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
7. 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.  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


Chapter 1.  European Russia (full text)

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 1.  European Russia (notes)

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

INTRODUCTION: Natasha’s Dance

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Book Seven, Chapter 7): After a day’s hunting in the woods, Natasha Rostov and her brother Nikolai are invited by their ‘Uncle’ (as Natasha calls him) to his simple wooden cabin where his ‘peasant bride’ Anisya keeps house He begins to play the Balalaika, with the precise and accelerating rhythm of a Russian dance, and this young countess, educated by an emigree French governess, begins to dance the pas de chale (shawl dance). And the spirit and the movements were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones that ‘Uncle’ had expected of her. This slim, graceful countess 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. [Is this true or a myth?)

a cultural history: 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.

The search for truth: Russia's  artistic energy was almost wholly given to the quest to grasp the idea of its national identiy.  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. The great Russian novels are not novels in the European sense: instead they are huge poetic structures for symbolic contemplation, not unlike icons, laboratories in which to test ideas.

The golden age of Russian culture from Pushkin to Pasternak: an  complex interaction 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'.

However, 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. There was no ‘authentic’ Russian peasant dance. Peasant dances originated in the towns and before then on the Asiatic steppe. Natasha’s shawl is Persian. The  balalaika has a Central Asian origin: Kazakh music. The Russian peasant dance tradition was itself derived from oriental forms.

It is rather my intention to rejoice in the sheer diversity of Russia’s cultural forms. 

Myths about Russia typify the competing ideologies:

  • the Slavophiles: 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; their idea of ‘Russia’ as a patriarchal family of homegrown Christian principles
  • the Westernizers: the  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:  the peasant is a natural socialist whose village institutions would provide a model for the new society
  • the Scythians: Russia is 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.

In the Western imagination these cultural forms have all too often been perceived as ‘authentically Russian’:  all bast shoes and homespun coats and beards, cabbage soup and kvas, folk-like wooden houses and brightly coloured churches with onion domes: it is the myth of exotic Russia. It is an image first exported by the Ballets Russes at the dawn of the 20th c.  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’. If there is one myth which needs to be dispelled, it is this view of Russia as exotic and elsewhere. They were European as well.

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.

Russians engage in 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), but on another and perhaps unconscious plane and in the less formal spheres of private life, native Russian habits of behaviour prevailed: relaxation: becoming ‘more oneself'. 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.


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

Amid the bleak and barren marshlands where the wide and bending Neva river runs into the Baltic sea, Peter the Great cut with his bayonet two strips of peat and arranged them in a cross on the marshy ground. Then Peter said: ‘Here shall be a town.’ The year was 1703. 

The site was not a place fit for human habitation:  wolves and bears were its only residents. The winds often caused the rivers to rise above the land. When Peter’s soldiers dug into the ground, they found water a metre or so below.

Yet, in four months of furious activity, in which at least half the workforce died, 20,000 conscripts built the Peter and Paul Fortress, an outpost of Russian power in the Great Northern war against the Swedes.  The estuary became an energetic building site. 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. They used primitive hand tools: axes, simple carts with tiny birch-log wheels. New industries sprang up to manufacture brick, glass, mica and tarpaulin. It was a  city built on water with imported stone.  (4)

And so St. Petersburg emerged miraculously from the sea: a capital without foundations in the soil: the magic city of a Russian fairy tale, an unreal city, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, an alien kingdom of the apocalypse. (6)

When Peter declared, ‘Here shall be a town’, his words echoed the divine command, ‘Let there be light.’ He was Titan, Neptune and Mars rolled into one. The city was built as a work of art. (5)

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.

From his European travels in the 1690s Peter had brought back architects and engineers, craftsmen and artists, furniture designers and landscape gardeners. No expense was spared for Peter’s ‘paradise’.

Even the city's name, though, suggests a certain foreignness ('Sankt Piter Burkh’), and Russian writers have exploited the alien and fantastic reputation of the city in their literature:

  • Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833): vision of an all-destroying flood.
  • Gogol’s Tales of Petersburg (1835)
  • Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866).
  • Bely’s Petersburg (1913-14)

By 1754, work had begun on the third version of the Tsar's home: The Winter Palace, and a vogue for mansion buillding among the super rich nobility was well  underway. 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 the Great 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. Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman turned the inert monument into an emblem of Russia’s destiny. The job required an army of several thousand men with 200-horse sleigh teams.  (See Falconet's Statue of Peter the Great (1788) (painting by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov) (illustration) (dramatic photo)) (6-7)

By the nineteenth century, the view of Petersburg as an artificial copy of the Western style had become commonplace. Even so, the city has a unique artistic harmony. 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: mansions low and wide used their reflections in the rivers. In the design of the Winter Palace, the syncopated rhythm of the white columns along its blue facade creates a sense of motion as it reflects the Neva flowing by. The city was planned as a series of ensembles linked by a harmonious network of avenues and squares, canals and parks, set against the river and the sky. (See F.-B.Rastrelli, The Winter Palace; Tsarskoy Selo; The Sheremetev Palace in St Petersburg (Fountain House) )

The city fans out in three radials from the golden spire of the Admiralty which  thus became the symbolic and topographical centre of the city.  Strict rules were imposed to ensure the use of stone and uniform facades for the palaces constructed on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. .See the harmonious panoramas by the artist M. I. Makhaev

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). 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.
  • Madame de Stael in 1812:  ‘here everything has been created for visual perception’: a giant mise-en-scene –At each step I was amazed by the combination of architecture and stage decoration.'
  • Marquis de Custine in the 1830s. ‘Peter the Great and his successors looked upon their capital as a theatre.'
  • Herzen: Petersburg ‘differs from all other European towns by being like them all’.
  • Benois: ‘If it is beautiful’, he wrote in 1902, ‘then it is so as a whole, or rather in huge chunks.'
  • Dostoevsky called it ‘the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world’.

Petersburg was a vast, almost Utopian, project of cultural engineering to reconstruct the Russian as a European man.  It was a negation of ‘medieval’ (seventeenth-century) Muscovy. Peter wished 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 resembled the medieval culture of central Europe, it upheld the spiritual traditions of the Eastern Church which went back to Byzantium.  But historically and culturally it remained isolated from Europe.

  • 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
  • little exposure to the influence of the Renaissance or the Reformation.
  • 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 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. (See late seventeenth century Russian icon-painters such as Simon Ushakov.)

Visitors from Europe were invariably shocked by the primitive condition of Russia’s visual arts. ‘Flat and ugly’, 'gilde gingerbread’. Tsar Alexei, who reigned from 1645 to 1676, is the first Russian ruler for whom we have anything remotely resembling a reliable likeness.

Instrumental music (as opposed to sacred singing) was regarded as a sin although Russians had 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).

Literature as well was held back by the omnipresent Church.: no printed news sheets or journals, no printed plays or poetry, but a lively industry of folk tales and verse published in the form of illustrated prints (lubki)

Peter hated Muscovy. He despised its archaic culture and parochialism, its superstitious fear and resentment of the West. 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 wore Western clothes and shaved his beard. 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 with 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; a Table of (civil service) Ranks adapted from the Danes and sculptures and decorative paintings from whereever he traveled.

The nineteenth-century image of the Imperial city was defined by the notion of its regimentation. Everything in the new capital was intended to compel the Russians to adopt a more European way of life.

  • Benois: the city had a Roman spirit, a hard and absolute spirit of order, a spirit of formally perfect life, unbearable for the general Russian slovenliness.
  • De Custine: Petersburg was more like ‘the general staff of an army than the capital of a nation’ .
  • Herzen: a ‘military barracks’.

Even so,  the Nevsky, that most European of his avenues, was undone by a ‘Russian’ crookedness: a distinct kink.


2. ‘Fountain House’ and the Sheremetev family

The Sheremetev palace on the Fontanka river

The poet Anna Akhmatova, who lived there, on and off, in an annexe flat from 1926 to 1952

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.

The Sheremetev family was a hugely wealthy clan with close connections to the court. Boris Sheremetev, the Field Marshal of Peter’s army at the battle of Poltava in 1709. In 1705 he became Russia’s first appointed count (graf ). Boris was the last of the old boyars, the leading noblemen of Muscovy.

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. 

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, few Russian noblemen had feather beds; during winter they slept on flat-topped stoves… [lying] with their servants… the chickens and the pigs’. The boyar  looked upon his estates as a source of revenue, to be readily exchanged or sold.

Olearius considered the Russian nobility ‘among the barbarians… [with] crude opinions about the elevated natural sciences and arts.' This backwardness was in part the result of the Mongol occupation of Russia from about 1230 to the middle of the fifteenth century. For over three hundred years, the period of the Renaissance in the West, Russia was cut off from European civilization. The majority of the nobility could not read and many of them could not even add up simple sums; the nobleman mistrusted new or foreign ways

In his Western reforms, Peter laid the basis of the modern absolutist (European) state. There had been a Boyars’ Council, or Duma, that had approved the Tsar’s decrees, until it was replaced by the Senate in 1711. 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:  an almost military ordering of the nobles. The Russian nobleman was obsessed by rank. Every rank (and there were fourteen in Peter’s Table) had its own uniform. Every rank had its own noble title and mode of address: 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.

Rank also carried considerable material privileges. Horses at post stations were allocated strictly according to the status of the travellers. At banquets food

Sheremetev remained in office for six consecutive reigns. Allies: Prince Trubetskoi, Count Nikitza Panin. When Boris Sheremetev died in 1719, the Tsar told his widow that he would be ‘like a father’ to his children. 

The fantastic wealth of the Sheremetev clan: land in excess of 800,000 hectares and more than 200,000 ‘census serfs’ (which meant perhaps a million actual serfs), made them the biggest landowning family in the world, just as powerful, and considerably richer than, the greatest English lords, the Dukes of Bedford and Devonshire, Earl Shelburne and the Marquess of Rockingham; they were twice as rich as any other Russian noble family, excluding the Romanovs. The Sheremetevs also made a killing out of trade: forest land, paper mills and factories, shops

To succeed in this court-centred culture the nobleman required a fabulous lifestyle. They needed an opulent palace with art and furniture, lavish balls and banquets in the European style. A peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy: enormous household staffs. Foreigners were always struck by the large number of servants in Russian palaces. Even middling gentry households in the provinces would retain large staffs beyond their means. Entertaining was a costly business, too: lavish entertainments, with concerts, operas, fireworks and balls for several thousand guests. the Russian noble custom of opening one’s doors at mealtimes. Nearly everything in the Sheremetev household was imported from Europe. Clothes were another source of huge extravagance. By the middle of the nineteenth century they had amassed debts of several million roubles.

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: the transition from Muscovite boyar to Russian aristocrat than the construction of a palace in the European style. Pyotr rebuilt and enlarged the house in stone during the 1740s - the beginning of the craze for palace building in St Petersburg. The palace was conceived as a civilizing force, a means of public enlightenment.

Empress Elizabeth: the Summer Palace on the Fontanka river (1741-4), the Great Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (1749-52), and the Winter Palace (1754-62)

The Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli created the synthesis of the Italian and Russian baroque styles which is so characteristic of St Petersburg; distinguished from its European counterparts by the vastness of its scale, the exuberance of its forms and the boldness of its colours. Rastrelli’s main assistant at Tsarskoe Selo was Savva Chevakinsky: Russia’s first architect of note.

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. The house was a typical collection of European sculpture, bas-relief, furniture and decor, reflecting a taste for expensive luxury. extensive gardens

The Kuskovo estate, to the south of Moscow, had an open amphitheatre and a larger inside theatre. Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev was the first great impresario of the Russian theatre. He took the Sheremetev opera to its highest levels, had the theatre rebuilt at Ostankino, on the western outskirts of Moscow,  after the auditorium at Kuskovo burnt down in 1789: it had a specially designed contraption that could transform the theatre into a ballroom by covering the parterre with a floor.


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. 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.

The Argunov family had a vital role in the development of the Russian arts.

  • Fedor Argunov was an architect and sculptor 
  • 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.
  • 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.

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. They lived in better housing, received better food. Yet, like any serf, they were the property of their master and they could be punished just like any other serf.

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.

One of Argunov’s most memorable portraits represents another former Sheremetev serf: Countess Praskovya Sheremeteva (Argunov, Portrait of Praskovya Sheremeteva (1802)) who married the lord of the manor: Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev. 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. 

Praskovya was born to a family of serfs on the Sheremetev estate at Yukhotsk in Yaroslav province.
Her family name was 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,

At an early age Praskovya was already noted for her beauty and her voice, and Pyotr Sheremetev had her trained for the opera. 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. From that point on she nearly always sang the leading female role.

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 from marrying the prince.

In real life, Nikolai eventually he fell in love with her. 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. When he fell for Praskovya, he declared, like the hero of a comic opera, "You weren’t born for this! Today you are a peasant but tomorrow you will become a lady!"

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, part of his prized harem: ‘The Emerald’ (Kovaleva), ‘The Garnet’ (Shlykova) and ‘The Pearl’ (Praskovya).  Nikolai showered these ‘girls of my house’with expensive gifts and bonuses. 

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. 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.

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....then he would begin ‘the punishments’.

By the beginning of the 1790s Praskovya had become Sheremetev’s unofficial wife. He felt that it was morally wrong not to marry Praskovya, but his aristocratic pride would not allow him to do so. The count’s dilemma was one faced by noblemen in numerous comic operas. 

Nikolai Petrovich was a man susceptible to the cult of sentimentalism. There 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.

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.  Her fellow serfs became resentful of her privileged position and called her spiteful names. To protect Praskovya and himself from malicious gossip, the count built a special house, a simple wooden dacha, near the main mansion, but
this could not prevent the gossip of the serfs from spreading to the public in Moscow.  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.

Praskovya's  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. The plot of Gretry’s opera could have been the story of Praskovya’s life.

Nikolai Petrovich had been summoned to the court by the Emperor Paul. The count was an old friend of the Emperor. 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.

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. 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. 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.

The Emperor Paul , though, maintained his loyalty to his friend. 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. Paul was enchanted by Praskovya and presented her with his own personal diamond ring, which she wore for her portrait by Argunov. 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.

In 1801 the count gave Praskovya her liberty and then at last, on 6 November, he married her in a secret ceremony. 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.

At this moment, the most desperate time in his life, the count was abandoned by the whole of Petersburg society. He buried Praskovya next to the grave of his father. There was no one present 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.

After Praskovya's death Nikolai 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. 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.

Nikolai died in 1809, the richest nobleman in the whole of Russia, and no doubt the loneliest as well. 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. 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. It was in fact the ending of Anyuta - where the servant girl in love with the nobleman is finally allowed to marry him.

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. 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.


4. The Russian Split Personality


The musical life of eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by the court and by small private theatres. Public theatres did not come along 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. Princess Yankova: ‘who indeed among our intimate friends did not possess his own private theatre?’83


Catherine the Great (at the Hermitage Theatre in the Winter Palace and the Chinese Theatre at Tsarskoe Selo)
 began the fashion for the high French style.  


In 1762, the Empress liberated the nobility from compulsory service to the state. This 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 late 18th c. became the golden age of the pleasure palace, with galleries for art, exquisite parks and gardens, orchestras and theatres.


The noble estate was an island of European culture on Russian peasant soil. During the Enlightenment the noble classes considered theatre to be a school of public manners and sensibilities. 


Pyotr Sheremetev 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. His troupe was the most important theatre of its kind, and it played a major role in the development of the Russian opera. 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.

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. Count Nikolai Petrovich trained his serf performers in the disciplined techniques of the Paris Opera. The Russian ballet was born at Kuskovo. So, too, was the Russian opera. The first western opera stage in Russia was commissioned in 1731 by the Empress Anna who was enchanted by this ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’. She  recruited Francesco Araia’s Venetian company to entertain her court in Petersburg, which staged La Forza dell’amore.  It was a Venetian, Catterino Cavos, who pioneered the Russian national opera.


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)


The first Russian composers,  Maxim Berezovsky, Dmitry Bortnyansky and Yevstignei Fomin, were strongly influenced by the Italian style. The love affair between Petersburg and Venice was continued by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Glinka's Ilya Bogatyr  was first perfromed in 1807. 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 French were also instrumental in the development of a distinctive Russian musical style, particularly the French comic opera, with its rustic village setting and its reliance on folk dialect and music.,

Anyuta (similar to Favart’s Annette et Lubin), St Petersburg Bazaar and The Miller Magician (based on Rousseau’s Le devin du village


The design and the decor of the palace and its park contained much theatricality. 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.  Green with Jealousy, or The Boatman from Kuskovo (1781) 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. 


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. Social functions  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. Etiquette demanded that nobles 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. The aristocracy of eighteenth-century Russia was aware of acting out its life as if upon a stage.


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. He distributed amanual of etiquette, The Honourable Mirror to Youth. He gave orders for his courtiers not to ‘spit their food’, nor to ‘use a knife to clean their teeth’, nor ‘blow their nose like a trumpet’.


The point was not to become a European, but rather to act as one, not to be but to appear.  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’.


Pushkin (this was how the poet was depicted in the famous portrait by Orest Kiprensky (1827)  


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, but the  private rooms were different in their feel and style, with warm-coloured fabrics, wallpaper, carpets and Russian stoves. 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.


Every estate also had a wooden banya or bath house. Going to the banya was an old Russian custom.

 Every noble household had its own steam house. In towns and villages there was invariably a communal bath.

 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.


The banya was believed to have special healing powers. The banya was a place for giving birth as well as prenuptial rites. The bride was washed in the banya by her maids on the eve of her wedding. Tsar Alexei’s bride was washed in the banya on the day before her wedding. The banya permitted an intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals.


In the palace, the salon upstairs belonged to an entirely different, European world: the venue for concerts and masked balls, banquets, soirees, and sometimes even readings by the greatest Russian poets of the age. Each contained a public vestibule for divesting cloaks and furs; a ‘parade’ staircase and large reception rooms. Women were the stars of this society. (See Anna Scherer in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.)


Women became educated and accomplished in the European arts.


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 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.


art of salon conversation


Pushkin said that the point of salon conversation was to flirt


The readership of literature in Pushkin’s age was by and large female. 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. Prior to Pushkin there was not much Russian literature to choose from. 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. The literary societies, journals, newspapers that helped constitute European society were absent. 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.


The Queen of Spades (1834), the old countess, ‘Are there any Russian novels?’

 The biggest impediment to the development of a national literature was the undeveloped state of the literary 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. 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


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’: the ‘salon style’'



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. The sumptuous theatre, recently constructed by the Italian Quarenghi in the Winter Palace, was the home of the French Opera.


Here was precisely the sort of Gallomania that Kniazhnin’s opera blamed for the moral corruption of society: a pair of peasant lovers, Lukian and Anyuta, run afoul of the Firiulins (the ‘Ninnies’) whose only aim in life is to ape the newest fashions in Paris. The lovers plead with their owners in the sentimental language of the Gallicized salon and Lukian is finally released. Kniazhnin’s satire was one of several,  from Kantemir’s satire A Poor Lesson (1729) to Fonvizin’s Ivan in The Brigadier (1769), to equate the foreign pretensions of Petersburg with the moral ruin of society. 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. 

In Kheraskov’s comedy The Detester, a foreign moral code threatened Russia’s patriarchal traditions.: the notion of the West as a negation of Russian principles. The foreigner 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). Fonvizin’s Ivan, in The Brigadier, considers France his ‘spiritual homeland’ for the simple reason that he was once taught by a French coachman.

Griboedov’s Chatsky in Woe from Wit (1822-4) 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).


There were Chatskys in real life.
The whole idea of a European education was to make the Russian feel as much at home in Paris as in Petersburg:
a cosmopolitan citizen of the Enlightenment . 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

Levin as he falls in love with the Shcherbatsky household in Anna Karenina (1873-6)


‘We Russians have two fatherlands: Russia and Europe,’ Dostoevsky


Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: ‘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.

‘Europe’ was not just a place. It was a region of the mind.


The Russian nobility was so immersed in foreign languages that many found it challenging to speak or write their own language. French was the language of high society, and in high-born families the language of all personal relationships as wellThe 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. In some families children were forbidden to speak Russian except on Sundays and religious holidays. Russian, like the Devil, should be beaten out of noble children from an early age.

Tolstoy was instructed by the kind of German tutor he portrayed so memorably in Childhood (1852). He  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


Orthodox religion was equally remote from the consciousness of the Westernized elites influenced by the secular culture of the French Enlightenment Voltairean attitudes dominated. 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. There was no Russian Bible - only a Psalter and a Book of Hours - until the 1870s.

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,


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’. They adhered to 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 contrast between Moscow and St Petersburg was at the root of the Slavophile movement. Mikhail Shcherbatov was the most vocal spokesman of the old nobility in his Journey to the Land of Ophir (1784).


Idyllic views of the unspoilt past were commonplace in Rousseau’s age: in Fonvizin 's satire The Minor (1782), he celebrates the Christian principles of the ‘old thinker’ Starodum, the homespun village mystic:  ‘Have a heart, have a soul, and you’ll always be a man.’ . ‘Everything else is fashion.’  

The sentimental cult of rural innocence finds perfect expression in Karamzin’s tearful tale of Poor Liza (1792). 


Nikolai Lvov, the poet, engineer, architect, folklorist believed that  the main Russian trait was spontaneity. He  contrasted the convention-ridden life of the European Russians with the spontaneous behaviour and creativity of the Russian peasantry.

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)



6. The Grand Tour


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. Western Europe 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.

 Lensky, the fashionable student in Eugene Onegin, became a sort of emblem of the European outlook shared by generations of Russian noblemen.


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
  •  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,


The Grand Tour was a vital rite of passage for the aristocracy. After the emancipation of the nobles from obligatory state service in 1762, many young nobleman made the trip to the west. England was their favourite destination. It was the homeland of a prosperous and independent landed gentry,

 ‘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).


Travel literature played a vital role in shaping Russia’s self-perception vis-a-vis the West.

Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller (1791-1801) presented a panorama of the ideal European world: a mythic realm which later travellers, whose first encounter with Europe had been through reading his work, would look for but never really find. In his letters Karamzin portrayed himself as perfectly at ease, and accepted as an equal, in Europe’s intellectual circles. 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. Even though Russians  had adopted Western manners and conventions. But European values and sensibilities had yet to penetrate their mental worldIn 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.


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 his 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. 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. 

He believed that  ‘worthwhile people form a single nation among themselves, regardless of the country they come from.’ 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’.


‘Corrupt’ and ‘decadent’, ‘false’ and ‘superficial’, ‘materialist’ and ‘egotistical’


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.


This imaginary ‘Europe’ had more to do with the needs of defining ‘Russia’ than with the West itself.


‘We needed Europe as an ideal, a reproach, an example,’ Herzen wrote. ‘If she were not these things we would have to invent her.’ 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. Within Europe, the Russians lived with an inferiority complex.


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 “Age of Enlightenment”! I do not recognize you in blood and flames,’ Karamzin wrote with bitterness in 1795.

Karamzin’s anguish was widely shared by the European Russians of his age. Politically the once Francophile nobility became Francophobes, as ‘the French’ became a byword for inconstancy and godlessness

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.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’.

Karamzin was calling on his fellow writers to embrace the Russian language and ‘become themselves’:

Man and nation may begin with imitation but in time they must become themselves to have the right to say: ‘I exist morally’: the rallying cry of a new nationalism that flourished in the era of 1812.

Chapter 2: Children of 1812

Chapter 2: Children of 1812 (full text)

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 2: Children of 1812 (full notes)

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

August 1812, Prince Sergei Volkonsky was delivering a report to the Emperor Alexander in St Petersburg:

‘From the Supreme Commander to the ordinary soldier, every man is prepared to lay down his life in the patriotic cause.’

‘You should be proud of them. For every single peasant is a patriot.’

Your Majesty! I am ashamed to belong to that class. There have been only words.’

There were many officers who lost their pride in class but found their countrymen in the ranks of 1812.
The peasants were the nation’s patriots, and liberal officers who had fought with the peasants came to beleive that the serf was not a subhuman but the future citizen of the nation.  This political movement culminated on 14 December 1825 with the Decembrist uprising against the tsar: an attempt to establish a constitutional government in Russia. 

Sergei Volkonsky was born in 1788 into one of Russia’s oldest noble families. They were descended from a fourteenth-century prince, Mikhail Chernigovsky. 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

Sergei’s uncle, General Paul Volkonsky, was the head of the royal household. 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, in the elite Corps des Pages, and finally served in the Horseguard Regiment. 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. 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.

After 1812 and the defeat of the invading French armies, Volkonsky developed a new sense of ‘the nation’ that was based upon the virtues of the common folk. ‘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.’

The poet Fedor Glinka, in his Letters of a Russian Officer (1815), 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). ‘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.’

As noblemen they had been brought up to regard their fathers’ serfs as little more than human beasts
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. In response the noble officers founded field schools to teach their soldiers how to read and initiated discussion circles to teach them he basic responsibilities of citizenship.
These democratic officers returned to their estates with a new sense of commitment to their serfs.

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. Denis Davydov, the celebrated leader of the Cossack partisans said, ‘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.'

During Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, Volkonsky took command of a partisan brigade and pursued Napoleon’s troops as far as Paris. He travelled to Vienna for the Peace Congress. He went on to London, where he saw the principles of constitutional monarchy in operation.

Volkonsky’s political views were deeply influenced by his brief encounter with the West. He returned to Russia with a new conviction in the personal dignity of every human being - an essential credo of the Decembrists. Their belief in meritocracy had been reinforced by conversations with Napoleon’s officers.

Russia, though, did not seem ready for their liberal message, and the young officers were disgusted by the lavish lifestyles of the nobility.  ‘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.’ The alienation felt by these young men from their parents’ generation and society was common to all ‘children of 1812’.

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. The young officers rebelled against the old disciplinarianism, blaming it for ‘Russia’s slave mentality’, and they looked instead to advance their principles through literature and art. They began a revolt against the service ethic of the eighteenth century. (an official (chinovnik) derived from the word for rank (chin)) 

As Chatsky put it, in Griboedov’s drama Woe from Wit, ‘I’d love to serve, but I am sickened by servility.’

It was inconceivable for a nobleman to be an artist or a poet, but the new generation did just that. Pushkin was one of the first noblemen to shun the service and take up writing as a ‘trade’. 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.'

It was axiomatic to this literary tradition that the writer should stand up for human values against the service ethic based on rank. They expressed their rebellion in poetry, philosophy and drunken revelry. As Silvio remarks in Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (1831), wild behaviour ‘was the fashion in our day’. Carousing was perceived as a sign of freedom. 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 became the idiom of much of Pushkin’s verse.

There was a cult of brotherhood in the Decembrist camp. It evolved into the cult of the collective - a natural ‘family’ of patriots. Nikolai Rostov in War and Peace discovers this community when he returns to his military unit from leave. He describes a new community - a ‘nation’, if you will - of patriotic virtue and fraternity where the noble and the peasant lived in harmony.

The poets among the Decembrists (Gnedich, Vostokov, Merzliakov, Odoevsky and Ryleev, wrote epic verses. 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 and sought to reflect the character of the Russian folk.

Pushkin holds a special place in that enterprise. He was too young - just thirteen in 1812 – to serve in the army. 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. 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.

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. In his poetry he tried to devise a written language that could speak to everyone. The Decembrists called for laws to be written in a language ‘that every citizen can understand’. 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

 ‘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.’

2. The Decembrist Revolt

Sergei Volkonsky was  deeply disillusioned by the reactionary turn taken by the Emperor Alexander during the War of 1812. 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. His minister Mikhail Speransky even began to draw up plans for a constitution that was largely based on the Code Napoleon: a constitutional monarchy governed by a law-based bureaucratic state.

However. Alexander hesitated to implement his minister’s proposals, and once Russia went to war with France, they were condemned by the conservative nobility. Speransky fell from power - to be replaced by General Arakcheev, the Minister of War. The Decembrists were appalled when Arakcheev instituted a program of military settlements where serf soldiers were dragooned into farming and other labour duties for the state.  He put down the peasants’ resistance with a brutal massacre. The Decembrists 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. The Tsar's turn to the political right seemed like a betrayal of their patriotism.

Arakcheev's policies radicalized many of the officers who began to plot a coup.  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, and the moderates formed the Union of Welfare with a rather vague programme of educational and philanthropic activities.

Pushkin, who had friends in the Decembrist camp, characterized their conspiracy as no more than a game: ‘Twas all mere idle chatter/ Twixt Chateau-Lafite and Veuve Cliquot.'

The most radical of the Decembrist leaders was Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Pestel. 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 had a small but committed band of followers in the Southern Society. During 1825 this group fromed an ill-conceived plan to arrest the Tsar during his inspection of the troops near Kiev in 1826 and then march on Moscow .

The Northern Society, led by Nikita Muraviev and the poet Ryleev, were more moderate than those of Pestel’s group. They hoped to force the tsar to adopt a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and civil liberties.

Volkonsky was given the task of recruiting Pushkin who had been banished to his estate at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov, because his poetry had inspired the rebels. Rumours of an uprising were already circulating around St Petersburg, so, in all likelihood, the Emperor Alexander knew about the Decembrists’ plans.

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. 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. In the end, the Decembrist leaders could not convince the rank and file to support them: only some 3,000 troops in Petersburg participated in the uprising. 

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’. 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.

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

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. When the victims fell through the gallows, the ropes broke on two of them:  ‘What a wretched country!’ cried out one of them. ‘They don’t even know how to hang properly.’

Of all the Decembrists, none was closer to the court than Volkonsky. Nicholas was harsh on his old friend. He was spared the death sentence handed down to the other leaders but sentenced to twenty years of penal labour followed by a lifetime of compulsory settlement in Siberia. He lost control of all his lands and serfs. His mother, Princess Alexandra, said ‘I only hope,’ she would tell her visitors, ‘that there will be no other monsters in the family.’ In his mother’s view, Sergei’s civil death was a literal death as well.  Maria’s family was just as unforgiving.

Sergei's wife Maria chose to share her husband’s fate. She gave up everything and followed Sergei to Siberia. Maria acted out of her sense of duty as a wife. It was not unusual for a noblewoman to follow her husband to Siberia. Romantic love, though by no means uncommon, was not a high priority in the conjugal relations of the early nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Nor does it seem to have played a major role in Maria’s decision. She may have been responding to the literary cult of heroic sacrifice. On the eve of Maria’s departure there was a special evening at Princess Zinaida Volkonsky’s dazzling literary salon where Pushkin read his ‘Message to Siberia’ (1827). 

One year after Maria had arrived in Siberia, her baby boy Nikolenka died.

3. Exile to Siberia: Gestation of the Slavophile Ideal

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. (Irkutsk Oblast) (Lake Baikal)

By entering the penal zone beyond Irkutsk,  Princess Maria 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.

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.
For the first time in their lives Maria and Alexei 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’. They learned the principles of communality and self-sufficiency.

In Chita, where they moved in 1828, Alexei organized an artel, a collective team of labourers which divided up the tasks between themselves.

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.

  • Misha, a new son, was born in 1832 
  • Elena (‘Nellinka’), a daughter, in 1834.

In their imaginations this new life came close to re-creating the egalitarian simplicity of the peasant commune. Exile meant a simpler and more ‘Russian’ way of life. All of them were forced, for the first time in their lives, to become fluent in their native tongue. Sergei, like his son as he grew up, was ‘going native’. 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, but Alexei 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. The ‘peasant prince’, for his part, was widely viewed as an eccentric. 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.

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. Volkonsky saw Siberia as a land of democratic hope: an ‘America’: pioneering farmers; independent spirit and resourcefulness. The youthful energy of its unbridled peasants contained Russia’s democratic potential. Volkonsky became more than a farmer; he was an agricultural institute. 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.

Siberian folklore and history; village schools; they took up peasant crafts or worked the land themselves.;

4. The Vogue for Russian Identity

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, but the aristocracy was still immersed in the culture of the country against which they were at war.

‘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.’

In the patriotic climate of 1812 nobles, who had been brought up to speak and think in French, struggled to converse in their native tongue. 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 argued that French influence was to blame for the decline of the Orthodox religion and the old patriarchal moral code. Shishkov’s stock began to rocket after 1812: he was regarded as a ‘national sage’.

For lack of Russian texts, children had learned to read Russian from the Scriptures - indeed, like Pushkin, they were often taught to read by the church clerk or a local priest. In the provinces there was a growing trend for women as well as men to learn Russian.

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 were strict conventions on the use of languages.  A nobleman was supposed to write to the Tsar in Russian, and it would have seemed audacious if he wrote to him in French. A woman was supposed to write in French. 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.

Tolstoy played on these differences in War and Peace. Andrei Bolkonsky speaks Russian with a French accent and that places him in the elite pro-French section of the Petersburg aristocracy. Bilibin the Russian would rather he were French. Helene - the princess 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’. French is regarded as the language of deceit and Russian as the language of sincerity. The novel’s most idealized characters speak exclusively in Russian.

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. Sometimes he used French to explain a concept for which there was no Russian word - ‘diligence’, ‘duplicite’ and ‘discretion’.

In its customs and its daily habits the aristocracy was struggling to become more ‘Russian’, too.
Spartan Russian lunches became fashionable. Native crafts were suddenly in vogue: china with scenes from rural life. At balls in Petersburg, the pliaska and other Russian dances became popular.

Rural recreations
were another indication of this newfound Russian-ness. It was at this time that the dacha first emerged as a national institution. (Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard was famously cut down for dacha building land). The dacha was constructed in a simple Russian style. It was usually a double-storeyed wooden building with a mezzanine verandah, ornate window and door-frame carvings.

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.

Casual Russian clothes were worn. Native Russian foods were eaten: summer soup with kvas (okroshka), fish in aspic and pickled mushrooms, tea with jam, or cherry brandy

Hunting became an aristocratic passion. Rostovs’ ‘Uncle’ in War and Peace was typical. 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). Turgenev’s type of hunting was relatively egalitarian -and it was so in a distinctly Russian way. Squire and serf were brought together by this type of sport. The hunt on foot was a rural odyssey, an encounter with an undiscovered peasant land. (Perov, Hunters at Rest (1871))
Russian forms of dress became the height of fashion after 1812.
Ladies began to appear in national costume, complete with the sarafan tunic, the kokoshnik head-dress of old Muscovy, and the Russian peasant shawl. Serf workshops emerged as major centres of the fashion industry producing Russian gowns (kapot), the kaftan and khalat, and the podyovka, a short kaftan traditionally worn by the peasantry.

Fidel Bruni’s portrait of Zinaida Volkonsky (1810)

The turn toward Nature and simplicity was widespread throughout Europe from the final decades of the eighteenth century. 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

Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin is, among many other things, a subtle exploration of the complex Russian-European consciousness that typified the aristocracy in the age of 1812. Belinsky said that Eugene Onegin was an encyclopaedia of Russian life. In it Pushkin explores the visceral influence of cultural convention on the Russian sense of self. He emphasizes the syncretic nature of Tatiana’s character. 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’.  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. Tatiana’s own predicament: whether to pursue her own romantic dreams or sacrifice herself in the traditional ‘Russian’ way.

I love you (why should I dissemble?);
But I am now another’s wife,
And I’ll be faithful all my life119

These lines are adapted from a song well known among the Russian folk

Peasant folk tales and superstitions inspired many of Pushkin's tales. (See Chulkov’s ABC of Russian Superstitions (1780-83) and Levshin’s Russian Tales (1788)) Pushkin's beloved nanny, Arina Rodionova became the model for Tatiana’s nurse. ‘Mama’ Rodionova was a talented story teller, elaborating and enriching many standard tales. Her stories inspired Ruslan and Liudmila (1820).

Pushkin also drew on Western sources for his tales:Tsar Sultan and The Golden Cockerel (1834) drew on Western souces. 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.

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. None captured the essential spirit of the folk tale better than Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian. Pushkin was his mentor and gave him the true plots of his major works, The Government Inspector (1836) and Dead Souls (1835-52).

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.

Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831-2), the stories were adapted by Musorgsky for the unfinished Sorochintsy Fair (1874-) and for Night On A Bald Mountain; (1867), and by Rimsky-Korsakov for May Night (1879) 

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 and his epic Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov (1837) imitates the style of the bylina, also Borodino (1837)  described the battle from the peasant soldiers’ point of view.

A Collection of Russian Folk Songs was assembled by Nikolai Lvov and annotated by Ivan Prach in 1790. Throughout the nineteenth century it was plundered by composers in search of ‘authentic’ folk material.

Beethoven the ‘Razumovsky’ string quartets (opus 59) commissioned in 1805 Beethoven, Razumovsky String Quartets op. 59 (1805) Theme Russe Quartet #1 allegro

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.

Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (1836 ‘Glory’ chorus practically became a second national anthem in the nineteenth century. A Life for the Tsar, first Russian Opera (1836); "My dawn will soon rise;  "Slavsya!"  ("Glory!") The opera tells the story of Ivan Susanin, a peasant from the estate of Mikhail Romanov. Susanin had saved Mikhail’s life by misdirecting the Polish troops who had invaded Russia in its ‘Time of Troubles’ (1605-13). Glinka said that his opera was conceived as a battle between Polish and Russian music. He had fused the qualities of Russian peasant music with the European form.

In painting, too, there was a new approach to the Russian peasantry. in the wake of 1812, a different picture of the peasantry emerged - one that emphasized their heroic strength and human dignity.
Alexei Venetsianov, a quintessential child of 1812, came to the attention of the public for a series of engravings of the peasant partisans. Venetsianov knew the peasants of his village individually - and in his best portraits, that is how he painted them. This psychological aspect was revolutionary for its day
Venetsianov painted directly from nature.

5. Noble Childhood

Compared to their parents, the Russian nobles who grew up after 1812 put a higher valuation on childhood. 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, High-born children were expected to behave like ‘little adults’ and they were prepared to enter into society from an early age. 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. 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. School was seen as little more than an apprenticeship for the civil service
The Table of Ranks reinforced the principle of promotion by seniority, any further education was considered disadvantageous
:. Vasily Selivanov grew up in a household where the seven sons were all prepared for military service from an early age. 

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: ‘Our lives were entirely separate and there was never any sign of emotion.'

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. 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’).

It was not unusual, then, for the noble child to grow up without any direct parental discipline, and the servants were naturally afraid to discipline their master’s children. 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. Saltykov-Shchedrin, argued that this latitude encouraged noble children to be cruel to serfs. 

However, in many families bonds of affection and respect grew between 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’. 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. His nanny used to tease him, “Wait a bit, you will grow up and turn into just such another master as the rest.”

The high-born Russian boy spent his childhood in the downstairs servants’ world. The children of the servants were the playmates of the high-born child. Anna Lelong describes 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 summer swimming with the village children in the river.  Later, in the autumn, she would join the village girls to pick whortleberries and make jam. I would listen to the stories about peasants being sold, about young boys sent to Moscow or girls married off. Herzen wrote that there existed ‘a feudal bond of affection’ between the noble family and its household serfs.

Venetsianov’s Morning of the Landlady (1823)

The maid, the wet nurse and the nanny were the closest to the family. They formed a special caste. The wet nurse was a particularly important figure in the Russian noble family. The ‘milk of a peasant girl can give lifelong health and moral purity to the noble child’. 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.

The stereotype of the old-fashioned nanny was of 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. Many nineteenth-century memoirists became obsessed with the nostalgic topic of their nursery years. They imbibed their nanny’s innate kindness, religious faith; fantastic fairy tales.

At the age of six or seven, in a a painful rite of passage, 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. Anatoly Vereshchagin described this 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 boy would suddenly be forced to put aside the language that had expressed his childhood feelings and adopt an alien one.

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. When Diaghilev moved as a student to St Petersburg, his nanny went with him and lived as a housekeeper in his flat.

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. The cultural elites'  fixation on folklore 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)

Stravinsky’s Petrusbka (1911): nostalgia for the sounds and colours which they both recalled from the fairgrounds of their St Petersburg childhoods. Prokofiev, from The Ugly Duckling for voice and piano (1914) to the ‘symphonic fairy tale’ Peter and the Wolf (1936)

6. Competing Myths of Russian History

Herzen starts his sublime memoir My Past and Thoughts with the story of his childhood as it 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.’ For Herzen’s generation, the myths of 1812 were intimately linked with their childhood memories.

Nikolai Karamzin's masterpiece, History of the Russian State (1818-26),  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. 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. 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 and created a sensation. Pushkin said, ‘It was a revelation. You could say that Karamzin discovered ancient Russia as Columbus discovered America.' 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.

As Belinsky wrote in 1846, ‘we interrogate our past for an explanation of our present and a hint of our future.’

If Russia was no longer to pursue the Western path of history toward a modern constitutional state, as the Decembrists and their supporters had hoped, what then was its proper destiny?

Pyotr Chaadaev, the Guards officer and foppish friend of Pushkin, produced a cataclysmic shock on his readers in his sensational First Philosophical Letter (1826). ‘What have we Russians ever invented or created? 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.’ 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.

On the orders of the Tsar, Chaadaev was declared insane and confined to hose arrest.

There were many similar expressions of this cultural pessimism after 1825. The triumph of reaction had engendered a deep loathing of the ‘Russian way’. 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.’

The Slavophiles had an opposite response to the crisis posed by Chaadaev. 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. They idealized the common folk (narod) as the true bearer of the national character (narodnost) and devout upholders of the Orthodox ideal. They celebrated the life of the legendary folk hero Ilia Muromets. (See Vasnetsov , Heroes (1898) aka Bogatyrs (1898)

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. They supported the ideal of a unitary Imperial state whose greatness lay in the inherited wisdom of its Tsar and the innate obedience of its citizens.

Pushkin shared Karamzin’s statist view of Russian history - at least in his later years, In his 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.

The democratic trend of Russian history was advanced by the Decembrists. 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. The Decembrist historian Nikita Muraviev began his study with the fighting words: ‘History belongs to the people.’

So debate over the origins of Russia reflected the contemporary debate between the Slavophiles and the Decembrists. Monarchists subscribed to the so-called Norman theory, which asserted that the origin of Kievan Rus had been forged by Scandinavian invaders. Nineteenth-century archaeologists opposed this view by drawing 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.

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’. Democrats argued that the Russian state had evolved spontaneously from the native customs of the Slavic tribes. Medieval Novgorod had been the greatest monument to Russian liberty and, in the Decembrist view, historic proof of the people’s right to rule themselves. The Decembrists made a cult of that 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.

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.

Alternately, Karamzin argued that  Moscow’s conquest of Novgorod had been 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.

For the Decembrists, the War of 1812 was a people’s war; for the status quo, the war symbolized the holy triumph of the Russian autocratic principle. 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. (de Montferrand,  The Alexandrine Column (1832))

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Ton, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (1837-83) was half war museum and half church, intended to commemorate the miraculous salvation of Moscow in 1812. It preserves the architectural language of the ancient Russian Church, but enlarged its proportions to an imperial scale.

To the opposing ideological camps there were two images of 1812 - as a national liberation or imperial salvation. Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812 (finale) (1862). 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 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. (Monument to the millennium of Russia in the square in front of St Sophia’s Cathedral, Novgorod

7. Volkonsky’s Return from Exile and Emancipation

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.

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. 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.  

Reverence for his ancestors was at the emotional core of Tolstoy’s conservatism. Eugene, the hero of his story ‘The Devil’ (1889): 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.

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. 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 were in the air.

Volkonsky’s release from exile was one of the first acts of the new Tsar.  He became 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. He was also regarded as 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’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. He saw the Tsar as the Empire’s single unifying force. Volkonsky’s trust in the Russian monarchy was not returned. What hurt him most was the government’s refusal to return his medals from the war of 1812. However Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War made more likely Volkonsky’s second hope: the emancipation of the serfs.

After Defeat in the Crimean War in 1855-56, the new tsar Alexander II believed believed that 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. In 1858 the Tsar appointed a special commission to formulate proposals for the emancipation in consultation with provincial gentry committees.

The gentry were woefully unprepared for emancipation. 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. 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. In essence, the serfs bought their freedom by paying off their masters’ debts.

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. Volkonsky’s programme was not dissimilar to the land reforms of Pyotr Stolypin, the russian Prime Minister in the years before WWI. Had such a programme been implemented in 1861, Russia might have become a more prosperous place.

The Law of the Emancipation was signed by Alexander on 19 February 1861. 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.

None the less, despite its disappointment for the peasantry, the emancipation was a crucial watershed.
The liberal spirit of 1812 had triumphed in the end - or so it seemed
. Prince Volkonsky describes hearing the news as the ‘happiest moment of my life’. ‘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.’

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
7. 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

‘Petersburg is our head, Moscow is our heart’, went a Russian proverb. 

While watching Moscow burn, Napoleon cried out, ‘Are they abandoning all this? It isn’t possible! What a people! They are Scythians! What resoluteness! The barbarians!’ In a fit of anger Napoleon instructed that the Kremlin be mined as an act of retribution. For Russians, the sacrifice of Moscow during the War of 1812 proved to be the most heroic moment in the country's history.  In War and Peace Tolstoy wrote that every Russian felt Moscow to be a mother.

Moscow was founded in the twelfth century when Prince Dolgoruky of Suzdal built a rough log fortress on the site of the Kremlin. When the Mongol occupation of the next two centuries crushed the Kievan states,  Moscow’s princes were left to consolidate their wealth and power by collaboration with the khans. Moscow’s rise was symbolized by the rebuilding of the Kremlin. Beginning with the battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380 and ending in the defeat of the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s, the princes of Moscow fought against the Golden Horde. 

To celebrate their final victory, Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square: St Basil’s. (St Basil’s in Red Square completed in 1560 commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan) This moment celebrated the restoration of the Orthodox traditions and made Moscow the capital of a religious crusade against the Tatar nomads of the steppe. 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. Moscow had become the Third Rome, the true center of Christianity which would renew the Slavic world. Moscow boasted ‘forty times forty’ churches. 

Peter the Great had hated Moscow: It embodied the archaic in his realm. Moscow was a centre of the Old Believers who clung to their ancient rituals  as the embodiment of their religious faith. They saw the reforms as a heresy, a sign of the Devil. Fearful and mistrustful of the West, or any innovation from the outside world, they regarded Peter as the Antichrist - his city on the Baltic as a kingdom of the Devil and apocalypse. (See The Boyarynia Morozova. (1884))

With the building of St Petersburg, Moscow’s fortunes had declined rapidly. By 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 had stables and enclosed courtyards where cows and sheep were allowed to roam. Moscow was ‘the big village’.

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’, the very incarnation of the old medieval Russia.

Only after 1812 was the centre of the city finally rebuilt in the European style. Red Square and Theatre Square, with the Bolshoi Theatre at its centre, the Boulevard and Garden Rings,  the Alexander Gardens were all completed in the years following the fire.  Every noble family felt instinctively the need to reconstruct their old ancestral home. Tolstoy compared what happened to the way that ants return to their ruined heap, dragging off bits of rubbish, eggs and corpses. Even so, Moscow always mixed the European with its own distinctive style. (See the Kremlin walls)

Moscow was located in the centre of the Russian lands, an economic crossroads between north and south, Europe and the Asiatic steppe. Moscow had absorbed these diverse influences and imposed its own style on the provinces. Oriental customs and colours and motifs still predominated.
‘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.' (See Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade (1888) 1. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship 2. The Story of the Calendar Prince

Moscow's aristocratic homes 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 Empire style expressed opulence of the ornament and furnishing of private noble space. The Muscovite love of comfort met the Victorian aesthetics of the European middle class. 

Boyev almshouse in Sokolniki, Moscow

The neo-Byzantine style of architecture dominated its reconstruction in the 1830s and 1840s. 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. 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 Slavophile ideal of a spiritual community united by homegrown Russian customs seemed to be embodied in the medieval contours of the town. 

Malyutin Perstsov Mansion

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - the Kremlin wallsthe Eliseev shop, the Moscow mansion of the Sheremetev clan, the Staraya Vozdizhenka.

2. St. Petersburg

After 1812, as the romantic yearning for a more authentically national way of life seized hold of the literary imagination, the idea of Moscow as a ‘Russian’ city and the notion of St Petersburg as a foreign civilization grew. A thriving underground mythology of tales and rumours about Petersburg developed. 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. Writers such as Pushkin and Odoevsky used these myths as the basis of their own ghost stories from the capital.

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. (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.)

For the Slavophiles, Peter’s city was a symbol of the catastrophic rupture with Holy Rus’; for the Westerners, Petersburg represented a progressive sign of Russia’s Europeanization.

Gogol, Tales of Petersburg (1842): ‘Nevsky Prospekt’; "The Overcoat " (another translation) (1842)

Dostoevsky said that the whole of Russian literature ‘came out from underneath Gogol’s “Overcoat”'. In The Double (1846) Petersburg becomes a place where human feelings are perverted and destroyed by human isolation and rationality. Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is full of dreamers wandering the sleepless White Nights of the northern summer. 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:

" 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… a fantastic vision of fairyland, like a dream which in its turn would vanish and pass away like vapour in the dark blue sky."

3. Moscow: A city of gourmands and massive banquets

Moscow became the centre of the ‘good life’ for the nobility. The city was famous for its restaurants and clubs, its sumptuous balls and entertainments. ‘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.'

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.

‘Bistro!’ they would say, the Russian word for ‘fast’.

Moscow was a city of gourmands. It had a rich folklore of the fabulously fat. Count Rakhmanov fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water Count Musin-Pushkin was just as profligate. He would fatten his calves with cream and keep them in cradles like newborn babies. Count Stroganov (an early nineteenth-century ancestor of the one who gave his name to the beef dish) hosted famous ‘Roman dinners’where guests lay on couches and were served by naked boys.

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. Even among provincial families, lunch would last for several hours.

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. 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.

The ‘traditional specialities' included kulebeika (a pie stuffed with several layers of fish or meat). The ‘classic zakuski’, such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early nineteenth century as an aspect of the new taste for old-Russian fashions after 1812.

Traditional foods were associated with church rituals: borshcbt (beetroot) and shchi (cabbage), recipes for Easter breads and pies, and dozens of varieties of porridges and pancakes (bliny).  Foodstuffs had an iconic part to play in Russian popular culture. The word for bread (khleb) was used in Russian for ‘wealth’, ‘health’ and ‘hospitality’ in peasant rituals. With the return of the migratory flocks, a ladder out of dough was made to symbolize a sacred link between this world and the next. Bread and salt were traditionally offered to visitors. Peasants told tales about the folklore of the stove, where the spirits of the dead were said to live. 

  • To celebrate victory in the war against the Turks in 1791, Catherine the Great ordered two food mountains to be placed on Palace Square. a symbol in nineteenth-century literature.
  • 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.
  • Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm filled with lyrical descriptions of Ukrainian gluttony
  • Goncharov’s Oblomov is always gorging himself on old-fashioned Russian foods -
  • Ferapont, the butler in Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901), tells Andrei, who yearns to go to Moscow and eat at Testov’s: 'One of them ate forty pancakes and died. It was either forty or fifty, I can’t remember exactly.' Bingeing of this sort was often represented as a symbol of the Russian character.
  • Gogol, in particular, used food metaphors obsessively. Taras Bulba: this appetite for life.

It was the test of a ‘true Russian’ to be able to drink vodka by the bucketful. Drinking was a social thing - it was never done alone - and it was bound up with communal celebrations. 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.) 

Deaths from drinking claimed a thousand people every year in Russia between 1841 and 1859. 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. There was little state regulation of the booming retail business, legal or illegal, which made vodka traders very rich.  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.

‘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.’

The doors of Moscow’s mansions were always open and the Petersburg custom of set times for visits was regarded as absurd. Moscow was famous for its lavish entertaining.  Maria Rimsky-Korsakov became famous for her breakfast parties where Senator Arkady Bashilov, in apron and cap, would serve all the dishes he had cooked himself. Aristocrats opened their doors at lunch and dinner time for anyone of rank. Count Razumovsky was renowned for his open tables. General Kostenetsky dined at Count Osterman-Tolstoy’s for twenty years Count Stroganov had a guest whose name he did not learn in nearly thirty years.

As with food and drink, the Russians knew no limits when it came to partying. From October to the spring,  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. This Moscow lived a nocturnal way of life, its body clock reset to the social whirl.


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, the painter at the centre of Musorsky's famous piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). Musorsky paid his own tribute to his artist friend by composing Pictures after visiting the show. Gartman’s ‘neo-Russian’ style grew from years of study of medieval ornament. He designed the Kiev city gate, shaped in the form of a warrior’s helmet with a kokosbnik arch.

Moscow was the centre (and the central subject) of this renewal of interest in the ancient Russian arts.

  • Fedor Solntsev, Kremlin Armoury, Antiquities of the Russian State. 
  • the restoration of the Kremlin’s Terem Palace
  • The Stroganov Art School, founded in Moscow in 1860, promoted‘Russian style’ designers 
  • the Moscow masters of the Faberge workshop 

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.

Three giants of Russian painting, Repin, Polenov and Vasnetsov, all moved to Moscow as students from St Petersburg. The old crafts of lubok painting and Palekh lacquer work were still alive in Moscow and its environs, whereas they had died out in St Petersburg.

A mid-century building 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. Wood was declared by nationalists the ‘fundamental folk material’ and every architect who aspired to be ‘national’ experimented with designs in wood. 

The Russian Museum, opposite St Basil’s on Red Square

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.

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’. 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. He created a new Russian language in music.

As a mentor to the young composer, Balakirev, a Westernist and a thumping patriot of Petersburg, was not pleased.

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. 

Musorgsky dedicated Pictures to Vladimir Stasov, the critic, scholar and self-appointed champion of the national school in all the Russian arts. Stasov 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.

Stasov wanted Russian art to liberate itself from Europe’s hold. 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. Stasov led the revolt against the Petersburg Conservatory which had been 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. Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna was the Conservatory's chief patron. Russian national music, Rubinstein maintained, was of only ‘ethnographic interest’, quaint but without artistic value in itself. 

Balakirev and Stasov were incensed There was an element of xenophobia, even anti-Semitism, in their battles against Rubinstein. In 1862 they established the Free Music School. 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.
In contrast 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.

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.

Kuchkist music was filled with imitative sounds of Russian life.

  • the long-drawn, lyrical and melismatic song of the Russian peasantry.
  • its ‘tonal mutability’
  • its heterophony
  • parallel fifths, fourths and thirds.

Secondly the kuchkists invented a series of harmonic devices to create a distinct ‘Russian’ style

  • the whole-tone scale with its sound of spookiness and evil.
  • the octatonic scale became a sort of Russian calling card
  • modular rotation in sequences of thirds

These innovations enabled
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. At its heart is the magic reach and power of the Russian folk imagination.

Musorsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (piano): ‘Promenade (in mode russico)'; ‘Baba Yaga’ ; the glorious ‘Kiev Gate


5. The Debate over Russian Identity in the Arts

Writers, artists and composers developed an obsession with Russia’s history. 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.

One focus of the debate concerned one of the most difficult moments in Russian history: the  ‘Time of Troubles’, a period of civil wars and foreign invasion following the death of Boris Godunov in 1605. 
Karamzin portrayed 
Boris Godunov as a tragic figure. 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 engaged in a protracted struggle with noble boyar clans. Ivan the Terrible had made a point of promoting loyal servicemen from humble origins like the Godunovs. Ivan's son Fedor was crowned when Ivan died, but the practical affairs of government were taken over by Boris Godunov. In 1598 Fedor died. 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. 

At first things went well for the new tsar, but in 1601-3 they took a sharp turn for the worse. A young pretender to the Russian throne appeared with an army from Poland. 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. Godunov’s opponents always claimed that he had killed the boy to clear his own passage to the Russian throne. The ‘False Dmitry’. Godunov died suddenly in 1605, as the pretender’s forces approached Moscow. Russia descended into chaos as the central government collapsed , and during the next ten years, nearly a third of the population died as the result of peasant uprisings, famine and invasion.

The murder story was far too good for Karamzin to resist. 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. For Karamzin, Boris had been a Russian Bonaparte. Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (1825) was very closely based on Karamzin’s History: a famous stage direction at the end of the play was ‘the people remain silent’ (‘narod bezmolvstvuet’).

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: 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.

However, in Musorsky's second version of Boris Gudonv (1871-2), his politics had changed. The addition of the ‘Kromy Forest Scene’ introduced the theme of conflict between the people and the Tsar. 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. 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. There was no Kromy revolt in Karamzin or Pushkin.
Musorsky’s Khovanshchina (1874) is 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
in an abortive plot to replace Peter with his sister Sophia. 

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’) The opera presents a conception of the Russian people - suffering and oppressed, full of destructive and impulsive violence, uncontrollable and unable to control its own destiny. 

However, 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’ association with ‘that side of ancient Russia’ that was ‘petty, wretched, dull-brained, superstitious, evil and malevolent’.

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. To this 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. 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. At the end of Musorgsky’s original version of the opera the Old Believers marched off to their deaths, singing chants and prayers. He felt ambivalent about Russia’s progress; he held to the conviction that the Old Believers were the last ‘authentic Russians’.

The painter Vasily Surikov's two great history paintings, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy. 1881 and The Boyarynia Morozova. (1884) are the visual counterparts of Khovanshchina. 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.’ Surikov spent several years making ethnographic sketches of the Old Believers in the Rogozhskoe and Preobrazhenskoe areas of the city. history was depicted on the faces of these types.All the faces in The Boyarina Morozova were drawn from living people in Moscow. 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. 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. 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, a major patron of the Old Belief at the time of the Nikonian reforms in the mid-seventeenth century: her hand extended upwards in the Old Believers’ two-fingered sign of the cross as a gesture of defiance against the state.


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

Moscow grew into a great commercial centre in the nineteenth century.

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.

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.

the metropolis of capitalist Russia

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

They were unprepared for the international market which the railways opened up

Moscow’s emergence as an economic giant was associated with its transition from a noble- to a merchant-dominated town

Moscow’s trade was concentrated in the narrow winding streets of the Zamoskvoreche district,

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

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

The public image of the merchantry was fixed by the plays of Alexander Ostrovsky

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 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 Storm (1860),

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.

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 so-called ‘native soil’ critics (pochvenniki), whose outlet was the journal Moskvitianin (The Muscovite). The

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.

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 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.

The Final Sacrifice (1878)

a new generation of merchants’ sons and daughters who are European in their ways.

fabulously wealthy merchant dynasties

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.

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 knew that their acceptance depended on their public service and philanthropy - above all, on their support for the arts.

a service ethic that placed a burden on the rich to use their wealth for the people’s benefit.

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.

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.

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.

Pavel Tretiakov, Russia’s greatest private patron of the visual arts. The self-made textile baron came from a family of Old Believer

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

Tretiakov spent in excess of 1 million roubles on Russian art. the Tretiakov Museum in 1892

a vital boost for the Wanderers

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’.

Their down-to-earth provincial scenes and landscape paintings appealed to the merchant’s ethnocentric taste. Savrasov in his painting , The Rooks Have Come (1871

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.

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.


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

Savva Mamontov: Another merchant patron who helped to define the Moscow style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the railway magnate.

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.

Populist ideas: Art was to be for the education of the masses.

he commissioned the artist Korovin to decorate his Moscow railway station (today the Yaroslav) with murals showing rural scenes  

In 1870 the couple purchased the Abramtsevo estate,

an artists’ colony with workshops to revive the local peasant crafts

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 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.

Korovin and the two Vasnetsovs, Polenova, Vrubel, Serov and Repin were all active there. Gartman

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.

like the Solomenko embroidery workshop, the Talashkino colony and the Moscow zemstvo studios

folk-styled tableware and furniture, the embroidery and objets d’art

spectacular interior designs. Elena Polenova (at Solomenko) built a dining room with elaborate folk wood carving

Sergei Maliutin artist Vladimir Konashevich

Chekhov liked to poke fun at this ‘folksy’ craze. In his story ‘The Grasshopper’ (1891)

ubok woodcuts, hung up bast shoes and sickles, placed a rake in the corner of the room,

the ‘style moderne’, where Russian folk motifs were combined with the styling of European art nouveau Moscow’s architecture at the turn of the twentieth century,

Fedor Shekhtel’s splendid mansion for Stepan Riabushinsky,

an Old Believer chapel designed in the ancient Moscow style.

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

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.

Carl Faberge

In St Petersburg the Faberge workshops made gems in the classical and rococo styles.

The Moscow workshops, by contrast, turned out mainly silver objects which were within the financial reach of the middle classes.

Sergei Vashkov, a silver craftsman

  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.

the cult of Muscovy

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.

It was in his reign that the Church of the Spilt Blood was completed on the Catherine Canal.

the church was a piece of Moscow kitsch

the Muscovite renaissance in the arts conjured up a land of fairy tales. The retreat to Russian wonderland

painters such as Vasnetsov, Vrubel and Bilibin turned to Russian legends as a new way to approach the national theme

Viktor Vasnetsov Vasnetsov depicted monumental figures from the epic folk legends like Ilia Muromets, presenting them as studies of the national character

Only Moscow welcomed Vasnetsov

Mikhail Vrubel followed Vasnetsov from Petersburg, moving first to Moscow and then Abramtsevo, where he too painted scenes from Russian legends.

Mamontov’s Private Opera

Stanislavsky, who was a cousin of Elizaveta Mamontov, recalled that during these productions ‘the house would become a tremendous workshop’

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

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

Vasnetsov brought the vibrant primary colours of the folk tradition to the stage for Rimsky’s Snow Maiden, the

inspired by the wooden palace of Kolomenskoe

the great bass Shaliapin,

Rimsky’s Maid of Pskov, the Private Opera’s main production of the 1896-7 season

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.

colourfully stylized folk-like sets and costumes by Korovin, Maliutin and Vrubel

a major influence on the synthetic ideals of the World of Art movement and the Ballets Russes


8. The Moscow Arts Theatre and Chekhov’s Plays

the Moscow Arts Theatre, founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1898. Here Chekhov’s last great plays were first performed

Stanislavskymerchant family which ‘had already crossed the threshold of culture’, 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.

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.

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 bicyclethe playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko

the theatre should reach out to the masses by producing plays about contemporary life. The Moscow Arts was originally called the Accessible Arts Theatre

1898 productions of Alexei Tolstoy’s Tsar Fedor (1868) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896).

Nemirovich was a great admirer of Chekhov’s plays: “real”, not theatrical.

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.

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

Vladimir Giliarovsky, author of the 1920s classic Moscow and the Muscovites

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.

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).


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.

“Moscow! Moscow!”

Three Sisters (1901) Moscow becomes a symbol for the happiness so lacking in the sisters’ lives.

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.

Chekhov’s Moscow, then, is a symbol of the happiness and better life to come.

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.

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.

Progress is a constant theme in Chekhov’s plays

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 believed in work as the purpose of existence and as a form of redemption: it was at the heart of his own religious faith

a critique of the landed gentry, which had never really known the meaning of hard work and for this reason was destined for decline.

The Cherry Orchard, written for the Moscow Arts in 1904

reminiscent of the ‘nest of gentry’ melodramas

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

the last remaining outposts of a civilization that was threatened with extinction by the social revolution of the towns.

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

Madame Ranevskaya

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

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


Here was the first merchant hero to be represented on the Russian stage.

Like Lopakhin, Chekhov’s father was a merchant who had risen from the enserfed peasantry.

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

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’

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.

 Moscow’s younger generation of merchant patrons embraced and collected modern art.

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

Nikolai Riabushinsky- ‘I love beauty and I love a lot of women’ - and for his outrageous parties at his Moscow mansion, the Black Swan. From his patronage stemmed the Blue Rose group of Moscow Symbolist painters who, together with their literary confreres and composers like Alexander Scriabin

‘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.

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 writer Boris Pasternak, a Scriabin devotee,* blazed the Futurist trail in poetry along with Vladimir Mayakovsky,

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

    Marina Tsvetaeva was equally a poet of Moscow.

like Pasternak, she grew up in the middle of the Moscow intelligentsia

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’:

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.

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’

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.

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’.

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

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),

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 1812Mother Moscow was saved.


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’. 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’.

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. These young missionaries were riddled with the guilt of privilege. They looked at their mission as a form of pilgrimage. 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

Writers such as Dostoevsky compared the Decree of 1861 to the conversion of Russia to Christianity in the tenth century. 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.

Western Commune vs. Slovophile commune

In 1862 the radical critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky published  his seminal novel What Is to Be Done which became the bible for  revolutionaries, including the young Lenin. Cheryeshevsky imagined the commune quite differently. For him they would be labouring communes’ where everything was shared (sometimes including lovers).  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 Nineteenth-century Russia had its ‘sixties’ movement, too. The generation gap which opened up in these years was the subject of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children (1862).  ‘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’.

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? Armies of folklorists set out to explore these rural depths. 

Everything had changed in 1852, with the publication of Turgenev’s masterpiece, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album which presented  the image of the peasant as a rational human being, as opposed to the sentient victim depicted in previous sentimental literature. His terrifying story ‘Punin and Barburin’ (1874) and also in the unforgettable ‘Mumu’ (1852) depicted the terrible treatment of the peasants  by their masters.

Nikolai Nekrasov in Who Is Happy in Russia? (1863-78) and in other works such as On the Road (1844) or The Peddlers (1861) created poems that were practically transcriptions of peasant dialogue.

Dostoevsky: not one of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be.

‘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. 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.

Dostoevsky: 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’. A broader national consensus or ideology 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. 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

Populism was the cultural product of this synthesis. The intelligentsia was defined by its mission of service to the people; the good of the people’ was the highest interest, to which all other principles, such as law or Christian precepts, were subordinate. 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. The zemstvos were run by paternal squires. 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.*

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.

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 young revolutionaries. Virgin Soil (1877), 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. 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.

‘How can we live without a Tsar?

Rounded up by the police, forced into exile or underground, the Populists returned from their defeat in deep despair. 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

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

 In the summer of 1870 Ilia Repin left St Petersburg for ‘an undiscovered land’ with his friend Fedor Vasilev.

The young artist’s aim was to make a study of the peasants for a painting he had planned of the Volga barge haulers. 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.

For three months Repin lived among the former serfs of Shiriayevo, a village overlooking the Volga near Samara. 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.

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.

Repin was a ‘man of the sixties’- democratic circles 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.

Stasov: 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

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. Virtually every artist and composer of the 1860s and 1870s found himself at some point in Stasov’s tight embrace.

Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor Antokolsky were its three horses.30

Mark 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. The Persecution of the Jews in the Spanish Inquisition (first exhibited in 1867).

Ivan Kramskoi

Earlier painters such as Venetsianov had portrayed the peasant as an agriculturalist. But Kramskoi painted him against a plain background. This psychological concentration was without precedent in the history of art. 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.

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

The Populist conception of Boris Godunov (in its revised version with the Kromy scene) is certainly in line with Stasov’s influence.

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

tensions between Musorgsky and the Populist agenda set out for him by

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. 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.

Gogol’s ‘Sorochintsy Fair’

‘liudi’ - a word which has the meaning of individuals

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,     Even Repin, the ‘lead horse’, began to pull away from Stasov’s harnesses: he would no longer haul his Volga barge

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

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.

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’.

 In 1859 Tolstoy set up his first school for the village children in Yasnaya Polyana.

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.

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.

The fantasy, however, would not go away.

‘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…. 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.

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.

War and Peace would depict only ‘princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children’

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’.

Prince Levin, for example, the peasant-loving squire in Anna Karenina

that blissful moment when Levin joins the peasant mowers in the field and loses himself in the labour and the team?

Tolstoy loved to be among the peasants. He derived intense pleasure - emotional, erotic - from their physical presence.

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:*

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.

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

there was one peasant woman who represented more than a sexual conquest. Aksinia Bazykina

in the 1870s he began to see her once again

Aksinia was Tolstoy’s unofficial ‘wife’, and he continued to love her well into her old age.

‘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

‘The Devil’, which tells the story of his love affair with her both before and after his marriage.

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.

A Confession (1879-80), 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.

. In many ways he only played at being a ‘peasant’. 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.

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

a publishing venture (‘The Intermediary’) to print the classics (Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov and Chekhov) for the growing mass of readers in the countryside.

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:

With every passing year, Tolstoy strived to live more and more like a peasant.

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,’

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.

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;

an ethnographic document about this special aspect of the Russian way of life.

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in

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

The scene encapsulates the contrast between the two different cultures - the European and the folk - in Russian society

Tatiana looks at marriage through the prism of romantic literature, her nurse regards it from the viewpoint of a patriarchal culture

Sonya was eighteen when she married Tolstoy

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).

in this respect Russian marriage more closely fits the Asiatic pattern.)66

Serf owners liked their peasant girls to marry young, so that they could breed more serfs

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

The arranged marriage was the norm in peasant Russia until the beginning of the twentieth century.

It was a collective rite intended to bind the couple and the new household to the patriarchal culture of the village and the Church.

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.

The prenuptial khorovod,

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)

by ritual songs to summon up the magic spirits of the bath house which were believed to protect the bride and her children.

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.

In the aristocracy arranged marriages remained the norm in Russia long after they had been replaced in Europe by romantic ones

Even among the most educated families, parents nearly always had the final say over the choice of a spouse

By the end of the nineteenth century a father would rarely refuse to sanction his child’s marriage;

    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 noble marriage contract

The autumn balls in Moscow were a conscious translation of the autumn courtship rituals played out by the peasants and their matchmakers.

Pushkin himself met his wife, Natalia Goncharova, who was then aged just sixteen, at a Moscow autumn ball.

In War and Peace Levin comes to Moscow to court Kitty

rituals of their wedding

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’.

‘coronation’ (venchane),

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.

According to the 1835 Digest of Laws, a wife’s main duty was to ‘submit to the will of her husband’

State and Church conceived the husband as an autocrat - his absolute authority over wife and family a part of the divine and natural order.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, ‘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.

In fact, Russian women had the legal right to control their property

women were at a severe disadvantage when it came to inheriting family property

The peasant wife was destined for a life of suffering

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 ancient peasant custom of snokbachestvo

Then there were the wife-beatings.

For those who saw the peasant as a natural Christian (that is, practically the whole of the intelligentsia) such barbaric customs presented a problem.

Yet even Dostoevsky stumbled when it came to wife-beating:

the patriarchal customs of the Domostroi, the sixteenth-century manual of the Muscovite household

to obey in all things’.

the patriarchal culture that had produced it was pretty universal in the provinces until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

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.

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

The theme runs right through his literary work.

But here too he failed to find true union. His own selfishness was always in the way.

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).

an essay called ‘On Life’ happiness depends on a form of love that gives; and we can only find ourselves through a communion with our fellow human beings.


Tolstoy’s Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina: combining Orthodox and peasant rituals

Tatiana and her nurse discuss love in Eugene Onegin

Girls marry at 18: early average age of marriage (Asiatic)

Arranged marriage and patriarchy:

The matchmaker and the smotrinie

the unhappy prenuptial khorovod,

The bridal shower (devichnik)

The wedding sheet

Aristocratic arranged marriages survived the 19thc. despite Western Romantic love

The noble marriage contract

‘coronation’ (venchane), wedding scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina:

Patriarchal: wife could control but not inherit property

The peasant wife was destined for a life of suffering: snokbachestvo; wife-beatings; Dostoevsky on wife beating

the patriarchal culture: wife beating rare among nobility but divorces were even rarer indeed

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 marriage was patriarchal: The Kreutzer Sonata (1891); Resurrection (1899)

‘On Life’:  happiness depends on a form of love that gives; and we can only find ourselves through a communion with our fellow human beings


5. Bleaker Views of the Peasants after 1900

The myth of the good peasant had been punctured by the tale.

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

Russia’s identity was built upon the myth which Chekhov had destroyed.

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:

Chekhov’s story was the fruit of its author’s first-hand knowledge of the peasantry.

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.

Melikhovo 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 peasants are crude, unsanitary and mistrustful’,

Five years later, in 1897, Chekhov helped to collect the statistics for the first national census in Russian history. He was horrified just a few kilometres from Moscow there were villages where six out of every ten infants would die in their first year: the lack of proper aftercare

, a ‘small deeds’ liberal

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

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

the agrarian crisis

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

after the 1905 Revolution the

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 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.

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

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

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.

In the most overcrowded regions these strips were no more than a couple of metres wide

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.

most were forced into the towns, where they picked up unskilled jobs in factories or worked as domestic or service staff

New urban ways were also filtering down to the remote villages

younger and more literate peasants

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.


less than 2 per cent held any desire to follow in the footsteps of their peasant parents.

peasant boys 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: a science of contempt for the peasant world

the masses would destroy Russia’s fragile European civilization

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

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 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.

the intelligentsia,

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.

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.

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,

civil liberties and civil liberties and

a legislative parliament (or Duma) elected on a broad franchise

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.

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 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)

The essays caused a huge storm of controversy

a fierce attack on the nineteenth-century cult of ‘the people’ and its tendency to subordinate all other interests to the people’s 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)

the intelligensia was pushing Russia to a second revolution, much more violent and destructive than the first.

Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913-14) is filled with images of the city being overrun by Asiatic hordes

Bunin’s novella The Village (1910). Bunin, The Village (1910)  

Bunin belonged to the minor provincial gentry

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.

in the 1890s - a decade of famine and flight from the land.

Bunin’s village was a realm of natural beauty that was being undermined and gradually destroyed by the new industrial economy.

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.

all of peasant Russia is a Durnovo.

the hopeless destiny of their peasant land 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

Maxim Gorky came from the ‘lower depths’ himself

Gorky had known more human suffering in his first eight years than the count would see in all his eight decades.

My Childhood (1913) Gorky, My Childhood (1913), 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.

that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid

In 1888, at the age of twenty, Gorky had ‘gone to the people’

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

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

a bitter mistrust of the ‘noble savage’

Some dog-like desire to please the strong ones

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


The controversy over Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.

Over the years Chekhov had come to know the peasants through his work as a doctor.

Gathered data for the 1st national census in 1897

Stolypin, peasant reforms 1906 and 1911

Influence of the urban market on the countryside: the slow decline of peasant farming in the overpopulated central Russian zone

the slow decline of peasant farming in the overpopulated central Russian zone

Peasant egalitarian customs emphasize child birth more than production

the feudal open three-field system lapses as land becomes scarce, soil depleted and strips narrower; peasants driven off the land by poverty and try to make living in crafts squeezed by factory competition and new machines drive even more labourers from the field

New urban ways were also filtering down to the remote villages: new generation looks to growing middle class for livelihood and condemn tradition

Bolshevism: the urban song, the foxtrot and the tango, the gramophone, the fairground entertainment and the cinema

the urban ‘cruel romance’, or the chastushka

cheap urban literature of detective stories and tales of adventure or romance

1880’s  Tolstoy sets 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’ for the new mass peasant readership.

The intelligentsia gives up on the peasants during years leading to 1917

1905 Revolution: liberals and socialists went their separate ways after October over spectre of social revolution

1909 Vekhi (Landmarks) essays criticize populists for paving the way for social revolution and savagery

Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913-14)

Bunin’s novella The Village (1910).

Gorky, My Childhood (1913)


6. the World of Art movement and the Ballet Russes

In fact the Ballets Russes was a direct descendant of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s.

Abramtsevo: the arts and crafts movement.

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

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

Urban fans of this ‘neo-national’ style took it as a pure and authentic Russian art

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,

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 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

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

The myth was then established that the matriosbka was an ancient Russian toy

Diaghilev to the neo-nationalists of Abramtsevo and Talashkino - a marriage that gave birth to the folklore fantasies of the Ballets Russes.

By artistic temperament the impresario was aristocratic and cosmopolitan, even if he came from the provincial town of Perm.

with young aesthetes such as Alexander Benois, Dmitry Filosofov (Diaghilev’s cousin) and Walter (‘Valechka’) Nouvel. There

a general mood of Populism in these circles, especially at the Bogdanovskoe estate near Pskov

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.

co-founders of the World of Art

They identified themselves with the aristocracy, and saw that class as a great repository of Russia’s cultural heritage.

Benois underlined this point when he reminisced about the Filosofovs, one of Russia’s ancient noble families:

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 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 a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg. It 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

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

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.

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’

an ancient teremok

The Parisians were enchanted by these ‘savage carpenters’, with their ‘unkempt hair and beards, their broad, child-like smiles and primitive methods’,

a steady flow of peasant-crafted goods from Russia to the West

Diaghilev was particularly attracted to the paintings of Viktor Vasnetsov,

a general sense of peasant colouring. Vasnetsov

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.

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.


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

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.

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

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’,

the ballet was ‘not really an art form’.129 

The ballets of Tchaikovsky

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’,

The Imperial style was virtually defined by the polonaise.

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.

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.

rococo elements (

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

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.

enois’ own sumptuous designs, Fokine’s modern choreography, the dazzling virtuosity of Nijinsky’s dancing

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.

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.

a patchwork compilation of two entirely separate peasant tales

the tale of Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird, and the tale of Kashchei the Immortal

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).

Stravinsky’s use of folk music

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.*

The Firebird was the great breakthrough. But it was only made possible by the pioneering work of two ethnographers

Yury Melgunov, Evgenia Linyova 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.

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.

In Petrushka (1911) Here was another Russian revolution - a musical uprising by the lowlife of St Petersburg.

the vanished fairground world of the Shrovetide carnival of his beloved childhood in St Petersburg.

The Rite of Spring (1913).

the painter Nikolai Roerich,

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.

‘The Great 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 evidence of human sacrifice in prehistoric Russia is by no means clear.

especially the khorovod, with its ritualistic circular movements that played such a key role in The Rite of Spring.

folklorists such as Alexander Afanasiev

The Slavs’ Poetic View of Nature (1866-9), a sort of Slavic Golden Bough,

of burning effigies, as symbols of fertility, in ritualistic dances marking the commencement of the spring sowing

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

Roerich’s costumes were drawn from peasant clothes in Tenisheva’s collection at Talashkino

primitivist sets were based on archaeology

Nijinsky’s shocking choreography

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.

In these explosive rhythms it is possible to hear the terrifying beat of the Great War and the Revolution of 1917.



the Ballets Russes was a direct descendant of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s.

Elizabeth Mamontov at Abramtsevo, the arts and crafts movement: revive the peasant handicrafts that were fast disappearing as the railways brought in cheaper factory products

Gartman and Elena Polenova: peasant artefacts: remnants of an ancient Russian style: Polenova: ‘Cat and Owl’ carved door: a 19th fantasy about ancient Rus’ : path for artist from ethnographic to commercial art

folk-like crafted goods of Sergei Maliutin, the principal artist at Talashkino, were pure invention

the first matriosbka, or Russian nesting doll, in 1891.

Hailed by Diaghelev as organic Russian art; gaped at by peasants

Diaghilev and the neo-nationalists of Abramtsevo and Talashkino: the folklore fantasies of the Ballets Russes

the World of Art movement: identified themselves with the aristocracy, and saw that class as a great repository of Russia’s cultural heritage: art as a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, not as a vehicle for social programmes or political ideas; Reacting against the nineteenth-century realist tradition: deadening influence of nineteenth-century bourgeois and romantic art. The savage of the East was regarded as a force of spiritual renewal for the tired bourgeois cultures of the West.

Korovin’s ‘Russian Village’ at the Paris Exhibition of 1900

Viktor Vasnetsov: ‘peasant art’ in the stylized forms of modernism: Mamontov’s production of The Snow Maiden

The Ballet Russes and Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk

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.

St. Petersburg Marinsky Theatre ballet: ‘an entertainment for snobs and tired businessmen’

The ballets of Tchaikovsky were an inspiration to the founders of the Ballets Russes. Tchaikovsky was the last of the great European court composers. Staunchly monarchist, he was among the intimates of Tsar Alexander III. His music, which embodied the ‘Imperial style’

The Imperial style was virtually defined by the polonaise. At the climax of the ball in War and Peace, where the Emperor makes his entrance and Natasha dances with Andrei

The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Queen of Spades (1890)

1907 Benois staged a production of Nikolai Cherepnin’s ballet Le Pavilion d’Armide in Paris

The Firebird:  a ‘fairy tale for grown-ups’. the myth of peasant innocence and youthful energy. a stylized abstraction of folklore. Stravinsky’s use of folk music, especially the peasant wedding songs (devichniki and khorovody) in the Ronde des princesses and the finale. the tale of Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird, and the tale of Kashchei the Immortal. shift their emphasis from a tale of pagan magic into one of divine rescue (by the Firebird) consistent with Russia’s Christian mission in the world.

Stravinsky’s use of folk music: peasant melodies and their ‘classicism’

Petrushka (1911): a musical uprising by the lowlife of St Petersburg. Benois scenery conjured 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

The Rite of Spring (1913) and the painter Nikolai Roerich, researched 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. Folklorists such as Alexander Afanasiev The Slavs’ Poetic View of Nature (1866-9), a sort of Slavic Golden Bough. primitivist sets were based on archaeology. Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography: 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.

7.  Stravinsky, The Peasant Wedding

Les Noces 1923 “Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume” from the National Gallery of Australia“The Art of Natalia Goncharova” from GrinnellCollegeAll-Art.orgMaria Buszek.comArt Experts, Inc.Rollins 

In the autumn of 1917 his beloved estate at Ustilug was ransacked and destroyed by the peasantry.

Four Russian Songs (1918-19).

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: a ballet that would re-create the wedding rituals of the peasantry: a sort of talisman of the Russia he had lost

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.

an essential ur-Russia, the ancient peasant Russia that had been concealed by the thin veneer of European civilization since the eighteenth century: Russia before Peter the Great and before Europeanism… a peasant, but above all Christian, Russia

the wedding rite had four main parts: matchmaking, the inspection of the bride, the betrothal, the prenuptial rituals, the blessing of the bride with the family icon, the wedding ceremony itself, the marriage feast, the marriage feast

a collective rite - the binding of the bridal couple to the patriarchal culture of the peasant community -- voluntary surrender of the individual will to collective rituals and forms of life


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 was the last great refuge of the hermitic tradition that connected Russia with Byzantium, and during the 19th century  it came to be regarded as the spiritual centre of the national consciousness.  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, the official organ of the Orthodox Church.

The Church was governed by the Holy Synod, a body of laymen and clergy appointed by the Tsar to replace the Patriarchate, which had been abolished in 1721. Peter the Great's reforms had established the subordination of the Church to the Imperial state. 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.
Certain sections of the senior clergy developed a growing interest in the mystical ideas of Russia’s ancient hermits. Father Paissy, who led 
a growing movement of revivalists during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Hesychasm:  the Orthodox religion regards grace as a natural state, implied in the act of creation itself. 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 model of this type of wies elder had been Nil Sorsky, a hermit in the wilderness of the Volga’s forest lands during the late fifteenth century.

Paissy’s ideas were gradually embraced in the early decades of the nineteenth century by clergy who saw themselves as leading a general return to ‘ancient Russian principles’. Three great elders emerged, each a disciple of Father Paissy and each in turn renowned for his devout ways: Father Leonid was the elder of the monastery from 1829; Father Makary from 1841; and Father Amvrosy from 1860 to 1891. They made Optina famous in its golden age. The Orthodix Church was wary of the elders’ popularity. They put up Father Vassian, an old monk at Optina (and the model for Father Ferrapont in The Brothers Karamazov), to denounce Father Leonid in several published tracts.

The nineteenth-century search for a true Russian faith  looked back to the mysticism of medieval monks. They advanced a spirtitual life that was more essential and emotionally charged than the traditional faith.  Slavophiles like Kireevsky were drawn to this revivial because of their Romantic aversion to abstract reason. The new revival  offered a religious version of their own striving for community - a sacred microcosm of their ideal Russia.

Unlike the Western Churches, whose theology is based on a reasoned understanding of divinity, the Russian Church believes that God cannot be grasped by the human mind: the Divine Mystery of His revelation emphasizes the mystical experience of the Divinity. The revival put its emphasis on ritual and art, on the emotional experience of the liturgy, as a spiritual entry to the divine realm. 

  • the creed of resignation,  a cult of passive suffering
  • the Primary Chronicle, the first recorded history of Kievan Rus’, compiled by monks in the eleventh century

The Russian Church is contained entirely in its liturgy and the emotional experience in provides for the faithful.
The liturgy has never become the preserve of scholars or the clergy, as happened in the medieval West. This is a people’s liturgy.

  • Chekhov story ‘Easter Night’ (1886)
  • Tchaikovsky  Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1878)
  • Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or All Night Vigil (1915):  exploits the beauty of the service's chants and choral song: polyphonic harmonies of folk song: a constant repetition of the melody: inducing a trance-like state

Andrei Rublev Trinity c.1400

Russians pray with their eyes open - their gaze fixed on an icon. the Orthodox confess, not to a priest, but to the icon of Christ with a priest in attendance as a spiritual guide.  This was not just a painted board - for centuries it had absorbed these passions and these hopes, the prayers of the afflicted and unhappy. The icon was a living organism: a simple harmony of line and colour and a captivating use of ‘inverse perspective’ (where lines seem to converge on a point in front of the picture).

  • Andrei Rublev’s icons of the early fifteenth century
  • the last, symbolic scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film about the icon painter, Andrei Rublev (1966),

Russia received its Christianity from Byzantium and not from the West. The faithful considerd Russia to be the Third Rome after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire.  Unlike the Western Church, Byzantium had no papacy to give it supranational cohesion. It had no lingua franca like Latin - the Russian clergy, for example, being mostly ignorant of Greek - and it was unable to impose a common liturgy or canon law: resulting in independent Churches along national lines. The concept of ‘Orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of the ‘correct rituals’.

The whole of Russian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was permeated with religious rituals.

  • Shrovetide: In Moscow there would be skating on the ice of the Moscow river
  • On the eve of Easter Moscow broke out of its ordered services and a screaming, raving market opened on Red Square

Easter was a truly national moment - a moment of communion between the classes. The Easter service is the most important service, and the most beautiful, in the Russian Church. traditons included the  procession of the icons on the Easter Monday.

Surikov, Boyarina Mozorova (1887)

The sanctity with which many Russians regard religious rituals was the cause of a schism in the Orthodox community that split the Russian nation into two in the 1660s. Many Old Believers refused to shave off their beards or put on Western clothes. To the Western reader, the schism may appear to be about some obscure points of ritual (the most contentious reform altered the manner of making the sign of the cross from two to three fingers), but Old Believers saw the reforms were the work of the Antichrist, and a sign that the end of the world was near. During the last decades of the seventeenth century dozens of communities of Old Believers rose up in rebellion: many committed suicide. Many others followed the example of the hermits and fled to the remote lakes and forests of the north, to the Volga borderlands, to the Don Cossack regions in the south, or to the forests of Siberia. By the beginning of the twentieth century their numbers peaked at an estimated 20 million. 

There was a strong anarchistic and egalitarian element in the Old Believer communities. Many lived in Utopian communities which represented a broad social movement of religious and political dissent. 

  • diverse peasant sects and religious wanderers: the ‘Flagellants’ or Khlysty, the ‘Fighters for the Spirit’ (Dhikbobortsy),the ‘Wanderers’ (Stranniki),the ‘Milk-drinkers’ (Molokane),the Sell castrators’ (Skoptsy),

The Invisible Town of Kitezh (1913) by Konstantin Gorbatov

The Old Believers held up the ideal of a Christian nation which seemed to strike a chord with those who felt alienated from the secular and Westernizing state. These simple farming communities supported a strong libertarian tradition: a breeding ground for Christian anarchists. They played a major role in the Cossack rebellions of the 1670s (led by Stenka Razin) and the 1770s (led by Emelian Pugachev), but they also embodied  the ancient Russian quest for a truly spiritual kingdom on this earth. Many peasants thought of heaven as an actual place in some remote corner of the world: the legend of Kitezh. In the early eighteenth century the Old Believers wrote the legend down: Svetloyar; Belovode

Dostoevsky once maintained that ‘this ceaseless longing, which has always been inherent in the Russian people for a great universal church on earth was the basis of ‘our Russian socialism’. Religious dissent and social protest were bound to be connected in a country such as Russia, where popular belief in the god-like status of the Tsar played such a mighty and oppressive role.

2. Nikolai Gogol and Dead Souls

Nikolai Gogol came from a devout family in the Ukraine. Gogol’s parents met when his father had a vision in the local church. It can be argued that from an early age Gogol felt a need to experience the divine presence as a drama in his soul.

Gogol never had religious doubts.  His faith had much in common with the Protestant religion, he also became close to the Catholic tradition. In the final version of Dead Souls, which he never published, Gogol planned to introduce the figure of a priest who would embody Orthodox and Catholic virtues.

Gogol’s fiction was the arena of his spiritual search. Contrary to the view of many scholars, there was no real divide between the ‘literary works’ of Gogol’s early period and the ‘religious works’ of his final years, although he did reveal a more explicit interest in religious issues later on. All Gogol’s writings have a theological significance - they were indeed the first in a national tradition that granted fiction the status of religious prophecy. ‘The Overcoat’, for example, has echoes of the life of St Acacius.

The work to which he then devoted all his energies was envisaged as a three-part novel called Dead Souls - an epic ‘poem’ in the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy - in which the providential plan for Russia was at last to be revealed. The grotesque imperfections of provincial Russia were exposed in the first, and only finished version which was published in 1842. IN the second part of his tale, Gogol intended to describe Russia’s resurrection and its spiritual ascent on an ‘infinite ladder of human perfection’.

Gogol's champions were the Slavophiles, whose fantasy of Russia as a holy union of Christian souls was naturally attractive to a writer so disturbed by the soulless individualism of modern society.  The Slavhophiles beleived that they could create a sobornost (from the Russian word ‘sobor’ which was used for both ‘cathedral’ and ‘assembly’) as the basis of a new social system. The system rejected any coercive political system and insisted that the community membership had to be a freely chosen. The Slaovophile, Aleksei Khomiakov, argued that faith could not be proved by reasoning. It had to be arrived at by experience, by feeling from within the Truth of Christ, not by laws and dogmas. The True Church could not persuade or force men to believe, for it had no authority except the love of Christ. 

The Slavophiles believed that the True Church was the Russian one. Unlike the Western churches, which enforced their authority through laws and statist hierarchies like the Papacy, Russian Orthodoxy, as they saw it, was a truly spiritual community, whose only head was Christ. They espoused a social Church, some would say a socialistic one, and many of their writings on religion were banned as a result (Khomiakov’s theological writings were not published until 1879). The Slavophiles were firm believers in the liberation of the serfs: they pointed to the peasantry’s communal way of life (‘a Christian union of love and brotherhood’), to their peaceful, gentle nature and humility, to their immense patience and suffering, and to their willingness to sacrifice their individual egos for a higher moral good - be that for the commune, the nation or the Tsar.

The concept of a national soul or essence was commonplace in the Romantic age, though Gogol was the first to give the ‘Russian soul’ this messianic turn. The lead came from Germany, where Romantics like Friedrich Schelling developed the idea of a national spirit as a means to distinguish their own national culture from that of the West. Prince Odoevsky, the archpriest of the Schelling cult in Russia, argued that the West had sold its soul to the Devil in the pursuit of material progress. ‘Your soul has turned into a steam engine’, he wrote in his novel Russian Nights (1844); Nationalists attributed a creative spontaneity and fraternity to the simple peasantry that had long been lost in the bourgeois culture of the West.

  • Pyotr Plavilshikov, ‘On the Innate Qualities of the Russian Soul’ (1792)

In the novella Taras Bulba (1835), Gogol had attributed to the Russian soul a special kind of love that only Russians felt. ‘There are no bonds more sacred than those of comradeship! the kinship of the spirit, rather than the blood, is something only known to man.

In the unforgettable troika passage at the end of the first volume of Dead Souls, Gogol revealed his purpose in the rest of his master work: a divine mission to reveal the sacred truth of the ‘Russian soul’. Gogol looked for inspiration to the monasteries. The Slavophiles had pointed Gogol towards Optina. Dead Souls was conceived as a work of religious instruction. Its written style is imbued with the spirit of Isaiah, who prophesied the fall of Babylon.

The trouble was that Gogol could not picture this holy Russia. He neglected the questions of serfdom and the autocratic state, ludicrously claiming that both were perfectly acceptable so long as they were combined with Christian principles. He eventually despaired of his own religious vision, ‘this is all a dream and it vanishes as soon as one shifts to what it really is in Russia’. As he struggled to achieve inspiration for his messianic task, Gogol's talent languished. His Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1846), a pedantic moral sermon.   Even Father Makary, Gogol’s mentor at Optina, could not endorse Selected Passages.  Makary’s criticisms were a crushing blow for Gogol, He felt himself unworthy before God and began to starve himself to death. His last words he uttered as he died, aged forty-three, on 24 February 1852, were, ‘Bring me a ladder. Quickly, a ladder!’

3. Belinsky’s Retort: Russians are pagans.

In his famous letter to Gogol, Belinsky had acknowledged that the Russian peasant was full of pious reverence and fear of God. “But he utters the name of God while scratching his backside. And he says about the icon: “It’s good for praying - and you can cover the pots with it as well.” 'Look carefully’, the literary critic concluded, ‘and you will see that the Russians are by nature an atheistic people with many superstitions but not the slightest trace of religiosity.’

The Church itself was increasingly concerned by the image of a heathen peasantry. During the late 1850's, I. S. Belliutsin commented, 'Out of one thousand men, at most two or three know the Ten Commandments; so far as the women are concerned, nothing even needs to be said here. And this is Orthodox Rus’! The priest himself was barely literate. Most priests were the sons of other parish priests. They were brought up in the countryside, and few had received more than a little education in a local seminary. The clergy were unable to support themselves on the meagre salaries they received from the state, or from the farming of their own small chapel plots. They relied heavily on collecting fees for their services

The peasants did not hold their priests in high esteem.  They were regarded as merely a class of tradesmen in the sacraments. In this precarious situation the priest was obliged to live on the constantly shifting border between the Church’s idea of faith and the semi-pagan version of the peasantry.

For all the claims of the Slavophiles and the intense devotion of the Old Believers, the Russian peasant had never been more than semi-attached in the Orthodox religion. Even though he thought of himself, first of all, as ‘Orthodox’, and only later (if at all) as ‘Russian’, only a thin coat of Christianity had been painted over his ancient pagan folk culture. The average nineteenth-century Russian peasant knew very little of the Gospels. The Russian Bible  did not exist in a complete published version until the middle of the 1870s. The Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments were unknown to the average peasant.  In My Universities (1922) Gorky describes a peasant he encountered in a village near Kazan who pictured God as a large, handsome old man. The concept of the Trinity befuddled most peasants. One said, 'I can’t understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I’m concerned. There is God and that’s enough. But now there’s another!'

Natural gods were frequently combined or interchangeable in the peasant’s Christian-pagan religion. There was Poludnitsa, goddess of the harvest, worshipped through the placement of a sheaf of rye behind the icon in the peasant’s house; Vlas, the protector of the herds, who became in Christian times St Vlasius; and Lada, the deity of good fortune.

At the core of the Russian faith is a distinctive stress on motherhood which never really took root in the West. Where the Catholic tradition stressed Mary’s purity, the Russian Church emphasized her divine motherhood - the bogoroditsa. Russian icons tend to show the Madonna’s face pressed maternally against her infant’s head. It was, it seems, a conscious plan on the part of the Church to appropriate the pagan cult of Rozhanitsa, the goddess of fertility, and the ancient Slavic cult of the damp Mother Earth, or the goddess known as Mokosh.

Russia’s Christian rituals and ornaments were similarly influenced by pagan practices. From the sixteenth century, for example, the procession of the Cross in the Russian Church moved in clockwise circles with the sun (as it did in the Western Church). In the Russian case it has been suggested that this was in imitation of the pagan circle dance (kborovod) which moved in the direction of the sun to summon up its magic influence (as late as the nineteenth century there were peasant proverbs advising on the wisdom of ploughing in the direction of the sun’s movement). The onion dome of the Russian church was also modelled on the sun.

Embroidered towels and belts had a sacred function in peasant culture - they were often draped around the icon in the ‘holy corner’ of the peasant hut - and individual patterns, colours and motifs had symbolic meanings in various rituals. The twisting threaded pattern, for example, symbolized the creation of the world (‘the earth began to twist and it appeared’, the peasants said).  The colour red had a special magic power: it was reserved for belts and towels that were used in sacred rituals. In Russian the word for ‘red’ (krasnyi) is connected with the word for ‘beautiful’ (krasivyi) - which explains, among many other things, the naming of Red Square. It was equally the colour of fertility - which was regarded as a sacred gift. There were different belts for every stage of life. Newborn babies were tied up with a belt. Boys were given a red ‘virgin belt’. Bridal couples girded themselves in red. Russian demons and mermaids were always portrayed beltless.

It was not unusual for a gentry family to observe all the strictest rituals of the Church and, without any sense of contradiction, to hold simultaneously to pagan superstitions and beliefs that any European would have dismissed as the nonsense of serfs. Fortune-telling games and rituals abounded. Peasant superstitions were also widely found among the aristocracy. The peasant nanny was without a doubt the main source of these superstitions, and such was her importance in the nobleman’s upbringing that they often loomed much larger in his consciousness than all the teachings of the Church. Superstitions about death were particularly common in the aristocracy

Tolstoy gave the nameless pronoun ‘it’ to the idea of death in those brilliant passages where he explores the experience of dying in The Death of Ivan Ilich. Tchaikovsky was terrified of death. Orthodox and pagan - yet a rationalist: an educated Russian could be all these things. Stravinsky, for example, though more chameleon-like than most, found an intellectual home in French Catholicism in the 1920s. Yet at the same time he became more emotionally attached than ever to the rituals of the Russian Church.

It is difficult to say what was more important in the evolution of this complex religious sensibility, the relatively superficial nature of the aristocracy’s religious upbringing which allowed space for other beliefs or the multinational influences on that class, but either way it made for a culture that was far more complex than the type we might imagine from the mythic image of the ‘Russian soul’.


4.  Dostoevsky’s Socialism: Father Zosima’s Russian Church

In 1878 Dostoevsky made the first of several trips to Optina Pustyn. Many of the scenes he witnessed at Optina would reappear in it, and the long discourse of the elder Zosima on the social ideal of the Church, which really should be read as Dostoevsky’s own profession de foi, was borrowed from the writings of the monastery, with long parts lifted almost word for word from The Life of the Elder Leonid (1876) by Father Zedergolm.

The character of Zosima was mainly based on the elder Amvrosy

, ‘Devout Peasant Women’, he re-creates a scene which takes us to the heart of the Russian faith. Zosima gives comfort to a desperate peasant woman who is also grieving for a little son:

“Don’t you know,” said the saint to her, “how bold and fearless these little ones are before the throne of our Lord? There’s none bolder or more fearless than they in the Kingdom of Heaven: Thou, O Lord, hast given us life, they say to God, and no sooner had we looked upon it than Thou didst take it away. And so boldly and fearlessly do they ask and demand an explanation that God gives them at once the rank of angels.

For don’t forget, he’s living, he’s living, for the soul lives for ever, and though he is no longer in the house, he’s always there unseen beside you.

    Dostoevsky was a man who yearned for faith. But the death of little children was a fact he could not accept as a part of the divine plan

the centre of The Brothers Karamazov and its discourse about God. It involved a general whose hunting dog was wounded when a serf boy on his estate threw a stone. The general had the serf boy arrested, stripped naked in front of the other villagers, and, to the cries of his desperate mother, torn to shreds by a pack of hunting dogs.

why he cannot believe in the existence of a God if his truth entails the suffering of little innocents.

In a letter to a friend Dostoesvky said that Ivan’s argument was ‘irrefutable’

How could one believe in God when the world created by him was so full of suffering? It was a question he was bound to ask when he looked at the society in which he lived. How could God have made Russia?

The teaching of the Gospels always remained at the core of Dostoevsky’s personality

he became a socialist, the type of socialism to which he subscribed had a close affinity with Christ’s ideals

1849 Dostoevsky was arrested as a member of a radical underground movement which met at the house of the young socialist Mikhail Petrashevsky in St Petersburg. His offence was to have read out Belinsky’s by-then famous but forbidden letter to Gogol of 1847 in

Dostoevsky and his comrades were condemned to death, but at the final moment, when they were on the parade ground waiting to be shot, they received a reprieve from the Tsar

Dostoevsky’s years in the Omsk prison camp were to be the turning point of his life.

. ‘I have learned to know, if not Russia, then at least her people, to know them, as perhaps very few know them.’72 What Dostoevsky found among his fellow convicts was a level of depravity that shook him from his old intelligentsia belief in the people’s innate goodness and perfectibility

The House of the Dead (1862), was an almost total absence of remorse.

I saw among these people not the slightest trace of repentance, not one sign that their crime weighed heavily on their conscience, and that the majority of them consider themselves to be completely in the right

a vision of redemption to restore the writer’s faith. The revelation appeared, as if by a miracle, at Easter time, if we are to believe Dostoevsky’s own later recollection in A Writer’s Diary.

Suddenly, a long-forgotten incident from his childhood came into his mind. When he was aged nine he was staying at his family’s country home, and one August day he wandered off alone into the woods. He heard a sound, thought that someone shouted ‘There’s a wolf!’ and ran terrified into a nearby field, where one of his father’s serfs, a peasant called Marey, took pity on the boy and tried to comfort him

‘maternal’ act of kindness

I cannot peer into his heart, after all.

all the Russian convicts had some tiny glimmer of goodness in their hearts (although, always the nationalist, he denied its existence in the Polish ones). Over Christmas some of them put on a vaudeville,

the convicts’ ability to preserve any sense of decency, in the dreadful conditions of the camp, seemed little short of miraculous, and the best proof there could be that Christ was alive in the Russian land

he saw this barbarism as the ‘filth’ of centuries of oppression concealing, like a ‘diamond’, the peasant’s Christian soul.

Do not judge our People by what they are, but by what they would like to become.

Dostoevsky was released and allowed to return to St Petersburg in 1859

emancipation of the serfs, which was in its final stages of preparation, had given rise to hopes of a national and spiritual rebirth.

Dostoevsky compared the Decree to Russia’s original conversion to Christianity in 988. He belonged at this time to the group of writers known as the ‘native soil’ movement (pochvennichestvo).

For Dostoevsky, in particular, this turning towards ‘Russia’ became his defining credo. He was a repentant nihilist, as he described himself, an unhappy atheist who longed to find a Russian faith

‘The Life of a Great Sinner’. It would chart the spiritual journey of a Western-educated Russian man

a ‘gigantic novel’,

his four great novels - Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov - were all variations on its theme.

Shatov in The Devils (1871), can never quite commit to an unambiguous belief in God.

’I - I shall believe in God.

Dostoevsky’s novels can be read as an open discourse between reason and belief

all true belief must be maintained in the face of all reason

the Grand Inquisitor,

the Grand Inquisitor argues that the only way to prevent human suffering is, not by Christ’s example, which ordinary mortals are too weak to follow, but by the construction of a rational order which can secure, by force if necessary, the peace and happiness that people really want.

He condemned as ‘Western’ all faiths which sought a reasoned understanding of Divinity or which had to be enforced by papal laws and hierarchies (and in this sense the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor was itself intended by Dostoevsky as an argument against the Roman Church).

a mystical belief outside of all reasoning

, ‘if someone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really was that the truth lay outside Christ, I would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth’.

Like Karamazov, Dostoevsky took delight in this ‘Russian faith’, this strange capacity to believe in miracles.

the urge to go on believing, despite his doubts, because faith was necessary for life; rationalism led only to despair, to murder or to suicide - the fate of all the rationalists in his novels. Dostoevsky’s answer to the voice of doubt and reason was a sort of existential ‘credo ergo sum’

the redemptive quality of the Russian peasant soul. In all his novels the quest of the ‘Great Sinner’ for a ‘Russian faith’ is intimately linked to the idea of salvation through reconciliation with the native soil.

Crime and Punishment,

the old woman had been ‘useless’ to society and that he, meanwhile, was poor. He thus persuades himself that he killed the pawnbroker for altruistic reasons, just as the revolutionaries legitimized their crimes, when in fact, as he comes to realize with the help of his lover and spiritual guide, the prostitute Sonya, he killed her to demonstrate his superiority.

The suffering of such convicts had long been seen by Russian writers as a form of spiritual redemption. The journey to Siberia became a journey towards God

the poem by Nekrasov (‘Russian Women’) which compared Maria to a saint. Dostoevsky shared this veneration of the Decembrists and their suffering wives.

the voluntary nature of their suffering.

humility, which Dostoevsky argued was the truly Christian essence of the Russian peasantry - their ‘spiritual capacity for suffering’.88 It was the reason why they felt a natural tenderness towards the weak and poor, even towards criminals, whom villagers would help with gifts of food and clothes as they passed in convoy to Siberia. Dostoevsky explained this compassion by the idea that the peasants felt a ‘Christian sense of common guilt and responsibility towards their fellow-men’.89 This Christian sense emerged as the central theme of The Brothers Karamazov. At the heart of the novel stand the teachings of the elder Zosima - that ‘we are all responsible for each other’, even for the ‘murderers and robbers in the world’,

the thought of his wanton cruelty to the poor batman the evening before. Suddenly he realized that he had no right to be waited on ‘by a man like me created in God’s image’

Dmitry Karamazov

Wrongly convicted of his father’s murder, Dmitry wants nevertheless to suffer in Siberia to purify himself and expiate the sins of other men. Suffering thus awakens consciousness.

a dream. During the hearings before his trial he falls asleep and finds himself in a peasant’s hut. He cannot understand why the peasants are so poor, why the mother cannot feed her baby, which continually cries.

One can find a human heart there also, in the mines, under the ground, next to you, in another convict and murderer

a Church of social action and responsibility.

the Church was losing ground to the socialist intelligentsia and to the various sectarians and mystics who were searching for a more meaningful and socially responsible spiritual community.

Dostoevsky’s writings must be seen in this context. He, too, was searching for such a Church, a Christian brotherhood like the Slavophiles’ sobornost’


His Utopia, a socio-mystical ideal, was nothing less than a theocracy

radical expansion of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts.

the idea of Holy Russia was to raise the state to the level of a Church. Ivan’s reforms of the courts would substitute the moral sanction of the Church for the coercive power of the state: instead of punishing its criminals, society should seek to reform their souls. Zosima rejoices at this argument. No criminal can be deterred, he argues, let alone reformed, by ‘all these sentences of hard labour in Siberian prisons’

Optina’s Father Zedergolm)

he final scene of The Brothers Karamazov, where Alyosha (who has left the monastery and gone into the world) attends the funeral of the poor child Ilyusha, struck down by tuberculosis.

a group of boys

They gather at the stone where Ilyusha’s father had wanted to bury his son

‘How good life is when you do something that is good and just!’99

The censors banned large parts of Dostoevsky’s novel, claiming that such passages had more to do with socialism than with Christ.101 It is perhaps ironic for a writer who is best known as an anti-socialist, but Dostoevsky’s vision of a democratic Church remained close to the socialist ideals which he espoused in his youth. The emphasis had changed - as a socialist he had believed in the moral need for the transformation of society, whereas as a Christian he had come to see that spiritual reform was the only way to effect social change - but essentially his quest for Truth had always been the same. Dostoevsky’s whole life can be seen as a struggle to combine the teaching of the Gospels with the need for social justice on this earth,

Dostoevsky’s vision of a democratic Church remained close to the socialist ideals which he espoused in his youth. The emphasis had changed - as a socialist he had believed in the moral need for the transformation of society, whereas as a Christian he had come to see that spiritual reform was the only way to effect social change - but essentially his quest for Truth had always been the same. Dostoevsky’s whole life can be seen as a struggle to combine the teaching of the Gospels with the need for social justice on this earth,

our Russian ‘socialism’ the ceaseless longing, which has always been inherent in the Russian people, for a great, general, universal union of brotherhood in the name of Christ.

It is not in Communism, not in mechanical forms that we find the socialism of the Russian people: they believe that salvation is ultimately to be found in worldwide union in the name of Christ. That is our Russian socialism!

5. Tolstoy vs. Chekhov on Faith and Death

28 October 1910 Tolstoy crept out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana determined to end his days at the monastery of Optina, whose mystical approach to Christianity, uncluttered as it was by the rituals and institutions of the Church, was very close to Tolstoy’s own religious faith.

Father Sergius (1890-98)

The monastery was not far from his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and on several occasions over the previous thirty years he had walked there like a peasant to calm his troubled mind by talking about God with the elder Amvrosy. The ascetic life of the Optina hermits was an inspiration to Tolstoy: so much so that Father Sergius (1890-98

Optina, whose mystical approach to Christianity, uncluttered as it was by the rituals and institutions of the Church, was very close to Tolstoy’s own religious faith.

To judge from A Confession, Tolstoy’s turn to God was a sudden one - the result of a moral crisis in the latter half of the 1870s.

But in fact the search for faith was a constant element of Tolstoy’s life and art

For Tolstoy, God is love: where there is love, there is God. The divine core of every human being is in their compassion and ability to love. Sin is loss of love - a punishment itself - and the only way to find redemption is through love itself

‘Family Happiness’ (1859) to his final novel, Resurrection (1899)

Tolstoy had a mystical approach to God. He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer

the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.104

the hermits’ way of prayer at Optina.

Tolstoy came to reject the doctrines of the Church - the Trinity, the Resurrection, the whole notion of a divine Christ - and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being. His was a form of Christianity that could not be contained by any Church. It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues - of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression

Christian socialism

He was a pacifist. In his view, the only way to fight injustice and oppression was by obeying Christ’s teachings.

His Christian anarchism was hugely appealing to the peasantry, and as such it was perceived as a major threat to the established Church, even to the Tsar.

By 1899, when Tolstoy published Resurrection, he was better known as a social critic and religious dissident than as a writer of fiction. It was the novel’s religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state -the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy - that made it, by a long way, his best-selling novel in his own lifetime.

e more the Church and the state attacked Tolstoy, the greater was the writer’s following, until he was finally excommunicated in 1901

‘I Cannot Remain Silent’, written in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre which sparked the Revolution of 1905

he Dukhobors

pacifists who rejected the authority of Church and state

All the core elements of ‘Tolstoyism’ - the idea that the Kingdom of God is within oneself, the rejection of the doctrines and rituals of the established Church, the Christian principles of the (imagined) peasant way of life and community - were also part of Dukhobor belief.

his living Christianity

The number of sectarians had grown dramatically, from somewhere in the region of 3 million members in the eighteenth century to perhaps 30 million in the first decade of the twentieth century

an answer to their yearning for a new and more ‘essential’ kind of Russian faith

the personal root of his religion was a fear of death which became more intense with every passing year

‘On Life’ (1887),

In 1897 Tolstoy paid a visit to Chekhov

Tolstoy, Chekhov noted with his usual cutting wit, was ‘almost disappointed’ not to find his friend at the point of death

As Chekhov lay there spitting blood, he harangued him with a lecture about death and the afterlife. Chekhov listened attentively, but in the end he lost patience and started arguing. He viewed the mysterious force, in which Tolstoy thought the dead would be dissolved, as a ‘formless frozen mass’, and told Tolstoy that he did not really want that kind of eternal life. In fact, Chekhov said, he did not understand life after death. He saw no point in thinking about it, or in comforting oneself, as he put it, with ‘delusions of immortality’.

Chekhov saw the Church as an ally of the artist, and the artist’s mission as a spiritual one. As he once said to his friend Gruzinsky, ‘the village church is the only place where the peasant can experience something beautiful’.123


 ‘The Bishop’, ‘The Student’, ‘On the Road’ and ‘Ward No. 6’) are profoundly concerned with the search for faith. Chekhov himself had religious doubts - he once wrote that he would become a monk if the monasteries took people who were not religious and he did not have to pray.

‘On the Road’ (1886)

, ‘faith is a gift of the spirit. It is a talent:

For without faith in a better world to come, life in Chekhov’s Russia would be unendurable.

their faith, as Chekhov himself did, in the ability of work and science to improve life for humanity. They

mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God - that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four.

‘I am going away to die,’ Chekhov told a friend on the eve of their departure. ‘Everything is finished.”

No other writer wrote so often, or so imaginatively, about the actual moment of dying - his depictions of the deaths of Ivan Ilich and of Prince Andrei in War and Peace are among the best in literature. But these are not just deaths. They are final reckonings - moments when the dying re-evaluate the meaning of their lives and find salvation, or some resolution, in a spiritual truth

The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886)

Gerasim was the only person who recognized the position and was sorry for him.

‘We shall all of us die, so what’s a little trouble?

The Death of Ivan Ilich was based upon the death of Tolstoy’s friend, Ivan Ilich Mechnikov

the Russian upper classes to draw comfort from their servants’ presence at the moment of their death. From diaries and memoirs it would seem that, far more than the priest who came to take confession and administer last rites, the servants helped the dying overcome their fears with their simple peasant faith which ‘enabled them to look death in the face’.

Tolstoy in Three Deaths (1856), by Leskov in The Enchanted Pilgrim (1873), by Saltykov-Shchedrin in Old Days in Poshekhonie (1887

Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward (1968),

erf-like fatalism in which death was viewed as a release from suffering. When they talked about their lot, the peasants often referred to the afterlife as a ‘kingdom of liberty’

Turgenev’s Sketches, in the story ‘Living Relic’, where a sick peasant woman yearns for death to end her suffering. Like many of her class, she believes that she will be rewarded for her suffering in Heaven and this makes her unafraid to die. Others explained such peasant fatalism as a form of self-defence.

nearly half the children died before the age of

the souls of little children go straight up to heaven’.145 Such thoughts must have been of real comfort. For the peasantry believed in a universe where the earth and spirit worlds were intimately linked in one continuum

There were good and bad spirits in the Russian peasant world, and how a person died determined whether his spirit would also be good or bad.

the spirits of the dead led an active life. Their souls ate and slept, they felt cold and pain, and they often came back to the family household, where by custom they took up residence behind the stove. It was important to feed the dead

Easter and Pentecost, it was important for the family to give remembrance to the dead and feed their souls, in graveside picnics, with ritual breads and pies and decorated eggs. Breadcrumbs would be scattered on the graves to feed the birds

: ‘When I am dying I should like to be asked whether I still see life as before, as a progression towards God, an increase of love. If I should not have the strength to speak, and the answer is yes, I shall close my eyes; if it is no, I shall look up.’

thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana, where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favourite childhood spot.


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

1. Kandinsky and the Mongol Tradition

Kandinsky thought he might become an anthropologist.

a trip to the remote Komi region, 800 kilometres north-east of Moscow, to study the beliefs of its Finno-Ugric tribes. Travelling by train as far as Vologda, where the railway stopped, he then sailed east along the Sukhona river, entering the forests of ‘another world’, as he recalled, where the people still believed in demons and spirits.: a meeting point between Christianity and the old shamanic paganism of the Asiatic tribes. It was a ‘wonderland’ where ‘the people’s every action is accompanied by secret magic rituals’.1 Ust-Sysolsk, the region’s capital, where Kandinsky lived for three summer months in 1889

He was looking for the remnants of the paganism which Russian missionaries had described in that region from medieval times: legendary tales about the Komi shamans who beat their drums and flew off on their horse-sticks to the spirit world.

in their private lives, as Kandinsky ascertained, they still looked to the old shamans.

a forest monster called ‘Vorsa’.

a ‘living soul’ they called an ‘ort’

They prayed to the spirits of the water and the wind; they spoke to the fire

Scratching the surface of Komi life Kandinsky had revealed its Asian origins.

ceramic pottery with Mongolian ornament.

a chapel with a Mongolian roof,

the theory of a Ural-Altaic family of languages that united the Finns with the Ostiaks, the Voguls, Samoyeds and Mongols in a single culture stretching from Finland to Manchuria. 1850s by the Finnish explorer M. A. Castren;  shamanistic motifs, for example, appear in the Kalevala, or ‘Land of Heroes’, the Finnish national epic poem. Like a shaman with his horse-stick and drum, its hero Vainamoinen journeys with his kantele (a sort of zither) to a magic underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead. One-fifth of the Kalevala is composed in magic charms.

The Kandinskys took their name from the Konda river near Tobolsk in Siberia, where they had settled in the eighteenth century. The family was descended from the Tungus tribe, it is possible that he had Komi blood as well.9

‘Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar,’ Napoleon once said. The coats of arms of Russian families - where Muslim motifs such as sabres, arrows, crescent moons and the 8-pointed star

Mongol legacy: Turkic-speaking nomads with Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde: some of the most famous names in Russian history: writers like Karamzin, Turgenev, Bulgakov and Akhmatova; philosophers like Chaadaev, Kireevsky, Berdiaev; statesmen like Godunov, Bukharin, Tukhachevsky; and composers like Rimsky-Korsakov.

the families of Turkic origin who came to Russia from the west

Families of mixed Slav and Tatar ancestry

Russian families who changed their names to make them sound more Turkic

Russia’s grandest dynasties - the Sheremetevs, Stroganovs and Rostopchins

gogul-a type of steppeland bird

Turgenev derives from the Mongol word for ‘swift’ (tiirgen);

Bulgakov from the Turkic word ‘to wave’ (bulgaq)

Godunov from the Mongol word godon (‘a stupid person’);

Korsakov from the Turkic word qorsaq Akhmatova

Adopting Turkic names became the height of fashion at the court of Moscow between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries During the eighteenth century, when Peter’s nobles were obliged to look westwards, the fashion fell into decline.

Nabokov, for example, claimed (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that his family was descended from no less a personage than Genghiz Khan himself.

Kandinsky lecture on the findings of his trip to the Imperial Ethnographic Society in St Petersburg. (1890)

intellectuals were now looking towards the East for spiritual renewal.

The defining myth Russia had evolved as a Christian civilization, Its culture was a product of the combined influence of Scandinavia and Byzantium. A struggle by the agriculturalists of the northern forest lands against the horsemen of the Asiatic steppe. To suggest an Asiatic influence on Russia’s culture was to invite charges of treason. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, cultural attitudes shifted.

1860s, Stasov was denounced by the Slavophiles and other when he tried to show that much of Russia’s folk culture, its ornament and folk epics (byliny), had antecedents in the East. Yet by the end of the 1880s, when Kandinsky made his trip, there was an explosion of research into the Asiatic origins of Russia’s folk culture

Anthropologists found

shamanic practices in Russian peasant sacred rituals.13 Others pointed out

animistic beliefs had been handed down to them from the Mongol tribes. Like the Bashkirs and the Chuvash (tribes of Finnish stock with a strong Tatar strain), the Russian peasants used a snakelike leather charm to draw a fever; and like the Komi, or the Ostiaks and the Buriats in the Far East, they were known to hang the carcass of an ermine or a fox from the portal of their house to ward away the ’evil eye’

the ritual use of totems was practised by many Asian tribes. When a child was born they would carve a wooden figurine of the infant and bury it together with the placenta in a coffin


2.  The Mongol Inheritance (despite the Eurocentric national myth)

In 1237 a vast army of Mongol horsemen left their grassland bases on the Qipchaq steppe to the north of the Black Sea and raided the principalities of Kievan Rus’. The Russians were too weak and internally divided to resist, and in the course of the following three years every major Russian town, with the exception of Novgorod, had fallen to the Mongol hordes. For the next 250 years Russia was ruled, albeit indirectly, by the Mongol khans. The Mongols did not occupy the central Russian lands. They settled with their horses on the fertile steppelands of the south and collected taxes from the Russian towns, over which they exerted their domination through periodic raids of ferocious violence.

It is hard to overstress the sense of national shame which the ‘Mongol yoke’ evokes in the Russians. Unless one counts Hungary, Kievan Rus’ was the only major European power to be overtaken by the Asiatic hordes

It took until as late as 1380, when the power of the Mongols was already weakening, for the Russians to wage their first real battle against them; another century of in-fighting between the Mongol khans passed – before the Russian princes found the wherewithal to fight a war against each one in turn.

the Mongol occupation was a story of the Russian princes’ own collaboration with their Asiatic overlords.

According to the national myth, the Mongols came, they terrorized and pillaged, but then they left without a trace; Russia’s Christian civilization, with its monasteries and churches, remained unaffected. They may live on the Asiatic steppe but they face towards the West. Dmitry Likhachev, the leading twentieth-century cultural historian of Russia, ‘we received extraordinarily little’ - and his book, called Russian Culture, This national myth is based on the idea of the Mongols’ cultural backwardness. They ruled by terror, bringing (in Pushkin’s famous phrase) ‘neither algebra nor Aristotle’. Karamzin, in his History of the Russian State, did not write a thing about the cultural legacies of Mongol rule.

In fact the Mongol tribes were far from backward. If anything, particularly in terms of their military technology and organization,

a sophisticated system of administration and taxation: dengi (money), tamozbna (customs) and kazna (treasury

large urban settlements with palaces and schools, well laid-out streets and hydraulic systems, craft workshops and farms.

without rich pastures or trade routes, the northern forest lands were of little benefit to their nomadic life.

their true wealth derived from  silk-route colonies in the Caucasus, Persia, Central Asia and northern India.

Pushkin wrote to Chaadaev in 1836, it was then that Russia became separated from the West

To this end we were obliged to lead a completely separate existence which, while it left us Christians, almost made us complete strangers in the Christian world… I do not by any means admire all that I see around me… but I swear to you that not for anything in the world would I change my country for another,

the taboo which Asia represented to the educated classes of Russia at that time

Abram Gannibal: A favourite at Peter’s court, Gannibal was sent to study in Paris. He rose to become a major-general under the Empress Elizabeth, who granted him an estate with 1,400 serfs at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov.

Russian Europhiles like Chaadaev found nothing to impress them in the Mongol legacy; Karamzin pointed to the Mongols for the degeneration of Russia’s political morals.

 The Asiatic character of Russia’s despotism became a commonplace of the nineteenth-century democratic intelligensia and was also later used as an explanation for the Soviet system. Herzen said that Nicholas I was ‘Genghiz Khan with a telegraph’ - and, continuing in that tradition, Stalin was compared to Genghiz Khan with a telephone

The khans demanded, and mercilessly enforced, complete submission to their will from all their subjects, peasants and noblemen alike. Moscow’s princes emulated the behaviour of the khans when they ousted them from the Russian lands and succeeded them as Tsars in the sixteenth century. Indeed, they justified their new imperial status not just on the basis of their spiritual descent from Byzantium but also on the basis of their territorial inheritance from Genghiz Khan. The title ‘Tsar’ had been used by the last khan of the Golden Horde. Genghiz Khan’s descendants held a prominent position in the Moscow court and, by any estimate, a sizeable proportion of the Russian aristocracy had the great khan’s blood running through their veins. Simeon Bekbulatovich and Boris Godunov were both Tsar descendants of the Golden Horde.

The Mongol invasion involved a huge migration of nomadic tribes who had been forced to find new pastures on the steppe through the overpopulation of Mongolia. Many of the immigrants became absorbed in the settled population and stayed behind in Russia when the Golden Horde was pushed back to Mongolia. The idea of a peasantry of purely Russian stock must be seen as no more than myth.

imported Tatar words were particularly common in the languages of commerce and administration, where the descendants of the Golden Horde dominated.

Turkic phrases also left their mark on the language of the street - perhaps most notably in those ‘davai’ verbal riffs which

Russian customs were equally influenced by the Tatar immigration

Russian folk taboos connected with the threshold and honouring a person by throwing them into the air

Nabokov’s father

the shamanistic cults of the Mongol tribes were incorporated in the Russian peasant faith, as Kandinsky and his fellow anthropologists had argued

The Holy Fool (yurodivyi

In Russian folklore, the ‘fool for the sake of Christ’, or Holy Fool for short, held the status of a saint - though he acted more like an idiot or madman than the self-denying martyr demanded by St Paul.

Childhood, Tolstoy: a Holy Fool at Yasnaya Polyana

Writers and artists portrayed the Holy Fool as an archetype of the simple Russian believer

Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov

Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

In Russia (1916) Mikhail Nesterov

The Fool’s untutored and largely improvised sacraments probably owed more to the Asian shamans than they did to the Russian Church: whirling dance, drum and bells; he wore his chains in the belief, which was shared by Asian shamans, that iron had a supernatural quality.

the image of the raven

Many common elements of Russian clothing were also Asiatic in their origins

The food of Russia, too, was deeply influenced by the cultures of the East basic Russian dishes, such as plov (pilaff), lapsha (noodles) and tvorog (curd cheese the Russian taste for horsemeat

All the major tribes of Central Asia - the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Kalmyks and Kirghiz - were offshoots of the Golden Horde; Lenin was descended from one of these Kalmyks. His paternal grandfather, Nikolai Ulianov, was a Kalmyk son from Astrakhan

3. Orientalism and the Conquest of Siberia

    To commemorate the defeat of the Mongol khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. St Basil’s in 1560, a triumphant proclamation of the country’s liberation from the Tatar culture that had dominated it since the thirteenth century

Moscow’s victory against the Tatars was conceived as a religious triumph, and the empire which that victory launched was in many ways regarded as an Orthodox crusade. The conquest of the Asiatic steppe was portrayed as a holy mission to defend the Church against the Tatar infidels.

Moscow as the Third Rome

so the Russian national consciousness was forged by this religious war against the East.

the oldest terms for a foreigner (for example, inoverets) carry connotations of a different faith.

the word in Russian for a peasant (krestianin),

the Russian Empire

The Russians were driven east by fur, the ‘soft gold’ that accounted for one-third of the Imperial coffers at the height of the fur trade in the seventeenth century

Close on the heels of the fur trappers came the Cossack mercenaries

Then came the Tsar’s troops, who constructed fortresses and exacted tributes from the native tribes, followed shortly after by the Church’s missionaries, who set out to deprive them of their shamanistic cults.

Surikov’s enormous painting Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895)

the real point of the conquest was to undermine the shamans who enjoyed a divine status in the Asiatic tribes.

without a clear geographical divide to distinguish them from their Asian colonies, the Russians looked instead to cultural categories.

a tendency to think of all of Russia’s newly conquered territories (Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia) as one undifferentiated ‘east’ - an ‘Aziatshchina’ - which became a byword for ‘oriental langour’ and ‘backwardness’. The image of the Caucasus was orientalized, with travellers’ tales of its wild and savage tribes. Eighteenth-century maps consigned the Caucasus to the Muslim East, though geographically it was in the south, and historically it was an ancient part of the Christian West. In Georgia and Armenia the Caucasus contained Christian civilizations which went back to the fourth century, five hundred years before the Russians converted to Christianity.

In the eighteenth-century imagination the Urals were built up into a vast mountain range, as if shaped by God on the middle of the steppe to mark the eastern limit of the civilized world.*

to justify the whole colonial project in the east, the steppe was reconstructed in the Russian mind as a savage and exotic wilderness whose riches were untapped. It was ‘our Peru’ and ‘our India’.37

the economic decline of Siberia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

the promise of a virgin continent suddenly became supplanted by the bleak image of a vast wasteland.

transformation into one vast prison camp. The term ‘Siberia’ became synonymous in colloquial expressions with penal servitude, wherever it occurred, with savage cruelty (sibirnyi) and a harsh life (sibirshchina).

This Siberia was a region of the mind, an imaginary land to which all the opposites of European Russia were consigned.

Politically, Russia was as imperialist as any Western state. Yet culturally there was a deep ambivalence, so that in addition to the usual Western stance of superiority towards the ‘Orient’ there was an extraordinary fascination and even in some ways an affinity with it.*

The Russians might define themselves as Europeans in relation to Asia, but they were ‘Asiatics’ in the West.

Educated Russians themselves cursed their country’s ‘Asiatic backwardness’.

This makes Russia an extremely big exception to Edward Said’s provocative argument in Orientalism: that the arrogant European sense of cultural superiority imposed on the ‘Orient’ an ‘antitype’ or ‘other’ which underwrote the West’s conquest of the East

the Russians who moved out into the frontier zones, some to trade or farm, others to escape from Tsarist rule, were just as likely to adopt the native culture as they were to impose their Russian way of life on the local tribes

Europeans did not need to settle in their colonies (and did not have to take much interest in their cultures) to siphon off their wealth. But such things were almost bound to happen in a territorial empire as enormous as the Tsar’s, where the Russian settlers in the remotest regions, six months’ journey from the capital, were often forced to adopt local ways.

Potemkin, Prince of Tauride, for example, revelled in the ethnic mix of the Crimea, which he wrested from the last of the Mongol khanates in 1783.

precisely at that moment when Russian troops were marching east and crushing infidels, Catherine’s architects at Tsarskoe Selo were building Chinese villages and pagodas, oriental grottoes, and pavilions in the Turkish style.48

Grigory Volkonsky, the father of the famous Decembrist, who retired as a hero of Suvorov’s cavalry to become Governor of Orenburg between 1803 and 1816.

Many of the Bashkirs joined the Cossack leader Pugachev in his rebellion against the harsh regime of Catherine the Great in 1773-4. They besieged Orenburg (a story told by Pushkin in The Captain’s Daughter) and captured all the other towns between the Volga and the Urals

brutal campaign of pacification against the steppeland tribes

Despite his brutal treatment of the Bashkir population, Volkonsky was an expert on their Turkic culture.

Volkonsky lived like a Persian sultan in his exotic palace, surrounded by a retinue of Kirghiz and Kalmyk household serfs whom he regarded as his ‘second family’.57 He also kept a secret harem of Bashkir ‘wives’.58


4. Russian Orientalism: Lermontov, Balakirev, Stasov, Rimsky-Korsakov

    ‘A fairytale land from The Thousand and One Nights,’ proclaimed Catherine the Great on her first trip to the newly annexed Tatar lands of the Crimea in 1783

the Russian translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1763-71), portrayed the Orient as a hedonistic kingdom of sensual luxury and indolence, seraglios and sultans, as everything, in fact, that the austere north was not.

This ‘Orient’ was not a place that could be found on any map. It was in the south, in the Caucasus and the Crimea, as well as in the east. The two compass points of south and east became combined in an imaginary ‘Orient’ - an exotic counter-culture in the Russian imagination - and it was made up as a sort of pot-pourri from many different cultural elements. In Borodin’s Prince Igor, for example, the melismatic music of the Polovtsian Dances,

Long before the Russians ever knew their colonies as ethnographic facts, they had invented them in their literature and arts.

It was Pushkin who did more than anyone to fix the Russian image of the Caucasus. He reinvented it as the ‘Russian Alps’, a place for contemplation and recuperation from the ills of urban life, in his poem The Prisoner of the Caucasus

the ‘Caucasian cure’

Pushkin’s generation was deeply influenced by the ‘southern theory’ of Romanticism expounded by Sismondi in his De la litterature du Midi de I’Europe (1813), which portrayed the ancient Arabs as the original Romantics.

Lermontov once said that Russian poetry would find its destiny by ‘following the East instead of Europe and the French’.67

The Cossacks were a special caste of fiercely Russian soldiers living since the sixteenth century on the empire’s southern and eastern frontiers in their own self-governing communities in the Don and Kuban regions along the Terek river in the Caucasus, on the Orenburg steppe and, in strategically important settlements, around Omsk, lake Baikal and the Amur river in Siberia.

(‘Cossack’ or ‘quzzaq’ is a Turkic word for horseman

Gogol emphasized the ‘Asiatic’ and ‘southern’ character of the Ukrainian Cossacks in his story ‘Taras Bulba’: in fact, he used these two terms interchangeably. In a related article (‘A Look at the Making of Little Russia’

Tolstoy, who had come to know the Cossacks as an officer in the army, also thought of them as semi-Asiatic in character. In The Cossacks (1863)

Lermontov, who went there a decade later, embraced the Caucasus as his ‘spiritual homeland’

A Hero of Our Times

In the early 1830s he was a student of oriental literature and philosophy at Moscow University. From that time he was strongly drawn to the fatalistic outlook which he saw as Russia’s inheritance from the Muslim

the legends told by Shora Nogmov,

Izmail Bey, in 1832

a bitter condemnation of the Russian Empire

This same mixed identity, semi-Russian and semi-Asiatic, was assigned by Lermontov to Pechorin, the subject of A Hero of Our Times.

with Bela, the daughter of a Circassian chief,

there was no clear boundary between the ‘civilized’ behaviour of the Russian colonists and the ‘barbarous’ acts of the Asiatic tribes.

The composer Balakirev

symphonic poem Tamara (1866-81), based upon Lermontov’s poem of that name. Lermontov’s Tamara (1841) retold the folk story of a Georgian queen whose seductive voice lured lovers to her castle in the mountains overlooking the Terek river.

the common stock of ‘oriental sounds’ - sensuous chromatic scales, syncopated dance-like rhythms and languorous harmonies designed to conjure up the exotic world of hedonistic pleasure

a stunning new device

the harmonies were based on the pentatonic (or five-tone) scale common to the music of Asia. The distinctive feature of the pentatonic or ‘Indo-Chinese’ scale is its avoidance of semitones and thus of any clear melodic gravitation towards any particular tone. It creates the sense of ‘floating sounds’ which is characteristic of Southeast Asian music

the hallmarks of the Russian music school developed by the kucbkists - the ‘Mighty Handful’ (kuchka) of nationalist composers which included Balakirev, Musorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Balakirev’s fantasy for piano Islamei

Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade

Along with Balakirev, Stasov was the major influence on the development of a Russian-oriental musical style.

1882 Stasov wrote an article on ‘Twenty five Years of Russian Art’

Stasov believed that the influence of Asia was ‘manifest in all the fields of Russian culture: in language, clothing, customs, buildings, furniture and items of daily use, in ornaments, in melodies and harmonies, and in all our fairy tales’.80

the ornamentation of the lettering to similar motifs (rhomboids, rosettes, swastikas and chequered patterns, and certain types of floral and animal design) from Persia and Mongolia.

Stasov turned next to the study of the byliny, the epic songs which contained Russia’s oldest folk myths and legends,

Stasov argued that the folk heroes (bogatyrs) of the byliny were really the descendants of the oriental gods

Stasov argued that the folk heroes (bogatyrs) of the byliny were really the descendants of the oriental gods Ilia Muromets

descended from the mythic kings who reigned over India for centuries, or from the oriental gods who transcended human time.84

Stasov caused considerable outrage among the Slavophiles and other nationalists with his Asiatic theory of the byliny

The whole philosophy of the Slavophiles had been built on the assumption that the nation’s culture grew from its native soil. For over thirty years they had lavished their attentions on the byliny, going round the villages and writing down these tales in the firm belief that they were true expressions of the Russian folk.

the ‘mythological school’ of folklorists and literary scholarship

the ancient beliefs of the Russian people could be reconstructed through their contemporary life and art

In the early 1860s the byliny had suddenly become a new and vital piece of evidence for the mythological school

The publication of these Songs, in four volumes between 1861 and 1867

Turgenev’s novel Smoke (1867),

Sadko (1897), the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The spirit of rebellion which Sadko showed against the Novgorod elites symbolized the struggle of the Russian school against the musical establishment. But more importantly, as Stasov hoped, the opera was a chance to draw attention to the Eastern elements of the Sadko tale

the skomorokh was known to wear a bearskin and a mask, to bang his gusli like a drum, and to sing and dance himself into a trance-like frenzy, chanting magic charms to call upon the spirits of the magic world.93 In the draft scenario Stasov underlined these shamanistic powers by having Sadko’s music serve as the main agency of transcendental flight to the underwater world and back again

like Balakirev, Rimsky used the pentatonic scale to create an authentic oriental feel.+

With the help of the Slavophile folklorists who had criticized Stasov, Rimsky made Sadko a ‘Russian opera’, with a civic Christian message for the public at the end.

In the end, it seems, the conception of Sadko as a story linking Russia to the Asian steppe was far too controversial to produce on stage. Sadko, after all, was a national myth - as important to the Russians as Beowulf is to the English or the Kalevala to the Finns.


5. Chekhov’s Report from Sakhalin; his Travel Writing: The Russian Landscape

In April 1890 Chekhov left from Moscow on a three-month trek to Sakhalin

One of Chekhov’s heroes was the traveller and writer Nikolai Przhevalsky,

Chekhov wanted to become a Przhevalsky - to carry out some obvious achievement for humanity and write something of greater consequence than the ‘trifling tales’ he had penned

the treatment of the prisoners in Sakhalin

During the three months he spent on Sakhalin, Chekhov interviewed several thousand prisoners, working up to eighteen hours every day and recording all the details on a database of cards which he had printed up for his research

The Island of Sakhalin (1893-4), the unmistakable authority of truth. In one of the final chapters of that work Chekhov gave an unforgettable description of the brutal beatings which were meted out on an almost casual basis to male and female prisoners alike.

The passage made such an impression on the Russian public that it helped to bring about the eventual abolition of corporal punishment - first for women (in 1897) and then for men (in 1904).

Isaak Levitan was

The two men were such close friends, they shared so much in common in artistic temperament, that their lives and art were intertwined in many different ways. Levitan appears in various forms in Chekhov’s works - perhaps most famously (and almost at the cost of their friendship) in ‘The Grasshopper’ as the lecherous artist Ryabovsky

Both men shared a passion for the humble, muddy countryside of Moscow’s provinces, whose melancholic poetry was captured perfectly in both their works.

Levitan thought this passage from the story ‘Fortune’ (1887) was ‘the height of perfection’ in landscape art

What Chekhov most admired in Levitan’s art (and Levitan in Chekhov’s) was its spiritual response to the natural world.

Savrasov, whose famous painting The Rooks Have Returned (1871)

Chekhov found in Levitan the sort of images he wanted to create in his reader’s mind. In ‘Three Years’ (1895) he gives a description of Levitan’s painting A Quiet Dwelling (1891 Levitan painting, The Village (1888). Evenings on the Volga (1888),

Chekhov, too, was inspired by a visit to the Volga steppe-lands at this time. His approach to landscape in ‘The Steppe’ (1887),

Vladimirka (1892) he combined landscape art with a social history of the steppe. It was Levitan’s attempt to achieve in painting what Chekhov had achieved in Sakhalin. The idea of the painting had come to Levitan on a hunting trip with his lover, the young artist Sofya Kuvshinnikova (the one described by Chekhov in’The Grasshopper’).

Chekhov’s ‘Steppe’ is also dominated by this atmosphere of suffering

four men cross the steppe in a ‘shabby covered chaise’

both the beauty and the bleak monotony of its vast space

the epic history paintings of Vasnetsov and Vrubel,

After Igor’s Battle with the Polovtsians (1880),

Bogatyrs (1898), it is the landscape which is the real subject of the painting

Vrubel’s panneau of the legendary ploughman Mikula Selianovicb (1896)

the Russians were as ‘broad and unrestrained’ in nature as the boundless steppe

Gogol took in his ‘Thoughts on Geography’, published in his collection Arabesques in 1835. He also expounded it in his story ‘Taras Bulba’, where the vast size of the steppe is used as a projection of the Cossacks’ open nature and expansiveness. Many artists thought that the boundless plains were a spur to contemplation and religious hope

On the other hand, the sheer monotony of the never-ending steppe drove many Russian poets to despair. Mandelstam called it the ‘watermelon emptiness of Russia’ and Musorgsky, ‘the All-Russian bog’.

The loneliness of living in a country house,

Saltykov-Shchedrin gives a wonderful description of this mental slumber in The Golovlyov Family (1880):


critic Nikolai Dobroliubov, who first coined the term soon after the book’s publication in 1859, Oblomovshchina

Oblomov’s dressing gown (khalat).

the Asian origin of his hero’s dressing gown

Lenin used the term when he grew frustrated with the unreformability of Russian social life. ‘The old Oblomov is with us’, he wrote in 1920,


6.  Manifest Destiny, Russian Style

It was ‘Providence that had called upon the Russians to reclaim the Asian steppe’; and because of ‘our close relations with the Asiatic world’, this was to be a peaceful process of ‘reunion with our primeval brothers’, rather than the subjugation of a foreign race.

Russia’s cultural homeland was on the Eurasian steppe. racial superiority to the Asiatic tribes,

the military conquest of the Central Asian steppe produced two opposing reactions

Vasily Vereshchagin enormous battle scenes of the Turkestan campaign 1874

his experience of the war had given rise to doubts about the ‘civilizing mission’ of the Russian Empire in the East. On one occasion, after the Russian troops had massacred the people of a Turkmen village, Vereshchagin dug their graves himself. None of his compatriots would touch the dead.129 Vereshchagin came to see the war as a senseless massacre. ‘We see a violence that could not be French or even from the Balkans: it is half-barbarian and semi-Asiatic - it is a Russian violence.’127

After its defeat in the Crimean War, the war in Turkestan showed the world that Russia was a power to be reckoned with. But Vereshchagin’s almost photographic battle images revealed a savagery which had not been seen by civilians beforefirst real view of the Imperial war which the Russians had been fighting

Three Conversations on War, Progress and the End of History (1900), the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. described a vast Asiatic invasion of Europe under the banner of the Antichrist. The opening lines of his memorable poem ‘Pan-Mongolism’ (1894)

for the past ten years against the Muslim tribes as the Tsar’s troops conquered Turkestan.

Andrei Bely was another disciple of Soloviev. In Petersburg Set in the midst of the  1905 Revolution:  Petersburg is swept by howling winds from the Asiatic steppe that almost blow the city back into the sea 

The Scythians (1918)  Russia had protected a thankless Europe from the Asiatic tribes: The Scythian poets were fascinated by this prehistoric realm. In their imaginations the Scyths were a symbol of the wild rebellious nature of primeval Russian man. They rejoiced in the elemental spirit (‘stikhiia’) of savage peasant Russia, and convinced themselves that the coming revolution, which everybody sensed in the wake of the 1905 one, would sweep away the dead weight of European civilization and establish a new culture where man and nature, art and life, were one.

The Asiatic image of ancient Scythian Rus’ was conjured up by Roerich in the set designs and costumes for The Rite of Spring and Rimsky’s opera The Snow Maiden (plate 18). The Idols (1901) his essay ‘Joy in Art’ (1909), The Messenger: Tribe Has Risen against Tribe (1897),

In 1897, he made plans for a series of twelve paintings on the founding of Russia in the ninth century Roerich, who was a fully-trained archaeologist before he became famous for his Scythian designs for The Rite of Spring excavations of the Scythian kurgans Nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals came to see the Scyths as a sort of mythical ancestor race of the eastern Slavs.

 European avant-garde. The ‘Scythian poets’ - as that loose group of writers which included Blok and Bely and the critic Ivanov-Razumnik the ‘Scythian temperament’

Dostoevsky portrayed the Crimean War as the ‘crucifixion of the Russian Christ’. The root of Dostoevsky’s turning to the East was the bitter resentment which he, like many Russians, felt at the West’s betrayal of Russia’s Christian cause in the Crimean War, when France and Britain had sided with the Ottomans against Russia to defend their own imperial interests. In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters.

In 1881 he told the readers of his Writer’s Diary:

In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we can be Europeans. When we turn to Asia, with our new view of her, something of the same sort may happen to us as happened to Europe when America was discovered. For, in truth, Asia for us is that same America which we still have not discovered.

Dostoevsky advanced the notion that Russia’s destiny was not in Europe, as had so long been supposed, but rather in the East.

construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s

The Bronze Horseman. Odoevsky used it, too, as the basis of his story ‘A Joker from the Dead’ in Russian Nights

Karl Bruillov’s famous painting The Last Days of Pompeii (1833

The city is divided into warring class-based zones, and the two main characters, the senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov and his student revolutionary son Nikolai Apollonovich, are on opposing sides of the barricades.

Benois’ illustrations for The Bronze Horseman (1905-18),

Bely portrays Petersburg as a fragile Western civilization precariously balanced on the top of the savage ‘Eastern’ culture of the peasantry.

The thunder of those chargers from the steppe was the approaching sound of 1917

the Eurasianists. Stravinsky

Eurasianism was essentially a phenomenon of the emigration insofar as it was rooted in the sense of Russia’s betrayal by the West in 1917-21

The founding manifesto of the movement was Exodus to the East, a collection of ten essays published in Sofia in 1921,


the geologist Vladimir Lamansky had shown that the soil structure was the same on either side of the Ural mountains: there was one vast steppe stretching from the western borders of the Russian Empire to the Pacific

of Lamansky, the Eurasianist geographer Savitsky showed that the whole land mass of Eurasia was one continuum in biogeographic terms.

essay ‘On the Higher and Lower Strata of Russian Culture’ (1921), Trubetskoi set out to prove the Asian influence on Russian music, dancing and psychology.

the pentatonic scale

the dancing of the East, especially that of the Caucasus.

the Cossack dance, with heels hitting fingers and high jumps

Female dancing also showed an Eastern character, with great importance placed on keeping the head still and on subtle doll-like movements by the rest of the body

This ‘Eastern psyche’ was manifested in the Russian people’s tendency to contemplation, in their fatalistic attitudes, in their love of abstract symmetry and universal laws, in their emphasis on religious ritual, and in their ‘udal’ or fierce bravery.

‘Turanian psychology’

Even Russian Orthodoxy

polemic and resentful posturing against the West

because of their emotive power, Eurasianist ideas had a strong cultural impact on the Russian emigration of the 1920s, when those who mourned the disappearance of their country from the European map could find new hope for it on a Eurasian one.

Stravinsky, for one, was deeply influenced by the mystical views of the Eurasianists, particularly the notion of a natural Russian (‘Turanian’) inclination for collectivity, which the music of such works as The Peasant Wedding, with its absence of individual expression in the tinging parts and its striving for a sparse, impersonal sound, was intended to reflect.

7. Kandinsky: Scythian Shamanism and the Symbolists

The link between the ‘primitive’ and modern abstract art is not uniqueto the Russian avant-garde; it was an inspiration to artists as diverse as Gauguin and Picasso, Kirchner and Klee, Nolde and Franz Marc. However, the Russians’ ‘primitives’ were in their own back yard.

Russian Primitivists: ‘barbarism’

 (Malevich and Kandinsky, Chagall, Goncharova, Larionov and Burliuk) took their inspiration from the art of Russian peasants and the tribal cultures of the Asiatic steppe

Larionov and his wife Goncharova

a ‘peasant aesthetic’ that was closer to the symbolic art forms of the East than the representational tradition of the West; Haycutting (1910).

the painter Shevchenko: “Yes we are Asia and are proud of this.”

Before the First World War, Kandinsky lived in Munich, where he and Marc were the co-editors of The Blue Rider almanac: a synthesis between Western, primitive and oriental cultures

Motley Life (1907)

All Saints II (1911) the Komi shaman Pam

Oval No. 2 (1925

beaks and eyes to represent the bird form

circles for the sun and moon

a hooked curve

symbols he had seen on the drums of Siberian shamans

Buriat shamans hit their sticks (called ‘horses’) while they danced: the tops were shaped like horses’ heads, the bottom ends like hoofs. Among Finno-Ugric tribes the shaman’s drum itself was called a ‘horse’ and was equipped with reins, while the drumstick was referred to as a ‘whip’.

the hobby horse; the Kalevala the hero Vainamoinen; Hungarian taltos,

For the Symbolist circles in which Kandinsky moved, the horse was a symbol of the Asiatic steppe upon which Russia’s European civilization had been built.

Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing the Red Horse (1912

a leitmotif of Scythian poetry, from Blok’s ‘Mare of the Steppes’ to Briusov’s ‘Pale Horseman’.

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

1. Akhmatova at Fountain House

Akhmatova arrived at the Fountain House, the former palace of the Sheremetevs, when she went to live there with her second husband, Vladimir Shileiko, in 1918

last owner, Count Sergei, the grandson of Praskovya and Nikolai Petrovich

To save his home from the violence of the mob, he turned it over to the state, signing an agreement with the newly installed Soviet government to preserve the house as a museum, before fleeing with his family abroad.

Shileiko, a brilliant young scholar of Middle Eastern archaeology

Akhmatova had known Shileiko since before the war, when he was a minor poet in her bohemian circle at the ‘Stray Dog’ club with Mandelstam and her previous husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev.

The Sheremetev motto, ‘Deus conservat omnia’ (‘God preserves all’),

the guiding redemptive principle of Ahkmatova’s life and art.

Akhmatova, like her new home, was from a vanished world.

school at Tsarskoe Selo, where, like Pushkin, she imbibed the spirit of French poetry. In 1911 she went to Paris

Her early poetry was influenced by the Symbolists. But in 1913 she joined Gumilev and Mandelstam in a new literary group, the Acmeists, who rejected the mysticism of the Symbolists and returned to the classical poetic principles of clarity, concision and the precise expression of emotional experience.

Evening (1912), and then Rosary (1914):

On the eve of the First World War, Akhmatova was at the height of her success

Freedom, merriment and a bohemian spirit filled these years

‘In Memoriam, 19 July, 1914’ (1916):

The February Revolution had swept away, not just the monarchy, but an entire civilization.

But almost overnight all the institutions of authority collapsed - the Church, the legal system, the power of the gentry on the land, the authority of the officers in the army and the navy, deference for senior figures - so that the only real power in the country passed into the hands of the local revolutionary committees (that is, the Soviets) of the workers, peasants and soldiers.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 and instituted their Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The cost of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918, was one-third of the Russian Empire’s agricultural land and more than half its industrial base, as Poland, the Baltic territories and most of the Ukraine

the Bolsheviks established the Red Army to fight against the Whites (a motley collection of monarchists, democrats and socialists opposed to the Soviet regime) and the interventionary forces of Britain, France, Japan, the USA and a dozen other western powers which supported them in the civil war of 1918-21.

the practical ideology of the Russian Revolution owed less to Marx - whose works were hardly known by the semi-literate masses - than to the egalitarian customs and Utopian yearnings of the peasantry.

surplus wealth was immoral, all property was theft, and that manual labour was the only true source of value.

quasi-religious status in the popular consciousness:

the war on private wealth was a bloody purgatory on the way to a heaven on earth

the Bolsheviks were able to draw on the revolutionary energies of those numerous elements among the poor who derived satisfaction from seeing the rich and mighty destroyed, regardless of whether such destruction brought about any improvement in their own lot.

armed workers to raid the houses of ‘the rich’ and confiscate their property

House Committees

Palaces like the Fountain House were sub-divided and made into apartment blocks.

a campaign of mass terror

Akhmatova was dismissed as a figure from the past.

rooted in a classical tradition that had been thrown out in 1917

Her energy was consumed by the struggle to survive

For the old intelligentsia conditions were particularly harsh. In the Dictatorship of the Proletariat they were put to the bottom of the social pile.

third-class ration

, ‘just enough bread so as not to forget the smell of it’, in the words of Zinoviev, the Party boss of Petrograd.8

Gorky took up the defence of the starving Petrograd intelligentsia

House of Artists

World Literature

(Zamyatin, Babel, Chukovsky, Khodasev-ich, Mandelstam, Piast’, Zoshchenko and Blok and Gumilev) owed their survival of these hungry years to Gorky’s patronage.

In August 1921, Akhmatova’s former husband Nikolai Gumilev was arrested by the Petrograd Cheka, jailed for a few days, and then shot without trial on charges,

the first great poet to be executed by the Bolsheviks

Anno Domini MCMXXI (In the Year of Our Lord 1921)

Akhmatova felt the moral obligation to be her country’s ‘voice of memory’.

she felt a Christian imperative to remain in Russia and to suffer with the people in their destiny.

Akhmatova was a poet of redemption, the ‘last great poet of Orthodoxy’, according to Chukovsky

Fountain House

a blessed place, the spiritual kernel of St Petersburg, which became the Ideal City of her poetry.

Praskovya, who shared her ‘gift of song’ and lived, like her, persona non grata, in the Fountain House.

During his famous meeting with the poet at the Fountain House in 1945, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin asked Akhmatova

Berlin, The Arts in Russia Under Stalin (1945)

cultural history of the palace

Pushkin, above all, the poet she adored, who was a friend of Praskovya’s son, Dmitry Sheremetev,

Akhmatova was drawn even closer to Pushkin from the middle of the 1920s.

Akhmatova and Shileiko were divorced in 1926.

her new lover, Nikolai Punin

Punin was an art critic, a leading figure in the Futurist movement, but, unlike many of the Futurists, he knew the cultural value of the poets of the past.

he had even spoken out against Trotsky, who had written an attack in Pravda against the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva

a warning of the terror to come

Punin’s apartment in the Fountain House retained the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Petersburg. There were always visitors, late night talks around the kitchen table, people sleeping on the floor. Apart from Punin’s former wife, her mother and daughter and a houseworker called Annushka, there were always people staying in the tiny four-roomed flat.

frequent arguments over food and money

The kitchen; washing on lines, its wetness slapping one’s face. The wet washing was just like the ending of a nasty story, like something out of Dostoevsky, perhaps

Berlin, The Arts in Russia Under Stalin (1945)


2.  Homo Sovieticus

Socialist Realist novel, How the Steel Was Tempered (1932),

 Nothing better illustrates the everyday reality of the Revolution than this transformation of domestic space

Soviet ‘war against the palaces’

By forcing people to share communal flats, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour.

from the 1920s, new types of housing were designed to bring about this transformation in mentality

the Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary


obliteration of the private sphere by building commune houses (dom kommuny) where all property, including even clothes and underwear, would be shared by the inhabitants,

Zamyatin’s We (1920).

Narkomfin (Ministry of Finance) house,

the Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg and built in Moscow between 1928 and 1930,

stop short of the full communal form,

induce the individual to move away from private (‘bourgeois’) forms of domesticity to a more collective way of life. Architects envisaged a Utopia where everybody lived in huge communal houses, stretching high into the sky, with large green open spaces surrounding them

Le Corbusier

the city as a vast laboratory for organizing the behaviour and the psyche of the masses, as a totally controlled environment where the egotistic impulses of individual people could be remoulded rationally

It had always been the aim of the Bolsheviks to create a new type of human being.

Marxists, they believed that human nature was a product of historical development, and could thus be transformed by a revolution in the way that people lived.

the brain was an electromechanical device responding to external stimuli

I. P. Pavlov’s research on the conditioned reflexes of the brain (dogs’ brains in particular),

Lenin spoke of Pavlov’s work as ‘hugely significant for our revolution’


To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man - that is the future task of communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’29

The artist also had a central role to play

Stalin who first used the famous phrase, in 1932, Stalin who first used the famous phrase, in 1932,

Lenin spoke of Pavlov’s work as ‘hugely significant for our revolution’


To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man - that is the future task of communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’29

The artist also had a central role to play

Stalin who first used the famous phrase, in 1932, the artist as the ‘engineer of the human soul’.

the Soviet avant-garde

the Constructivists, the Futurists, the artists aligned to Proletkult and the Left Front (LEF), Vsevolod Meyerhold in the theatre, or the Kinok group and Eisenstein in cinema all broadly shared the communist ideal.

revolutions against ‘bourgeois’ art,

They viewed the brain as a complex piece of machinery which they could recondition through reflexes provoked by their mechanistic art (cinematic montage, biomechanics in the theatre, industrial art, etc.).

architecture and documentary film, photomontage and poster art, designs for clothes and fabrics, household objects and furniture,

    The Constructivists


as ‘constructors’ and ‘technicians’, they declared their commitment, by contrast, to the design and production of practical objects which they believed could transform social life

Varvara Stepanova and Vladimir Tatlin designed workers’ clothes and uniforms

Alexander Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis used photomontage to smuggle agitation into commercial advertisements and even packaging. El Lissitzky

simple, lightweight furniture

folding bed

break down the conjugal relations of the bourgeois family

Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) movement

Pavel Lebedev-Poliansky, in 1918

the Forward (Vperedist) group of the Social Democrats (Gorky, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky)

The object was to educate a tier of ‘conscious proletarian socialists’, a sort of working-class intelligentsia

The Vperedists clashed bitterly with Lenin, who was dismissive of the workers’ potential as an independent cultural force, but after 1917,

Lunacharsky became the evocatively titled Commissar of Enlightenment, while Bogdanov assumed the leadership of the Proletkult movement.

a Socialist Encyclopaedia

Diderot’s Encyclopedic

The main ideological division concerned the relationship between the new and old, the Soviet and the Russian, in the proletarian civilization. On the extreme left wing of Proletkult

. ‘It’s time for bullets to pepper museums’,

Mayakovsky, the founder of LEF

Rastrelli, the great palace-builder of St Petersburg, should be put against the wall (rasstreliat’ in Russian means to execute).

the poem ‘We’


Utopian faith that a new culture would be built on the rubble of the old. The most committed members of the Proletkult were serious believers in the idea of a purely Soviet civilization that was entirely purged of historical and national elements. This ‘Soviet culture’ would be internationalist, collectivist and proletarian


factory whistles in the climax of his Second Symphony (‘To October’) in 1927

But was it possible to construct a new culture without learning from the old?

moderate members of the Proletkult

educating workers in the old culture

New Economic Policy (NEP).

Lenin, a conservative in artistic matters, had always been appalled by the cultural nihilism of the avant-garde.

His cultural politics were firmly based on the Enlightenment ideals of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia

raise the working class to the level of the old elite culture.

pressure on the Proletkult came from below as well as above.

There was little real enthusiasm for communal housing, which never escaped its associations with grim necessity.

In the Moscow Soviet’s model commune house, built in 1930, the residents put up icons and calendars of saints on the dormitory walls.38 The unlifelike images of the avant-garde were just as alien to a people whose limited acquaintance with the visual arts was based on the icon.

Chagall was asked

Why is the cow green and why is the house flying through the sky, why? What’s the connection with Marx and Engels?’39


3.  Eisenstein’s Montage; Meyerhold’s Bio-mechanics and Mayakovsky’s Poetry

Lenin: ’For us the most important of all the arts is cinema,’

In a country such as Russia, where in 1920 only two out of every five adults could read,43 the moving picture was a vital weapon in the battle to extend the Party’s reach to the remote countryside, where makeshift cinemas were established in requisitioned churches and village halls. Trotsky said the cinema would compete with the tavern and the church:

in the early 1920s nearly half the audience in Soviet cinemas was aged between ten and fifteen years

the art form of the new socialist society -it was technologically more advanced, more democratic, and more ‘true to life’ than any of the arts of the old world.

‘The theatre is a game. The cinema is life’

the Kinok group, formed in 1922 by the brilliant director Dziga Vertov, his wife, the cine newsreel editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his brother, Mikhail Kaufman,

‘agit-trains’ propaganda films for Soviet agitprop

‘The audience was made up of illiterate or semi-literate peasants. They could not even read the subtitles. These unspoiled viewers could not understand the theatrical conventions.’48

the future of the cinema in Soviet Russia was to be found in non-fiction films.

Kinok was an amalgam of kino (cinema) and oko (eye)

The group declared war on the fiction films of the studios, the ‘factory of dreams’ which had enslaved the masses to the bourgeoisie, and took their camera out on to the streets to make films whose purpose was to ‘catch life as it is’ - or rather, insofar as their aim was ‘to see and show the world in the name of the proletarian revolution’, to catch life as it ought to be.49

cinema verite aspired to a relatively objective naturalism

the kinoki arranged their real-life images in a symbolic way.

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), is a sort of symphony of images from one day in the ideal Soviet metropolis,

What do we see when we look at a film? Life ‘as it is’ or as it is acted for the cameras?

Lev Kuleshov and Montage:  intercutting shots to create shocking contrasts and associations, montage aimed to manipulate the audience’s reactions, directing them to the ideas the director wanted them to reach. films as a sequence of symbolic movements and gestures. Kuleshov believed that the visual meaning of the film was best communicated by the arrangement (montage) of the frames, and not by the content of the individual shots

experiment with making new movies by cutting up and rearranging bits of old ones


To demonstrate his theory he intercut a single neutral close-up of the actor Ivan Mozzukhin with three different visual sequences: a bowl of steaming soup, a women’s body laid out in a coffin, and a child at play.

All the other great Soviet film directors of the 1920s used montage: Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and, in its most intellectualized form, Sergei Eisenstein

the orchestration of the visual images and the use of movement and of mimicry to suggest emotions and ideas

Montage required a different kind of acting

Francois Delsarte and Emile Jacques Dalcroze,

systems of mime, dance and rhythmic gymnastics (eurhythmies).

The Delsarte-Dalcroze system had been brought to Russia by Prince Sergei Volkonsky in the early 1910s. The grandson of the Decembrist had been Director of the Imperial Theatre between 1899 and 1901,

The one real legacy of Volkonsky’s brief tenure was the discovery of Diaghilev, whom he promoted to his first position in the theatre world as the editor and publisher of the Imperial Theatre’s annual review.*

Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The essence of Volkonsky’s teaching was the conception of the human body as a dynamo whose rhythmic movements can be trained subconsciously to express the emotions required by a work of art.+

similar theories of ‘biomechanics’ were championed by the great avant-garde director Meyerhold.

Gordon Craig’s conception of the actor as a ‘supermarionette’: the movements of Craig’s actor were choreographed by the director, whereas Volkonsky’s actor was supposed in internalize these rhythmic impulses to the point where they became entirely unconscious

Pudovkin, Barnet and Eisenstein.graduated from the Kuleshov workshop.

Sergei Eisenstein

Eisenstein took part in the Bolshevik demonstrations against the Provisional Government

October (19Z8), sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World.

Eisenstein joined the Red Army as an engineer

Eisenstein saw the Revolution as a struggle of the young against the old.

Strike (1924)

he came to support the Revolution ‘had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice… but directly and completely with what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny - the father’s despotism in a family’

‘Why I Became a Director’, he locates the source of his artistic inspiration in the collective movement of the Red Army engineers building a bridge near Petrograd:

    In 1920, on his return to Moscow, Eisenstein joined Proletkult as a theatre director and became involved in the Kuleshov workshop

Kuleshov in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1923)

typage - the use of untrained actors or ‘real types’ taken (sometimes literally) from the street

the biggest influence on Eisenstein was the director Meyerhold, whose theatre school he joined in 1921.

Vsevolod Meyerhold was a central figure in the Russian avant-garde.

theatre as a highly stylized, even abstract, form of art, not the imitation of reality, and emphasized the use of mime and gesture to communicate ideas to the audience

commedia dell’arte and the Japanese kabuki theatre

Delsarte and Dalcroze.

one of the few artistic figures to support the Bolsheviks when they nationalized the theatres in November 1917. He even joined the Party

1920 Meyerhold was placed in charge of the theatre department in the Commissariat of Enlightenment,

‘October in the Theatre’ he began a revolution against the old naturalist conventions of the drama house.

Eisenstein was one of Meyerhold’s first students.

Through Meyerhold, Eisenstein came to the idea of the mass spectacle - to a theatre of real life that would break down the conventions and illusions of the stage.

Eisenstein’s style of film montage also reveals Meyerhold’s stylized approach. In contrast to the montage of Kuleshov, which was meant to affect the emotions subliminally, Eisenstein’s efforts were explicitly didactic and expository

juxtaposition of images was intended to engage members of the audience in a conscious way - and draw them towards the correct ideological conclusions

October, Eisenstein intercuts images of a white horse falling from a bridge into the Neva river with scenes showing Cossack forces suppressing the workers’ demonstrations against the Provisional Government in July 1917.

In Bolshevik propaganda the general mounted on a white horse was a standard symbol of the counter-revolution

which intercuts scenes of Kerensky living like an emperor in the Winter Palace with images of Napoleon

It was meant to make the audience perceive the suppression of the July demonstrations, as Lenin had described it, as the crucial turning point of 1917.

‘For God and Country’: the march of the counter-revolutionary Cossack forces led by General Kornilov against Petrograd in August 1917

a visual deconstruction of the concept of a ‘God’

He also used montage to extend time and increase the tension - as in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous massacre scene on the steps of Odessa. The scene, by the way, was entirely fictional: there was no massacre on the Odessa steps in 1905 - although it often appears in the history books.

the Winter Palace to shoot the storming scene for October,

The Jordan staircase Eisenstein’s October was a much bigger production than the historical reality

Meyerhold was storming barricades with his own revolution in the theatre

Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe (1918; revived in 1921)

a monumental platform projecting deep into the auditorium. At the climax of the spectacle he brought the audience on to the platform to mingle, as if in a city square, with the actors in their costumes,

‘We will show you life that’s real – but in this spectacle it will become transformed into something quite extraordinary.’63

1922 production of Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck’s Magnanimous Cuckold (1920) the stage (by the Constructivist artist Liubov Popova) became a kind of ‘multi-purpose scaffolding’; the characters were all in overalls and identified themselves by performing different circus tricks.

Sergei Tretiakov’s 1923 play The Earth Rampant, cars and machine-guns, not just on the stage but in the aisles as well. The lighting was provided by huge searchlights

Meyerhold used montage by dividing the five acts into thirty-three small episodes with pantomimic interludes to create contrasts of tempo and mood

Gogol’s The Government Inspector in 1926, a little stage trolley and wheeled it to the front of the main stage to simulate the cinematic idea of a close-up. Buster Keaton and, above all, Chaplin’s emphasis on mime and gesture made him close to Meyerhold’s theatrical ideal.

biomechanics’ approached the actor’s body as a biomechanical device for the physical expression of emotions and ideas: the acrobatic circus, fencing, boxing, ballet and eurhythmies, gymnastics and modern dance. The system was consciously opposed to the Stanislavsky method (in which Meyerhold was trained at the Moscow Arts Theatre between 1898 and 1902), in which the actor was encouraged to identify with the inner thoughts and feelings of his character by recalling moments of intense experience in his own life. Akin to the Red Army’s programme of physical culture, the army’s system of gymnastics for the ‘scientific organization of labour’ in an experimental military settlement.

Meyerhold envisaged the actor as an artist-engineer who organizes the ‘raw material’ of his own body on the scientific principles of time and motion. He saw his system as the theatrical equivalent of ‘scientific management’ in industry.

the American engineer F. W. Taylor, who used ‘time and motion’ studies

Lenin was a huge fan of Taylorism. Its premise that the worker was the least efficient part of the whole manufacturing process: a means of discipline that could remould the worker and society along more controllable and regularized lines.

the power of machines to transform man and the universe.

Futurists’ idealization of technology; in the fascination with machines which pervades the films of Eisenstein and Vertov; in the exaltation of factory production:  Henry Ford, inventor of the egalitarian Model ‘T’

Aleksei Gastev: As a ‘proletarian poet’ (the ‘Ovid of engineers, miners and metalworkers’, as he was described by fellow poet Nikolai Aseev),70  Gastev conjured up the vision of a future communist society in which man and machine merged. an ‘iron messiah’: experiments to train the workers so that they would end up acting like machines; turn the worker into a sort of ‘human robot’ - a word, not coincidentally, derived from the Russian (and Czech) verb ‘to work’: rabotat’.

Gastev envisaged a Utopia where ‘people’ would be replaced by ‘proletarian units’ identified by ciphers such as ‘A, B, C, or 325, 075, o, and so on’. These automatons would be like machines, ‘incapable of individual thought’, A ‘mechanized collectivism’ would ‘take the place of the individual personality in the psychology of the proletariat’.

the Soviet paradise Zamyatin satirized in his novel We, which is the inspiration of George Orwell’s 1984.

Thanks to the influence of Meyerhold, two great artists were brought into the orbit of the cinema. One was Dmitry Shostakovich, his Gogolian opera The Nose (1930).

composing for the cinema to earn some extra money and keep himself out of trouble (in total he would score the music for over thirty films).

Writing for the screen had a major influence on Shostakovich’s composing style

Films using montage, in particular, demanded new techniques of musical composition to reflect their polyphonic dramaturgy

Third (‘May Day’) Symphony (1930), with its fast-paced montage of musical tableaux.

Shostakovich’s first film score, for The New Babylon (1929), a cinematic reconstruction of the revolutionary events of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Mayakovsky played the part of the ‘Person of the Future’ - a proletarian deus ex machina who appeared on stage hanging from the ceiling - in the first (1918) production of his play Mystery Bouffe.

Mayakovsky spread his talents wide: to his poetry and his work in theatre and the cinema, he added journalism, writing radio songs and satires, drawing cartoons with brief captions for the lubok-like propaganda posters of the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) and creating advertising jingles for state stores and slogans for the banners which appeared on every street.

the allegory 150,000,000 (1921), a Soviet parody of the bylina,

Mayakovsky embraced revolution as a quickening of time. He longed to sweep away the clutter of the past, the ‘petty-bourgeois’ domesticity of the ‘old way of life’ (byt), and to replace it with a higher and more spiritual existence (bytie).

Pro eto (About This) (1923), a love song to Lily Brik, with whom he was living, on and off, in Petersburg and Moscow in a menage a trois with her husband, a poem ‘about byt, and by this I mean a way of life which has not changed at all and which is our greatest enemy’. his love for Lily complicates his own crisis of identity, because in his imagination she is tied to the ‘petty-bourgeois’ byt of Russia in the NEP

redemptive vision of a future communist Utopia, where love is no longer personal or bodily in form but a higher form of brotherhood.


4. Socialist Realism, the Great Purges and Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’

 In 1930, at the age of thirty-seven, Mayakovsky shot himself

suicide note

The Briks explained his suicide as the ‘unavoidable outcome of Mayakovsky’s hyperbolic attitude to life’.85 His transcendental hopes and expectations had crashed against the realities of life. Lily Brik, it has been revealed, was an agent of the NKVD,\ ‘He had to be removed - so they got rid of him,’ concluded Eisenstein.86

there was no longer room in Soviet literature for the individualist

The last works of Mayakovsky had been viciously attacked by the Soviet authorities. The press condemned The Bedbug (1929), a dazzling satire on Soviet manners and the new bureaucracy, with a sparkling score by Shostakovich

The Bath House, which opened in Meyerhold’s theatre in Moscow just one month before the poet’s death, was an awful flop, and its hilarious critique of Soviet bureaucrats again roundly condemned in the press.

Mayakovsky’s retrospective exhibition of his artwork

Mayakovsky said that he could no longer achieve what he had set out do - ‘to laugh at things I consider wrong… and to bring the workers to great poetry, without hack writing or a deliberate lowering of standards’.

RAPP (the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers

the literary wing of Stalin’s Five-year Plan for industry, RAPP saw itself as the militant vanguard of a cultural revolution against the old intelligentsia.

the Five-year Plan and the class war.

assault on ‘bourgeois specialists’ in the professions and the arts.

By the beginning of the 1930s, any writer with an individual voice was deemed politically suspicious. The

writers were expected to be positive and the only acceptable subject for satire were the foreign enemies of the Soviet Union. Then there was Mikhail Bulgakov, whose Gogolian satires about censorship (The Crimson Island), daily life in Moscow in the NEP (Adventures of Chichikov), Soviet xenophobia (Fatal Eggs) and his brilliant comic novel The Heart of a Dog (where a Pavlov like experimental scientist transplants the brain and sexual organs of a dog into a human being)

Andrei Platonov, an engineer and Utopian communist (

The Epifan Locks (1927), a timely allegory on the grandiose but ultimately disastrous canal-building projects of Peter the Great; Chev-engur (also 1927), a fatal odyssey in search of the true communist society; and The Foundation Pit (1930),

RAPP’s ‘class war’ reached fever pitch, however, in 1929 with its organized campaign of vilification against Zamyatin and Pilnyak.

Pilnyak’s Red Mahogany, a bitter commentary on the decline of the revolutionary ideals of the Soviet state, was published in Berlin in 1929.

the Five-year Plan: a cultural revolution in which all the arts were called up by the state in a campaign to build a new society.

to raise the workers’ consciousness, to enlist them in the ‘battle’ for ‘socialist construction’

For the militants of RAPP this could only be achieved by writers like Gorky, with his impeccably proletarian background, not by left-wing ‘bourgeois’ writers who were deemed no more than ‘fellow travellers’

Gorky was hailed as the model for this Soviet literature.

he could not bear the life of an exile

he convinced himself that life in Stalin’s Russia would become more bearable once the Five-year Plan had swept aside the peasant backwardness which in his view had been the cause of the Revolution’s failure.

Gorky had initially supported the RAPP campaign

Writers’ Union: o halt the destructive ‘class war’ led by RAPP; and to restore to Soviet literature the aesthetic principles established by Tolstoy. In October 1932, a famous meeting attended by Stalin and other Kremlin leaders, as well as fifty writers and other functionaries, took place at Gorky’s Moscow house

the doctrine of Socialist Realism: the doctrine of Socialist Realism Gorky’s understanding was that Socialist Realism would unite the critical realist traditions of nineteenth-century literature with the revolutionary romanticism of the Bolshevik tradition: humble everyday reality

with a vision of the Revolution’s heroic promise.

Stalin’s version of the doctrine, portray Soviet life, not as it was in reality, but as it should become:

a panegyric or iconic form of art which conformed strictly to the Party’s narrative of socialist development.

no longer the creator of original works of art, but a chronicler of tales which were already contained in the Party’s own folklore.

Gorky’s early novel Mother (1906),

Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev (1923) fixed the model of the civil war hero; while Fedor Gladkov’s Cement (1925) and Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered

in Stalin’s Russia, where the overwhelming mass of the reading public was new to the conventions of literary fiction, and there was less awareness of the difference between the real world and the world of books. People approached literature, as they had perhaps once approached the icons or the stories of the saints, in the conviction that it held up moral truths for the guidance of their lives.

for the reader in the Soviet Union there are, as it were, no clear divisions between the reality in which he lives and the world he reads about in books.

Isaiah Berlin

the response of Soviet readers and theatre audiences purer, more direct and naive than ours

the rise of the Socialist Realist film.

the Soviet public preferred foreign films, action-packed adventures or romantic comedies to the propaganda films of Vertov or Eisenstein

The avant-garde directors of the 1920s -Vertov, Pudovkin, Kuleshov - were all condemned as ‘formalists’, intellectuals who were more concerned with cinema as art than with making films that could ‘be understood by the millions’.100 Eisenstein’s October, which had been released on the eve of the conference, was bitterly attacked for its ‘formalist’ preoccupation with montage, for the lack of any individual heroes in the film which made it hard for a mass audience to identify with, for the typage casting of the Lenin character

Sovkino, the Soviet film trust under the command of Lunacharsky’s Commissariat

In 1930 Sovkino was finally disbanded,

the Soviet cinema was nationalized as one vast state enterprise under the centralized direction of Soiuzkino (Ail-Union Soviet Film Trust

Boris Shumiatsky, became the ultimate authority in the world of Soviet cinema (until his own arrest and execution as a ‘Trotskyite’ in 1938),

Shumiatsky ran a sort of ‘Soviet Hollywood’, with huge production studios in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and Minsk reeling off a succession of smash-hit Soviet musicals, romantic comedies, war adventures and Western-modelled frontier films (‘Easterns’) like Chapaev (1934), Stalin’s favourite film

. ‘Life is getting gayer, comrades,’ Stalin famously remarked. But only certain types of laughter were allowed. This was the climate to which Eisenstein returned in 1932.

Stalin accused Eisenstein of defecting to the West. The NKVD bullied his poor mother

Eisensteinfilm based on Turgenev’s ‘Bezhin Meadow’the story of Pavlik Morozov, a boy hero who, according to the version of his life propagandized by the Stalinist regime, had been murdered by the ‘kulaks’ of his remote Urals village after he had denounced his own father, the chairman of the village Soviet, as a kulak opponent of the Soviet campaign for collectivization.* . In August 1936, with most of the film already shot, Eisenstein was ordered by Shumiatsky to rewrite the script. With the help of the writer Isaac Babel he recommenced shooting in the autumn.

The suppression of Bezhin Meadow was part of the continuing campaign against the artistic avant-garde.

Karl Radek, a former Trotskyite who was now making up for his past errors by proving himself the good Stalinist, condemned the writings of James Joyce - a huge influence on Eisenstein and all the Soviet avant-garde. Radek described Ulysses as ‘a dung heap swarming with maggots and photographed by a movie camera through a microscope’

January 1936, Pravda published a diatribe against Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,

Chaos Instead of Music’; ‘Meyerholdism’

an attack on all modernists

Meyerhold, in particular, who was brave and self-assured enough to speak out publicly in defence of Shostakovich and against the Party’s stifling influence on art, was subjected to denunciations of a feverish intensity. He was condemned in the Soviet press as an ‘alien’, and even though he tried to save himself by staging the Socialist Realist classic How the Steel Was Tempered in 1937,

in 1939 he was arrested, tortured brutally by the NKVD to extract a ‘confession’, and then, in the arctic frost of early 1940, he was shot.

a counterrevolution in cultural politics. As the 1930s wore on, the regime completely abandoned its commitment to the revolutionary idea of establishing a ‘proletarian’ or ‘Soviet’ form of culture that could be distinguished from the culture of the past. Instead, it promoted a return to the nationalist traditions of the nineteenth century, which it reinvented in its own distorted forms as Socialist Realism.

This reassertion of the ‘Russian classics’ was a fundamental aspect of the Stalinist political programme, which used culture to create the illusion of stability

Pushkin and Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy (though not Dostoevsky),*

Landscape painting, which had been a dying art in the 1920s, was suddenly restored as the favoured medium of Socialist Realist art, particularly scenes that illustrated the heroic mastery of the natural world by Soviet industry

Levitan or Kuindzhi or the Wanderers,

It was only in the Khrushchev thaw that print runs of Dostoevsky’s works were augmented

Glinka, Tchaikovsky and the kuchkists, who had fallen out of favour with the avant-garde composers of the 19 20s, were now held up as the model for all future music in the Soviet Union.

Stasov’s championing of art with a democratic content and progressive purpose or idea was mobilized in the 1930s as the founding argument of Socialist Realist art.

campaign against the ‘alien’ modernists.* It was a gross distortion of the critic’s views. Stasov was a Westernist

In 1937 Soviet Russia marked the centenary of Pushkin’s death.

Nineteen million copies of his works sold in the jubilee alone, and tens of millions of subscriptions were taken for the new edition of his complete works which had been planned for 1937

The cult of Pushkin ‘Pushkin Our Comrade’, the writer Andrei Platonov

’Poetry is respected only in this country’, Mandelstam would tell his friends in the 1930s. ‘There’s no place where more people are killed for it.’115 At the same time as it was erecting monuments to Pushkin, the Soviet regime was murdering his literary descendants. Of the 700 writers who attended the First Writers’ Congress in 1934, only fifty survived to attend the Second in 1954.

Stalin was not ignorant of cultural affairs. He read serious literature

He knew the power of poetry in Russia, and feared it

The turning point was the murder in 1934 of Sergei Kirov, the Party boss in Leningrad.

Stalin exploited the murder to unleash a campaign of mass terror against all the ‘enemies’ of Soviet power, which culminated in the show trials of the Bolshevik leaders Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in 1936-8

Mandelstam was the first to be taken. In November 1933 he had written a poem about Stalin which had been read in secret to his friends. It is the simplest, most straightforward, verse he ever wrote,

Akhmatova was visiting the Mandelstams in Moscow in May 1934 when the secret police burst into the flat.

Stalin’s resolution, however, was to ‘isolate but preserve’:

Nikolai Bukharin had intervened on Mandelstam’s behalf

‘poets are always right, history is on their side’.123

The Mandelstams were exiled to Voronezh

During this last visit Akhmatova wrote a poem for Osip Mandelstam, the person whom she thought of almost as her twin. It was about the city they both loved:

the arrest of Lev Gumilev, Akhmatova’s son, in 1935.

One spring evening at the Fountain House Lev recited the Mandelstam poem, which by that time he, like many people, knew by heart. But among his student friends that night was an informant of the NKVD, who came to arrest him, along with Punin, in October 1935

Fountain House was full of NKVD informants

the reality of living together was a far cry from the communist ideal

it did not take much for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD

Lev was re-arrested in March 1938. For eight months he was held and tortured in Leningrad’s Kresty jail,

her poetic cycle Requiem (written between 1935 and 1940; first published in Munich in 1963).

In Requiem Akhmatova became the people’s voice

5.  The Great Patriotic War

As Gordon says to Dudorov in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago, ‘When war broke out its real dangers and its menace of death were a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.’134

By necessity, they spoke to one another without thinking of the consequences. From this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. As Pasternak would later write, the war was ‘a period of vitality and in this sense an untrammelled, joyous restoration of the sense of community with everyone’.

on 22 June 1941, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Foreign Minister, gave a radio address in which he spoke of the impending ‘patriotic war for homeland, honour and freedom’.

Communism was conspicuously absent from Soviet propaganda in the war. It was fought in the name of Russia, of the ‘family of peoples’ in the Soviet Union, of Pan-Slav brotherhood, or in the name of Stalin, but never in the name of the communist system. To mobilize support, the Stalinist regime even embraced the Russian Church

The regime glorified the military heroes of Russian history - Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoi, Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov –

Russia’s artists enjoyed a new freedom and responsibility in the war years.

n 1945, Isaiah Berlin, on a visit to Russia, was told that the poetry of Blok, Bryusov, Sologub, Esenin, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, was widely read, learnt by heart and quoted by soldiers and officers and even political commissars. Akhmatova and Pasternak,

received an amazingly large number of letters from the front, quoting from both published and unpublished poems

the moral value of such writers could not fail to impress itself on the Party’s bureaucrats, and conditions for these artists gradually improved. Akhmatova was allowed to publish a collection of her early lyrics, From Six Books.

her patriotic poem ‘Courage’

Akhmatova’s address: As the German armies circled in on Leningrad, Berggolts’s husband, the literary critic Georgy Makogonenko, turned to Akhmatova to raise the spirits of the city by talking to its people in a radio broadcast.

Shostakovich also took part in the radio broadcast

In between the fire fighting, he began composing marches for the front-line troops, and in the first two weeks of September, as the bombs began to fall on Leningrad, he worked by candlelight, in a city now deprived of electricity, to finish what would be his Seventh

Later that same day, 16 September 1941, the Germans broke through to the gates of Leningrad. For 900 days they cut the city off from virtually all its food and fuel supplies; perhaps a million people, or one third of the pre-war population, died by disease or starvation, before the siege of Leningrad was at last broken in January 1944.

On 5 March 1942. the symphony received its premiere in Kuibyshev. It was performed by the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, which had also been evacuated to the Volga town. Broadcast by radio throughout the land, it transmitted, in the words of the violinist David Oistrakh, who was listening in Moscow, ‘the prophetic affirmation… of our faith in the eventual triumph of humanity and light’.

themes of Petersburg: its lyrical beauty and classicism, evoked nostalgically in the moderato movement

the Bolero-like march of the first movement is not just the sound of the approaching German armies, it comes from within).

double-speak in his musical language

Yet beneath the ritual sounds of Soviet rejoicing there was a softer, more melancholic voice - the carefully concealed voice of satire and dissent only audible to those who had felt the suffering his music expressed. These two voices are clearly audible in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (the composer’s ‘Socialist Realist’ rejoinder to those who had attacked Lady Macbeth), which received a half-hour ovation of electrifying force when it was first performed in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia in November 1937.

a distant echo of the funeral march from Mahler’s First Symphony and, whether they recognized the march or not, they must have felt its sadness - for nearly everyone in that audience would have lost someone in the Terror of 1937

the symphony was finally performed in the bombed-out Great Hall of the Philharmonia on 9 August 1942

Ordinary citizens were brought together by music; they felt united by a sense of their city’s spiritual strength, by a conviction that their city would be saved

The war was a period of productivity and relative creative liberty for Russia’s composers.

Prokofiev was particularly eager to prove his commitment to the national cause. After eighteen years of living in the West, he had returned to the Soviet Union at the height of the Great Terror, in 1936

his score for Meyerhold’s 1937 production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov,

Fifth Symphony (1944)

expansive and heroic themes that perfectly expressed the spirit of the Soviet war effort.

in War and Peace - an opera whose theme was obviously suggested by the striking parallels between Russia’s war against Napoleon and the war against Hitler.

As he was working on the score of War and Peace Prokofiev was asked by Eisenstein to compose the music for his film Ivan the Terrible, released in 1944.

Alexander Nevsky (1938),

Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. These two epic film dramas are essentially cinematic versions of the great nineteenth-century history operas

carry the emotions of the ‘music drama’, as Eisenstein describes it in a note outlining his new Wagnerian cinema.

Montage was abandoned for a clear sequential exposition of the theme through the combined effect of images and sound

In the famous battle scene on ice he even shot the film to match the score.156 Stalin was delighted with Alexander Nevsky.

Stalin saw Ivan the Terrible as a medieval prototype of his own statesmanship.

the lessons Stalin drew from Ivan’s reign: that force, even cruelty, were needed to unite the state and drive the foreigners and traitors from the land.

Pasternak wrote to Olga Freidenberg in February 1941

‘Peter the Great is no longer an appropriate model. The new passion, openly confessed, is for Ivan the Terrible, the oprichnina, and cruelty. This is the subject for new operas, plays and films.’157

The first part of the film to emerge in his imagination was the confession scene

Ivan was conceived as a tragedy

In Part One of the film Eisenstein depicts the heroic aspects of Ivan: his vision of a united state; his fearless struggle against the scheming boyars; his strong authority and leadership in the war against the Tatars of Kazan.

Part Two of his epic film (not publicly released until 1958).

The Tsar now emerges as a tormented figure, haunted by the terror to which he is driven by his own paranoia and his isolation from society.

The parallels between Ivan and Stalin were unmissable

This is not a film -it is some kind of nightmare!’161 In February 1947 Stalin summoned Eisenstein to a late-night interview in the Kremlin at which he delivered a revealing lecture on Russian history

you have to show why he had to be cruel. One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to stop short of cutting up the five key feudal clans.

Eisenstein was permitted to resume production on Part Three on the understanding that he incorporate approved material from the previous film in it.

Eisenstein took inspiration from Pushkin, whose own great drama Boris Godunov had served as a warning against tyranny in the wake of the suppression of the Decembrist revolt by Tsar Nicholas I

“I could not make a film like that without the Russian tradition - without that great tradition of conscience. Violence can be explained, it can be legalized, but it can’t be justified. If you are a human being, it has to be atoned”


6.  Post WWII Repression: The Cold War and the Arts

The Leningrad to which Akhmatova returned in 1944 was a shadow of its former self

In 1945 Isaiah Berlin had just arrived as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Moscow.

the well-known literary critic Vladimir Orlov, who told Berlin that Akhmatova was still alive and residing in the Fountain House, a stone’s throw away.

In her eyes, Berlin was a messenger between the two Russias which had been split apart in 1917. Through him she was able to return to the European Russia of St Petersburg - a city from which she felt she had lived apart as an ‘internal exile’ in Leningrad.

    ’So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,’ Stalin remarked

in August 1946, Akhmatova was attacked in a decree by the Central Committee which censored two journals for publishing her work. A week later Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology, announced her expulsion from the Writers’ Union, delivering a vicious speech in which he described Akhmatova as a ‘left-over from the old aristocratic culture’ and (in a phrase that had been used by Soviet critics in the past) as a ‘half-nun, half-harlot or rather harlot-nun whose sin is mixed with prayer’

In 1949, Lev was re-arrested, tortured into making a confession and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp near Omsk

It is a sign of her utter desperation that, in an attempt to secure her son’s release, she even wrote a poem in tribute to Stalin.*

The Central Committee decree was the beginning of a new onslaught on the freedom of the artist - the last refuge of freedom in the Soviet Union - and Akhmatova was the obvious place to start.

the living symbol of a spirit which the regime could neither destroy nor control:

Attacked by the same decree as Akhmatova was Mikhail Zoshchenko

Zoshchenko was the last of the satirists -Mayakovsky, Zamyatin and Bulgakov had all perished - and a major thorn in Stalin’s side. The immediate cause of the attack was a children’s story, ‘Adventures of a Monkey’, published in Zvezda (one of the journals censured in the decree) in 1946, in which a monkey that has escaped from the zoo is retrained as a human being

‘Lenin and the Guard’ (1939

a rigid Party line was laid down by Zhdanov

the Zhdanovsh-china (‘

Zhdanov’s ideology reflected the Soviet triumphalism which had emerged in the communist elites following the victory against Hitler and the military conquest of eastern Europe in 1945

mpose an Orwellian conformity to the Party’s ideology on all the arts and sciences

The declared aim of this new purge was to seal off Soviet culture from the West. Tikhon Khrennikov, the Zhdanovite hardliner at the head of the Composers’ Union

Tchaikovsky and the Russian music school of the nineteenth century as the starting point for all composers in the Soviet Union.

Immense national pride in the cultural and political superiority of Soviet Russia went hand in hand with anti-Western feeling during the Cold War.

Absurd claims were made for the superiority of Soviet science under the direction of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which led to the promotion of frauds and cranks like the pseudo-geneticist Timofei Lysenko, who claimed to have developed a new strain of wheat that would grow in the Arctic frost.

This triumphalism also found expression in the architectural style which dominated plans for the reconstruction of Soviet cities after 1945. ‘Soviet Empire’ combined the neoclassical and Gothic motifs of the Russian Empire style that had flourished in the wake of 1812 with the monumental structures that trumpeted the magnificence of the Soviet achievement. ‘Stalin’s cathedrals’,

metro stations, ‘palaces of culture’, cinemas and even circuses

the Moscow metro station Komsomolskaia-Kol’tsevaia, built in 1952

Soviet pride in Russian culture knew no bounds in the post-war period. The Russian ballet was pronounced the best, the Russian classics

Russian became a compulsory language in all schools and children were brought up on Russian fairy tales and literature. Soviet ‘folk’ choirs and dancing troupes

The long-term plan of Soviet policy was to channel these ‘folk cultures’ into higher forms of art on the lines set out (or so it was believed) by the Russian nationalists of the nineteenth century

Reinhold Gliere (the composition teacher of the young Prokofiev) wrote the first ‘national opera’ of Azerbaijan

the first Uzbek opera, Gulsara (1937), an epic Soviet tale of women’s liberation from the old patriarchal way of life

his regime’s suspicions of all foreign influence turned to hatred of the Jews. This anti-Semitism was thinly veiled by Soviet (that is, Russian) patriotic rhetoric

In January 1948, the well-known Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), was killed by state security troops.

The murder of Mikhoels was linked to the arrest of several dozen leading Jews accused of taking part in an American-Zionist conspiracy organized by the JAFC against the Soviet Union.+

Israel’s growing links with the USA after 1948 unleashed Stalin’s lifelong hatred of the Jews.187

Thousands of Jews were forcibly evicted from the regions around Moscow and despatched as ‘rootless parasites’ to the Siberian wilderness, where a special ‘Jewish Autonomous Region’ had been established in Birobidzhan

In 1953 Stalin ordered the arrest of several Jewish doctors who worked for the Kremlin on trumped-up charges (the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’) of having poisoned Zhdanov and another Politburo member, A. S. Shcherbakov

Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad,

based on his work as a war correspondent, was banned principally because its central character was a Russian Jew. The Black Book (first published in Jerusalem in 1980), Grossman’s still-unrivalled memoir-based account of the Holocaust on Soviet soil, which he assembled for the Literary Commission of the JAFC, was never published in the Soviet Union.

Life and Fate (first published in Switzerland in 1980), he portrayed the Nazi and Soviet regimes, not as opposites, but as mirror images of each other.

Pasternak’s Russian translations of Shakespeare are works of real artistic beauty, if not entirely true to the original. He was Stalin’s favourite poet

He bore the guilt for the suffering of those writers whom he could not help through his influence.

After all his optimism in the war Pasternak was crushed by the return to the old regime of cruelty and lies. He withdrew from the public scene and worked on what he now regarded as his final message to the world: his great novel Doctor Zhivago

that the novel’s central theme is the importance of preserving the old intelligentsia, represented by Zhivago

Shostakovich found another way to save his sanity.

he promised to write music which ‘the People’ could enjoy and understand

Between 1948 and 1953, Shostakovich wrote the music for no less than seven films.

two of his songs from Alexandrov’s Meeting on the Elbe (1948) became hits,

Yet all the time Shostakovich was writing secret music ‘for the drawer’. Some of it was musical lampoon, like Rayok, or The Peep Show, a cantata satire on the Zhdanov era

most of the music which he composed at this time was deeply personal, especially that music with a Jewish theme. Shostakovich identified with the suffering of the Jews.

Shostakovich first used Jewish themes in the finale of the Second Piano Trio (1944

the Thirteenth Symphony (1962), the ‘Babi Yar’ with its requiem, the words composed by the poet Yevtushenko, for the Jews of Kiev who were murdered by the Nazis in 1941; and virtually all the string quartets from No. 3 (in 1946) to the unforgettable No. 8 (in 1961).


7. Soviet Science Fiction

Science fiction was rapidly becoming the principal arena for liberal, religious and dissident critiques of the Soviet world view. In Daniel Granin’s Into the Storm (1962),

The science fiction novels of the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris) were subversively conceived as contemporary social satire in the manner of Gogol and, drawing much from Dostoevsky, as an ideological critique of the Soviet materialist Utopia

Predatory Things of the Century (1965)

Andrei Sinyavsky in his Unguarded Thoughts (1966

Science fiction films were equally a vehicle for challenging Soviet materialism.

Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris (1972)

Chris rediscovers his capacity to love, when Hari, his ex-lover, whom he had driven to suicide through his emotional coldness, is brought back to life, or a mirage of it, by the powers of the star.

Hari looks at Bruegel’s painting Hunters in the Snow which helps her to recall her former life on earth. The camera scans in detail over Bruegel’s painting as Bach’s F minor Choral Prelude, interspersed with the sounds of the forest and the chimes of the Rostov bells, rejoices in the beauty of our world.

medieval icon painters

Tarkovsky celebrated in his masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966).

All his films are about journeys in search of moral truth.

Stalker (1979),

guides a scientist and a writer to ‘the zone’, a supernatural wilderness abandoned by the state after some industrial catastrophe. He is straight out of the Russian tradition of the Holy Fool.

the basis of true faith is the belief in the Promised Land: it is the journey and not the arrival. The need for faith, for something to believe in outside of themselves, had defined the Russian people, in their mythic understanding of themselves, since the days of Gogol and the ‘Russian soul’. Tarkovsky revived this national myth as a counter to the value system of the Soviet regime, with its alien ideas of rational materialism. ‘

the last iconic image of his film Nostalgia (1983), in which a Russian peasant house is portrayed inside a ruined Italian cathedral.

within the Soviet monolith there were many different voices that called for a return to ‘Russian principles’. One was the literary journal Molodaia gvardiia (Young Guard),

What, in the end, was ‘Soviet culture’? Was it anything? Can one ever say that there was a specific Soviet genre in the arts? The avant-garde of the 1920s, which borrowed a great deal from Western Europe, was really a continuation of the modernism of the turn of century. It was revolutionary, in many ways more so than the Bolshevik regime, but in the end it was not compatible with the Soviet state, which could never have been built on artists’ dreams. The idea of constructing Soviet culture on a ‘proletarian’ foundation was similarly unsustainable

Socialist Realism was also, arguably, a distinctively Soviet art form. Yet a large part of it was a hideous distortion of the nineteenth-century tradition, not unlike the art of the Third Reich or of fascist Italy.

8. Akhmatova’s Final Years

Poem without a Hero,

a ‘kind of final memorial to her life as a poet and the past of the city - St Petersburg - which was part of her being’.

Mandelstam in a prayer-like poem which Akhmatova quotes as an epigraph to the third chapter of her own poem.

We shall meet again in Petersburg

    Akhmatova died peacefully in a convalescent home in Moscow on 5 March 1966.

Thousands of people turned out for her funeral in Leningrad. The baroque church of St Nicholas spilled its dense throng out on to the streets, where a mournful silence was religiously maintained throughout the requiem. The people of a city had come to pay their last respects to a citizen whose poetry had spoken for them at a time when no one else could speak.