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Scratch a Russian

In an early chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha, the young Countess Rostov, goes on a visit to “Uncle,” an old family friend, once an army officer, who has “gone native” and lives in a wooden cottage in the forest with his mistress, a comely serf from the local estate. After Natasha and her brother Nikolai have been regaled with rye-cakes, pickled mushrooms, and vodka, they hear the sounds of a balalaika, played by the local hunt servants. Uncle jumps up, seizes a guitar, and himself begins to play the accelerating rhythm of a Russian peasant dance. Natasha has never heard the folk song he is playing, but it arouses some instinct in her heart; and Uncle eggs her on to join in the dancing. Automatically she puts her arms akimbo and begins to execute the steps of the dance correctly, encouraged by the applause and laughter of Uncle and the hunt serfs.

Tolstoy obviously attaches great significance to this scene—the young countess, brought up to speak French in the cosmopolitan Russian upper class, nonetheless possesses an instinctive grasp, or folk memory, of true Russian peasant culture. Orlando Figes, very adroitly, takes the dance and its peasant setting as an emblem of the split in Russian cultural history, which turns out not to be such a big split after all. Although she is unaware of it, Natasha, the young countess, really lives in two worlds, culturally speaking, and, if the circumstances combine to reveal it, she is as much, or even more, at home among the peasants as she is in a Moscow drawing room.

Indeed the author of Natasha’s Dance might well have drawn a contrast with another scene in War and Peace in which Natasha is taken, for the first time, to a fashionable European-style ballet. Male and female performers “waving their legs about” (a good instance of Tolstoy’s trick of “making strange” something that most people take for granted) seem to Natasha merely silly and ridiculous, but when her fashionable friends extravagantly praise the star performer she joins in their conventional compliments because it is obviously the right thing to do. A Russian, in fact, or at least a Russian girl, must be taught the artificial culture of the West, no matter what level of society she comes from; but for Tolstoy her real and spontaneous instinct is to respond to and show herself part of the cultural tradition of the peasantry.

Like so much of War and Peace, indeed like so much Russian fiction generally, this is propaganda, propaganda on behalf of an ideal that Tolstoy wishes to be true, and with which he became more and more obsessed toward the end of his long life. But Tolstoy was no pioneer in this matter, and indeed his great novel (which he always refused to call a novel, or to hear described as one) is singularly true to what was happening in Russia in the time of its setting, in 1812, the year of Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent defeat. The aristocracy and the upper class at that time, as Professor Figes shows, were trying hard to “become more Russian”:

The men of 1812 gave up feasts of haute cuisine for spartan Russian lunches of cabbage soup and black rye bread, Clicquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, as they strived to simplify and Russianize their opulent lifestyle….

There were cases of noblewomen living with or even marrying serfs. Sometimes the attempt to be, as it were, more Russian than thou was carried to grotesque lengths:

Count Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy, a military hero of 1812, was the owner of a magnificent mansion on the English Embankment in St. Petersburg. The reception room had marble walls and mirrors with sumptuous decoration in the French Empire style, but after 1812 he had his bedroom lined with rough wooden logs to give it the appearance of a peasant hut.

The women, like Natasha herself, were not to be left behind. It became fashionable to dance the pliaska and other native Russian dances. Countess Orlova and Princess Elena Golitsyn, from two of the richest and most powerful families, danced the pliaska at fashionable Petersburg balls, the latter remarking,

Nobody had taught me…it was simply that I was a “Russian girl.” I had grown up in the country, and when I heard the refrain of our village song, “The Maid Went to Fetch the Water,” I could not stop myself from the opening hand movements of the dance.

A few years later Pushkin was to write one of his most haunting short lyrics about songs his old nurse had taught him. “Sing to me about the bluetit who lived quietly beyond the sea; sing to me about the maiden who went at dawn to fetch the water.”

Gogol, a friend of Pushkin’s in St. Petersburg, was the first of the great Russian writers deliberately to exploit the fashion of peasant culture. His parents were settled in the Ukraine—“Little Russia”—and he was familiar from childhood with the local lore, and the earthy idiom of the Ukrainian farmers. The result was a best-selling collection of stories, Evenings on a Farm near Di- kanka, which had an enormous success in the fashionable circles of the Russian capital. The stories were mostly fantastic and grotesque anecdotes and legends which Gogol had picked up when young, and when he brought them to St. Petersburg, hoping to make a name and reputation for himself, he succeeded. Folklore, and particularly Ukrainian folklore, became all the rage, but as Figes dryly observes, the fashion did not extend to such an unwilling part of the Russian Empire as Poland, which wanted nothing else but to rejoin by any means the culture of Western Europe. In consequence, almost all the great Russian writers were anti-Polish, Dostoevsky almost rabidly so.

Russian culture at this time was in a sense uniform—literature, art, and music all working closely together as if they were aspects of the same national impulse. Many years after Gogol’s youthful debut, Mussorgsky was to adapt stories from Evenings on a Farm for his unfinished Sorochinsky Fair and the famous Night on a Bare Mountain (1867), and Rimsky-Korsakov used the same source for his May Night (1880). In the twentieth century the tradition continued with Diaghilev and Stravinsky’s music for the ancient folk tale of The Firebird (1910). What Figes agreeably calls “the imperial recruitment” of the peasant theme began with Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (1836), telling the story of Ivan Susanin, a serf from the Romanov estate, who saves the life of Mikhail Romanov, founder of the new tsarist dynasty, by sacrificing his own, when Polish soldiers in the “Time of Troubles” come to kill the new tsar.

It may be that Russian culture, at least since Peter the Great’s time, has had a more than imperial propensity for rushing from one extreme to another. Before the 1812 days, when everything that was good became Russian, and was associated with the Russian peasant, upper-class Russians tended to worship at what might be called the Sheremetev shrine. Prince Boris Sheremetev had been the field marshal of Peter’s army, and an extremely competent general. (The Moscow airport is named after him.) But he had also amassed an immense fortune, and so much land, with so many serfs, that both his expenditures and his hospitality became equally fabulous. The phrase “on the Sheremetev account” entered the language—the Russian equivalent of the French phrase “aux frais de la princesse“—and there were so many guests in the great house at every lunch and dinner that Ivan Krylov, the writer of admirably witty fables in the manner of Lafontaine, remembered a “guest” who ate there every day for years without anyone knowing who he was.

There were hazards, however, in the profitable business of getting a free meal in a great man’s house. One genuine guest, placed toward the bottom of an enormous table, found he was given nothing to eat or drink at all, because the dignitaries higher up were given their second helpings before lesser folk got their first. One such guest, asked by the host if he had enjoyed himself, replied, “Oh yes, sir, I saw everything.”

Figes includes a staggering list of goods, ranging from “English dry mustard” to blue silk camisoles sewn with gold, which were regularly ordered from all over Europe. For the grandees of the eighteenth century—Sheremetev, the Orlovs, and Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s favorite—nothing in Russia itself began to be good enough for them; even if the goods required could easily be obtained locally, they still had to be sent for from Europe.

The revolt of the Decembrists in 1825 against Tsar Nicholas I was essentially a forlorn gesture of liberal and cultural principles, inherited from 1812, by the young St. Petersburg aristocracy. One of the older participants was Count Volkonsky, an officer and a friend of the new tsar, who escaped execution but who was sentenced to permanent exile in Siberia. Making in the best manner a virtue out of a necessity he went native with great success, extolling the virtues of that vast hinterland and its Tatar and Buriat peoples. Tolstoy, who could never get on with peasants with half as much success, admired Volkonsky, whose equally aristocratic wife had followed him into voluntary exile; and at one time Tolstoy intended to continue War and Peace (in which Volkonsky appears as Prince Bolkonsky) to include the fate of the Decembrists, and the heroic style in which many had adapted themselves to distant exile. Tolstoy decided against this continuation of War and Peace, perhaps from motives of prudence—not for nothing was he the heir of a long line of crafty state diplomats; but Siberia and its places of detention have an important part in his last novel, Resurrection, a work which Tolstoy intended in its own fashion to challenge comparison with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead.

Siberia was not merely an enormous part of the Russian Empire; it was the original home of the Mongols and Tatars who for centuries dominated European Russia itself, and to whom even Ivan the Terrible had been forced to pay tribute. Much mingling of peoples took place—“Scratch a Russian and find a Tatar,” observed Napoleon—but later on it became a source of pride for Russian families to claim Tatar or Mongol antecedents. Boris Godunov was of Mongol stock, and so, among many others, was the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was immensely proud of the fact. Such pride was not uncommon. But a Russian writer or poet, even if he was not ethnically a Mongol by descent, could nonetheless claim to belong to the steppes of Central Asia in a cultural and spiritual way. A Russian always had the vast spaces and resources of Tartary to claim when he wanted to feel anti-European.

In this spirit the school of “Scythian poets,” to which Alexander Blok belonged, set themselves up in the last part of the nineteenth century. Even Pushkin had claimed to be a “Scythian” when it suited him. As Figes well puts it,

A resentful contempt for Western values was a common Russian response to the feeling of rejection by the West. During the nineteenth century the “Scythian temperament”—barbarian and rude, iconoclastic and extreme, lacking the restraint and moderation of the cultivated European citizen—entered the cultural lexicon as a type of “Asiatic” Russian-ness that insisted on its right to be “uncivilized.” This was the sense of Pushkin’s lines:

Now temperance is not appropriate
I want to drink like a savage Scythian.

And it was the sense in which Herzen wrote to Proudhon in 1849: “…a true Scythian, I watch with pleasure as this old world destroys itself and I don’t have the slightest pity for it.”

To the Russian “Scythian” poets there was nothing incongruous in the fact that they were closely in touch with the latest poetic and artistic styles from Paris, that, as Figes puts it, “their poetry was immersed in the European avant-garde.” This is certainly true of Blok, Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam, for whom poetry was nothing if it was not totally and eruditely cosmopolitan. Russian culture was always good at having things both ways; and it is an important fact that the artist Nikolay Roerich, who later became famous for his “Scythian” designs for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, was a fully trained archaeologist who had worked on the Scythian kurgans, the vast burial mounds to be found all over southern Russia, and particularly on the Maikop kurgan in the Crimea, where the fabulous gold and silver treasures now on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg were discovered.

Figes quotes from Blok’s famous poem “The Scythians,” of 1918, rightly describing it as “Asiatic posturing toward the West,” and an appeal to Europe to join the revolution, to be helped on its way by our “savage hordes.” Boris Pasternak later remarked of Blok and his famous revolutionary and visionary poem “The Twelve” that when a poet sees a revolution, and calls it terrible and wonderful in highly colored metaphors, he has really no idea of what revolution is about at all, or what it may become. Certainly Blok himself was soon disillusioned and died a broken man.

Akhmatova was made of sterner stuff. She never for a moment considered emigrating and abandoning Russia, although, like Mandelstam, she had a wholly clear-eyed and disenchanted view of what a Bolshevik takeover would mean. Her sense of humor was acerbic and ironic. Numerous women would-be poets had taken her simple and passionate early love poems as their model. And many years later, in 1958, long after the Communist regime had disillusioned hopes of women’s emancipation, she produced a wry epigram on her early imitators. “I taught the women to speak/But, Lord, however does one shut them up again?” It was typical of the best and most indomitable side of Russian culture that she went her own way, developing her own style regardless of Soviet decree and fashion, and wrote her greatest poems, “Requiem” and “A Poem Without a Hero,” in late maturity, when she had suffered greatly, and when her only son by her husband, the poet Gumilev, shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918, had been arrested and sent to a distant labor camp. The house on the Fontanka Canal where she had managed to keep a room had become legendary; and it was there—the grand old lady of Russian letters—she was visited by Isaiah Berlin not long after the war, a meeting with “the guest from the past” commemorated in her poetry, and just as moving as the remarkable two-page photograph, included by Figes, of Igor and Vera Stravinsky arriving back at the Moscow airport in 1962 from their long voluntary exile.

Figes concludes his admirable chapter on Soviet culture with some bleak words:

What, in the end, was “Soviet culture?” Was it anything?… 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 the 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…arguably, a distinctly 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.

But what about the achievement of Soviet film? Figes is scrupulously fair here, acknowledging the great achievements of Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Boris Barnet, stimulated as they all understandably were by Stalin’s enthusiasm for the movies, his favorite artistic medium, just as it was for Hitler. Lenin too had valued film above all the other arts for its propaganda value. But that was not quite how these artist technicians saw it:

In 1920, on his return to Moscow, Eisenstein joined Proletkult as a theatre director and became involved in the Kuleshov workshop. Both led him to the idea of typage —the use of untrained actors or “real types” taken (sometimes literally) from the street. The technique was used by Kuleshov in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1923) and, most famously, by Eisenstein himself in The Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Notwithstanding their skill as artists, in the end they found it impossible to bear up against the dead weight of ideology. The Georgian film director Otar Ioseliani recalls a conversation with the veteran filmmaker Boris Barnet in 1962:

He asked me: “Who are you?” I said, “A director…” “‘Soviet,’” he corrected, “you must always say ‘Soviet director.’ It is a very special profession.” “In what way?” I asked. “Because if you ever manage to become honest, which would surprise me, you can remove the word ‘Soviet.’”

There are many forms of hypocrisy and dishonesty, some of them no doubt to be found in the Russia of today; but at least the “Soviet” kind is not one of them.

The last chapter of Figes’s masterly work treats the Russian intelligentsia forced abroad by the Revolution. There were a great many of them—more than three million—and they included writers like Marina Tsvetaeva, Ivan Bunin, the émigré who won the Nobel Prize for literature, and the young Vladimir Nabokov, who was eventually to settle in the US and write Lolita. The saddest fate was reserved for the enormously talented Tsvetaeva, who followed her young husband into exile after he had fought with Denikins’ White Guards in the Ukraine. He secretly went over to the Soviets while he was in Paris, betrayed other émigrés, returned to Moscow, and was shot by the OGPU, for whom he had been working. Tsvetaeva, who had followed him back to Russia, was evacuated to Central Asia during the war, and she hanged herself there.

Many of the three million émigrés went to Berlin, and so many settled there that Berliners took to calling the Kurfürstendamm the Nevsky Prospekt. There were Russian cafés, theaters, bookshops, orchestras, and antique shops, and even a Russian soccer team with the young Nabokov, in the days before he left for Paris and America, playing goal.

In another sense of course there was also a vast “inner emigration,” in Russia itself, of those who had hung on, kept silent, and hoped for better times. It was for them that the editor of a samizdat journal spoke in 1971, seeming uncannily to anticipate the breakup of the Soviet state that was to come. “In spite of everything there are still Russians. It is not too late to return to the homeland.” Perhaps that is what is happening today, with what consequences time will show.

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