’ chorus practically became a second national anthem in the nineteenth century.* Mikhail Glinka was exposed to Russian music from an early age. His grandfather had been in charge of music at the local church of Novospasskoe - in a region of Smolensk that was famous for the strident sound of its church bells - and his uncle had a serf orchestra that was renowned for performing Russian songs. In 1812 the Glinka home was overrun and pillaged by French troops as they advanced towards Moscow. Though he was only eight at the time, it must have stirred the patriotic feelings of the future composer of A Life, whose plot was suggested by the peasant partisans. The opera tells the story of Ivan Susanin, a peasant from the estate of Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the Romanov dynasty, in Kostroma. According to legend, in the winter of 1612 Susanin had saved Mikhail’s life by misdirecting the Polish troops who had invaded Russia in its ‘Time of Troubles’ (1605-13) and had come to Kostroma to murder Mikhail on the eve of his assumption of the throne. Susanin lost his life, but a dynasty was saved. The obvious parallels between Susanin’s sacrifice and the peasant soldiers’ in 1812 stimulated a romantic interest in the Susanin myth. Ryleev wrote a famous ballad about him and Mikhail Zagoskin two bestselling novels, set respectively in 1612 and 1812.

    *After 1917 there were suggestions that the ‘Glory’ chorus should become the national anthem.


    Glinka said that his opera was conceived as a battle between Polish and Russian music. The Poles were heard in the polonaise and the mazurka, the Russians in his own adaptations of folk and urban songs. Glinka’s supposed debt to folklore made him Russia’s first canonical ‘national composer’; while A Life took on the status of the quintessential ‘Russian opera’, its ritual performance on all national occasions practically enforced by Imperial decree. Yet in fact there were relatively few folk melodies (in a noticeable form) in the opera. Glinka had assimilated the folk style and expressed its basic spirit, but the music he wrote was entirely his own. He had fused the qualities of Russian peasant music with the European form. He had shown, in the words of the poet Odoevsky, that ‘Russian melody may be elevated to a tragic style’.126

    In painting, too, there was a new approach to the Russian peasantry. The canons of good taste in the eighteenth century had demanded that the peasant be excluded, as a subject, from all serious forms of art. Classical norms dictated that the artist should present universal themes: scenes from antiquity or the Bible, set in a timeless Greek or Italian landscape. Russian genre painting developed very late, in the final decades of the eighteenth century, and its image of the common man was sentimentalized: plump peasant cherubs in a pastoral scene or sympathetic ‘rustic types’ with stock expressions to display that they had human feelings, too. It was a visual version of the sentimental novel or the comic opera which had highlighted the serfs’ humanity by telling of their love lives and romantic suffering. Yet, in the wake of 1812, a different picture of the peasantry emerged - one that emphasized their heroic strength and human dignity.


    This can be seen in the work of Alexei Venetsianov, a quintessential child of 1812. The son of a Moscow merchant (from a family that came originally from Greece), Venetsianov was a draughtsman and a land surveyor for the government before setting up as a painter and engraver in the 1800s. Like many of the pioneers of Russian culture (Musorgsky comes to mind), he received no formal education and remained outside the Academy throughout his life. In 1812 he came to the attention of the public for a series of engravings of the peasant partisans. Selling in huge numbers, they glorified the image of the partisans, drawing them in the form of warriors of ancient Greece and Rome, and from that point on the public called the partisans the ‘Russian Hercules’.127 The war of 1812 formed Venetsianov’s views. Although not a political man, he moved in the same circles as the Decembrists and shared their ideals. In 1815 he acquired through his wife a small estate in Tver and, four years later, he retired there, setting up a school for the village children and supporting several peasant artists from his meagre income off the land. One of them was Grigory Soroka, whose tender portrait of his teacher, painted in the 1840s, is a moving testimony to Venetsianov’s character.


    Venetsianov knew the peasants of his village individually - and in his best portraits, that is how he painted them. He conveyed their personal qualities, just as other portrait painters set out to convey the individual character of noblemen. This psychological aspect was revolutionary for its day, when, with few exceptions, portraitists turned out generic ‘peasant types’. Venetsianov focused on the close-up face, forcing viewers to confront the peasant and look him in the eyes, inviting them to enter his inner world

6. Alexei Venetsianov:  Cleaning Beetroot, 1820

Venetsianov also pioneered the naturalist school of landscape painting in Russia. The character of the Tver countryside - its subdued greens and quiet earth colours - can be seen in all his work. He conveyed the vastness of the Russian land by lowering the horizon to enhance the immensity of the sky over its flat open spaces - a technique derived from icon painting and later copied by epic landscape painters such as Vrubel and Vasnetsov. Unlike the artists of the Academy, who treated landscape as mere background and copied it from European works, Venetsianov painted directly from nature. For  On the Threshing Floor  (1821) he had his serfs saw out the end wall of a barn so that he could paint them at work inside it. No other painter brought such realism to his depictions of agricultural life. In Cleaning Beetroot (1820) he makes the viewer look at the dirty callused hands and exhausted expressions of the three young female labourers who dominate the scene. It was the first time that such ugly female forms - so foreign to the classical tradition - had appeared in Russian art. Yet these sad figures win our sympathy for their human dignity in the face of suffering. Venetsianov’s elevated vision of human toil was most apparent in his many images of peasant women. In perhaps his finest painting, a symbolic study of a peasant with her child, In the Ploughed Field  (1827)  (plate 4), he combines the distinctive Russian features of his female labourer with the sculptural proportions of an antique heroine. The woman in the field is a peasant goddess. She is the mother of the Russian land.


RUSSIAN PASTORAL.  Venetsianov,   In the Ploughed Field  (1827)



5. Noble Childhood

    Compared to their parents, the Russian nobles who grew up after 1812 put a higher valuation on childhood. It took a long time for such attitudes to change, but already by the middle decades of the nineteenth century one can discern a new veneration of childhood on the part of those memoirists and writers who recalled their upbringing after 1812. This nostalgia for the age of childhood merged with a new reverence for the Russian customs which they had known as children through their fathers’ household serfs.

    In the eighteenth century the aristocracy had seen childhood as a preparation for the adult world. It was a stage to be overcome as soon as possible, and children who delayed this transition, like Mitrofan in Fonvizin’s The Minor, were regarded as simpletons. High-born children were expected to behave like ‘little adults’ and they were prepared to enter into society from an early age. Girls were taught to dance from eight years old. By the age of ten or twelve they were already going to the ‘children’s balls’ that were run by dancing masters in the fashionable houses, from which, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, they would graduate to their first grown-up ball. Natasha Rostov was relatively old, at eighteen years, when she attended her first ball and danced with Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Boys, meanwhile, were signed up for the Guards and dressed in their regimental uniforms long before they were old enough to hold a sword. Volkonsky joined his father’s regiment (a sergeant in absentia) at the tender age of six. By eight he was a sergeant in the Kherson Grenadiers; by nine, an adjutant to General Suvorov; although, of course, it was only later, at the age of sixteen, that he began active service on the battlefield. Boys destined for the civil service were sent to boarding school at the age of eight or nine, where they were indoctrinated in the service ethic and, like adult State officials, they wore a civil (rather than a school) uniform. School was seen as little more than an apprenticeship for the civil service and, since the student was allowed to join the service on his fifteenth birthday, few noble families thought it necessary to educate their sons beyond that age. Indeed, in so far as the Table of Ranks reinforced the principle of promotion by seniority, any further education was considered disadvantageous: the sooner one got on to the promotion ladder the better.


    The memoirist Vasily Selivanov grew up in a household where the seven sons were all prepared for military service from an early age. His father ran the family like a regiment, the sons all ranked by age and under strict instructions to stand up in his presence and call him ‘sir’. When Selivanov joined the Dragoons in 1830, at the age of seventeen, the transition from palace to barracks must have felt like going from one home to another.128 Not all noble families were quite as regimented as the Selivanovs, of course, but in many the relations between parents and their children were conducted on the same basic principles of discipline that ruled the institutions of the army and the state. Such rigour had not always been the case: the domestic life of the noble family in the seventeenth century might have been extremely patriarchal but it was also intimate. Rather, it was copied by the Russians from the West, especially England - although, like much that was brought to Russia in the eighteenth century, it became so ingrained in the nobility that it practically defined that class in the nineteenth century. Noble parents kept their children at arm’s length, which often meant the length of the longest corridor or down the longest staircase to a separate basement floor in the servants’ quarters of their house. V. A. Sollogub grew up in a mansion on the Palace Embankment in St Petersburg. The adults lived in the main house while the children were consigned with their nanny and a wet nurse to an annexed wing, and only saw their parents briefly once or twice a day - for example, to thank them for their dinner (but not to eat with them) or to kiss them goodbye when they went away. ‘Our lives were entirely separate,’ Sollogub recalled, ‘and there was never any sign of emotion. We children were allowed to kiss our parents on the hand, but there was no fondling, and we had to address them in French with the formal “vous“. Children were subjected to a strict domestic code of servility, almost like the laws for serfs’.129 Nikolai Shatilov, who grew up in a wealthy landowning family of Tula province in the 1860s, was confined as a young boy to a separate apartment in the house, where he lived with his tutor and took all his meals: he did not see his parents ‘for months on end’.130


    Distant fathers were, of course, the norm in nineteenth-century Europe, but there were few cultures where the mother was as remote as she tended to be in the Russian noble family. It was the custom for a noble child to be put into the care of a wet nurse almost from the day they were born. Even as the child grew up there were many noble mothers who were just too busy with their social life, or with other babies, to give them the attention that they must have surely craved. ‘Mother was extremely kind, but we hardly ever saw her’ is a phrase that crops up often in nineteenth-century memoirs about gentry life.131 Anna Karenina, although not a model parent, was not exceptional in her ignorance of the routines of her children’s nursery (‘I’m so useless here’).132

    It was not unusual, then, for the noble child to grow up without any direct parental discipline. Parents often left their children to the care of relatives (typically a spinster aunt or grandmother) or to the supervision of their nannies and the maids and the rest of the domestic staff. Yet the servants were naturally afraid to discipline their master’s children (the ‘little masters’ and the ‘little mistresses’), so they tended to indulge them and let them have their way. Boys, in particular, were prone to misbehave (‘little monsters’), knowing very well that their parents would defend them if their nanny, a mere serf, dared to complain. Critics of the social system, like the writer Saltykov-Shchedrin, argued that this latitude encouraged noble children to be cruel to serfs; in their adult lives they carried on in the belief that they could lord it over all their serfs and treat them as they liked. It is certainly conceivable that the selfishness and cruelty towards the serfs that ran right through the governing elites of Tsarist Russia went back in some cases to the formative experiences of childhood. For example, if a noble child was sent to the local parish school (a practice that was common in the provinces), he would go with a serf boy, whose sole purpose was to take the whipping for his master’s misdemeanours in the class. How could this develop any sense of justice in the noble child?

    Yet there were bonds of affection and respect between many noble children and their serfs. Herzen argued that children liked to be with the servants ‘because they were bored in the drawing-room and happy in the pantry’ and because they shared a common temperament.

This resemblance between servants and children accounts for their mutual attraction. Children hate the aristocratic ideas of the grown-ups and their benevolently condescending manners, because they are clever and understand that in the eyes of grown-up people they are children, while in the eyes of servants they are people. Consequently they are much fonder of playing cards or lotto with the maids than with visitors. Visitors play for the children’s benefit with condescension. They give way to them, tease them, and stop playing whenever they feel like it; the maids, as a rule, play as much for their own sakes as for the children’s, and that gives the game interest. Servants are extremely devoted to children, and this is not the devotion of a slave, but the mutual affection of the weak and the simple.133


    Writing as a socialist, Herzen put down his ‘hatred of oppression’ to the ‘mutual alliance’ he had formed with the servants as a child against the senior members of the house. He recalled: ‘At times, when I was a child, Vera Artamonovna [his nanny] would say by way of the greatest rebuke for some naughtiness: “Wait a bit, you will grow up and turn into just such another master as the rest.” I felt this a horrible insult. The old woman need not have worried herself - just such another as the rest, anyway, I have not become.’134 Much of this, of course, was written for effect; it made for a good story. Yet other writers similarly claimed that their populist convictions had been formed by their childhood contacts with the serfs.135

    The high-born Russian boy spent his childhood in the downstairs servants’ world. He was cared for by his serf nanny, who slept by his side in the nursery, held him when he cried, and in many cases became like a mother to him. Everywhere he went he was accompanied by his serf ‘uncle’. Even when he went to school or enrolled in the army this trusted servant would act as his guardian. Young girls, too, were chaperoned by a ‘shaggy footman’ - so-called on account of the fur coat he wore over the top of his livery - like the one imagined as ‘a huge and matted bear’ in Tatiana’s dream in Eugene Onegin:

She dare not look to see behind her,
And ever faster on she reels;
At every turn he seems to find her,
The shaggy footman at her heels!…136


    By necessity the children of the servants were the playmates of the high-born child - for in the countryside there would not be other children of a similar social class for miles around. Like many nineteenth-century memoirists, Anna Lelong had fond memories of the games she played with the village girls and boys: throwing games with blocks of wood (gorodki); bat-and-ball games played with bones and bits of scrap metal (babki and its many variants); clapping-singing-dancing games; and divination games. In the summer she would go swimming with the village children in the river, or she would be taken by her nanny to the villages to play with the younger children as their mothers threshed the rye. Later, in the autumn, she would join the village girls to pick whortleberries and make jam. She loved these moments when she was allowed to enter the peasant world. The fact that it was forbidden by her parents, and that her nanny made her promise not to tell, made it even more exciting for the girl. In the pantry was an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy that was missing in her parents’ drawing room. ‘I would get up very early and go into the maids’ room where they were already at their spinning wheels, and nanny would be knitting socks. I would listen to the stories about peasants being sold, about young boys sent to Moscow or girls married off. There was nothing like this in my parents’ house.’ Listening to such stories, she ‘began to understand what serfdom meant and it made me wish that life was different’.137

    Herzen wrote that there existed ‘a feudal bond of affection’ between the noble family and its household serfs.138 We have lost sight of this bond in the histories of oppression that have shaped our views of serfdom since 1917. But it can be found in the childhood memoirs of the aristocracy; it lives on in every page of nineteenth-century literature; and its spirit can be felt in Russian paintings - none more lyrical than Venetsianov’s Morning of the Lady of the Manor (1823) (plate 3).

Venetsianov,  Morning of the Landlady (1823)

7. A wet nurse in traditional Russian dress.
Early-twentieth-century photograph

    Of all the household servants, those associated with childcare (the maid, the wet nurse and the nanny) were the closest to the family. They formed a special caste that died out suddenly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. They were set apart from the other serfs by their fierce devotion and, hard though it may be to understand today, many of them derived all their joy from serving the family. Given special rooms in the main house and treated, on the whole, with kindness and respect, such women became part of the family and many were kept on and provided for long after they had ceased to work. The nostalgia of the nobleman for his childhood was associated with the warmth and tenderness of his relationship with these people.



   The wet nurse was a particularly important figure in the Russian noble family. Russians continued to employ a peasant wet nurse long after it had become the conventional wisdom in the rest of Europe for mothers to breastfeed their own infants. Child-rearing handbooks of the early nineteenth century were overtly nationalist in their defence of this habit, claiming that the ‘milk of a peasant girl can give


lifelong health and moral purity to the noble child’.139 It was common for the wet nurse to be dressed, and sometimes even painted, in traditional Russian dress - a custom that continued in many families until the revolution of 1917. * Ivan Argunov, the Sheremetevs’ artist, depicted several ‘unknown peasant girls’ who were most probably wet nurses. The fact that a girl like this should become the subject of a portrait painting, commissioned for display in her owner’s house, in itself speaks volumes about her position in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. Pavel Sumarokov, recalling daily life among the nobility in the eighteenth century, said that the wet nurse was given pride of place among all the domestic staff. The family would call her by her name and patronymic rather than by the nickname that was given to most serfs. She was also the only servant who was allowed to remain seated in the presence of the mistress or the master of the house.140 Noble memoirs from the nineteenth century are filled with descriptions of the family’s affection for their old wet nurse, who was likely to be treated as a much-loved member of the family and provided with living quarters until she died. Anna Lelong loved her nurse Vasilisia ‘more than anyone’, and parting from her, as she had to do when she left home to get married, caused her ‘dreadful grief. The intimacy of their relationship, which was ‘like that of a mother and a daughter’, stemmed from the death of the nurse’s infant son. Because of her duties to nurse Anna, she had been obliged to abandon him. Guilt and surrogacy became intertwined, for both Anna and her nurse. Later on, when Anna’s husband died, she took it upon herself to care for her old nurse, who came to live with her at the family estate.141

* The artist Dobuzhinsky described the spectacular appearance of the traditional wet nurse on the streets of Petersburg before 1917: ‘She had a kind of “parade uniform”, a pseudo-peasant costume, theatrically designed, which was worn right up to the outbreak of the war in 1914. One often saw a fat, red-cheeked wet nurse walking beside her fashionably dressed mistress. She would be dressed in a brocade blouse and cape, and a pink head-dress if the baby was a girl, or a blue one if it was a boy. In the summer the wet nurses used to wear coloured sarafans with lots of small gold or glass buttons and muslin balloon sleeves’. (M. V. Dobuzhinskii vospominaniia (New York, 1976, p. 34.)


    But it was the nanny who was closest to the heart of the noble child. The stereotype of the old-fashioned nanny - the sort that appears in countless works of art from Eugene Onegin to Boris Godunov - was a simple and kind-hearted Russian peasant woman who got the children up, supervised their play, took them out for walks, fed them, washed them, told them fairy tales, sang them songs and comforted them at night when they woke up with nightmares. More than a surrogate mother, the nanny was the child’s main source of love and emotional security. ‘Simply and unthinkingly,’ reminisced one woman of her noble childhood, ‘I imbibed the life-giving fluids of love from my nanny, and they keep me going even now. How many loyal and loving Russian nannies have guarded and inspired the lives of their children, leaving an indelible impression upon them.’142

    Such indeed was the lasting influence of the nanny’s tender care that many nineteenth-century memoirists became obsessed with the nostalgic topic of their nursery years. This was not some arrested development. Rather it was a reflection of the fact that their primary emotions were locked up in that distant chamber of their past. Time and time again these memoirists stress that it was their nanny who taught them how to love and how to live. For some, the key was their nanny’s innate kindness, which awoke their moral sensibilities; for others, it was her religious faith, which brought them into contact with the spiritual world. ‘How wonderful was our nanny!’ Lelong recalled. ‘She was intelligent and always serious, and she was very devout; I would often wake up in the nursery at night and see nanny praying by the door of our room, from where she could see the votive lamp. What fantastic fairy tales she told us when we went for a walk in the woods. They made me see the forest world anew, to love nature from a poetic point of view.’143 The lost idyll of ‘a Russian childhood’, if ever it existed, was contained in these emotions, which remained associated with the image of the nanny in the adult memory. ‘It may seem strange’, wrote A. K. Chertkova (the wife of Tolstoy’s secretary), ‘but forty years have passed since our childhood, and our nanny still remains alive in my memory. The older I become, the clearer is the memory of childhood in my mind, and these recollections are so vivid that the past becomes the present and everything connected in my heart to the memory of my dear good little nanny becomes all the more precious.’144


    At the age of six or seven the noble child was transferred from the care of a nanny to the supervision of a French or German tutor and then sent off to school. To be separated from one’s nanny was to undergo a painful rite of passage from the world of childhood to that of youth and adulthood, as Guards officer Anatoly Vereshchagin recalled. When at the age of six he was told that he would be sent to school, he was ‘frightened most of all by the thought of being separated from my nanny. I was so scared that I woke up crying in the night; I would call out for my nanny, and would plead with her not to leave me’.145 The trauma was compounded by the fact that it entailed a transition from the female-regulated sphere of childhood play to the strict male domain of the tutor and the boarding school; from the Russian-speaking nursery to a house of discipline where the child was forced to speak French. The young and innocent would no longer be protected from the harsh rules of the adult world; he would suddenly be forced to put aside the language that had expressed his childhood feelings and adopt an alien one. To lose nanny was, in short, to be wrenched from one’s own emotions as a child. But the separation could be just as difficult on the nanny’s side:

Because Fevronia Stepanovna had always spoiled me endlessly, I became a cry-baby, and a proper coward, which I came to regret later when I joined the army. My nanny’s influence paralysed the attempts of all my tutors to harden me and so I had to be sent away to boarding school. She found it difficult when I started to grow up and entered into the world of adult men. After cosseting me my whole childhood, she cried when I went swimming in the river with my elder brother and our tutor, or when I went riding, or when I first shot my father’s gun. When, years later, as a young officer, I returned home, she got ready two rooms in the house for my return, but they looked like a nursery. Every day she would place two apples by my bed. It hurt her feelings that I had brought my batman home, since she thought it was her duty to serve me. She was shocked to discover that I smoked, and I did not have the heart to tell her that I drank as well. But the greatest shock was when I went to war to fight the Serbs. She tried to dissuade me from going and then, one evening, she said that she would come with me. We would live together in a little cottage and while I went to war she would clean the house and prepare the supper for the evening. Then on holidays we would spend the day together baking pies, as we had always done, and when the war was over we would come back home with medals on


my chest. I went to sleep peacefully that night, imagining that war was just as idyllic as she thought it was… Yet I needed nanny more than I had thought. When I was nine and our Swiss tutor first arrived, my father said that I had to share a room with my elder brother and this Mr Kaderli, moving out of the room I had shared with my nanny. It turned out that I was completely unable to undress or wash myself or even go to bed without my nanny’s help. I did not know how to go to sleep without calling out for her, at least six times, to check that she was there. Getting dressed was just as hard. I had never put my own socks on.146

    It was not at all unusual for grown men and women to remain in frequent contact with their former nannies; indeed, for them to provide for them in their old age. Pushkin remained close to his old nanny, and he put her image into many of his works. In some ways she was his muse - a fact recognized by many of his friends, so that Prince Viazemsky, for example, signed off his letters to the poet with ‘a deep bow of respect and gratitude to Rodionova!’147 Pushkin loved his nanny more than anyone. Estranged from his own parents, he always called her ‘Mama’ and when she died, his was the grief of a son:

My friend in days devoid of good,
My ageing and decrepit dove!
Abandoned in a far-off wood,
You still await me with your love.
Beside the window in the hall,
As if on watch, you sit and mourn,
At times your knitting needles stall
In hands now wrinkled and forlorn.
Through long-deserted gates you peer
Upon the dark and distant way:
Forebodings, anguish, cares and fear
Constrict your weary breast today.148

    Diaghilev, as well, was famously attached to his nanny. He had never known his mother, who had died when he was born. Nanny Dunia had been born a serf on the Yevreinov estate of his mother’s family. She had nursed Diaghilev’s mother before coming as part of the dowry to his father’s family in Perm. When Diaghilev moved as a student to St Petersburg, his nanny went with him and lived as a


housekeeper in his flat. The famous Monday meetings of the ‘World of Art’ (Mir iskusstva) - the circle formed around the journal of that name from which the ideas of the Ballets Russes emerged - were all held in Diaghilev’s apartment, where Nanny Dunia presided like a hostess near the samovar.149 The painter Leon Bakst, a regular attender of these meetings, immortalized her image in his famous 1906 portrait of Diaghilev (plate 13).

Leon Bakst: Portrait of Diaghilev with his Nanny (1906).

 Diaghilev had never known his mother, who had died when he was born.

    The nanny was an almost sacred figure in that cult of childhood which the Russian gentry made its own. No other culture has been so sentimental or quite so obsessed about childhood. Where else can one find so many memoirs where the first few years of the writer’s life were given so much space? Herzen’s, Nabokov’s and Prokofiev’s - all of them inclined to linger far too long in the nursery of their memory. The essence of this cult was a hypertrophied sense of loss - loss of the ancestral home, loss of the mother or the nanny’s tender care, loss of the peasant, child-like Russia contained in fairy tales. Little wonder, then, that the cultural elites became so fixated on folklore - for it took them back to their happy childhoods, to the days when they had listened to their nannies’ tales on woodland walks and the nights when they had been sung off to sleep with lullabies. Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7), Aksakov’s Childhood Years (1856), Herzen’s Past and Thoughts (1852-68), Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1947) - this is the canon of a literary cult that reinvented childhood as a blissful and enchanted realm:

Happy, happy, irrecoverable days of childhood! How can one fail to love and cherish its memories? Those memories refresh and elevate my soul and are the source of my greatest delight.150

    The way these Russians wrote about their childhood was extraordinary, too. They all summoned up a legendary world (Aksakov’s memoirs were deliberately structured as a fairy tale), mixing myth and memory, as if they were not content to recollect their childhood, but felt a deeper need to retrieve it, even if that meant reinventing it. This same yearning to recover what Nabokov termed ‘the legendary Russia of my boyhood’ can be felt in Benois and Stravinsky’s Petrusbka (1911). This ballet expressed their shared nostalgia for the


sounds and colours which they both recalled from the fairgrounds of their St Petersburg childhoods. And it can be felt in the musical childhood fantasies of Prokofiev, from The Ugly Duckling for voice and piano (1914) to the ‘symphonic fairy tale’ Peter and the Wolf (1936), which were inspired by the bedtime tales he had heard as a small boy.

6. Competing Myths of Russian History

    ’Oh please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow.’ Thus Herzen starts his sublime memoir My Past and Thoughts, one of the greatest works of Russian literature. Born in 1812, Herzen had a special fondness for his nanny’s stories of that year. His family had been forced to flee the flames that engulfed Moscow, the young Herzen carried out in his mother’s arms, and it was only through a safe conduct from Napoleon himself that they managed to escape to their Yaroslav estate. Herzen felt great ‘pride and pleasure at [having] taken part in the Great War’. The story of his childhood merged with the national drama he so loved to hear: ‘Tales of the fire of Moscow, of the battle of Borodino, of the Berezina, of the taking of Paris were my cradle songs, my nursery stories, my Iliad and my Odyssey.’151 For Herzen’s generation, the myths of 1812 were intimately linked with their childhood memories. Even in the 1850s children were still brought up on the legends of that year.152 History, myth and memory were intertwined. For the historian Nikolai Karamzin, 1812 was a tragic year. While his Moscow neighbours moved to their estates, he refused to ‘believe that the ancient holy city could be lost’ and, as he wrote on 20 August, he chose instead to ‘die on Moscow’s walls’.153 Karamzin’s house burned down in the fires and, since he had not thought to evacuate his library, he lost his precious books to the flames as well. But Karamzin saved one book - a bulging notebook that contained the draft of his celebrated History of the Russian State (1818-26). Karamzin’s masterpiece was the first truly national history - not just in the sense that it was the first by a Russian, but also in the sense that it rendered Russia’s past as a


national narrative. Previous histories of Russia had been arcane chronicles of monasteries and saints, patriotic propaganda, or heavy tomes of documents compiled by German scholars, unread and unreadable. But Karamzin’s History had a literary quality that made its twelve large volumes a nationwide success. It combined careful scholarship with the narrative techniques of a novelist. Karamzin stressed the psychological motivations of his historical protagonists - even to the point of inventing them - so that his account became more compelling to a readership brought up on the literary conventions of Romantic texts. Medieval Tsars like Ivan the Terrible or Boris Godunov became tragic figures in Karamzin’s History - subjects for a modern psychological drama; and from its pages they walked on to the stage in operas by Musorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

    The first eight volumes of Karamzin’s History were published in 1818. ‘Three thousand copies were sold within a month - something unprecedented in our country. Everyone, even high-born ladies, began to read the history of their country,’ wrote Pushkin. ‘It was a revelation. You could say that Karamzin discovered ancient Russia as Columbus discovered America.’154 The victory of 1812 had encouraged a new interest and pride in Russia’s past. People who had been raised on the old conviction that there was no history before the reign of Peter the Great began to look back to the distant past for the sources of their country’s unexpected strengths. After 1812 history books appeared at a furious pace. Chairs were established in the universities (Gogol applied unsuccessfully for one at St Petersburg). Historical associations were set up, many in the provinces, and huge efforts were suddenly devoted to the rescuing of Russia’s past. History became the arena for all those troubling questions about Russia’s nature and its destiny. As Belinsky wrote in 1846, ‘we interrogate our past for an explanation of our present and a hint of our future.’155 This historical obsession was reinforced by the failure of the Decembrists. If Russia was no longer to pursue the Western path of history toward a modern constitutional stare, as the Decembrists and their supporters had hoped, what then was its proper destiny?

    This was the question posed by Pyotr Chaadaev, the Guards officer and foppish friend of Pushkin, in his sensational First Philosophical Letter (1826). Chaadaev was another ‘child of 1812’. He had fought at Borodino, before resigning from the army, at the


height of his career in 1821, to spend the next five years in Europe. An extreme Westernist - to the extent that he converted to the Roman Church - he was thrown into despair by Russia’s failure to take the Western path in 1825. This was the context in which he wrote his Letter - ‘at a time of madness’ (by his own admission) when he tried to take his life. ‘What have we Russians ever invented or created?’ Chaadaev wrote in 1826. ‘The time has come to stop running after others; we must take a fresh and frank look at ourselves; we must understand ourselves as we really are; we must stop lying and find the truth.’156  The First Letter was an attempt to reveal this bleak and unpalatable truth. It was more a work of history than of philosophy. Russia, it concluded, stood ‘outside of time, without a past or a future’, having played no part in the history of the world. The Roman legacy, the civilization of the Western Church and the Renaissance - these had all passed Russia by - and now, after 1825, the country was reduced to a ‘cultural void’, an ‘orphan cut off from the human family’ which could imitate the nations of the West but never become one of them. The Russians were like nomads in their land, strangers to themselves, without a sense of their own national heritage or identity.157

    To the reader in the modern world - where self-lacerating national declarations are made in the media almost every month - the cataclysmic shock of the First Letter may be hard to understand. It took away the ground from under the feet of every person who had been brought up to believe in ‘European Russia’ as their native land. The outcry was immense. Patriots demanded the public prosecution of the ‘lunatic’ for ‘the cruellest insult to our national honour’, and, on the orders of the Tsar, Chaadaev was declared insane, placed under house arrest and visited by doctors every day.158 Yet what he wrote had been felt by every thinking Russian for many years: the overwhelming sense of living in a wasteland or ‘phantom country’, as Belinsky put it, a country which they feared they might never really know; and the acute fear that, contrary to the raison d’etre of their civilization, they might never in fact catch up with the West. There were many similar expressions of this cultural pessimism after 1825. The triumph of reaction had engendered a deep loathing of


the ‘Russian way’. ‘Real patriotism’, wrote Prince Viazemsky in 1828, ‘should consist of hatred for Russia as she manifests herself at the present time.’159 The literary critic Nadezhdin (who published the First Letter in his journal Telescope) himself wrote in 1834: ‘We [the Russians] have created nothing. There is no branch of learning in which we can show something of our own. There is not a single person who could stand for Russia in the civilization of the world.’160

    The Slavophiles had an opposite response to the crisis posed by Chaadaev. They first emerged as a distinct grouping in the 1830s, when they launched their public disputes with the Westernists, but they too had their roots in 1812. The horrors of the French Revolution had led the Slavophiles to reject the universal culture of the Enlightenment and to emphasize instead those indigenous traditions that distinguished Russia from the West. This search for a more ‘Russian’ way of life was a common response to the debacle of 1825. Once it became clear that Russia would diverge from the Western path, European Russians, like Lavretsky in Turgenev’s Nest of Gentlefolk (1859), began to explore - and find virtue in - those parts of Russian culture that were different from the West:

The free-thinker began to go to church and to order prayers to be said for him; the European began to steam himself in the Russian bath, to dine at two o’clock, to go to bed at nine, and to be talked to sleep by the gossip of an old butler…161

    The Slavophiles looked first to the virtues they discerned in the patriarchal customs of the countryside - hardly surprising, given that they were born, for the most, to landed families that had lived in the same region for several hundred years. Konstantin Aksakov, the most famous and the most extremist of the Slavophiles, spent practically his entire life in one house, clinging to it, in the words of one contemporary, ‘like an oyster to his shell’.162 They idealized the common folk (narod) as the true bearer of the national character (narodnost). Slavophile folklorists such as Pyotr Kireevsky went out to the villages to transcribe the peasant songs, which they thought could be interpreted as historical expressions of the ‘Russian soul’. As devout upholders of the Orthodox ideal, they maintained that the Russian was defined by Christian sacrifice and humility. This was the foundation of the spiritual community (sobornost’) in which, they


imagined, the squire and his serfs were bound together by their patriarchal customs and Orthodox beliefs. Aksakov argued that this ‘Russian type’ was incarnated in the legendary folk hero Ilia Muromets, who appears in epic tales as protector of the Russian land against invaders and infidels, brigands and monsters, with his ‘gentle strength and lack of aggression, yet his readiness to fight in a just defensive war for the people’s cause’.* The peasant soldiers of 1812 had shown these very qualities. Myth entering history.

    * Dostoevsky shared this view. The Russians, he wrote in 1876, were ‘a people devoted to sacrifice, seeking truth and knowing where truth can be found, as honest and pure in heart as one of their high ideals, the epic hero Ilia Muromets, whom they cherish as a saint’ (F. Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, trans. K. Lantz, 2 vols. (London, 1993), vol. 1, p. 660).

    Karamzin’s History was the opening statement in a long debate on Russia’s past and future that would run right through its culture in the nineteenth century. Karamzin’s own work was squarely situated in the monarchist tradition, which portrayed the Tsarist state and its noble servitors as a force for progress and enlightenment. The overarching theme of the History was Russia’s steady advance towards the ideal of a unitary Imperial state whose greatness lay in the inherited wisdom of its Tsar and the innate obedience of its citizens. The Tsar and his nobles initiated change, while ‘the people remain silent’ (‘narod bezmolvstvuet’), as Pushkin put it in the final stage direction of Boris Godunov. Pushkin shared Karamzin’s statist view of Russian history - at least in his later years, after the collapse of his republican convictions (which were in any case extremely dubious) in 1825. In The History of Pugachev (1833) Pushkin emphasized the need for enlightened monarchy to protect the nation from the elemental violence (‘cruel and merciless’) of the Cossack rebel leader Pugachev and his peasant followers. By highlighting the role of paternal noblemen such as General Bibikov and Count Panin, who put down Pugachev yet pleaded with the Empress to soften her regime, Pushkin underscored the national leadership of the old landed gentry from which he was so proud to descend.


    In contrast to these views was the democratic trend of Russian history advanced by the Decembrists and their followers. They stressed the rebellious and freedom-loving spirit of the Russian people and idealized the medieval republics of Novgorod and Pskov, and the Cossack revolts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Pugachev’s. They believed that the common people had always been the (hidden) moving force of history - a theory largely shaped by their observation of the peasant soldiers in the war of 1812. In response to Karamzin’s famous motto ‘The history of the nation belongs to the Tsar’, the Decembrist historian Nikita Muraviev began his study with the fighting words: ‘History belongs to the people.’163

    The origins of Russia was a major battlefield in this war between historians. Monarchists subscribed to the so-called Norman theory, originally devised by German historians in the eighteenth century, which maintained that the first ruling princes had arrived in Russia from Scandinavia (in the ninth century) by invitation from the warring Slavic tribes. The only real evidence for this argument was the Primary Chronicle - an eleventh-century account of the founding of the Kievan state in 862 - which had probably been written to justify what actually amounted to the Scandinavian conquest of Russia. The theory became increasingly untenable as nineteenth-century archaeologists drew attention to the advanced culture of the Slavic tribes in southern Russia. A picture emerged of a civilization stretching back to the ancient Scythians, the Goths, the Romans and the Greeks. Yet the Norman theory was a good foundation myth for the defenders of autocracy - supposing, as it did, that without a monarchy the Russians were incapable of governance. In Karamzin’s words, before the establishment of princely rule, Russia had been nothing but an ‘empty space’ with ‘wild and warring tribes, living on a level with the beasts and birds’.164 Against that the democrats maintained that the Russian state had evolved spontaneously from the native customs of the Slavic tribes. According to this view, long before the Varangians arrived the Slavs had set up their own government, whose republican liberties were gradually destroyed by the imposition of princely rule. Versions of the argument were made by all those groups who believed in the natural predilection of the Slavic people for democracy: not just the Decembrists but left-wing Slavophiles, Polish historians (who used it to denounce the Tsarist system in Poland), and Populist historians in the Ukraine and (later on) in Russia, too.


    Another battlefield was medieval Novgorod - the greatest monument to Russian liberty and, in the Decembrist view, historic proof of the people’s right to rule themselves. Along with nearby Pskov, Novgorod was a flourishing civilization connected to the Hanseatic League of German trading towns prior to its conquest by Tsar Ivan III and its subjugation to Muscovy during the late fifteenth century. The Decembrists made a cult of the city republic. As a symbol of the people’s long-lost freedoms, they saw its veche, or assembly, as a sacred legacy connecting Russia to the democratic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. The teenage members of the ‘holy artel’ (1814-17) - among them several of the future Decembrists - opened all their meetings with the ceremonial ringing of the veche bell. In their manifestos the Decembrists used the terminology of medieval Novgorod, calling the future parliament the ‘national veche‘.165 The myth of Novgorod took on a new meaning and subversive power after the suppression of their uprising. In 1830 Lermontov wrote a poem entitled Novgorod (‘Brave sons of the Slavs, for what did you die?’), in which it was left deliberately unclear whether it was the fallen heroes of medieval Novgorod or the freedom fighters of 1825 whose loss was to be mourned. The same nostalgic note was struck by Dimtry Venevitanov in his pro-Decembrist poem Novgorod (1826):

                        Answer great city:
Where are your glorious days of liberty,
When your voice, the scourge of kings,
Rang true like the bells at your noisy assembly?
Say, where are those times?
They are so far away, oh, so far away!166

    The monarchist perception of medieval Novgorod formed a stark contrast. According to Karamzin, Moscow’s conquest of the city was a necessary step towards the creation of a unitary state, and was recognized as such by its citizens. This submission was a sign of the Russian people’s wisdom, in Karamzin’s view: they recognized that freedom was worth nothing without order and security. The Novgorodians were thus the original consenting members in the leviathan of autocracy. They chose the protection of the Tsar in order to


save themselves from their own internal squabbles, which had played into the hands of the city’s boyars, who became despotic and corrupt and who threatened to sell out to the neighbouring state of Lithuania. Karamzin’s version was almost certainly closer to the historical truth than the Decembrists’ vision of an egalitarian and harmonious republican democracy. Yet it too was a justifying myth. For Karamzin the lesson to be learned from his History was clear: that republics were more likely to become despotic than autocracies - and a lesson well worth underlining after the collapse of the French republic into the Napoleonic dictatorship.

    The War of 1812 was itself a battlefield for these competing myths of Russian history. This was shown by its commemoration in the nineteenth century. For the Decembrists, 1812 was a people’s war. It was the point at which the Russians came of age, the moment when they passed from childhood into adult citizens, and with their triumphant entry into Europe, they should have joined the family of European states. But for the defenders of the status quo, the war symbolized the holy triumph of the Russian autocratic principle, which alone saved Europe from Napoleon. It was a time when the Tsarist state emerged as God’s chosen agent in a new historical dispensation.

    The regime’s image of itself was set in stone with the Alexandrine Column, built, ironically, by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand on Palace Square in Petersburg, and opened on the twentieth anniversary of the battle of Borodino. The angel on the top of the column was given the Tsar Alexander’s face.167 Five years later, work began in Moscow on a larger monument to the divine mission of the Russian monarchy - the grandiose Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on a site overlooking the Kremlin walls. Half war museum and half church, it was intended to commemorate the miraculous salvation of Moscow in 1812. Constantin Ton’s design echoed the architectural language of the ancient Russian Church, but enlarged its proportions to an imperial scale. This colossal cathedral was the tallest building in Moscow when it was completed, after fifty years, in 1883, and even today, reconstructed after Stalin had it blown up in 1931 (one death sentence that might be justified on artistic grounds), it still dominates the cityscape.

 8. Monument to the millennium of Russia in the square

in front of St Sophia’s Cathedral, Novgorod


    Throughout the nineteenth century these two images of 1812 - as a national liberation or imperial salvation - continued to compete for the public meaning of the war. On the one side was Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a truly national drama which tells its history from the viewpoint of the noble and the serf. On the other were the monuments in stone, the triumphant arches and gates of victory in the pompous ‘Empire style’ that trumpeted Russia’s imperial might; or the sound of all those cannons in Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812. Even in the early1860s, when there were high hopes for national unity in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs, these two visions were at loggerheads. The fiftieth anniversary of 1812 coincided with the millennium of the Russian state in 1862. The millennium was


due to be commemorated in the spring in (of all symbolic places) Novgorod. But the Emperor Alexander II ordered its postponement to 26 August - the anniversary of the battle of Borodino and the sacred date of his own coronation in 1856. By merging these three anniversaries, the Romanov dynasty was attempting to reinvent itself as a national institution, consecrated by the holy victory of 1812, and one as old as the Russian state itself. The granite monument unveiled in Novgorod was a symbol of this claim. Shaped like the bell of the Novgorod assembly, it was encircled by a band of bas-reliefs with the sculptures of those figures - saints and princes, generals and warriors, scientists and artists - who had shaped a thousand years of Russian history. The great bell was crowned by Mother Russia, bearing in one hand the Orthodox cross and in the other a shield emblazoned with the Romanov insignia. The Decembrists were irate. Volkonsky, who had by now returned from his thirty years of exile, told Tolstoy that the monument had ‘trampled on the sacred memory of Novgorod as well as on the graves of all those heroes who fought for our freedom in 1812’.168

7.  Volkonsky’s Return from Exile and Emancipation

    ’He is an enthusiast, a mystic and a Christian, with high ideals for the new Russia,’ Tolstoy wrote to Herzen after meeting Volkonsky in 1859.169 A distant cousin of the Decembrist, Tolstoy was extremely proud of his Volkonsky heritage. Having lost his mother at the age of three, he had more than just an academic interest in researching the background of her family: for him, it was an emotional necessity. Sergei Volkonsky was a childhood hero of Tolstoy’s (all the Decembrists were idolized by the progressive youths of Tolstoy’s age) and in time he became the inspiration for Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace.170 Much of Tolstoy’s commitment to the peasants, not to mention his desire to become one himself, was inspired by the example of his exiled relative.


    In 1859 Tolstoy started a school for peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana, the old Volkonsky estate that had passed down to him on his mother’s side. The estate had a special meaning for Tolstoy. He had been born in the manor house - on a dark green leather sofa which he kept throughout his life in the study where he wrote his great novels. He spent his childhood on the estate, until the age of nine, when he moved to Moscow with his father. More than an estate, Yasnaya Polyana was his ancestral nest, the place where his childhood memories were kept, and the little patch of Russia where he felt he most belonged. ‘I wouldn’t sell the house for anything,’ Tolstoy told his brother in 1852. ‘It’s the last thing I’d be prepared to part with.’171 Yasnaya Polyana had been purchased by Tolstoy’s great-grandmother, Maria Volkonsky, in 1763. His grandfather, Nikolai Volkonsky, had developed it as a cultural space, building the splendid manor house, with its large collection of European books, the landscaped park and lakes, the spinning factory, and the famous white stone entrance gates that served as a post station on the road from Tula to Moscow. As a boy, Tolstoy idolized his grandfather. He fantasized that he was just like him.172 This ancestor cult, which was at the emotional core of Tolstoy’s conservatism, was expressed in Eugene, the hero of his story ‘The Devil’ (1889):

It is generally supposed that Conservatives are old people, and that those in favour of change are the young. That is not quite correct. Usually Conservatives are young people: those who want to live but who do not think about how to live, and have not time to think, and therefore take as a model for themselves a way of life that they have seen. Thus it was with Eugene. Having settled in the village, his aim and ideal was to restore the form of life that had existed, not in his father’s time… but in his grandfather’s.173

    Nikolai Volkonsky was brought back to life as Andrei’s father Nikolai Bolkonsky in War and Peace - the retired general, proud and independent, who spends his final years on the estate at Bald Hill, dedicating himself to the education of his daughter called (like Tolstoy’s mother) Maria.


   War and Peace was originally conceived as a ‘Decembrist novel’, loosely based on the life story of Sergei Volkonsky. But the more the writer researched into the Decembrists, the more he realized that their intellectual roots lay in the war of 1812. In the novel’s early form (The Decembrist) the Decembrist hero returns after thirty years of exile in Siberia to the intellectual ferment of the late 1850s. A second Alexandrine reign has just begun, with the accession of Alexander II to the throne in 1855, and once again, as in 1825, high hopes for political reform are in the air. It was with such hopes that Volkonsky returned to Russia in 1856 and wrote about a new life based on truth:

Falsehood. This is the sickness of the Russian state. Falsehood and its sisters, hypocrisy and cynicism. Russia could not exist without them. Yet surely the point is not just to exist but to exist with dignity. And if we want to be honest with ourselves, then we must recognize that if Russia cannot exist otherwise than she existed in the past, then she does not deserve to exist.174

    To live in truth, or, more importantly, to live in truth in Russia - these were the questions of Tolstoy’s life and work, and the main concerns of War and Peace. They were first articulated by the men of 1812.

    Volkonsky’s release from exile was one of the first acts of the new Tsar. Of the 121 Decembrists who had been sent into exile in 1826, only nineteen lived to return to Russia in 1856. Sergei himself was a broken man, and his health never really recovered from the hardships of Siberia. Forbidden to settle in the two main cities, he was none the less a frequent guest in the Moscow houses of the Slavophiles, who saw his gentle nature, his patient suffering, his simple ‘peasant’ lifestyle and his closeness to the land as quintessential ‘Russian’ qualities.175 Moscow’s students idolized Volkonsky. With his long white beard and hair, his sad, expressive face, ‘pale and tender like the moon’, he was regarded as a ‘sort of Christ who had emerged from the Russian wilderness’.176 A symbol of the democratic cause that had been interrupted by the oppressive regime of Nicholas I, Volkonsky was a living connection between the Decembrists and the Populists, who emerged as the people’s champions in the 1860s and 1870s. Volkonsky himself remained true to the ideals of 1812. He continued to reject the values of the bureaucratic state and the aristocracy and, in the spirit of the Decembrists, he continued to uphold the civic obligation to live an honest life in the service of the people, who embodied the nation.


‘You know from experience,’ he wrote to his son Misha (now serving in the army in the Amur region) in 1857, ‘that I have never tried to persuade you of my own political convictions - they belong to me. In your mother’s scheme you


were directed towards the governmental sphere, and I gave my blessing when you went into the service of the Fatherland and Tsar. But I always taught you to conduct yourself without lordly airs when dealing with your comrades from a different class. You made your own way - without the patronage of your grandmother - and knowing that, my friend, will give me peace until the day when I go to my grave.177

 9. Maria Volkonsky and her son Misha. Daguerreotype, 1862.

Maria was suffering from a kidney disease and died a year later.

    Volkonsky’s notion of the Fatherland was intimately linked with his idea of the Tsar: he saw the sovereign as a symbol of Russia. Throughout his life he remained a monarchist - so much so indeed that when he heard about the death of Nicholas I, the Tsar who had sent him into exile thirty years before, Volkonsky broke down and cried like a child. ‘Your father weeps all day’, Maria wrote to Misha, ‘it is already the third day and I don’t know what to do with him.’178 Perhaps Volkonsky was grieving for the man he had known as a boy. Or perhaps his death was a catharsis of the suffering he had endured in Siberia. But Volkonsky’s tears were tears for Russia, too: he saw the Tsar as the Empire’s single unifying force and was afraid for his country now that the Tsar was dead.

    Volkonsky’s trust in the Russian monarchy was not returned. The former exile was kept under almost constant police surveillance on the orders of the Tsar after his return from Siberia. He was refused the restoration of his princely title and his property. But what hurt him most was the government’s refusal to return his medals from the war of 1812.* Thirty years of exile had not changed his love for Russia. He followed the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856 with obsessive interest and was deeply stirred by the heroism of the defenders at Sevastopol (among them the young Tolstoy). The old soldier (at the age of sixty-four) had even petitioned to join them as a humble private in the infantry, and it was only his wife’s pleading that eventually dissuaded him. He saw the war as a return to the spirit of 1812, and he was convinced that Russia would again be victorious against the French.179

    * Eventually, after several years of petitioning, the Tsar returned them in 1864. But other forms of recognition took longer. In 1822 the English artist George Dawe was commissioned to paint Volkonsky’s portrait for the ‘Gallery of Heroes’: portraits of the military leaders of 1812 - in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. After the Decembrist uprising Volkonsky’s portrait was removed, leaving a black square in the line-up of portraits. In 1903 Volkonsky’s nephew, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Hermitage, petitioned Tsar Nicholas II to restore the picture to its rightful place. ‘Yes, of course,’ replied the Tsar, ‘it was so long ago’ (S. M. Volkonskii, O dekabristakh: po semeinum vospominaniiam (Moscow, 1994), p. 87).


    It was not. Yet Russia’s defeat made more likely Volkonsky’s second hope: the emancipation of the serfs. The new Tsar, Alexander II, was another child of 1812. He had been educated by the liberal poet Vasily Zhukovsky, who had been appointed tutor to the court in 1817. In 1822 Zhukovsky had set free the serfs on his estate. His humanism had a major influence on the future Tsar. The defeat in the Crimean War had persuaded Alexander that Russia could not compete with the Western powers until it swept aside its old serf economy and modernized itself. The gentry had very little idea how to make a profit from their estates. Most of them knew next to nothing about agriculture or accounting. Yet they went on spending in the same old lavish way as they had always done, mounting up enormous debts. By 1859, one-third of the estates and two-thirds of the serfs owned by the landed nobles had been mortgaged to the state and noble banks. Many of the smaller landowners could barely afford to feed their serfs. The economic argument for emancipation was becoming irrefutable, and many landowners were shifting willy-nilly to the free labour system by contracting other people’s serfs. Since the peasantry’s redemption payments would cancel out the gentry’s debts, the economic rationale was becoming equally irresistible.*

    * Under the terms of emancipation the peasants were obliged to pay redemption dues on the communal lands which were transferred to them. These repayments, calculated by the gentry’s own land commissions, were to be repaid over a 49-year period to the state, which recompensed the gentry in 1861. Thus, in effect, the serfs bought their freedom by paying off their masters’ debts. The redemption payments became increasingly difficult to collect, not least because the peasantry regarded them as unjust from the start. They were finally cancelled in 1905.

    But there was more than money to the arguments. The Tsar believed that the emancipation was a necessary measure to prevent a revolution from below. The soldiers who had fought in the Crimean War had been led to expect their freedom, and in the first six years of Alexander’s reign, before the emancipation was decreed, there were 500 peasant uprisings against the gentry on the land.180 Like


Volkonsky, Alexander was convinced that emancipation was, in Volkonsky’s words, a ‘question of justice… a moral and a Christian obligation, for every citizen who loves his Fatherland’.181 As the Decembrist explained in a letter to Pushchin, the abolition of serfdom was ‘the least the state could do to recognize the sacrifice the peasantry has made in the last two wars: it is time to recognize that the Russian peasant is a citizen as well’.182

    In 1858 the Tsar appointed a special commission to formulate proposals for the emancipation in consultation with provincial gentry committees. Under pressure from the diehard squires to limit the reform or to fix the rules for the land transfers in their favour, the commission became bogged down in political wrangling for the best part of two years. Having waited all his life for this moment, Volkonsky was afraid that he ‘might die before emancipation came to pass’.183 The old prince was sceptical of the landed gentry, knowing their resistance to the spirit of reform and fearing their ability to obstruct the emancipation or use it to increase their exploitation of the peasantry. Although not invited on to any commission, Volkonsky sketched out his own progressive plans for the emancipation, in which he envisaged a state bank to advance loans to individual peasants to buy small plots of the gentry’s land as private property. The peasants would repay these loans by working their allotments of communal land.184 Volkonsky’s programme was not dissimilar to the land reforms of Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister and last reformist hope of Tsarist Russia between 1906 and 1911. Had such a programme been implemented in 1861, Russia might have become a more prosperous place.

    In the end the diehard gentry was defeated and the moderate reformists got their way, thanks in no small measure to the personal intervention of the Tsar. The Law of the Emancipation was signed by Alexander on 19 February 1861. It was not as far-reaching as the peasantry had hoped, and there were rebellions in many areas. The Law allowed landowners considerable leeway in choosing the bits of land for transfer to the peasantry - and in setting the price for them. Overall, perhaps half the farming land in European Russia was transferred from the gentry’s ownership to the communal tenure of the peasantry, although the precise proportion depended largely on the landowner’s will. Owing to the growth of the population it was still far from enough to liberate the peasantry from poverty. Even on


the old estates of Sergei Volkonsky, where the prince’s influence ensured that nearly all the land was transferred to the peasants, there remained a shortage of agricultural land, and by the middle of the 1870s there were angry demonstrations by the peasantry.185 None the less, despite its disappointment for the peasantry, the emancipation was a crucial watershed. Freedom of a sort, however limited it may have been in practice, had at last been granted to the mass of the people, and there were grounds to hope for a national rebirth, and reconciliation between the landowners and the peasantry. The liberal spirit of 1812 had triumphed in the end - or so it seemed.

    Prince Volkonsky was in Nice when he heard the news of the decree. That evening he attended a thanksgiving service at the Russian church. At the sound of the choir he broke down into tears. It was, he said later, the ‘happiest moment of my life’.186 Volkonsky died in 1865 - two years after Maria. His health, weakened in exile, was broken by her death, but right to the end his spirit was intact. During these last months he wrote his memoirs. He died, pen in hand, in the middle of a sentence where he started to recount that vital moment after his arrest when he was interrogated by the Tsar: ‘The Emperor said to me: “I…”.’ Towards the end of his memoirs Volkonsky wrote a sentence which the censors cut from the first edition (not published until 1903). It could have served as his epitaph: ‘The path I chose led me to Siberia, to exile from my homeland for thirty years, but my convictions have not changed, and I would do the same again.’187



Chapter 3: Moscow! Moscow!

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, during the late nineteenth century



Chapter 3: Moscow! Moscow!

1. Moscow
2. St. Petersburg
3. Moscow: A city of gourmands and massive banquets
4. ‘Neo-Russian’ style in crafts, architecture and music
5. The Debate over Russian Identity in the Arts
6.  Moscow Becomes a Metropolis: Rise of the Merchant Class
Moscow’s paradox - a progressive city whose mythic self-image was in the distant past
8. The Moscow Arts Theatre and Chekhov’s Plays
9. Moscow: the Centre of the Avant-garde


1. Moscow

    ’There it is at last, this famous town,’ Napoleon remarked as he surveyed Moscow from the Sparrow Hills. The city’s palaces and golden cupolas, sparkling in the sun, were spread out spaciously across the plain, and on the far side he could just make out a long black column of people coiling out of the distant gates. ‘Are they abandoning all this?’ the Emperor exclaimed. ‘It isn’t possible!’1

    The French found Moscow empty, like a ‘dying queenless hive’.2 The mass exodus had begun in August, when news of the defeat at Smolensk had arrived in Moscow, and it reached fever pitch after Borodino, when Kutuzov fell back to the outskirts of the city and finally decided to abandon it. The rich (like the Rostovs in War and Peace) packed up their belongings and left by horse and cart for their country houses. The poor walked, carrying their children, their chickens crated on to carts, their cows following behind. One witness recalled that the roads as far as Riazan were blocked by refugees.3

    As Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin palace, incendiaries set fire to the trading stalls by its eastern wall. The fires had been ordered by Count Rostopchin, the city’s governor, as an act of sacrifice to rob the French of supplies and force them to retreat. Soon the whole of Moscow was engulfed in flames. The novelist Stendhal (serving in the Quartermaster’s section of Napoleon’s staff) described it as a ‘pyramid of copper coloured smoke’ whose ‘base is on the earth and whose spire rises towards the heavens’. By the third day, the Kremlin was surrounded by the flames, and Napoleon was forced to flee. He fought his way ‘through a wall of fire’, according to Segur, ‘to the crash of collapsing floors and ceilings, falling rafters and melting iron roofs’. All the time he expressed his outrage, and his admiration, at the Russian sacrifice. ‘What a people! They are Scythians! What resoluteness! The barbarians!’4 By the time the fires were burnt out, on 20 September 1812, four-fifths of the city had been destroyed. Re-entering Moscow, Segur ‘found only a few scattered houses standing in the midst of the ruins’.


    This stricken giant, scorched and blackened, exhaled a horrible stench. Heaps of ashes and an occasional section of a wall or a broken column alone indicated the existence of streets. In the poorer quarters scattered groups of men and women, their clothes almost burnt off them, were wandering around like ghosts.5

    All the city’s churches and palaces were looted, if not already burned. Libraries and other national treasures were lost to the flames. In a fit of anger Napoleon instructed that the Kremlin be mined as an act of retribution for the fires that had robbed him of his greatest victory. The Arsenal was blown up and part of the medieval walls were destroyed. But the Kremlin churches all survived. Three weeks later, the first snow fell. Winter had come early and unexpectedly. Unable to survive without supplies in the ruined city, the French were forced to retreat.

    Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace that every Russian felt Moscow to be a mother. There was a sense in which it was the nation’s ‘home’, even for members of the most Europeanized elite of Petersburg. Moscow was a symbol of the old Russia, the place where ancient Russian customs were preserved. Its history went back to the twelfth century, when Prince Dolgoruky of Suzdal built a rough log fortress on the site of the Kremlin. At that time Kiev was the capital of Christian Rus’. But the Mongol occupation of the next two centuries crushed the Kievan states, leaving Moscow’s princes to consolidate their wealth and power by collaboration with the khans. Moscow’s rise was symbolized by the building of the Kremlin, which took shape in the fourteenth century, as impressive palaces and white-stoned cathedrals with golden onion domes began to appear within the fortress walls. Eventually, as the khanates weakened, Moscow led the nation’s liberation, starting with the battle of Kulikovo Field against the Golden Horde in 1380 and ending in the defeat of the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s, when it finally emerged as the capital of Russia’s cultural life.

    To mark that final victory Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square. St Basil’s symbolized the triumphant restoration of the Orthodox traditions of Byzantium. Originally named the Intercession of the Virgin (to mark the fact that the Tatar capital of Kazan had been captured on that sacred feast day in 1552), the cathedral signaled Moscow’s role as the capital of a


religious crusade against the Tatar nomads of the steppe. This Imperial mission was set out in the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome, a doctrine which St Basil’s set in stone. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow saw itself as the last surviving centre of the Orthodox religion, as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, and as such the saviour of mankind. Moscow’s princes claimed the imperial title ‘Tsar’ (a Russian derivation of ‘Caesar’); they added the double-headed eagle of the Byzantine emperors to the figure of St George on their coat of arms. The backing of the Church was fundamental to Moscow’s emergence as the mother city of Holy Rus’. In 1326 the Metropolitan had moved the centre of the Russian Church from Vladimir to Moscow and, from that point on, Moscow’s enemies were branded the enemies of Christ. The union of Moscow and Orthodoxy was cemented in the churches and the monasteries, with their icons and their frescoes, which remain the glory of medieval Russian art. According to folklore, Moscow boasted ‘forty times forty’ churches. The actual number was a little over 200 (until the fires of 1812), but Napoleon, it seems, was sufficiently impressed by his hilltop view of the city’s golden domes to repeat the mythic figure in a letter to the Empress Josephine.

    By razing the medieval city to the ground, the fires carried out what Russia’s eighteenth-century rulers always hoped for. Peter the Great had hated Moscow: it embodied the archaic in his realm. Moscow was a centre of the Old Believers - devout adherents of the Russian Orthodox rituals which had been observed before the Nikonian Church reforms of the 1650s (most contentiously, an alteration to the number of fingers used in making the sign of the cross) had brought them into line with those of the Greek Orthodox liturgy. The Old Believers clung to their ancient rituals as the embodiment of their religious faith. They saw the reforms as a heresy, a sign that the Devil had gained a hold on the Russian Church and state, and many of them fled to the remote regions of the north, or even killed themselves in mass suicides, in the belief that the world would end. The Old Believers pinned their faith on Moscow’s messianic destiny as the Third Rome, the last true seat of Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople. They explained its capture by the Turks as a divine punishment for the reunion of the Greek Orthodox Church with Rome at the Council of Florence in 1439. Fearful and mistrustful of the


West, or any innovation from the outside world, they lived in tightly knit patriarchal communities which, like medieval Moscow, were inward-looking and enclosed. They regarded Peter as the Antichrist - his city on the Baltic as a kingdom of the Devil and apocalypse. Many of the darker legends about Petersburg had their origins in the Old Belief.

    With the building of St Petersburg, Moscow’s fortunes had declined rapidly. Its population had fallen, as half the city’s craftsmen, traders and nobility were forced to resettle in the Baltic capital. Moscow had been reduced to a provincial capital (Pushkin compared it to a faded dowager queen in purple mourning clothes obliged to curtsy before a new king) and until the middle of the nineteenth century it retained the character of a sleepy hollow. With its little wooden houses and narrow winding lanes, its mansions with their stables and enclosed courtyards, where cows and sheep were allowed to roam, Moscow had a distinct rural feel. It was called ‘the big village’ - a nickname it has retained to this day. As Catherine the Great saw it, though, Moscow was ‘the seat of sloth’ whose vast size encouraged the nobility to live in ‘idleness and luxury’. It was ‘full of symbols of fanaticism, churches, miraculous icons, priests and convents, side by side with thieves and brigands’,6 the very incarnation of the old medieval Russia which the Empress wished to sweep away. When in the early 1770s the Black Death swept through the city and several thousand houses needed to be burned, she thought to clear the lot. Plans were drawn up to rebuild the city in the European image of St Petersburg - a ring of squares and plazas linked by tree-lined boulevards, quays and pleasure parks. The architects Vasily Bazhenov and Matvei Kazakov persuaded Catherine to replace the greater part of the medieval Kremlin with new classical structures. Some demolition did take place, but the project was postponed for lack of cash.

    After 1812 the centre of the city was finally rebuilt in the European style. The fire had cleared space for the expansive principles of classicism and, as Colonel Skalozub assures us in Griboedov’s drama Woe from Wit, it ‘improved the look of Moscow quite a lot’.7 Red Square was opened up through the removal of the old trading stalls that had given it the feeling of an enclosed market rather than an open public space. Three new avenues were laid out in a fan shape from the square. Twisting little lanes were flattened to make room for


broad straight boulevards. The first of several planned ensembles, Theatre Square, with the Bolshoi Theatre at its centre, was completed in 1824, followed shortly after by the Boulevard and Garden Rings (still today the city’s main ring roads) and the Alexander Gardens laid out by the Kremlin’s western walls.8 Private money poured into the building of the city, which became a standard of the national revival after 1812, and it was not long before the central avenues were lined by graceful mansions and Palladian palaces. Every noble family felt instinctively the need to reconstruct their old ancestral home, so Moscow was rebuilt with fantastic speed. Tolstoy compared what happened to the way that ants return to their ruined heap, dragging off bits of rubbish, eggs and corpses, and reconstructing their old life with renewed energy. It showed that there was ‘something indestructible’ which, though intangible, was ‘the real strength of the colony’.9

    Yet in all this frenzy of construction there was never slavish imitation of the West. Moscow always mixed the European with its own distinctive style. Classical facades were softened by the use of warm pastel colours, large round bulky forms and Russian ornament. The overall effect was to radiate an easygoing charm that was entirely absent from the cold austerity and imperial grandeur of St Petersburg. Petersburg’s style was dictated by the court and by European fashion; Moscow’s was set more by the Russian provinces. The Moscow aristocracy was really an extension of the provincial gentry. It spent the summer in the country and came to Moscow in October for the winter season of balls and banquets, returning to its estates in the countryside as soon as the roads were passable following the thaw. Moscow was located in the centre of the Russian lands, an economic crossroads between north and south, Europe and the Asiatic steppe. As its empire had expanded, Moscow had absorbed these diverse influences and imposed its own style on the provinces. Kazan was typical. The old khanate capital took on the image of its Russian conqueror - its kremlin, its monasteries, its houses and its churches all built in the Moscow style. Moscow, in this sense, was the cultural capital of the Russian provinces.

    But oriental customs and colours and motifs were also to be seen on Moscow’s streets. The poet Konstantin Batiushkov saw the city as a ‘bizarre mix’ of East and West. It was an ‘amazing and incomprehensible confluence of superstition and magnificence, ignorance


and enlightenment’, which led him to the disturbing conclusion that Peter had ‘accomplished a great deal - but he did not finish anything’.10 In the image of Moscow one could still make out the influence of Genghiz Khan. This Asiatic element was a source of magic and barbarity. ‘If there were minarets instead of churches’, wrote the critic Belinsky, ‘one might be in one of those wild oriental cities that Scheherazade used to tell about.’11 The Marquis de Custine considered that Moscow’s cupolas were like ‘oriental domes that transport you to Delhi, while donjon-keeps and turrets bring you back to Europe at the time of the crusades’.12 Napoleon thought its churches were like mosques.13

    Moscow’s semi-oriental nature was given full expression in the so-called neo-Byzantine style of architecture that dominated its reconstruction in the 1830s and 1840s. The term is misleading, for the architecture was in fact quite eclectic, mixing elements of the neo-Gothic and medieval Russian styles with Byzantine and classical motifs. The term was fostered by Nicholas I and his ideologists to signal Russia’s cultural turning away from the West in the wake of the suppression of the Decembrists. The Tsar sympathized with a Slavophile world view that associated Russia with the eastern traditions of Byzantium. Churches like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, with its onion domes and belltowers, its tent roofs and kokoshnik pediments, combined elements of the Greek-Byzantine and medieval Russian styles. With buildings such as this, Moscow’s rebirth was soon mythologized as a national renaissance, a conscious rejection of the European culture of St Petersburg in favour of a return to the ancient native traditions of Muscovy.

    The opposition between Moscow and St Petersburg was fundamental to the ideological arguments between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles about Russia’s cultural destiny. The Westernizers held up Petersburg as the model of their Europe-led ideas for Russia, while the Slavophiles idealized Moscow as a centre of the ancient Russian way of life. The Slavophile ideal of a spiritual community united by homegrown Russian customs seemed to be embodied in the medieval contours of the town - the Kremlin walls so firmly rooted to the ground that they seemed to grow from it. The city’s tightly knit communities, its homely character, symbolized the familial spirit of old Rus’.


    Moscow’s mythic self-image was all about its ‘Russian character’. The Moscow way of life was more provincial, it was closer to the habits of the Russian people than the gentry’s way of life in Petersburg. Moscow’s palaces resembled small estates. They were spacious and expansive, built for entertaining on a massive scale, with large central courtyards that functioned as farms, with pens for cows and poultry, vegetable allotments, sheds for storing produce brought in from the country for the winter months and, in some of the larger mansions, like Zinaida Volkonsky’s on the Tver Boulevard, extensive greenhouses for growing exotic winter fruits.* The poet Batiushkov has left a good description of the old-world country atmosphere in a Moscow noble house:

The mansion is built around a big courtyard which is full of litter and firewood; behind there is a garden with vegetables, and at the front a large porch with rails, as they used to have at the country houses of our grandfathers. Entering the house, you will come across the doorman playing cards - he plays from morning until night. The rooms are without wallpaper - the walls are covered in large portraits, on one side with heads of Russian Tsars, and on the other Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes on a large silver dish, and a naked Cleopatra with a snake: marvelous creations by the hand of a domestic servant. We see the table laid with bowls of cabbage soup, sweet pea porridge, baked mushrooms and bottles of kvas. The host is dressed in a sheepskin coat, the hostess in a coat; on the right side of the table are the parish priest, the parish teacher and the Holy Fool; on the left - a crowd of children, the old witchdoctor, a French madame and a German tutor.14

    * The ground floor of the Volkonsky (Beloselsky) house was later taken over by the Eliseev shop, the ‘Russian Fortnum and Mason’, which remains there today.

    The interior of the Moscow palace was arranged for private comfort rather than public display. ‘All the rooms are furnished with rich carpets,’ remarked Batiushkov, ‘with mirrors, chandeliers, armchairs and divans - everything designed to make one feel at home.’15 The Moscow mansion was cozy and domestic, almost bourgeois, by comparison with the more formal palaces of Petersburg. The Empire style, which in Petersburg was principally expressed in a grandiose public architecture, manifested itself in Moscow in the opulence of


the ornament and furnishing of private noble space.16 The Moscow mansion of the Sheremetev clan, the Staraya Vozdizhenka, had no formal reception rooms as such. The living rooms were cluttered with furniture, plants and ornaments, and the walls all covered with family portraits and icons with their votive lamps.17 This was where the Muscovite love of comfort met the Victorian aesthetics of the European middle class. The Sheremetevs called their Moscow house the ‘family refuge’. Owning as they did their most ancient lands in the Moscow region (including the estate that is occupied today by the city’s main airport at Sheremetevo), they thought of the old city as their home. ‘All our family traditions, all our historical connections to Russia, drew me back to Moscow,’ recalled Sergei Sheremetev, the grandson of Nikolai Petrovich, ‘and every time I returned to Moscow I felt spiritually renewed.’18

    Sergei’s feeling was a common one. Many Russians felt that Moscow was a place where they could be more ‘Russian’, more at ease with themselves. Here was a city that reflected their spontaneous and relaxed character. One that shared their love of the good life. ‘Petersburg is our head, Moscow is our heart’, went a Russian proverb. Gogol drew the contrast in another way:

Petersburg is an accurate, punctual kind of person, a perfect German, and he looks at everything in a calculated way. Before he gives a party, he will look into his accounts. Moscow is a Russian nobleman, and if he’s going to have a good time, he’ll go all the way until he drops, and he won’t worry about how much he’s got in his pockets. Moscow does not like halfway measures… Petersburg likes to tease Moscow for his awkwardness and lack of taste. Moscow reproaches Petersburg because he doesn’t know how to speak Russian… Russia needs Moscow, Petersburg needs Russia.19

2. St. Petersburg

    The idea of Moscow as a ‘Russian’ city developed from the notion of St Petersburg as a foreign civilization. The literary conception of St Petersburg as an alien and an artificial place became commonplace after 1812, as the romantic yearning for a more authentically national way of life seized hold of the literary imagination. But the foreign character of Petersburg had always been a part of its popular mythology. From the moment it was built, traditionalists attacked it for its European ways. Among the Old Believers, the Cossacks and the peasants, rumours spread that Peter was a German, and not the real Tsar, largely on account of the foreigners he had brought to


Petersburg and the attendant evils of European dress, tobacco, and the shaving-off of beards. By the middle of the eighteenth century there was a thriving underground mythology of tales and rumours about Petersburg. Stories abounded of the ghost of Peter walking through the streets, of weird mythic beasts hopping over churches, or of all-destroying floods washing up the skeletons of those who had perished in the building of the town.20 This oral genre later nourished in the literary salons of St Petersburg and Moscow, where writers such as Pushkin and Odoevsky used it as the basis of their own ghost stories from the capital. And so the myth of Petersburg took shape - an unreal city that was alien to Russia, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, a kingdom of oppression and apocalypse.

    Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman - subtitled a ‘Tale of Petersburg’ - was the founding text of this literary myth. The poem was inspired by Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great which stands on Senate Square as the city’s genus loci. Like the poem that would make it so famous, the statue symbolized the dangerous underpinning of the capital’s imperial grandeur - on the one hand trumpeting Peter’s dazzling achievements in surpassing nature and, on the other, leaving it unclear to what extent he actually controlled the horse. Was he about to fall or soar up into space? Was he urging his mount on or trying to restrain it in the face of some catastrophe? The horseman seemed to teeter on the edge of an abyss, held back only by the taut reins of his steed.21 The huge granite rock - so wild in its appearance - on which the statue stood, was itself an emblem of the tragic struggle between man and nature. The city hewn in stone is never wholly safe from the incursions of the watery chaos from which it was claimed, and this sense of living on the edge was wonderfully conveyed by Falconet.

Etienne-Maurice Falconet: The Bronze Horseman.
Monument to Peter the Great, 1782

       In 1909 a technical commission inspected the statue. Engineers bored holes into the bronze. They had to pump out 1,500 litres of water from inside.22 Without protective dikes, flooding was a constant threat to Petersburg. Pushkin set his poem in 1824, the year of one such flood. The Bronze Horseman tells the story of the flood and a sad clerk called Eugene, who finds the house of his beloved,


Parasha, washed away. Driven to the verge of madness, Eugene roams the city and, coming across Falconet’s horseman, castigates the Tsar for having built a city at the mercy of the flood. The statue stirs in anger and chases the poor clerk, who runs all night in terror of its thundering brass hooves. Eugene’s body is finally washed up on the little island where Parasha’s house was taken by the flood. The poem can be read in many different ways - as a clash between the state and the individual, progress and tradition, the city and nature, the autocracy and the people - and it was the standard by which all those later writers, from Gogol to Bely, debated the significance of Russia’s destiny:

Proud charger, whither art thou ridden?
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom
Wilt plant thy hoof?23


    For the Slavophiles, Peter’s city was a symbol of the catastrophic rupture with Holy Rus’; for the Westerners, a progressive sign of Russia’s Europeanization. For some, it was the triumph of a civilization, the conquering of nature by order and reason; for others, it was a monstrous artifice, an empire built on human suffering that was tragically doomed.

    More than anyone, it was Gogol who fixed the city’s image as an alienating place. As a young ‘Ukrainian writer’ struggling to survive in the capital, Gogol lived among the petty clerks whose literary alter egos fill his Tales of Petersburg (1842). These are sad and lonely figures, crushed by the city’s oppressive atmosphere and doomed, for the most part, to die untimely deaths, like Pushkin’s Evgeny in The Bronze Horseman. Gogol’s Petersburg is a city of illusions and deceit. ‘Oh have no faith in this Nevsky Prospekt… It is all deception, a dream, nothing is what it seems!’ he warns in ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, the first of the Tales of Petersburg. ‘Nevsky Prospekt deceives at all hours of the day, but the worst time of all is night, when the entire city becomes a welter of noise and flashing lights… and when the Devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light.’24 Hidden in the shadows of this glittering parade, Gogol’s ‘little men’ scuttle between their offices in vast ministerial buildings and the equally soulless tenement apartments in which they live - alone, of course. Gogol’s Petersburg is a ghostly image of the real city, a nightmare vision of a world deprived of grace, where only human greed and vanity can thrive. In ‘The Overcoat’, the last of the Tales, the humble civil servant Akaky Akakievich is forced to scrimp and save to replace his threadbare overcoat that has long become the joke of his fashionable seniors in the ministry. The new coat restores his sense of pride and individual worth: it becomes a symbol of his acceptance by his peers, who throw a champagne party in celebration. But he is robbed of the prized fur while walking home across a dark and ‘endless square’. His efforts to retrieve it by appealing to an important Personage come to naught. He becomes ill and dies, a tragic figure


crushed by a cold and uncaring society. But Akaky’s ghost walks the streets of Petersburg. One night it haunts the Important Personage and robs him of his coat.

    Dostoevsky said that the whole of Russian literature ‘came out from underneath Gogol’s “Overcoat”’. 25 His own early tales, especially The Double (1846), are very Gogolesque, although in later works, such as Crime and Punishment (1866), he adds an important psychological dimension to the capital’s topography. Dostoevsky creates his unreal city through the diseased mental world of his characters, so that it becomes ‘fantastically real’.26 In the minds of dreamers like Raskolnikov, fantasy becomes reality, and life becomes a game in which any action, even murder, can be justified. Here is a place where human feelings are perverted and destroyed by human isolation and rationality. Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is full of dreamers, a fact which he explained by the city’s cramped conditions, by the frequent mists and fog which came in from the sea, by the icy rain and drizzle which made people sick. This was a place of fevered dreams and weird hallucinations, of nerves worn thin by the sleepless White Nights of the northern summer when dreamland and the real world became blurred. Dostoevsky himself was not immune to such flights of fantasy. In 1861 he recalled a ‘vision of the Neva’ which he himself had had in the early 1840s and included in the short story ‘A Weak Heart’ (1841). Dostoevsky claimed that it was the precise moment of his artistic self-discovery:

I remember once on a wintry January evening I was hurrying home from the Vyborg side… When I reached the Neva, I stopped for a minute and threw a piercing glance along the river into the smoky, frostily dim distance, which had suddenly turned crimson with the last purple of a sunset… Frozen steam poured from tired horses, from running people. The taut air quivered at the slightest sound, and columns of smoke like giants rose from all the roofs on both embankments and rushed upward through the cold sky, twining and untwining on the way, so that it seemed new buildings were rising above the old ones, a new city was forming in the air… It seemed as if all that world, with all its inhabitants, strong and weak, with all their habitations, the refuges of the poor, or the gilded palaces for the comfort of the powerful of this world, was at that twilight hour like a fantastic vision of fairyland, like a dream which in its turn would vanish and pass away like vapour in the dark blue sky.27



3. Moscow: the ‘good life’

    Moscow, by contrast, was a place of down-to-earth pursuits. With the rise of Petersburg in the eighteenth century, Moscow became the centre of the ‘good life’ for the nobility. Pushkin said that it attracted ‘rascals and eccentrics’ - independent noblemen who ‘shunned the court and lived without a care, devoting all their passions to harmless scandal-mongering and hospitality’.28 Moscow was a capital without a court - and without a court to occupy themselves, its grandees gave themselves to sensual amusement. Moscow was famous for its restaurants and clubs, its sumptuous balls and entertainments - in sum, for everything that Petersburg was not. Petersburgers despised Moscow for its sinful idleness. ‘Moscow is an abyss of hedonistic pleasure’, wrote Nikolai Turgenev, a poet in the circle of the Decembrists. ‘All its people do is eat, drink, sleep, go to parties and play cards - and all at the expense of the suffering of their serfs.’29 Yet no one could deny its Russian character. ‘Moscow may be wild and dissolute’, wrote F. F. Vigel, ‘but there is no point in trying to change it. For there is a part of Moscow in us all, and no Russian can expunge Moscow.’30

    Moscow was the food capital of Russia. No other city could boast such a range of restaurants. There were high-class dining clubs like the Angleterre, where Levin and Oblonsky have their famous lunch in the opening scene of Anna Karenina; business restaurants like the Slavic Bazaar, where merchants made huge deals; fashionable late-night places like the Strelna and the Yar (which Pushkin often mentions in his poetry); coffee houses where women were allowed unaccompanied; eating houses (karchevnye) for the common people; and taverns so diverse that every taste was catered for. There were old-fashioned taverns, like the Testov, where parents took their children for a treat; taverns that were famous for their specialities, like Egorov’s pancakes or Lopashev’s pies; taverns that kept singing birds where hunters liked to meet; and taverns that were well known as places of revelry. Moscow was so rich in its restaurant culture that it even taught the French a thing or two. When Napoleon’s soldiers came to Moscow, they needed to eat fast. ‘Bistro!they would say, the Russian word for ‘fast’.

    Moscow was a city of gourmands. It had a rich folklore of the fabulously fat, upon which its own self-image, as the capital of plenty, had been fed. In the early nineteenth century Count Rakhmanov, for example, spent his whole inheritance - said to be in excess of 2 million roubles (£200,000) - in just eight years of gastronomy. He fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water. And he had his favourite fish, a particularly rare specimen which could be caught only in the Sosna river three hundred kilometres away, delivered live to Moscow every day. Count Musin-Pushkin was just as profligate. He would fatten his calves with cream and keep them in cradles like newborn babies. His fowl were fed on walnuts and given wine to drink to enhance the flavour of their meat. Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. Count Stroganov (an early nineteenth-century ancestor of the one who gave his name to the beef dish) hosted famous ‘Roman dinners’, where his guests lay on couches and were served by naked boys. Caviare and fruits and herring cheeks were typical hors-d’oeuvres. Next came salmon lips, bear paws and roast lynx. These were followed by cuckoos roasted in honey, halibut liver and burbot roe; oysters, poultry and fresh figs; salted peaches and pineapples. After the guests had eaten they would go into the banya and start to drink, eating caviare to build up a real thirst.32

    Moscow banquets were more notable for their fantastic size than for the refinement of their food. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. The menu for one banquet shows that guests were served up to 10 different kinds of soup, 24 pies and meat dishes, 64 small dishes (such as grouse or teal), several kinds of roast (lamb, beef, goat, hare and suckling pig), 12 different salads, 28 assorted tarts, cheeses and fresh fruits. When the guests had had enough they retired to a separate room for sweets and sugared fruit.33 In this society, where prestige meant promotion at court, princes vied with one another in their hospitality. Vast sums were paid for the best serf cooks. Count Sheremetev (Nikolai Petrovich) paid an annual salary of 850 roubles to his senior chef-a huge sum for a serf. 34 Cooks were regarded by their masters as the equals of artists, and no expense was spared to have them trained abroad. Princes attained fame for the dishes first created by their cooks. The illustrious Prince Potemkin, the most famous of them all, was well known for serving up whole pigs at his sumptuous feasts: all the innards were removed through the mouth, the carcass stuffed with sausage, and the whole beast cooked in pastry made with wine.35

    It was not only courtiers who ate so well. Provincial families were just as prone to the consuming passion and, with little else to do on the estate, eating was, if nothing else, a way to pass the time. Lunch would last for several hours. First there were the zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), the cold and then the hot, followed by the soups, the pies, the poultry dishes, the roast, and finally the fruit and sweets. By then it was nearly time for tea. There were gentry households where the whole day was (in Pushkin’s words) ‘a chain of meals’. The Brodnitskys, a middling gentry family in the Ukraine, were typical. When they got up they had coffee and bread rolls, followed by mid-morning zakuski, a full six-course lunch, sugared loaves and jams in the afternoon with tea, then poppy seeds and nuts, coffee, rolls and biscuits as an early evening snack. After that would come the evening meal -mainly cold cuts from lunch - then tea before they went to bed.36

    Sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of seventeenth-century Muscovy had been plain and simple - the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats and domestic fowl, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot. Everything was cooked in hempseed oil, which made all the dishes taste much the same. Even the Tsar’s table was relatively poor. The menu at the wedding feast in 1670 of Tsar Alexei consisted of roast swan with saffron, grouse with lemon, goose giblets, chicken with sour cabbage and (for the men) kvas.37 It was not until the eighteenth century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines and liqueurs. Even the zakuski were a copy of the European custom of hors-d’oeuvres. Although seen as the most ‘Russian’ part of any meal (caviare, sturgeon, vodka and all that), the ‘classic zakuski’. such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early nineteenth century. The same was true of Russian cooking as a whole. The ‘traditional specialities’ that were served in Moscow’s restaurants in the nineteenth century - national dishes such as kulebeika (a pie stuffed with several layers of fish or meat), carp with sour cream, or turkey with plum sauce - were in fact quite recent inventions: most of them created to appeal to the new taste for old-Russian fashions after 1812. The first Russian cookery book was published as late as 1816, in which it was stated that it was no longer possible to give a full description of Russian cooking: all one could do was try to re-create the ancient recipes from people’s memories.38 Lenten dishes were the only traditional foods that had not yet been supplanted by the European culinary fashions of the eighteenth century. Muscovy had a rich tradition of fish and mushroom dishes, vegetable soups such as borshcbt (beetroot) and shchi (cabbage), recipes for Easter breads and pies, and dozens of varieties of porridges and pancakes (bliny) which were eaten during Lent.

    Not just nourishment, foodstuffs had an iconic part to play in Russian popular culture. Bread, for example, had a religious and symbolic importance that went far beyond its role in daily life; its significance in Russian culture was far greater than it was in the other Christian cultures of the West. The word for bread (khleb) was used in Russian for ‘wealth’, ‘health’ and ‘hospitality’. Bread played a central role in peasant rituals. Bird-shaped breads were baked in spring to symbolize the return of the migratory flocks. In the peasant wedding a special loaf was baked to symbolize the newly-weds’ fertility. At peasant funerals it was the custom to make a ladder out of dough and put it in the grave beside the corpse to help the soul’s ascent. For bread was a sacred link between this world and the next. It was connected with the folklore of the stove, where the spirits of the dead were said to live.39 Bread was often given as a gift, most importantly in the customary offering of bread and salt to visitors. All foodstuffs were used as gifts, in fact, and this was a custom shared by all classes. The eccentric Moscow nobleman Alexander Porius-Vizapursky (even his name was eccentric) made a habit of sending oysters to important dignitaries - and sometimes to people he didn’t even know (Prince Dolgorukov once received a parcel of a dozen oysters with a letter from Porius-Vizapursky saying he had called on him to make his acquaintance but had found him not at home). Wildfowl was also a common gift. The poet Derzhavin was well known for sending sandpipers. Once he sent an enormous pie to Princess Bebolsina. When it was cut open it revealed a dwarf who presented her with a truffle pie and a bunch of forget-me-nots.40 Festive gifts of food were also given to the people by the Tsars. To celebrate victory in the war against the Turks in 1791, Catherine the Great ordered two food mountains to be placed on Palace Square. Each was topped by fountains spouting wine. On her signal from the Winter Palace the general populace was allowed to feast on the cornucopia.41

    Food also featured as a symbol in nineteenth-century literature. Memories of food were often summoned up in nostalgic scenes of childhood life. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilich concludes on his deathbed that the only happy moments in his life had been when he was a child: all these memories he associates with food - particularly, for some reason, prunes. Gastronomic images were frequently used to paint a picture of the good old life. Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm is filled with lyrical descriptions of Ukrainian gluttony; Goncharov’s Oblomov is always gorging himself on old-fashioned Russian foods - a symbol of his sloth; and then (no doubt in a send-up of this literary tradition) there is Feers, the ancient butler in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), who still recalls the cherries sent to Moscow from the estate more than fifty years before (‘And the dried cherries in those days were soft, juicy, sweet, tasty… They knew how to do it then… they had a recipe…’).42 Moscow itself had a mythical stature in this folklore about food. Ferapont, the butler in Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901), tells Andrei, who yearns to go to Moscow and eat at Testov’s or some other busy restaurant:

The other day at the office, a contractor was telling me about some business men who were eating pancakes in Moscow. One of them ate forty pancakes and died. It was either forty or fifty, I can’t remember exactly.43

    Bingeing of this sort was often represented as a symbol of the Russian character. Gogol, in particular, used food metaphors obsessively. He often made the link between expansive natures and expansive waists. The Cossack hero of one of his short stories, Taras Bulba (whose name means ‘potato’ in Ukrainian), is the incarnation of this appetite for life. He welcomes his sons home from the seminary in Kiev with instructions to his wife to prepare a ‘proper meal’:

We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year-old mead! And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavouring, but pure foaming vodka that hisses and bubbles like mad!44

    It was the test of a ‘true Russian’ to be able to drink vodka by the bucketful. Since the sixteenth century, when the art of distillation spread to Russia from the West, the custom had been to indulge in mammoth drinking bouts on festive occasions and holidays. Drinking was a social thing - it was never done alone - and it was bound up with communal celebrations. This meant that, contrary to the mythic image, the overall consumption of vodka was not that great (in the year there were 200 fasting days when drinking was prohibited). But when the Russian drank, he drank an awful lot. (It was the same with food - fasting and then feasting - a frequent alternation that perhaps bore some relationship to the people’s character and history: long periods of humility and patience interspersed with bouts of joyous freedom and violent release.) The drinking feats of Russian legend were awe-inspiring. At wedding feasts and banquets there were sometimes over fifty toasts - the guests downing the glass in one gulp - until the last man standing became the ‘vodka Tsar’.

    Deaths from drinking claimed a thousand people every year in Russia between 1841 and 1859.45 Yet it would be wrong to conclude from this that the Russian drinking problem was an endemic or an ancient one. In fact, it was only in the modern period - starting in the late eighteenth century - that Russian levels of alcohol consumption became a threat to national life; and even then the problem was essentially fabricated by the gentry and the state.* The traditional drinking pattern had been set in a context where alcohol was scarce -a rare commodity that could only be afforded on a holiday. But in the latter part of the eighteenth century the gentry distillers who were licensed by the state to manufacture vodka increased their production many times. With the 1775 reform of local government, which transferred the control of the police to gentry magistrates, there was little state control of the booming retail business, legal or illegal, which made vodka traders very rich. Suddenly, there were vodka shops in every town, taverns all over the place, and, other than religious proscription, no more limitations on drinking. The government was conscious of the social costs of increased drunkenness, and the Church was constantly raising the issue, campaigning noisily against the drinking shops. The problem was to modify a drinking pattern that had been formed over many centuries - the habit of overdrinking whenever the Russians drank - or else to reduce the supply of drink. But since the state derived at least a quarter of its total revenues from vodka sales, and the aristocracy had vested interests in the trade, there was little pressure for reform. It was not until the First World War that the state came down on the side of sobriety. But the ban on vodka which it introduced only made the drinking problem worse (for the Russians turned to paraffin and illegal moonshines that were far more dangerous), while the loss of tax revenues from vodka sales was a major contribution to the downfall of the regime in 1917.

    * Until the second half of the eighteenth century the annual consumption of spirits was around 2 litres tor every adult male but by the end of Catherine’s reign in the 1790s it had risen to around 5 litres (R. E. F. Smith and D. Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia (Cambridge, 1984), p. 218).

    ‘The difference between Moscow and St Petersburg is this. In Moscow, if you have not seen a friend for a few days, you think there’s something wrong and send out someone to check that he’s not dead. But in Peter, you may not be seen for a year or two and no one will miss you.’46 Muscovites have always taken comfort from the image of their city as a warm and friendly ‘home’. Compared with the cold and formal Petersburg, Moscow prided itself on its relaxed ‘Russian’ customs and its hospitality. Without a court, or much to occupy them in their offices, Muscovites had little else to do but visit all their friends and do the rounds of parties, feasts and balls. The doors of Moscow’s mansions were always open and the Petersburg custom of set times for visits was regarded as absurd. Guests were expected to show up at any time, and on certain days, such as namedays, birthdays or religious holidays, or when someone had arrived from the country or abroad, houses were all come and go.

    Moscow was famous for its lavish entertaining. It was not unusual for entire noble fortunes to be spent on it. At its most spectacular, the city’s bon vivants showed an appetite for gaiety that was unparalleled. Count Yushkov gave eighteen balls in the space of twenty days at his Moscow palace during 1801. Nearby factories had to be closed down because of the hazard of the fireworks, and the music was so loud that the nuns at the neighbouring Novodeviche convent could not sleep -instead of even trying, they gave in to the fun and climbed up on the walls to watch the spectacle.47 The Sheremetevs were even more renowned for their sumptuous house parties. Several times a year crowds of up to 50,000 guests would make their way from Moscow out to Kuskovo for grand entertainments in the park. The roads would be jammed with carriages and the line would stretch back fifteen miles to the centre of Moscow. Entering the park the guests were met by notices inviting them to make themselves at home and amuse themselves in any way they liked. Choirs sang amid the trees, horn bands played, and the guests were entertained by exotic animals, by operas in the garden and the indoor theatre, by firework displays and sons et lumieres. On the lake before the house there was even a mock battle between ships.48

    Less grand houses could be just as generous in their hospitality, sometimes spending all their wealth on social gatherings. The Khitrovos were neither rich nor important, but in nineteenth-century Moscow they were known by everyone for their frequent balls and soirees, which, though not lavish, were always very lively and enjoyable - they were ‘typical Moscow’.49 Another famous hostess in the Moscow style was Maria Rimsky-Korsakov, who became famous for her breakfast parties where Senator Arkady Bashilov, in apron and cap, would serve all the dishes he had cooked himself.50 Moscow was full of such eccentric hosts - none more so than the super-wealthy playboy Count Prokopy Demidov, whose love of entertaining was notorious. He liked to dress his servants in a special livery, one-half silk and one-half hempen cloth, a stocking on one foot and a bast shoe on the other, to underline their peasant origin. When he entertained he had naked servants take the place of statues in his garden and his house.51

    The Russian custom of opening one’s doors at lunch and dinner time for anyone of rank was an important part of this culture of hospitality. There would be up to fifty guests at every meal in the Fountain House of the Sheremetevs, the grandest of the aristocracy in Petersburg. But in Moscow numbers such as this would be entertained by relatively minor gentry households, while at the grandest houses, such as Stroganov’s or Razumovsky’s, the numbers were significantly higher. Count Razumovsky was renowned for his open tables. He did not know the names of many of his guests, but since he was extremely keen on chess he was glad always to have new partners to play with. There was an army officer who was so good at chess that he stayed at the count’s house for six weeks - even though no one knew his name.52 Generally it was the custom that, after you had dined at a house once, you would be expected to return there on a regular basis: not to come again would be to give offence. The custom was so widespread that it was quite possible for a nobleman to dine out every day, yet never go so frequently to any house as to outstay his welcome. Grandees like the Sheremetevs, Osterman-Tolstoy and Stroganov acquired permanent hangers-on. General Kostenetsky dined at Count Osterman-Tolstoy’s for twenty years - it became such a habit that the count would send his carriage for the general half an hour before every meal. Count Stroganov had a guest whose name he did not learn in nearly thirty years. When one day the guest did not appear, the count assumed he must be dead. It turned out that the man had indeed died. He had been run over on his way to lunch.53

    As with food and drink, the Russians knew no limits when it came to partying. Sergei Volkonsky, the grandson of the Decembrist, recalled nameday parties that dragged on until dawn.

First there was the tea-drinking, then the supper. The sun set, the moon came up - then there were the games, the gossip and the cards. At around three o’clock the first guests began to leave, but since their drivers were also given alcoholic refreshments, going home that early could be dangerous. I once travelled home from such a nameday party and my carriage toppled over.54

    The cool light of morning was the enemy of any Moscow host, and there were some who would cover all the windows and stop all the clocks so as not to drive their guests away.55 From October to the spring, when provincial families with a daughter to marry off would take a house in Moscow for the social season, there were balls and banquets almost every night. Moscow balls were larger than those in Petersburg. They were national rather than society events, and the atmosphere was rather down to earth, with old provincial ladies in their dowdy dresses as much in evidence as dashing young hussars. Yet the champagne flowed all night - and the first guests never left before the morning light. This Moscow lived a nocturnal way of life, its body clock reset to the social whirl. Crawling into bed in the early morning, revellers would breakfast around noon, take their lunch at three or even later (Pushkin made a point of eating lunch at eight or nine in the evening) and go out at ten p.m. Muscovites adored this late-night life - it perfectly expressed their love of living without bounds. In 1850, the government in Petersburg imposed a ban on the playing of live music after four a.m. In Moscow the reaction was practically a fronde - a Muscovite rebellion against the capital. Led by Prince Golitsyn, famous for his all-night masquerades, the noblemen of Moscow petitioned Petersburg for a repeal of the ban. There was a lengthy correspondence, letters to the press, and, when their petitions were finally turned down, the Muscovites decided to ignore the rules and party on.56


4. ‘Neo-Russian’ style in crafts, architecture and music

    In 1874 the Academy of Arts organized a show in remembrance of the artist Viktor Gartman, who had died the previous year, aged thirty-nine. Today Gartman is best known as a friend of Musorgsky, the painter at the centre of his famous piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). Musorgsky was struck down by grief at Gartman’s death, and the drinking bouts which led to his own death are dated from this time. He paid his own tribute to his artist friend by composing Pictures after visiting the show.57 Gartman’s ‘neo-Russian’ style had a huge influence on the music of Musorgsky - and indeed on all the trends of nineteenth-century art that took their inspiration from Moscow’s cultural world. His architectural drawings were based on years of study of medieval ornament. The most famous was his fanciful design for the Kiev city gate, shaped in the form of a warrior’s helmet with a kokosbnik arch, which Musorgsky celebrated in the final picture of the piano suite. One critic called the Gartman design ‘marble towels and brick embroideries’.58

Viktor Gartman: design for the Kiev city gate

    Moscow was the centre (and the central subject) of this renewal of interest in the ancient Russian arts. The artist Fedor Solntsev played a crucial role, making detailed drawings of the weapons, saddlery, church plate and wall hangings in the Kremlin Armoury, and unearthing many other treasures in the provinces. Between 1846 and 1853 Solntsev published six large volumes of his illustrations called Antiquities of the Russian State. They provided artists and designers with a grammar of historic ornament which they could incorporate in their own work. Solntsev himself used these ancient motifs in his restoration of the Kremlin’s Terem Palace - an authentic reproduction of the seventeenth-century Moscow style, complete with ceramic-tiled stoves, ornate vaulted ceilings with kokoshnik arches and red leather walls and chairs (plate 6).

The Kremlin’s Terem Palace restored in the1850s by Fedor Solntsev in the seventeenth-century Muscovite style,
complete with tiled ovens and kokoshnik-shaped arches.

Solntsev’s work was carried on by the Stroganov Art School, founded in Moscow in 1860, which encouraged artists to work from ancient Russian church and folk designs. Many of the leading ‘Russian style’ designers who took the world by storm in the 1900s - Vashkov, Ovchinnikov and the Moscow masters of the Faberge workshop - had graduated from the Stroganov School.59

The Faberge Workshop in Moscow crafted objects in a Russian style that was very different from the Classical and Rococo jewels it made in Petersburg. Above: Imperial Presentation Kovsh (an ancient type of ladle) in green nephrite, gold, enamel and diamonds, presented by the Tsar Nicholas II to the French Ambassador in 1906.



 Silver siren vase by Sergei Vashkov (1908). The female bird wears a kokoshnik
and her wings are set with tourmalines.

   In contrast to the rigid European classicism of the St Petersburg Academy, the atmosphere in Moscow was rather more relaxed and open to the exploration of Russian themes and styles. Artists flocked to Moscow to study its icons, its lubok painting and Palekh lacquer work. Three giants of Russian painting, Repin, Polenov and Vasnetsov, all moved there as students from St Petersburg. These old crafts were still alive in Moscow and its environs, whereas they had died out in St Petersburg. There were several lubok publishers in Moscow, for example, but none in Petersburg. Icon painters flourished in the towns around Moscow, but there were none in Petersburg. Much of this was explained by the old-style merchant taste that dominated the art market in Moscow. The Moscow School of Painting was also more receptive to these native traditions, and unlike the aristocratic Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, its doors were open to a wide social range of students, who brought with them the outlook of the common folk. The director of the Moscow School called on artists to use folk themes, and on the opening of the Ethnographic Exhibition, in 1867, he lectured on the need to study old folk clothing and embroidery so as to retrieve the ancient Russian style of art that had been buried under Western tastes.60

    In Gartman’s world of architectural design, the mid-century boom in the neo-Russian style was made possible by the abolition of an eighteenth-century law stipulating that buildings in the centre of Moscow should be made from stone with facades in approved European styles. The repeal of this law, in 1858, opened the way for a spate of wooden buildings in the Russian peasant style. More than ever, Moscow took on the appearance of a ‘big village’. The historian and Slavophile Pogodin, himself a peasant son and a well-known collector of antique artefacts, commissioned several wooden houses in the peasant style. Wood was declared by nationalists the ‘fundamental folk material’ and every architect who aspired to be ‘national’ constructed buildings in that material.61 Gartman designed the exhibition halls with their wooden folk-style decoration for the Moscow Polytechnic Exhibition which was held in 1872 to mark the bicentenary of Peter the Great’s birth. The exhibition heralded a return to the artistic principles of Muscovy. It was housed in the newly opened Russian Museum, opposite St Basil’s on Red Square, which had been designed by Vladimir Shervud (an architect of English origin) in the old ecclesiastical style of Moscow. The tall church-like towers of the museum reflected the contours of the neighbouring Kremlin - a symbol of the fact, as Shervud put it, that Orthodoxy was ‘the primary cultural element of [Russia’s] nationhood’.62

Vladimir Shervud: Russian Museum, Red Square, Moscow
(the Kremlin to the left). Early 1900s

    The neo-Russian style entered its heyday in the 1870s, largely as a result of the growing wealth and status of the Moscow merchant patrons of the arts. Pavel Tretiakov built his famous gallery of Russian art as an annexe to his mansion in the ancient Moscow style. Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow villa (which housed his huge collection of French painting) was a neo-Russian fantasy modelled on the seventeenth-century wooden architecture of Yaroslav and Kolomenskoe.

The Shchukin Mansion in Moscow. Photograph by Orlov. 1913.

  The centre of the city, between the Kremlin and Lubianka Square, was entirely reconstructed in the neo-Russian style favoured by the wealthy merchant councillors in Moscow’s city hall. New trading rows (later to become the state department store GUM) were constructed on Red Square in the 1880s; followed by a city Duma (to become the Lenin Museum) in 1892. The city’s business region was suddenly taken over by ancient tent roofs and kokoshnik pediments, fancy yellow brickwork and ornate folk designs. Moscow entered the twentieth century with its skyline in the form of the seventeenth.

    Musorgsky fell in love with Moscow’s ‘Russianness’. He had spent nearly all his life in Petersburg. But as an artist he was drawn to the ‘realm of fairy tales’ which he discovered in the ancient capital. ‘You know’, he wrote to Balakirev on his first trip to Moscow in 1859, ‘I had been a cosmopolitan, but now there’s been a sort of rebirth; everything Russian has become close to me and I would be offended if Russia were treated crudely, without ceremony; it’s as if at the present time I’ve really begun to love her.”33 As a mentor to the young composer, Balakirev was not pleased. For all his pioneering of the nationalist school, Balakirev was a Westernist and a thumping patriot of Petersburg who looked down on Moscow as parochial and archaic; he called it ‘Jericho’.64  Musorgsky’s love affair with Moscow, then, seemed almost a desertion from the Balakirev school. It was certainly a sign of the young artist finding his own style and theme. He began to spend his summers on the fabulous estate of the Shilovskys at Glebovo, near Moscow, renewing contact with his own gentry background in that area.* He made new friends in circles outside music where he found a stimulus to his own art: the poet Kutuzov (a descendant of the famous general), the sculptor Antokolsky, the painter Repin, as well as Gartman, who were all receptive to his unschooled style of music, and more tolerant of his alcoholic ways, than the rather staid composers of St Petersburg. Breaking free from the domination of the Balakirev school (which took Liszt and Schumann as the starting point for the development of a Russian style), Musorgsky began to explore a more native musical idiom in his ‘village scene’ for voice and piano, Savishna (1867), in Boris Godunov (1868-74) and then in his Pictures, which, like Gartman’s drawings, reworked Russian folklore in imaginative ways. Moscow thus delivered him from the ‘German’ orthodoxy of the Balakirev school. It allowed Musorgsky, who had always been perceived as something of an outcast in St Petersburg, to experiment with music from the Russian soil. Gartman’s fantastic folk forms were the equivalent of Musorgsky’s explorations in music: both were attempts to break free from the formal conventions of European art. Among the pictures at the exhibition there was a design for a clock in the form of Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken’s legs.+ Images like this demanded a new mode of  musical expression, one entirely free from the sonata form of European music, if they were to be redrawn in sound; and this is what Musorgsky’s Pictures did. They created a new Russian language in music.

    * The Musorgsky family owned 110,000 hectares - eighteen villages - with a total population of 400 serfs prior to the emancipation of 1861 (C. Emerson, The Life of Musorgsky (Cambridge, 1999), p. 37).

    + In Russian fairy rales the witch Baba Yaga lives deep in the woods in a hut whose legs allow it to rotate to face each unfortunate new visitor.

    ’To you, Generalissimo, sponsor of the Gartman Exhibition, in remembrance of our dear Viktor, 27 June, ‘74.’ Thus Musorgsky dedicated Pictures to Vladimir Stasov, the critic, scholar and self-appointed champion of the national school in all the Russian arts. Stasov was a huge figure, one might say a tyrant, in the mid-nineteenth-century Russian cultural milieu. He discovered a large number of its greatest talents (Balakirev, Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Repin, Kramskoi, Vasnetsov and Antokolsky); he inspired many of their works (Borodin’s Prince Igor, Musorgsky’s Khovansh-cbina, Balakirev’s King Lear and Rimsky’s Sadko and Scheherazade); and he fought their battles in countless thunderous articles and letters to the press. Stasov had a reputation as a brilliant dogmatist. Turgenev carried on a lifelong argument with ‘our great all-Russian critic’, whom he caricatured in the figure Skoropikhin in his 1877 novel Virgin Soil (‘He is always foaming and frothing over like a bottle of sour kvas’). He also wrote a famous ditty about him:

Argue with someone more intelligent than you:
He will defeat you.
But from your defeat you will learn something useful.
Argue with someone of equal intelligence:
Neither will be victorious.
And in any case you will have the pleasure of the struggle.
Argue with someone less intelligent:
Not from a desire for victory
But because you may be of use to him.
Argue even with a fool: You will not gain glory
But sometimes it is fun.
Only do not argue with Vladimir Stasov.65

    Stasov wanted Russian art to liberate itself from Europe’s hold. By copying the West, the Russians could be at best second-rate; but by borrowing from their own native traditions they might create a truly national art that matched Europe’s with its high artistic standards and originality. ‘Looking at these paintings’, Stasov wrote of the Academy Exhibition of 1861, ‘it is difficult to guess without a signature or label that they have been done by Russians in Russia. All are exact copies of foreign works.’66 In his view, art should be ‘national’ in the sense that it portrayed the people’s daily lives, was meaningful to them, and taught them how to live.

    Stasov was a towering figure in Musorgsky’s life. They first met in 1857, when Stasov was the champion of the Balakirev circle in its revolt against the Petersburg Conservatory. Founded by the pianist Anton Rubinstein in 1861, the Conservatory was dominated by the German conventions of composition developed in the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Its patron was the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German by origin and proselytizer of her nation’s cultural cause, who secured the court’s support after Rubinstein had failed to raise public finance for the Conservatory. Rubinstein was contemptuous of the amateurism of musical life in Russia (he called Glinka a dilettante) and he set about promoting music education on Germanic lines. Russian national music, Rubinstein maintained, was of only ‘ethnographic interest’, quaint but without artistic value in itself. Balakirev and Stasov were incensed. While they recognized that a standard had been set by the German tradition, as nationalists they worshipped what they perceived as Glinka’s ‘purely Russian’ music (in fact it is steeped in Italian and German influences) 67 and retaliated by accusing Rubinstein of denigrating Russia from the heights of what they called his ‘European conservatorial grandeur’.68 There was an element of xenophobia, even anti-Semitism, in their battles against Rubinstein. They called him ‘Tupinstein’ (‘dull’), ‘Dubinstein’ (‘dumbhead’) and ‘Grubinstein’ (‘crude’). But they were afraid that German principles would stifle Russian forms and their fear gave way to foreigner-baiting. In 1862 they established the Free Music School as a direct rival to the Conservatory, setting it the task of cultivating native talent. In Stasov’s phrase, it was time for the ‘hoopskirts and tailcoats’ of the Petersburg elites to make way for the ‘long Russian coats’ of the provinces.69 The School became the stronghold of the so-called ‘Mighty Five’, the kuchka, who pioneered the Russian musical style.

    The kuchkist composers were all young men in 1862. Balakirev was twenty-five, Cui twenty-seven, Musorgsky twenty-three, Borodin the old man at twenty-eight, and Rimsky-Korsakov the baby of them all at just eighteen. All of them were self-trained amateurs. Borodin combined composing with a career as a chemist. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer (his First Symphony was written on a ship). Musorgsky had been in the Guards and then the civil service before taking up music, and even after that, at the height of his success in the 1870s, he was forced by the expense of his drinking habit to hold down a full-time job in the State Forestry Department. In contrast, moreover, to the elite status and court connections of Conservatory composers such as Tchaikovsky, the kuchkists, by and large, were from the minor gentry of the provinces. So to some degree their esprit de corps depended on the myth, which they themselves created, of a movement that was more ‘authentically Russian’, in the sense that it was closer to the native soil, than the classical academy.70

    But there was nothing mythical about the musical language they developed, which set them poles apart from the conventions of the Conservatory. This self-conscious Russian styling was based on two elements. First they tried to incorporate in their music what they heard in village songs, in Cossack and Caucasian dances, in church chants and (cliched though it soon became) the tolling of church bells.* ‘Once again the sound of bells!’ Rimsky once exclaimed after a performance of Boris Godunov. He too had often reproduced the sound, in The Maid of Pskov (1873), the Easter Overture (1888), and his orchestra-lions of Borodin’s Prince Igor and Musorsgky’s Khovanshckina.71 Kuchkist music was filled with imitative sounds of Russian life. It tried to reproduce what Glinka had once called ‘the soul of Russian music’.

    *Russian church bells have a special musicality which is unlike the sound of any other bells. The Russian technique of bell-chiming is for the ringers to strike the different bells directly with hammers, or by using short cords attached to the clappers. This encourages a form of counterpoint - albeit with the dissonances which result from the resounding echoes of the bells. The Western technique of ringing bells by swinging them with long ropes from the ground makes such synchronization all but impossible to achieve.

-          the long-drawn, lyrical and melismatic song of the Russian peasantry. Balakirev made this possible with his study of the folk songs of the Volga region in the 1860s (the heyday of populism in the arts). More than any previous anthology, his transcriptions artfully preserved the distinctive aspects of Russian folk music:

-          its ‘tonal mutability’: a tune seems to shift quite naturally from one tonic centre to another, often ending up in a different key (usually a second lower or higher) from the one in which the piece began. The effect is to produce a feeling of elusiveness, a lack of definition or of logical progression in the harmony, which even in its stylized kuchkist form makes Russian music sound very different from the tonal structures of the West.

-          its heterophony: a melody divides into several dissonant voices, each with its own variation of the theme, which is improvised by the individual singers until the end, when the song reverts to a single line.

-          its use of parallel fifths, fourths and thirds. The effect is to give to Russian music a quality of raw sonority that is entirely missing in the polished harmonies of Western music.

    Secondly the kuchkists invented a series of harmonic devices to create a distinct ‘Russian’ style and colour that was different from the music of the West. This ‘exotic’ styling of ‘Russia’ was not just self-conscious but entirely invented - for none of these devices was actually employed in Russian folk or church music:   

 - the whole-tone scale (C-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A sharp-C): invented by Glinka and used for the first time in the march of Chernomor, the sorcerer in his opera Ruslan and Liudmila (1842), this became the ‘Russian’ sound of spookiness and evil. It was used by all the major composers from Tchaikovsky (for the apparition of the Countess’s ghost in The Queen of Spades in 1890) to Rimsky-Korsakov (in all his magic-story operas, Sadko (1897), Kashchei the Immortal (1902) and Kitezh (1907)). The scale is also heard in the music of Debussy, who took it (and much else) from Musorgsky. Later it became a standard device in horror-movie scores.

 - the octatonic scale, consisting of a whole tone followed by a semi-tone (C-D-E flat-F-G flat-A flat-B double flat-C double flat): used for the first time by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Sadko symphonic suite of 1867, it became a sort of Russian calling card, a leitmotif of magic and menace that was used not just by Rimsky but by all his followers, above all Stravinsky in his three great Russian ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

 - the modular rotation in sequences of thirds: a device of Liszt’s which the Russians made their own as the basis of their loose symphonic-poem type of structure that avoids the rigid (German) laws of modulation in sonata form. Instead of the usual progression to the relative minor in the development section of the sonata form (e.g. C major to A minor), the Russians established a tonic centre in the opening section (say, C major) and then progressed through sequences of thirds (A flat major, F major, D flat major, and so on) in subsequent sections. The effect is to break away from the Western laws of development, enabling the form of a composition to be shaped entirely by the ‘content’ of the music (its programmatic statements and visual descriptions) rather than by formal laws of symmetry. This loose structure was especially important in Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work that probably did more than any other to define the Russian style. Musorgsky was the most original of the kuchkist composers. This was partly because he was the least schooled in European rules of composition. But the main reason was that he consciously rejected the European school and, more than any of the other nationalists, looked to the traditions of the Russian folk as a means of overturning it. There is a sense in which this very Russian figure (lazy, slovenly and heavy-drinking, full of swagger and explosive energy) played the Holy Fool in relation to the West. He rejected out of hand the received conventions of composition drawn up from the music of Bach, Mozart and Haydn. ‘Symphonic development, technically understood, is developed by the German, just as his philosophy is’, Musorgsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1868. ‘The German when he thinks first theorises at length and then proves; our Russian brother proves first and then amuses himself with theory.’72

    Musorgsky’s direct approach to life is reflected in his Pictures. The suite is a loosely structured series of musical portraits, a gentle amble through a picture gallery, without any sign of the formal (‘German’) rules of elaboration or development, and little evidence of the Western conventions of musical grammar. At its heart is the magic reach and power of the Russian folk imagination. The opening ‘Promenade (in mode russico)is a folk-inspired tune with a metric flexibility, sudden tonal shifts, open fifths and octaves, and a choral heterophony echoing the patterns of the village song. The grotesque and tempestuous ‘Baba Yaga’ shifts violently between keys, persistently returning to the key of G in that static manner of the Russian peasant song (nepodvizbnost’) which, in a musical revolution yet to come, Stravinsky would deploy with such explosive force in The Rite of Spring. Musorgsky’s final picture, the glorious ‘Kiev Gate’, religiously uplifting, beautiful and tender, takes its cue from an ancient Russian hymn, the chant of Znamenny, originating from Byzantium and heard here, in the awesome closing moments, resounding to the clangour of the heavy bells. It is a wonderfully expressive moment, a picture of all Russia drawn in sound, and a moving tribute by Musorgsky to his friend.


5. The Debate over Russian Identity in the Arts

    Alongside their interest in its ‘Russian style’, writers, artists and composers developed an obsession with Moscow’s history. One only has to list the great historical operas (from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina), the history plays and novels (from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov to Alexei Tolstoy’s trilogy beginning with The Death of Ivan the Terrible), the huge proliferation of poetic works on historical themes and the epic history paintings of Surikov and Repin, or Vasnetsov and Vrubel, to see the importance of Moscow’s history to the cultural quest for ‘Russia’ in the nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that nearly all these works concerned the final years of Ivan the Terrible and the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ between the reign of Boris Godunov and the foundation of the Romanov dynasty. History was regarded as a battlefield for competing views of Russia and its destiny, and these fifty years were seen as a crucial period in Russia’s past. They were a time when everything was up for grabs and the nation was confronted by fundamental questions of identity. Was it to be governed by elected rulers or by Tsars? Was it to be part of Europe or remain outside of it? The same questions were being asked by thinking Russians in the nineteenth century.

    Boris Godunov was a vital figure in this national debate. The histories, plays and operas that were written about him were also a discourse on Russia’s destiny. The Godunov we know from Pushkin and Musorgsky appeared first in Karamzin’s History. Karamzin portrayed Godunov as a tragic figure, a progressive ruler who was haunted by the past, a man of immense power and yet human frailty who was undone by the gap between political necessity and his own conscience. But in order to make the medieval Tsar the subject of a modern psychological drama, Karamzin had to invent much of his history.

    Boris, in real life, was the orphaned son of an old boyar family who had been raised at the Muscovite court as a ward of the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The Godunovs became intimate with the Royal Family at a time when noble lineage was viewed as potentially seditious by the Tsar. Engaged in a protracted struggle with noble boyar clans, Ivan made a point of promoting loyal servicemen from humble origins like the Godunovs. Boris’s sister, Irina Godunova, married Fedor, the Tsar’s weak and feeble-minded son. Shortly after, Ivan struck down and killed his eldest son, Ivan the Tsarevich, an episode which gripped the nineteenth-century imagination through Repin’s famous painting of the scene, Ivan the Terrible  and His Son Ivan: November 16, 1581 (1885). Dmitry, Ivan’s other son, was just two years old when Ivan died in 1584, and his claim to the succession was tenuous at best. He was the child of the Tsar’s seventh marriage, but Church law permitted only three. So Fedor was crowned when Ivan died. The practical affairs of government were taken over by Boris Godunov - addressed in official documents as ‘the great sovereign’s Brother-in-Law, Ruler of the Russian lands’. Boris made a notable success of government. He secured Russia’s borders in the Baltic lands, kept in check the Tatar raids from the southern steppe, strengthened ties with Europe and, to secure a stable labour force for the gentry, he laid down the administrative framework of serfdom - a measure which was deeply unpopular with the peasantry. In 1598 Fedor died. Irina refused the crown and went into a convent, overcome with grief at her failure to produce an heir. At the zemskii sobor, or ‘Assembly of the Land’, the Moscow boyars voted for Boris to become Tsar - the first elected Tsar in Russian history.

    The early years of the Godunov reign were prosperous and peaceful. In many ways Boris was an enlightened monarch - a man ahead of his own time. He was interested in Western medicine, book printing and education, and he even dreamed of founding a Russian university on the European model. But in 1601-3 things went badly wrong. A series of harvest failures led to the starvation of about one-quarter of the peasantry in Muscovy, and since the crisis was made worse by the new laws of serfdom which took away the peasants’ rights of movement, the rural protests were aimed against the Tsar. The old princely clans took advantage of the famine crisis to renew their plots against the upstart elected Tsar whose power was a threat to their noble privilege. Boris stepped up his police surveillance of the noble families (especially the Romanovs) and banished many of them to Siberia or to monasteries in the Russian north on charges of treason. Then, in the middle of this political crisis, a young pretender to the Russian throne appeared with an army from Poland - a country always ready to exploit divisions within Russia for territorial gain. The pretender was Grigory Otrepev, a runaway monk who had been at one time in the service of the Romanovs, and he was probably approached by them before his escapade. He claimed to be the Tsarevich Dmitry, Ivan’s youngest son. Dmitry had been found with his throat cut in 1591; he was an epileptic and at the time it was established that he had stabbed himself in a fit. But Godunov’s opponents always claimed that he had killed the boy to clear his own passage to the Russian throne. The ‘False Dmitry’ played upon these doubts, claiming he had escaped the plot to murder him. It enabled him to rally supporters against the ‘usurper Tsar’ among disgruntled peasants and Cossacks on his march towards Moscow. Godunov died suddenly in 1605, as the pretender’s forces approached Moscow. According to Karamzin, he died of the ‘inner agitation of the soul which is inescapable for a criminal’.7’

    The evidence implicating Godunov in the murder of Dmitry had been fabricated by the Romanovs, whose own claims to the throne had rested on their election by the boyars’ assembly to restore Russia’s unity, following the ‘Time of Troubles’, a period of civil wars and foreign invasion following the death of Boris Godunov. Perhaps Karamzin should have realized that Godunov was not a murderer. But nearly all the documents which he consulted had been doctored by official clerks or monks, and to challenge the Romanov myth would have got him into trouble with the government. In any case, the murder story was far too good for Karamzin to resist. It allowed him to explore the inner conflicts of Godunov’s mind in a way quite unsupported by the evidence. It underpinned his tragic concept of Boris Godunov - a progressive ruler who was haunted by his crime and in the end undone by his own illegitimacy as a Tsar. Karamzin’s History was dedicated to the Emperor Alexander - the reigning Tsar from the House of Romanov - and its vision was overtly monarchist. The moral lesson which he drew from the Godunov story - that elected rulers are never any good - was carefully attuned to the politics of Alexander’s reign. Boris was a Russian Bonaparte.

    Pushkin’s Boris Godunov was very closely based on Karamzin’s History, sometimes even lifting sections word for word. The conception of the play is firmly royalist - the people play no active part in their own history. That is the meaning of the famous stage direction ‘the people remain silent’ (‘narod bezmolvstvuet’) with which the drama ends. Musorgsky, too, who followed Pushkin’s text in his first version of the opera (1868-9), portrayed the Russian people as a dark and passive force, mired in the customs and beliefs of the old Russia embodied in Moscow. This conception of the Russians is epitomized in the scene outside St Basil’s on Red Square. The starving people gather there and Boris is confronted by the Holy Fool, who by implication condemns the Tsar’s crimes. But the crowd remains inert, kneeling in supplication to the Tsar, and even when the Holy Fool says he will not pray for the ‘Tsar Herod’, the people just disperse. Hence what might have been a signal for revolt is allowed to pass, and the Holy Fool appears not as the people’s leader but as a voice of conscience and Boris’s remorse.74 It was only with the addition of the ‘Kromy Forest Scene’, in the second version of the opera (1871-2), that Musorgsky introduced the theme of conflict between the people and the Tsar. Indeed, this conflict becomes the motive force of the whole drama, and the people the real tragic subject of the opera. In the Kromy scene the people are revealed in rebellion, the crowd mocks the Tsar, and folk song is deployed as the embodiment of the people’s voice. Musorgsky was first inspired to insert the scene for musical effect, having been impressed by the choral heterophony of a similar crowd scene in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov. The two men were sharing an apartment (and a piano) at the time and Musorgsky set to work on the Kromy scene just as Rimsky was orchestrating his opera.75 But the substitution of the Kromy scene for the one before St Basil’s (which is what Musorgsky clearly intended) meant a complete switch in the intellectual emphasis of the opera.*     

* So the tendency of modern productions to include both these scenes, though understandable on the basis of the music, contradicts the will of Musorgsky, who physically ripped out the St Basil’s scene from the revised version of the score.

    There was no Kromy revolt in Karamzin or Pushkin and, as the Russian music expert Richard Taruskin has brilliantly shown, the Populist redrafting of the opera was rather the result of Musorgsky’s friendship with the historian Nikolai Kostomarov, who also helped him in the planning of Khovanshchina (1874). Kostomarov viewed the common people as the fundamental force of history. His major work The Revolt of Stenka Razin (1859), one of the first fruits of the liberal laws on censorship passed in the early years of Alexander II’s reign, had made him a popular and influential figure in the liberal intellectual circles which did so much to advance the Russian arts in the 1860s and 1870s. In The Time of Troubles (1866) Kostomarov described how the famine led to bands of migrant serfs rallying behind the False Dmitry in opposition to Boris Godunov:

They were prepared to throw themselves with joy at whoever would lead them against Boris, at whoever would promise them an improvement in their lot. This was not a matter of aspiring to this or that political or social order; the huge crowd of sufferers easily attached itself to a new face in the hope that under a new order things would become better than under the old.76

    It is a conception of the Russian people - suffering and oppressed, full of destructive and impulsive violence, uncontrollable and unable to control its own destiny - that applies equally to 1917.

    ‘History is my nocturnal friend’, Musorgsky wrote to Stasov in 1873; ‘it brings me pleasure and intoxication.’77 It was Moscow that had infected him with the history bug. He loved its ‘smell of antiquity’ which transported him ‘into another world’.78 For Musorgsky, Moscow was a symbol of the Russian land - it represented a huge weight of inertia in the customs and beliefs of old Russia. Beneath the thin veneer of European civilization that Peter had laid down, the common people were still the inhabitants of ‘Jericho’. ‘Paper, books, they’ve gone ahead, but the people haven’t moved’, the composer wrote to Stasov on the bicentennial jubilee of Peter’s birth in 1872. ‘Public benefactors are inclined to glorify themselves and to fix their glory in documents, but the people groan, and drink to stifle their groans, and groan all the louder: “haven’t moved!”’79 This was the pessimistic vision of old Russia that Musorgsky had expressed in the last prophetic words of the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov:

Darkest dark, impenetrable dark
Woe, woe to Rus’
Weep, weep Russian people
Hungry people.

    After Godunov he began immediately on Khovanshchina, an opera set amid the political and religious struggles in Moscow from the eve of Peter’s coronation in 1682 to his violent suppression of the streltsy musketeers, the last defenders of the Moscow boyars and the Old Belief, who rose up in a series of revolts between 1689 and 1698. More than a thousand musketeers were executed on the Tsar’s orders, their mangled bodies displayed as a warning to others, in reprisal for their abortive plot to replace Peter with his sister Sophia, who had ruled as regent in the 1680s when he was still too young to govern by himself. As a punishment for her role in the revolts, Peter forced Sophia to become a nun. The same fate befell his wife, Eudoxia, who had sympathized with the insurrectionaries. The Streltsy revolt and its aftermath marked a crossroads in Russian history, a period when the new dynamic Petrine state clashed with the forces of tradition. The defenders of old Russia were represented in the opera by the hero Prince Khovansky, a Moscow patriarch who was the main leader of the streltsy musketeers (Khovansbchina means ‘Khovansky’s rule’); and by the Old Believer Dosifei (a fictional creation named after the last patriarch of the united Orthodox Church in Jerusalem). They are connected by the fictional figure of Marfa, Khovansky’s fiancee and a devout adherent to the Old Belief. Marfa’s constant prayers and lamentations for Orthodox Russia express the profound sense of loss that lies at the heart of this opera.

    The Westernists viewed Khovansbchina as a progressive work, a celebration of the passing from the old Moscow to the European spirit of St Petersburg. Stasov, for example, tried to persuade Musorgsky to devote more of Act III to the Old Believers, because this would strengthen their association with ‘that side of ancient Russia’ that was ‘petty, wretched, dull-brained, superstitious, evil and malevolent’.80 This interpretation was then fixed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as the editor of the unfinished score after Musorgsky’s death in 1881, moved the prelude (‘Dawn over the Moscow River’) to the end, so that what in the original version had been a lyrical depiction of the old Moscow now became the sign of Peter’s rising sun. All before was night.

    This simple message was reinforced by an act of vandalism on Rimsky’s part. To the end of the opera’s final chorus, a melismatic Old Believers’ melody that Musorgsky had transcribed from the singing of a friend, Rimsky added a brassy marching tune of the Preobrazhensky Regiment - the very regiment Peter had established as his personal guard to replace the streltsy musketeers (it was Musorgsky’s regiment as well). Without Rimsky’s programmatic alterations the Old Believers would have had the fifth and final act of the opera to themselves. The fifth act takes its subject from the mass suicides of the Old Believers in response to the suppression of the Streltsy revolt in 1698: some 20,000 Old Believers are said to have gathered in churches and chapels in various remote regions of the Russian north and burned themselves to death. At the end of Musorgsky’s original version of the opera the Old Believers marched off to their deaths, singing chants and prayers. The opera had thus ended with a sense of loss at the passing of the old religious world of Muscovy. As far as one can tell, it had been Musorgsky’s aim to close Khovansbchina in this melancholic vein, in the same pianissimo and pessimistic mood as Boris Godunov. He had never felt the need to ‘resolve’ the opera with a forward moving plot, like that imposed on it by Rimsky-Korsakov. Deadlock and immobility were Musorgsky’s overarching themes. He felt ambivalent about Russia’s progress since the fall of Muscovy. He was sympathetic to the idealism of the Old Believers. He thought that only prayer could overcome the sadness and despair of life in Russia. And he held to the conviction that the Old Believers were the last ‘authentic Russians’, whose way of life had not yet been disturbed by European ways. Such ideas were widely held in the 1860s, not just by the Slavophiles, who idealized the patriarchy of old Muscovy, but by Populist historians such as Kostomarov and Shchapov, who wrote social histories of the schismatics, and by ethnographers who made studies of the Old Believers in Moscow. These views were shared by writers such as Dostoevsky - at that time a member of the ‘native soil’ movement (pocbvennichestvo), a sort of synthesis between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles which was immensely influential among writers and critics in the early 1860s. The character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment has a name that means ‘schismatic’.

    The painter Vasily Surikov also focused on the history of the Old Believers to explore the clash between the people’s native customs and the modernizing state. His two great history paintings, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy. 1881 and The Boyarynia Morozova. 1884 (plate 7) are the visual counterparts of Khovanshchina.

Surikov: The Boyar’s Wife Morozova (1884).
The faces were all drawn by Surikov from Old Believers living in Moscow.

Surikov was closer to the Slavophiles than Musorgsky, whose mentor Stasov, despite his nationalism, was a confirmed Westernist. Surikov idealized Moscow as a ‘legendary realm of the authentic Russian way of life’.81 He was born in 1848 to a Cossack family in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk. Having graduated from the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, he settled down in Moscow, which made him ‘feel at home’ and inspired him to paint on historical themes. ‘When I first stepped out on to Red Square it evoked memories of home, and from that emerged the image of the Streltsy, right down to the composition and the colour scheme.’82 Surikov spent several years making ethnographic sketches of the Old Believers in the Rogozhskoe and Preobrazhenskoe areas of the city, where much of Moscow’s small trade, and about a third of its total population, was crammed into houses in the narrow winding streets. His idea was that history was depicted on the faces of these types. The Old Believers took a shine to him, Surikov recalled, ‘because I was the son of a Cossack and because I didn’t smoke’. They overlooked their traditional superstition that to paint a person was a sin, allowing Surikov to sketch them. All the faces in The Boyar’s Wife Morozova were drawn from living people in Moscow. Morozova herself was modelled on a pilgrim from Siberia. Hence Tolstoy, who was among the first to see the painting, was so full of praise for the crowd figures: ‘The artist has caught them splendidly! It is as if they are alive! One can almost hear the words they’re whispering.’83

    When they were exhibited in the 1880s Surikov’s two paintings were hailed by the democratic intelligentsia, who saw the Streltsy revolt and the stubborn self-defence of the Old Believers as a form of social protest against Church and state. The 1880s was a time of renewed political repression following the assassination of Alexander II by revolutionary terrorists in March 1881. The new Tsar, Alexander III, was a political reactionary who soon sacked his father’s liberal ministers and passed a series of decrees rolling back their reforms: new controls were imposed on local government; censorship was tightened; the personal rule of the Tsar was reasserted through his direct agents in the provinces; and a modern police state began to take shape. In this context the democrats had reason to regard the historical figures of Surikov’s paintings as a symbol of their opposition to the Tsarist state. Morozova, in particular, was seen as a popular martyr. This was how the artist had portrayed the famous widow, a scion of the wealthy Moscow boyar family and a major patron of the Old Belief at the time of the Nikonian reforms in the mid-seventeenth century. In Surikov’s huge painting (it stands several metres high) she is depicted on a sledge, being dragged towards her execution on Red Square, her hand extended upwards in the Old Believers’ two-fingered sign of the cross as a gesture of defiance against the state. Morozova appears as a woman of real character and dignity who is prepared to die for an idea. The emotion on her face was drawn directly from contemporary life. In 1881 the artist had been present at the public execution of a female revolutionary - another woman who had been prepared to die for her ideas - and he had been shocked by the ‘wild look’ on her face as she was marched to the gallows.84 History was alive on Moscow’s streets.

6. Moscow Becomes a Metropolis: Rise of the Merchant Patron

    Moscow grew into a great commercial centre in the nineteenth century. Within sixty years, the peaceful nest of gentlefolk Napoleon had found was transformed into a bustling metropolis of shops and offices, theatres and museums, with sprawling industrial suburbs that every year drew hordes of immigrants. By 1900, with 1 million people, Moscow was, along with New York, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Three-quarters of its population had been born elsewhere.85 The railways held the key to Moscow’s growth. All the major lines converged on the city, the geographic centre between east and west, the agricultural south and the new industrial regions of the north. Financed mainly by Western companies, the railways opened new markets for Moscow’s trade and linked its industries with provincial sources of labour and raw materials. Thousands of commuters came in every day by train. The cheap boarding houses in the areas around the city’s nine main stations were always overcrowded with casual labourers from the countryside. Moscow, then, emerged as the metropolis of capitalist Russia - a position it still occupies today. Provincial towns like Tver, Kaluga and Riazan, all brought into Moscow’s orbit by the train, fell into decay as Moscow’s manufacturers sent their goods by rail directly to the local rural markets, and shoppers came themselves to buy in Moscow, where, even taking into account the cost of a third-class railway fare, prices still worked out cheaper than in district towns. Moscow’s rise was the demise of its own provincial satellites, which spelt ruin for those gentry farmers, like the Ranevskys in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, who depended on these towns as consumers of their grain. They were unprepared for the international market which the railways opened up. Chekhov’s play begins and ends with a train journey. The railway was a symbol of modernity: it brought in a new life and destroyed the old.*

    * It is interesting to compare Chekhov’s treatment of this symbol with Tolstoy’s. For Chekhov, who believed in progress through science and technology (he was, after all, a doctor), the railway was a force of good (for example, in the short story ‘Lights’) as well as bad (for example, in ‘My Life’). But for Tolstoy, a nobleman tragedy of Anna Karenina are all connected with this metaphor: Anna’s first meeting with Vronsky at the Moscow station; Vronsky’s declaration of his love for her on the train to Petersburg; and her suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Here was a symbol of modernity, of sexual liberation and adultery, that led unavoidably to death. All the more ironic and symbolic, then, that Tolstoy himself died in the stationmnster’s house at Astapovo (today ‘Lev Tolstoy’) on a dead end line to the south of Moscow.

    Moscow’s emergence as an economic giant was associated with its transition from a noble- to a merchant-dominated town. But so, too, was its cultural renaissance in the nineteenth century - a renaissance that made Moscow one of the most exciting cities in the world: as their wealth grew, Moscow’s leading merchants grabbed hold of the city’s government and patronized its arts.

    In the early nineteenth century Moscow’s trade was concentrated in the narrow winding streets of the Zamoskvoreche district, opposite the Kremlin on the Moscow river’s sleepy southern side. It was a world apart from the rest of Moscow, little touched by modern or European ways, with its patriarchal customs, its strict religious life and Old Beliefs, and its cloistered merchant houses built with their backs to the street. Belinsky called these homes ‘fortresses preparing for a siege, their windows shuttered and the gates firmly under lock and key. A knock starts a dog barking.’86 The appearance of the merchants, with their long kaftans and beards, was reminiscent of the peasantry, from which many of them had in fact emerged. The great Moscow textile dynasties - the Riabushinskys and the Tretiakovs, the Guchkovs, Alekseevs and the Vishniakovs - were all descended from serf forebears. For this reason, the Slavophiles idealized the merchants as the bearers of a purely Russian way of life. Slavophiles and merchants joined together in their opposition to free trade, fearing Western goods would swamp the home markets. Outraged by the foreign domination of the railways, they clubbed together to finance the first ‘Russian’ line, from Moscow to Sergiev Posad, in 1863. It was symbolic that its destination was a monastery, the hallowed shrine, indeed, of the Russian Church, and the spiritual centre of old Muscovy.

    The public image of the merchantry was fixed by the plays of Alexander Ostrovsky, himself a child of the Zamoskvoreche - his father had worked in the local judiciary, dealing mainly with the merchantry. After studying law at Moscow University, Ostrovsky worked as a clerk in the civil courts, so he had direct experience of the scams and squabbles that filled his merchant plays. His first drama, A Family Affair (1849), was based on a case in the Moscow courts. It tells the depressing tale of a merchant called Bolshov. To escape his debts he pretends to be bankrupt by transferring all his assets to his daughter and son-in-law, who then run off with the money, leaving Bolshov to go to debtors’ jail. The play was banned by the Tsar, who thought its portrait of the merchantry - even if it was based on a story from real life - might prove damaging to its relations with the Crown. Ostrovsky was placed under police surveillance. Sacked from his job in the civil courts, he was forced to earn a living as a dramatist, and he soon turned out a batch of sell-out plays that all dealt with the strange and (at that time) exotic mores of the Moscow business world. The corrupting power of money, the misery of arranged marriages, domestic violence and tyranny, the escape of adultery - these are the themes of Ostrovsky’s plays. The most famous is perhaps The Storm (1860), which the Czech composer Leos Janacek would use as the basis for his opera Katya Kabanova (1921).

    The stereotype of the Russian merchant - greedy and deceitful, narrowly conservative and philistine, the embodiment of everything that was dreary and depressing in provincial towns - became a literary commonplace. In the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy the traders who swindled the squires of their land symbolized the menace of the new commercial culture to the old-world values of the aristocracy. Take the scene in Anna Karenina, for example, where Stiva Oblonsky, the hopelessly spendthrift but endearing nobleman, agrees to sell his forests to a local merchant at far too low a price. When Levin tells Oblonsky of their true value, Oblonsky’s sense of honour as a nobleman forces him to go through with the deal, even though he knows that the merchant took advantage of his ignorance. All over Europe it was commonplace for the nineteenth-century cultural elites to hold trade and commerce in contempt, and such attitudes were equally pronounced in the intelligentsia. But nowhere else did they have such an effect as in Russia, where they poisoned the relations of the middle classes with the cultural elites and thereby closed off the possibility of Russia going down the capitalist-bourgeois path - until it was too late. Even as late as the 1890s merchants were excluded from the social circles of Moscow’s aristocracy. The governor of the city, the Grand Duke Sergei, would not have a merchant at his ball, even though merchants paid the largest share of the city’s taxes and some lent money personally to him. Consequently, many merchants had a deep mistrust of the aristocracy. The textile magnate and patron of the arts Pavel Tretiakov, an old-style Moscow merchant and an Old Believer, forbade his daughter to marry the pianist Alexander Ziloti, on the grounds that he was a nobleman and thus only after her inheritance. He reacted in a similar way to the marriage of his niece to A. I. Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother), another nobleman, and not only that, but a nobleman from Petersburg.

    Yet one could also form a brighter view of the Moscow merchants from Ostrovsky’s plays. Indeed, for this reason there were merchants like the Botkins, Moscow’s tea importers, who patronized his work. Another group who liked Ostrovsky’s plays for their positive message about the merchantry were the so-called ‘native soil’ critics (pochvenniki), whose outlet was the journal Moskvitianin (The Muscovite). The influential critic Apollon Grigoriev was a leading member of the ‘native soil’ movement, along with the writer Fedor Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail. Ostrovsky’s plays, they said, had spoken a ‘new word’ on Russian nationality. As a social group that lay somewhere between the peasantry and the educated classes, the merchants, they believed, were uniquely qualified to lead the nation in a way that reconciled its Muscovite and Petrine elements. Ostrovsky’s merchants were neither Slavophile nor Westernist, Mikhail Dostoevsky argued in a review of The Storm. They had flourished in the European culture of the new Russia, yet had managed to retain the culture of the old; and in this sense, Dostoevsky claimed, the merchants showed the way for Russia to progress without social divisions.87 This interpretation was a reflection of the ‘native soil’ ideals of national integration that followed in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs. The decree evoked high hopes of a spiritual rebirth in which the Russian nation, the noble and the peasant, would become reconciled and reunited around the cultural ideals of the intelligentsia. The mixed-class origins of the ‘native soil’ critics, most of whom were raznochintsy types (from a minor noble background, with close connections to the world of trade), perhaps led them to idealize the merchants as the pioneers of a new classless society. Yet the merchants were in fact developing in an interesting way - they were breaking out of the old cultural ghetto of the Zamoskvoreche - and this was reflected in Ostrovsky’s later plays. In The Final Sacrifice (1878) the usual themes of money and domestic tyranny are almost overshadowed by the appearance of a new generation of merchants’ sons and daughters who are European in their ways. When an actress would not play the part of a merchant’s wife in the first production of The Final Sacrifice, arguing that she did not want to be seen in a peasant shawl, Ostrovsky reassured her that the merchant’s wife now dressed more fashionably than the ladies of the aristocracy.88

    By this time, indeed, there was a group of fabulously wealthy merchant dynasties, many far wealthier than the aristocracy, that had branched out from their family concerns to form vast conglomerates. The Riabushinskys, for example, added glass and paper, publishing and banking, and later motor cars, to their textile factories in Moscow; and the Mamontovs had an immense empire of railways and iron foundries. As they grew in confidence, these familes left behind the narrow cultural world of the Zamoskvoreche. Their sons adopted European ways, entered the professions and civic politics, patronized the arts, and generally competed with the aristocracy for pre-eminence in society. They acquired lavish mansions, dressed their wives in the latest clothes from Paris, gave brilliant parties, and dined at the elite English Club. Some of these young industrial barons were even rich enough to snub the aristocracy. Savva Morozov, the Moscow factory magnate and principal financier of the Moscow Arts Theatre, once received a request from the governor of Moscow to be shown around Morozov’s house. Morozov agreed and invited him to come the next day. But when the Grand Duke appeared with his retinue he was greeted by the butler, who informed him that Morozov was away.89

    Despite the old mistrust between the classes, many of these magnates felt a strong desire for acceptance by the leaders of society. They did not want to join the aristocracy. But they did want to belong to the cultural elite, and they knew that their acceptance depended on their public service and philanthropy - above all, on their support for the arts. This condition was particularly important in Russia, where the cultural influence of the intelligentsia was far stronger than it was in the West. Whereas in America and many parts of Europe, money was enough to become accepted in society, even if the old snobbish attitudes prevailed, Russia never shared the bourgeois cult of money, and its cultural elites were defined by a service ethic that placed a burden on the rich to use their wealth for the people’s benefit. Noble clans like the Sheremetevs spent huge sums on charity. In the case of Dmitry Sheremetev these sums represented a quarter of his income, and became a major reason for his growing debts in the middle of the nineteenth century. But Moscow’s leading merchants also took their charitable duties very earnestly indeed. Most of them belonged to the Old Belief, whose strict moral code (not unlike that of the Quakers) combined the principles of thrift, sobriety and private enterprise with a commitment to the public good. All the biggest merchant families assigned large chunks of their private wealth to philanthropic projects and artistic patronage. Savva Mamontov, the Moscow railway baron, became an opera impresario and a major patron of the ‘World of Art’, out of which the Ballets Russes emerged. He had been brought up by his father to believe that ‘idleness is vice’ and that ‘work is not a virtue’ but ‘a simple and immutable responsibility, the fulfilment of one’s debt in life’.90 Konstantin Stanislavsky, the co-founder of the Moscow Arts Theatre, was brought up with a similar attitude by his father, a Moscow merchant of the old school. Throughout the years from 1898 to 1917, when he acted and directed at the Moscow Arts, he carried on with business at his father’s factories. Despite his immense wealth, Stanislavsky could not contribute much to the theatre’s funds, because his father had allowed him only a modest income which did not allow him to ‘indulge in whims’.91

    These principles were nowhere more in evidence than in the life and work of Pavel Tretiakov, Russia’s greatest private patron of the visual arts. The self-made textile baron came from a family of Old Believer merchants from the Zamoskvoreche. With his long beard, full-length Russian coat and square-toed boots, he cut the figure of an old-school patriarch. But while he adhered throughout his life to the moral code and customs of the Old Belief, he had broken out of its narrow cultural world at an early age. Because his father was opposed to education, he had taught himself by reading books and mixing in the student and artistic circles of Moscow. When he began to collect art, in the mid-1850s, Tretiakov bought mainly Western paintings, but he soon realized that he lacked the expertise to judge their provenance, so, to avoid the risk of being swindled, he bought only Russian works from that point on. Over the next thirty years Tretiakov spent in excess of 1 million roubles on Russian art. His collection, when he left it to the city as the Tretiakov Museum in 1892, included an astonishing 1,276 Russian easel paintings - far more numerous than the Spanish paintings in the Prado (about 500) or the British ones in the National Gallery (335). This huge new source of private patronage was a vital boost for the Wanderers - young painters such as Ilya Repin and Ivan Kramskoi who had broken from the Academy of Arts in the early 1860s and, like the kuchkists under Stasov’s influence, had begun to paint in a ‘Russian style’. Without the patronage of Tretiakov, the Wanderers would not have survived these first hard years of independence, when the private art market beyond the court and the aristocracy was still extremely small. Their down-to-earth provincial scenes and landscape paintings appealed to the merchant’s ethnocentric taste. ‘As for me,’ Tretiakov informed the landscape painter Apollinary Goravsky, ‘I want neither abundant nature scenes, elaborate composition, dramatic lighting, nor any kind of wonders. Just give me a muddy pond and make it true to life.’92 The injunction was perfectly fulfilled by Savrasov in his painting , The Rooks Have Come (1871) a poetic evocation of rural Russia in the early spring thaw, which became Tretiakov’s favourite landscape painting and something of an icon of the Russian School. Its simple realism was to become a hallmark of the Moscow landscape school compared to the carefully arranged veduta scenes, with their European styling, stipulated by the Academy in St Petersburg.

    Tretiakov in business, the Wanderers in art - each sought to break free from the bureaucratic controls of St Petersburg; each looked to Moscow and the provinces for an independent market and identity. The Wanderers’ name (in Russian, Peredvizhniki) derived from the travelling exhibitions organized by their collective in the 1870s.* Nurtured on the civic and Populist ideals of the 1860s, they toured the provinces with their exhibitions, usually financed out of their own pockets, to raise the public’s consciousness of art. Sometimes they taught in country schools or set up their own art schools and museums, usually with the support of liberal noblemen in local government (the zemstvos) and the Populists. The impact of their tours was enormous. ‘When the exhibitions came,’ recalled a provincial resident, ‘the sleepy country towns were diverted for a short while from their games of cards, their gossip and their boredom, and they breathed in the fresh current of free art. Debates and arguments arose on subjects about which the townfolk had never thought before.’93 Through this mission the Wanderers created a new market for their art. Local merchants funded public galleries that purchased canvases from the Wanderers and their many emulators in provincial towns. In this way the ‘national style’ of Moscow became the idiom of the provinces as well.

    *The word Peredvizhniki came from the Tovarishchestvo peredvizhnykb khu-dozhestvennykh vystavok (Collective of Travelling Art Exhibitions).

7. Moscow’s paradox - a progressive city whose mythic self-image was in the distant past

    Another merchant patron who helped to define the Moscow style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the railway magnate Savva Mamontov. A Siberian by birth, Mamontov had moved as a boy to Moscow, where his father was involved as the principal investor in the building of the railway to Sergiev Posad. He fell in love with the place. Its bustling energy was the perfect complement to his creativity and go-ahead panache. Benois (the voice of refined St Petersburg) described Mamontov as ‘grandiose and vulgar and dangerous’.94 He might have been describing Moscow, too.

    Mamontov was not just a patron of the arts but an artistic figure in his own right. He studied singing in Milan, acted under Ostrovsky’s own direction in The Storm, and wrote and directed plays himself. He was strongly influenced by the Populist ideas which circulated around Moscow in his youth. Art was to be for the education of the masses. As a monument to this ideal, he commissioned the artist Korovin to decorate his Moscow railway station (today the Yaroslav) with murals showing rural scenes from the northern provinces where his trains were bound. ‘The eyes of the people must be trained to see beauty everywhere, in streets and railway stations,’ Mamontov declared. 95 His wife Elizaveta was also influenced by Populist ideas. In 1870 the couple purchased the Abramtsevo estate, set amidst the birchwood forests near Sergiev Posad, sixty kilometres north-east of Moscow, where they set up an artists’ colony with workshops to revive the local peasant crafts and manufacture artefacts for sale in Moscow at a special shop. It is ironic that these crafts were dying out as a result of the spread of factory goods by rail. For this was what had made the Mamontovs so rich.

    Abramtsevo was located in the heartland of historic Muscovy. It had previously belonged to the Aksakovs, the leading clan of the Slavophiles, and as an artists’ colony it attempted to restore the ‘authentic’ (that is, folk-based) Russian style which the Slavophiles had prized. Artists flocked to it to learn from the old peasant handicrafts and assimilate their style to their own work. Korovin and the two Vasnetsovs, Polenova, Vrubel, Serov and Repin were all active there. Gartman spent a year there before he died, building a workshop and a clinic for the village in the neo-Russian style. Alongside its mission to the peasantry, Abramtsevo was, like everything in which its merchant founder was involved, a commercial enterprise. Its workshops catered to the vibrant market for the neo-Russian style among Moscow’s fast expanding middle class. The same was true of other centres, like the Solomenko embroidery workshop, the Talashkino colony and the Moscow zemstvo studios, which all likewise combined conservation with commerce. Moscow’s middle classes were filling up their houses with the folk-styled tableware and furniture, the embroidery and objets d’art that workshops such as these were churning out. At the top end of the market there were spectacular interior designs. Elena Polenova (at Solomenko) built a dining room with elaborate folk wood carvings for the estate of the Moscow textile baroness Maria Yakunchikova (where Chekhov spent the summer of 1903 writing The Cherry Orchard). Sergei Maliutin (at the Moscow zemstvo studios) designed a similar dining room for the merchant Pertsova. Then there was the folk style, slightly simpler but equally archaic, favoured by the Populist intelligentsia. The artist Vladimir Konashevich recalled having learned to read from a special ABC designed by his father in the 1870s. ‘The book was crammed with cart axles, scythes, harrows, hayricks, drying barns and threshing floors.’

    In my father’s study in front of the writing table stood an armchair whose back was the shaft bow of a harness, and whose arms were two axes. On the seat was a knout whip and a pair of bast shoes carved in oak. The finishing touch was a real little peasant hut which stood on the table. It was made of walnut and full of cigarettes.96

    Chekhov liked to poke fun at this ‘folksy’ craze. In his story ‘The Grasshopper’ (1891) Olga is the wife of a Moscow doctor. She ‘plastered all the walls with lubok woodcuts, hung up bast shoes and sickles, placed a rake in the corner of the room, and voila!, she had a dining room in the Russian style’.97 Yet Chekhov himself was a purchaser of arts and crafts. At his Yalta house (now a museum) there are two cupboards from Abramtsevo and an armchair like the one described by Konashevich.*

* There are several similar examples of the armchair in the History Museum of Moscow. All of them were designed by the artist Vasily Shutov.

    From these arts and crafts, Moscow’s artists developed what they called the ‘style moderne’, where Russian folk motifs were combined with the styling of European art nouveau. It can be seen in the extraordinary renaissance of Moscow’s architecture at the turn of the twentieth century, and perhaps above all in Fedor Shekhtel’s splendid mansion for Stepan Riabushinsky, which managed to combine a simple, even austere style with the modern luxuries expected by a rich industrialist. Discreetly hidden from the lavish style moderne of its living rooms was an Old Believer chapel designed in the ancient Moscow style. It perfectly expressed the split identity of this merchant caste - on the one hand looking back to the seventeenth century, on the other striding forward to the twentieth. Here indeed was Moscow’s paradox - a progressive city whose mythic self-image was in the distant past.

    The fashion for old Moscow was also cultivated by the silversmiths and jewellery shops that catered to the city’s prosperous merchant class. Craftsmen such as Ivan Khlebnikov and Pavel Ovchinnikov (a former serf of Prince Sergei Volkonsky) produced silver tableware and samovars, dishes shaped like ancient Viking ships (kovshi), drinking vessels, ornaments and icon covers in the ancient Russian style. These firms were joined by Carl Faberge, who set up separate workshops in Moscow to produce goods for the rising merchant class. In St Petersburg the Faberge workshops made gems in the classical and rococo styles. But only Tsars and Grand Dukes could afford to buy such jewels. The Moscow workshops, by contrast, turned out mainly silver objects which were within the financial reach of the middle classes. These Moscow firms all had some artists of extraordinary talent, most of them unknown or neglected to this day. One was Sergei Vashkov, a silver craftsman who made religious objects in the Moscow workshops of the Olovyanishni-kovs - and later by commission for Faberge. Vashkov drew from the simple style of religious art in medieval Russia but he combined this with his own unique version of the style moderne, creating sacred objects of a rare beauty and (in a way that was important to the Moscow revival) reuniting church art with the cultural mainstream.

    Nicholas II was a major patron of Vashkov and the Moscow workshop of Faberge.98 Vashkov designed the silver objects for the mock medieval church in the Fedorov village at Tsarskoe Selo, a sort of Muscovite theme park constructed for the Romanov tercentenary in 1913. This was the high point of the cult of Muscovy. It was engineered by the last Tsar in a desperate effort to invest the monarchy with a mythical historical legitimacy at a time when its right to rule was being challenged by the institutions of democracy. The Romanovs were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future. Nicholas, in particular, idealized the Tsardom of Alexei in the seventeenth century. He saw in it a golden age of paternal rule, when the Tsar had ruled in a mystical union with the Orthodox people, undisturbed by the complications of a modern state. He loathed St Petersburg, with its secular ideas and bureaucracy, its Western culture and intelligentsia, so alien to the ‘simple Russian folk’, and he tried to Muscovitize it by adding onion domes and kokoshnik pediments to the classical facades of its buildings. It was in his reign that the Church of the Spilt Blood was completed on the Catherine Canal. With its onion domes and colourful mosaics, its ornate decorations that contrasted so bizarrely with the classical ensemble in which it was placed, the church was a piece of Moscow kitsch. Yet today tourists flock to it, thinking they are getting something of the ‘real’ (exotic) Russia so evidently missing in St Petersburg.

    Like the church, the Muscovite renaissance in the arts conjured up a land of fairy tales. The retreat to Russian wonderland was a general trend in the final decades of the nineteenth century, when the increased censorship of Alexander III’s reign and the early years of Nicholas II’s made it hard for the realist school to use art for social or political commentary. And so painters such as Vasnetsov, Vrubel and Bilibin turned to Russian legends as a new way to approach the national theme. Viktor Vasnetsov was the first major artist to make the transition from realist genre painting to fantastic history scenes. He graduated from the Petersburg Academy, but it was his move to Moscow which, by his own admission, accounted for the switch. ‘When I came to Moscow, I felt I had come home’, he wrote to Stasov. ‘The first time I saw the Kremlin and St Basil’s, tears welled in my eyes: so forceful was the feeling that they are a part of me.’99 Vasnetsov depicted monumental figures from the epic folk legends like Ilia Muromets, presenting them as studies of the national character. Nobody in Petersburg would countenance his art. Stasov condemned it for departing from the principles of realism. The Academy denounced it for rejecting classical mythology. Only Moscow welcomed Vasnetsov. The leading Moscow critics had long called on artists to take inspiration from legendary themes, and the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art proved an important outlet for Vasnetsov’s epic canvases.100 Mikhail Vrubel followed Vasnetsov from Petersburg, moving first to Moscow and then Abramtsevo, where he too painted scenes from Russian legends. Like Vasnetsov, Vrubel was inspired by the Moscow atmosphere. ‘I am back in Abramtsevo’, he wrote to his sister in 1891, ‘and again I am enveloped. I can hear that intimate national tone which I so long to capture in my work.’101

    Vasnetsov and Vrubel brought this land of fairy tales to their colourful designs for Mamontov’s Private Opera, which had its origins at Abramtsevo. There was a strong collective spirit within the Abramtsevo circle which expressed itself in the amateur productions at the colony and at the Mamontovs’ house in Moscow. Stanislavsky, who was a cousin of Elizaveta Mamontov, recalled that during these productions ‘the house would become a tremendous workshop’, with actors, artists, carpenters, musicians hurriedly preparing everywhere.102 At the heart of this collaboration was the ideal of artistic synthesis. Vasnetsov and Vrubel joined with composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov in a conscious effort to unify the arts on the basis of the folk-inspired ‘Russian style’. Wagner’s idea of the total work of art, the Gesamtkunstwerk, was a major influence. Rimsky even planned a Russian version of the Ring cycle based on the epic Russian folk legends - with Ilia Muromets as a sort of Slav Siegfried.103 But Mamontov had also come quite independently to the idea of a total work of art. As he saw it, the opera could not succeed on the basis of good singing and musicianship alone; it had to unite these with its visual and dramatic elements in an organic synthesis. Mamontov established his Private Opera in 1885, three years after the state monopoly of the Imperial Theatre (already an anachronism when private theatres were outlawed in 1803) had finally been lifted by the Tsar. It immediately became the focal point of Moscow’s opera world, eclipsing the Bolshoi with its innovative productions of mainly Russian operas. Vasnetsov brought the vibrant primary colours of the folk tradition to the stage for Rimsky’s Snow Maiden, the big success of the first season. The bulky bulbous form of Tsar Berendei’s palace, with its lavishly ornate folk-style decorations and fantastic columns shaped and painted like Russian Easter eggs, was inspired by the wooden palace of Kolomenskoe just outside Moscow. The whole scene conjured up a magic Russian realm, and it left the public, which had never seen such folk art on the stage before, enraptured and amazed. The height of the company’s success came after 1896, when the great bass Shaliapin, still only a young man of twenty-four, signed with Mamontov. Shaliapin’s rise had been blocked at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg by senior singers such as Fedor Stravinsky (the composer’s father), but Mamontov believed in him and put him in the role of Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky’s Maid of Pskov, the Private Opera’s main production of the 1896-7 season at its new home in the Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow. It was a sensation. Rimsky was delighted and, having just had Sadko turned down by the Marinsky at the express command of Nicholas II (who wanted something ‘a bit merrier’),104 he had no hesitation in throwing in his lot with Mamontov. Rimsky, the young kuchkist of the 1860s, had risen to become a pillar of the Russian musical establishment and a professor of the Petersburg Conservatory after 1871; now he too became a convert to Moscow’s neo-nationalist school. All his last six major operas were performed by the Private Opera in its distinctive neo-Russian style, including Sadko and May Night (with the 24-year-old Rachmaninov conducting) in 1897, The Tsar’s Bride in 1899, and Kashchei the Immortal in 1902. These were tremendously important productions - their great strength being their visual elements, with colourfully stylized folk-like sets and costumes by Korovin, Maliutin and Vrubel in perfect keeping with the music of these folk-based opera fantasies. They were a major influence on the synthetic ideals of the World of Art movement and the Ballets Russes. Such, indeed, was Mamontov’s success that in 1898 he agreed to co-finance the costs of Diaghilev’s review the World of Art. But then disaster struck. Mamontov was accused of appropriating funds from his railway empire to support the Opera. There was a scandal and a noisy trial in 1900. Mamontov was acquitted of corruption on a wave of public sympathy for a man whose love of art, it was generally concluded, had carried him away. But financially he was ruined. His company collapsed and the Private Opera closed. Mamontov himself was declared bankrupt, and the effects of his Moscow house were sold off by auction in 1903. One of the sale items was a peasant’s wooden model of a railway station crafted at Abramtsevo.105

8. The Moscow Arts Theatre and Chekhov’s Plays

    Private theatrical undertakings were something of a Moscow fashion following the lifting of the state monopoly in 1882. The actress Maria Abramova, for example, set up her own theatre, with the help of merchant patrons, where Chekhov’s Wood Demon (1889) had its premiere; and in the 1900s another well-known actress, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, owned a private theatre in St Petersburg. By far the most important of these private ventures was the Moscow Arts Theatre, founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1898. Here Chekhov’s last great plays were first performed. Stanislavsky was born in Moscow to a merchant family which ‘had already crossed the threshold of culture’, as he would later write. ‘They made money in order to spend it on social and artistic institutions.’ His maternal grandmother was the French actress Marie Varley, who had made herself a star in Petersburg. But while his parents were rich enough to put on lavish balls, they basically inhabited the old Moscow mercantile world. Stanislavsky’s father slept (with his grandfather) in the same bed.106 As a student Stanislavsky took part in the Mamontov amateur productions. These convinced him that, while huge efforts had been put into the music, the costumes and the sets, very little had been done about the acting, which remained extremely amateurish, not just in the operas but in the theatre, too. He trained himself as an actor by standing for hours before a mirror every day and developing his gestures over several years to make them appear more natural. His famous ‘method’ (from which ‘method acting’ was to come) boiled down to a sort of naturalism. It was acting without ‘acting’ - which fitted in so well with the modern dialogue (where the pauses are as important as the words) and the everyday realities of Chekhov’s plays.107 Later his method was made more systematic through a series of techniques to help the actor convey the inner thoughts and emotions of a part. They were all about recalling moments of intense experience in the actor’s own life, supposedly to help him produce the emotion on demand. Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote a blistering satire of the Moscow Arts in his farcical, unfinished Black Snow (1939- ), ridiculed these methods in a scene in which the director tries to get an actor to feel what passion is by riding round the stage on a bicycle.

    Stanislavsky’s vision of an independent theatre brought him together with the playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Both men were committed to the idea that the theatre should reach out to the masses by producing plays about contemporary life. The Moscow Arts was originally called the Accessible Arts Theatre. Cheap seats for students and the poor were mixed in with the expensive ones at the front of the stalls. Even the building, the rundown hermitage in Karetny Row, had a democratic feel. It had previously been used for circuses, and when the actors first moved in there was an all-pervasive smell of beer.108 After a quick coat of paint, they began in 1898 rehearsals for the opening performances of Alexei Tolstoy’s Tsar Fedor (1868) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896).

    Nemirovich was a great admirer of Chekhov’s play. In St Petersburg it had been a dreadful failure; the critics had panned it. But in the simple, lifelike style of the Moscow Arts’ production it was a triumph. ‘The public lost all sense of the theatre’, wrote Nemirovich: ‘the life they now beheld in these simple human contacts on the stage was “real”, not theatrical.’ People felt ‘almost embarrassed to be present’, as if they were eavesdropping on a mundane domestic tragedy. There was ‘nothing but shattered illusions, and tender feelings crushed by rude reality’.109 The production relaunched Chekhov’s career as a playwright - and he now came home to Moscow as its favourite literary son.

    Born in Taganrog, in southern Russia, to a devout, old-style merchant, Anton Chekhov came to Moscow at the age of seventeen and two years later, in 1879, enrolled as a student of medicine at the university. He fell in love with the city from the start. ‘I will be a Muscovite forever’, he wrote in a letter of 1881.110 As a hard-up student, and then as a doctor, Chekhov was acquainted with the city’s slums, and he was a lifelong client of its brothels, too. His first literary efforts were as a journalist (‘Antosha Chekhonte’) for the humorous tabloids and weekly magazines aimed at Moscow’s newly literate labourers and clerks. He wrote sketches of street life, vaudeville satires on love and marriage, and stories about doctors and magistrates, petty clerks and actors in Moscow’s poor districts. There were many writers of this kind - the most successful being Vladimir Giliarovsky, author of the 1920s classic Moscow and the Muscovites (still widely read and loved in Russia today) and something of a mentor to the young Chekhov. But Chekhov was the first major Russian writer to emerge from the penny press (nineteenth-century writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had written for the serious or ‘thick’ periodicals that combined literature with criticism and political commentary). His concise written style, for which he is so famed, was fashioned by the need to write for commuters on the train.

    Chekhov knew these trains. In 1892 he purchased Melikhovo, a delightful small estate a short journey to the south of Moscow. Moscow often featured as a backdrop to his stories from this period - for example in ‘Three Years’ (1895) and ‘Lady with the Dog’ (1899). But the city was now felt by its absence, too. In all his greatest plays Moscow is perceived as a distant ideal realm, a paradise beyond the provinces, where his characters are trapped in a stagnant way of life. Chekhov understood their claustrophobia - he too yearned for city life. ‘I miss Moscow’, he wrote to Sobolevsky in 1899. ‘It’s boring without Muscovites, and without Moscow newspapers, and without the Moscow church bells which I love so much.’ And to Olga Knipper in 1903: ‘There’s no news. I’m not writing anything. I’m just waiting for you to give me the signal to pack and come to Moscow. “Moscow! Moscow!” These are not the refrain of Three Sisters: they are now the words of One Husband.’111 In Three Sisters (1901) Moscow becomes a symbol for the happiness so lacking in the sisters’ lives. They long to go to Moscow, where they lived as children and were happy when their father was alive. But they remain stuck in a provincial town, unable to escape, as youthful hopes give way to the bitter disappointments of middle age. There is no clear explanation for their inertia - a fact which has led critics to lose patience with the play. ‘Give the sisters a railway ticket to Moscow at the end of Act One and the play will be over’, Mandelstam once wrote.112 But that is to miss the whole point of the play. The three sisters are suffering from a spiritual malaise, not a geographical displacement. Stifled by the petty routines of their daily life, they strive for a higher form of existence, which they imagine there to be in Moscow, yet in their hearts they know does not exist. The sisters’ ‘Moscow’, then, is not so much a place (they never go there) as a legendary realm - a city of dreams which gives hope and the illusion of meaning to their lives. The real tragedy of the three sisters is voiced by Irena when she comes to realize that this paradise is a fantasy:

I’ve been waiting all this time, imagining that we’d be moving to Moscow, and I’d meet the man I’m meant for there. I’ve dreamt about him and I’ve loved him in my dreams… But it’s all turned out to be nonsense… nonsense.113

    Chekhov’s Moscow, then, is a symbol of the happiness and better life to come. From Chekhov’s point of view, as a Russian and a liberal, its promise was in progress and modernity - a far cry from the image of inertia which Musorgsky saw just thirty years before. Chekhov put his faith in science and technology. He was a doctor by training, and by temperament a man who looked to practical solutions rather than to religion or ideologies. In a veiled attack on Tolstoy in 1894, Chekhov wrote that ‘there is more love of humanity in electricity and steam than in vegetarianism’.114 Progress is a constant theme in Chekhov’s plays. Noblemen like Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1896) or Vershinin in Three Sisters are constantly speculating about the future of Russia. They hope that one day life will become better and they talk about the need to work towards that end. Chekhov shared these dreamers’ hopes, although he was scathing on the subject of intellectuals who did no more than speak about the need to work. Trofimov, the eternal student in The Cherry Orchard, is always saying ‘we must work’, yet he himself has never done a thing. Chekhov thought that well-intentioned chatter was Russia’s greatest curse. He worked like one possessed throughout his life. He believed in work as the purpose of existence and as a form of redemption: it was at the heart of his own religious faith. ‘If you work for the present moment’, he wrote in his notebook, ‘your work will be worthless. One must work bearing only the future in one’s mind.’115 Perhaps his credo was best expressed by Sonya in the final moving moments of Uncle Vanya. There is, she says, no rest from work or suffering, and only in the ideal world is there a better life.

Well, what can we do? We must go on living! We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings. We shall patiently suffer the trials which Fate imposes on us; we shall work for others, now and in our old age, and we shall have no rest. When our time comes we shall die submissively, and over there, in the other world, we shall say that we have suffered, that we’ve wept, that we’ve had a bitter life, and God will take pity on us. And then, Uncle dear, we shall both begin to know a life that is bright and beautiful, and lovely. We shall rejoice and look back at all our troubles with tender feelings, with a smile - and we shall have rest. I believe it, Uncle, I believe it fervently, passionately… We shall have rest! 116

    Chekhov’s emphasis on the need to work was more than a Voltairean solution to the quest for meaning in one’s life. It was a critique of the landed gentry, which had never really known the meaning of hard work and for this reason was destined for decline. This is the theme of Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, written for the Moscow Arts in 1904. It has often been perceived as a sentimental drama about the passing from an old and charming gentry world to a brash, modern, city-based economy. The plot is, indeed, quite reminiscent of the ‘nest of gentry’ melodramas that had been in fashion since Turgenev’s time. The main characters, the Ranevskys, are forced by debt to sell their prized possession and inheritance (the orchard) to a merchant called Lopakhin, who plans to clear the land and build dachas on it for the new middle classes of Moscow. Stanislavsky, in the first production, played it as a sentimental tragedy: his actors cried when they first heard the script. No one was prepared to puncture the mystique of ‘the good old days’ on the estate - a mystique that had grown into a national myth. Journals such as Bygone Years (Starye gody) and Town and Country (Stolitsa i usad’ba) catered to this cult with their dreamy pictures and nostalgic memoirs about the old gentry way of life. The political agenda of these journals was the preservation of the landowners’ estates, not just as a piece of property, an economic system or ancestral home, but as the last remaining outposts of a civilization that was threatened with extinction by the social revolution of the towns. ‘Our country nests’, Count Pavel Sheremetev told the Moscow zemstvo, ‘are carrying the ancient torch of culture and enlightenment. God grant them success, if only they are spared the senseless movement to destroy them, supposedly in the interests of social justice.’117 Had Chekhov’s play been written after 1905, when the first agrarian revolution swept through Russia and thousands of those country nests were set alight or ransacked by the peasants, it might have been conceived in this nostalgic way. But Chekhov was insistent that the play should be performed as a comedy, not a sentimental tragedy; and in this conception the play could not have been written later than it was, even if Chekhov had lived for another twenty years. After the 1905 Revolution the passing of the old world was no longer a subject of comedy.

    Chekhov called his play a ‘piece of vaudeville’.118 Throughout The Cherry Orchard he is subtly ironic and iconoclastic in his treatment of the gentry’s ‘cultivated ways’. He is sending up the mystique of the ‘good old days’ on the estate. We are meant to laugh at the clichéd sentimental speeches of Madame Ranevskaya when she waxes lyrical on the former beauty of the old estate or her happy childhood there: a world she had abandoned long ago for France. Her overblown expressions of sadness and nostalgia are belied by the speed with which she recovers and then forgets her grief. This is not a tragedy: it is a satire of the old-world gentry and the cult of rural Russia which grew up around it. What are we to think of Pishchik, for example, the landowner who sings the praises of the ‘gentry on the land’ and yet at the first opportunity sells his land to some English businessmen who want it for its special clay (no doubt to be used for the manufacturing of lavatories in Stoke-on-Trent)? What are we to make of the Ranevskys who set such store by the old paternal ways? Their ancient butler Feers looks back nostalgically to the days of serfdom (‘when the peasants belonged to the gentry and the gentry belonged to the peasants’). But he is left behind on the estate when its owners all pack up and go away. Chekhov himself felt nothing but contempt for such hypocrisy. He wrote The Cherry Orchard while staying on the estate of Maria Yakunchikova near Moscow. ‘A more disgracefully idle, absurd and tasteless life would be hard to find’, he wrote. ‘These people live exclusively for pleasure.’119 The merchant Lopakhin, on the other hand, was intended by Chekhov as the hero of the play. He is portrayed as an honest businessman, industrious and modest, kind and generous, with a real nobility of spirit underneath his peasant-like exterior. Although he stands to gain from buying the estate (where his father was a serf), Lopakhin does everything he can to persuade the Ranevskys to develop it themselves, offering to lend them money to help them (and no doubt giving money to them all the time). Here was the first merchant hero to be represented on the Russian stage. From the start Chekhov had the part in mind for Stanislavsky himself, who was of course the son of a merchant family from peasant stock. But mindful of this parallel, Stanislavsky took the role of the feckless noble Gaev, leaving Lopakhin to be played by Leonidov as the usual merchant stereotype - fat and badly dressed (in checkered trousers), speaking boorishly in a loud voice and ‘flailing with his arms’.120 As Meyerhold concluded, the effect was to deprive Chekhov’s play of its hero: ‘when the curtain falls one senses no such presence and one retains only an impression of “types”’.121

    The Moscow Arts’ production of The Cherry Orchard, which became the standard view, has taken us away from the real conception of the play - and from the real Chekhov, too. For everything suggests that, by temperament and background, he identified himself with the outsider crashing through the barriers of society. Like Lopakhin, Chekhov’s father was a merchant who had risen from the enserfed peasantry. He taught himself to play the violin, sang in the church choir, and became the choir master in the Taganrog cathedral in 1864. Chekhov shared his father’s industry. He understood that common people could be artists, too. Far from lamenting the old gentry world, his last play embraces the cultural forces that emerged in Moscow on the eve of the twentieth century.

9. Moscow: the Centre of the Avant-garde

    On a trip to the city in the 1900s Diaghilev remarked that in the visual arts Moscow produced everything worth looking at. Moscow was the centre of the avant-garde; Petersburg was ‘a city of artistic gossiping, academic professors and Friday watercolour classes’.122 Coming as it did from an arch-patriot of Petrine culture, this was a remarkable acknowledgement. But Moscow really was the place to be in 1900, when the Russian avant-garde first burst on to the scene. Along with Paris, Berlin and Milan, it became a major centre in the world of art, and its extraordinary collection of avant-garde artists were as much influenced by trends in Europe as they were by Moscow’s heritage. Its progressive politics, its relaxed atmosphere, its noisy modern ways and new technologies - there was so much in Moscow’s cultural milieu to inspire artists in experimental forms. The poet Mikhail Kuzmin, another patriot of Petersburg, noted on a trip to Moscow at this time:

… the loud Moscow accent, the peculiar words, the way they clicked their heels as they walked along, the Tatar cheekbones and eyes, the moustaches twirled upwards, the shocking neckties, brightly coloured waistcoats and jackets, the sheer bravado and implacability of their ideas and judgements -all this made me think: new people have come forward.123

    Moscow’s younger generation of merchant patrons embraced and collected modern art. They saw it as an ally of their own campaign to transform the old Russia along modern lines. As young playboys and decadents, these rich merchants’ sons moved in the same bohemian circles, the cafes, clubs and parties, as the young artists of the Moscow avant-garde. The poet Andrei Bely recalled sardonically that the Society of Free Aesthetics, the most fashionable of the artists’ clubs in Moscow, had been forced to close in 1917 because of an ‘excess of lady millionaires’. The merchant couples were everywhere, Bely noted.

The husbands would give subsidies to societies that tried to obtain something from us with the persistence of goats. The wives were languorous and, like Venuses, they would appear from a beautiful gossamer of muslin and diamond constellations.124

    The most colourful of these younger merchant patrons was Nikolai Riabushinsky, who was famous for his decadent lifestyle - ‘I love beauty and I love a lot of women’ - and for his outrageous parties at his Moscow mansion, the Black Swan. Riabushinsky promoted avant-garde artists in the journal Golden Fleece and its exhibitions between 1908 and 1910. From his patronage stemmed the Blue Rose group of Moscow Symbolist painters who, together with their literary confreres and composers like Alexander Scriabin, sought a synthesis of art with poetry, music, religion and philosophy. Riabushinky also funded the famous ‘Jack of Diamonds’ exhibitions (1910-14), at which more than forty of the city’s youngest and most brilliant artists (Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov, Lentulov, Rodchenko and Tatlin) declared war on the realist tradition and shocked the public with their art. Exhibits were assembled from a broken table leg, a sheet of iron and bits of a glass jug. Painters decorated their own naked bodies and walked as works of art through Moscow’s streets.

    The critics fumed with rage. Sergei Yablonovsky said that none of it was art - whereupon Lentulov squeezed out some ochre paint on to a piece of cardboard and hung it in the exhibition he had criticized, with the caption ‘Sergei Yablonovsky’s Brain’.125 In other art forms, too, Moscow led the way in experimentation. Meyerhold branched out from the naturalism of the Moscow Arts to experiment with Symbolist drama, establishing his Theatre Studio, with its highly stylized acting, in 1905. Scriabin was the first Russian composer to experiment with what was later known as ‘serial music’ (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were doing the same thing). Scriabin was an inspiration to the avant-garde. The young Stravinsky was greatly influenced by Scriabin (and mortified to learn that Scriabin did not know his music when he went to visit him in 1913).126 In 1962, when Stravinsky revisited Russia for the first time after the 1917 Revolution, he made a pilgrimage to the Scriabin Museum in Moscow and learned that it had become a sort of underground meeting place for avant-garde electronic composers. The writer Boris Pasternak, a Scriabin devotee,* blazed the Futurist trail in poetry along with Vladimir Mayakovsky, his close friend and (from 1906) a fellow Muscovite.

* The poet’s father, Leonid Pasternak, was a fashionable painter in Moscow and his mother, Rozalia Kaufman, a well-known pianist. Scriabin was a close friend of the family. Under his impact the teenage Boris studied music composition for six years. ‘I loved music more than anything else, and I loved Scriabin more than anyone else in the world of music. Scriabin was my god and idol’ (F. Bowers, Scriabin, 2 vols. (London,1969), vol. 1, p. 321).

They were searching for a new poetic language and they heard it in the discord of the Moscow streets:

A juggler
pulls rails
from the mouth of a tram,
hidden by clock-faces of a tower.
We are conquered!
An elevator.
The bodice of a soul is unfastened.
Hands burn the body.
Scream, or don’t scream:
‘I didn’t mean…’ -
The prickly wind
tears out a shred of smoky wool
from a chimney.
A bald-head streetlamp
peels off
a black stocking
from the street.127

    Malevich called Maytovsky’s ‘From Street into Street’ (1913) the finest illustration of ‘versified Cubism’.128

    Marina Tsvetaeva was equally a poet of Moscow. Her father was Ivan Tsvetaev, sometime professor of Art History at Moscow University and the founding director of the Pushkin Gallery, so, like Pasternak, she grew up in the middle of the Moscow intelligentsia. The spirit of the city breathed in every line of her poetry. She herself once wrote that her early verse was meant to ‘elevate the name of Moscow to the level of the name of Akhmatova… I wanted to present in myself Moscow… not with the goal of conquering Petersburg but of giving Moscow to Petersburg’:

Cupolas blaze in my singing city,
And a wandering blind man praises the Holy Saviour,
And I present to you my city of church bells
- Akhmatova! - and also my heart.129

    Through their friendship in these years, Tsvetaeva gave Moscow to fellow poet Mandelstam as well. ‘It was a magic gift’, wrote the poet’s wife Nadezhda, ‘because with only Petersburg, without Moscow, it would have been impossible to breathe freely, to acquire the true feeling for Russia.’130

    After 1917 Moscow superseded Petersburg. It became the Soviet capital, the cultural centre of the state, a city of modernity and a model of the new industrial society the Bolsheviks wanted to build. Moscow was the workshop of the avant-garde, the left-wing artists of the Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) and Constructivists like Malevich and Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova, who sought to construct the new Soviet man and society through art. It was a city of unprecedented freedom and experimentation in life as in art, and the avant-garde believed, if only for a few years in the 1920s, that they saw their ideal city taking shape in it. Tatlin’s ‘tower’ - his unrealized design for a monument to the Third International on Red Square - expressed these revolutionary hopes. A giant striding figure to be made out of steel and iron girders, tiered and rounded like the churches of medieval Muscovy, his would-be creation symbolized the city’s messianic role, in the words of the refrain of the Internationale, to ‘make the world anew’. From the old idea of Moscow as the Third Rome to the Soviet one of it as leader of the Third International, it was but a short step in the city’s mission to save humanity.

    Soviet Moscow was supremely confident, its confidence reflected in the huge building projects of the 1930s, the mass manufacture of motor cars, the first metros, and the forward-upward images of Socialist Realist ‘art’. Moscow’s old wooden houses were bulldozed. Churches were destroyed. A vast new parade route was constructed through the centre of the city: the old Tver Boulevard was broadened out (and renamed Gorky Street), a Revolution Square was laid out on the site of the old market, and Red Square was cleared of its market stalls. In this way the Lenin Mausoleum, the sacred altar of the Revolution, became the destination of the mass parades on May Day and Revolution Day. With their armed march past the Kremlin, the citadel of Holy Russia, these parades were imitations of the old religious processions they had replaced. There were even plans to blow up St Basil’s cathedral so that the marchers could file past the Revolution’s leaders, standing in salute on the Mausoleum’s roof, and march off in one unbroken line.

    Stalin’s Moscow was thus recast as an imperial city - a Soviet Petersburg - and, like that unreal city, it became a subject of apocalyptic myths. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1940), the Devil visits Moscow and brings its cultural temples crashing down; Satan descends on the city in the person of a magician called Woland, with a band of sorcerers and a supernatural cat called Behemoth. They cause havoc in the capital, exposing it as morally corrupt, before flying off from the Sparrow Hills, where Napoleon (that other devil) had first set his sights on the city. Flying off with them was a young Moscow girl called Margarita, who had sacrificed herself to Woland so as to redeem her beloved Master, the author of a suppressed manuscript about Pontius Pilate and the trial of Christ. As their horses leaped into the air and galloped upwards to the sky, Margarita ‘turned round in flight and saw that not only the many-coloured towers but the whole city had long vanished from sight, swallowed by the earth, leaving only mist and smoke where it had been’.131

    And yet throughout the twentieth century Moscow was still ‘home’. It was still the mother city it had always been, and, when Hitler attacked it in the autumn of 1941, its people fought to defend it. There was no question of abandoning the city, as Kutuzov had abandoned it to Napoleon in 1812. A quarter of a million Muscovites dug last-ditch defences, carted food to the soldiers at the front and cared for the injured in their homes. With one last desperate effort the Germans were pushed back from the city’s gates - a spot still marked today by a giant iron cross on the road from Moscow to the Sheremetevo airport. It was not the Soviet capital but Mother Moscow which was saved. In the words of Pasternak:

A haze of legend will be cast
Over all, like scroll and spiral
Bedecking gilded boyar chambers
And the Cathedral of St Basil.

By midnight denizens and dreamers
Moscow most of all is cherished.
Here is their home, the fount of all
With which this century will flourish. 132



Chapter 4. The Peasant Marriage

Chapter 4. The Peasant Marriage

1. the ‘going to the people’ movement
2. Stasov’s troika:  Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor Antokolsky
3. Tolstoy’s Ambivalence about the Peasants
4. Noble vs. Peasant Marriage
5. Bleaker Views of the Peasants after 1900
6. the World of Art movement and the Ballet Russes
7. Stravinsky, The Peasant Wedding

1. ‘going to the people’

    In the summer of 1874 thousands of students left their lecture halls in Moscow and St Petersburg and travelled incognito to the countryside to start out on a new life with the Russian peasantry. Renouncing their homes and families, they were ‘going to the people’ in the hopeful expectation of finding a new nation in the brotherhood of man. Few of these young pioneers had ever seen a village, but they all imagined it to be a harmonious community that testified to the natural socialism of the Russian peasantry. They thus convinced themselves that they would find in the peasant a soul mate and an ally of their democratic cause. The students called themselves the Populists (narodniki), ‘servants of the people’ (the narod), and they gave themselves entirely to the ‘people’s cause’. Some of them tried to dress and talk like peasants, so much did they identify themselves with their ‘simple way of life’. One of them, a Jew, even wore a cross in the belief that this might bring him closer to the ‘peasant soul’.1 They picked up trades and crafts to make themselves more useful to the peasantry, and they brought books and pamphlets to teach the peasants how to read. By merging with the people and sharing in the burdens of their lives, these young revolutionaries hoped to win their trust and make them understand the full horror of their social condition.

    Yet this was no ordinary political movement. The ‘going to the people’ was a form of pilgrimage, and the type of person who became involved in it was similar to those who went in search of truth to a monastery. These young missionaries were riddled with the guilt of privilege. Many of them felt a personal guilt towards that class of serfs - the nannies and the servants - who had helped to bring them up in their families’ aristocratic mansions. They sought to free themselves from their parents’ sinful world, whose riches had been purchased by the people’s sweat and blood, and set out for the village in a spirit of repentance to establish a ‘New Russia’ in which the noble and the peasant would be reunited in the nation’s spiritual rebirth. By dedicating themselves to the people’s cause - to the liberation of the peasantry from poverty and ignorance and from the oppression of the gentry and the state - the students hoped to redeem their own sin: that of being born into privilege. ‘We have come to realize’, the prominent Populist theoretician Nikolai Mikhailovsky wrote, ‘that our awareness of the universal truth could only have been reached at the cost of the age-old suffering of the people. We are the people’s debtors and this debt weighs down our conscience.’2

    What had given rise to these idealistic hopes was the emancipation of the serfs. Writers such as Dostoevsky compared the Decree of 1861 to the conversion of Russia to Christianity in the tenth century. They spoke about the need for the landlord and the peasant to overcome their old divisions and become reconciled by nationality. For, as Dostoevsky wrote in 1861, ‘every Russian is a Russian first of all, and only after that does he belong to a class’.3 The educated classes were called upon to recognize their ‘Russianness’ and to turn towards the peasants as a cultural mission - educating them as citizens and reuniting Russia on the basis of a national literature and art.

    It was such a vision that inspired the students to go to the people. Brought up as they were in the European world of the noble palace and the university, they were on a journey to an unknown land and a new and moral life based on ‘Russian principles’. They saw the emancipation as an exorcism of Russia’s sinful past - and out of that a new nation would be born. The writer Gleb Uspensky, who joined the Populists in their ‘going to the people’, vowed to start a new life in ‘the year of’ 61’. ‘It was utterly impossible to take any of my personal past forward… To live at all I had to forget the past entirely and erase all the traits which it had instilled in my own personality.’4

    Some of the Populists who left their parents’ homes to live in labouring communes’ where everything was shared (sometimes including lovers) according to the principles set out by the radical critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his seminal novel What Is to Be Done (1862). Here was a novel that offered its readers a blueprint of the new society. It became a bible for the revolutionaries, including the young Lenin, who said that his whole life had been transformed by it. Most of these communes soon broke down: the students could not bear the strains of agricultural work, let alone the taste of peasant food, and there were endless squabbles over property and love affairs. But the spirit of the commune, the ascetic lifestyle and materialist beliefs which the students had imbibed from Chernyshevsky, continued to inspire their rejection of the old society. This generation gap was the subject of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children (1862) (often mistranslated as Fathers and Sons). It was set in the student protest culture of the early 1860s when the call of youth for direct action in the people’s name opened up a conflict with the ‘men of the forties’, liberal men of letters like Turgenev and Herzen, who were content to criticize the existing state of affairs without addressing the future. Nineteenth-century Russia had its ‘sixties’ movement, too.

    ‘The peasants have completely overwhelmed us in our literature’, wrote Turgenev to Pavel Annenkov in 1858. ‘Yet I am beginning to suspect that we still don’t really understand them or anything about their lives.’5 Turgenev’s doubts were at the heart of his critique of the student ‘nihilists’ (as they were called). But they applied equally to the intelligentsia’s obsession with the ‘peasant question’, which dominated Russian culture after 1861. With the emancipation of the serfs, the rest of society was forced to recognize the peasant as a fellow citizen. Suddenly the old accursed questions about Russia’s destiny became bound up with the peasant’s true identity. Was he good or bad? Could he be civilized? What could he do for Russia? And where did he come from? No one knew the answers. For, in the famous lines of the poet Nekrasov:

Russia is contained in the rural depths
Where eternal silence reigns.6

    Armies of folklorists set out to explore these rural depths. ‘The study of the people is the science of our times’, declared Fedor Buslaev in 1868.7 Ethnographic museums were set up in Moscow and St Petersburg - their aim being, in the words of one of their founders, Ivan Beliaev, ‘to acquaint the Russians with their own nation’.8 The public was astounded by the peasant costumes and utensils on display, the photographs and mock-ups of their living quarters in the various regions of the countryside. They seemed to have come from some exotic colony. In almost every field of serious enquiry - geography, philosophy, theology, philology, mythology and archaeology - the question of the peasant was the question of the day.

    Writers, too, immersed themselves in peasant life. In the words of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the peasant had become ‘the hero of our time’.9 The literary image of the Russian peasant in the early nineteenth century was by and large a sentimental one: he was a stock character with human feelings rather than a thinking individual. Everything changed in 1852, with the publication of Turgenev’s masterpiece, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. Here, for the first time in Russian literature, readers were confronted with the image of the peasant as a rational human being, as opposed to the sentient victim depicted in previous sentimental literature. Turgenev portrayed the peasant as a person capable of both practical administration and lofty dreams. He felt a profound sympathy for the Russian serf. His mother, who had owned the large estate in Orel province where he grew up, was cruel and ruthless in punishing her serfs. She had them beaten or sent off to a penal colony in Siberia - often for some minor crime. Turgenev describes her regime in his terrifying story ‘Punin and Barburin’ (1874), and also in the unforgettable ‘Mumu’ (1852), where the princess has a serf’s dog shot because it barks. Sketches from a Hunter’s Album played a crucial role in changing public attitudes towards the serfs and the question of reform. Turgenev later said that the proudest moment in his life came shortly after 1861, when two peasants approached him on a train from Orel to Moscow and bowed down to the ground in the Russian manner to ‘thank him in the name of the whole people’.10

    Of all those writing about peasants, none was more inspiring to the Populists than Nikolai Nekrasov. Nekrasov’s poetry gave a new, authentic voice to the ‘vengeance and the sorrow’ of the peasantry. It was most intensely heard in his epic poem Who Is Happy in Russia? (1863-78), which became a holy chant among the Populists. What attracted them to Nekrasov’s poetry was not just its commitment to the people’s cause, but its angry condemnation of the gentry class, from which Nekrasov himself came. His verse was littered with colloquial expressions that were taken directly from peasant speech. Poems such as On the Road (1844) or The Peddlers (1861) were practically transcriptions of peasant dialogue. The men of the forties, such as Turg-enev, who were brought up to regard the language of the peasants as too coarse to be ‘art’, accused Nekrasov of launching an ‘assault on poetry’.11 But the students were inspired by his verse.

    The question of the peasant may have been the question of the day. But every answer was a myth. As Dostoevsky wrote:

The question of the people and our view of them… is our most important question, a question on which our whole future rests… But the people are still a theory for us and they still stand before us as a riddle. We, the lovers of the people, regard them as part of a theory, and it seems not one of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be. And should the Russian people turn out not as we imagined them, then we, despite our love of them, would at once renounce them without regret.12

    Each theory ascribed certain virtues to the peasant which it then took as the essence of the national character. For the Populists, the peasant was a natural socialist, the embodiment of the collective spirit that distinguished Russia from the bourgeois West. Democrats like Herzen saw the peasant as a champion of liberty - his wildness embodying the spirit of the Russia that was free. The Slavophiles regarded him as a Russian patriot, suffering and patient, a humble follower of truth and justice, like the folk hero Ilia Muromets. They argued that the peasant commune was a living proof that Russia need not look beyond its national borders for guiding moral principles. ‘A commune,’ declared one of the movement’s founding members, Konstantin Aksakov, ‘is a union of the people who have renounced their egoism, their individuality, and who express their common accord; this is an act of love, a noble Christian act.’13 Dostoevsky, too, saw the peasant as a moral animal, the embodiment of the ‘Russian soul’; once he even claimed, in a famous argument, that the simple ‘kitchen muzhik’ was morally superior to any bourgeois European gentleman. The peasants, he maintained, ‘will show us a new path’, and, far from having something to teach them, ‘it is we who must bow down before the people’s truth’.14

    This convergence on the peasant issue was indicative of a broader national consensus or ideology which emerged in Russia at this time. The old arguments between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles gradually died down as each side came to recognize the need for Russia to find a proper balance between Western learning and native principles. There were hints of such a synthesis as early as 1847, when the doyen of the Westernizers, the radical critic Belinsky, said that, as far as art was concerned, he was ‘inclined to side with the Slavophiles’ against the cosmopolitans.15 For their part, the younger Slavophiles were moving to the view in the 1850s that ‘the nation’ was contained in all classes of society, not just the peasants, as the older ones maintained. Some even argued, in a way that made them virtually indistinguishable from the Westernizers, that the nation’s true arena was the civic sphere and that Russia’s progress in the world was dependent on the raising of the peasants to that sphere.16 In short, by the 1860s there was a common view that Russia should evolve along a European path of liberal reform, yet not break too sharply from its unique historical traditions. It was a case of keeping Peter and the peasant, too. This was the position of the ‘native soil’ movement to which Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail belonged in the 1860s.

    Populism was the cultural product of this synthesis and, as such, it became something of a national creed. The romantic interest in folk culture which swept through Europe in the nineteenth century was nowhere felt more keenly than among the Russian intelligentsia. As the poet Alexander Blok wrote (with just a touch of irony) in 1908:

… the intelligentsia cram their bookcases with anthologies of folk-songs, epics, legends, incantations, dirges; they investigate Russian mythology, wedding, and funeral rites; they grieve for the people; go to the people; are filled with high hopes; fall into despair; they even give up their lives, face execution or starve to death for the people’s cause.17

    The intelligentsia was defined by its mission of service to the people, just as the noble class was defined by its service to the state; and the intelligentsia lived by the view, which many of its members came to regret, that ‘the good of the people’ was the highest interest, to which all other principles, such as law or Christian precepts, were subordinate. Such attitudes were so endemic that they were even shared by members of the court, the state administration and the aristocracy. The liberal spirit of reform which had brought about the emancipation continued to inform the government’s approach towards the peasantry in the 1860s and 1870s. With the peasant’s liberation from the gentry’s jurisdiction there was a recognition that he had become the state’s responsibility: he had become a citizen.

    After 1861 the government set up a whole range of institutions to improve the welfare of its peasant citizens and integrate them into national life. Most of these initiatives were carried out by the new assemblies of local government, the zemstvos, established at the district and provincial level in 1864. The zemstvos were run by paternal squires of the sort who fill the pages of Tolstoy and Chekhov -liberal, well-meaning men who dreamed of bringing civilization to the backward countryside. With limited resources, they founded schools and hospitals; provided veterinary and agronomic services for the peasantry; built new roads and bridges; invested in local trades and industries; financed insurance schemes and rural credit; and carried out ambitious statistical surveys to prepare for more reforms at a future date.* The optimistic expectations of the zemstvo liberals were widely shared by the upper classes of society. There was a general attitude of paternal populism - a sympathy for the people and their cause which induced the high-born from all walks of life to support the students radicals.

    * The hopes of the zemstvo liberals were never realized. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the powers of the zemstvos were severely curtailed by the government of the new Tsar, Alexander III, who looked upon the zemstvos as dangerous breeding grounds for radicals. Many of the students who had taken part in the ‘going to the people’ ended up as zemstvo employees - teachers, doctors, statisticians and agronomists whose democratic politics attracted the police. Police raids were carried out on zemstvo offices - including even hospitals and lunatic asylums - in the search for such ‘revolutionaries’. They even arrested noblewomen for teaching peasant children how to read. (A.Tyrkogo-Williams, To, chego bol’she ne budet (Paris, n.d.), p. 153).

    The Minister of Justice, in a report to the Tsar, listed a whole catalogue of foolish acts in the ‘mad summer’ of 1874: the wife of a colonel in the Gendarmes had passed on secret information to her son; a rich landowner and magistrate had hidden one of the leading revolutionaries; a professor had introduced a propagandist to his students; and the families of several state councillors had given warm approval to their children’s revolutionary activities.18 Even Turgenev, who saw the solution to the peasant problem in liberal reform, could not help admiring (and perhaps envying) the idealistic passion of these revolutionaries.19 He mixed in their circles in France and Switzerland, and he even gave some money to the Populist theorist Pyotr Lavrov (whose writings had inspired the student radicals) so that he could publish his journal Forwards! in Europe.20 In his novel Virgin Soil (1877), Turgenev gave a portrait of the types who answered Lavrov’s call. Though he saw through the illusions of the Populists, he managed to convey his admiration, too. These ‘young people are mostly good and honest’, he wrote to a friend on finishing the novel in 1876, ‘but their course is so false and impractical that it cannot fail to lead them to complete fiasco’.21

    Which is just how it turned out. Most of the students were met by a cautious suspicion or hostility on the part of the peasants, who listened humbly to their revolutionary sermons without really understanding anything they said. The peasants were wary of the students’ learning and their urban ways, and in many places they reported them to the authorities. Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, later one of Russia’s leading socialists, found herself in jail after the peasant woman with whom she was staying in the Kiev region ‘took fright at the sight of all my books and denounced me to the constable’.22 The socialist ideas of the Populists were strange and foreign to the peasantry, or at least they could not understand them in the terms in which they were explained to them. One propagandist gave the peasants a beautiful account of the future socialist society in which all the land would belong to the toilers and nobody would exploit anybody else. Suddenly a peasant triumphantly exclaimed: ‘Won’t it be just lovely when we divide up the land? I’ll hire two labourers and what a life I’ll have!’23 As for the idea of turning out the Tsar, this met with complete incomprehension and even angry cries from the villagers, who looked upon the Tsar as a human god. ‘How can we live without a Tsar?’ they said.24

    Rounded up by the police, forced into exile or underground, the Populists returned from their defeat in deep despair. They had invested so much of their own personalities in their idealized conception of the peasantry, they had hung so much of their personal salvation on the ‘people’s cause’, that to see them both collapse was a catastrophic blow to their identity. The writer Gleb Uspensky, to cite an extreme and tragic example, eventually became insane after many years of trying to reconcile himself to the stark reality of peasant life; and many of the Populists were driven to the bottle by this rude awakening. It was suddenly made clear that the idea of the peasantry they had in their minds did not in fact exist - it was no more than a theory and a myth - and that they were cut off from the actual peasants by a cultural, social and intellectual abyss that they could not hope to bridge. Like an unsolved riddle, the peasant remained unknown and perhaps unknowable.

2. Stasov’s troika:  Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor

    In the summer of 1870 Ilia Repin left St Petersburg for ‘an undiscovered land’.25 Together with his brother and a fellow student painter called Fedor Vasilev, he travelled by steamer down the Volga river as far as the town of Stavropol, about 700 kilometres east of Moscow. The young artist’s aim was to make a study of the peasants for a painting he had planned of the Volga barge haulers. The idea of the picture had first come to him in the summer of 1868, when he had observed a team of haulers trudging wearily along a river bank near St Petersburg. Repin had originally thought to contrast these sad figures with a well-groomed group of happy picnickers. It would have been a typical example of the sort of expository genre painting favoured by most Russian realists at the time. But he was dissuaded from this propagandist picture by his friend Vasilev, a gifted landscape painter from the Wanderers’ school, who persuaded him to depict the haulers on their own.

    It took two years to obtain the finance and the permits for their trip - the Tsarist authorities being naturally suspicious of the art students and fearing that they might have revolutionary aims. For three months Repin lived among the former serfs of Shiriayevo, a village overlooking the Volga near Samara. He filled his sketchbooks with ethnographic details of their fishing boats and nets, their household utensils and rag-made shoes and clothes. The villagers did not want to be drawn. They believed that the Devil stole a person’s soul when his image was depicted on the page. One day they discovered Repin trying to persuade a group of village girls to pose for him. They accused the painter of the Devil’s work and demanded his ‘passport’, threatening to hand him over to the local constable. The only document which Repin had on him was a letter from the Academy of Arts. The impressive Imperial insignia on the letterhead was enough to restore calm. ‘See,’ said the village scribe who scrutinized the ‘passport’, ‘he comes to us from the Tsar.’26

Ilia Repin: sketches for The Volga Barge Haulers, 1870

    Eventually the painter found a team of haulers who, for a fee, allowed him to sketch them. For several weeks he lived with these human beasts of burden. As he got to know them, he came to see their individual personalities. One had been an icon painter; another a soldier; and a third, named Kanin, was formerly a priest. Repin was struck by the sheer waste of talent in their bestial servitude. Strapped into their riggings, their noble faces weathered, the haulers were for him ‘like Greek philosophers, sold as slaves to the barbarians’.27 Their bondage was a symbol of the Russian people’s oppressed creativity. Kanin, Repin thought, had ‘the character of Russia on his face’:

There was something eastern and ancient about it… the face of a Scyth… And what eyes! What depth of vision!… And his brow, so large and wise… He seemed to me a colossal mystery, and for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his clothes in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared none the less as a man of dignity: he was like a saint.28

    In the final painting of The Volga Barge Haulers (1873) (plate 11) it is this human dignity that stands out above all. The image at the time was extraordinary and revolutionary. Hitherto, even in the paintings of a democratic artist such as Alexei Venetsianov, the image of the peasant had been idealized or sentimentalized. But each of Repin’s boatmen had been drawn from life and each face told its own story of private suffering. Stasov saw the painting as a comment on the latent force of social protest in the Russian people, a spirit symbolized in the gesture of one young man readjusting his shoulder strap. But Dostoevsky praised the painting for its lack of crude tendentiousness, seeing it instead as an epic portrait of the Russian character. What Repin meant, however, is more difficult to judge. For his whole life was a struggle between politics and art.

Repin: The Volga Barge Haulers (1873,).
Stasov saw the painting as a commentary on the latent force of social protest in the Russian people.

    Repin was a ‘man of the sixties’-a decade of rebellious questioning in the arts as well as in society. In the democratic circles in which he moved it was generally agreed that the duty of the artist was to focus the attention of society on the need for social justice by showing how the common people really lived. There was a national purpose in this, too: for, if art was to be true and meaningful, if it was to teach the people how to feel and live, it needed to be national in the sense that it had its roots in the people’s daily lives. This was the argument of Stasov, the domineering mentor of the national school in all the arts.

Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Vladimir Stasov (1873), the nationalist critic whose dogmatic views
on the need for art to engage with the people were a towering and, at times,
oppressive influence on Musorgsky and Repin.
‘What a picture of the Master you have made!’ the composer wrote.
‘He seems to crawl out of the canvas and into the room.

    Russian painters, he maintained, should give up imitating European art and look to their own people for artistic styles and themes. Instead of classical or biblical subjects they should depict ‘scenes from the village and the city, remote corners of the provinces, the god-forsaken life of the lonely clerk, the corner of a lonely cemetery, the confusion of a market place, every joy and sorrow which grows and lives in peasant huts and opulent mansions’.29 Vladimir Stasov was the self-appointed champion of civic realist art. He took up the cause of the Wanderers in art, and the kuchkists in music, praising each in turn for their break from the European style of the Academy, and pushing each in their own way to become more ‘Russian’. Virtually every artist and composer of the 1860s and 1870s found himself at some point in Stasov’s tight embrace. The critic saw himself as the driver of a troika that would soon bring Russian culture on to the world stage. Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor Antokolsky were its three horses.30

    Mark Antokolsky was a poor Jewish boy from Vilna who had entered the Academy at the same time as Repin and had been among fourteen students who left it in protest against its formal rules of classicism, to set up an artel, or commune of free artists, in 1863. Antokolsky quickly rose to fame for a series of sculptures of daily life in the Jewish ghetto which were hailed as the first real triumph of democratic art by all the enemies of the Academy. Stasov placed himself as Antokolsky’s mentor, publicized his work and badgered him, as only Stasov could, to produce more sculptures on national themes. The critic was particularly enthusiastic about The Persecution of the Jews in the Spanish Inquisition (first exhibited in 1867), a work which Antokolsky never really finished but for which he did a series of studies. Stasov saw it as an allegory of political and national oppression - a subject as important to the Russians as to the Jews.31

    Repin identified with Antokolsky. He, too, had come from a poor provincial family - the son of a military settler (a type of state-owned peasant) from a small town called Chuguev in the Ukraine. He had learned his trade as an icon painter before entering the Academy and, like the sculptor, he felt out of place in the elite social milieu of Petersburg. Both men were inspired by an older student, Ivan Kramskoi, who led the protest in 1863. Kramskoi was important as a portraitist. He painted lending figures such as Tolstoy and Nekrasov, but he also painted unknown peasants. Earlier painters such as Venetsianov had portrayed the peasant as an agriculturalist. But Kramskoi painted him against a plain background, and he focused on the face, drawing viewers in towards the eyes and forcing them to enter the inner world of people they had only yesterday treated as slaves. There were no implements or scenic landscapes, no thatched huts or ethnographic details to distract the viewer from the peasant’s gaze or reduce the tension of this encounter. This psychological concentration was without precedent in the history of art, not just in Russia but in Europe, too, where even artists such as Courbet and Millet were still depicting peasants in the fields.

Ivan Kramskoi: The Peasant Ignatii Pirogov (1874)
- a startlingly ethnographic portrait of the peasant as an individual human being

    It was through Kramskoi and Antokolsky that Repin came into the circle of Stasov in 1869, at the very moment the painter was preparing his own portrait of the peasantry in The Volga Barge Haulers. Stasov encouraged him to paint provincial themes, which were favoured at that time by patrons such as Tretiakov and the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, the Tsar’s younger son, who, of all people, had commissioned the Barge Haulers and eventually put these starving peasants in his sumptuous dining room. Under Stasov’s domineering influence, Repin produced a series of provincial scenes following the success of the Barge Haulers in 1873. They were all essentially populist - not so much politically but in the general sense of the 1870s, when everybody thought the way ahead for Russia was to get a better knowledge of the people and their lives. For Repin, having just returned from his first trip to Europe in 1873-6, this goal was connected to his cultural rediscovery of the Russian provinces - ‘that huge forsaken territory that interests nobody’, as he wrote to Stasov in 1876, ‘and about which people speak with derision or contempt; and yet it is here that the simple people live, and do so more authentically than we’.32

    Musorgsky was roughly the same age as Repin and Antokolsky but he had joined Stasov’s stable a decade earlier, in 1858, when he was aged just nineteen. As the most historically minded and musically original of Balakirev’s students, the young composer was patronized by Stasov and pushed in the direction of national themes. Stasov never let up in his efforts to direct his protege’s interests and musical approach. He cast himself in loco parentis, visiting the ‘youngster’ Musorgsky (then thirty-two) when he shared a room with Rimsky- Korsakov (then twenty-seven) in St Petersburg. Stasov would arrive early in the morning, help the men get out of bed and wash, fetch their clothes, prepare tea and sandwiches for them, and then, as he put it, when ‘we [got] down to our business [my emphasis - O. F.]’, he would listen to the music they had just composed or give them new historical materials and ideas for their works.33 The Populist conception of Boris Godunov (in its revised version with the Kromy scene) is certainly in line with Stasov’s influence. In a general sense all Musorgsky’s operas are ‘about the people’ - if one understands that as the nation as a whole. Even Kbovanshchina - which drove Stasov mad with all its ‘princely spawn’34 - carried the subtitle ‘A national [people’s] music history’ (‘narodnaya muzikal’naya drama’). Musorgsky explained his Populist approach in a letter to Repin, written in August 1873, congratulating him on his Barge Haulers:

It is the people I want to depict: when I sleep I see them, when I eat I think of them, when I drink I can see them rise before me in all their reality, huge, unvarnished, and without tinsel trappings! And what an awful (in the true sense of that word) richness there is for the composer in the people’s speech -as long as there’s a corner of our land that hasn’t been ripped open by the railway.35

    And yet there were tensions between Musorgsky and the Populist agenda set out for him by Stasov - tensions which have been lost in the cultural politics that have always been attached to the composer’s name.36 Stasov was crucially important in Musorgsky’s life: he discovered him; he gave him the material for much of his greatest work; and he championed his music, which had been unknown in Europe in his lifetime and would surely have been forgotten after his death, had it not been for Stasov. But the critic’s politics were not entirely shared by the composer, whose feeling for ‘the people’, as he had explained to Repin, was primarily a musical response. Musorgsky’s populism was not political or philosophical - it was artistic. He loved folk songs and incorporated many of them in his works. The distinctive aspects of the Russian peasant song - its choral heterophony, its tonal shifts, drawn out melismatic passages which make it sound like a chant or a lament - became part of his own musical language. Above all, the folk song was the model for a new technique of choral writing which Musorgsky first developed in Boris Godunov. building up the different voices one by one, or in discordant groups, to create the sort of choral heterophony which he achieved, with such brilliant success, in the Kromy scene.

    Musorgsky was obsessed with the craft of rendering human speech in musical sound. That is what he meant when he said that music should be a way of ‘talking with the people’ - it was not a declaration of political intent.* Following the mimetic theories of the German literary historian Georg Gervinus, Musorgsky believed that human speech was governed by musical laws - that a speaker conveys emotions and meaning by musical components such as rhythm, cadence, intonation, timbre, volume, tone, etc. ‘The aim of musical art’, he wrote in 1880, ‘is the reproduction in social sounds not only of modes of feeling but of modes of human speech.’37 Many of his most important compositions, such as the song cycle Savishna or the unfinished opera based on Gogol’s ‘Sorochintsy Fair’, represent an attempt to transpose into sound the distinctive qualities of Russian peasant speech. Listen to the music in Gogol’s tale:

I expect you will have heard at some time the noise of a distant waterfall, when the agitated environs are filled with tumult and a chaotic whirl of weird, indistinct sounds swirls before you. Do you not agree that the very same effect is produced the instant you enter the whirlpool of a village fair? All the assembled populace merges into a single monstrous creature, whose massive body stirs about the market-place and snakes down the narrow side-streets, shrieking, bellowing, blaring. The clamour, the cursing, mooing, bleating, roaring - all this blends into a single cacophonous din. Oxen, sacks, hay, gypsies, pots, wives, gingerbread, caps - everything is ablaze with clashing colours, and dances before your eyes. The voices drown one another and it is impossible to distinguish one word, to rescue any meaning from this babble; not a single exclamation can be understood with any clarity. The ears are assailed on every side by the loud hand-clapping of traders all over the market-place. A cart collapses, the clang of metal rings in the air, wooden planks come crashing to the ground and the observer grows dizzy, as he turns his head this way and that.38

    * It is telling, in this context, that the word he used for ‘people’ was ‘liudi’ - a word which has the meaning of individuals - although it has usually been translated to mean a collective mass (the sense of the other word for people - the ‘narod’). J. Leyda and S. Bertensson (eds.), The Musorgsky Reader: A Life of Modeste Petrovich Musorgsky in Letters and Documents (New York, 1947), pp. 84-5.

    In Musorgsky’s final years tensions with his mentor became more acute. He withdrew from Stasov’s circle, pouring scorn on civic artists such as Nekrasov, and spending all his time in the alcoholic company of fellow aristocrats such as the salon poet Count Golenishchev-Kutuzov and the arch-reactionary T. I. Filipov. It was not that he became politically right-wing - now, as before, Musorgsky paid little attention to politics. Rather, he saw in their ‘art for art’s sake’ views a creative liberation from Stasov’s rigid dogma of politically engaged and idea-driven art. There was something in Musorgsky - his lack of formal schooling or his wayward, almost childlike character - that made him both depend on yet strive to break away from mentors like Stasov. We can feel this tension in the letter to Repin:

So, that’s it, glorious lead horse! The troika, if in disarray, bears what it has to bear. It doesn’t stop pulling… What a picture of the Master [Stasov] you have made! He seems to crawl out of the canvas and into the room. What will happen when it has been varnished? Life, power - pull, lead horse! Don’t get tired! I am just the side horse and I pull only now and then to escape disgrace. I am afraid of the whip!39

    Antokolsky felt the same artistic impulse pulling him away from Stasov’s direction. He gave up working on the Inquisition, saying he was tired of civic art, and travelled throughout Europe in the 1870s, when he turned increasingly to pure artistic themes in sculptures like The Death of Socrates (1875-7) and Jesus Christ (1878). Stasov was irate. ‘You have ceased to be an artist of the dark masses, the unknown figure in the crowd’, he wrote to Antokolsky in 1883. ‘Your subjects have become the “aristocracy of man” - Moses, Christ, Spinoza, Socrates.’40

    Even Repin, the ‘lead horse’, began to pull away from Stasov’s harnesses: he would no longer haul his Volga barge. He travelled to the West, fell in love with the Impressionists, and turned out French-styled portraits and pretty cafe scenes which could not have been farther from the Russian national school of utilitarian and thought-provoking art. ‘I have forgotten how to reflect and pass judgement on a work of art’, Repin wrote to Kramskoi from Paris, ‘and I don’t regret the loss of this faculty which used to eat me up; on the contrary, I would rather it never return, though I feel that back in my native land it will reclaim its right over me - that is the way things are there.’41 Stasov condemned Repin for his defection, charging him with the neglect of his artistic duty to the Russian people and his native land. Relations became strained to breaking point in the early 1890s, when Repin rejoined the Academy and reassessed his views of the classical tradition - effectively denying the whole national school. ‘Stasov loved his barbarian art, his small, fat, ugly, half-baked artists who screamed their profound human truths’, Repin wrote in 1892…42 For a while the artist even flirted with the World of Art - Benois and Diaghilev, or the ‘decadents’ as Stasov liked to call them - and their ideal of pure art. But the pull of ‘Russia’ was too strong - and in the end he patched up his relations with Stasov. However much he loved the light of France, Repin knew that he could not be an artist who was disengaged from the old accursed questions of his native land.

3. Tolstoy’s Ambivalence about the Peasants

    In 1855 Tolstoy lost his favourite house in a game of cards. For two days and nights he played shtoss with his fellow officers in the Crimea, losing all the time, until at last he confessed to his diary ‘the loss of everything - the Yasnaya Polyana house. I think there’s no point writing - I’m so disgusted with myself that I’d like to forget about my existence.’43 Much of Tolstoy’s life can be explained by that game of cards. This, after all, was no ordinary house, but the place where he was born, the home where he had spent his first nine years, and the sacred legacy of his beloved mother which had been passed down to him. Not that the old Volkonsky house was particularly impressive when Tolstoy, aged just nineteen, inherited the estate, with its 2,000 acres and 200 serfs, on his father’s death in 1847. The paint on the house had begun to flake, there was a leaky roof and a rotten verandah, the paths were full of weeds and the English garden had long gone to seed. But all the same it was precious to Tolstoy. ‘I wouldn’t sell the house for anything’, he had written to his brother in 1852. ‘It’s the last thing I’d be prepared to part with.’44 And yet now, to pay his gambling debts, Tolstoy was obliged to sell the house he was born in. He had tried to avoid the inevitable by selling all eleven of his other villages, together with their serfs, their timber stocks and horses, but the sum these had raised was still not quite enough to get him into the black. The house was purchased by a local merchant and dismantled, to be sold in lots.

    Tolstoy moved into a smaller house, an annexe of the old Volkonsky manor, and, as if to atone for his sordid game of cards, he set about the task of restoring the estate to a model farm. There had been earlier projects of this kind. In 1847, when he had first arrived as the young landlord, he had set out to become a model farmer, a painter, a musician, a scholar and a writer, with the interests of his peasants close to heart. This was the subject of A Landowner’s Morning (1852) - the unfinished draft of what was intended to become a grand novel about a landowner (for which read: Tolstoy) who seeks a life of happiness and justice in the country and learns that it cannot be found in an ideal but in constant labour for the good of others less happy than himself. In that first period Tolstoy had proposed to reduce the dues of the serfs on his estate - but the serfs mistrusted his intentions and had turned his offer down. Tolstoy was annoyed - he had underestimated the gap between nobleman and serf - and he left the country-side for the high life of Moscow, then joined the army in the Caucasus. But by the time of his return in 1856, there was a new spirit of reform in the air. The Tsar had told the gentry to prepare for the liberation of their serfs. With new determination Tolstoy threw himself into the task of living with the peasants in a ‘life of truth’. He was disgusted with his former life - the gambling, the whoring, the excessive feasting and drinking, the embarrassment of riches, and the lack of any real work or purpose in his life. Like the Populists with their ‘going to the people’, he vowed to live a new life, a life of moral truth that was based on peasant labour and the brotherhood of man.

    In 1859 Tolstoy set up his first school for the village children in Yasnaya Polyana; by 1862 there were thirteen schools in the locality, the teachers being drawn in the main from those students who had been expelled from their universities for their revolutionary views.45 Tolstoy became a magistrate, appointed by the Tsar to implement the emancipation manifesto, and angered all his colleagues, the leading squires of the Tula area, by siding with the peasants in their claims for land. On his own estate Tolstoy gave the peasants a sizeable proportion of his land - nowhere else in Russia was the manifesto fulfilled in a spirit of such generosity. Tolstoy almost yearned, it seemed, to give away his wealth. He dreamed of abandoning his privileged existence and living like a peasant on the land. For a while he even tried. In 1862 he settled down for good with his new wife, Sonya, at Yasnaya Polyana, dismissed all the stewards, and took charge of the farming by himself. The experiment was a complete failure. Tolstoy did not care for looking after pigs - and ended up deliberately starving them to death. He did not know how to cure hams, how to make butter, when to plough or hoe the fields, and he soon became fed up and ran away to Moscow, or locked himself away in his study, leaving everything to the hired labourers.46

14. Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, late nineteenth century.

The huts and fields in the foreground belong to the villagers

    The fantasy, however, would not go away. ‘Now let me tell you what I’ve just decided,’ he would tell the village children at his school. ‘I am going to give up my land and my aristocratic way of life and become a peasant. I shall build myself a hut at the edge of the village, marry a country woman, and work the land as you do: mowing, ploughing, and all the rest.’ When the children asked what he would do with the estate, Tolstoy said he would divide it up. ‘We shall own it all in common, as equals, you and me.’ And what, the children asked, if people laughed at him and said he had lost everything: ‘Won’t you feel ashamed?’ ‘What do you mean “ashamed”?’ the count answered gravely.

 ‘Is it anything to be ashamed of to work for oneself? Have your fathers ever told you they were ashamed to work? They have not. What is there to be ashamed of in a man feeding himself and his family by the sweat of his brow? If anybody laughs at me, here’s what I would say: there’s nothing to laugh at in a man’s working, but there is a great deal of shame and disgrace in his not working, and yet living better than others. That is what I am ashamed of. I eat, drink, ride horseback, play the piano, and still I feel bored. I say to myself: “You’re a do-nothing.”’47

Did he really mean it? Was he saying this to give the children pride in the life of peasant toil that awaited them or was he really planning to join them? Tolstoy’s life was full of contradictions and he never could decide if he should become a peasant or remain a nobleman. On the one hand he embraced the elite culture of the aristocracy. War and Peace is a novel that rejoices in that world. There were times while working on that epic novel - like the day one of the village schools shut down in 1863 - when he gave up on the peasants as a hopeless cause. They were capable neither of being educated nor of being understood. War and Peace would depict only ‘princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children’, he had promised in an early draft, because, as a nobleman himself, he could no more understand what a peasant might be thinking than he ‘could understand what a cow is thinking as it is being milked or what a horse is thinking as it is pulling a barrel’.48 On the other hand, his whole life was a struggle to renounce that elite world of shameful privilege and live ‘by the sweat of his own brow’. The quest for a simple life of toil was a constant theme in Tolstoy’s works. Take Prince Levin, for example, the peasant-loving squire in Anna Karenina - a character so closely based on Tolstoy’s life and dreams that he was virtually autobiographical. Who can forget that blissful moment when Levin joins the peasant mowers in the field and loses himself in the labour and the team?

After breakfast Levin was not in the same place in the string of mowers as before, but found himself between the old man who had accosted him quizzically, and now invited him to be his neighbour, and a young peasant who had only been married in the autumn and who was mowing this summer for the first time.

The old man, holding himself erect, went in front, moving with long, regular strides, his feet turned out and swinging his scythe as precisely and evenly, and apparently as effortlessly, as a man swings his arms in walking. As if it were child’s play, he laid the grass in a high, level ridge. It seemed as if the sharp blade swished of its own accord through the juicy grass.

Behind Levin came the lad Mishka. His pleasant boyish face, with a twist of fresh grass bound round his hair, worked all the time with effort; but whenever anyone looked at him he smiled. He would clearly sooner die than own it was hard work for him.

Levin kept between them. In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigour and dogged energy to his labour; and more and more often now came those moments of oblivion, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. Those were happy moments.49

    Tolstoy loved to be among the peasants. He derived intense pleasure - emotional, erotic - from their physical presence. The ‘spring-like’ smell of their beards would send him into raptures of delight. He loved to kiss the peasant men. The peasant women he found irresistible - sexually attractive and available to him by his ‘squire’s rights’. Tolstoy’s diaries are filled with details of his conquests of the female serfs on his estate - a diary he presented, according to the custom, to his bride Sonya (as Levin does to Kitty) on the eve of their wedding:* ‘21 April 1858. A wonderful day. Peasant women in the garden and by the well. I’m like a man possessed.’50 Tolstoy was not handsome, but he had a huge sex drive and, in addition to the thirteen children Sonya bore, there were at least a dozen other children fathered by him in the villages of his estate.

    * Similar diaries were presented to their future wives by Tsar Nicholas II, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the poet Vladimir Khodasevich.

    But there was one peasant woman who represented more than a sexual conquest. Aksinia Bazykina was twenty-two - and married to a serf on his estate - when Tolstoy first saw her in 1858. ‘I’m in love as never before in my life’, he confessed to his diary. ‘Today in the wood. I am a fool. A beast. Her bronze flush and her eyes… Have no other thought.’51 This was more than lust. ‘It’s no longer the feelings of a stag’, he wrote in 1860, ‘but of a husband for a wife.’52 Tolstoy, it appears, was seriously considering a new life with Aksinia in some ‘hut at the edge of the village’. Turgenev, who saw him often at this time, wrote that Tolstoy was ‘in love with a peasant woman and did not want to discuss literature’.53 Turgenev himself had several love affairs with his own serfs (one even bore him two children), so he must have understood what Tolstoy felt.54 In 1862, when Tolstoy married Sonya, he tried to break relations with Aksinia; and in the first years of their marriage, when he was working without rest on War and Peace, it is hard to imagine his wandering off to find Aksinia in the woods. But in the 1870s he began to see her once again. She bore him a son by the name of Timofei, who became a coachman at Yasnaya Polyana. Long after that, Tolstoy continued to have dreams about Aksinia. Even in the final year of his long life, half a century after their first encounter, he recorded his joy, on seeing the ‘bare legs’ of a peasant girl, ‘to think that Aksinia is still alive’.55 This was more than the usual attraction of a squire to a serf. Aksinia was Tolstoy’s unofficial ‘wife’, and he continued to love her well into her old age. Aksinia was not beautiful in any conventional sense, but she had a certain quality, a spiritual strength and liveliness, that made her loved by all the villagers. ‘Without her’, Tolstoy wrote, ‘the khorovod was not a khorovod, the women did not sing, the children did not play’.56 Tolstoy saw her as the personification of everything that was good and beautiful in the Russian peasant woman - she was proud and strong and suffering - and that is how he drew her in a number of his works. She appears, for example, in ‘The Devil’, which tells the story of his love affair with her both before and after his marriage. It may be significant that Tolstoy did not know how to end the tale. Two different conclusions were published: one in which the hero kills the peasant woman, the other where he commits suicide.

    Tolstoy’s own life story was unresolved as well. In the middle of the 1870s, when the ‘going to the people’ reached its apogee, Tolstoy experienced a moral crisis that led him, like the students, to seek his salvation in the peasantry. As he recounts in A Confession (1879-80), he had suddenly come to realize that everything which had provided meaning in his life - family happiness and artistic creation - was in fact meaningless. None of the great philosophers brought him any comfort. The Orthodox religion, with its oppressive Church, was unacceptable. He thought of suicide. But suddenly he saw that there was a true religion in which to place his faith - in the suffering, labouring and communal life of the Russian peasantry. ‘It has been my whole life’, he wrote to his cousin. ‘It has been my monastery, the church where I escaped and found refuge from all the anxieties, the doubts and temptations of my life.’57

    Yet even after his spiritual crisis Tolstoy was ambivalent: he idealized the peasants and loved to be with them, but for many years he could not bring himself to break from the conventions of society and become one himself. In many ways he only played at being a ‘peasant’. When he went out for a walk or rode his horse he put on peasant garb - he was known throughout the world for his peasant shirt and belt, his trousers and bast shoes - but when he went to Moscow, or dined with friends, he dressed in tailored clothes. During the day he would labour in the fields at Yasnaya Polyana - then return to his manor house for a dinner served by waiters in white gloves. The painter Repin visited the writer in 1887 to paint the first in a series of portraits of Tolstoy. A man of genuinely humble origins, Repin was disgusted by the count’s behaviour. ‘To descend for a day into this darkness of the peasantry’s existence and proclaim: “I am with you” -  that is just hypocrisy.’58 Nor, it seems, were the peasants taken in. Four years later, at the height of the famine in 1891, Repin visited the count again. Tolstoy insisted on showing him the ‘peasant way’ to plough a field. ‘Several times’, Repin recalled, ‘some Yasnaya Polyana peasants walked by, doffed their caps, bowed, and then walked on as if taking no notice of the count’s exploit. But then another peasant group appears, evidently from the next village. They stop and stare for a long while. And then a strange thing happens. Never in my life have I seen a clearer expression of irony on a simple peasant’s face.’59

    Tolstoy was aware of the ambiguity, and for years he agonized. As a writer, and a Russian one at that, he felt the artist’s responsibility to provide leadership and enlightenment for the people. This was why he had set up the peasant schools, expended his energy on writing country tales, and started a publishing venture (‘The Intermediary’) to print the classics (Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov and Chekhov) for the growing mass of readers in the countryside. Yet at the same time he was moving to the view that the peasants were the teachers of society and that neither he nor any other scion of the world’s immoral civilizations had anything to give. From his teaching at the village schools, he came to the conclusion that the peasant had a higher moral wisdom than the nobleman - an idea he explained by the peasant’s natural and communal way of life. This is what the peasant Karataev teaches Pierre in War and Peace:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships, or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly with man - not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.60

    With every passing year, Tolstoy strived to live more and more like a peasant. He learned how to make his own shoes and furniture. He gave up writing and spent his time working in the fields. In a turn from his previous life, he even advocated chastity, and became a vegetarian. Sometimes in the evening he would join the pilgrims walking on the road from Moscow to Kiev, which passed by the estate. He would walk with them for miles, returning barefoot in the early morning hours with a new confirmation of his faith. ‘Yes, these people know God,’ he would say. ‘Despite all their superstitions, their belief in St Nicholas-of-the-spring and St Nicholas-of-the-winter, or the Icon of Three Hands, they are closer to God than we are. They lead moral, working lives, and their simple wisdom is in many ways superior to all the artifices of our culture and philosophy.’61

4. Noble vs. Peasant Marriage

    In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya (Sonya) Behrs, the daughter of Dr Andrei Behrs, the house doctor of the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, in a ceremony at the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Tolstoy drew on this event when he came to write the splendid wedding scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. As in many gentry weddings of the time, the ceremony combines Orthodox and peasant rituals; and there is an insistence, voiced by Kitty’s mother Princess Shcherbatskaya, ‘on all the conventions being strictly observed’.62 Indeed, one can read the scene as an ethnographic document about this special aspect of the Russian way of life.

    Every Russian knows the verses from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in which the lovesick Tatiana asks her nurse if she has ever been in love. The peasant woman replies by telling the sad story of how she came to be married, at the age of just thirteen, to an even younger boy she had never seen before:

‘Oh, come! Our world was quite another!
We’d never heard of love, you see
Why, my good husband’s sainted mother
Would just have been the death of me!’

‘Then how’d you come to marry, nanny?’
‘The will of God, I guess…
My Danny Was younger still than me, my dear,
And I was just thirteen that year.

The marriage maker kept on calling
For two whole weeks to see my kin,
Till father blessed me and gave in.
I got so scared - my tears kept falling;

And weeping, they undid my plait,
Then sang me to the churchyard gate.
 ‘And so they took me off to strangers…
But you’re not even listening, pet.’63

    The scene encapsulates the contrast between the two different cultures - the European and the folk - in Russian society. Whereas Tatiana looks at marriage through the prism of romantic literature, her nurse regards it from the viewpoint of a patriarchal culture where individual sentiments or choices about love are foreign luxuries. Tolstoy draws the same contrast in Kitty’s wedding scene. During the ceremony Dolly thinks back tearfully to her own romance with Stiva Oblonsky and, ‘forgetting the present’ (meaning all his sexual infidelities), ‘she remembered only her young and innocent love’. Meanwhile, in the entrance to the church stands a group of ordinary women who have come in from the street to ‘look on breathless with excitement’ as the bridal couple take their marriage vows. We listen to them chattering among themselves:

‘Why is her face so tear-stained? Is she being married against her will?’
‘Against her will to a fine fellow like that? A prince, isn’t he?’

‘Is that her sister in the white satin?

Now hear how the deacon will roar: “Wife, obey thy husband!”

‘Is it the Tchudovsky choir?’

‘No, from the Synod.’

‘I asked the footman. It seems he’s taking her straight to his home in the country. They say he’s awfully rich. That’s why she’s being married to him.’

‘Oh no. They make a very well-matched pair.’

‘What a dear little creature the bride is - like a lamb decked for the slaughter. Say what you like, one does feel sorry for the girl.’64

    ‘A lamb decked for the slaughter’ is perhaps not how Kitty felt - her love affair with Levin was a true romance - but, if Sonya’s own experience is anything to go by, she might have found some points of contact with these women from the street. Sonya was eighteen when she married Tolstoy - rather young by European standards but not by Russian ones. Eighteen was in fact the average age of marriage for women in nineteenth-century Russia - far younger than even in those pre-industrial parts of western Europe where women tended to marry relatively early (around the age of twenty-five).65 (For the past 300 years no other European country has had an average female age at first marriage as low as twenty years -and in this respect Russian marriage more closely fits the Asiatic pattern.)66 Tatiana’s nurse was, therefore, not exceptional in marrying so young, even though thirteen was the youngest she could marry under Russian canon law. Serf owners liked their peasant girls to marry young, so that they could breed more serfs for them; the burden of taxation could be easily arranged so that peasant elders took the same opinion. Sometimes the serf owners enforced early marriages - their bailiffs lining up the marriageable girls and boys in two separate rows and casting lots to decide who would marry whom.67 Among the upper classes (though not the merchantry) girls married at an older age, although in the provinces it was not unusual for a noble bride to be barely older than a child. Sonya Tolstoy would have sympathized with Princess Raevskaya, who became a widow at the age of thirty-five - by which time she had given birth to seventeen children, the first at the age of just sixteen.68

    The arranged marriage was the norm in peasant Russia until the beginning of the twentieth century. The peasant wedding was not a love match between individuals (‘We’d never heard of love,’ recalls Tatiana’s nurse). It was a collective rite intended to bind the couple and the new household to the patriarchal culture of the village and the Church. Strict communal norms determined the selection of a spouse- sobriety and diligence, health and child-rearing qualities being more important than good looks or personality. By custom throughout Russia, the parents of the groom would appoint a matchmaker in the autumn courting season who would find a bride in one of the nearby villages and arrange for her inspection at a smotrinie. If that was successful the two families would begin negotiations over the bride price, the cost of her trousseau, the exchange of household property and the expenses of the wedding feast. When all this was agreed a formal marriage contract would be sealed by the drinking of a toast which was witnessed by the whole community and marked by the singing of a ceremonial song and a kborovod.69 Judging from the plaintive nature of these songs, the bride did not look forward to her wedding day. There was a whole series of prenuptial songs - most of them laments in which the bride would ‘wail’, as the nineteenth-century folklorist Dahl described it, ‘to mourn the loss of maidenhood’.70 The prenuptial khorovod, which was sung and danced by the village girls in spring, was a sad and bitter song about the life to come in their husband’s home:

They are making me marry a lout
With no small family.
Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!

With a father, and a mother
And four brothers
And sisters three.
Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!

Says my father-in-law,
‘Here comes a bear!’
Says my mother-in-law,
‘Here comes a slut!’
My sisters-in-law cry,
‘Here comes a do-nothing!’
My brothers-in-law cry, 
‘Here comes a mischief-maker!’
Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!71

    The bride and groom played a largely passive role in the peasant wedding rituals, which were enacted by the whole community in a highly formalized dramatic performance. The night before the wedding the bride was stripped of the customary belt that protected her maidenly purity and was washed by village girls in the bath house. The bridal shower (devichnik) had an important symbolic significance. It was accompanied by ritual songs to summon up the magic spirits of the bath house which were believed to protect the bride and her children. The water from the towel with which the bride was dried was then wrung out and used to leaven dough for the ritual dumplings served to the guests at the wedding feast. The climax of this bath-house rite was the unplaiting of the maiden’s single braid, which was then replaited as two braids to symbolize her entry into married life. As in Eastern cultures, the display of female hair was seen as a sexual enticement, and all married Russian peasant women kept their plaited hair hidden underneath a kerchief or head-dress. The bride’s virginity was a matter of communal importance and, until it had been confirmed, either by the finger of the matchmaker or by the presence of bloodstains on the sheets, the honour of her household would remain in doubt. At the wedding feast it was not unusual for the guests to act as witnesses to the bride’s deflowering - sometimes even for guests to strip the couple and tie their legs together with embroidered towels.

    Among the upper classes there were still traces of these patriarchal customs in the nineteenth century, and among the merchants, as anyone familiar with Ostrovsky’s plays will know, this peasant culture was very much alive. In the aristocracy arranged marriages remained the norm in Russia long after they had been replaced in Europe by romantic ones; and although romantic love became more influential in the nineteenth century, it never really became the guiding principle. Even among the most educated families, parents nearly always had the final say over the choice of a spouse, and the memoir literature of the time is filled with accounts of love affairs that crashed against their opposition. By the end of the nineteenth century a father would rarely refuse to sanction his child’s marriage; yet, in deference to the old custom, it remained accepted practice for the suitor to approach the parents first and ask for their permission to propose.

    In the provinces, where the gentry was generally closer to the culture of the peasants, noble families were even slower to assimilate the European notion of romantic love. The marriage proposals were usually handled by the parents of the suitor and the prospective bride. Sergei Aksakov’s father was married in this way, his parents having made the proposal to his bride’s father.72 The peasant custom of appointing a matchmaker was also retained by many gentry families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as was the inspection of the bride - albeit at a customary dinner where the nobleman could get to know the daughter of the house and, if he approved, propose a marriage contract to her parents there and then.73 Marriage contracts, too, were commonly agreed between the families of a noble bride and groom. When Sergei Aksakov’s parents were engaged, in the 1780s, they sealed the marriage contract with a feast that was attended by the whole community - much as was the custom among the peasantry.74 The noble marriage contract was a complicated thing, recalled Elizaveta Rimsky-Korsakov, who became engaged in the 1790s. It took several weeks of careful preparation while ‘the people who knew prices arranged everything’, and it needed to be sealed at a large betrothal party, attended by the relatives from both the families, where prayers were said, precious gifts were given as a token of intention and pictures of the bride and groom were swapped.75

    Moscow was the centre of the marriage market for the gentry from the provinces. The autumn balls in Moscow were a conscious translation of the autumn courtship rituals played out by the peasants and their matchmakers. Hence the advice given to Tatiana’s mother in Eugene Onegin:

To Moscow and the marriage mart!
They’ve vacancies galore… take heart!76

    Pushkin himself met his wife, Natalia Goncharova, who was then aged just sixteen, at a Moscow autumn ball. In Moscow, according to the early nineteenth-century memoirist F. F. Vigel, there was a whole class of matchmakers to whom noble suitors could apply, giving them the age of their prospective bride and the various conditions of their proposal. These matchmakers would make their business known in the Nobles’ Assembly, particularly in the autumn season when noblemen would come from the provinces to find themselves a bride.77

    In War and Peace Levin comes to Moscow to court Kitty. The rituals of their wedding draw in equal measure from the Church’s sacraments and the pagan customs of the peasantry. Kitty leaves her parents’ house and travels with the family icon to the church to meet Levin (who is late, as Tolstoy was at his own wedding, because his man servant had misplaced his shirt). The parents of the bride and groom are absent from the service, as demanded by custom, for the wedding was perceived as the moment when the bridal couple leave their earthly homes and join together in the family of the Church. Like all Russian brides, Kitty is accompanied by her godparents, whose customary role is to help the priest administer this rite of passage by offering the bride and groom the sacred wedding loaf, blessing them with icons and placing on their heads the ‘wedding crowns’.

‘Put it right on!’ was the advice heard from all sides when the priest brought forward the crowns and Shcherbatsky, his hand shaking in its three-button glove, held the crown high above Kitty’s head.

‘Put it on!’ she whispered, smiling.

Levin looked round at her and was struck by her beatific expression. He could not help being infected by her feeling and becoming as glad and happy as she was.

With light hearts they listened to the reading of the Epistle and heard the head-deacon thunder out one last verse, awaited with such impatience by the outside public. With light hearts they drank the warm red wine and water from the shallow cup, and their spirits rose still higher when the priest, flinging back his stole and taking their hands in his, led them round the lectern while a bass voice rang out ‘Rejoice, O Isaiah!’ Shcherbatsky and Tchirikov, who were supporting the crowns and getting entangled in the bride’s train, smiled too, and were inexplicably happy. They either lagged behind or stumbled on the bride and bridegroom every time the priest came to a halt. The spark of joy glowing in Kitty’s heart seemed to have spread to everyone in church. Levin fancied that the priest and deacon wanted to smile as much as he did.

Lifting the crowns from their heads, the priest read the last prayer and congratulated the young couple. Levin glanced at Kitty and thought he had never seen her look like that before, so lovely with the new light of happiness shining in her face. Levin longed to say something to her but did not know whether the ceremony was over yet. The priest came to his aid, saying softly, a smile on his kindly mouth, ‘Kiss your wife, and you, kiss your husband,’ and took the candles from their hands.78

    The ‘coronation’ (venchane), as the wedding ceremony was called in Russia, symbolized the grace that the bridal couple received from the Holy Spirit as they founded a new family or domestic church. The crowns were usually made of leaves and flowers. They were crowns of joy and martyrdom, for every Christian marriage involved sacrifice by either side. Yet the crowns had a more secular significance as well: for among the common people the bridal pair were called the ‘Tsar’ and ‘Tsarina’, and proverbs said the wedding feast was meant to be ‘po tsarskii’ - a banquet fit for kings.79

    The traditional Russian marriage was a patriarchal one. The husband’s rights were reinforced by the teachings of the Church, by custom, by canon and by civil laws. According to the 1835 Digest of Laws, a wife’s main duty was to ‘submit to the will of her husband’ and to reside with him in all circumstances, unless he was exiled to Siberia.80 State and Church conceived the husband as an autocrat - his absolute authority over wife and family a part of the divine and natural order. ‘The husband and the wife are one body,’ declared Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the arch-reactionary Procurator-General of the Holy Synod and personal tutor to the last two Tsars. ‘The husband is the head of the wife. The wife is not distinguished from her husband. Those are the basic principles from which the provisions of our law proceed.’81 In fact, Russian women had the legal right to control their property - a right, it seems, that was established in the eighteenth century, and in some respects to do with property they were better off than women in the rest of Europe or America.82 But women were at a severe disadvantage when it came to inheriting family property; they had no legal right to request a separation or to challenge the authority of their husband; and, short of a severe injury, they had no protection against physical abuse.

    ’Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh dear me!’ The bridal lament was not unwarranted. The peasant wife was destined for a life of suffering - so much so, indeed, that her life became a symbol of the peasant’s misery, used by nineteenth-century writers to highlight the worst aspects of Russian life. The traditional peasant household was much larger than its European counterpart, often containing more than a dozen members, with the wives and families of two or three brothers living under the same roof as their parents. The young bride who arrived in this household was likely to be burdened with the meanest chores, the fetching and the cooking, the washing and the childcare, and generally treated like a serf. She would have to put up with the sexual advances of not just her husband, but his father, too, for the ancient peasant custom of snokbachestvo gave the household elder rights of access to her body in the absence of his son. Then there were the wife-beatings. For centuries the peasants had claimed the right to beat their wives. Russian proverbs were full of advice on the wisdom of such violence:

 ‘Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.’

 ‘The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.’

‘Beat your wife like a fur coat, then there’ll be less noise.’

 ‘A wife is nice twice: when she’s brought into the house [as a bride] and when she’s carried out of it to her grave.’83

    For those who saw the peasant as a natural Christian (that is, practically the whole of the intelligentsia) such barbaric customs presented a problem. Dostoevsky tried to get around it by claiming that the people should be judged by the ‘sacred things for which they yearn’ rather than ‘their frequent acts of bestiality’, which were no more than surface covering, the ‘slime of centuries of oppression’. Yet even Dostoevsky stumbled when it came to wife-beating:

Have you ever seen how a peasant beats his wife? I have. He begins with a rope or a strap. Peasant life is devoid of aesthetic pleasures - music, theatres, magazines; naturally this gap has to be filled somehow. Tying up his wife or thrusting her legs into the opening of a floorboard, our good little peasant would begin, probably, methodically, cold-bloodedly, even sleepily, with measured blows, without listening to her screams and entreaties. Or rather he does listen - and listens with delight: or what pleasure would there be in beating her?… The blows rain down faster and faster, harder and harder -countless blows. He begins to get excited and finds it to his taste. The animal cries of his tortured victim go to his head like vodka… Finally, she grows quiet; she stops shrieking and only groans, her breath catching violently. And now the blows come even faster and more furiously. Suddenly he throws away the strap; like a madman he grabs a stick or branch, anything, and breaks it on her back with three final terrifying blows. Enough! He stops, sits down at the table, heaves a sigh, and has another drink.84

    Wife-beating was a rare phenomenon in the gentry class, but the patriarchal customs of the Domostroi, the sixteenth-century manual of the Muscovite household, were still very much in evidence. Alexandra Labzina, the daughter of a minor gentry family, was married off on her thirteenth birthday, in 1771, to a man she only met on her wedding day. Her father having died, and her mother being gravely ill, she was given to her husband with instructions from her mother ‘to obey in all things’. It turned out that her husband was a beast, and he treated her with cruelty. He locked her in her room for days on end, while he slept with his niece, or went out for days on drinking-whoring binges with his friends. He forbade her to attend her mother’s funeral, or to see her nanny when she became ill. Eventually, like so many of his type, her husband was sent out to administer the mines at Petrozavodsk and later at Nerchinsk, the Siberian penal colony where Volkonsky was exiled. Away from any social censure, his treatment of his wife became increasingly sadistic. One freezing night he locked her naked in the barn while he carried on with prostitutes inside the house. She bore it all with Christian meekness, until he died from syphilis and she returned to Russia, where eventually she married the vice-president of the Academy of Arts.85

    Labzina’s treatment was exceptionally cruel, but the patriarchal culture that had produced it was pretty universal in the provinces until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The landowner Maria Adam, for example, had an aunt in Tambov province who had married a neighbouring landowner in the 1850s. Her husband, it transpired, had only married her to gain possession of her property and, as soon as they were wed, he made her life unbearable. The aunt ran away and sought shelter at her niece’s house, but the husband came and found her, threatened to ‘skin her alive’ and, when his wife’s maid intervened, he beat her with his whip. Eventually, after dreadful scenes, Maria took her aunt and the badly beaten maid to appeal for help at the house of the provincial governor, but the governor would not accept the women’s evidence and sent them away. For three months they lived at Maria’s house, barricaded inside to protect themselves from the husband who came and abused them there every day, until finally, in the liberal atmosphere of 1855, a new governor was appointed who secured the Senate’s permission for Maria’s aunt to live apart from her husband.86 Such divorces were very rare indeed - about fifty a year for the whole of Russia in the 1850s, rising to no more than a few hundred in the final decades of the nineteenth century87 - much fewer than in Europe at the time. Until 1917 the Russian Church retained control of marriage and divorce, and it stubbornly resisted the European trend to relax the divorce laws.

    Near the end of Kitty’s wedding in Anna Karenina the priest motions the bridal pair to a rose silk carpet where they are to perform the sacraments.

Often as they had both heard the saying that the one who steps first on the carpet will be the head of the house, neither Levin nor Kitty could think of that as they took those few steps towards it. They did not even hear the loud remarks and disputes that followed, some maintaining that Levin was first and others insisting that they had both stepped on together.88

    Tolstoy saw the Kitty-Levin marriage as an ideal Christian love: each lives for the other and, through that love, they both live in God. Tolstoy’s own life was a search for just this communion, this sense of belonging. The theme runs right through his literary work. There was a time when he had believed that he might find this community in army life - but he ended up by satirizing military ‘brotherhood’ and calling for the army to be abolished. Then he looked for it in the literary world of Moscow and St Petersburg - but he ended up by condemning that as well. For a long time he believed that the answer to his problem lay in the sanctity of marriage; so many of his works express that ideal. But here too he failed to find true union. His own selfishness was always in the way. Tolstoy might have pictured his marriage to Sonya as the idyllic attachment of Levin and Kitty, but real life was very different. In the Tolstoy marriage there was never any doubt about who had stepped on to the carpet first. The count was as good as any peasant when it came to his relations with his wife. In the first eight years of their marriage Sonya bore him eight children (according to her diary, he would make sexual demands before she had even healed from giving birth). Sonya served as his private secretary, working for long hours through the night copying out the manuscripts of War and Peace. Later Tolstoy would confess that he had ‘acted badly and cruelly - as every husband acts towards his wife. I gave her all the hard work, the so-called “women’s work”, and went hunting or enjoyed myself.’89 Repulsed by his own behaviour, Tolstoy came to question the romantic basis of marriage. Here was the central theme of all his fiction from Anna Karenina to The Kreutzer Sonata (1891) and Resurrection (1899). Anna is doomed to self-destruction, not so much as a tragic victim of society, but because she is the tragic victim of her own passions (as Tolstoy was of his). Despite her immense suffering and the sacrifice she makes by losing her own child to pursue her love for Vronsky, Anna commits the sin of living to be loved. Tolstoy spelled out his own judgement in an essay called ‘On Life’, in which he talked about the contradiction of people living only for themselves, looking for their happiness as individuals, whereas it can only be found in living for others. This is the lesson which Levin learns as he settles down to married life with wife and child: happiness depends on a form of love that gives; and we can only find ourselves through a communion with our fellow human beings. Tolstoy had not found this in his own marriage. But he thought he had found it in the peasantry.

5. Bleaker Views of the Peasants after 1900

    In 1897 Russian society was engulfed in a storm of debate over a short tale. Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’ tells the story of a sick Moscow waiter who returns with his wife and daughter to his native village, only to find that his poverty-stricken family resent him for bringing another set of mouths to feed. The waiter dies and his widow, who has grown thin and ugly from her short stay in the village, returns to Moscow with these sad reflections on the hopelessness of peasant life:

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarrelling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion. Who maintains the pubs and makes the peasants drunk? The peasant. Who embezzles the village, school and parish funds and spends it all on drink? The peasant. Who robs his neighbour, sets fire to his house and perjures himself in court for a bottle of vodka? Who is the first to revile the peasant at district council and similar meetings? The peasant. Yes, it was terrible living with these people; nevertheless, they were still human beings, suffering and weeping like other people and there was nothing in their lives which did not provide some excuse.

    The myth of the good peasant had been punctured by the tale. The peasant was now just a human being, brutalized and coarsened by his poverty, not the bearer of special moral lessons for society. The Populists denounced Chekhov for failing to reflect the spiritual ideals of peasant life. Tolstoy called the story ‘a sin before the people’ and said that Chekhov had not looked into the peasant’s soul.91 Slavophiles attacked it as a slander against Russia. But the Marxists, whose opinions were beginning to be heard, praised the story for revealing the way the rise of the capitalist town had caused the decline of the village. Reactionaries were pleased with the story, too, because it proved, they said, that the peasant was his own worst enemy.92

    It may seem odd that a work of literature should cause such huge shock waves throughout society. But Russia’s identity was built upon the myth which Chekhov had destroyed. The Populist ideal of the peasantry had become so fundamental to the nation’s conception of itself that to question this ideal was to throw the whole of Russia into agonizing doubt. The impact of the story was all the more disturbing for the simple factual style in which it was composed. It seemed not so much a work of fiction as a documentary study: the Tsarist censor had referred to it as an ‘article’.93

    Chekhov’s story was the fruit of its author’s first-hand knowledge of the peasantry. The villages around his small estate at Melikhovo contained many peasants who went to work as waiters or as other service staff in nearby Moscow. The influence of city life was clearly to be seen in the behaviour of those who stayed behind. Shortly before he wrote the story Chekhov had observed a group of drunken servants in his own kitchen. One of them had married off his daughter, much against her will, in exchange for a bucket of vodka. They were now drinking it.94 But Chekhov was not shocked by such a scene. Over the years he had come to know the peasants through his work as a doctor. Sickly peasants came to Melikhovo from many miles around, and he treated them free of charge. During the cholera epidemic that followed on the heels of the famine crisis in 1891 he had given up his writing and worked as a doctor for the district zemstvo in Moscow. The grueling work had acquainted him with the squalid conditions in which the poorest peasants lived and died. ‘The peasants are crude, unsanitary and mistrustful’, Chekhov wrote to a friend, ‘but the thought that our labours will not be in vain makes it all unnoticeable.’95

Five years later, in 1897, Chekhov helped to collect the statistics for the first national census in Russian history. He was horrified by what he learned - that just a few kilometres from Moscow there were villages where six out of every ten infants would die in their first year. Such facts angered him, a ‘small deeds’ liberal, pushing him politically towards the left. On learning, for example, that the poor discharged from hospital were dying for lack of proper aftercare, Chekhov delivered a tirade to Yezhov, a well-known columnist for the right-wing daily Novoe vremia, in which he maintained that, since the rich got richer by turning the poor peasants into drunks and whores, they should be made to meet the costs of their health care.96

    Beneath all the din surrounding Chekhov’s story there was a profound question about Russia’s future as a peasant land. The old rural Russia was being swept aside by the advance of the towns, and the nation was divided over it. For the Slavophiles and the Populists, who saw Russia’s unique virtues in the old peasant culture and community, the growing subjugation of the village to the town was a national catastrophe. But for Westernists, the liberals and the Marxists, who embraced the city as a modernizing force, the peasantry was backward and bound to die away. Even the government was forced to reassess its peasant policy as the influence of the urban market began to change the countryside. The peasant commune was no longer feeding the growing population of the countryside, let alone providing a marketable surplus for the state to tax; and as the agrarian crisis deepened, it became the organizing kernel of the peasant revolution. Since 1861 the government had left villages in the hands of the communes -believing them to be the bulwarks of the patriarchal order in the countryside: its own state administration stopped at the level of the district towns. But after the 1905 Revolution the government changed its policy. Under Stolypin, Prime Minister between 1906 and 1911, it attempted to break up the village commune, which had organized the peasant war against the manors, by encouraging the stronger peasants to set up private farms on land removed from communal control, and at the same time helping those who were too weak to farm, or deprived of access to the land by the new laws of private property, to move as labourers into the towns.

    The root cause of this transformation was the slow decline of peasant farming in the overpopulated central Russian zone. The peasantry’s egalitarian customs gave them little incentive to produce anything other than babies. For the commune distributed land among the households according to the number of mouths to feed. The birth rate in Russia (at about fifty births per 1,000 people per year) was nearly twice the European average during the second half of the nineteenth century, and the highest rates of all were in the areas of communal tenure where land holdings were decided according to family size. The astronomical rise of the peasant population (from 50 to 79 million between 1861 and 1897) resulted in a growing shortage of land. By the turn of the century, one in ten peasant households had no land at all; while a further one in five had a tiny plot of little more than one hectare which could barely feed a family, given the primitive methods of cultivation used in the central agricultural zone. The communes kept the open three-field system used in western Europe in medieval times in which two fields were sown and one lay fallow every year. Each household got a certain number of arable strips according to its size and, because the livestock were allowed to graze on the stubble and there were no hedges, all the farmers had to follow the same rotation of crops. As the population grew, the strips of productive arable land became progressively narrower. In the most overcrowded regions these strips were no more than a couple of metres wide, making it impossible to employ modern ploughs. To feed the growing population the communes brought more land under the plough by reducing fallow and pasture lands. But the long-term effect was to make the situation worse - for the soil became exhausted from being overworked, while livestock herds (the main source of fertilizer) were reduced because of the shortage of grazing lands. By the end of the nineteenth century, one in three peasant households did not even own a horse.97 Millions of peasants were driven off the land by crushing poverty. Some managed to survive through local trades, such as weaving, pottery or carpentry, timber-felling and carting, although many of these handicrafts were being squeezed out by factory competition; or by working as day labourers on the gentry’s estates, although the influx of new machines reduced demand for them with every passing year. Others left the overcrowded central areas for the vast and empty steppelands of Siberia, where land was made available to colonists. But most were forced into the towns, where they picked up unskilled jobs in factories or worked as domestic or service staff. Chekhov’s waiter had been one of these.

    New urban ways were also filtering down to the remote villages. The traditional extended peasant family began to break up as the younger and more literate peasants struggled to throw off the patriarchal tyranny of the village and set up households of their own. They looked towards the city and its cultural values as a route to independence and self-worth. Virtually any urban job seemed desirable compared with the hardships and dull routines of peasant life. A survey of rural schoolchildren in the early 1900s found that half of them wanted to pursue an ‘educated profession’ in the city, whereas less than 2 per cent held any desire to follow in the footsteps of their peasant parents. ‘I want to be a shop assistant,’ said one schoolboy, ‘because I do not like to walk in the mud. I want to be like those people who are cleanly dressed and work as shop assistants.’98 Educators were alarmed that, once they had learned to read, many peasant boys, in particular, turned their backs on agricultural work and set themselves above the other peasants by swaggering around in raffish city clothes. Such boys, wrote a villager, ‘would run away to Moscow and take any job’.99 They looked back on the village as a ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ world of superstition and crippling poverty - a world Trotsky would describe as the Russia of ‘icons and cockroaches’ - and they idealized the city as a force of social progress and enlightenment. Here was the basis of the cultural revolution on which Bolshevism would be built. For the Party rank and file was recruited in the main from peasant boys like these; and its ideology was a science of contempt for the peasant world. The revolution would sweep it all away.

    Bolshevism was built on the mass commercial culture of the towns. The urban song, the foxtrot and the tango, the gramophone, the fairground entertainment and the cinema - these were its forms after 1917. Yet this urban culture was already attracting peasants in the 1890s, when its presence was first felt in the countryside. The village song was gradually being supplanted by the urban ‘cruel romance’, or the chastushka, a crude rhyming song which was usually accompanied by an accordion (another new invention) in the tavern or streets. Unlike the folk song, whose performance was collective and impersonal, these urban songs were personal in theme and full of individual expression. The folk tale was also dying out, as the new rural readership created by the recent growth of primary schooling turned instead to the cheap urban literature of detective stories and tales of adventure or romance. Tolstoy was afraid that the peasants would be poisoned by the egotistic values of this new book trade. He was concerned that these urban tales had heroes who prevailed by cunning and deceit, whereas the old peasant tradition had upheld moral principles. Joining forces with the publisher Sytin, a humble merchant’s son who had become rich by selling such cheap pamphlets in the provinces, Tolstoy set up the Intermediary to publish cheap editions of the Russian classics and simple country tales such as ‘How a Little Devil Redeemed a Hunk of Bread’ and ‘Where There Is God There Is Love’ which Tolstoy himself wrote for the new mass peasant readership. Within four years of the publishing house’s foundation, in 1884, sales had risen from 400,000 books to a staggering 12 million 100 - book sales that could not be matched by any other country until China under Mao. But sales declined in the 1890s, as more exciting books were brought out in the city, and readers turned away from Tolstoy’s ‘fairy stories’ and ‘moralizing tales’.101

    For the intelligentsia, which defined itself by its cultural mission to raise the masses to its own levels of civilization, this defection was a mortal blow. The peasant had been ‘lost’ to the crass commercial culture of the towns. The peasant who was meant to bear the Russian soul - a natural Christian, a selfless socialist and a moral beacon to the world - had become a victim of banality. Suddenly the old ideals were crushed, and, as Dostoevsky had predicted, once the champions of ‘the people’ realized that the people were not as they had imagined them to be, they renounced them without regret. Where before the peasant was the light, now he was the darkening shadow that descended over Russia in the decades leading up to 1917. The educated classes were thrown into a moral panic about what they saw as the peasantry’s descent into barbarity.

    The 1905 Revolution confirmed all their fears. For years the intelligentsia had dreamed of a genuinely democratic revolution. Since the 1890s liberals and socialists had joined together in their campaign for political reform. They rejoiced in the spring of 1905, when the entire country appeared to be united in the demand for democratic rights. In October 1905, with the Russian empire engulfed by popular revolts, the army crippled by soldiers’ mutinies, and his own throne threatened by a general strike, Nicholas II finally gave in to the pressure of his liberal ministers to concede a series of political reforms.  ·  Nicholas II, October Manifesto (1905); Dissolution of the Duma (1907);  Imperial Manifesto (1907) The October Manifesto, as these became known, was a sort of constitution - although it was not issued in that name because the Tsar refused to recognize any formal constraints on his autocratic power. The Manifesto granted civil liberties and a legislative parliament (or Duma) elected on a broad franchise. The country celebrated. New political parties were formed. People talked of a new Russia being born. But the political revolution was all the time developing into a social one, as the workers pressed their radical demands for industrial democracy in a growing wave of strikes and violent protests, and the peasantry resumed their age-old struggle for the land, confiscating property and forcing the nobility from their estates. The national unity of 1905 was soon shown to be illusory, as liberals and socialists went their separate ways after October. For the propertied elites, the October Manifesto was the final goal of the revolution. But for the workers and the peasantry, it was only the beginning of a social revolution against all property and privilege. The frightened liberals recoiled from their commitment to the revolution. The growing insubordination of the lower classes, the fighting in the streets, the rural arson and destruction of estates, and the mistrust and the hatred on the faces of the peasants which continued to disturb the landed nobles long after order was bloodily restored - all these destroyed the romance of ‘the people’ and their cause.

    In 1909 a group of philosophers critical of the radical intelligentsia and its role in the Revolution of 1905 published a collection of essays called Vekhi (Landmarks) in which this disenchantment was powerfully expressed. The essays caused a huge storm of controversy - not least because their writers (former Marxists like Pyotr Struve and Nikolai Berdyaev) had all had spotless (that is, politically radical) credentials - which in itself was symptomatic of the intelligentsia’s new mood of doubt and self-questioning. The essays were a fierce attack on the nineteenth-century cult of ‘the people’ and its tendency to subordinate all other interests to the people’s cause. Through this pursuit of material interests the intelligensia was pushing Russia to a second revolution, much more violent and destructive than the first. Civilization was under threat and it was the duty of the educated classes to face this reality:

This is the way we are: not only can we not dream about fusing with the people but we must fear them worse than any punishment by the government, and we must bless that authority which alone with its bayonets and prisons manages to protect us from the popular fury.102

    There was a general feeling, which the essays had expressed, that the masses would destroy Russia’s fragile European civilization and that, come the revolution, Russia would be dragged down to the level of the semi-savage peasantry. Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913-14) is filled with images of the city being overrun by Asiatic hordes. Even Gorky, a hero and a champion of the common man, succumbed to the new apocalyptic mood. ‘You are right 666 times over’, he wrote to a literary friend in 1905, ‘[the revolution] is giving birth to real barbarians, just like those that ravaged Rome.’103

    This dark mood was captured in what must surely be the bleakest portrait of rural life in any literature: Ivan Bunin’s novella The Village (1910). Bunin, The Village (1910)  Bunin had experience of peasant life. Unlike Turgenev or Tolstoy, who were scions of the elite aristocracy, Bunin belonged to the minor provincial gentry, who had always lived in close proximity to the peasants and whose lives resembled theirs in many ways. Bunin saw the peasant as the ‘national type’ and his stories about them were intended to be judgements on the Russian people and their history. He had never had any illusions about the spiritual or noble qualities of the peasants. His diaries are filled with horrific incidents he had seen or heard about in the villages: a woman who was beaten by her drunken husband so that she had to be ‘bandaged up like a mummy’; another woman raped so often by her husband that she bled to death.104 Bunin’s early stories dealt with the harsh realities of country life in the 1890s - a decade of famine and flight from the land. They are full of images of destruction and decay: abandoned villages, factories belching blood red smoke, the peasants old or sick. Here Bunin’s village was a realm of natural beauty that was being undermined and gradually destroyed by the new industrial economy. After 1905, however, Bunin changed his view of the village. He came to see it not just as a victim, but as the main agent of its own demise. The Village is set in 1905 in a place called Durnovo (from the word ‘durnoi’, meaning ‘bad’ or ‘rotten’). Its peasants are portrayed as dark and ignorant, thieving and dishonest, lazy and corrupt. Nothing much takes place in Durnovo. There is no plot in Bunin’s work. It consists of a description of the dreary existence of a tavern keeper who has just enough intelligence to realize the emptiness of his own life. ‘God, what a place! It’s a prison!’ he concludes. Yet, as Bunin’s tale implies, all of peasant Russia is a Durnovo.105

    The Village gave a huge jolt to society. More perhaps than any other work, it made the Russians think about the hopeless destiny of their peasant land. ‘What stunned the reader in this book’, wrote one critic, ‘was not the depiction of the peasant’s material, cultural and legal poverty… but the realization that there was no escape from it. The most that the peasant, as depicted by Bunin, was capable of achieving… was only the awareness of his hopeless savagery, of being doomed.’106 Gorky wrote about The Village that it had forced society to think seriously ‘not just about the peasant but about the question of whether Russia is to be or not to be’.107

    Like Bunin, Maxim Gorky knew what village life was like: his disenchantment with the peasantry was based on experience. He came from the ‘lower depths’ himself - an orphan who had survived by scavenging along the banks of the Volga river and roaming round the towns, a street urchin dressed in rags. Tolstoy once said of Gorky that he seemed ‘to have been born as an old man’ - and indeed Gorky had known more human suffering in his first eight years than the count would see in all his eight decades. Gorky’s grandfather’s household in Nizhnyi Novgorod, where he had been brought up after the death of his father, was, as he described it in My Childhood (1913) Gorky, My Childhood (1913), a microcosm of provincial Russia - a place of poverty, cruelty and meanness, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God. All his life he felt a profound loathing for this ‘backward’ peasant Russia-a contempt that aligned him with the Bolsheviks:

When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worthwhile recording them? And with ever stronger conviction I find the answer is yes, because that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid. It is that truth which must be known down to the very roots, so that by tearing them up it can be completely erased from the memory, from the soul of man, from our whole oppressive and shameful life.108

    In 1888, at the age of twenty, Gorky had ‘gone to the people’ with a Populist called Romas who tried to set up a co-operative and organize the peasants in a village on the Volga near Kazan. The enterprise ended in disaster. The villagers burned them out after Romas failed to heed the threats of the richer peasants, who had close links with the established traders in the nearby town and resented their meddling. Three years later, Gorky was beaten unconscious by a group of peasant men when he tried to intervene on behalf of a woman who had been stripped naked and horsewhipped by her husband and a howling mob after being found guilty of adultery. Experience left Gorky with a bitter mistrust of the ‘noble savage’. It led him to conclude that, however good they may be on their own, the peasants left all that was fine behind when they ‘gathered in one grey mass’:

Some dog-like desire to please the strong ones in the village took possession of them, and then it disgusted me to look at them. They would howl wildly at each other, ready for a fight - and they would fight over any trifle. At these moments they were terrifying and they seemed capable of destroying the very church where only the previous evening they had gathered humbly and submissively, like sheep in a fold.109

    Looking back on the violence of the revolutionary years - a violence he put down to the ‘savage instincts’ of the Russian peasantry - Gorky wrote in 1922:

Where then is that kindly, contemplative Russian peasant, the indefatigable searcher after truth and justice, so convincingly and beautifully presented to the world by Russian nineteenth-century literature? In my youth I earnestly sought for such a man throughout the Russian countryside but I did not find him.110

6. the World of Art movement and the Ballet Russes

    In 1916 Diaghilev was asked where the Ballets Russes had its intellectual origins. In the Russian peasantry, he replied: ‘in objects of utility (domestic implements in the country districts), in the painting on the sleighs, in the designs and the colours of peasant dresses, or the carving around a window frame, we found our motifs, and on this foundation we built’.111 In fact the Ballets Russes was a direct descendant of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s.

It all began at Abramtsevo, the artists’ colony established by the Mamontovs on their estate near Moscow, which soon became the focus for the arts and crafts movement. The railway magnate’s wife Elizaveta was a well-known sympathizer of the Populists and, soon after the estate was purchased in 1870, she set up a school and a hospital for the peasants in its grounds. In 1876 a carpentry workshop was added where pupils who had graduated from the school might learn a useful trade. The aim was to revive the peasant handicrafts that were fast disappearing as the railways brought in cheaper factory products from the towns. Artists like Gartman and Elena Polenova took their inspiration from this peasant art and, under Polenova’s direction, new workshops were soon set up to cater to the growing middle-class market for pottery and linen in the peasant style. Polenova and her artists would go around the villages copying the designs on the window frames and doors, household utensils and furniture, which they would then adapt for the stylized designs of the craft goods manufactured in the colony’s workshops. Polenova collected several thousand peasant artefacts which can still be seen in the Craft Museum at Abramtsevo. She saw these artefacts as the remnants of an ancient Russian style that was still alive, and which gave them, in her view, a value that was higher than the Muscovite designs that had inspired artists in the past. For the latter were a part of a dead tradition that was now as remote to the Russian people as ‘the art of Africa or Ancient Greece’.112 In her own pictures and furniture designs Polenova tried, as she put it, to express ‘the vital spirit of the Russian people’s poetic view of nature’, using animal motifs and floral ornaments which she had sketched from peasant artefacts.113

 Elena Polenova: ‘Cat and Owl’ carved door,
Abramtsevo workshop, early

    Urban fans of this ‘neo-national’ style took it as a pure and authentic Russian art. Stasov, for example, thought that Polenova’s ‘Cat and Owl’ door could be taken for the work of ‘some amazingly talented but anonymous master of our ancient Rus”.114 But in fact it was a fantasy. By the early 1890s, when the door was carved, Polenova had moved on from copying folk designs to assimilating them to the art nouveau style, which made her work even more appealing to the urban middle class.

    Other artists trod the same path from ethnographic to commercial art. At the Solomenko embroidery workshops in Tambov province, for example, the artists’ designs were becoming increasingly attuned to the bourgeois tastes of the city women who could afford these luxury goods. Instead of the gaudy colours favoured by the peasants in their own designs (orange, red and yellow), they used the subdued colours (dark green, cream and brown) that appealed to urban tastes. The same change took place at the textile workshops of Talashkino, established by Princess Maria Tenisheva on her estate in Smolensk in 1898. The local peasant women ‘did not like our colours’, Tenisheva recalled, ‘they said they were too “drab”’, and she had to pay the weavers bonuses to get them to use them in their work.115

    The folk-like crafted goods of Sergei Maliutin, the principal artist at Talashkino, were pure invention. Maliutin was the creator of the first matriosbka, or Russian nesting doll, in 1891. At that time he was working at the Moscow zemstvo’s craft workshops at Sergiev Posad which specialized in making Russian toys. Contrary to the popular belief today, the matrioshka has no roots in Russian folk culture at all. It was dreamed up in response to a commission from the Mamontovs to make a Russian version of the Japanese nesting doll. Maliutin created a red-cheeked peasant girl in the shape of a barrel with a chicken underneath her arm. Each smaller doll portrayed a different aspect of peasant life; and at the core was a baby tightly swaddled in the Russian style. The design became immensely popular and by the end of the 1890s several million dolls were being manufactured every year. The myth was then established that the matriosbka was an ancient Russian toy.116 At Talashkino Maliutin also applied his distinctive style to furniture, ceramics, book illustrations, stage designs and buildings. Urban admirers like Diaghilev saw his work as the essence of an ‘organic peasant Russianness’ which, Diaghilev claimed in one of his most nationalistic utterances, would herald a ‘Renaissance of the North’.117 But the real Russian peasants took a different view. When, in 1902, Tenisheva put on an exhibition of the Talashkino products in Smolensk, less than fifty people came to see it and, as she recalled, the peasants ‘viewed our things not with delight but with dumb amazement which we found hard to explain’.118

    It is not immediately obvious what attracted Diaghilev to the neo-nationalists of Abramtsevo and Talashkino - a marriage that gave birth to the folklore fantasies of the Ballets Russes. In 1898, he delivered a tirade on ‘peasant art’, attacking artists who thought to ‘shock the world’ by ‘dragging peasant shoes and rags on to the canvas’.119 By artistic temperament the impresario was aristocratic and cosmopolitan, even if he came from the provincial town of Perm. At his grandfather’s house, where he had been brought up from the age of ten, there was an atmosphere of cultivated dilettantism, with regular concerts and literary evenings, in which the young Sergei, with his fluent French and German and his piano-playing skills, was in his element. As a law student at St Petersburg University in the early 1890s, Diaghilev was perfectly at home with young aesthetes such as Alexander Benois, Dmitry Filosofov (Diaghilev’s cousin) and Walter (‘Valechka’) Nouvel. There was a general mood of Populism in these circles, especially at the Bogdanovskoe estate near Pskov which belonged to Filosofov’s aunt Anna Pavlovna, a well-known activist for women’s liberation and a literary hostess whose salon in St Petersburg was frequently attended by Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Blok. The four students would spend their summers at Bogdanovskoe; and it was then that they first conceived the idea of a magazine to educate the public in the great art of the past. Together with the artist Leon Bakst (an old schoolfriend of Benois, Filosofov and Nouvel at the May Academy in Petersburg) they established the World of Art movement, which arranged concerts, exhibitions and lectures on artistic themes, and founded a magazine of the same name which lasted from 1898 to 1904. Subsidized by Tenisheva and Mamontov, the magazine would come to feature the folk-inspired artists of their colonies alongside modern Western art - the same combination that would later be repeated by Diaghilev and Benois in the Ballets Russes.

    The co-founders of the World of Art saw themselves as cosmopolitans of Petersburg (they called themselves the ‘Nevsky Pickwickians’) and championed the idea of a universal culture which they believed was embodied in that civilization. They identified themselves with the aristocracy, and saw that class as a great repository of Russia’s cultural heritage. In a passage of his Memoirs that is crucial to an understanding of the World of Art, Benois underlined this point when he reminisced about the Filosofovs, one of Russia’s ancient noble families:

Theirs was the class to which all the chief figures of Russian culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries belonged, the class that created the delights of the characteristic Russian way of life. From this class came the heroes and heroines in the novels of Pushkin and Lermontov, Turgenev and Tolstoy. This was the class that achieved all that is peaceful, worthy, durable and meant to last for ever. They set the tempo of Russian life… All the subtleties of the Russian psychology, all the nuances of our characteristically Russian moral sensibility arose and matured within this milieu.120

    Above all, they identified with the artistic values of the aristocracy. They saw art as a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, not as a vehicle for social programmes or political ideas, as they believed the Russian arts had become under Stasov’s leadership. Their veneration of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky stemmed from this philosophy - not ‘art for art’s sake’, as they frequently insisted, but the belief that ideas should be integrated in the work of art.

    Reacting against the nineteenth-century realist tradition, the World of Art group sought to restore an earlier ideal of beauty as the artistic principle of what they envisaged (and successfully promoted) as Russia’s cultural renaissance. The classical tradition of St Petersburg was one expression of this ideal. The World of Art circle made a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg. It was practically defined by nostalgia for a civilization which they sensed was about to pass away. Benois and his nephew Eugene Lanceray each produced a series of prints and lithographs depicting city scenes in the reigns of Peter and Catherine the Great. Benois lamented that the classical ideal of eighteenth-century Petersburg had been abandoned by the vulgar nationalists of the nineteenth century. In the revolutionary year of 1905, Diaghilev mounted an exhibition of eighteenth-century Russian portraits in the Tauride Palace, shortly to become the home of the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet. He introduced the portraits as ‘a grandiose summing-up of a brilliant, but, alas, dying period in our history’.121

    But peasant art could also be regarded as a form of ‘classicism’ - at least in the stylized forms in which it was presented by the neo-nationalists. It was impersonal, symbolic and austere, strictly regulated by the folk traditions of representation, a mystical expression of the spiritual world yet intimately linked with the collective rituals and practices of village life. Here was an ancient, a different ‘world of art’, whose principles of beauty could be used to overturn the deadening influence of nineteenth-century bourgeois and romantic art.

    For Diaghilev, money played a part. Always keen to spot a new market opportunity, the impresario was impressed by the growing popularity of the neo-nationalists’ folk-like art. Fin-de-siecle Europe had an endless fascination for ‘the primitive’ and ‘exotic’. The savage of the East was regarded as a force of spiritual renewal for the tired bourgeois cultures of the West. Diaghilev had spotted this trend early on. ‘Europe needs our youth and spontaneity’, he wrote on his return from a tour there in 1896. ‘We must go forth at once. We must show our all, with all the qualities and defects of our nationality.’122 His instincts were confirmed in 1900 when Russia’s arts and crafts made a huge splash at the Paris Exhibition. The centre of attention was Korovin’s ‘Russian Village’, a reconstruction of the wooden architecture he had studied on a trip to the Far North, complete with an ancient teremok, or timber tower, and a wooden church, which was built on site by a team of peasants brought in from Russia. The Parisians were enchanted by these ‘savage carpenters’, with their ‘unkempt hair and beards, their broad, child-like smiles and primitive methods’, and as one French critic wrote, ‘if the objects on display had been for sale, there would not be a single item left’.123 There was a steady flow of peasant-crafted goods from Russia to the West - so much so that special shops were opened in Paris, London, Leipzig, Chicago, Boston and New York in the 1900s.124 The Parisian couturier Paul Poiret travelled to Russia in 1912 to buy up peasant garb, from which he drew inspiration for his fashionable clothes. The term ‘blouse russe’ echoed round the fashion halls, and models could be seen in clothes which bore the mark of Russian sarafans and homespun coats.125

    But there was more than business to draw Diaghilev to the neo-nationalists. The fact that artists such as Polenova and Maliutin were increasingly rendering their ‘peasant art’ in the stylized forms of modernism brought them into line with the ethos of the World of Art. Diaghilev was particularly attracted to the paintings of Viktor Vasnetsov, which displayed less folk content than a general sense of peasant colouring. Vasnetsov believed that colour was the key to the Russian people’s understanding of beauty, and he developed his own palette from the study of folk art (the lubok woodcuts and icons) and peasant artefacts, which he collected on his tours of Viatka province in the 1870s. The artist brought these vibrant primary colours to his brilliant stage designs for Mamontov’s production of The Snow Maiden (plate 15), a production that became the visual model for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Viktor Vasnetsov: set design for Mamontov’s production of Rumsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden (Abramtsevo, 1881).
Vasnetsov’s designs, with their folk-like use of colour, became a visual model for the Ballets Russes
and primitivist painters such as Goncharova, Malevich and Chagall.

    Vasnetsov’s designs were an inspiration for the neo-nationalists who followed in his footsteps from Abramtsevo to the World of Art. Their fairytale-like quality was clearly to be seen in later stage designs for the Ballets Russes by Alexander Golovine (Boris Godunov: 1908; The Firebird: 1910) and Konstantin Korovin (Ruslan and Liudmila: 1909). Even more influential, in the longer term, was Vasnetsov’s use of colour, motifs, space and style to evoke the essence of folk art, which would inspire primitivist painters such as Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. These artists, too, gravitated towards the folk tradition, to the icon and the lubok and to peasant artefacts, in their quest for a new poetic outlook on the world. Introducing an exhibition of icons and woodcuts in Moscow in 1913, Goncharova talked about a ‘peasant aesthetic’ that was closer to the symbolic art forms of the East than the representational tradition of the West. ‘This art does not copy or improve on the real world but reconstitutes it.’ Here was the inspiration of Goncharova’s designs for the Ballets Russes, such as Le Coq d’Or of 1914.

    The Ballets Russes was meant to be a synthesis of all the arts, and it has often been described as a Russian brand of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, art and drama are united. But in fact that synthesis had less to do with Wagner than with the Russian peasantry. It had its roots in Mamontov’s Private Opera which had been founded on the spirit of artistic collaboration at Abramtsevo. The whole purpose of the colony was to bring together all the arts and crafts to unite life and art-through a collective enterprise which its pioneers equated with their own idealized notion of the peasant commune. What the artists at Abramtsevo admired most about peasant culture was the synthetic nature of its arts and crafts. Simple artefacts, like textiles or ceramics, brought artistic beauty into people’s daily lives. Collective rituals like the khorovod were total works of art - little ‘rites of spring’ - combining folk song and ceremonial dance with real events in village life. The colony was an attempt to re-create this ‘world of art’. The whole community - artists, craftsmen and peasant builders - became involved in the building of its church. Artists combined with singers and musicians, costume-makers with set-builders, to stage productions of the opera. This was what Diaghilev meant when he said the Ballets Russes was built on the foundations of peasant arts and crafts.

Church at Abramtsevo. Designed by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881-2


  ’I am sending you a proposal’, Diaghilev wrote to the composer Anatoly Lyadov in 1909.

I need a ballet and a Russian one - the first Russian ballet, since there is no such thing. There is Russian opera, Russian symphony, Russian song, Russian dance, Russian rhythm - but no Russian ballet. And that is precisely what I need - to perform in May of the coming year in the Paris Grand Opera and in the huge Royal Drury Lane Theatre in London. The ballet needn’t be three-tiered. The libretto is ready. Fokine has it. It was dreamed up by us all collectively. It’s The Firebird - a ballet in one act and perhaps two scenes.126

Silver siren vase by Sergei Vashkov (1908). The female bird wears a kokoshnik
and her wings are set with tourmalines.

    Diaghilev’s enthusiasm for the ballet was not always evident. His professional entree into the art world had been through painting, and his first job in the theatre was a long way from the stage. In 1899 he was employed by Prince Sergei Volkonsky, the grandson of the famous Decembrist, who had just been appointed by the Tsar as Director of the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg. Volkonsky asked Diaghilev to run the theatre’s in-house magazine. Eight years later, when Diaghilev took his first stage productions to the West, it was opera, not ballet, that made up his exotic saisons russes. It was only the comparative expense of staging operas that made him look to ballet for a cheap alternative.

    The importance of the ballet as a source of artistic innovation in the twentieth century is something that no one would have predicted before its rediscovery by Diaghilev. The ballet had become an ossified art form; in much of Europe it was disregarded as an old-fashioned entertainment of the court. But in Russia it lived on in St Petersburg, where the culture was still dominated by the court. At the Marinsky Theatre, where Stravinsky spent much of his childhood, there were regular Wednesday and Sunday ballet matinees - ‘the half-empty auditorium’ being made up, in the words of Prince Lieven, of ‘a mixture of children accompanied by their mothers or governesses, and old men with binoculars’.127 Among serious intellectuals the ballet was considered ‘an entertainment for snobs and tired businessmen’,128 and with the exception of Tchaikovsky, whose reputation suffered as a consequence of his involvement with the form, the composers for the ballet (such as Pugni, Minkus and Drigo) were mostly foreign hacks.* Rimsky-Korsakov, the ultimate authority on musical taste when Stravinsky studied with him in the early 1900s, was famous for his remark that the ballet was ‘not really an art form’.129 

   * Cesare Pugni (1802-70), in Russia from 1851; Ludwig Minkus (1826-1907), in Russia from 1850 to 1890; Riccardo Drigo (1846-1930), in Russia from 1879

    Benois was the real ballet lover in the World of Art group. It appealed to his aristocratic outlook, and to his nostalgia for the classical culture of eighteenth-century Petersburg. This retrospective aesthetic was shared by all the founders of the Ballets Russes: Benois, Dobuzhinsky, the critic Filosofov and Diaghilev. The ballets of Tchaikovsky were the incarnation of the classical ideal and, even though they never featured in the saison russe in Paris, where Tchaikovsky was the least appreciated of the Russian composers, they were an inspiration to the founders of the Ballets Russes. Tchaikovsky was the last of the great European court composers (he lived in the last of the great European eighteenth-century states). Staunchly monarchist, he was among the intimates of Tsar Alexander III. His music, which embodied the ‘Imperial style’, was preferred by the court to the ‘Russian’ harmonies of Musorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

    The Imperial style was virtually defined by the polonaise. Imported into Russia by the Polish composer Jozek Kozlowski towards the end of the eighteenth century, the polonaise became the supreme courtly form and the most brilliant of all the ballroom genres. It came to symbolize the European brilliance of eighteenth-century Petersburg itself. In Eugene Onegin Pushkin (like Tchaikovsky) used the polonaise for the climactic entry of Tatiana at the ball in Petersburg. Tolstoy used the polonaise at the climax of the ball in War and Peace, where the Emperor makes his entrance and Natasha dances with Andrei. In The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and in his opera The Queen of Spades (1890) Tchaikovsky reconstructed the imperial grandeur of the eighteenth-century world. Set in the reign of Louis XIV, The Sleeping Beauty was a nostalgic tribute to the French influence on eighteenth-century Russian music and culture. The Queen of Spades, based on the story by Pushkin, evoked the bygone Petersburg of Catherine the Great, an era when the capital was fully integrated, and played a major role, in the culture of Europe. Tchaikovsky infused the opera with rococo elements (he himself described the ballroom scenes as a ‘slavish imitation’ of the eighteenth-century style).130 He used the story’s layers of ghostly fantasy to conjure up a dream world of the past. The myth of Petersburg as an unreal city was thus used to travel back in time and recover its lost beauty and classical ideals.

    On the evening of the premiere of The Queen of Spades Tchaikovsky left the Marinsky Theatre and wandered on his own through the streets of Petersburg, convinced that his opera was a dismal failure. Suddenly he heard a group of people walking towards him singing one of the opera’s best duets. He stopped them and asked them how they were acquainted with the music. Three young men introduced themselves: they were Benois, Filosofov and Diaghilev, the co-founders of the World of Art. From that moment on, according to Benois, the group was united by their love of Tchaikovsky and his classical ideal of Petersburg. ‘Tchaikovsky’s music’, Benois wrote in his old age, ‘was what I seemed to be waiting for since my earliest childhood.’131

    In 1907 Benois staged a production of Nikolai Cherepnin’s ballet Le Pavilion d’Armide (based on Gauthier’s Omphale) at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Like The Sleeping Beauty, it was set in the period of Louis XIV and was classical in style. The production made a deep impression on Diaghilev. Benois’ own sumptuous designs, Fokine’s modern choreography, the dazzling virtuosity of Nijinsky’s dancing - all this, declared Diaghilev, ‘must be shown to Europe’.132 Le Pavilion became the curtain-raiser to the 1909 season in Paris, alongside the Polovtsian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor (also choreographed by Fokine), in a mixed programme of Russian classical and nationalist works. The exotic ‘otherness’ of these mises-en-scene caused a sensation. The French loved ‘our primitive wildness’, Benois later wrote, ‘our freshness and our spontaneity’.133 Diaghilev could see that there was money to be made from the export of more Russian ballets in this vein. And so it was, as he wrote to tell Lyadov, that they cooked up the libretto of The Firebird. Diaghilev and Benois and Fokine, with the fabulist Remizov, the painter Golovine, the poet Potemkin and the composer Cherepnin (of Le Pavilion fame) dreamt up the whole thing around the kitchen table in the true collective spirit of the Russian tradition. But in the end Lyadov did not want to write the score. It was offered to Glazunov, and then Cherepnin, who turned it down, and then, in a state of utter desperation, Diaghilev resorted to the young, and at that time still little known composer, Igor Stravinsky.

    Benois called the ballet a ‘fairy tale for grown-ups’. Patched together from various folk tales, its aim was to create what Benois called a ‘mysterium of Russia’ for ‘export to the West’.134 The real export was the myth of peasant innocence and youthful energy. Each ingredient of the ballet was a stylized abstraction of folklore. Stravinsky’s score was littered with borrowings from folk music, especially the peasant wedding songs (devichniki and khorovody) in the Ronde des princesses and the finale. The scenario was a patchwork compilation of two entirely separate peasant tales (for there was no single tale of the Firebird) as retold by Afanasiev and various lubok prints from the nineteenth century: the tale of Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird, and the tale of Kashchei the Immortal. These two stories were rewritten to shift their emphasis from a tale of pagan magic (by the grey wolf of the peasant stories) into one of divine rescue (by the Firebird) consistent with Russia’s Christian mission in the world.135

    In the ballet the Tsarevich is lured into the garden of the monster Kashchey by the beauty of the maiden princess. Ivan is saved from the monster and his retinue by the Firebird, whose airborne powers compel Kashchey and his followers to dance wildly until they fall asleep. Ivan then discovers the enormous egg which contains Kashchey’s soul, the monster is destroyed, and Ivan is united with the princess. Reinvented for the stage, the Firebird herself was made to carry far more than she had done in the Russian fairy tales. She was transformed into the symbol of a phoenix-like resurgent peasant Russia, the embodiment of an elemental freedom and beauty, in the pseudo-Slavic mythology of the Symbolists which came to dominate the ballet’s conception (as immortalized by Blok’s ‘mythic bird’, which adorned the cover of the Mir iskusstva journal in the form of a woodcut by Leon Bakst). The production for the Paris season was a self-conscious package of exotic Russian props - from Golovine’s colourful peasant costumes to those weird mythic beasts, the ‘kikimora’, ‘boliboshki’ and ‘two-headed monsters’, invented by Remizov for the Suite de Kashchei - all of them designed to cater to the fin-de-siecle Western fascination with ‘primitive’ Russia.

    But the real innovation of The Firebird was Stravinsky’s use of folk music. Previous composers of the Russian national school had thought of folklore as purely thematic material. They would frequently cite folk songs but would always subject them to the conventional (and essentially Western) musical language canonized by Rimsky-Korsakov. To their trained ears, the heterophonic harmonies of Russian folk music were ugly and barbaric, and not really ‘music’ in the proper sense at all, so that it would be highly inappropriate to adopt them as a part of their art form. Stravinsky was the first composer to assimilate folk music as an element of style - using not just its melodies but its harmonies and rhythms as the basis of his own distinctive ‘modern’ style.*

 17. Gusli player. The gusli was an ancient type of Russian zither,

 usually five-stringed, and widely used in folk music

    * Because he had found, in Russian peasant music, his own alternative to the German symphonism of the nineteenth century, Stravinsky did not share the interest of other modernists such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in serial (twelve-tone) music. It was only after 1945 that Stravinsky began to develop his own form of serialism.

The Firebird was the great breakthrough. But it was only made possible by the pioneering work of two ethnographers, whose musical discoveries were yet another product of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s. The first was by Yury Melgunov, a pianist and philologist who carried out a series of field trips to Kaluga province in the 1870s. On these trips he discovered the polyphonic harmonies of Russian peasant song, and worked out a scientific method of transcribing them. The other was by Evgenia Linyova, who confirmed Melgunov’s findings by recording peasant singing with a phonograph on field trips to the provinces. These recordings were the basis of her Peasant Songs of Great Russia as They Are in the Folk’s Harmonization, published in St Petersburg in 1904-9,136 which directly influenced the music of Stravinsky in The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The most important aspect of Linyova’s work was her discovery that the voice of the peasant chorus singer was not inflected with individual characteristics, as previously believed by the kuchkist composers, but rather strived for a kind of impersonality. In the preface to her Peasant Songs she described this last quality:

 [A peasant woman called Mitrevna] started singing my favourite song, ‘Little Torch’, which I had been looking for everywhere but had not yet succeeded in recording. Mitrevna took the main melody. She sang in a deep sonorous voice, surprisingly fresh for a woman so old. In her singing there were absolutely no sentimental emphases or howlings. What struck me was its simplicity. The song flowed evenly and clearly, not a single word was lost. Despite the length of the melody and the slowness of the tempo, the spirit with which she invested the words of the song was so powerful that she seemed at once to be singing and speaking the song. I was amazed at this pure, classical strictness of style, which went so well with her serious face.137

    It was precisely this ‘classical’ quality that became so central, not just to the music of Stravinsky, but to the whole theory of primitivist art. As Bakst put it, the ‘austere forms of savage art are a new way forward from European art’.138

    In Petrushka (1911) Stravinsky used the sounds of Russian life to overturn the entire musical establishment with its European rules of beauty and technique. Here was another Russian revolution - a musical uprising by the lowlife of St Petersburg. Everything about the ballet was conceived in ethnographic terms. Benois’ scenario conjured up in detail the vanished fairground world of the Shrovetide carnival of his beloved childhood in St Petersburg. Fokine’s mechanistic choreography echoed the jerky ostinato rhythms which Stravinsky heard in vendors’ cries and chants, organ-grinder tunes, accordion melodies, factory songs, coarse peasant speech and the syncopated music of village bands.139 It was a kind of musical lubok - a symphonic tableau of the noises of the street.

    But of all Stravinsky’s Russian ballets, by far the most subversive was The Rite of Spring (1913). The idea of the ballet was originally conceived by the painter Nikolai Roerich, although Stravinsky, who was quite notorious for such distortions, later claimed it as his own. Roerich was a painter of the prehistoric Slavs and an accomplished archaeologist in his own right. He was absorbed in the rituals of neolithic Russia, which he idealized as a pantheistic realm of spiritual beauty where life and art were one, and man and nature lived in harmony. Stravinsky approached Roerich for a theme and he came to visit him at the artists’ colony of Talashkino, where the two men worked together on the scenario of ‘The Great Sacrifice’, as The Rite of Spring was originally called. The ballet was conceived as a re-creation of the ancient pagan rite of human sacrifice. It was meant to be that rite - not to tell the story of the ritual but (short of actual murder) to re-create that ritual on the stage and thus communicate in the most immediate way the ecstasy and terror of the human sacrifice. The ballet’s scenario was nothing like those of the romantic story ballets of the nineteenth century. It was simply put together as a succession of ritual acts: the tribal dance in adoration of the earth and sun; the choosing of the maiden for the sacrifice; the evocation of the ancestors by the elders of the tribe which forms the central rite of the sacrifice; and the chosen maiden’s sacrificial dance, culminating in her death at the climax of the dance’s feverish energy.

    The evidence of human sacrifice in prehistoric Russia is by no means clear. Ethnographically it would have been more accurate to base the ballet on a midsummer rite (Kupala) in which Roerich had found some inconclusive evidence of human sacrifice among the Scythians - a fact he publicized in 1898.140 Under Christianity the Kupala festival had merged with St John’s Feast but traces of the ancient pagan rites had entered into peasant songs and ceremonials - especially the khorovod, with its ritualistic circular movements that played such a key role in The Rite of Spring. The switch to the pagan rite of spring (Semik) was partly an attempt to link the sacrifice with the ancient Slavic worship of the sun god Yarilo, who symbolized the notion of apocalyptic fire, the spiritual regeneration of the land through its destruction, in the mystical world view of the Symbolists. But the change was also based on the findings of folklorists such as Alexander Afanasiev, who had linked these vernal cults with sacrificial rituals involving maiden girls. Afanasiev’s magnum opus, The Slavs’ Poetic View of Nature (1866-9), a sort of Slavic Golden Bough, became a rich resource for artists like Stravinsky who sought to lend an ethnographic authenticity to their fantasies of ancient Rus’. Musorgsky, for example, borrowed heavily from Afanasiev’s descriptions of the witches’ sabbath for his St John’s Night on Bald Mountain. Afanasiev worked on the questionable premise that the world view of the ancient Slavs could be reconstructed through the study of contemporary peasant rituals and folk beliefs. According to his study, there was still a fairly widespread peasant custom of burning effigies, as symbols of fertility, in ritualistic dances marking the commencement of the spring sowing. But in parts of Russia this custom had been replaced by a ritual that involved a beautiful maiden: the peasants would strip the young girl naked, dress her up in garlands (as Yarilo was pictured in the folk imagination), put her on a horse, and lead her through the fields as the village elders watched. Sometimes a dummy of the girl was burned.141 Here essentially was the scenario of The Rite of Spring.

Nikolai Roerich: costumes for the Adolescents in the first production of The Rite of Spring, Paris, 1913

   Artistically, the ballet strived for ethnographic authenticity. Roerich’s costumes were drawn from peasant clothes in Tenisheva’s collection at Talashkino. His primitivist sets were based on archaeology. Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography - the real scandal of the ballet’s infamous Paris premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on 29 May 1913. For the music was barely heard at all in the commotion, the shouting and the fighting, which broke out in the auditorium when the curtain first went up. Nijinsky had choreographed movements which were ugly and angular. Everything about the dancers’ movements emphasized their weight instead of their lightness, as demanded by the principles of classical ballet. Rejecting all the basic positions, the ritual dancers had their feet turned inwards, elbows clutched to the sides of their body and their palms held flat, like the wooden idols that were so prominent in Roerich’s mythic paintings of Scythian Russia. They were orchestrated, not by steps and notes, as in conventional ballets, but rather moved as one collective mass to the violent off-beat rhythms of the orchestra. The dancers pounded their feet on the stage, building up a static energy which finally exploded, with electrifying force, in the sacrificial dance. This rhythmic violence was the vital innovation of Stravinsky’s score. Like most of the ballet’s themes, it was taken from the music of the peasantry.142 There was nothing like these rhythms in Western art music (Stravinsky said that he did not really know how to notate or bar them) - a convulsive pounding of irregular downbeats, requiring constant changes in the metric signature with almost every bar so that the conductor of the orchestra must throw himself about and wave his arms in jerky motions, as if performing a shamanic dance. In these explosive rhythms it is possible to hear the terrifying beat of the Great War and the Revolution of 1917.

7. Stravinsky, The Peasant Wedding

    The Revolution found Stravinsky in Clarens, Switzerland, where he had been stranded behind German lines since the outbreak of war in 1914. ‘All my thoughts are with you in these unforgettable days of happiness’, he wrote to his mother in Petrograd on hearing of the downfall of the monarchy in 1917.143 Stravinsky had high hopes of the Revolution. In 1914 he had told the French writer Romain Rolland that he was ‘counting on a revolution after the war to bring down the dynasty and establish a Slavic United States’. He claimed for Russia, as Rolland put it, ‘the role of a splendid and healthy barbarism, pregnant with the seeds of new ideas that will change the thinking of the West’.144 But Stravinsky’s disillusionment was swift and emphatic. In the autumn of 1917 his beloved estate at Ustilug was ransacked and destroyed by the peasantry. For years he did not know its fate - though there were signs that it had been destroyed. Rummaging through a bookstall in Moscow in the 1950s, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky found the title page of Debussy’s Preludes (Book Two) inscribed by the composer ‘To entertain my friend Igor Stravinsky’: it had come from Ustilug.145 Not knowing what had happened to the place for all these years could only have intensified Stravinsky’s sense of loss. Ustilug was where Stravinsky had spent the happy summers of his childhood years - it was the patch of Russia which he felt to be his own - and his profound loathing of the Soviet regime was intimately linked to the anger which he felt at being robbed of his own past. (Nabokov’s politics were similarly defined by his ‘lost childhood’ at the family estate of Vyra, a vanished world he retrieved through Speak, Memory.)

19. Stravinsky transcribes a folksong sung by a peasant gusli player on the porch of the Stravinsky

house at Ustilug, 1909. Stravinsky’s mother, Anna, holds Theodore, his son

    Stravinsky did the same through his music. Cut off from Russia, he felt an intense longing for his native land. His notebooks from the war years are filled with notations of Russian peasant songs which reappeared in Four Russian Songs (1918-19). The final song in this quartet was taken from an Old Believer story about a sinful man who cannot find a path back towards God. Its words read like a lament of the exile’s tortured soul: ‘Snowstorms and blizzards close all the roads to Thy Kingdom.’ Stravinsky seldom talked about this brief and haunting song. Yet his notebooks show that he laboured over it, and that he made frequent changes to the score. The song’s five pages are the product of no fewer than thirty-two pages of musical sketching. It suggests how much he struggled to find the right musical expression for these words.146

    Stravinsky laboured even longer on The Peasant Wedding (Svad-ebka), a work begun before the First World War and first performed in Paris (as Let Noces) nine years later, in 1923. He worked on it longer than on any other score. The ballet had its origins in his final trip to Ustilug. Stravinsky had been working on the idea of a ballet that would re-create the wedding rituals of the peasantry and, knowing that his library contained useful transcriptions of peasant songs, he made a hurried trip to Ustilug to fetch them just before the outbreak of war. The sources became, for him, a sort of talisman of the Russia he had lost. For several years he worked on these folk songs, trying to distil the essence of his people’s musical language, and striving to combine it with the austere style which he had first developed in The Rite of Spring. He thinned out his instrumental formula, rejecting the large Romantic orchestra for the small ensemble, using pianos, cimbaloms and percussion instruments to create a simpler, more mechanistic sound. But his truly momentous discovery was that, in contrast to the language and the music of the West, the accents of spoken Russian verse were ignored when that verse was sung. Looking through the song books he had retrieved from Ustilug, Stravinsky suddenly realized that the stress in folk songs often fell on the ‘wrong’ syllable. ‘The recognition of the musical possibilities inherent in this fact was one of the most rejoicing discoveries of my life,’ he explained to his musical assistant Robert Craft; ‘I was like a man who suddenly finds that his finger can be bent from the second joint as well as from the first.’147 The freedom of accentuation in the peasant song had a clear affinity with the ever-shifting rhythms of his own music in The Rite of Spring; both had the effect of sparkling play or dance. Stravinsky now began writing music for the pleasure of the sound of individual words, or for the joy of puns and rhyming games, like the Russian limericks (Pribautki) which he set to music in 1918. But beyond such entertainments, his discovery came as a salvation for the exiled composer. It was as if he had found a new homeland in this common language with the Russian peasantry. Through music he could recover the Russia he had lost.

    This was the idea behind The Peasant Wedding - an attempt, in his own words, to re-create in art an essential ur-Russia, the ancient peasant Russia that had been concealed by the thin veneer of European civilization since the eighteenth century. It was the holy Russia of the Orthodox, a Russia stripped of its parasitic vegetation; its bureaucracy from Germany, a certain strain of English liberalism much in fashion with the aristocracy; its scientism (alas!), its ‘intellectuals’ and their inane and bookish faith in progress; it is the Russia of before Peter the Great and before Europeanism… a peasant, but above all Christian, Russia, and truly the only Christian land in Europe, the one which laughs and cries (laughs and cries both at once without always really knowing which is which) in The Peasant Wedding, the one we saw awaken to herself in confusion and magnificently full of impurities in The Rite of Spring.148

    Stravinsky had hit upon a form of music that expressed the vital energy and spirit of the people - a truly national music in the Stasovian sense. Stravinsky had drafted the first part of The Peasant Wedding by the end of 1914. When he played it to Diaghilev, the impresario broke down in tears and said it was ‘the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet’.149

   The Peasant Wedding was a work of musical ethnography. In later years Stravinsky tried to deny this. Immersed in the cosmopolitan culture of interwar Paris, and driven by his hatred of the Soviet regime, he made a public show of distancing himself from his Russian heritage. But he was not convincing. The ballet was precisely what Stravinsky claimed that it was not: a direct expression of the music and the culture of the peasantry. Based on a close reading of the folklore sources, and drawing all its music from the peasants’ wedding songs, the ballet’s whole conception was to re-create the peasant wedding ritual as a work of art on stage.

    Life and art were intimately linked. The Russian peasant wedding was itself performed as a series of communal rituals, each accompanied by ceremonial songs, and at certain junctures there were ceremonial dances like the khorovod. In the south of Russia, from where Stravinsky’s folklore sources were derived, the wedding rite had four main parts. First there was the matchmaking, when two appointed elders, one male and one female, made the first approach to the household of the bride, followed by the inspection of the bride, when by custom she sang her lament for her family and her home. Next came the betrothal, the complex negotiations over the dowry and exchange of property and the sealing of the contract with a vodka toast, which was witnessed by the whole community and marked symbolically by the singing of the song of ‘Cosmas and Demian’, the patron saints of blacksmiths (for, as the peasants said, all marriages were ‘forged’). Then came the prenuptial rituals like the washing of the bride and the devicbnik (the unplaiting of the maiden’s braid), accompanied by more laments, which were followed on the morning of the wedding by the blessing of the bride with the family icon and then, amid the wailing of the village girls, her departure for the church. Finally there was the wedding ceremony itself, followed by the marriage feast. Stravinsky rearranged these rituals into four tableaux in a way that emphasized the coming together of the bride and groom as ‘two rivers into one’:1) ‘At the Bride’s’; 2) ‘At the Groom’s’; 3) ‘Seeing off the Bride’; and 4) ‘The Wedding Feast’. The peasant wedding was taken as a symbol of the family’s communion in the village culture of these ancient rituals. It was portrayed as a collective rite - the binding of the bridal couple to the patriarchal culture of the peasant community - rather than as a romantic union between two individuals.

    It was a commonplace in the Eurasian circles in which Stravinsky moved in Paris that the greatest strength of the Russian people, and the thing that set them apart from the people of the West, was their voluntary surrender of the individual will to collective rituals and forms of life. This sublimation of the individual was precisely what had attracted Stravinsky to the subject of the ballet in the first place -it was a perfect vehicle for the sort of peasant music he had been composing since The Rite of Spring. In The Peasant Wedding there was no room for emotion in the singing parts. The voices were supposed to merge as one, as they did in church chants and peasant singing, to create a sound Stravinsky once described as ‘perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical’. The same effect was produced by the choice of instruments (the result of a ten-year search for an essential ‘Russian’ sound): four pianos (on the stage), cimbalom and bells and percussion instruments - all of which were scored to play ‘mechanically’. The reduced size and palette of the orchestra (it was meant to sound like a peasant wedding band) were reflected in the muted colours of Goncharova’s sets. The great colourist abandoned the vivid reds and bold peasant patterns of her original designs for the minimalist pale blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth which were used in the production. The choreography (by Bronislava Nijinska) was equally impersonal - the corps de ballet moving all as one, like some vast machine made of human beings, and carrying the whole of the storyline. ‘There were no leading parts’, Nijinska explained; ‘each member would blend through the movement into the whole… [and] the action of the separate characters would be expressed, not by each one individually, but rather by the action of the whole ensemble.’150 It was the perfect ideal of the Russian peasantry.


5.  In Search of the Russian Soul

Natalia Goncharova: backdrop design for The Firebird (1926)


Chapter 5.  In Search of the Russian Soul

1. 19th c. religious revivalism: the Old Believers
2. Nikolai Gogol and Dead Souls
3. Belinsky’s Retort: Russians are pagans
4. Dostoevsky’s Socialism: Father Zosima’s Russian Church
5. Tolstoy vs. Chekhov on Faith and Death

1. 19th c. religious revivalism: the Old Believers 

    The monastery of Optina Pustyn nestles peacefully between the pine forests and the meadows of the Zhizdra river near the town of Kozelsk in Kaluga province, 200 kilometres or so south of Moscow. The whitewashed walls of the monastery and the intense blue of its cupolas, with their golden crosses sparkling in the sun, can be seen for miles against the dark green background of the trees. The monastery was cut off from the modern world, inaccessible by railway or by road in the nineteenth century, and pilgrims who approached the holy shrine, by river boat or foot, or by crawling on their knees, were often overcome by the sensation of travelling back in time. Optina Pustyn was the last great refuge of the hermitic tradition that connected Russia with Byzantium, and it came to be regarded as the spiritual centre of the national consciousness. All the greatest writers of the nineteenth century - Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy among them - came here in their search for the ‘Russian soul’.

    The monastery was founded in the fourteenth century. But it did not become well known until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was at the forefront of a revival in the medieval hermitic tradition and a hermitage, or skete, was built within its walls. The building of the skete was a radical departure from the Spiritual Regulations of the Holy Synod, which had banned such hermitages since 1721. The Spiritual Regulations were a sort of constitution of the Church. They were anything but spiritual. It was the Regulations which established the subordination of the Church to the Imperial state. The Church was governed by the Holy Synod, a body of laymen and clergy appointed by the Tsar to replace the Patriarchate, which was abolished in 1721. The duty of the clergy, as set out in the Regulations, was to uphold and enforce the Tsar’s authority, to read out state decrees from the pulpit, to carry out administrative duties for the state, and inform the police about all dissent and criminality, even if such information had been obtained through the confessional. The Church, for the most part, was a faithful tool in the hands of the Tsar. It was not in its interests to rock the boat. During the eighteenth century a large proportion of its lands had been taken from it by the state, so the Church was dependent on the state’s finances to support the parish clergy and their families.* Impoverished and venal, badly educated and proverbially fat, the parish priest was no advertisement for the established Church. As its spiritual life declined, people broke away from the official Church to join the Old Believers or the diverse sects which flourished from the eighteenth century by offering a more obviously religious way of life.

    * Unlike their Catholic counterparts, Russian Orthodox priests were allowed to marry. Only the monastic clergy were not.

    Within the Church, meanwhile, there was a growing movement of revivalists who looked to the traditions of the ancient monasteries like Optina for a spiritual rebirth. Church and state authorities alike were wary of this revivalist movement in the monasteries. If the monastic clergy were allowed to set up their own communities of Christian brotherhood, with their own pilgrim followings and sources of income, they could become a source of spiritual dissent from the established doctrines of Church and state. There would be no control on the social influence or moral teaching of the monasteries. At Optina, for example, there was a strong commitment to give alms and spiritual comfort to the poor which attracted a mass following. Nonetheless, certain sections of the senior clergy displayed a growing interest in the mystical ideas of Russia’s ancient hermits. The ascetic principles of Father Paissy, who led this Church revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century, were in essence a return to the hesychastic path of Russia’s most revered medieval monks.

    Hesychasm has its roots in the Orthodox conception of divine grace. In contrast to the Western view that grace is conferred on the virtuous or on those whom God has so ordained, the Orthodox religion regards grace as a natural state, implied in the act of creation itself, and therefore potentially available to any human being merely by virtue of having been created by the Lord. In this view the way the believer approaches God is through the consciousness of his own spiritual personality and by studying the example of Christ in order to cope better with the dangers that await him on his journey through life. The hesychastic monks believed that they could find a way to God in their own hearts - by practising a life of poverty and prayer with the spiritual guidance of a ‘holy man’ or ‘elder’ who was in touch with the ‘energies’ of God. The great flowering of this doctrine came in the late fifteenth century, when the monk Nil Sorsky denounced the Church for owning land and serfs. He left his monastery to become a hermit in the wilderness of the Volga’s forest lands. His example was an inspiration to thousands of hermits and schismatics. Fearful that Sorsky’s doctrine of poverty might provide the basis for a social revolution, the Church suppressed the hesychastic movement. But Sorsky’s ideas re-emerged in the eighteenth century, when clergymen like Paissy began to look again for a more spiritual church.

    Paissy’s ideas were gradually embraced in the early decades of the nineteenth century by clergy who saw them as a general return to ‘ancient Russian principles’. In 1822, just over one hundred years after it had been imposed, the ban on sketes was lifted and a hermitage was built at Optina Pustyn, where Father Paissy’s ideas had their greatest influence. The skete was the key to the renaissance of the monastery in the nineteenth century. Here was its inner sanctuary where up to thirty hermits lived in individual cells, in silent contemplation and in strict obedience to the elder, or starets, of the monastery.1 Three great elders, each a disciple of Father Paissy and each in turn renowned for his devout ways, made Optina famous in its golden age: Father Leonid was the elder of the monastery from 1829; Father Makary from 1841; and Father Amvrosy from 1860 to 1891. It was the charisma of these elders that made the monastery so extraordinary - a sort of ‘clinic for the soul’ - drawing monks and other pilgrims in their thousands from all over Russia every year. Some came to the elder for spiritual guidance, to confess their doubts and seek advice; others for his blessing or a cure. There was even a separate settlement, just outside the walls of the monastery, where people came to live so that they could see the elder every day.2 The Church was wary of the elders’ popularity. It was fearful of the saint-like status they enjoyed among their followers, and it did not know enough about their spiritual teachings, especially their cult of poverty and their broadly social vision of a Christian brotherhood, to say for sure that they were not a challenge to the established Church. Leonid met with something close to persecution in his early years. The diocesan authorities tried to stop the crowds of pilgrims from visiting the elder in the monastery. They put up Father Vassian, an old monk at Optina (and the model for Father Ferrapont in The Brothers Karamazov), to denounce Leonid in several published tracts.3 Yet the elders were to survive as an institution. They were held in high esteem by the common people, and they gradually took root in Russia’s monasteries, albeit as a spiritual force that spilled outside the walls of the official Church.