His proudest moment had been when two peasants bowed to the ground, Russian style, and thanked him for his book
- Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Allen Lane, 729 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9517 3
The title of Orlando Figes’s impressively wide-ranging book refers to a scene in War and Peace in which Natasha Rostov, the finest product of the European education favoured by the Russian aristocracy for more than a century, visits the far from luxurious home of a distant relative. He is a nobleman living in the country with his serf ‘wife’, Anisya; he has, it seems, abandoned that superior attitude to the Russian ‘people’, the narod, that generally characterises his class. He strikes up a folk-song on his guitar, and challenges Natasha, who has never danced to such music before, to do so now. Suddenly she finds herself performing the native steps with perfect rhythm and grace. ‘Where, when and how,’ the narrator asks, ‘had this young countess, educated by an émigrée French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit, and obtained that manner which the pas de châle, one would have supposed, had long ago effaced?’ Anisya and the other peasants in the room are deeply moved: ‘this slim, graceful countess reared in silks and velvets . . . was able to understand all that was in Anisya . . . and in every Russian man and woman.’ The moment fits with Tolstoy’s aim to compose a great patriotic epic portraying the unity of the Russian people in the face of foreign invasion. But here, as with all the other creative work he uses, Figes interprets the scene as expressing a fundamental historical truth about Russian culture.
Natasha’s dance reveals the split between an aristocratic upper class whose mentality, ideas and values have been shaped by their European education, and a vast mass of peasantry still living in a pious world untouched by the Renaissance and Reformation, let alone the blasphemous European 18th century. But it also demonstrates the continued existence within the general cultural psyche of instinctive responses in line with a wholly Russian tradition. This continual seesaw between the old and the new, the hereditary and the innovative, between the fascination with the foreign and the comfort of the customary, provides Figes with his structure. As he says, his book is not so much a history as ‘an interpretation of a culture’, and it is an interpretation governed by this dialectic.
Figes makes no claim to have uncovered some ‘pure, organic or essential core’ of Russian culture. Indeed, he does the opposite: Tolstoy’s scene represents a ‘historical myth’ invented to resolve the dilemma created by Russian history. ‘Forced to become Europeans, the educated classes had become so alienated from the old Russia . . . that when, in Tolstoy’s age, they struggled to define themselves as “Russians” once again, they were obliged to reinvent their nation through historical and artistic myths.’ These myths, shaped by literature and art, became a driving force in Russian cultural life.
The Russian problem ever since has been the struggle to wrest some sort of unity out of these conflicting alternatives. ‘In a way that was extraordinary, if not unique to Russia, the country’s artistic energy was almost wholly given to the quest to grasp the idea of its nationality.’ What was Russia: ‘the Tsar’s Empire or the muddy one-street village where Natasha’s “Uncle” lived?’ This question was posed in other and more complex terms as time went on, but it continued to form the leitmotif, not only of Russian culture itself, but of all those who have studied its modern history; there is nothing original about Figes’s point of view. But he is unlike anyone else in the vast range of information he draws on, in the vigour and intensity of his writing, in his eye for the dramatic detail, and most of all in the use he makes of private lives to illustrate his themes. It is in these private histories, he writes, ‘that we may find . . . the unseen threads of a common Russian sensibility such as Tolstoy had imagined in his dancing scene’. Since Peter the Great, however, this ‘common Russian sensibility’ always contained a European admixture, and Figes criticises those – Rilke, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf – who swallowed whole the myth of a completely indigenous ‘Russian soul’. All the great Russians ‘were Europeans too, and the two identities were intertwined and mutually dependent in a variety of ways’.
Natasha’s Dance contains eight sections, each of which explores one manifestion of this underlying dialectic. Beginning with the establishment of St Petersburg by Peter the Great, it ends with the Russian exiles scattered throughout the world by the Bolshevik Revolution. There is thus a loose chronological structure, but within each section the material is thematic: Figes moves freely from past to present and the themes are implied by vivid juxtapositions of historical, cultural or personal events. The first page, for example, reads like a historical novel: ‘On a misty spring morning in 1703, a dozen Russian horsemen rode across the bleak and barren marshlands where the Neva river runs into the Baltic sea. They were looking for a site to build a fort against the Swedes, then at war with Russia.’ Peter, the ‘Tsar of landlocked Russia’, dismounts from his horse, carves a cross on the marshy ground with his sword, and declares: ‘Here shall be a town.’ The entire book is written more or less in this expressive narrative style, which carries the reader easily along, although, here and there, one might have wished for more analysis.
St Petersburg, built at enormous cost of labour and human life, was an artificial city in which Russians never really felt at home. Their distress is brilliantly conveyed in Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman (an allusion to Falconet’s statue of Peter on a rearing charger). Herzen described the city as a huge barracks, and it was often associated with military imagery. Peter endeavoured to do with the Russian upper class what he had done with the city, forcing them to assume a synthetic personality by becoming as European as possible. They learned to be more comfortable speaking foreign languages (usually French) than their own, and behaved, dressed and ate in imitation of European models (Figes includes a page-long list of the exotic foods from Europe ordered by the immensely wealthy Sheremetev family). The palaces built by the aristocracy – usually the work of European architects and containing grand reception halls and galleries filled with paintings, bought by the yard, from European artists – were ‘an oasis of European culture in the desert of the Russian peasant soil’. But there were parts of them, ‘the bedrooms and boudoirs . . . the chapel and the icon room . . . the servant quarters, where a more informal “Russian” way of life was to be found’.
The strains of inner division began to show around the end of the 18th century. The Russian nobleman who despised his own country and its people became a stock satirical type for a whole group of minor writers: Kniazhnin, Kheraskov, Fonvizin. The best known work of this kind is Griboedov’s Woe from Wit, whose main character, Chatsky, on returning home from abroad, finds Russian life intolerable and flees it once again. Travel writers of the time, however, found little to praise when they ventured abroad; and the final blow to the idealisation of European culture was dealt by the French Revolution. Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller, which contains a fascinating interview with Kant, ends recoiling before the Terror. ‘The idea that the West was morally corrupt was echoed by virtually every Russian writer from Pushkin to the Slavophiles,’ Figes writes; it was taken up later by Herzen and Dostoevsky.
The hegemony of European (and particularly French) culture was further undermined by the Napoleonic invasion and the war that followed. Figes’s second section, ‘Children of 1812’, focuses on the generation that fought the war and emerged from it with new ideas and values. The wartime sense of community between the officers and their peasant soldiers, as well as the experience of living in Europe and observing (and enjoying) its relative freedom, led to a desire among young aristocrats to import some of its benefits for their countrymen. Such sentiments resulted in the abortive Decembrist rebellion of 1825, when a group of officers attempted to mount a coup before Nicholas I acceded to the throne. One of the leaders’ main aims was to abolish serfdom and bring the peasants the freedom they deserved, but the illiterate peasant-soldiers refused to follow, and when leaflets were distributed calling for konstitutsia – a ‘constitution’ – they thought it was a girl’s name.
All the same, the democratic attitudes of the Decembrists continued to gain ground. There was a notable trend among the aristocracy to try to return to Russian customs and a Russian way of life. The vogue for the dacha, the simple country house, dates from this time; so does a change in women’s dress. Powdered wigs and heavy scents were abandoned, as elsewhere in Europe, but Figes suggests that ‘in Russia the fashion for the natural had an extra, national dimension.’ He sees Pushkin’s Tatiana as the embodiment of the new ideal (the poet had Decembrist friends), and cites her rejection of St Petersburg glamour ‘for just my books, the simple joys/of our old home, its walks and flowers/for all those haunts that I once knew’. He also stresses the importance of the reference to her nanny a few lines later (there is an extensive discussion of the importance of peasant nursemaids in inculcating their aristocratic charges with the social and religious values of the peasantry). It is the memory of her beloved nanny, who had been forced into marriage as a child but remained faithful to her vows, that inspires Tatiana’s decision to sacrifice herself to the husband she does not love – a decision that Dostoevsky, in his famous Pushkin speech of 1880, saw as an affirmation of true Russian values.
The Slavophiles made their appearance around 1830, arguing that Russia need not follow the path of Western historical development. Slavophile folklorists began to collect Russian folk-songs, and Glinka worked them into his patriotic opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). Gogol latched onto the vogue, using Ukrainian folk-tales in his Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831-32), on which Musorgsky drew for his Night on Bald Mountain (1867) and Rimsky-Korsakov for the opera May Night (1879). The Crimean War (1853-56), in which Russia was defeated by England and France fighting along with and on behalf of Turkey (Figes might have mentioned Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches at this point) brought a new surge of anti-Europeanism and ultimately resulted in the liberation of the serfs in 1861.
Every reader of Russian literature is familiar with the contrast between Petersburg and Moscow that forms one of the symbolic dichotomies of Russian culture. Figes’s next section, ‘Moscow! Moscow!’, begins with the burning of the city by the Russians during the Napoleonic invasion – a decision that staggered the French, and forced them to retreat for lack of supplies. ‘Every Russian felt Moscow to be a mother,’ Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace; for Figes it was ‘a symbol of old Russia, the place where ancient customs were preserved’. Even when it was rebuilt along European lines, ‘classical façades were softened by the use of warm pastel colours, large round bulky forms and Russian ornament,’ in an architectural style labelled ‘neo-Byzantine’. Gogol and Dostoevsky established the image of Petersburg as spectrally ‘unreal’, though the relentless hoofbeats of Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman fixed it as the seat of oppressive power and military force. Moscow, meanwhile, was seen as an oasis of food and drink (some of the details are extraordinary, if not exactly mouthwatering), and the site of innumerable balls and parties, where families converged in spring to show off marriageable daughters.
Moscow was the birthplace of a movement dedicated to producing an indigenous Russian art. Fedor Solntsev’s six large volumes of Antiquities of the Russian State (1846-53) ‘provided artists and designers with a grammar of historic ornament which they could incorporate in their own work’. Crafts that had died out in Petersburg (icon painting, cheap popular prints, lacquer work) were still alive in Moscow, where the ‘old-style merchant taste . . . dominated the art market’. A neo-Russian style was created, and in the 1870s the wealthy Moscow merchant Pavel Tretiakov established his famous gallery of Russian art. A group of young musicians (Balakirev, Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov) rebelled against the German-dominated tastes of the Petersburg Conservatory and developed a self-conscious Russian style, incorporating ‘what they heard in village songs, in Cossack and Caucasian dances, in church chants and . . . in the tolling of church bells’. The Moscow Opera grew out of this revolt; so did Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre.
By the end of the century, Moscow had become a centre of artistic experimentation, the place where Scriabin (to whose museum Stravinsky made a pilgrimage in 1962), Kandinsky, Malevich, Pasternak and Mayakovsky lived. After the Revolution, ‘it became the Soviet capital, the cultural centre of the state, a city of modernity and of the new industrial society the Bolsheviks wanted to build.’ Tatlin designed a monument, never built, to express these ambitions: ‘a giant striding figure to be made out of steel and iron girders, tiered and rounded like the churches of medieval Moscovy’. The ancient city became, in effect, ‘a Soviet Petersburg’, and the symbolic roles were reversed as the narrow old streets were rebuilt to allow vast parades to stream through the city. At the same time, these parades, ‘with their armed march past the Kremlin, the citadel of Holy Russia . . . were imitations of the old religious processions they had replaced’. When Hitler besieged Moscow in the autumn of 1941, there was no question of repeating the flight before Napoleon: the Germans were fought to a standstill. ‘It was not the Soviet capital but Mother Moscow that was saved.’
Mid-19th-century Russian culture was preoccupied with the problem posed by the mysterious mass of the newly liberated serfs, and Figes’s next section is devoted to the effort to understand them, beginning with the ‘going to the people’ movement in the ‘mad summer’ of 1874, when young aristocrats set out for the villages. Their aim was to make themselves useful (many had learned handicrafts or studied nursing in preparation) and to win the confidence of the people, hoping to inspire them to improve their lot. Russian literature had paved the way in 1852 with Turgenev’s sympathetic images of peasant types in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (the proudest moment in his life, he said, had been when two peasants bowed to the ground Russian-style and thanked him for the book), and Nekrasov’s epic poem Who Is Happy in Russia? (1863-78), which included snatches of peasant speech, giving ‘a new, authentic voice to “the vengeance and sorrow” of the peasantry’.
The gap between the mindset of the peasants and that of their would-be benefactors was too great to be so easily bridged, however, as the Decembrists had already learned. The suspicious peasants turned most of the unwelcome intruders over to the police – an outcome Dostoevsky had predicted in The Devils, as Figes might have mentioned. The peasants were not unconscious socialists, as the young people had been led to believe by Chernyshevsky and Mikhailovsky, nor did they conform to any of the images developed by Herzen and the Slavophiles. ‘The people still stand before us as a riddle,’ Dostoevsky wrote, but then went on to argue that, morally, they were immensely superior both to the Russian upper class and to Europeans in general.
Ilya Repin (The Volga Barge-Haulers) was one of the painters influenced by the ‘going to the people’ movement, while in Khovanshchina Musorgsky aimed at transposing the distinctive features of peasant song and speech into his own musical language. Figes uses Tolstoy’s middle career to illustrate the problem of entering into a closer relation to ‘the people’: while writing War and Peace, he was tormented, as readers of his later novels were well aware, by the injustice inherent in his own social position. He strove to become as much of a peasant as was possible without relinquishing his privileges, ultimately persuading himself that the simple pieties of peasant life provided a moral norm – though Repin, whose origins were less grand and who came to Yasnaya Polyana to paint his portrait, thought Tolstoy’s way of life was ‘just hypocrisy’.
The movement’s failure led to general disillusionment. Chekhov’s story ‘Peasants’ (1897) created a scandal, with its unblinking account of lives sunk in vice and degradation. These were the years when industrialisation created an urban culture that drew younger generations away from the land; and the more educated they became, the less they wanted the old way of life. The revolution of 1905, which led to the destruction of many estates by the marauding peasantry, eliminated any last illusions. And while the revolution led to a constitution of a kind, it was clear that the socialists wanted changes, social as well as political, that threatened the propertied classes. As for Ivan Bunin’s The Village (1910), its portrayal of rural existence was so hopelessly bleak that for Gorky, who had painfully worked his way out of that kind of environment, it raised ‘the question of whether Russia is to be or not to be’.
A new myth of the peasantry, however, soon found artistic expression in the Ballets Russes. The workshops of Abramtsevo had already combined Russian folk arts and crafts with Art Nouveau stylisations, and a group of young men (Sergei Diaghilev, Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst) now began to see peasant art as falling in line with the new European taste for the exotic and the primitive. The Ballets Russes, arising from an attempt to create a fictive Russian past using artistic techniques that would appeal to the most sophisticated contemporary taste, took Europe by storm.
Stravinsky used ‘the heterophonic harmonies of Russian folk-music’ without so much as trying to adapt them to a European format, and The Rite of Spring (1913), instead of being the usual romantic story, was ‘a succession of ritual acts’; Nijinsky’s choreography broke completely with the classical conventions of ballet. Nikolai Roerich, a painter and archaeologist, believed he had unearthed evidence of human sacrifice among the ancient Scythians, and this was used as the basis of the ballet, for which he designed the costumes, styling them after peasant dress. In exile, Stravinsky laboured long and hard on a ballet called The Peasant Wedding (staged in Paris in 1923 as Les Noces), which was an attempt to express ‘the ur-Russia, the ancient peasant Russia that had been concealed by the thin veneer of European civilisation since the 18th century’. This was the only Russia to which, during his years of exile, Stravinsky could feel any allegiance.
No study of Russian culture can afford to underestimate its Christian heritage. Figes’s next section, ‘In Search of the Russian Soul’, is centred on Optina Pustyn, a remote and isolated monastery visited at various points by Gogol, Tolstoy, the Slavophile critic-philosopher Ivan Kireevsky and Dostoevsky, who used it as the basis for his portrait of monastic life in The Brothers Karamazov. In addition to publishing translations of the Greek Fathers, Optina Pustyn was the centre of a 19th-century revival of a mystical doctrine called Hesychasm, which emphasised the divine mystery of the Christian faith, holding that ‘God is not to be grasped by the human mind (for anything we know is inferior to Him).’ The official Church, whose relatively uneducated parish priests were not much respected, looked with disfavour on such ideas, especially since they went with a social mission for relieving poverty and injustice.
When Byzantium fell, the idea arose that Russia had become the Third Rome: ‘the last remaining seat of the Orthodox religion, with a messianic role to save the Christian world’. Russian Christianity was a religion not of doctrine but of ritual, and when an attempt was made in the 17th century to bring Russian ritual into conformity with the Greek, a split (raskol) developed between the official Church and the Old Believers, who regarded the reforms as the handiwork of the Antichrist. A large proportion of the population abandoned the official Church (Figes estimates that at least twenty million had done so by the beginning of the 20th century) and then fractured further into various sects. Each of them elaborated different beliefs, some of them quite fantastic, but at their heart ‘was the ancient Russian quest for a truly spiritual kingdom on this earth’, to be found in ‘Holy Rus’. Myths developed of the existence of such a kingdom somewhere at the far edges of the Russian landmass, or even, like the city of Kitezh, sunk under a lake and ‘only visible to the true believers in the Russian faith’.
Gogol, like the Slavophiles, cherished the idea of ‘the Russian soul’, of a people united in ‘their willingness to sacrifice their individual egos for a higher moral goal’: their communal way of life, their peaceful nature and their humility were far superior to the selfish individualism rampant in the bourgeois West. Gogol’s work, particularly the first part of Dead Souls, revealed the ravages of the quest for filthy lucre evident even in Russia; he planned to demonstrate ‘the “Russian principle” of Christian love in action’ in the second and third parts but published instead his Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, full of unctuous kowtowing to the prevailing conditions. In the end, filled with despair despite several visits to Optina Pustyn, he starved himself to death.
Dostoevsky sought solace at Optina in 1878, after his three-year-old son Aleksei died during an epileptic fit (he inherited the condition from his father). Figes speaks of ‘several trips’, but only one was made. The scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Father Zosima attempts to comfort the grieving peasant women is taken from a similar event in the monastery. The figures of Zosima and Father Ferapont were probably influenced by Dostoevsky’s reading of The Life of the Elder Leonid (1876), but Figes makes no mention of the 18th-century cleric St Tikhon Zadonsky, probably because he could not be linked to the monastery, though Dostoevsky had much earlier expressed admiration for his writings and intended to include him in a novel.
Figes points out that ‘the type of socialism’ to which Dostoevsky subscribed in the 1840s ‘had a clear affinity with Christ’s ideals’. His experiences in a prison camp (described in his 1862 memoir, House of the Dead) destroyed whatever illusions he may have had about the ingrained virtues of the Russian peasant. But the memory of one of his father’s serfs comforting him as a child persuaded him that the criminals and murderers among whom he lived were not cynical and unredeemable evil-doers. ‘From the distant memory of a single peasant’s kindness, he made a leap of faith that all Russian peasants harboured Christ’s example somewhere in their souls.’ The same leap of faith is made in relation to the perennial issue of theodicy.
Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept a world in which the suffering of the innocent (children) is necessary for ultimate harmony, and Dostoevsky struggled with the same problem all through his post-Siberian career. But whatever resolution he arrived at is intimately intertwined with ‘the redemptive quality of the Russian soul’, which could be perceived only by faith. Faith allowed Dostoevsky to discern that ‘the capacity for suffering’ – not in a material but a moral sense, the sacrifice of self for another – was ‘the truly Christian essence of the Russian peasantry’. He also suggested that it might become a significant force for social improvement if, as Father Zosima proclaims would some day come to pass, the Russian Church substituted its ‘moral sanction’ for the impersonal laws of the state and Russia became a theocracy. In one of his last articles, picking up a well-known term from Herzen, Dostoevsky called this ‘Russian Socialism’, leading Figes to comment on the irony of the ferociously anti-radical Dostoevsky proclaiming a ‘vision of a democratic church’ that ‘remained close to the socialist ideals which he espoused in his youth’.
Tolstoy lived quite near Optina Pustyn (he had sometimes walked there in earlier years), but in 1910, ten days before he died, he left home stealthily and bought a train ticket for the station closest to the monastery. By this time he had rejected all the doctrines of the official Church and preached ‘a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being’. He had become a Christian anarchist (he was excommunicated in 1901 for refusing to accept Church and State authority). But this only increased his enormous influence, which, as one conservative publicist wrote, was shaking the throne of Nicholas II; Tolstoy’s own throne was beyond the Tsar’s reach. Even though few people read his religious writings of the 1880s, his novel Resurrection (1899), which attacked all the institutions of the tsarist state, was a bestseller. He was not a revolutionary, however, but a Christian pacifist who refused to countenance violence, though he vehemently denounced all the social evils – ‘poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression’ – that prevailed in Russia and abroad.
Very much obsessed with death, he depicted the moment of dying unforgettably, but unlike Chekhov, whom he saw in the final stages of tuberculosis, he could not accept it with equanimity. Chekhov, though not a believer, very often depicts characters searching after faith with great sympathy; he saw the need for a belief of some kind as an essential aspect of the Russian character. But he brushed aside Tolstoy’s ‘mystical conception of death as a spiritual release, the dissolution of personality into a “universal soul”’. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886), the sole ‘spiritual release’ for the dying man is the presence of Gerasim, a young peasant who sits with him at night and tries to ease his physical discomfort as a simple act of solidarity. Others of Ivan Ilich’s Europeanised upper-class milieu have tried to reduce death ‘to the level of a fortuitous, disagreeable and rather indecent incident’ from which they turned away with distaste: Gerasim accepts death as a normal part of life, and feels a human duty to ease the misery of the inevitable moment as best he can.
The serene acceptance of death among the peasantry had earlier been portrayed by Turgenev, among others, and became a cultural myth that continued up to Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1968). The peasants believed in a spirit world in which the souls of the dead continue to exist and influence the living, for good or evil. There is an allusion to this belief in The Brothers Karamazov when little Ilyusha asks his father to scatter bread on his grave ‘so that the sparrows may fly down and I shall hear it and it will cheer me up not to be lying alone’. Tolstoy died in a stationmaster’s house on his way home from Optina, sheltered by his family from a monk sent to reconcile him with the Church. He was buried at Yasnaya Polyana, without benefit of the official rites, but even the police kneeled when the assembled crowd began to intone an ancient Russian chant.
Figes devotes a speculative section, ‘Descendants of Genghiz Khan’, to the Eastern and Asiatic cultures that intersect with Russian cultural development. Russia was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and, after the dissolution of their empire 250 years later, a large Mongol population remained in Russia, intermarrying with the Slavs and entering into the service of the Russian state. Many common words in Russian are taken from the Tatar, ‘and there is also reason to suppose that the shamanistic cults of the Mongol tribes were incorporated into the Russian peasant faith.’ Figes goes so far as to suggest that the figure of the ‘holy fool’, so familiar in Russian literature as a Christian exemplar, may also have had shamanistic origins. There is great resistance to this notion in present-day scholarship – Dmitry Likhachev, ‘the leading 20th-century cultural historian of Russia’, is cited – and the period of the Mongol conquest is generally blamed for having cut Russia off from European cultural developments. Nonetheless, there has always been a certain ambiguity in the Asia connection; ‘Asiatic’ was how European observers such as the Marquis de Custine characterised the peculiarities of Russian life. Although he wanted to be thought of as European, when he felt rejected and misunderstood even Pushkin would refer threateningly to the Asiatic expanse of his native land.
During their wars of conquest in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Russians also admired and, consciously or unconsciously, assimilated the cultures they were subduing, as Tolstoy’s The Cossacks (1863) illustrates. Lermontov at first fought bravely against the Chechens but then wrote poems denouncing Russian atrocities. In A Hero of Our Time, the main character, Pechorin, falls in love with the daughter of a Circassian chief and learns her language. The Oriental influence on Russian music continued to blossom with Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Vladimir Stasov, an influential critic, developed theories linking Russian ornament with Persian art, and considered the byliny – the epic oral poetry of the people – to be ‘Russified derivatives of Hindu, Buddhist and Sanskrit myths’. Stasov wrote the original scenario for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, full of the wonders of shamanistic magic, but Rimsky-Korsakov refused to go along with it and turned the work into a celebration of ‘the demise of paganism and the triumph of the Christian spirit in Russia’. The same theories were also used to justify the Russian invasion of Central Asia, and ‘the idea that Russia had a cultural and historical claim in Asia became one of the founding myths of the Empire.’
The claim to Central Asia was bolstered by the theory, supported by Roerich’s archaeological finds, that a pre-Christian ‘Scythian’ civilisation was part of Russia’s cultural heritage. A group of ‘Scythian’ poets appeared, the most famous of whom was Alexander Blok, who saw the Revolution as an expression of the primordial Scythian drive; Europe had to join it or be destroyed. Andrei Bely’s remarkable Symbolist novel Petersburg depends, too, on the East-West dichotomy, as when one of the characters envisages a vast carnage, as ‘thousands of Tamerlane’s horsemen . . . poured down on Rus.’ Among the émigrés, a group of scholars known as the Eurasians attempted to give a theoretical foundation to the notion that Russia had developed a unique ‘Eurasian’ culture combining the merits of East and West. These ideas had some purchase but they were too speculative to be taken seriously for long, though their influence on the arts remained. While Western artists travelled widely in search of primitive cultures or adapted exotic styles, Russians like Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall ‘took their inspiration from the art of the Russian peasants and the tribal cultures of the Asiatic steppes’. As a young man, Kandinsky travelled to the northern Komi region (he may have had Komi ancestors) to study the beliefs of its Finno-Ugrian people, and his paintings contain shapes and hieroglyphs that can be identified as Finno-Ugrian shamanistic symbols.
The last two sections of the book deal with the Soviet period and Russian culture in exile. Members of the old intelligentsia who remained in the country – Anna Akhmatova, for example – suffered years of material hardship and cultural ostracism. They represented the Russia that the Bolsheviks wished to transform, spiritually as well as materially, with some of Peter’s zeal. ‘Trotsky waxed lyrical on the “real scientific possibility” of reconstructing man.’ Architects made plans to build communal houses that would eliminate individualism, though few were ever constructed, and palaces were split into small apartments – Akhmatova lived in what had been the Sheremetev’s Fountain House, whose construction Figes describes early on. Figes uses these accidental intersections, unobtrusively, as illustrations of the ruptures and continuities of Russian culture.
Lenin was reported to have said that ‘for us the most important of all the arts is the cinema,’ no doubt because it could be used to impart a message directly to a semi-literate public. Cinematic montage was the invention of Lev Kuleshov, who established the workshop that trained Pudovkin and Eisenstein. The new films required an acting technique based on mime and gesture, in which the actor’s body became ‘a biomechanical device for the physical expression of emotions and ideas’. Meyerhold, who had made two movies before 1917, trained his actors to tell a story through physical gesture alone. Like Lenin, he was an admirer of the ‘time and motion’ studies of the American engineer F.W. Taylor, which he wished to apply in his own domain. One of his friends was the ardent Taylorite Alexei Gastev, who envisaged the complete mechanisation of human life and personality as the task of the future (it was against such views that Zamyatin wrote his unsurpassed dystopian novel, We). Another friend was the flamboyant Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Mystery Bouffe (1918) he staged with the poet in a leading role. Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 marked the end of the era when the artistic avant-garde was able to employ its talents with relative freedom on behalf of the Revolution.
With the rise of Stalin, all artistic endeavour was requisitioned into the service of the state. ‘The one and only task of Soviet literature,’ one influential journal declared, ‘is the depiction of the Five-Year Plan and the class war.’ Conformist mediocrity was the key to success. Writers like Zoshchenko, Bulgakov, Zamyatin and Pilnyak were hounded, and when Eisenstein undertook to base a film on a greatly altered version of Turgenev’s story ‘Bezhin Meadow’, his view of collectivisation was deemed unsatisfactory and the film burned. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was violently denounced, and when Meyerhold spoke out in its defence he lost his theatre. Three years later he was arrested, tortured to obtain a ‘confession’, and shot. Mandelstam, a close friend of Akhmatova, was arrested, released, imprisoned again, and finally died, in a camp, of a heart attack. ‘Poetry is respected only in this country,’ he remarked: ‘there is no place where more people are killed for it.’
Once the German invasion came in 1941, Stalin was forced to appeal to the patriotic and religious values of the Russian tradition, and a sense of relief was felt by the intelligentsia despite the enormous suffering that came in its wake. As a character comments in Dr Zhivago, the ‘menace of death was a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie’. Art was no longer required to conform to the Party-line materialism of the recent past, and an area of relative freedom opened, allowing artists who had fallen into disfavour to participate in the war effort. Akhmatova’s poem ‘Courage’ (1942) presented the war as a defence of the ‘mighty Russian word’, and in a speech broadcast from Leningrad during the siege, ‘appealed to the city’s entire legacy, not just to Lenin but to Peter the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Blok, too’. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to ‘the city of Leningrad’, was performed in the bombed-out Great Hall of the Philharmonia and broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city. Eisenstein collaborated with Prokofiev to produce Ivan the Terrible, with whom Stalin had come to identify. The first part won the Stalin Prize in 1945, but Eisenstein was given a personal dressing-down by Stalin over the second part, which depicts Ivan, like Boris Godunov, suffering agonies of conscience over his misdeeds, and it wasn’t released until 1985.
The victory over Hitler, contrary to all expectations, led to even more severe strictures on intellectual and cultural life under the ferule of Andrei Zhdanov. Soviet triumphalism was glorified everywhere, in the sciences as well as the arts, arousing ridicule in some quarters and incredible acceptance elsewhere. Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were publicly denounced, and the works of Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Prokofiev censured as alien to the tastes of the Russian people. As the Cold War heated up, a campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ placed everyone of Jewish origin in jeopardy, including some very eminent figures. In Life and Fate (1980), Vasily Grossman, who had won fame as a war correspondent, depicted the Soviet and Nazi regimes as parallel; the book was first published in Switzerland more than twenty years after his death. The central theme of Dr Zhivago (1957), the manuscript of which had to be smuggled out of Russia, ‘is the importance of preserving the old intelligentsia’. Pasternak came under attack for having visited Akhmatova and helping her financially, and Shostakovich managed to keep afloat only by writing music for films. In 1944, he began to employ Jewish themes in his chamber music and continued to do so until the very end.
Russian readers, accustomed to look for hidden, allegorical meanings, were offered ample scope in the science fiction that began appearing more steadily during the 1950s, and which tended to stress ‘the eternal need of human beings for ethical relationships, freedom, beauty and creativity’. Much to the dismay of Communist hardliners, spiritual values were once again affirmed. The same was true in science-fiction movies such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), whose theme was the preservation of ‘human value in which every Christian culture, even Soviet Russia, sees its redemption’. In Stalker (1979), the central character is the contemporary equivalent of a ‘holy fool’. Andrei Rublev (1966) was a celebration of the tradition of icon painting. In literature, too, there was evidence of such a trend, and Akhmatova could write that even though ‘from beneath the ruins I speak . . ./ they will recognise my voice/. . . and . . . they will believe in it once more.’ When she died in March 1966, thousands turned out to pay her homage.
The Russian Revolution scattered three million people over the face of the earth. At first, Berlin had the largest colony – the Kurfürstendamm was known as ‘Nepskii Prospekt’ – and when Berlin became too expensive, many moved to Paris. The older émigrés felt that their mission was to keep alive the Russian culture that was being destroyed, as Bunin put it, ‘by the Modernist corruptions of left-wing and Soviet art’. In a series of novels and stories, Bunin created an idyllic image of a happy rural Russia, quite the opposite of the world depicted in The Village, which he acknowledged to be ‘an Elysium of the past’.
Some, like Rachmaninov, remained unchanged in exile; his work had always been strongly influenced by Russian religious music and expressed a sense of loss and alienation. After publishing nine novels in Russian abroad, Nabokov performed the feat of shifting to English, but he too was consumed by nostalgia. In Pale Fire (1962), he created an imaginary land, Zembla (zemlya means ‘earth’), which may be, as he put it, ‘pure invention or a kind of lyrical simile of Russia’. In the delightful Pnin (1957), he depicts the misadventures of an exiled professor unable to adapt to life outside his former homeland. Exile also led to a revival of neoclassicism in the Ballets Russes under the aegis of Stravinsky and the young George Balanchine, but it was a neoclassicism that was felt to be returning to an 18th-century Russian tradition. On the other hand, there was apparently no nostalgia in Stravinsky, who abandoned his previous nationalist style and even turned to Latin for the text of his oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927).
Those exiles who went back to Russia, like Alexei Tolstoy and Marina Tsvetaeva, led a difficult and precarious existence there. Even Prokofiev, lured back to a life of relative luxury and given unusual freedom, could not escape being attacked for ‘formalism’ by Zhdanov, and, though producing numerous scores, lived more or less in seclusion. Like Shostakovich, he turned to composing chamber music in his last years. The biggest catch of all was Maxim Gorky, a Revolutionary icon, who, before going into exile, had taken up arms against the abuses of the Leninist regime between 1917 and 1921 without entirely abandoning his faith in revolution. The worsening political situation in Europe and Stalin’s blandishments led to his return in 1931. He was heaped with honours and privileges, but the man who had opposed Lenin ‘became a thorn in Stalin’s side as well’. Some readers are likely to find that Figes glides too lightly over the Soviet exploitation of Gorky’s prestige: Gorky himself scarcely resisted, but he raised his voice against the hounding of other writers and did the best he could to protect many who were threatened.
No one had appeared to repudiate his Russian heritage more vehemently than Stravinsky, who even tried to deny the Russian roots of The Rite of Spring. ‘I borrowed nothing from folk pieces,’ he asserted, without convincing anyone, but his later music is very ostentatiously non-Russian in character. He became a French citizen, lived in the United States and even casual mention of the Soviet Union was enough to throw him into a rage. But when he finally returned to Russia for a visit in 1962, accompanied by the American conductor Robert Craft, Craft was astonished at the transformation he observed. Suddenly the man he knew, or thought he knew, became someone else: ‘Now I see that half a century of expatriation can be . . . forgotten in a night.’ Stravinsky was anxious to meet Shostakovich, and though the two men hardly spoke, except to acknowledge a common dislike of Puccini, their encounter ‘was a symbol of a cultural unity which in the end would triumph over politics’. They were reunited at a banquet that evening, where, as Craft remarks, the increasingly tipsy speakers all abased themselves ‘before the mystery of Russianness, and so, I realise with a shock, does I.S., whose replies are soon overtaking the toasts’. It is this ‘mystery of Russianness’ that Figes so generously explores in Natasha’s Dance.