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.

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