Without a real sense of nationhood, Russians tried to make a homeland in their art. All Russian art circles the question: "What is Russia?"by Orlando Figes / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
If you spend much time in Russia and get to know it through Russian friends, you are likely to conclude that the most important cultural monument of that country is not the Kremlin or the Winter Palace, nor the ancient monasteries and churches, nor the grand estates which lure you out of Moscow on to Russia’s bumpy roads. In fact it is the kitchen of your friends. Cramped and dimly lit, but warm and cosy, the kitchen is a shrine of intellectual life-or perhaps we should say it was. Huddled round the kitchen table, safe from prying ears, you were likely to engage in passionate debates about the purpose of existence or the problem of existence in Russia and (on a lighter note) the bits of Tolstoy you prefer to Dostoevsky and the bits of Dostoevsky you prefer to Tolstoy. The discussion was likely to continue into the small hours of the morning, long after the last vodka bottle was emptied and the tea was cold. And only sometimes did it seem-in those moments when you thought you might be dreaming-that you had actually stepped into the pages of a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Weren’t their novels full of such scenes-perhaps in grander settings but in spirit just the same?
In such circles the question “what is Russia?” has always been the obsessive theme. What does it mean to be a Russian? What is Russia’s place and mission in the world? And where is the true Russia? In Europe or in the east? St Petersburg or Moscow? The tsar’s domain or the free community? Is it a real place or a region of the mind? These are the “accursed questions” which have occupied Russians for the past 200 years. Indeed, if we find Russia difficult to grasp, it is because the Russians themselves have never been quite sure about who or where they are.
By and large, Russia has been the subject of most Russian works of art. To answer what it meant to be a Russian, to develop a distinctive national style, and to state the nation’s mission in the world, were the primary goals of every serious writer, critic and historian, painter and composer, theologian and philosopher, in the golden age from Pushkin to Pasternak. We love the classic Russian novels, Chekhov’s plays, Chagall and Kandinsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov. They speak to us in universal terms. Yet we rarely hear or try to understand the inner national dialogue to which they also refer.
It is hard to conceive of any other nation’s art being quite so troubled by self-identity. Can you imagine Dickens or Brontë stopping to discuss what England is or who the English are? To be sure, other nations formed, as Russia was, in the Romantic age, were for a while absorbed by the idea of themselves. There were periods when the idea of Germany, of Italy or Poland, even Greece, was more coherent than the place. But all these cultural nations became nation states: the imaginary community was realised in national laws, institutions and economies. First the tsars and then the Bolsheviks, however, denied Russia the legal culture or civil society of a liberal European state. As a result, the Russian nation remained a thing of the imagination-of music, folklore, poems and above all novels. The nation lived in the idea of Russia rather than in the reality.
Geography is part of the problem. On the whole, the English have a clear sense of their Englishness. The English novel is remarkable for its sense of place: Brontë country or the London of Dickens. But the Russians cannot visit some Slavonic version of the Cotswolds and think of that as “Russia,” although there are mythic winter forests or poetic Volga views which could count as the quintessential locus patriae. The great cultural figures of the 19th century knew little about provincial Russia. Even Gogol, who rose to fame as Russia’s first provincial satirist, admitted that he “did not know the provinces at all.” What they did know about it-the bleak monotony of the steppe-drove Russia’s artists mostly to despair. Mandelstam called it “the watermelon emptiness of Russia.” Musorgsky called it “the all-Russian bog.”
Alienated from the real Russia, its poets found a homeland in an imaginary one. Indeed, the more the artist knew of the reality, the more he was inclined to seek salvation in the ideal Russia of his creation. Here is the root of that tradition which marks out Russia’s writers as religious prophets of the nation’s destiny.
Gogol was the first of these writer-prophets. Thrown into despair by the grotesque Russia of his own satiric fictions in the first part of Dead Souls, Gogol tried to paint an ideal portrait in the second and third parts of what he called the “beautiful Russia in my heart.” But Gogol could not picture this dream-space. He was torn apart by the contradiction between his vision of what Russia should become and his knowledge of what Russia really was. However hard he tried to paint a perfect image of the Russian land and people, his acute observation was such that he could not help but burden them with imperfections. Pushkin, when he read the manuscript, said: “God, how sad our Russia is!” Sensing that he had failed in his mission to make his readers aware of “Holy Russia,” Gogol took to his bed and told his servant to burn the unfinished novel, three days before he died in 1852, a martyr to his own impossible ideal.
The tension between these two Russias, the real and the ideal, afflicted many Russian writers less inclined to prophecy than poor Gogol. In fact, it is hard to name an important 19th-century figure (Chekhov, possibly) who was not in some way troubled or undone by the contradiction between them.
for many writers and painters, Russia’s destiny lay in its leadership of an eastern Christian empire which would renew and save the fallen west. In its own defining myth of origin, Russia grew up as a Christian civilisation of the east. Its national epic is the story of the struggle by the Christian settlers of the forest lands against the Tatar horsemen of the Asiatic steppe-Avars, Khazars, Polovtsians and Mongols, Kazakhs, Kalmyks and other nomad tribes which raided Russia from the earliest times. It is telling that the word in Russian for a peasant, krest’ianin, which in all other European languages stems from the idea of the country or the land, is connected with the word for a Christian, khrest’ianin. Without a clear territory or a boundary to protect them from the horsemen of the steppe, Russians were defined by the call on their soul. Princes killed in battle became saints. And from 1550 to 1917 the Russian empire grew (at an average rate of 40,000 square miles every year) as a holy crusade against the infidels.
But the empire lacked the apparatus of modern nationhood; there were no real parliamentary institutions until 1917. Nor did Russia even have much ethnic unity. Despite its national myth, the Asiatic nomads and the Finno-Ugric tribes, not to mention other peoples from the Baltic to the Black Sea, had intermixed with Russians over many centuries.
Without the qualities of nationhood, Russia could be conceived as a spiritual domain. For the church and state this conception was contained in the doctrine of the third Rome-the idea of Moscow as the sole surviving capital of orthodoxy (and thus the saviour of humanity) after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. This was the official legitimisation of the empire’s expansion. But the same idea of Russia as a sacred sphere can equally be seen in the counter-culture of the Old Believers; or in the many folk legends of the true or sacred Russia hidden underground and accessible only to true (Russian-Christian) citizens. The best-known of these is the legend of the invisible city of Kitezh-the subject of a splendid opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. The reflection of the city on the surface of the lake caused the invading Tatars to ride into it and drown. Such ideas were also contained in the peasants’ counter-culture of utopian myths-in their dreams of a Kingdom of Opona, located somewhere on the edge of the flat earth, where the people lived in truth, undisturbed by the gentry or the state. As late as the 1900s, peasant groups set out for Siberia and the Arctic Circle to find this ideal homeland.
This utopian view of the Russian state had a profound impact on the world. In the understanding of the peasantry the words pravitelstvo (government) and pravda (truth and justice) were closely connected. As they saw it, the only true form of government was the administration of pravda (meaning the giving of all the land and freedom to the peasants). They saw the revolution in religious terms. All the parties of the revolutionary underground played on this idea in their propaganda, none more effectively than the Bolsheviks. Their communism was to be the saviour of mankind. Moscow would become the leader of the world. Bolshevism can be seen as a continuation of the Russian messianic state tradition. A straight line runs from Moscow the third Rome to Moscow the third International.
the relationship between Russia and the west has been the country’s main source of insecurity. By the end of Peter the Great’s reign in 1725, Russia had become the mightiest empire on the continent. This was a source of pride-pride in the modern European values of the Petrine state-for the educated. As Pushkin said, “we are all citizens of Tsarskoe Selo”-the imperial court near St Petersburg.
But the Russians also bore the insecurity of arrivistes. “Our attitude to Europe and the Europeans,” Alexander Herzen wrote in the 1850s, “is still that of provincials towards the dwellers in a capital: we are servile and apologetic, take every difference for a defect, blush for our peculiarities and try to hide them.” Conscious of the fact that Russia was regarded as barbarian by Europe, the educated Russian who wanted to be recognised as “European” was obliged to suppress his heritage and re-attune his life to a foreign principle. Peter ordered his noblemen to give up traditional dress and put on western clothes, to shave their beards (a sign of holiness in orthodox belief), to converse in French, to dance the minuet, and behave and socialise in cultivated ways. Because these foreign manners were not natural to him, the Russian had to learn them in a ritualised form, rather as an actor learns his gestures and his lines.
So from the start, the westernising project introduced divisions in the Russian consciousness. There was a huge chasm between the educated classes, with their European culture and their secular beliefs, and the peasants or the merchants, with their old native customs and religious ways. This was the main issue in the famous debates between the westernisers and the Slavophiles: should Russia mark its progress by the universal standards of the west or pursue its own separate path in accordance with its native traditions? The debate is still going on today.
European Russians had split cultural personalities. On one level they performed their western ways on a public stage: in the salons and ballrooms of St Petersburg, at court or in the theatre, they were very comme il faut. Yet on another level their private lives were influenced by native Russian customs and sensibilities. How could it not be so when the European parts of Russian culture-the court, St Petersburg, the manor house and park-were but tiny islands floating in a sea of peasant Russia?
Reading through the diaries, letters, memoirs and account books of the Russian nobles, we can see this Russianness at certain vital moments of the life cycle. Birth, childhood, marriage and, above all, death were moments when the pull of Russian principles, of orthodox beliefs and peasant custom, was stronger than western conventions. Think of poor old Ivan Ilich, Tolstoy’s death-bedridden judge, who finds comfort only in the presence of his servant Gerasim, with his honest and unfearing peasant attitude to death. Diaries show that at such moments it was quite common for the aristocracy to turn towards the peasants, whose semi-pagan version of the orthodox belief was based on the notion that the dead lived on as spirits among the living.
Childhood was another moment when the European noble bowed to Russian peasant ways. It was a time spent by even the most high-born in the company of serfs or, after emancipation, domestic servants from the peasantry. It was from such contacts that they learned their native tongue-for their mother’s tongue was French. And it was from their peasant nurse that they first heard Russian folk tales and proverbs. This downstairs servant world was a place of warmth and informality compared to the cold formality of the parents’ upstairs world. Pushkin was neglected by his parents and brought up by his nurse. And we might suppose that his interest in folk tales-which reached poetic form in Ruslan and Liudmilla and The Golden Cockerel-was linked to the nostalgia which he, like many Russians of his class, felt for these enchanted childhood memories.
We can also feel the pull of Russian ways in the rural relaxations of the country house or dacha: a place where the nobleman retreated from the public sphere and became “more himself” in a Russian milieu. Like Tolstoy, he might live the peasant life. He might go hunting or take up what Nabokov called the “very Russian sport of looking for mushrooms.” He might spend the day, Oblomov-style, in a dressing gown and slippers. Or, as Stravinsky loved to do on his estate at Ustilug, he might go swimming in the lake. Such pursuits were more than the retrieval of a rural idyll. They were an expression of Russianness. It is hard to think of three more European noblemen than Tolstoy, Nabokov and Stravinsky. Each was at home in the European culture of the aristocracy. Yet each thought of Russia in these terms.
The great cultural figures of Russia’s golden age-Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Repin, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky- combined European and Russian identities in complicated and productive ways. We in the west may want Russian works of art to be “authentically Russian”-easily distinguished by their folk motifs, onion domes and the sound of bells, and full of “Russian soul.” But the Russians look to Pushkin as their national poet because he puts them on a par with European civilisation. They venerate Tchaikovsky as the Russian Beethoven. Figures such as these give the Russians pride in their European cultural identity.
Yet as a nation they were painfully aware that Russia was not “Europe” and perhaps never could be. It lacked Europe’s individual rights, and its history. Peter Chaadaev, fop, philosopher and friend of Pushkin, was the first to voice this anguish. In his First Philosophical Letter, published in 1836, Chaadaev argued that Russia was a country overlooked by history. It was a stranger to the family of European nations and as a result there was “nothing durable” in it. It was a cultural void, a place in which the Russians were forced to live like strangers in their homes, with no sense of their own national heritage or identity. Herzen said the Letter “was a shot that rang out in the dark night… It forced us to awake.” Although declared insane, and imprisoned in his house on the orders of the tsar, Chaadaev had said what every thinking Russian felt. He had voiced their fear that Russia might never catch up with the west.
This fear had been reinforced by the suppression of the Decembrist movement, and along with it all liberal hopes for a constitution, in 1825. Once it became clear that Russia would not follow the western path of constitutionalism, as it had appeared that it might in the early period of Alexander’s reign, the Europhile elite was plunged into an identity crisis. What was Russia if its destiny was different from the west’s? Thus began the quest to grasp the nation’s special character through folklore, archaeology, literature and art-a quest which dominated Russian culture for the next 100 years.
The ideas of the German Romantics offered sanctuary to the alienated or “superfluous” young men of the 1830s and 1840s: men like Pechorin (Lermontov’s “hero of our times”) or Turgenev’s Rudin. The stress placed by the Romantics on the organic evolution of national cultures was particularly prized. In an era of political repression it was a comfort to believe that the present situation was transitional. Like everything organic, the real state of Russia would emerge from underground, through the growth of a democratic culture or revolt from below.
So the question “what is Russia?” became “when is it?” Nobody believed in the Russia of the present-the actual Russia of Nicholas I, with its oppressive serfdom and police state, from which the intelligentsia felt so estranged. The only Russia in which they could believe was the Russia that existed in another realm. The battle for Russia was now articulated in competing national myths.
First came the Slavophiles, with their myth of the Russian soul: the fanciful idea, advanced by Gogol in Dead Souls, of a spiritual simplicity and spontaneity, a natural Christianity among the peasantry which, for later writers such as Dostoevsky, distinguished Russia from the rationalistic west and set it on a higher moral plane. We might be sceptical about such claims. As the critic Belinsky put it to Gogol, the peasant “says of the icon: ‘It is good for praying-and you can cover the pots with it as well.'” Yet the “Russian soul” has been a lasting source of Russia’s mystique and exotic fascination for the western public. Indeed, for much of the past 100 years, from the moment when Virginia Woolf declared that every Russian writer had “the features of a saint” and poets such as Rilke spoke of the healing powers of the Russian soul, western intellectuals have tended to look east for spiritual renewal. Here, we might suppose, was the source of much illusion and na?vety in western attitudes towards the Soviet regime: the illusion that, for all its faults, life in Soviet Russia was at least more “spiritual” than in the capitalist west.
Closely allied to the Russian soul was the cult of old Moscow-Moscow as the centre of medieval Holy Rus’ with its spirit of community, broken by the intrusion of European ways. Moscow the symbol of the nation’s rebirth after 1812, when the Muscovites burned it to deprive Napoleon of victory. Moscow as the bearer of the “Russian style,” with its icons and folk arts, which the nationalists deployed in the city’s reconstruction after 1812. The cult was symbolised in the Church of the Spilt Blood in St Petersburg. Today tourists flock to it, thinking that they are getting something of the “real” Russia so lacking in the European city of St Petersburg. (In fact, the church was not completed until 1907 and it represents a mythic reinvention of the ancient style.)
Hot on the heels of the Slavophiles came the westernisers, with their rival cult of Petersburg, that “window on the west,” with its classical ensembles built on land reclaimed from the sea: a symbol of their ideals of progress and enlightenment, of redrawing Russia on a European grid. As the westernisers saw it, Russia could not become a European nation until its citizens were granted civil rights and its peasants became integrated in a national culture based on the values and creative works of the intelligentsia.
It was only in the 1860s, in the almost religious exaltation with which the emancipation of the serfs was greeted in both Slavophile and westerniser circles, that the quest for this ideal of nationhood was focused on the present-on the gradual reform of the actual conditions in Russia at that time. As a result of the liberal reforms of Alexander II, it appeared for the first time that Russia might evolve into a European nation, with civic institutions, public courts, an independent press and a constitution. The crucial factor was the peasantry-the overwhelming mass of people and Russia’s newest citizens-who until the end of serfdom had barely been recognised as human beings at all. All sides now agreed that, for Russia to progress towards nationhood, the educated classes had to reach out to the people; to educate and integrate them in society. Populism, in its broadest cultural sense, thus became something of a national creed. Suddenly the questions everybody asked were directed at the peasant: was he good or bad? could he be civilised? where did he come from? The old accursed questions about Russia’s destiny were bound up in the issue of the peasant’s true identity.
Yet here too there was only myth and illusion. As Dostoevsky wrote: “We, the lovers of the people, regard them as part of a theory, and it seems not one of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be.” For the populists, the peasant was a natural socialist, the embodiment of the collective spirit which distinguished Russia from the bourgeois west. For Tolstoy he was the embodiment of intuitive wisdom and a spiritual teacher of the true society. For Scythians such as Blok, the peasant was an elemental force from the steppe who threatened destruction and spiritual renewal. For Roerich, the conceiver of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, he was a descendant of primeval man, whose life was spent in harmonious communion with the natural elements.
so is russia no more than a collection of myths? Underneath the structures of its oppressive state, tsarist or Soviet, was there really no public space or legal culture to constitute a nation in the European sense? It seems not-although, to be sure, a fledgling nation, with legal and parliamentary institutions, and a national culture defined by a canon of great works, was emerging in the final years of the imperial regime. The February revolution of 1917 was in this sense a national movement, a patriotic act against the dynasty, and it was perceived as such. But soon after, the imperial tradition reimposed itself. The national idea was forced back underground, like the legendary city of Kitezh. And there it remained until 1991-a spiritual community of national values and ideas which lived on in hearts and minds, on bookshelves, in concert halls, or in all those kitchen-table conversations about what Russia is.
The writer Korolenko once said: “My country is not Russia, my country is Russian literature.” In a sense he is right. Russia’s poets were its “unacknowledged legislators,” guardians of the nation’s values and ideas. Nowhere else did Shelley’s maxim ring so true. And in so far as its sense of nationhood was embodied in these myths, Russia could be seen as a meta-nation rather than a nation state in the European sense.
It is not my contention that Russia is not real. It is there and rather large. Rather, it is my contention that because it is so large, so unmeasurable by any ordinary yardstick, it has had to be created as a region of the mind. This Russian genius for creativity has itself been the nation’s main strength. How else can we explain the renaissance of the Russia which was forced abroad after 1917-the Russia of Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Tsvetaeva, Nabokov, Kandinsky and Chagall-unless we understand that? As the exiled poet Khodasevich put it, referring to the Pushkin he had packed in his bags when he left for Berlin in 1922: “All I possess are eight slim volumes/And they contain my native land.” How can we explain that in times of war and terror it is artists who speak for Russia-as Shostakovich did with his Seventh Symphony, miraculously performed in the siege of Leningrad, or Akhmatova with her Requiem for the victims of Stalin?
What of Russia now? Now that this extraordinary cultural tradition has been declared dead? Now that the kitchen is no longer a shrine to intellectual life, but rather to the gods of Neff and Bosch?
Solzhenitsyn is probably the last in that line of writer-prophets which goes back to Gogol. After his return to Yeltsin’s Russia, he addressed the nation in his own weekly television show. But Russians had grown tired of ideology, even Solzhenitsyn’s, and his sort of literature seemed out of date. For lack of viewers, the programme was soon axed to clear more air-time for western soap operas and rock videos. Perhaps it’s just as well that there are no writer-prophets in Russia any longer-the artist is no longer saddled with the burden of speaking for the conscience of the nation, as Russia becomes “normal,” like ourselves. The idea of oppression as a muse is offensive, after all, and Russian writers should find a different way. But it’s hard to avoid feelings of nostalgia and regret-the feeling that whatever comes from Russia now will not be quite the same as the extraordinary cultural tradition which sustained it in the past, the poems and the novels, the music and the paintings which have stirred us for so long to ask what Russia is.