Baleful Smile of the Crocodile

Neal Ascherson

  • D.S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life 1890-1939 by G.S Smith
    Oxford, 398 pp, £65.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 19 816006 2

They came for Comrade Prince D.S. Mirsky, ‘aristocrat of critics’, some time in the night of 2 to 3 June 1937. He lived in a high, bare room which had a fine view over Moscow. It was five floors up, with no lift, so he had plenty of time to hear them climbing towards him. Many Soviet citizens slept little that year, listening for the boots on the stairs.

They buried Z/K (prisoner) Mirsky Dmitry Petrovich, number 136848, on 7 June 1939, near a sickbay hut for the dying on the road to Magadan. The death certificate mentioned enterocolitis; other prisoners said many years later that he died in violent dementia brought on by starvation and disease. For a very long time, there were legends about him circulating in the Gulag, some of which reached those who had known him. Mirsky was supposed to have given 45 lectures on Pushkin in the camps, without notes. Or he had written an entire book somehow, entitled ‘Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Fet’ (no trace of this has been found, if it ever existed). Or he had returned and, as late as the 1950s, was living under a new identity in total seclusion somewhere in Moscow.

Mirsky was one of the most important Russian literary critics of the 20th century. G.S. Smith, author of this tremendous and impassioned biography, plainly thinks that he was the greatest of them. ‘Mirsky’ is not just a name but an expression, short for his History of Russian Literature which was first published in London in 1927 and which has been a bible for student generations ever since. Mirsky’s sparkling, lucid English prose, the reckless confidence of his judgments and the oceanic scale of his reading and learning still make him hard to resist – even in a world of Post-Modern criticism which supposes that the values of the 1920s have been annihilated. And it may even be that some of his worst writing, like The Intelligentsia of Great Britain, which he wrote during the short honeymoon with Communism that preceded his arrest, is becoming more interesting than it used to be. To take one example, he lived among the Bloomsbury set for years and endured their condescension before finally letting them have it: ‘Bloomsbury liberalism can be defined as a thin-skinned humanism for enlightened and sensitive members of the capitalist class who do not desire the outer world to be such as might be prone to cause them any displeasing impression.’ And much more in that vein.

Virginia Woolf, all the same, picked up some displeasing impressions about the future of this man whose mind she liked.

Mirsky was trap-mouthed: opened and bit his remark to pieces: has yellow misplaced teeth: wrinkles in his forehead: despair, suffering, very marked in his face. Has been in England, in boarding houses, for 12 years; now returns to Russia ‘for ever’. I thought as I watched his eye brighten and fade – soon there’ll be a bullet through your head.

And he would, quite certainly, have been shot had he not perished of hunger and cold first. Professor Smith, who spent many years researching this book, was able to reach the Soviet penal files on Mirsky, a horrible treasure of documents from the secret archives. They range from the transcript of his NKVD interrogations (‘Q. What were your aims in concealing from the organs of Soviet power your work in the school of English intelligence’ – the School of Slavonic Studies! – ‘and persons who could be suspected of espionage?’) to convict reports on him as a forestry labourer in the snow (he fulfilled his norm by only 40 per cent, and had a ‘disdainful’ attitude to physical work). The files end with an order that Mirsky be brought back to Moscow from Magadan to face fresh charges of forming a bloc with Trotskyites to engage in anti-Soviet activity. The penalty under Article 58 (high treason) was death by shooting. But he had already been dead for three months when Beria signed the order.

This was the tragedy of a man who lived by his intellect. Dmitry Petrovich Svyatopolk-Mirsky was born into an ancient family – ‘bareboned little princes’, as he put it. His father, Prince Pyotr, was a man of democratic instincts. Fatally, he let the Tsar persuade him to take over the Ministry of the Interior in the disastrous period which began with the Russo-Japanese War and ended with the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1905, for which he was made the scapegoat.

His son Dmitry, born in 1890, grew up on country estates under governesses, but showed early signs of literary talent. Maurice Baring, who knew his parents, found him already a prodigy at 17, with seven languages, a good deal of verse already written and impassioned opinions – including contempt for Tolstoy and his ‘saintly long-suffering’. At school in St Petersburg, he was the ringleader of a group of literary boys with close contacts to the best young Russian writers – including M.A. Kuzmin, a predatory but thrillingly rebellious gay who roped the young Mirsky and his friends into a homoerotic salon.

Politically, Dmitry had no time for the doomed efforts to turn Russia into a constitutional state. As Smith puts it, he ‘never seems to have written or done anything to suggest that he inherited or absorbed from his father any attachment either to moderation or to participatory democracy, much less toleration in matters of religion’. Politics as such did not interest him unless they led to some apocalypse, and in Contemporary Russian Literature he denied the Western assumption that Russian literature was unlike any other ‘in that it is more closely linked with politics and social history. This is simply not true. Russian literature, especially after 1905, is almost surprisingly non-political, considering the colossal political cataclysms it witnessed.’ For himself, Mirsky was a natural extremist: a born victim of the totalitarian infection who fell in love only with theories which swept him to remote and terrifying conclusions.

Two things happened in 1911. Mirsky went into the Army, where he became an Imperial officer, remaining in the service through the Great War and the Civil War until the White collapse in 1920. And he published his first and last book of verse. It was meanly reviewed by Gumilev. Folklore says that Gumilev met Mirsky on the street and said, ‘Not bad for a Guards officer,’ whereupon the author sent a footman to buy up all the copies in the Petersburg bookshops and burn them. More probably, Mirsky himself decided that it was not first class. He never produced another selection. Many years later in exile, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (who was fascinated with him for a while) complimented him on this renunciation: ‘The first obligation of the critic is not to write bad poetry himself – or at least, not to publish it.’

The young Prince Mirsky cut a spectacular figure, ‘stately and handsome . . . in the raspberry-red shirt and kaftan of His Imperial Majesty’s sharpshooters’. He was tall, his beard and hair were very black, his eyes also black with a slight ‘Tatar’ slant, his aesthetic conversation amazing, his attachment to vodka notable even among other young officers in St Petersburg. Some of these descriptions come from young women who fancied him. But there was nothing much for them there. Professor Smith, after an apology for prying into the private life of somebody who kept his emotions so tightly locked away, suggests that Mirsky was if anything homosexual. Although there is no solid evidence for this, and no identified lover, his contemporaries agreed that Mirsky was not attracted to women. He fell in love with the young Vera Suvchinskaya/Traill around 1930, but things failed on the physical side. He did in fact once marry; a young nurse he met in a field hospital after being slightly wounded in the First World War. But he seems to have been drunk at the time, and after two weeks they went their separate ways.

Another persistent legend tells that he was broken to the ranks for refusing to drink the Tsar’s health. There is no evidence for this either, although he probably did say something outrageous when drunk in the mess. He remained a Tsarist officer for nine years, through world war, revolution and civil war, until he escaped from Russia through Poland and Greece and finally settled in London. All this, like his appearance, sounds dashing. But Mirsky was in many ways the most defenceless of creatures. His near-contemporary and fellow exile Vladimir Nabokov invented clumsy, tender protagonists, a little greedy, a little overweight, who were easy prey for the human velociraptors who stalked them, and D.S. Mirsky had a certain resemblance to those victims. He was terribly lonely in his London exile, and although he knew so many Bloomsbury figures, he had practically no friends. He worked with extraordinary intensity and self-discipline, producing books, essays and translations of the highest quality, but he was always poor. Contemporaries remembered how badly dressed he was, in a threadbare, tweedy way. And all, almost without exception, remembered his dreadful teeth. Leonard Woolf was positively frightened by them. ‘I have known only a very few people with this kind of mouth; its sinister shape comes, I think, from the form of the jaw and arrangement of the teeth. There is always the shadow of a smile in it, but it is the baleful smile of the shark or crocodile.’

Totally unable and unwilling to look after himself, he always found women who could be induced to type, wash clothes, make his bed or sweep the floor. Princeling, officer or shabby exile, he somehow managed to wangle cradle-to-grave service; as Smith eloquently says, ‘Mirsky never shopped for, let alone cooked and cleaned up after, a single meal in his entire life.’ His main sensual relief, next to alcohol, was gluttony. All year he would eat in cheap cafés as he saved up for a huge, carefully-researched restaurant binge across France. Sometimes he would invite companions to share a grand meal, but they could get on his nerves, as Marina Tsvetaeva recorded. ‘“All you do is talk!” he once exclaimed, grief-stricken, “and you don’t care what you’re eating – they might as well be serving you hay!”’ And yet this hopelessly vulnerable being possessed the most lucid and ruthless critical intellect of his generation. Within a few years of leaving Russia, Mirsky had become the main interpreter of Russian writing for the world’s English-speaking readers. His own written English was adventurous and (almost) impeccable. But Mirsky’s criticism, learned and penetrating and opinionated as it was, rejected conscious theory almost entirely. Instead, he approached literature in the manner of the Great Tradition, with royal confidence in the existence of absolute standards.

The critic must not bother about differences in taste, but attempt to explain the objective (objective) value of what is going on around him. This task is hopeless, of course, and practicable only with the coarsest approximation. Every writer has his objective magnitude, his particular amount of power . . . This power may be deployed against the grain for me personally. But it is my obligation to measure this power. Instruments to measure it (a ‘powerometer’ perhaps) have not yet been invented.

The History originally appeared in two volumes. But Mirsky’s output in English also included Modern Russian Literature (1925), a dazzling introduction to Pushkin (1926), Russia: A Social History (1931) and – as he prepared to return to Russia – a biography of Lenin. In Russian, most of his work was in contributions to thick or thin émigré literary journals, but in 1923 he produced The Russian Lyric: A Little Anthology. The emigration was shocked by the book’s praise for Pasternak, who had decided to live under the Bolshevik regime, and its preface contained a haughty reference to ‘a talented, but hopelessly undisciplined woman from Moscow’ called Marina Tsvetaeva. This was a bad start to what became Mirsky’s closest relationship to another writer. But within a few years, the poet and the critic had met. Mirsky was overwhelmed by Tsvetaeva’s gift (‘What a fucking poet she is, all the same!’ he wrote in a letter) and he persuaded editors, impresarios and lovers of poetry in Paris and London to organise recitals for her. She, in return, found that Mirsky was the only critic worth respecting, not least because he refused to let politics affect his judgment.

But politics, of a visionary and quasi-religious kind, were now beginning to engage him. Mirsky had always energetically mocked the Western habit of proclaiming a special spiritual quality in the ‘Russian soul’. (Smith writes here, memorably: ‘That sort of attitude – that poverty correlates with spirituality, and that the innocence and authenticity supposedly lost by the over-civilised West can be recaptured by mental copulation with the “Russian Idea” – was common among foreign Russia-lovers before 1917, and it seems to be indelible.’) But now, in the later 1920s, Mirsky began to associate with the Eurasians and write for their journals. This cloudy émigré movement, dreaming of a post-Communist Russia, explored the notion of a special destiny for Russia which was neither Westernising nor Slavophile: the Eurasians argued that the ‘Tatar Yoke’ period in Russia had in fact been an experience of civilisation rather than oppression, and the movement’s council bore the Tatar name of kurultai. It was authoritarian, believing in order and leadership rather than democracy, which suited Mirsky’s instinct. But, disastrously, it had been thoroughly penetrated by the GPU, which had even set up a mythical Eurasian cell in the Soviet Union (‘The Trust’) to function as a trap for anti-Soviet conspirators abroad.

The base for Mirsky’s work in these years was the new School of Slavonic Studies in London, of which he was almost a founder-member and where he became a lecturer. But his relationship with Bernard Pares, the first SSS director, became strained in the late 1920s. His Eurasian period was only a prelude; his restless spirit was on the move in search of more absolute faiths. A long time before, at one of his French restaurant feasts, he had told Roger Fry that Europe was finished, that he was impatient for a new Dark Age and that ‘what is inevitable’ is ‘therefore true’. Now, in 1929, there began his conversion to Leninism, encouraged by Maxim Gorky, the historian M.N. Pokrovsky and the English Communist intellectual Maurice Dobb. He took to the new creed with fanatical excitement and all the convert’s zeal to proselytise. ‘What Lenin gave me was above all clarity and reality. The idealist servitude of my mind had made the free exercise of my intelligence impossible.’ Pares was not happy to see his best Russian literature man join the Communist Party and tour Britain preaching revolution to academic audiences. But there was no way to stop him; his adoring book on Lenin appeared in 1930, and it soon became clear that he was trying to return to Russia. In 1931, after Maxim Gorky had pleaded his cause, he was granted Soviet citizenship. In September 1932, Mirsky embarked for Leningrad.

Why did he take this fatal step? As Smith comments, it was not for any material or sentimental reason. He had a last mammoth bouffe at the Hotel Terminus at Lyon (ten years later, to become SS headquarters and Klaus Barbie’s torture palace), and a passionate affair with Vera Suvchinskaya, who refused to marry him and accompany him to Russia because (she told Smith) he was impotent. Smith explains succinctly: ‘Mirsky’s actions were to an extraordinary degree driven by intellectual conviction. This conviction seems to have occupied the space usually shared to a greater or lesser extent by physical and emotional drives.’ A reader may conclude that Mirsky was a stunted spirit; he shocked English friends by his dislike of Chekhov for ‘horrid contemptible humanitarianism, pity, contempt and squeamishness towards humankind’. On the other hand, he appealed strongly to the young Hugh MacDiarmid, who met him in London and regarded him as ‘a mighty master’. From ‘what is inevitable and therefore true’, it is a short step to:

What maitters’t wha we kill

To lessen that foulest murder that deprives

Maist men o’ real lives?

By the time he returned to Russia, Mirsky was well known to Western intellectuals, who often made it a point to drop in on him when they visited the Soviet Union. Of all the portraits of Soviet writer Mirsky they scribbled into their notebooks, none is more clever and sensitive than Malcolm Muggeridge’s Prince Alexis (‘a dark-bearded man with a decaying mouth; savage and unhappy and lonely’), a character in his novel Winter in Moscow. Wraithby, the Muggeridgian main character, rails against the social misery of the Soviet Union and the hypocrisy which pretends that this is ‘the future’. But the Prince retorts that none of that matters in the least. What counts is ‘the inevitability of it all. The fact that it had to happen. Forces interacting and producing a resultant force.’

This was in 1933. The Stalin dictatorship was tightening its grip; the first show trials had already begun; pre-publication censorship was intensifying decree by decree. Mirsky shed no tears for the ‘bourgeois liberties’. But he was aware that, as the mood of fear and conformity spread through the Soviet writers, he stood out uncomfortably – an ex-Prince, a returnee, a man already much older than the emerging class of Stalinist cultural bureaucrats. Gorky could still stand up for him, and so did Gorky’s supporter, the critic Leopold Averbakh. All the same, Mirsky soon realised that he was in danger. He conformed politically, writing The Intelligentsia of Great Britain and then, later in 1933, taking part in the disgraceful composition of a collective book in praise of the slave-dug White Sea Canal. Mirsky even went on the Union of Soviet Writers’ junket to visit the canal. At the briefing, he asked cranky questions about the cost-savings from using unpaid labour, and other writers present, sensing that he was ominously off-message, tried to avoid him afterwards. Mirsky seems not to have registered that he had put a foot wrong.

But over literary standards Mirsky did not always conform. He sedulously attended union meetings and voted for absurd resolutions; he omitted mention of Russian writers in exile – even of Tsvetaeva. In 1934, however, he provoked a series of blazing rows by critical attacks or revisionist essays on several received reputations. The worst of these rows followed his devastating review of the latest novel by Alexander Fadeev, a formidably well-established writer who was to become Stalin’s henchman in the union at the height of the Purges. Gorky was able to step in and defend Mirsky: ‘an extraordinarily literate person, a wise critic’. But by the 1935 Plenum of the Union of Soviet Writers, Mirsky was coming under widespread attack. Again Gorky stood up for him, but his other protector, Averbakh, was already in disgrace.

Strangers who met him now felt sorry for Mirsky. The writer Korney Chukovsky took a diary snapshot of him. ‘I find him extraordinarily nice . . . He’s ruining himself with his gluttony. Every day he parks his poverty-stricken little fur hat and his dog-fur-lined overcoat with the doorman at the National, goes into the opulent restaurant there, and never leaves behind him less than 40 roubles.’ John Lehmann watched him giving ‘huge tips’ to the waiters. Edmund Wilson noted that he would ‘offset the bristling and slant-eyed mask appearance that recalled the Muscovite tsars by a giggle that suggested Edward Lear’. And in 1936 Vera Suvchinskaya appeared in Moscow, settling down to do translation work which Mirsky arranged for her.

She found him drinking heavily and steadily. And she found that he was politically disillusioned. He had written what Smith calls ‘one of his most abysmal pieces of writing’ to welcome the new ‘Stalin Constitution’, but when she naively praised the Constitution over dinner one night, ‘his face was completely distorted, and he said: “Surely you understand that it’s a diabolical lie!”’

His doom was approaching. All around him, writers were being accused of fantastic crimes or simply disappearing. Mirsky vainly wrote some dreadful articles acclaiming the latest show trials in early 1937 (‘the legendary Judas was an innocent simpleton compared to this’) and abased himself for his own ‘errors’ at union meetings. But on 3 June 1937, Vera waited for him at a dinner table and he did not come. The following day, she learned that he had been arrested.

Nothing could save him. He was accused of training British spies at the School of Slavonic Studies. He confessed to being recruited by the ‘Averbakhites’, a secret counter-revolutionary cell which had forced him to criticise Fadeev’s fiction. He was convicted (without trial of course) of conducting terrorist work for the Averbakhites. In September 1937, he was loaded into a sealed convict train for the Far East. Nothing remains of him but a haunting, defiant photograph of Prisoner 136848, and the fingerprints taken from his dead hands almost two years later.

Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky has no memorial in his own country, as yet. But Professor Smith ends: ‘In the meantime, this book may serve as a temporary marker.’ It does, and magnificently.