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On the Eve

The Romanov Family Album

introduction by Robert K. Massie, picture research by Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, assembled by Anna Vyrubova
Vendome Press, 127 pp., $25.00

Recent collections of photographs of life in Russia during the reign of the last czar convey an image of two separate and self-contained worlds: the world of lawyers and professors, ballerinas, officers in their clubs, prim middle-class families; and the world of shaggy peasants standing in front of their windowless huts, of “holy men” with mesmerizing stares, of Kazakh or Siberian tribesmen. Robert Massie’s edition of Romanov family photographs (taken by the last empress’s confidante, Anna Vyrubova) has much slighter historical interest than the earlier collections,1 but it does remind us of the curious mixture of East and West in the cultural makeup and traditions of Russia’s ruling dynasty. The last czar, heir to a Byzantine tradition of autocratic power, was the devoted and obedient husband of one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, and never happier than when indulging in the innocent pleasures of an affluent bourgeois paterfamilias, a role that he infinitely preferred to that of Autocrat of All the Russias; yet when events finally forced a choice between the traditions of East and West, he showed himself a true despot in the spirit of his ancestors. By his obdurate opposition to constitutional rule, he helped to push his country toward a new-style oriental despotism.

For more than two centuries the Romanovs, with the help of the Church, the police, and some of Russia’s greatest writers, had kept the barriers between Russia’s indigenous and Western cultures intact. While availing themselves of the technical expertise of the West, they had prevented its most advanced social ideas from infecting traditional concepts of authority, successfully isolating the tiny radical minority among the Westernized elite from the vast mass of the population who professed Orthodoxy and called the czar their father. But by the time the camera arrived to record Russia’s separate worlds, their boundaries were crumbling in a cultural upheaval no less momentous than the political revolutions that followed. As Edward Crankshaw remarked in his stimulating history of the last century of imperial rule,2 the destruction of Russia’s ancien régime was heralded by the appearance of strange, ambivalent figures who moved mysteriously between opposed worlds: Gapon, the priest-revolutionary who helped set in motion the events of 1905, or Azeff, the terrorist leader who seems to have owed simultaneous allegiance to the revolution and to the secret police.

Figures such as these symbolize the cultural and moral disorientation that accompanied Russia’s transformation into a modern capitalist state. The great spurt of industrialization begun in the 1890s created, along with a proletariat and a middle class, material and political demands that led in 1905 to revolution, and subsequently to the granting of a proto-parliament and the formation of Russia’s first Western-style political parties. At the same time, the agricultural reforms necessitated by the country’s expanding economy released the peasantry from the communes to which they had been bound for centuries and set in motion their transformation into independent farmers. The new tensions and conflicts generated by these social dislocations could not be understood according to traditional beliefs and values, and the government, rapidly losing the respect of all sections of the population through a combination of brutality and vacillation, had none to offer in their place. The peasants’ faith in the czarfather, the romantic religious conservatism of Dostoevsky, the isolationist nationalism of the bureaucratic right, all became anachronisms, and with them the conservative liberalism of progressive landowners and the radicals’ faith in the peasant as hero of a future agrarian idyll.

Deprived of their bearings and forced to introspection, many educated people in Russian society found within themselves a frightening and exhilarating chaos of irrational and creative impulses—in particular, religious and aesthetic demands long neglected by the simplistic, social ideologies of the left. To help them explore these newly experienced dimensions of the personality they turned to ideas from the West—those of Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, the French symbolists, and many others. Individualism, mysticism, a cult of artistic freedom, and a belief in the artist’s sacred mission were ingredients of a modernist movement in the arts, while the radical intelligentsia, influenced by the neo-idealist movements in German philosophy, came increasingly to question the anti-individualism and philosophical crudity of reigning revolutionary ideologies.

The moral chaos penetrated to the semiliterate: a half-digested reading of Nietzsche, Marx, religious mysticism, and much else produced a rich stew of ideas and moods that found expression in anarchic violence during 1905. The political, economic, and social crises through which Russia subsequently lurched toward 1917 both affected and were affected by the fatalistic pessimism of a cultural elite that had lost its spiritual bearings and increasingly looked to an apocalypse to resolve the intractable contradictions of reality.

Only a full-scale cultural history could reconstruct this pattern of events; yet the trend of historical writing about this period has been in the opposite direction—to ever-increasing specialization in economic, military, and administrative history and the history of Bolshevik doctrine. Within these separate compartments the history of late imperial Russia has become a testing ground for Marxist and non-Marxist social theory, while the perspective of the present and the wisdom of hindsight determine which seams of material should be exhaustively worked and which neglected. The more finely the threads are split, the more the pattern of the whole eludes us. What is needed is a synthetic vision prepared to interpret a culture in its own terms, without the omniscient arrogance of hindsight.

The appearance of Mr. Lincoln’s attempt (the first of its kind) at a cultural history of the last decades of imperial Russia is a depressing reminder of the obstacles to the exercise of these qualities in the treatment of events that still profoundly affect our destinies. The cultural historian with a general readership in view is even more tempted than the specialist to select for emphasis those phenomena that cast the longest shadows. Mr. Lincoln’s book is saturated with the wisdom of hindsight: omens, premonitions, and symbols are present at every step; dark shadows fall on almost every page. But despite solemnly convoluted sentences and the irritating repetition of adjectives such as “awesome” and “fateful,” the emphasis and the insights are the familiar result of generations of specialist sifting.

The book is ambitious in scope. The introduction informs us that it sets out to explore the “lives, thoughts, hopes, and dreams” of Russians on the eve of the Great War, to explain the sense of doom that haunted the more perceptive among them, and to convey a sense of “the tensions that tore at the fabric of their society.” But it lacks both originality and any unifying conceptual approach. Its extensive scholarly apparatus (one-fifth of the considerable length consists of footnotes) reveals a heavy predominance of secondary over primary sources, and it is these authorities and their variously narrow perspectives that dominate the book.

The separate compartments of Russian history are rearranged between two covers, but not integrated in any way. Only the purely historical chapters (on the Russo-Japanese War, 1905, the Dumas, and foreign policy) convey any impression of the conflicts of Russian society as a whole; the other chapters (on the peasants, the merchants, the proletariat, the revolutionaries, the bureaucracy, and the artistic and literary circles), which are the substance of the book, are each a self-contained compilation of material from scholarly sources that are conscientiously cited at every step. Generalizations are invariably presented in quotation marks as the opinion of “an outstanding scholar” or “a leading expert in the field”; personalities are characterized by passages culled from their biographers; and if many of the quotations from memoirs of the period are familiar, it is because they, too, are taken from well-known secondary sources.

This scissors-and-paste approach may have been inspired by a misguided desire for fairness and balance. Writing about Narodnaya Volya, the terrorist group that assassinated Alexander II, Mr. Lincoln muses solemnly on whether, in view of the dedication of all its members, it is not unfair to them to name only the leading personalities of the group. In a field of history notoriously bedeviled by ideological disputes, he contrives to be fair to all his predecessors by naming almost all of them, and, by concentrating on statistics and anecdotes rather than analysis, avoids discussing both the contentious issues and the ambiguous figures which, as Crankshaw put it, “blur…the sharp edges of Russian history” (and raise the tempers of historians).

The result, naturally, is not objectivity, but a mosaic which is the bland and trivial mixture of a number of narrow perspectives. The kind of historical distortion effected by this approach is most evident in the two chapters dealing with the revolutionary movement and with Russia’s writers and artists. Here Mr. Lincoln keeps to exceptionally narrow and well-trodden paths. His discussion of the revolutionary movement after 1905 is confined to a summary of the well-known dispute between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on revolutionary tactics, while the cultural life of the period is illustrated almost exclusively by reference to the aestheticism and retreat from social concerns that initially inspired the modernist movement.

The question whether any significant proportion of Russia’s cultured elite occupied a middle ground between these two extremes is answered obliquely in the negative: Mr. Lincoln quotes the famous symposium Signposts as symptomatic of the widespread disillusionment in social ideals among the intelligentsia after the failure of the 1905 revolution. Its authors, mainly ex-Marxists, informed the intelligentsia that its traditional urge to transform society had led to the negation of cultural values and a dangerous cult of force, and urged it to concentrate its energies on the religious task of developing its inner life.

But if Signposts reflected a mood, it was not one to which Russian society was prepared to admit: the symposium was met with almost universal hostility and contempt. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that it is now regarded as a piece of profound social commentary. Similarly, it is only in retrospect that the Russian Social Democratic Party and the aesthetical strand in Russian art and literature can be singled out as the two most significant phenomena in the history of ideas of that period. For most of Russia’s intelligentsia, as well as for most of its artists and writers, neither of these alternatives provided a satisfactory solution to a problem of choice between irreconcilable but equally cherished values.

The 1905 revolution had made the modernists painfully aware that what had begun as a joyful liberation from the constraints of a traditional insistence on the social significance of art threatened to become the final act in the tragedy of the intelligentsia’s estrangement from the people. Just as Russia’s minority culture had reached its most subtle degree of refinement, the people, to whom it had given nothing, were rushing to destroy it with the help of crude revolutionary slogans. Unable either to renounce the values of an advanced culture, or to deny the justice of the upheaval that threatened it, the modernist movement addressed itself to problems of culture and history in an attempt to understand and interpret contemporary forces of change. Although this resulted in much facile mysticism, in which imminent catastrophe was welcomed as a purifying release of primal energy, some writers, notably Aleksandr Blok, made moving though hopeless efforts to reconcile their love of an aristocratic culture and a defense of creative freedom with the belief that they were called on to be the voice of their entire society.

Had he turned his attention to the way in which Russian artists expressed intolerable tensions in their culture, Mr. Lincoln could have brought together some of the disparate threads in his narrative, at the cost of blurring its sharp edges; but he settles for a simpler interpretation of the doom of Russia’s “Silver Age”—that remarkable artistic revival which produced, among much else, the poetry of Blok and the young Mandelstam. Lincoln’s view is based on an image common to all the literary histories: that of the “hothouse culture” symbolized by Vyacheslav Ivanov’s St. Petersburg “tower” where the literary elite carried on sophisticated discussion on aesthetic matters, while revolution raged in the streets far below. Their esoteric variations on the theme of art for art’s sake are summed up in neat quotations from standard histories. True, we are told that they were addicted to apocalyptic themes and were profoundly moved by the 1905 revolution, but its effect on them is principally conveyed by two extraordinarily banal quotations from Blok on the gloominess of life (selected, inexplicably, from Avril Pyman’s biography,3 a source which abounds in examples of Blok’s brilliantly scathing comments on the discrepancies between the intelligentsia’s fantasies and the condition of the people).

It is therefore hard to understand why the “doom-filled vision” of Russia’s “turbulent” writers should drive them to “urgent frenzy”; even harder to guess why their “ungovernable passions” should be in “constant turmoil,” or what might be the source of the “unabashed daring” that made them soar to “unimagined heights” of creativity. Notwithstanding a battering of clichés of this sort the reader is left with the impression not of tragic “children of Russia’s dreadful years” (the quotation from Blok which heads the chapter), but of a collection of unattractive bohemians with overinflated egos who used the defense of artistic freedom primarily as a pretext for the exploration of sexual perversions in their art and in their personal relations. This aspect of Russia’s Silver Age, described mainly through gossipy anecdotes, occupies most of the chapter. In this trivializing account, “a new fascination with sex” emerges as the principal response of the writer and society alike to approaching catastrophe.

In its primitive reductionism Mr. Lincoln’s account presents a picture of Russian educated society on the eve of the Great War as polarized into two groups: the one engaged (albeit with a nervous sense of impending retribution) in the pursuit of hedonistic self-fulfillment, and the other dedicated to the pursuit of power. This picture lends support to a common view that the Russian intelligentsia helped to hasten the calamities that followed the war by abdicating from its traditional role as the conscience of Russian society.

This was not the case. It is true that in the pessimistic atmosphere prevailing after the failure of the 1905 revolution erotic literature enjoyed an enormous vogue; hedonism, debauchery, and sexual perversion were preached and practiced partly as a reaction to the ascetic morality that had previously prevailed among the radical intelligentsia. But the call to surrender to sensual drives was only one of many directions taken by Russia’s cultured elite in an attempt, by probing the limits of experience, to answer fundamental questions of existence. If they helped to precipitate catastrophe, it was through an excess of moral speculation rather than the reverse. Mr. Lincoln would have come closer to understanding the real tensions of Russian society on the eve of the Great War if he had been less heavily dependent on the perspective of “leading specialists” and addressed himself to sources far more relevant to the concerns of a cultural historian.

His extensive apparatus of footnotes, for example, is notably lacking in references to one of the most rewarding and neglected of these sources: namely the “thick journals”—the monthly reviews in which Russia’s major writers traditionally first published their works and which for nearly a century were the only public forum for discussion (in the guise of literary criticism and philosophical speculation) of burning contemporary issues. Even after 1905, with the end of censorship and the foundation of political parties, they retained their function, proliferating, as each party established its own journal, and continuing to provide a sensitive barometer of the moods and concerns of the intelligentsia—dominant among which, as they show, was the desire to construct a new image of man that could accommodate recent experience. The spread of interest in religion and the irrational, the strident individualism in the arts, and finally the violence and anarchism of 1905 had shattered the intelligentsia’s traditional optimism about the inevitability of mankind’s progression to a rationally organized collectivist society. But the solution advocated by Sign-posts—that they withdraw from the social struggle—was ignored by most thinking Russians who sought instead to revise their social ideals in order to accommodate a more complex model of man’s nature. This enterprise extended even to a group of Marxists: at the height of Lenin’s battle with the Mensheviks he was attempting to silence an embarrassing tendency within his own faction. This was the attempt of the socalled “Godbuilders” (among them Gorki and Lunacharsky) to synthesize Marxism with a Nietzschean “religion” that would reconcile man’s social aims with his aesthetic and irrational impulses.

Mr. Lincoln makes no reference to this sign of the cultural times; neither does he mention an aspect of decadent culture more significant than its fascination with sex—the fascination with Dostoevsky, who had been dismissed as a morbid reactionary by previous generations of the intelligentsia. The major decadent writers (including Vassily Rozanov, whom Mr. Lincoln represents solely as a preacher of sexual liberation) produced a succession of books and articles proclaiming Dostoevsky a prophet who had predicted the approaching catastrophe by defining the struggle of opposing principles in the soul of modern man: the rebellion of destructive impulses against the universal structures of his reason, the conflict between self-will and love, and the self-perpetuating nature of the violence that was the only method society had devised to resolve this struggle. In the critical writings of the decadents the dilemmas of Dostoevsky’s characters are the starting point for an exploration of the paradoxes involved in the use of violence as a means to the goal of universal brotherhood. Other examples were closer to hand: it seemed to many that Dostoevsky’s characters and their insoluble dilemmas were present among them in the flesh, in the persons of the terrorists of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

Mr. Lincoln’s failure to discuss this party is the most striking of the many omissions in his picture of Russian society between the revolutions. In the first decade of the century this revolutionary group dominated the attention of society through frequent assassinations of prominent officials by its terrorist wing. The party represented the old heroic tradition of Russian radicalism with its insistence on the self-sacrifice and moral purity of the revolutionary, who was expected to embody the ideals for which he fought. But in 1905 its leaders were disturbed by the appearance of a new revolutionary type, which reveled in violence and professed a pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism. The moral unease in the party reached a crisis point four years later when it was discovered that Azeff, a leader of the terrorist wing, was a police agent.

The party’s attempt to construct a coherent position on the question of violence became a matter of general debate among the intelligentsia when one of Azeff’s closest comrades, Boris Savinkov, published a pseudonymous novel in a leading journal, in which terrorists discussed the problem of ends and means in terms reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s novels. Three years later, Savinkov published a second novel on the same subject; meanwhile decadent writers had seized on the theme of terrorism to pursue in fictional form the search for a new radical humanism, and the merits of the various positions were discussed in every monthly journal.

This remarkable debate, in which authorities from Nietzsche to Tolstoy were adduced in an effort to establish firm moral limits for the permissible in political practice, generated much bad philosophy, no clear conclusions, and no literature deserving of more than a footnote in literary history. Yet it provides a uniquely valuable insight into that apocalyptic mood to which Mr. Lincoln refers so often, but which he does so little to explain. It shows the workings in the moral sphere of that contempt for compromise which was so disastrously evident in the politics of that time and which, together with the government’s intransigence, contributed to the failure of the Duma to provide a transition to constitutional rule. The radical intelligentsia was accustomed to expressing political protest in the name of moral absolutes, and when for many of them the human costs of pursuing their objectives became too great, they and the writers who sympathized with them looked to philosophy to provide a reconciliation of force and freedom. When this failed them, rather than water down their principles, they turned in large numbers to messianic hopes of a cultural rebirth through fiery purification.

Despite Mr. Lincoln’s efforts to dramatize his material, he has failed completely to convey the Dostoevskian nightmare of life among Russia’s cultured elite in the years preceding the Great War—the bizarre quality of a society where, in the face of a beleaguered government whose highest officials went in daily fear for their lives, the respective merits of assassination and compromise were debated in the pages of leading journals; and where terrorists expressed themselves in dialogues that seem to come straight from the pages of The Brothers Karamazov. (When a critic suggested that the characters in Savinkov’s novels were invented, some of Russia’s most notorious terrorists publicly protested that they were taken directly from life.)

The collapse of Russian society in 1917 and the failure of its educated classes to build on the impressive economic achievements of the preceding two decades or on the political concessions they had wrested from the czar cannot be understood without some comprehension of the paralyzing effect of what R. V. Ivanov-Razumnik (the most distinguished of prerevolutionary Russian intellectual historians) described as the “moral interregnum” of those years. The final victory of Marxism, too, owed something to the strength that it revealed at that time. With the exception of the Godbuilders (who were soon brought to heel by Lenin) the Marxists were the only group immune from the moral malaise of their society, and they contributed their certainties to the debate about Savinkov’s novels. His terrorists, Plekhanov wrote, had wasted their time in searching their consciences, when they had only to consult the timetable of history as set down by Marx: this would have told them whom and when it was permissible to kill.

  1. 1

    See Kyril Fitzlyon and Tatiana Browning, Before the Revolution: A View of Russia Under the Last Czar (Overlook Press, 1979) and Chloe Obolensky, with an introduction by Max Hayward, The Russian Empire: A Portrait in Photographs (Random House, 1979).

  2. 2

    The Shadow of the Winter Palace (Viking, 1976).

  3. 3

    The Life of Aleksandr Blok, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1979-1980).

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