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Windows on Russia

The Russian Empire: A Portrait in Photographs

by Chloe Obolensky, with an introduction by Max Hayward
Random House, 345 pp., $24.95

Windows on the River Neva: A Memoir Books, Wellfleet, Massachusetts 026677)

by Paul Grabbe
Pomerica Press, 187 pp., $8.95 (Windows on the River Neva may be ordered from West lane

The art of the camera, if it is an art, is subject more than any other art to the laws of nostalgia. It needs only ten years for an advertisement in a magazine to acquire charm of a quaint, retrospective kind. Pictures with more pretension live in a limbo of modernism, of art deco. Family snapshots carry the strongest charge of emotion reconstituted in tranquility, as analyzed in Philip Larkin’s poem “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.” The camera confers on reality all the immunities possessed by art: every contingency is caught and held inside the magic circle, becoming “smaller and clearer as the years go by.”

The case of Russia is a special one. The world of Chekhov, Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” the feverish dreams of Raskolnikov and the Underground Man, Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero” seem already to anticipate the world of film, as does the black and white perspective of Petersburg itself. Many Russian novels have particularly strong and idiosyncratic visual elements. And by ending an epoch abruptly, the revolution caused everything on the far side of it to appear in a different light. Chloe Obolensky has had the admirably imaginative idea of compiling a history in photographs of the last years of the Russian empire. The result is “nutritious”—to use Philip Larkin’s epithet for old photos—to an almost incredible degree.

One could spend days greedily ingesting every detail of dress and expression, among all classes and nationalities of the immense society we find in this book. Its past is that of a foreign country where things are done differently, and yet every nuance of human behavior as we know it can also be instantly recognized. In a curious way the combination of unknown details and tantalizing suggestions, the juxtaposition of copious artifacts and unfamiliar settings, anticipate some of the complex satisfactions of successful abstract art, as if abstraction were both the partner and successor of the great photographic era, profiting from the training to which it has accustomed the eye, and also supplying the dimension which photography has devitalized in representational art.

In her introduction Chloe Obolensky tells us that her sources “ranged from salvaged family albums to photographic societies, geographical archives and ethnographic collections in a dozen or so European countries (including the Soviet Union) and in the United States. To watch this heterogeneous material slowly form into a picture which, however incomplete, possessed both coherence and truth was a moving and at times even a startling experience.” Virtually none of the pictures had been published before, and she decided to plan the book as a journey, eastward from the two capitals, “across the Volga, the Ural Mountains and Siberia, to the farthest confines of the empire on the Pacific Ocean—and back.” This topographical approach gives a unique picture of primitive Russia before the revolution. Some of the most striking photographs are of Pushkin’s “wild Tungus,” of the Voguls, fishermen and hunters between the Ob and the Yenesey rivers, whose hunting play—the pursuit and killing of the deer—was taken by Tolstoy in What Is Art? as an example of the truest and most popular kind of dramatic representation.

The innate dignity of those who have never been photographed can give a kind of monolithic solidity to clothes and bodies. A full-length portrait of a Kachin matchmaker, gorgeous in cartwheel earrings, embroidered stomacher, and fox-fur hat, has something Rembrandtesque about it: these photographs are wholly innocent of the ethnic patronage and professionalism that weigh on one in folk museums and in the pages of the National Geographic, though the Kachin were in fact about as picturesque as they come, a Turkic tribe who had the odd habit of stealing bridges as a part of their marriage ritual. On the next page opposite lounge the Cossacks of Mariinsky Post, quartered in the same area of outer Siberia (Cossack is of course not a tribal but a social description: a class of soldier-settlers dating from well before Peter the Great’s time). Their wide Russian faces are tranquilly obscured by tobacco smoke: one of them cleans his three-edged bayonet while a slant-eyed child, gazing out between his legs, plays with the bolt of his modern repeating rifle.

The most exotic picture in the book is of Khevsur warriors from a Georgian mountain tribe who in the 1890s still wore chain-mail for fighting, and are shrouded in it, faces and all, like a group of medieval burglars. The most touching, from the faces we see and the future hopes in them, is of Jewish children at the synagogue school in Bukhara.

The tremendous pace of Russian industrialization, far more rapid than anything that took place in the West and a prime cause of capitalism overbalancing into revolution, was recorded in a great number of striking plates: the inauguration of new bridges on the Trans-Siberian, steel-rolling plants in the Urals, the model textile mills of the Konovalov family, whose workers’ barracks look remarkably comfortable, even though the perspective of the dormitories is as endless as Nevsky Prospect. Numerous domestic photographs show tea being drunk outside the house in the Russian manner, a massive samovar much in evidence. The members of Narodnaya Volya, “the People’s Will,” a nineteenth-century revolutionary group, look peaceable and intellectual round the tea-table, self-conscious when in another plate one poses before the camera in his peasant-style Russian blouse.

The “God’s people” who wandered from house to house, as described by the poet Esenin in his yearningly devoted backward look over “wooden Russia,” are much in evidence, and the kinds of holy madmen who appear in Tolstoy’s Childhood. Pictures of scything in the hayfields bring before us in visual form the great scene on Levin’s estate in Anna Karenina; and a seamed and tattered old lady, raking an endless expanse to the horizon behind her, might have stepped straight out of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches. (Let us hope, though, that reprints of Russian classics don’t take to putting such photographs in: it would be as bad as the glossy studies of authors on the fronts of their books. The pleasures of contemplation and imagination, looking and reading, are emphatically not synergistic.)

Drink, and its various effects on physiognomy and bearing, is fascinatingly apparent in several pictures. Would it show in the same way if the big lens and the black cloth were still in evidence at receptions and cocktail parties? Flash light at such places is crudely unselective, making everyone look stoned or imbecile or both. There are also one or two noble studies of a Russian distillery, that most happily disheveled of small factories and in splendid contrast to the haunted snow-architecture of a Petersburg palace. No wonder the old chronicler assets that the matter of religion was a deliberate choice in ancient Rus, for when the question came up and the merits of the rival candidates were evaluated, it was at once decided to have no truck with Islam because of its ban on drink, while a religion that could produce the cathedral of Santa Sophia in Constantinople was clearly the right one to go for.

The value of this remarkable collection is much increased by a comprehensive introductory essay by Max Hayward, sadly the last of the many good things we have had from that brilliant man, who died last year at the age of fifty-four. With learning, wit, and economy he takes us through Russian history and culture, the spread of the Empire, and its historical and economic development.

Paul Grabbe’s memoir, published over two years ago and hardly noticed, also contains some memorable photographs of life before the revolution. The most dramatic and Cartier-Bresson-like (although who can say what a photographer’s intentions were and how many deathless moments have been fixed by an ignoramus?) is of Tsar Nicholas, the last of the Romanovs, looking out of the window of the Imperial train in 1916. The blank shabby metal of the carriage is surmounted by three vaguely sinister ventilators, capped like boyars or witches. The narrow shaded window reveals a chest in drab uniform with aiguillettes and decorations, the face and whiskers above it already as it were unrecognizable, digested by the historical process. No symbolist could have done the job more effectively than this perhaps accidental shot.

Grabbe’s father was a close friend and henchman of people at the Imperial court, and at the time the picture was taken the author was twelve years old, shooting duck in south Russia—the shells could still be ordered from Moscow—and discovering with mild surprise that the peasant boys he met on these excursions were highly unfriendly. One of the many good things about the memoir is that the author makes no attempt to describe his youthful self as attractive, or even as sensitive. The temptation to improve matters on this second head, retrospectively, is not usually resisted—or so one might infer—even by a Russian memoirist writing in the pellucid tradition of Aksakov and Tolstoy and Nabokov. Grabbe is in this tradition, however much his modesty would disclaim it, but he inconspicuously shows the extent to which a young person born in those circles in Imperial Russia was conditioned by them, took for granted not only the privileges of his position but his ignorance of those other and very different Russian conditions among which he lived.

True, Grabbe senior was not, as Nabokov’s father was, a liberal reformist, but a man of the court and army, an amiable fellow, who comes across very well in the account his son gives of him. His mother, it seems, was cold and unsympathetic; his elder brother was also not congenial; but both are described with a familial sympathy and understanding. One of the excellent qualities of Russian memoirs is the absence in them of self-pity and self-importance, or of the Anglo-Saxon tendency, common since Dickens both in England and America, to show how X, Y, or Z exercised a malign or resurrectionary influence over one’s life and future. The sense of history’s impending doom is not insisted on here either, largely because the author is honest enough to imply that he and his relations had no way of seeing it coming. That isolation from their own countrymen, particularly among the Baltic gentry, had probably increased since the middle of the nineteenth century, and Tolstoy, with his enormous and secret disingenuousness, had attempted in portraying the great Russian family of War and Peace to pretend it didn’t exist. This memoir shows how overwhelming a reality it had become.

There is something touching too about the fact that Grabbe’s book opens in the US, with the funeral of the author’s father, and then America rapidly disappears as we recede into the past. With his mother and father the narrator came from France to America at the beginning of the Second World War, twenty years after their elder son had been killed fighting in the White Army. He has since done everything from washing dishes and helping as an undertaker to serving in the US State Department. He is also the author of three extremely successful books on music.

But for the memoir’s purposes—another two parts of it are projected—he has returned wholly to a Russian childhood, and the results are as agreeable as one could hope for. Every page has the kind of detail to be enjoyed, the kind that Chloe Obolensky’s book of photographs gives us in pictorial form. The feeling of waking up on a comfortable sleeper in the morning, coming from abroad, and drawing the blind to see the endless humble spaces of Russia, forest and steppe and dark lakes. Stealing from mother’s personal store of Château d’Yquem and her special English ginger biscuits. The young Count Grabbe’s valet suggested to him, when he was fifteen, that he might quietly rebottle and sell the leftovers in the many bottles of cognac and vodka which had survived a big party. On the proceeds the middleman-valet escorted him on a visit to his first prostitute, a kindly lady called Sonia; the experience reminded him of childhood rides on a merry-go-round. (That recollection is not strictly in conformity with the puritanical tradition of Russian writing.)

Grabbe’s father was on the train with the tsar when he abdicated. Had the tsar not done so, with that terrible innocent willingness, the revolution might not have occurred in the form it did, for the seemingly so casual act of abdication was a traumatic shock to the only forces in Russia, apart from revolutionaries, who still retained their nerve as well as their loyalty. The professional and officer classes were left headless: they had nothing to offer as an alternative to thoroughgoing revolution. The tsar remarked to Grabbe’s father: “Now that I am about to be freed of my responsibilities to the nation, perhaps I can fulfill my life’s desire—to have a farm, somewhere in England. What do you think?” To Grabbe senior’s outburst—“What will become of us in Russia?”—the tsar made no reply but looked slightly hurt.

The Grabbes evacuated themselves first to Sochi on the Black Sea and then to Riga on the Baltic, escaping from the town on a British minelayer just before the Bolsheviks entered it. Even so they almost missed the boat, which was not due to sail for some days. They were standing out on the balcony of their apartment when the young Grabbe happened to notice the floodlights signaling from the ship. He owed the rest of his life to that fortunate observation.

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