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Under the Cranberry Tree

In the Russian Style

edited by Jacqueline Onassis. with the cooperation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduction by Audrey Kennett, designed by Bryan Holme
Viking, 184 pp., $14.95

During his travels to Russia in the midnineteenth century Alexandre Dumas père wrote of a mythical “broad spreading cranberry tree” under whose comforting shade, he said, he used to repose his considerable bulk. Soon thereafter this nonexistent tree, the Razvesistaya kliukva (a branchy cranberry), became the synonym for all the nonsense that was being written abroad about the land of the czars, boyars, samovars, etc.

Russians would use the term Kliukva to characterize practically everything foreigners blundered about when they described Russia. The term stuck and remained vigorously alive well into the twentieth century. Geography and topography,1 habits and customs, history and religion, arts and literature, as well as such seemingly minor subjects as cooking or the proper transliteration2 of the Russian language into a foreign tongue—all have been a source of kliukvas of various sizes and degrees of ripeness.

Only toward the second half of our century have things improved and the mythical “cranberry tree” become a much rarer species, partly because Russia, for better or for worse, has moved closer to the West. Still the old cranberry could not be entirely disposed of. In the 1930s minor kliukvas grew in such fields as the “ideological novel” (e.g., Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and André Malraux’s La condition humaine). Later on, in America, there was a crop of kliukvas growing among translations of Russian poetry by indigenous poetasters who botched Russian classics of the Golden and Silver Age. And, alas, as we shall presently see, certain specimens of the mythical species survive, however fleetingly, in quite unexpected places.

The outwardly handsome book (it has a splendid jacket) called In the Russian Style contains a whole field of kliukva seedlings. And it does so in the most maddening way. The flashy layout, the seeming earnestness of purpose and the ill-concealed pretension to thorough scholarship may readily seduce and even interest an innocent reader or viewer.

The introduction, by Audrey Kennett—whom I shall refer to as “the narrator”—promises to deal with the subject of Russian costume, decor, and culture chronologically. “The first to step on the stage,” she writes, “is Peter the Great; which is as it should be, since he created modern Russia….” “Created” is a bit too much, too allumfassend. “Founded” would have been better. But let’s not quibble. Only a few lines later comes the first small lapse. The narrator mentions (and rightly) a fully clad, life-size wax figure of Peter by the architect and sculptor Carlo Rastrelli (“il padre“), which is preserved in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is indeed an extraordinary apparition, showing the actual size of this human monster (six feet eight inches), and suggesting the fear he must have inspired in everyone who approached him. Unfortunately, the reader’s appetite is whetted in vain. For some reason there is no photograph here of Rastrelli’s masterpiece (which was done from life, of course). Yet what better beginning could there have been for a book called In the Russian Style than a full-page color photograph of this awesome wax figure?

A few lines later the narrator hops sixteen years forward from Peter I to the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I. Nowhere does she mention that soon after Peter’s death the court turned its back on the “imperial swamp”—as ambassadors used to refer to Peter’s grim capital—and fled back to Moscow, the old Russian capital. In the opinion of serious connoisseurs of Russian court costumes, this brief return to Moscow led to a revival of traditional Russian dress some forty odd years before the reign of Catherine II. Such, as I well remember, was the opinion of Alexandre Benois, who believed that the peignoir, that pretty and probably comfortable mélange of both the ancient Turkic Kaftán, as worn in Russia, and the more recent Turkish Khalát, with the lady’s morning frock of France, was invented during this brief Moscow hiatus of the 1730s.

But these are only lapses, not genuine kliukvas. Even the quaint reminder by the narrator (on page 10) that ” ‘Hermitage’ originally meant ‘a retreat,’ ” is only a bit of childish ignorance by someone who does not realize that the word still has this meaning. The first ripe cranberry comes a bit later. Speaking of Catherine II (born Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, the poorest and most parvenu branch of the huge Anhalt family), the narrator says: “She introduced a graceful, simple Russian style of dress”…and a few lines later adds: “later in life she liked the Moldavian type of caftan.”

When Catherine introduced that “simple Russian style of dress,” she did so because she needed loose clothing both for her growing bulk and for her loose sexual habits. These “simple Russian style” dresses were, moreover, a complicated mixture of Parisian fashion and vague Russian memories; they were not only made out of rare and very expensive imported materials (Indian and Italian silk tulles) but were bedecked from headgear down to the navel with so profuse an amount of jeweled hardware that no one at court, not even the womenfolk of the Stroganov family (the richest in Russia), could compete with Her Majesty. The Moldavian Kaftán was also dictated by the needs of Catherine’s body—rapidly aging, becoming flabby, fat, formless.

Our next kliukva is minor: Alexander I (son of the mad Emperor Paul, himself a bastard son of Catherine II by one of her earliest “stallions”) is said to have died at Taganrog on the Caspian Sea. Why did no one glance at an atlas and note that Taganrog is still on the Azov Sea? More seriously, the narrator writes of “kulebiaka (whole boned chickens wrapped in a delicate crust).” Evidently she has never eaten this dish, which basically is made of fresh cabbage, shredded hard-boiled eggs, and rice seasoned with fresh dill—or almost any other kind of stuffing except a “whole” boned chicken. (The chicken would have to be minced.) This is originally a German dish, much improved by the Russians—kulebiaka being a Russification of the German word Kohlgebäck, or “cabbage bakings.”

Nor was Potyomkin “briefly” Catherine’s lover. In fact she revealed to whoever wanted to listen that he was, like the Pope, primus inter pares. Only after two years of ardent and steady intercourse did he tire of her and become her well-remunerated procurer.

Why, in a book on Russian style, is there no mention in the introduction of the abundant variety of Russian native dress? And I do not mean the native dress of the non-Slavic populations of Russia, but the velikorossy (the tall Russians), the Belorussy (the cinder-haired Russians), and the Malorossy (the short Russians). Would not an account of their costumes have been appropriate to the book’s subject? Instead we have, for example, some unfortunate and erroneous generalizations to the effect that “prudence and parsimony” are alien to the Russian character. Granted that Russia had its share of spendthrifts, it also had, especially since the Enlightenment, a steadily growing, hard-working rural class of independent farmers, lowly but decent squires, and not a few remarkably intelligent and dedicated members of the upper classes. No posthumous propaganda can wipe out such historical facts.

What country can the narrator be writing about? She says that “more time seems to have been devoted to the cultural education [of girls] than to that of their menfolk….” That nineteenth-and perhaps even eighteenth-century Russia was in the forefront of feminism comes as a surprise. Alas, I’m afraid that here the narrator is simply parroting somebody else’s nonsense. This is an old and stale kliukva. She adds that girls “were also able to play several [musical] instruments.” A good punishment for our unfortunate narrator would have been to listen to some of these performances.

The book also contains a series of short introductions to each emperor or empress. Here so many lapses and ripe kliukvas abound that I can pick out only a few. About Peter I, we are told that he dabbled in various crafts, but not about perhaps the most significant one, his work in the boatyards, which led him to establish the Russian fleet. The soldiers who were called the Strel’tzy were not a “semimilitary formation,” but were more like a Byzantine or Oriental palace guard; the literal translation of the term Strel’tzy itself would be close to “sharpshooters.”

Peter returned to Moscow in 1698 to quell a rebellion of the Strel’tzy. He was not, as the narrator thinks, helped to the throne (and to overthrow the Regent Sophia, his half-sister) by the Strel’tzy, but by the young regiments he had trained in Preobrajenskoye, where he spent his childhood and early youth in semi-exile with his mother, Czar Alexei’s second wife, Natalya Naryshkina.

No less foolish is the account of the rest of Peter’s career. To write in 1976 that he built St. Petersburg “at a cost of human life comparable to the building of the pyramids” is to repeat a meaningless commonplace. (Which pyramids? Has the narrator evaluated the “human cost” of any one of them?) Catherine I, Peter’s second wife, was not, as we are told, a Lithuanian. She was a Livonian (i.e., an Estonian or a Latvian) camp follower. She was a kind and soothing person, badly needed by her very sick husband.

Introducing Elizabeth I, the narrator says, “The unhappy couple (Catherine II and Peter II) finally had a child”—but only, it should be added, with the active help of a “stallion,” Saltykov. As for Peter III, our narrator fails to tell us that he was arrested by the Orlov brothers on orders of Catherine herself. He begged for mercy and permission either to leave Russia for his beloved Holstein, along with his mistress, or to live quietly in retirement; but the Germanic forerunner of Stalin, the future correspondent of Voltaire and friend of Diderot, did not grant him mercy. The Orlov brothers finished him off in a brawl, using a golden tabatière to do so. (It is on view at the Hermitage.)

Let me skip a hundred-odd pages and conclude with a sentence of the narrator exhibiting what Cocteau used to call “le goût à l’envers.” Introducing the square-bearded Alexander III, the father of the last czar, she writes: “the ballets and operas of Tchaikovsky provided interludes of fantasy for a harassed people.” As Russians say, “the ears wilt.”

I do not know which of the editors had the bright idea of accompanying the pictures with quotes from various sources about Russia, including some excellent translations of Russian classics. But, alas, the quotations do not always fit the image. Take, for example, the lines from Gogol accompanying a picture of the Stroganov Palace, a very poor reproduction of an engraving from the period of Alexander I. The Stroganov palace was completed in 1799, but the date of Gogol’s text is 1836. In thirtyseven years the palace’s surroundings had changed a great deal. Moreover, Gogol writes here about the Nevsky Prospect, yet the Nevsky is hardly visible in the photograph. Why not use one of the many excellent engravings of the Nevsky Prospect of Gogol’s time?

Many more such questions arise about the other pictures. Why, for example, choose such poor portraits of Peter, as on pages 29 and 30, when there are so many good ones available? The socalled “field caftan” on page 32 is not a field Kaftán at all but a morning frock, a Khalát. The pair of boots “worn by Peter I” are of no interest whatever unless we are told, as we are not, that they were sewn and cobbled by Peter himself. And why introduce on page 47 a photograph of a saber scabbard from the seventeenth century when we are in the midst of an account of the eighteenth?

The portrait on page 63 (top left) is not of “a lady of the court,” but of Catherine II herself, as should have been clear from the princess’s crown in the background and her ermine furs, a privilege of reigning kings and princes in the eighteenth century. And why on the same page show for the second time (in black and white) the uniform of Marshal Suvorov which was already shown in color? Incidentally, the lovely portrait on page 65 by Levitzky (mutilated by poor layout) shows Princess (not Duchess) Khovanskaya and E.N. Khrushchyova (to correct two of many errors in transliteration).

One could go on to show at even more boring length that there are kliukvas of various sizes and stages of ripeness on nearly every page of this book. But what it suffers from most of all is poor reproduction of black and white photographs and miserable layout (not to speak, of course, of the shabbiness of its chronology and history).

In conclusion, two bits of advice to publishers of books on the Russian past:

  1. If you are uncertain of your material, or find it insufficient, why not translate and print some of the excellent art books that have been appearing in Russia since about 1968? There is, for example, a superb book published by the Visual Arts division of the state publishing house, Gosizdat. It is called Oruzheinaya Palata, the name of the historical museum in Moscow in which are collected all kinds of artifacts including jewelry and some of the costumes reproduced in In the Russian Style. The general editor of this large volume is Z.P. Cheliubeyeva. It was published in 1969 and printed with extraordinary care in East Germany.

2. Beware of well-meaning but muddle-headed amateurs, however illustrious their names may be.

Letters

Tea with Plums April 28, 1977

  1. 1

    Topographical “Kliukva“: A German travel guide to Russia printed in the 1860s in Leipzig speaks of Moscow and Tula being surrounded by “ein breites Steppenland,” whereas the steppe, the Russian prairie, starts some 400 miles to the south of Moscow. Fortunately this kliukva was soon corrected by Fritz Baedeker, the son of the founder of the famous and most reliable collection of guidebooks.

  2. 2

    Transliteral “Kliukva“: A recent example can be found in a novel published in New York in 1976. In it a “little mouse”—Myshka, is unwittingly transformed into a “little bear”—Mishka. The erroneous substitution of a single vowel changes the species. (Lovers and Tyrants, by Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon and Schuster, 1976.)

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