In Tolstoy’s War and Peace there is a famous and rather lovely scene where Natasha Rostov and her brother Nikolai are invited by their ‘Uncle’ (as Natasha calls him) to his simple wooden cabin at the end of a day’s hunting in the woods. There the noble-hearted and eccentric ‘Uncle’ lives, a retired army officer, with his housekeeper Anisya, a stout and handsome serf from his estate, who, as it becomes clear from the old man’s tender glances, is his unofficial ‘wife’. Anisya brings in a tray loaded with homemade Russian specialities: pickled mushrooms, rye-cakes made with buttermilk, preserves with honey, sparkling mead, herb-brandy and different kinds of vodka. After they have eaten, the strains of a balalaika become audible from the hunting servants’ room. It is not the sort of music that a countess should have liked, a simple country ballad, but seeing how his niece is moved by it, ‘Uncle’ calls for his guitar, blows the dust off it, and with a wink at Anisya, he begins to play, with the precise and accelerating rhythm of a Russian dance, the well-known love song, ‘Came a maiden down the street’. Though Natasha has never before heard the folk song, it stirs some unknown feeling in her heart. ‘Uncle’ sings as the peasants do, with the conviction that the meaning of the song lies in the words and that the tune, which exists only to emphasize the words, ‘comes of itself. It seems to Natasha that this direct way of singing gives the air the simple charm of birdsong. ‘Uncle’ calls on her to join in the folk dance.
’Now then, niece!’ he exclaimed, waving to Natasha the hand that had just struck a chord. Natasha threw off the shawl from her shoulders, ran forward to face ’Uncle’, and setting her arms akimbo, also made a motion with her shoulders and struck an attitude.
Where, how, and when had this young countess, educated by an emigree French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit, and obtained that manner which the pas de chale would, one would have supposed, long ago have effaced? But the spirit and the movements were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones that ‘Uncle’ had expected of her. As soon as she had struck her pose and smiled triumphantly, proudly, and with sly merriment, the fear that had at first seized Nikolai and the others that she might not do the right thing was at an end, and they were all already admiring her.
She did the right thing with such precision, such complete precision, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who had at once handed her the handkerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched this slim, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets and so different from herself, who yet was able to understand all that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.1
What enabled Natasha to pick up so instinctively the rhythms of the dance? How could she step so easily into this village culture from which, by social class and education, she was so far removed? Are we to suppose, as Tolstoy asks us to in this romantic scene, that a nation such as Russia may be held together by the unseen threads of a native sensibility? The question takes us to the centre of this book. It calls itself a cultural history. But the elements of culture which the reader will find here are not just great creative works like War and Peace but artefacts as well, from the folk embroidery of Natasha’s shawl to the musical conventions of the peasant song. And they are summoned, not as monuments to art, but as impressions of the national consciousness, which mingle with politics and ideology, social customs and beliefs, folklore and religion, habits and conventions, and all the other mental bric-a-brac that constitute a culture and a way of life. It is not my argument that art can serve the purpose of a window on to life. Natasha’s dancing scene cannot be approached as a literal record of experience, though memoirs of this period show that there were indeed noblewomen who picked up village dances in this way.2 But art can be looked at as a record of belief- in this case, the write’s yearning for a broad community with the Russian peasantry which Tolstoy shared with the ‘men of 1812’, the liberal noblemen and patriots who dominate the public scenes of War and Peace.
Russia invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of artistic appearance. For the past two hundred years the arts in Russia have served as an arena for political, philosophical and religious debate in the absence of a parliament or a free press. As Tolstoy wrote in ‘A Few Words on War and Peace’ (1868), the great artistic prose works of the Russian tradition were not novels in the European sense.3 They were huge poetic structures for symbolic contemplation, not unlike icons, laboratories in which to test ideas; and, like a science or religion, they were animated by the search for truth. The overarching subject of all these works was Russia - its character, its history, its customs and conventions, its spiritual essence and its destiny. 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. Nowhere has the artist been more burdened with the task of moral leadership and national prophecy, nor more feared and persecuted by the state. Alienated from official Russia by their politics, and from peasant Russia by their education, Russia’s artists took it upon themselves to create a national community of values and ideas through literature and art. What did it mean to be a Russian? What was Russia’s place and mission in the world? And where was the true Russia? In Europe or in Asia? St Petersburg or Moscow? The Tsar’s empire or the muddy one-street village where Natasha’s ‘Uncle’ lived? These were the ‘accursed questions’ that occupied the mind of every serious writer, literary critic and historian, painter and composer, theologian and philosopher in the golden age of Russian culture from Pushkin to Pasternak. They are the questions that lie beneath the surface of the art within this book. The works discussed here represent a history of ideas and attitudes - concepts of the nation through which Russia tried to understand itself. If we look carefully, they may become a window on to a nation’s inner life.
Natasha’s dance is one such opening. At its heart is an encounter between two entirely different worlds: the European culture of the upper classes and the Russian culture of the peasantry. The war of 1812 was the first moment when the two moved together in a national formation. Stirred by the patriotic spirit of the serfs, the aristocracy of Natasha’s generation began to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and search for a sense of nationhood based on ‘Russian’ principles. They switched from speaking French to their native tongue; they Russified their customs and their dress, their eating habits and their taste in interior design; they went out to the countryside to learn folklore, peasant dance and music, with the aim of fashioning a national style in all their arts to reach out to and educate the common man; and, like Natasha’s ‘Uncle’ (or indeed her brother at the end of War and Peace), some of them renounced the court culture of St Petersburg and tried to live a simpler (more ‘Russian’) way of life alongside the peasantry on their estates.
The complex interaction between these two worlds had a crucial influence on the national consciousness and on all the arts in the nineteenth century. That interaction is a major feature of this book. But the story which it tells is not meant to suggest that a single ‘national’ culture was the consequence. Russia was too complex, too socially divided, too politically diverse, too ill-defined geographically, and perhaps too big, for a single culture to be passed off as the national heritage. It is rather my intention to rejoice in the sheer diversity of Russia’s cultural forms. What makes the Tolstoy passage so illuminating is the way in which it brings so many different people to the dance: Natasha and her brother, to whom this strange but enchanting village world is suddenly revealed; their ‘Uncle’, who lives in this world but is not a part of it; Anisya, who is a villager yet who also lives with ‘Uncle’ at the margins of Natasha’s world; and the hunting servants and the other household serfs, who watch, no doubt with curious amusement (and perhaps with other feelings, too), as the beautiful countess performs their dance. My aim is to explore Russian culture in the same way Tolstoy presents Natasha’s dance: as a series of encounters or creative social acts which were performed and understood in many different ways.
To view a culture in this refracted way is to challenge the idea of a pure, organic or essential core. There was no ‘authentic’ Russian peasant dance of the sort imagined by Tolstoy and, like the melody to which Natasha dances, most of Russia’s ‘folk songs’ had in fact come from the towns.4 Other elements of the village culture Tolstoy pictured may have come to Russia from the Asiatic steppe - elements that had been imported by the Mongol horsemen who ruled Russia from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century and then mostly settled down in Russia as tradesmen, pastoralists and agriculturalists. Natasha’s shawl was almost certainly a Persian one; and, although Russian peasant shawls were coming into fashion after 1812, their ornamental motifs were probably derived from oriental shawls. The balalaika was descended from the dombra, a similar guitar of Central Asian origin (it is still widely used in Kazakh music), which came to Russia in the sixteenth century.5 The Russian peasant dance tradition was itself derived from oriental forms, in the view of some folklorists in the nineteenth century. The Russians danced in lines or circles rather than in pairs, and the rhythmic movements were performed by the hands and shoulders as well as by the feet, with great importance being placed in female dancing on subtle doll-like gestures and the stillness of the head. Nothing could have been more different from the waltz Natasha danced with Prince Andrei at her first ball, and to mimic all these movements must have felt as strange to her as it no doubt appeared to her peasant audience. But if there is no ancient Russian culture to be excavated from this village scene, if much of any culture is imported from abroad, then there is a sense in which Natasha’s dance is an emblem of the view to be taken in this book: there is no quintessential national culture, only mythic images of it, like Natasha’s version of the peasant dance.
It is not my aim to ‘deconstruct’ these myths; nor do I wish to claim, in the jargon used by academic cultural historians these days, that Russia’s nationhood was no more than an intellectual ‘construction’. There was a Russia that was real enough - a Russia that existed before ‘Russia’ or ‘European Russia’, or any other myths of the national identity. There was the historical Russia of ancient Muscovy, which had been very different from the West, before Peter the Great forced it to conform to European ways in the eighteenth century. During Tolstoy’s lifetime, this old Russia was still animated by the traditions of the Church, by the customs of the merchants and many of the gentry on the land, and by the empire’s 60 million peasants, scattered in half a million remote villages across the forests and the steppe, whose way of life remained little changed for centuries. It is the heartbeat of this
Russia which reverberates in Natasha’s dancing scene. And it was surely not so fanciful for Tolstoy to imagine that there was a common sense which linked the young countess to every Russian woman and every Russian man. For, as this book will seek to demonstrate, there is a Russian temperament, a set of native customs and beliefs, something visceral, emotional, instinctive, passed on down the generations, which has helped to shape the personality and bind together the community. This elusive temperament has proved more lasting and more meaningful than any Russian state: it gave the people the spirit to survive the darkest moments of their history, and united those who fled from Soviet Russia after 1917. It is not my aim to deny this national consciousness, but rather to suggest that the apprehension of it was enshrined in myth. Forced to become Europeans, the educated classes had become so alienated from the old Russia, they had so long forgotten how to speak and act in a Russian way, that when, in Tolstoy’s age, they struggled to define themselves as ‘Russians’ once again, they were obliged to reinvent that nation through historical and artistic myths. They rediscovered their own ‘Russianness’ through literature and art, just as Natasha found her ‘Russianness’ through the rituals of the dance. Hence the purpose of this book is not simply to debunk these myths. It is rather to explore, and to set out to explain, the extraordinary power these myths had in shaping the Russian national consciousness.
The major cultural movements of the nineteenth century were all organized around these fictive images of Russia’s nationhood: the Slavophiles, with their attendant myth of the ‘Russian soul’, of a natural Christianity among the peasantry, and their cult of Muscovy as the bearer of a truly ‘Russian’ way of life which they idealized and set out to promote as an alternative to the European culture adopted by the educated elites since the eighteenth century; the Westernizers, with their rival cult of St Petersburg, that ‘window on to the West’, with its classical ensembles built on marshland reclaimed from the sea - a symbol of their own progressive Enlightenment ambition to redraw Russia on a European grid; the Populists, who were not far from Tolstoy, with their notion of the peasant as a natural socialist whose village institutions would provide a model for the new society; and the
Scythians, who saw Russia as an ‘elemental’ culture from the Asiatic steppe which, in the revolution yet to come, would sweep away the dead weight of European civilization and establish a new culture where man and nature, art and life, were one. These myths were more than just ‘constructions’ of a national identity. They all played a crucial role in shaping the ideas and allegiances of Russia’s politics, as well as in developing the notion of the self, from the most elevated forms of personal and national identity to the most quotidian matters of dress or food, or the type of language one used. The Slavophiles illustrate the point. Their idea of ‘Russia’ as a patriarchal family of homegrown Christian principles was the organizing kernel of a new political community in the middle decades of the nineteenth century which drew its members from the old provincial gentry, the Moscow merchants and intelligentsia, the priesthood and certain sections of the state bureaucracy. The mythic notion of Russia’s nationhood which brought these groups together had a lasting hold on the political imagination. As a political movement, it influenced the government’s position on free trade and foreign policy, and gentry attitudes towards the state and peasantry. As a broad cultural movement the Slavophiles adopted a certain style of speech and dress, distinct codes of social interaction and behaviour, a style of architecture and interior design, their own approach to literature and art. It was all bast shoes and homespun coats and beards, cabbage soup and kvas, folk-like wooden houses and brightly coloured churches with onion domes.
In the Western imagination these cultural forms have all too often been perceived as ‘authentically Russian’. Yet that perception is a myth as well: the myth of exotic Russia. It is an image first exported by the Ballets Russes, with their own exoticized versions of Natasha’s dance, and then shaped by foreign writers such as Rilke, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, who held up Dostoevsky as the greatest novelist and peddled their own versions of the ‘Russian soul’. If there is one myth which needs to be dispelled, it is this view of Russia as exotic and eslewhere. Russians have long complained that the Western public does not understand their culture, that Westerners see Russia from afar and do not want to know its inner subtleties, as they do with the culture of their own domain. Though based partly on resentment and wounded national pride, the complaint is not unjustified. We are inclined to consign Russia’s artists, writers and composers to the cultural ghetto of a ‘national school’ and to judge them, not as individuals, but by how far they conform to this stereotype. We expect the Russians to be ‘Russian’ - their art easily distinguished by its use of folk motifs, by onion domes, the sound of bells, and full of ‘Russian soul’. Nothing has done more to obscure a proper understanding of Russia and its central place in European culture between 1812 and 1917. The great cultural figures of the Russian tradition (Karamzin, Pushkin, Glinka, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Repin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chagall and Kandinsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Pasternak, Meyerhold and Eisenstein) were not simply ‘Russians’, they were Europeans too, and the two identities were intertwined and mutually dependent in a variety of ways. However hard they might have tried, it was impossible for Russians such as these to suppress either part of their identity.
For European Russians, there were two very different modes of personal behaviour. In the salons and the ballrooms of St Petersburg, at court or in the theatre, they were very ‘comme il faut‘: they performed their European manners almost like actors on a public stage. Yet on another and perhaps unconscious plane and in the less formal spheres of private life, native Russian habits of behaviour prevailed. Natasha’s visit to her ‘Uncle’s‘ house describes one such switch: the way she is expected to behave at home, in the Rostov palace, or at the ball where she is presented to the Emperor, is a world apart from this village scene where her expressive nature is allowed free rein. It is evidently her gregarious enjoyment of such a relaxed social setting that communicates itself in her dance. This same sense of relaxation, of becoming ‘more oneself in a Russian milieu, was shared by many Russians of Natasha’s class, including her own ‘Uncle’, it would seem. The simple recreations of the country house or dacha - hunting in the woods, visiting the bath house or what Nabokov called the ‘very Russian sport of hodit’ po gribi (looking for mushrooms)’6 - were more than the retrieval of a rural idyll: they were an expression of one’s Russianness. To interpret habits such as these is one of this book’s aims. Using art and fiction, diaries and letters, memoirs and prescriptive literature, it seeks to apprehend the structures of the Russian national identity. ‘Identity’ these days is a fashionable term,
But it is not very meaningful unless one can show how it manifests itself in social interaction and behaviour. A culture is made up not simply of works of art, or literary discourses, but of unwritten codes, signs and symbols, rituals and gestures, and common attitudes that fix the public meaning of these works and organize the inner life of a society. So the reader will find here that works of literature, like War and Peace, are intercut with episodes from daily life (childhood, marriage, religious life, responses to the landscape, food and drinking habits, attitudes to death) where the outlines of this national consciousness may be discerned. These are the episodes where we may find, in life, the unseen threads of a common Russian sensibility, such as Tolstoy had imagined in his celebrated dancing scene.
A few words are in order on the structure of the book. It is an interpretation of a culture, not a comprehensive history, so readers should beware that some great cultural figures will perhaps get less than their full pages’ worth. My approach is thematic. Each chapter explores a separate strand of the Russian cultural identity. The chapters progress from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, but the rules of strict chronology are broken in the interest of thematic coherence. There are two brief moments (the closing sections of chapters 3 and 4) where the barrier of 1917 is crossed. As on the other few occasions where periods of history, political events or cultural institutions are handled out of sequence, I have provided some explanation for readers who lack detailed knowledge of Russian history. (Those needing more may consult the Table of Chronology.) My story finishes in the Brezhnev era. The cultural tradition which it charts reached the end of a natural cycle then, and what has come afterwards may well be the start of something new. Finally, there are themes and variations that reappear throughout the book, leitmotifs and lineages like the cultural history of St Petersburg and the family narratives of the two great noble dynasties, the Volkonskys and the Sheremetevs. The meaning of these twists and turns will be perceived by the reader only at the end.