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
Published in January 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.