Russia in Original Photographs 1860-1920
Readers of Russian literature and history in the czarist period are in debt to Professor Lyons, a Canadian military historian, for his first album of photographs: Nicholas II: The Last Tsar. He now moves on to the last scene of the Russian tragedy, in a magnificent volume that ends with a few pictures of the early street riots of the revolution, the civil war, the flight of the émigrés who got away from the southeast, and the disappearance of the ruling class. The scores of pictures are a selection from tens of thousands, mainly drawn from family albums, European collections, and private donors. (It does not appear, as far as I can tell, that any come from Soviet archives.)
Such a volume cannot be more than a sampling of life in a country so vast, where there are more than 110 nationalities and innumerable languages, and which to all foreign travelers seemed to be a passive chaos nominally but necessarily held together by a despot who was also thought of as a “father.” In St. Petersburg, Russia’s “window on the West,” they were struck by the mingling of races at the Imperial Court with its Poles, its Finns, its Germans, its Tartars, Georgians, and even Armenians. Pan-Slavism—or poor communications—had led to an extraordinary tolerance of all minorities except, of course, the Jews, who in theory were supposed to be held within the Pale of Settlement. Only two Jewish couples appear in the book. If Petersburg was the Western father, Moscow was the near-Oriental mother in the period Professor Lyons presents.
Many volumes would be required to cover such a scene, as he says, but he has cleverly picked out the salient elements, and his short introductions to sections like the court or official society, provincial life, the land, the Asiatic tribes, are pithy and penetrating. To émigrés and to people of Russian descent the volume will be intolerably moving, for Russians never lose their atavistic longing for their soil. For ourselves the pictures are the “mute evidence” of a generation moving toward tragedy unawares. The very fact that photography was still a novelty at the time and was dominated by the long, still exposure which gives an old-fashioned stolidity to the subjects hides the conflicts that are coming to a head.
It is usual to think of czarist Russia as a land in which 80 percent of the people were peasants, governed, under the czar, by his bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the army, and an Orthodox Church already in decline. But by this time, industrialism was rising in the cities and the railways had greatly changed the scene. (How many of the decisive scenes in Russian novels take place in trains and at railway stations: the stagnant population begins to move.) For the visitor from the West the puzzle was the aristocracy. On paper, Russian society was hierarchical and as carefully stratified as a civil service. Status, however obscure, was apparently indelible. But if over one million Russians belonged to the nobility, only 20,000—by Western standards—belonged to the gentry or aristocratic class; and of these only 1,400 families lived in princely state. And even so, the great estates were much split up under the laws of inheritance: one village of 200 people had eighty-three proprietors. Nobility was simply acquired by service to the state, since the reforms of Peter the Great. Field officers in the army and navy became automatically noble. Dostoevsky’s father owed his patent to his rank as an army doctor and the novelist quickly found reasons for imagining an ancient descent. Outside of the few great families, a noble might well be a miserable peasant living on a scrap of land, the kind of man Turgenev described in “The Brigadier” or Gogol again and again in Dead Souls.
In the West the class system was never in this state of passive dilapidation, but if the West was more efficient, it was also less easy and genial. Professor Lyons makes other general points that are important. In this period, the creation of the zemstva and the mir—the village commune—had laid the foundation for the Soviets of the future. There is also the drastic influence of the climate: the ferocious long winters stopped work on the land, the thaw bogged down the countryside and work had therefore to be furious in the short summer: the Russian peasant was, indeed is, a man who moves from indolence to bouts of superhuman energy. If he was given to drunkenness, he was inclined to weep rather than to violence in his cups.
When we turn to the pictures of the official society at any level, we notice at once an almost Germanic cult of the uniform, not only among the military who range from the sober to the fantastic, but the students of the higher echelons. They are sober, tightly buttoned, and correct for the occasion. Even the peaked cap on an ordinary man seems to indicate rank. The long German influence on the ruling classes had, one supposes, set this sartorial mark, even if the German tutor, bailiff, and engineer were at once admired and despised for their bourgeois stiffness.
The most alluring groups are the sedate girls of the Smolnyi Institute, a marvel of grace and propriety; and, from Asia, the fierce groups of tribal chieftains in their regalia. At the splendid balls in St. Petersburg the women appear in the latest Paris fashions, the men glitter with insignia; but at the costume balls the women become fantastically Oriental and the men swagger with stern Asiatic fantasy. Pan-Slavism reigns: in his own time Dostoevsky had written of the messianic right to Constantinople. One notices that few of these faces are smiling: in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the clothes and deportment were the man or woman. Fashion was indeed a discipline and the touch of nature would be considered vulgar and importunate. Yet there is another reason for the general solemnity: photography, as I have said, was a novelty and an occasion. The poses required by the camera were long. It is partly because of the speed of the modern camera that the studio portrait has gone out with the formal occasion and that “actuality” has come in.
When we turn to the country scenes and the peasantry the touch of nature comes out at once. Smiles are modest, looks are demure, proud, fierce, brooding, or sad: here one feels are human beings. Still, here again the photographer is looking for “types”; he is less sure of people on the move and above all at work. There is a scene of work at a sturgeon farm, we see a group of Kirghiz building a railway: there is a fine picture of a village council—the mir—sitting outside their log hut, wild, long-haired, long-bearded, muddied men in the long sheepskin coat, looking up from the book of minutes. They are far removed from the decorum of village elders in Europe.
But it is surprising to see no pictures of work in factories—the documentary had not yet come in and clearly the photographer did not consider this a “subject” or his camera had perhaps not enough light. Still, he could catch people struggling to get a wagon out of the slush of the spring thaw, the wide empty unmade streets of those poor heart-rending villages with their rotting thatch on the steppe; a scene in the forest where, say, the Countess Sollohub stands beside the body of a bear she has shot; children perhaps in one of Chekhov’s rural schools; a pair of ragged and distinguished pilgrims; country people preparing for a war on field mice. One sees why the peasant costume and the long sheepskin coat had become the cult of the Slavophiles.
How different these Russians are from the industrious and respectable Mennonite family of German Protestant descent; and how different too from the touching family groups in the great country houses sitting in their drawing rooms or standing by the eternal Russian pond fishing happily for carp. Whatever their sins, there were among them civilized patrons of literature and the arts. World War I, the civil war, murder, or flight lay ahead of them, rich and poor; the camera has arrested the innocent moment. Time has stopped. At any rate in the rich if partial variety of this fine volume we get the eye’s epitaph on a way of life that has gone for good. For what it felt like to be any of these people, in any of these scenes, we must turn back to the novelists. Only two are portrayed: old Tolstoy talking to Chertkov—a fine natural picture—and a well-known Chekhov. It was rare for the camera to catch writers at their ease at a time when the age demanded a public face.