Overleaf: Benjamin Paterssen: Vue de la grande parade au Palais de L’Empereur Alexandre 1er a St Petersburg, c.1803


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, and the owners of these long-abandoned swamps. But the vision of the wide and bending river flowing to the sea was full of hope and promise to the Tsar of landlocked Russia, riding at the head of his scouting troops. As they approached the coast he dismounted from his horse. With his bayonet he cut two strips of peat and arranged them in a cross on the marshy ground. Then Peter said: ‘Here shall be a town.’1

Few places could have been less suitable for the metropolis of Europe’s largest state. The network of small islands in the Neva’s boggy delta were overgrown with trees. Swept by thick mists from melting snow in spring and overblown by winds that often caused the rivers to rise above the land, it was not a place for human habitation, and even the few fishermen who ventured there in summer did not stay for long. Wolves and bears were its only residents.2 A thousand years ago the area was underneath the sea. There was a channel flowing from the Baltic sea to lake Ladoga, with islands where the Pulkovo and Pargolovo heights are found today. Even in the reign of Catherine the Great, during the late eighteenth century, Tsarskoe Selo, where she built her Summer Palace on the hills of Pulkovo, was still known by the locals as Sarskoe Selo. The name came from the Finnish word for an island, saari.

    When Peter’s soldiers dug into the ground they found water a metre or so below. The northern island, where the land was slightly higher, was the only place to lay firm foundations. In four months of furious activity, in which at least half the workforce died, 20,000 conscripts built the Peter and Paul Fortress, digging out the land with their bare hands, dragging logs and stones or carting them by back, and carrying the earth in the folds of their clothes.3 The sheer scale and tempo of construction was astonishing. Within a few years the estuary became an energetic building site and, once Russia’s control of the coast had been secured with victories over Sweden in 1709-10, the city took on a new shape with every passing day. A quarter of a million serfs and soldiers from as far afield as the Caucasus and Siberia worked around the clock to clear forests, dig canals, lay down roads and erect palaces.4 Carpenters and stonemasons (forbidden by decree to work elsewhere) flooded into the new capital. Hauliers, ice-breakers, sled-drivers, boatsmen and labourers arrived in search of work, sleeping in the wooden shacks that crowded into every empty space. To start with, everything was done in a rough and ready fashion with primitive hand tools: axes predominated over saws, and simple carts were made from unstripped trunks with tiny birch-log wheels. Such was the demand for stone materials that every boat and vehicle arriving in the town was obliged to bring a set tonnage of rock. But new industries soon sprang up to manufacture brick, glass, mica and tarpaulin, while the shipyards added constantly to the busy traffic on the city’s waterways, with sailing boats and barges loaded down with stone, and millions of logs floated down the river every year.

Like the magic city of a Russian fairy tale, St Petersburg grew up with such fantastic speed, and everything about it was so brilliant and new, that it soon became a place enshrined in myth. When Peter declared, ‘Here shall be a town’, his words echoed the divine command, ‘Let there be light.’ And, as he said these words, legend has it that an eagle dipped in flight over Peter’s head and settled on top of two birch trees that were tied together to form an arch. Eighteenth-century panegyrists elevated Peter to the status of a god: he was Titan, Neptune and Mars rolled into one. They compared ‘Petropolis’ to ancient Rome. It was a link that Peter also made by adopting the title of ‘Imperator’ and by casting his own image on the new rouble coin, with laurel wreath and armour, in emulation of Caesar. The famous opening lines of Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833) (which every Russian schoolchild knows by heart) crystallized the myth of Petersburg’s creation by a providential man:

On a shore by the desolate waves He stood, with lofty thoughts, And gazed into the distance…5

Thanks to Pushkin’s lines, the legend made its way into folklore. The city that was named after Peter’s patron saint, and has been renamed three times since as politics have changed, is still called simply ‘Peter’ by its residents.*

In the popular imagination the miraculous emergence of the city from the sea assigned to it a legendary status from the start. The Russians said that Peter made his city in the sky and then lowered it, like a giant model, to the ground. It was the only way they could explain the creation of a city built on sand. The notion of a capital without foundations in the soil was the basis of the myth of Petersburg which inspired so much Russian literature and art. In this mythology, Petersburg was an unreal city, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, an alien kingdom of the apocalypse. It was home to the lonely haunted figures who inhabit Gogol’s Tales of Petersburg (1835); to fantasists and murderers like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). The vision of an all-destroying flood became a constant theme in the city’s tales of doom, from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman to Bely’s Petersburg (1913-14). But that prophecy was based on fact: for the city had been built above the ground. Colossal quantities of rubble had been laid down to lift the streets beyond the water’s reach. Frequent flooding in the city’s early years necessitated repairs and reinforcements that raised them higher still. When, in 1754, building work began on the present Winter Palace, the fourth upon that site, the ground on which its foundations were laid was three metres higher than fifty years before.

A city built on water with imported stone, Petersburg defied the natural order. The famous granite of its river banks came from Finland and Karelia; the marble of its palaces from Italy, the Urals and the Middle East; gabbro and porphyry were brought in from Sweden; dolerite and slate from lake Onega; sandstone from Poland and Germany; travertine from Italy; and tiles from the Low Countries and Liibeck. Only limestone was quarried locally.6 The achievement of transporting such quantities of stone has been surpassed only by the building of the pyramids. The huge granite rock for the pedestal of

* The name in Russian is pronounced ‘Pyotr’ - so ‘Peter’ (from the original Dutch spelling and pronunciation of ‘Sankt Piter Burkh’) suggests a certain foreignness which, as the poet Joseph Brodsky pointed out, somehow sounds correct for such a non-Russian town (see Joseph Brodsky, ‘A Guide to a Renamed City’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays (London, 1986), p. 71).

1. Shifting the huge granite rock for the pedestal of The Bronze Horseman. Engraving after a drawing by A. P. Davydov, 1782

Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great was twelve metres high and nearly thirty metres in circumference. Weighing in at some 660,000 kilograms, it took a thousand men over eighteen months to move it, first by a series of pulleys and then on a specially constructed barge, the thirteen kilometres from the forest clearing where it had been found to the capital.7 Pushkin’s bronze Horseman turned the inert monument into an emblem of Russia’s destiny. The thirty-six colossal granite columns of St Isaac’s Cathedral were cut out of the ground with sledgehammers and chisels, and then hauled by hand over thirty kilometres to barges on the gulf of Finland, from where they were shipped to St Petersburg and mounted by huge cranes built out of wood.8 The heaviest rocks were shifted during the winter, when snow made hauling easier, although this meant waiting for the thaw in spring before they could be shipped. But even then the job required an army of several thousand men with 200-horse sleigh teams.9

Petersburg did not grow up like other towns. Neither commerce nor geopolitics can account for its development. Rather it was built as a work of art. As the French writer Madame de Stael said on her visit to the city in 1812, ‘here everything has been created for visual perception’. Sometimes it appeared that the city was assembled as a giant mise-en-scene - its buildings and its people serving as no more than theatrical props. European visitors to Petersburg, accustomed to the melange of architectural styles in their own cities, were particularly struck by the strange unnatural beauty of its ensembles and often compared them to something from the stage. ‘At each step I was amazed by the combination of architecture and stage decoration’, wrote the travel writer the Marquis de Custine in the 1830s. ‘Peter the Great and his successors looked upon their capital as a theatre.’10 In a sense St Petersburg was just a grander version of that later stage production, the ‘Potemkin villages’: cardboard cut-out classic structures rigged up overnight along the Dniepr river banks to delight Catherine the Great as she sailed past.

Petersburg was conceived as a composition of natural elements -water, stone and sky. This conception was reflected in the city panoramas of the eighteenth century, which set out to emphasize the artistic harmony of all these elements.11 Having always loved the sea, Peter was attracted by the broad, fast-flowing river Neva and the open sky as a backdrop for his tableau. Amsterdam (which he had visited) and Venice (which he only knew from books and paintings) were early inspirations for the layout of the palace-lined canals and embankments. But Peter was eclectic in his architectural tastes and borrowed what he liked from Europe’s capitals. The austere classical baroque style of Petersburg’s churches, which set them apart from Moscow’s brightly coloured onion domes, was a mixture of St Paul’s cathedral in London, St Peter’s in Rome, and the single-spired churches of Riga, in what is now Latvia. From his European travels in the 1690s Peter brought back architects and engineers, craftsmen and artists, furniture designers and landscape gardeners.* Scots, Germans, French, Italians - they all settled in large numbers in St Petersburg in the eighteenth century. No expense was spared for Peter’s ‘paradise’. Even at the height of the war with Sweden in the 1710s he meddled constantly in details of the plans. To make the Summer Gardens ‘better than Versailles’ he ordered peonies and citrus trees from Persia, ornamental fish from the Middle

* The main architects of Petersburg in Peter the Great’s reign were Domenico Trezzini (from Italy), Jean Leblond (from France) and Georg Mattarnovy (from Germany).

East, even singing birds from India, although few survived the Russian frost.12 Peter issued decrees for the palaces to have regular facades in accordance with his own approved designs, for uniform roof lines and prescribed iron railings on their balconies and walls on the ‘embankment side’. To beautify the city Peter even had its abattoir rebuilt in the rococo style.13

’There reigns in this capital a kind of bastard architecture’, wrote Count Algarotti in the middle of the eighteenth century. ‘It steals from the Italian, the French and the Dutch.’14 By the nineteenth century, the view of Petersburg as an artificial copy of the Western style had become commonplace. Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century writer and philosopher, once said that Petersburg ‘differs from all other European towns by being like them all’.15 Yet, despite its obvious borrowings, the city had its own distinctive character, a product of its open setting between sea and sky, the grandeur of its scale, and the unity of its architectural ensembles, which lent the city a unique artistic harmony. The artist Alexander Benois, an influential figure in the Diaghilev circle who made a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg, captured this harmonious conception. ‘If it is beautiful’, he wrote in 1902, ‘then it is so as a whole, or rather in huge chunks.’16 Whereas older European cities had been built over several centuries, ending up at best as collections of beautiful buildings in diverse period styles, Petersburg was completed within fifty years and according to a single set of principles. Nowhere else, moreover, were these principles afforded so much space. Architects in Amsterdam and Rome were cramped for room in which to slot their buildings. But in Petersburg they were able to expand their classical ideals. The straight line and the square were given space to breathe in expansive panoramas. With water everywhere, architects could build mansions low and wide, using their reflections in the rivers and canals to balance their proportions, producing an effect that is unquestionably beautiful and grandiose. Water added lightness to the heavy baroque style, and movement to the buildings set along its edge. The Winter Palace is a supreme example. Despite its immense size (1,050 rooms, 1,886 doors, 1,945 windows, 117 staircases) it almost feels as if it is floating on the embankment of the river; the syncopated rhythm of the white columns along its blue facade creates a sense of motion as it reflects the Neva flowing by.

The key to this architectural unity was the planning of the city as a series of ensembles linked by a harmonious network of avenues and squares, canals and parks, set against the river and the sky. The first real plan dates from the establishment of a Commission for the Orderly Development of St Petersburg in 1737, twelve years after Peter’s death. At its centre was the idea of the city fanning out in three radials from the Admiralty, just as Rome did from the Piazza del Popolo. The golden spire of the Admiralty thus became the symbolic and topographical centre of the city, visible from the end of the three long avenues (Nevsky, Gorokhovaia and Voznesensky) that converge on it. From the 1760s, with the establishment of a Commission for the Masonry Construction of St Petersburg, the planning of the city as a series of ensembles became more pronounced. Strict rules were imposed to ensure the use of stone and uniform facades for the palaces constructed on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. These rules underlined the artistic conception of the avenue as a straight unbroken line stretching as far as the eye could see. It was reflected in the harmonious panoramas by the artist M. I. Makhaev commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city in 1753. But visual harmony was not the only purpose of such regimentation: the zonal planning of the capital was a form of social ordering as well. The aristocratic residential areas around the Winter Palace and the Summer Gardens were clearly demarcated by a series of canals and avenues from the zone of clerks and traders near the Haymarket (Dostoevsky’s Petersburg) or the workers’ suburbs further out. The bridges over the Neva, as readers who have seen Eisenstein’s film October (1928) know, could be lifted to prevent the workers coming into the central areas.

St Petersburg was more than a city. It was a vast, almost Utopian, project of cultural engineering to reconstruct the Russian as a European man. In Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoevsky called it ‘the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world’.17 Every aspect of its Petrine culture was intended as a negation of ‘medieval’ (seventeenth-century) Muscovy. As Peter conceived it, to become a citizen of Petersburg was to leave behind the ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ customs of the Russian past in Moscow and to enter, as a European Russian, the modern Western world of progress and enlightenment.

Muscovy was a religious civilization. It was rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Eastern Church which went back to Byzantium. In some ways it resembled the medieval culture of central Europe, to which it was related by religion, language, custom and much else besides. But historically and culturally it remained isolated from Europe. Its western territories were no more than a toehold on the European continent: the Baltic lands were not captured by the Russian empire until the 1720s, the western Ukraine and the lion’s share of Poland not until the end of the eighteenth century. Unlike central Europe Muscovy had little exposure to the influence of the Renaissance or the Reformation. It took no part in the maritime discoveries or the scientific revolutions of the early modern era. It had no great cities in the European sense, no princely or episcopal courts to patronize the arts, no real burgher or middle class, and no universities or public schools apart from the monastery academies.

The dominance of the Church hindered the development in Muscovy of the secular art forms that had taken shape in Europe since the Renaissance. Instead, the icon was the focal point of Muscovy’s religious way of life. It was an artefact of daily ritual as much as it was a creative work of art. Icons were encountered everywhere - not just in homes and churches but in shops and offices or in wayside shrines. There was next to nothing to connect the icon to the European tradition of secular painting that had its origins in the Renaissance. True, in the late seventeenth century Russian icon-painters such as Simon Ushakov had started to abandon the austere Byzantine style of medieval icon-painting for the classical techniques and sensuality of the Western baroque style. Yet visitors from Europe were invariably shocked by the primitive condition of Russia’s visual arts. ‘Flat and ugly’, observed Samuel Collins, English physician to the Russian court, of the Kremlin’s icons in the 1660s; ‘if you saw their images, you would take them for no better than gilded gingerbread’.18 The first secular portraits (parsuny) date from as late as the 1650s. However, they still retain a flat iconic style. Tsar Alexei, who reigned from 1645 to 1676, is the first Russian ruler for whom we have anything remotely resembling a reliable likeness. Other types of painting (still life, landscape, allegory, genre) were entirely absent from the Russian repertoire until Peter’s reign, or even later still.

The development of other secular forms of art was equally impeded by the Russian Church. Instrumental music (as opposed to sacred singing) was regarded as a sin and was ruthlessly persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities. However, there was a rich folk tradition of minstrels and musicians, or skomorokhi (featured by Stravinsky in Petrushka), who wandered through the villages with tambourines and gusli (a type of zither), avoiding the agents of the Church. Literature as well was held back by the omnipresent Church. There were no printed news sheets or journals, no printed plays or poetry, although there was a lively industry of folk tales and verse published in the form of illustrated prints (lubki) as cheap printing techniques became available towards the end of the seventeenth century. When Peter came to the throne in 1682 no more than three books of a non-religious nature had been published by the Moscow press since its establishment in the 1560s.19

Peter hated Muscovy. He despised its archaic culture and parochialism, its superstitious fear and resentment of the West. Witch hunts were common and foreign heretics were burned in public on Red Square -the last, a Protestant, in 1689, when Peter was aged seventeen. As a young man, Peter spent a great deal of his time in the special ‘German’ suburb where, under pressure from the Church, Moscow’s foreigners were forced to live. He dressed in Western clothes, shaved his beard and, unlike the Orthodox, he ate meat during Lent. The young Tsar travelled through northern Europe to learn for himself the new technologies which Russia would need to launch itself as a continental military power. In Holland he worked as a shipbuilder. In London he went to the observatory, the arsenal, the Royal Mint and the Royal Society. In Konigsberg he studied artillery. From his travels he picked up what he needed to turn Russia into a modern European state: a navy modelled on the Dutch and the English ones; military schools that were copies of the Swedish and the Prussian; legal systems borrowed from the Germans; and a Table of (civil service) Ranks adapted from the Danes. He commissioned battle scenes and portraits to publicize the prestige of his state; and he purchased sculptures and decorative paintings for his European palaces in Petersburg.

Everything in the new capital was intended to compel the Russians to adopt a more European way of life. Peter told his nobles where to

live, how to build their houses, how to move around the town, where to stand in church, how many servants to keep, how to eat at banquets, how to dress and cut their hair, how to conduct themselves at court, and how to converse in polite society. Nothing in his dragooned capital was left to chance. This obsessive regulation gave St Petersburg the image of a hostile and oppressive place. Here were the roots of the nineteenth-century myth of the ‘unreal city’ - alien and threatening to the Russian way of life - which was to play a central role in Russian literature and art. ‘In Petersburg’, wrote Benois, ‘there is that same Roman spirit, a hard and absolute spirit of order, a spirit of formally perfect life, unbearable for the general Russian slovenliness, but unquestionably not without charm.’ Benois compared the city to a ‘sergeant with a stick’ - it had a ‘machine-like character’ - whereas the Russians were like a ‘dishevelled old woman’.20 The nineteenth-century image of the Imperial city was defined by the notion of its regimentation. De Custine remarked that Petersburg was more like ‘the general staff of an army than the capital of a nation’.21 And Herzen said that its uniformity reminded him of a ‘military barracks’.22 This was a city of inhuman proportions, a city ordered by the abstract symmetry of its architectural shapes rather than by the lives of its inhabitants. Indeed, the very purpose of these shapes was to regiment the Russians, like soldiers, into line.

Yet underneath the surface of this European dream world the old Russia still showed through. Badgered by the Tsar to build classical facades, many of the nobles allowed animals to roam in the courtyards of their palaces in Petersburg, just as they did in their Moscow yards, so that Peter had to issue numerous decrees forbidding cows and pigs from wandering on to his fine European avenues.23 But even the Nevsky, the most European of his avenues, was undone by a ‘Russian’ crookedness. Designed as a formal ‘prospekt’ running in a straight line from the Admiralty, at one end, to the Alexander Nevsky monastery, three kilometres away at the other, it was built by separate crews from either end. But they failed to keep the line and when it was completed in 1715 there was a distinct kink where the two teams met.24


The Sheremetev palace on the Fontanka river is a legendary symbol of the Petersburg tradition. The people of that city call it ‘Fountain House’. The poet Anna Akhmatova, who lived there, on and off, in an annexe flat from 1926 to 1952, thought of it as a precious inner space which she co-inhabited with the spirits of the great artistic figures of the past. Pushkin, Krylov, Tiutchev and Zhukovsky - they had all been there.

I don’t have special claims

On this illustrious house,

But it happens that almost my whole life

I have lived under the celebrated roof

Of the Fountain Palace… As a pauper

I arrived and as a pauper I will leave…25

The history of the palace is a microcosm of the Petrine plan to set down Western culture on Russian soil. It was built on a plot of marshland granted in 1712 by the Tsar to Boris Sheremetev, the Field Marshal of Peter’s army at the battle of Poltava. At that time the site was on the edge of Petersburg and its forests gave the palace a rural character. Peter’s gift was one of several to distinguished servitors. They were ordered to construct European-style palaces with regular facades on the Fontanka side as part of the Tsar’s plan to develop Petersburg. Legend has it that the land was empty in 1712. But Akhmatova believed that a Swedish farmstead had been there, since she distinguished oak trees from pre-Petrine times.26

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Sheremetev family was already well established as a hugely wealthy clan with close connections to the court. Distantly related to the Romanovs, the Sheremetevs had been rewarded with enormous tracts of land for their loyal service to the ruling house as military commanders and diplomats. Boris Sheremetev was a long-standing ally of Peter’s. In 1697 he had travelled with the Tsar on his first trip to Europe, where he remained as Russian ambassador to Poland, Italy and Austria. A veteran of the wars against the Swedes, in 1705 he became Russia’s first appointed count (graf) - a title Peter imported from Europe as part of his campaign to Westernize the Russian aristocracy. Boris was the last of the old boyars, the leading noblemen of Muscovy whose wealth and power derived from the favour of the Tsar (they had all but disappeared by the end of Peter’s reign as newly titled nobles superseded them). Russia did not have a gentry in the Western sense -an independent class of landowners that could act as a counterbalance to the power of the Tsar. From the sixteenth century the state had swept away the quasi-feudal rights of the local princes and turned all nobles (dvoriane) into servants of the court (dvor). Muscovy was conceived as a patrimonial state, owned by the Tsar as his personal fiefdom, and the noble was legally defined as the Tsar’s ‘slave’.* For his services the nobleman was given land and serfs, but not as outright or allodial property, as in the West, and only on condition that he served the Tsar. The slightest suspicion of disloyalty could lead to demotion and the loss of his estates.

Before the eighteenth century Russia had no grand noble palaces. Most of the Tsar’s servitors lived in wooden houses, not much bigger than peasant huts, with simple furniture and clay or wooden pots. According to Adam Olearius, the Duke of Holstein’s envoy to Muscovy during the 1630s, few Russian noblemen had feather beds; instead, ‘they lie on benches covered with cushions, straw, mats, or clothes; in winter they sleep on flat-topped stoves… [lying] with their servants… the chickens and the pigs’.27 The nobleman seldom visited his various estates. Despatched from one place to another in the Tsar’s vast empire, he had neither the time nor the inclination to put down roots in one locality. He looked upon his estates as a source of revenue, to be readily exchanged or sold. The beautiful estate of Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, for example, exchanged hands over twenty times during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was lost in games of cards and drinking bouts, sold to different people at the same time, loaned and bartered, mortgaged and remortgaged, until after years of legal wrangling to settle all the questions of its ownership, it was bought by the Volkonsky family in the 1760s and eventually passed down through his mother to the novelist Tolstoy.28 Because of this constant state of flux there was little real investment by the nobles in the land, no general movement to develop estates or erect palaces, and none of what took place in Western Europe from medieval times: the gradual concentration of a family domain in one locality, with property passed down from one generation to the next, and ties built up with the community.

*Even as late as the nineteenth century noblemen of every rank, including counts and barons, were required to sign off their letters to the Tsar with the formulaic phrase ‘Your Humble Slave’.

    2. Seventeenth-century Muscovite costumes. Engraving, 1669

The cultural advancement of the Muscovite boyars was well behind that of the European nobles in the seventeenth century. Olearius considered them ‘among the barbarians… [with] crude opinions about the elevated natural sciences and arts’.29 Dr Collins complained that ‘they know not how to eat peas and carrots boiled but, like swine, eat them shells and all’.30 This backwardness was in part the result of the Mongol occupation of Russia from about 1230 to the middle of the fifteenth century. The Tatars left a profound trace on boyar customs and habits. For over three hundred years, the period of the Renaissance in the West, Russia was cut off from European civilization. The country which emerged from the Mongol period was far more inward-looking than it had been at the start of the thirteenth century, when Kievan Rus’, the loose confederation of principalities which constituted the first Russian state, had been intimately linked with Byzantium. The old princely families were undermined and made more servile to the state of Muscovy, whose economic and military power provided the key to Russia’s liberation from the Mongol khans. The Russian nobleman of the Muscovite era (c. 15 50-1700) was not a landed lord in the European sense. He was a servant of the Crown. In his material culture there was little to distinguish him from the common folk. He dressed like the merchant in the semi-oriental kaftan and fur coat. He ruled his family, like the merchant and the peasant, via the patriarchal customs of the Domostroi - the sixteenth-century manual that instructed Russians how to discipline their households with the Bible and the birch. The manners of the Russian nobleman were proverbially boorish. Even magnates such as Boris Sheremetev could behave at times like drunken louts. During Tsar Peter’s trip to England his entourage resided at the villa of the diarist John Evelyn at Sayes Court, Kent. The damage which they caused in their three-month stay was so extensive - lawns dug up, curtains torn, furniture destroyed, and family portraits used for target practice by the visitors - that Evelyn was obliged to present the Russian court with a large bill.31 The majority of the nobility could not read and many of them could not even add up simple sums.32Little travelled or exposed to Europeans, who were forced to settle in a special suburb in Moscow, the nobleman mistrusted new or foreign ways. His life was regulated by the archaic rituals of the Church - its calendar arranged to count the years from the notional creation of the world (with the birth of Adam) in 5509 bc* With Peter’s reformation of society, the nobleman became the agency, and his palace the arena, of Russia’s introduction to European ways. His palace was much more than a noble residence, and his estate was far more than a noble pleasure ground or economic entity: it became its locality’s centre of civilization.

* Peter the Great introduced the Western (Julian) calendar in 1700. But by 1752 the rest of Europe had changed to the Gregorian calendar - thirteen days ahead of the Julian calendar (which remained in force in Russia until 1918). In terms of time, Imperial Russia always lagged behind the West.

Peter laid the basis of the modern absolutist (European) state when he turned all the nobles into servants of the Crown. The old boyar class had enjoyed certain rights and privileges that stemmed from its guardianship of the land and serfs - there had been a Boyars’ Council, or Duma, that had approved the Tsar’s decrees, until it was replaced by the Senate in 1711. But Peter’s new aristocracy was defined entirely by its position in the civil and military service, and its rights and privileges were set accordingly. Peter established a Table of Ranks that ordered the nobles according to their office (rather than their birth) and allowed commoners to be given noble status for their service to the state. This almost military ordering of the nobles had a deep and lasting effect on their way of life. As readers of Gogol will know, the Russian nobleman was obsessed by rank. Every rank (and there were fourteen in Peter’s Table) had its own uniform. The progression from white to black trousers, the switch from a red to a blue ribbon, from silver to gold thread, or the simple addition of a stripe, were ritual events of immense significance in the nobleman’s well-ordered life. Every rank had its own noble title and mode of address: ‘Your High Excellency’ for the top two ranks; ‘Your Excellency’ for those in ranks three and four; and so on down the scale. There was a strict and elaborate code of etiquette which set out how nobles of each rank should address the other ranks, or those older or younger than themselves. A senior nobleman writing to a younger nobleman could sign off his letter with simply his surname; but the younger nobleman, in his reply, was expected to add his title and rank to his surname, and failure to do so was considered an offence which could end in scandal and a duel.33 Etiquette further demanded that a nobleman in the civil service should pay his respects at a superior civil servant’s household on the namedays and the birthdays of his family, as well as on all religious holidays. At balls and public functions in St Petersburg it was considered a grave error if a young man remained seated while his elders stood. Hence at the theatre junior officers would remain standing in the slips in case a senior officer entered during the performance. Every officer was said to be on duty at all times. G. A. Rimsky-Korsakov (a distant forebear of the composer) was kicked out of the Guards in 1810 because at a dinner following a ball he loosened the top button of his uniform.34 Rank also carried considerable material privileges. Horses at post stations were allocated strictly according to the status of the travellers. At banquets food was served first to the higher-ranking guests, seated with the hosts at the top end of the Russian P(n)-shaped table, followed by the lower ranking at the bottom end. If the top end wanted second helpings, the bottom ends would not be served at all. Prince Potemkin once invited a minor nobleman to a banquet at his palace, where the guest was seated at the bottom end. Afterwards he asked him how he had enjoyed the meal. ‘Very much, Your Excellency,’ the guest replied. ‘I saw everything.’35

The Sheremetevs rose very quickly to the top of this new social hierarchy. When Boris Sheremetev died in 1719, the Tsar told his widow that he would be ‘like a father’ to his children. Pyotr Sheremetev, his sole surviving son, was brought up at the court, where he became one of the few selected companions to the heir to the throne (Peter II).36 After a teenage career in the Guards, Sheremetev became a chamberlain to the Empress Anna, and then to the Empress Elizabeth. Under Catherine the Great, he became a senator and was the first elected Marshal of the Nobility. Unlike other court favourites, who rose and fell with the change of sovereign, Sheremetev remained in office for six consecutive reigns. His family connections, the protection he enjoyed from the influential courtier Prince Trubetskoi, and his links with Catherine’s diplomatic adviser Count Nikitza Panin, prevented him from being made a victim to the whim of any sovereign. He was one of Russia’s first noblemen to be independent in the European sense.

The fantastic wealth of the Sheremetev clan had a lot to do with this new confidence. With land in excess of 800,000 hectares and more than 200,000 ‘census serfs’ (which meant perhaps a million actual serfs), by the time of Pyotr’s death in 1788, the Sheremetevs were, by some considerable distance, the biggest landowning family in the world. In monetary terms, with an annual income of around 630,000 roubles (Ј63,000) in the 1790s, they were just as powerful, and considerably richer than, the greatest English lords, the Dukes of Bedford and Devonshire, Earl Shelburne and the Marquess of Rockingham, all of whom had annual incomes of approximately Ј50,000.37 Like most noble fortunes, the Sheremetevs’ was derived in the main from enormous Imperial grants of land and serfs in reward for their service to the state. The richest dynasties of the aristocracy had all stood near the summit of the Tsarist state during its great territorial expansion between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries and had consequently been rewarded with lavish endowments of fertile land in the south of Russia and Ukraine. These were the Sheremetevs and the Stroganovs, the Demidovs and Davydovs, the Vorontsovs and Yusu-povs. Like a growing number of magnates in the eighteenth century, the Sheremetevs also made a killing out of trade. In that century the Russian economy grew at a fantastic rate, and as the owners of vast tracts of forest land, paper mills and factories, shops and other urban properties, the Sheremetevs earned huge profits from this growth. By the end of the eighteenth century the Sheremetevs were almost twice as rich as any other Russian noble family, excluding the Romanovs. This extraordinary wealth was in part explained by the fact that, unlike the majority of Russian dynasties, which divided their inheritance between all the sons and sometimes even daughters, the Sheremetevs passed the lion’s share of their wealth to the first male heir. Marriage, too, was a crucial factor in the Sheremetevs’ rise to the top of the wealth league - in particular the brilliant marriage in 1743 between Pyotr Sheremetev and Varvara Cherkasskaya, the heiress of another hugely wealthy clan, through whom the Sheremetevs acquired the beautiful estate of Ostankino on the outskirts of Moscow. With the immense fortune that was spent on it in the second half of the eighteenth century by their son Nikolai Petrovich, the first great impresario of the Russian theatre, Ostankino became the jewel in the Sheremetev crown.

The Sheremetevs spent vast sums of money on their palaces - often much more than they earned, so that by the middle of the nineteenth century they had amassed debts of several million roubles.38 Extravagant spending was a peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy. It derived in part from foolishness, and in part from the habits of a class whose riches had arrived through little effort and at fantastic speed. Much of this wealth was in the form of Imperial grants designed to create a superb court that would compare with Versailles or Potsdam.

To succeed in this court-centred culture the nobleman required a fabulous lifestyle. The possession of an opulent palace, with imported works of art and furniture, lavish balls and banquets in the European style, became a vital attribute of rank and status that was likely to win favour and promotion at court.

A large part of the Sheremetevs’ budget went on their enormous household staffs. The family retained a huge army in livery. At the Fountain House alone there were 340 servants, enough to place a chamberlain at every door; and in all their houses combined the Sheremetevs employed well in excess of a thousand staff.39 Such vast retinues were the luxury of a country with so many serfs. Even the grandest of the English households had tiny servant numbers by comparison: the Devonshires at Chatsworth, in the 1840s, had a live-in staff of just eighteen.40 Foreigners were always struck by the large number of servants in Russian palaces. Even Count Segur, the French ambassador, expressed astonishment that a private residence might have 500 staff.41 Owning lots of servants was a peculiar weakness of the Russian aristocracy - and perhaps a reason for their ultimate demise. Even middling gentry households in the provinces would retain large staffs beyond their means. Dmitry Sverbeyev, a minor civil servant from the Moscow region, recalled that in the 1800s his father kept an English carriage with 6 Danish horses, 4 coachmen, 2 postilions and 2 liveried footmen, solely for the purpose of his short annual journey to Moscow. On the family estate there were 2 chefs, a valet and an assistant, a butler and 4 doormen, a personal hairdresser and 2 tailors, half a dozen maids, 5 laundrywomen, 8 gardeners, 16 kitchen and various other staff.42In the Selivanov household, a middling gentry family in Riazan province, the domestic regime in the 1810s continued to be set by the culture of the court, where their ancestor had once served in the 1740s. They retained an enormous staff - with eighty footmen dressed in dark green uniforms, powdered wigs and special shoes made from plaited horse-tail hair, who were required to walk backwards out of rooms.43

In the Sheremetev household clothes were another source of huge extravagance. Nikolai Petrovich, like his father, was a dedicated follower of continental fashions and he spent the equivalent of several thousand pounds a year on imported fabrics for his clothes. An inventory of his wardrobe in 1806 reveals that he possessed no less than thirty-seven different types of court uniform, all sewn with gold thread and all in the dark green or dark brown cashmere or tricot colours that were fashionable at that time. There were 10 sets of single-breasted tails and 18 double-breasted; 54 frock coats; 2 white fur coats, one made of polar bear, the other of white wolf; 6 brown fur coats; 17 woollen jackets; 119 pairs of trousers (53 white, 48 black); 14 silk nightgowns; 2 dominoes made of pink taffeta for masquerades; two Venetian outfits of black taffeta lined with blue and black satin; 39 French silk kaftans embroidered in gold and silver thread; 8 velvet kaftans (one in lilac with yellow spots); 63 waistcoats; 42 neck scarves; 82 pairs of gloves; 23 tricorn hats; 9 pairs of boots; and over 60 pairs of shoes.44

Entertaining was a costly business, too. The Sheremetev household was itself a minor court. The two main Moscow houses - Ostankino and the Kuskovo estate - were famous for their lavish entertainments, with concerts, operas, fireworks and balls for several thousand guests. There was no limit to the Sheremetevs’ hospitality. At the Fountain House, where the Russian noble custom of opening one’s doors at mealtimes was observed with unstinting generosity, there were often fifty lunch and dinner guests. The writer Ivan Krylov, who dined there frequently, recalled that there was one guest who had eaten there for years without anybody ever knowing who he was. The phrase ‘on the Sheremetev account’ entered into the language meaning ‘free of charge’.45

Nearly everything in the Sheremetev household was imported from Europe. Even basic items found abundantly in Russia (oak wood, paper, grain, mushrooms, cheese and butter) were preferable, though more expensive, if from abroad. Information about Peter Sheremetev’s foreign purchases between 1770 and 1788 has been preserved in the archives. He bought from foreign merchants in St Petersburg, or through agents especially commissioned to import goods for him. Clothes, jewels and fabrics came directly from Paris, usually from the tailor to Versailles; wines came from Bordeaux. Chocolate, tobacco, groceries, coffee, sweets and dairy products came from Amsterdam; beer, dogs and carriages from England. Here is one of Sheremetev’s shopping lists:

kaftan of downy material camisole sewn with gold and pearls

kaftan and trousers made of silk in puce plus yellow camisole

kaftan made of red cotton with blue on both sides blue silk camisole sewn with gold

kaftan and trousers in fabric with camisole in raspberry silk sewn with gold and silver kaftan and trousers in chocolate colour with green velour camisole black velvet frock coat tails in black velvet with speckles tails with 24 silver buttons 2 pique camisoles sewn with gold and silver 7 arshins* of French silk for camisoles 24 pairs of lace cuffs for nightshirts 12 arshins of black material for trousers and 3 arsbins of black velvet various ribbons 150 pounds of superior tobacco 60 pounds of ordinary tobacco 36 tins of pomade 6 dozen bottles of capillary syrup golden snuffbox 2 barrels of lentils 2 pounds of vanilla 60 pounds of truffles in oil 200 pounds of Italian macaroni 240 pounds of parmesan 150 bottles of anchovies 12 pounds of coffee from Martinique 24 pounds of black pepper 20 pounds of white pepper 6 pounds of cardamom 80 pounds of raisins 160 pounds of currants 12 bottles of English dry mustard various kinds of ham and bacon, sausages

* One arshin is 71 centimetres.

moulds for blancmange

600 bottles of white burgundy

600 bottles of red burgundy

200 bottles of sparkling champagne

100 bottles of non-sparkling champagne

100 bottles of pink champagne.46

If Boris Sheremetev was the last of the old boyars, his son Pyotr was perhaps the first, and certainly the grandest, of Russia’s European gentlemen. Nothing demonstrated more clearly that a nobleman had made the transition from Muscovite boyar to Russian aristocrat than the construction of a palace in the European style. Under its grand roof the palace brought together all the European arts. With its salon and its ballroom, it was like a theatre for members of the aristocracy to play out their airs and graces and European ways. But it was not just a building or a social space. The palace was conceived as a civilizing force. It was an oasis of European culture in the desert of the Russian peasant soil, and its architecture, its paintings and its books, its serf orchestras and operas, its landscaped parks and model farms, were meant to serve as a means of public enlightenment. In this sense the palace was a reflection of Petersburg itself.

Fountain House, like Russia, was originally made of wood, a single-storey dacha hurriedly erected by Boris Sheremetev in his final years. Pyotr rebuilt and enlarged the house in stone during the 1740s - the beginning of the craze for palace building in St Petersburg, after the Empress Elizabeth had ordered the construction of her own great Imperial residences there: the Summer Palace on the Fontanka river (1741-4), the Great Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (1749-52), and the Winter Palace (1754-62) which we know today. All these baroque masterpieces were built by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who had come to Russia at the age of sixteen. Rastrelli perfected the synthesis of the Italian and Russian baroque styles which is so characteristic of St Petersburg. That essential style - distinguished from its European counterparts by the vastness of its scale, the exuberance of its forms and the boldness of its colours - was stamped on the Fountain House, which may have been designed by Rastrelli himself; certainly the building work was overseen by Rastrelli’s main assistant at

Tsarskoe Selo, Savva Chevakinsky, a minor nobleman from Tver who had graduated from the Naval School to become Russia’s first architect of note. The classical facade was ornately decorated with lion masks and martial emblems trumpeting the glories of the Sheremetev clan, and this theme was continued on the iron railings and the gates. Behind the palace were extensive gardens, reminiscent of those at Tsarskoe Selo, with paths lined by marble statues from Italy, an English grotto, a Chinese pavilion, and, with a more playful touch, fountains to reflect the house’s name.47

Inside, the house was a typical collection of European sculpture, bas-relief, furniture and decor, reflecting a taste for expensive luxury. Wallpaper (from France) was just coming into fashion and was used, it seems, for the first time in Russia at the Fountain House.48 Pyotr Sheremetev was a follower of fashion who had the house redecorated almost every year. On the upper floor was a grand reception hall, used for balls and concerts, with a parquet floor and a high painted ceiling, lined on one side by full-length windows that looked on to the water and, on the other, by enormous mirrors with gold-leaf candelabras whose wondrous effect was to flood the room with extraordinary light. There was a chapel with valuable icons in a special wing; a parade gallery on the upper floor; a museum of curiosities; a library of nearly 20,000 books, most of them in French; a gallery of family and royal portraits painted by serf artists; and a collection of European paintings, which the Sheremetevs purchased by the score. The galleries contained works by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Vernet and Rembrandt. Today they are found in the Hermitage of the Winter Palace.49

Not content with one palace, the Sheremetevs built two more, even more expensive ones, at Kuskovo and at Ostankino, on the western outskirts of Moscow. The Kuskovo estate, to the south of Moscow, though it had a relatively simple wooden house which gave the place a rural feel, was extraordinarily ambitious in its conception. In front of the house there was a man-made lake, large enough to stage mock sea battles watched by up to 50,000 guests; a hermitage that housed several hundred paintings; pavilions and grottoes; an open amphitheatre for the summer season; and a larger inside theatre (the most advanced in Russia when it was constructed in the 1780s) with a seating capacity of 150 people and a stage deep enough for the scene

3. The Sheremetev theatre at Ostankino. View from the stage. The parterre is covered by the floor, which was used for balls

changes of French grand opera.50 Nikolai Petrovich, who took the Sheremetev opera to its highest levels, had the theatre rebuilt at Ostankino after the auditorium at Kuskovo burnt down in 1789. The Ostankino theatre was even larger than the Kuskovo one, with a seating capacity of 260 people. Its technical facilities were much more sophisticated than those at Kuskovo; it had a specially designed contraption that could transform the theatre into a ballroom by covering the parterre with a floor.


The civilization of the aristocracy was based upon the craftsmanship of millions of serfs. What Russia lacked in technology, it more than made up for in a limitless supply of cheap labour. Many of the things that make the tourist gasp at the splendour and the beauty of the Winter Palace - the endless parquet flooring and abundance of gold leaf, the ornate carpentry and bas-relief, the needlework with thread

finer than a human hair, the miniature boxes with their scenes from fairy tales set in precious stones, or the intricate mosaics in malachite - are the fruits of many years of unacknowledged labour by unknown serf artists.

Serfs were essential to the Sheremetev palaces and their arts. From the 200,000 census serfs the Sheremetevs owned, several hundred were selected every year and trained as artists, architects and sculptors, furniture makers, decorative painters, gilders, engravers, horticul-turalists, theatrical technicians, actors, singers and musicians. Many of these serfs were sent abroad or assigned to the court to learn their craft. But where skill was lacking, much could be achieved through sheer numbers. At Kuskovo there was a horn band in which, to save time on the training of players, each musician was taught to play just one note. The number of players depended on the number of different notes in a tune; their sole skill lay in playing their note at the appropriate moment.51

The Argunov family had a vital role in the development of the Russian arts. All the Argunovs were Sheremetev serfs. The architect and sculptor Fedor Argunov designed and built the main reception rooms at Fountain House. His brother Ivan Argunov studied painting with Georg Grot at the Imperial court and quickly established his reputation as one of the country’s leading portrait painters. In 1759 he painted the portrait of the future Empress Catherine the Great - a rare honour for a Russian artist at a time when the court looked to Europe for its portrait painters. Pavel Argunov, Ivan’s eldest son, was an architect who worked with Quarenghi at Ostankino and Fountain House. Yakov Argunov, Ivan’s youngest son, was well known for his 1812 portrait of the Emperor Alexander. But the most important of the three Argunov brothers was the second, Nikolai, who was indisputably one of Russia’s finest painters of the nineteenth century.52

The position of the creative serf was complicated and ambiguous. There were artists who were greatly valued and rewarded by their lords. Prized chefs and singers were the highest paid in the Sheremetev world. In the 1790s Nikolai Petrovich paid his chef an annual salary of 850 roubles (four times the amount paid to the best chefs in English houses), and his best opera singer 1,500 roubles. But other serf artists were extremely poorly paid: Ivan Argunov, who was placed in charge of all artistic matters at the Fountain House, received a mere 40 roubles a year.53 Serf artists had a higher status than the other household staff. They lived in better housing, received better food, and they were allowed to work sometimes as freelance artists on commissions from the court, the Church, or other noble families. Yet, like any serf, they were the property of their master and they could be punished just like any other serf. Such servitude was a dreadful obstacle to those artists who strived for independence. As the artistic manager of the Fountain House, Ivan Argunov was responsible for supervising the frequent changes to the palace’s interior design, for organizing masquerades and costume balls, for painting sets for theatrical productions, for firework displays, as well as countless menial household tasks. His own artistic projects were constantly abandoned so that he could perform some minor duty on his master’s summons and, if he failed in this, the count would have him fined or even flogged. Ivan died a serf. But his children would be freed. According to the will of Nikolai Petrovich, twenty-two domestic serfs, including Nikolai and Yakov Argunov, received their liberty in 1809. Nine years later Nikolai Argunov was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts, the first Russian artist of serf origin to be honoured by the state.54

One of Argunov’s most memorable portraits represents another former Sheremetev serf: Countess Praskovya Sheremeteva. Argunov painted her in a red shawl with a sparkling miniature of her husband, Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, suspended from her neck (plate 1). At the time of this portrait (in 1802) the marriage of the count to his former serf, the prima donna of his opera, was concealed from the public and the court. It would remain so until her death. In this prescient and moving portrait Argunov conveyed their tragedy. It is an extraordinary story that tells us a great deal about the obstacles confronting the creative serf and about the mores of society.

Praskovya was born to a family of serfs on the Sheremetev estate at Yukhotsk in Yaroslav province. Her father and grandfather were both blacksmiths, so the family had been given the name of Kuznetsov (‘blacksmith’), although Ivan, her father, was known by all the serfs as ‘the hunchback’. In the mid-1770s Ivan became the chief blacksmith at Kuskovo, where the family was given its own wooden house with a large allotment at the back. He sent his first two sons to train as tailors, while the third became a musician in the Sheremetev orchestra. Praskovya was already noted for her beauty and her voice, and Pyotr Sheremetev had her trained for the opera. Praskovya learned Italian and French, both of which she spoke and wrote with fluency. She was trained to sing and act and dance by the finest teachers in the land. In 1779, at the age of eleven, she first appeared on stage as the servant girl in the Russian premiere of Andre Gretry’s comic opera LAmitie a l’epreuve and, within a year, she had been given her first leading role as Belinda in Antonio Sacchini’s La Colonie.55 From that point on she nearly always sang the leading female role. Praskovya possessed a fine soprano voice, distinguished by its range and clarity. The rise of the Sheremetev opera to pre-eminence in Russia in the last two decades of the eighteenth century was intimately linked with her popularity. She was Russia’s first real superstar.

The story of Praskovya’s romance with the count could have come straight out of a comic opera. The eighteenth-century stage was filled with servant girls who had fallen for young and dashing noblemen. Praskovya herself had sung the part of the young serf girl in Anyuta, a hugely popular opera in which the humble background of the charming heroine prevents her marrying the prince. Nikolai Petrovich was not handsome or dashing, it is true. Nearly twenty years Praskovya’s senior, he was rather short and stout and suffered from poor health, which brought on melancholia and hypochondria.56 But he was a romantic, with fine artistic sensibilities, and he shared a love of music with Praskovya. Having watched her grow up as a girl on the estate, then blossom as a singer in his opera, he recognized her spiritual qualities as much as her physical beauty. Eventually he fell in love with her. ‘I felt the most tender and passionate feelings for her,’ he wrote in 1809, but I examined my heart to know whether it was seeking pleasures of the flesh or other pleasures to sweeten the mind and soul apart from beauty. Seeing it sought bodily and spiritual pleasures rather than friendship, I observed the qualities of the subject of my love for a long time, and found a virtuous mind, sincerity, love of mankind, constancy and fidelity. I found an attachment to the holy faith and a sincere respect for God. These qualities charmed me more than her beauty, for they are stronger than all external delights and they are extremely rare.57

Not that it started out that way. The young count was fond of hunting and of chasing girls; and until his father died in 1788, when he took up the running of the family estates, Nikolai Petrovich spent most of his time in these sensual pursuits. The young squire often claimed his ‘rights’ over the serf girls. During the day, while they were at work, he would go round the rooms of the girls on the estates and drop a handkerchief through the window of his chosen one. That night he would visit her and, before he left, would ask her to return his handkerchief. One summer evening in 1784 Praskovya was driving her father’s two cows down to the stream when some dogs began to chase her. The count, who was riding home after a day’s hunting, called the dogs away and approached Praskovya. He had heard that her father was intending to marry her off to a local forester. She was sixteen years of age - relatively old for a serf girl to marry. The count asked her if this was so and, when she replied that it was, he said he would forbid any such marriage. ‘You weren’t born for this! Today you are a peasant but tomorrow you will become a lady!’ The count then turned and rode away.58

It is not exactly clear when the count and Praskovya became de facto ‘man and wife’. To begin with, she was only one of several divas given special treatment by her master. He named his favourite singers and dancers after jewels - ‘The Emerald’ (Kovaleva), ‘The Garnet’ (Shlykova) and ‘The Pearl’ (Praskovya) - and showered them with expensive gifts and bonuses. These ‘girls of my house’, as Sheremetev called them in his letters to his accountant, were in constant attendance on the count. They accompanied him on trips to St Petersburg during the winter and returned with him to Kuskovo during the summer.5 Everything suggests that they were the count’s harem - not least the fact that just before his marriage to Praskovya he had the rest of them married off and gave them all dowries.60

Serf harems were extremely fashionable in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Among Russian noblemen the possession of a large harem was ironically seen as a mark of European manners and civilization. Some harems, like Sheremetev’s, were sustained by gifts and patronage; but others were maintained by the squire’s total power over his own serfs. Sergei Aksakov, in his Family Chronicle (1856), tells the story of a distant relative who established a harem

among his female serfs: anyone who tried to oppose it, including his own wife, was physically beaten or locked up.61 Examples of such behaviour abound in the memoir literature of the nineteenth century.62 The most detailed and interesting such memoir was written by Maria Neverova, a former serf from the harem of an octogenarian nobleman called Pyotr Koshkarov. Twelve to fifteen of his prettiest young serf girls were strictly segregated in a special female quarter of his house and placed under the control of the main housekeeper, a sadistic woman called Natalia Ivanovna, who was fiercely devoted to Koshkarov. Within the harem was the master’s room. When he went to bed he was joined by all his girls, who said their prayers with him and placed their mattresses around his bed. Natalia Ivanovna would undress the master and help him into bed and tell them all a fairy tale. Then she would leave them together for the night. In the morning Koshkarov would dress and say his prayers, drink a cup of tea and smoke his pipe, and then he would begin ‘the punishments’. Disobedient girls, or the ones it simply pleased him to punish, would be birched or slapped across the face; others would be made to crawl like dogs along the floor. Such sadistic violence was partly sexual ‘play’ for Koshkarov. But it also served to discipline and terrorize. One girl, accused of secret liaisons with a male servant, was locked for a whole month in the stocks. Then, before the whole serf community, the girl and her lover were flogged by several men until each collapsed from exhaustion and the two poor wretches were left as bloody heaps upon the floor. Yet alongside such brutality Koshkarov took great care to educate and improve his girls. All of them could read and write, some of them in French; Neverova even knew by heart Pushkin’s Fountain of Bakhchisarai. They were dressed in European clothes, given special places in church, and when they were replaced in the harem by younger girls they were married to the master’s hunting serfs, the elite of his male servants, and given dowries.63

By the beginning of the 1790s Praskovya had become Sheremetev’s unofficial wife. It was no longer just the pleasures of the flesh that attracted him to her but, as he said, the beauty of her mind and soul as well. For the next ten years the count would remain torn between his love for her and his own high position in society. He felt that it was morally wrong not to marry Praskovya but his aristocratic pride would not allow him to do so. Marriages to serfs were extremely rare in the status-obsessed culture of the eighteenth-century Russian aristocracy - although they would become relatively common in the nineteenth century - and unthinkable for a nobleman as rich and grand as him. It was not even clear, if he married Praskovya, whether he would have a legitimate heir.

The count’s dilemma was one faced by noblemen in numerous comic operas. Nikolai Petrovich was a man susceptible to the cult of sentimentalism that swept over Russia in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Many of the works which he produced were variations on the conflict between social convention and natural sentiment. One was a production of Voltaire’s Nanine (1749), in which the hero, Count Olban, in love with his poor ward, is forced to choose between his own romantic feelings and the customs of his class that rule against marriage to the humble girl. In the end he chooses love. The parallels in his own life were so obvious that Nikolai Petrovich gave the role of Nanine to Anna Izumudrova, even though Praskovya was his leading actress at this time.64 In the theatre the public sympathized with the unequal lovers and applauded the basic Enlightenment ideal that informed such works: that all people are equal. But it did not take the same view in real life.

Praskovya’s secret relationship with the count placed her in an almost impossible position. For the first few years of their liaison she remained his serf and lived among the other serfs at Kuskovo. But the truth could not be concealed from her fellow serfs, who became resentful of her privileged position and called her spiteful names. Her own family tried to take advantage of the situation and cursed her when she failed to make their petty requests to the count. The count, meanwhile, was entertaining thoughts of leaving her. He would tell her of his duties to his family, of how he had to marry someone equal in status, while she would try to conceal her torment, listening silently and bursting into tears only after he had gone. To protect Praskovya and himself from malicious gossip, the count built a special house, a simple wooden dacha, near the main mansion so that he could visit her in privacy. He forbade her to see anyone, or to go anywhere except to the theatre or to church: all she could do to while away the days was play the harpsichord or do needlework. But this could not prevent the gossip of the serfs from spreading to the public in Moscow: visitors would come to snoop around her house and sometimes even taunt the ‘peasant bride’.65 For the count this was reason good enough to abandon Kuskovo. Sometime during 1794-5 he moved to the new palace at Ostankino, where he could accommodate Praskovya in more luxurious and secluded apartments.

Yet even at Ostankino Prasvovya’s situation remained extremely difficult. Resented by the serfs, she was also shunned by society. It was only through her strength of character that she managed to retain her dignity. It is symbolic that her greatest roles were always those of tragic heroines. Her most celebrated performance was as Eliane in Les Manages Samnites, put on for the visit by the newly crowned Emperor Paul to Ostankino in April 1797.66 The plot of Gretry’s opera could have been the story of Praskovya’s life. In the Samnite tribe there is a law forbidding girls to show their feelings for a man. Eliane breaks the law and declares her love to the warrior Parmenon, who will not and cannot marry her. The Samnite chief condemns and bans her from the tribe, whereupon she disguises herself as a soldier and joins his army in its battle against the Romans. During the battle an unknown soldier saves the life of the Samnite chief. After the victorious Samnite army returns home, the chief orders that this unknown man be found. The soldier is revealed as Eliane. Her heroic virtues finally win over Parmenon, who, in defiance of the tribe’s conventions, declares his love for her. It turned out to be Praskovya’s final role.

Shortly before Les Manages Nikolai Petrovich had been summoned to the court by the Emperor Paul. The count was an old friend of the Emperor. The Sheremetev household on Millionaia Street, where he had grown up, was a stone’s throw away from the Winter Palace and in his childhood the count used to visit Paul, who was three years his junior and very fond of him. In 1782 he had travelled incognito with the future Emperor and his wife abroad. Sheremetev was one of the few grandees to get along with Paul, whose outbursts of rage and disciplinarian attitudes had alienated most of the nobility. On his assumption of the throne in 1796 Paul appointed Sheremetev Senior Chamberlain, the chief administrator of the court. The count had little inclination towards court service - he was drawn to Moscow and the arts - but he had no choice. He moved back to Petersburg and

Fountain House. It was at this stage that the first signs of Praskovya’s illness became clear. The symptoms were unmistakable: it was tuberculosis. Her singing career was now at an end and she was confined to the Fountain House, where a secret set of rooms, entirely segregated from the reception and official areas, was specially constructed for her use.

Praskovya’s confinement to the Fountain House was not just the result of her illness. Rumours of the serf girl living in the palace had caused a scandal in society. Not that people of good taste talked of it - but everybody knew. When he first arrived in Petersburg, it was naturally assumed that the count would take a wife. ‘Judging by the rumours,’ his friend Prince Shcherbatov wrote to him, ‘the city here has married you a dozen times, so I think we will see you with a countess, which I am extremely glad about.’67 So when this most eligible of men was found to have wasted himself on a peasant girl, the disappointment of the aristocracy was compounded by a sense of anger and betrayal. It seemed almost treasonable that the count should be living with a serf as man and wife - especially considering the fact (which had since attained a legendary status) that he had once turned down an offer by the Empress Catherine the Great to arrange a marriage between him and her granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna. The count was isolated by society. The Sheremetevs disowned him and descended into squabbles about what would happen to the legacy. The vast reception rooms of the Fountain House were devoid of guests - and the only people who remained as friends were loyal childhood comrades such as Prince Shcherbatov or artists, like the poet Derzhavin and the architect Quarenghi, who rose above the snobbish prejudices of society. The Emperor Paul also was in this category. Several times he arrived incognito at the back entrance of Fountain House - either to visit the count when he was sick or to hear Praskovya sing. In February 1797 she gave a recital in the concert hall of Fountain House attended by the Emperor and a few close friends. Paul was enchanted by Praskovya and presented her with his own personal diamond ring, which she wore for her portrait by Argunov.68

The moral support of the Emperor must have been a factor in the count’s decision to flout social conventions and to take Praskovya as his legal wife. Nikolai Petrovich had always believed that the Sheremetev family was different from other aristocratic clans, a little bit above the social norm, and this arrogance undoubtedly provoked some of the hostile views held about him in society.69 In 1801 the count gave Praskovya her liberty and then at last, on 6 November, he married her in a secret ceremony at the small village church of Povarskaya on the outskirts of Moscow. Prince Shcherbatov and a few close friends and servants were the only witnesses. The wedding was kept so discreet that the marriage certificate remained buried in the local parish archives until 1905.70

One year later Praskovya gave birth to a son, Dmitry, who was christened, like his father, in the private chapel of the Fountain House. But she was weakened by the birth and, already suffering from advanced tuberculosis, she died after three weeks of painful suffering. Six years later, still struck down by grief, the count recalled her death in his testimony to his son:

The easy pregnancy of your mother heralded a happy resolution; she brought you into the world without pain, and I was overjoyed, seeing her good health did not falter after giving birth to you. But you must know, dearest son, that barely did I feel this joy, barely had I covered your tender infant face with my first father’s kisses when severe illness struck your mother, and then her death turned the sweet feelings of my heart into bitter grief. I sent urgent prayers to God about saving her life, summoned expert doctors to bring back her health, but the first doctor inhumanely refused to help, despite my repeated requests, and then the illness worsened; others applied all their efforts, all the knowledge of their art, but could not help her. My groans and sobbing almost took me to the grave as well.71

At this moment, the most desperate time in his life, the count was abandoned by the whole of Petersburg society. In preparation for the funeral he publicized the news of Praskovya’s death and, in accordance with the Orthodox ritual, gave the times for visitors to pay their last respects before her open coffin at Fountain House.72 Few people came - so few, in fact, that the time for viewing the coffin was reduced from the customary three days to just five hours. The same small group of mourners - small enough for them all to be listed by name - were at the funeral and accompanied the coffin from the Fountain House to the Alexander Nevsky monastery, where it was buried next to the grave of the count’s father. Present were close friends of Praskovya, mainly serf performers from the opera; some domestic servants from the Fountain House who had been her only form of social contact in the final years; several of the count’s illegitimate offspring from previous serf lovers; one or two church clerks; Praskovya’s confessor; the architect Giacomo Quarenghi; and a couple of the Count’s aristocratic friends. There was no one from the court (Paul had been murdered in 1801); no one from the ancient noble families; and perhaps most shockingly of all, no one from the Sheremetev family.73 Six years later it was still a source of bitterness and sorrow to the count.

I thought I had friends who loved me, respected me and shared my pleasures, but when my wife’s death put me in an almost desperate state I found few people to comfort me and share my sorrow. I experienced cruelty. When her body was taken to be buried, few of those who called themselves my friends displayed any sensitivity to the sad event or performed the Christian duty of accompanying her coffin.74

Lost in grief, the count resigned from the court, turned his back on society and, retreating to the country, devoted his final years to religious study and charitable works in commemoration of his wife. It is tempting to conclude that there was an element of remorse and even guilt in this charity - perhaps an attempt to make amends to the enserfed ranks of people from which Praskovya came. He liberated dozens of his favourite domestic serfs, spent vast sums on building village schools and hospitals, set up trusts for the care of orphans, endowed monasteries to give the peasants food when the harvest failed, and reduced the payments levied from the serfs on his estates.75 But by far his most ambitious project was the alms house which he founded in Praskovya’s memory on the outskirts of Moscow - the Strannoprimnyi Dom, which at that time, in 1803, was by some way the largest public hospital in the Empire, with sixteen male and sixteen female wards. ‘My wife’s death,’ he wrote, ‘has shocked me to the point that the only way I know to calm my suffering spirit is to devote myself to fulfilling her behest of caring for the poor man and the sick.’76

For years the grief-stricken count would leave the Fountain House and walk incognito through the streets of Petersburg distributing money to the poor.77 He died in 1809, the richest nobleman in the whole of Russia, and no doubt the loneliest as well. In his testimony to his son he came close to rejecting root and branch the civilization embodied in his own life’s work. ‘My taste and passion for rare things,’ he wrote, was a form of vanity, like my desire to charm and surprise people’s feelings with things they had never seen or heard… I came to realize that the brilliance of such work could only satisfy for a short time and vanished instantly in the eyes of my contemporaries. It did not leave the remotest impression on the soul. What is all this splendour for?78

On Praskovya’s death the count wrote to the new Emperor, Alexander I, to inform him of his marriage and appealed to him (successfully) to recognize the rights of Dmitry as his sole legitimate heir.79 He claimed that his wife had only been the ward of the blacksmith Kuznetsov and that she was really the daughter of an ancient Polish noble family called the Kovalevskys, from the western provinces.80 The fiction was in part to distinguish Dmitry’s claim from that of all the older sons he had begotten with various serf women (there were six in all, as far as one can tell from the many claims).81 But it was also uncannily like the denouement of a comic opera - it was in fact the ending of Anyuta - where the servant girl in love with the nobleman is finally allowed to marry him, at which point it is revealed that she is, after all, of noble origins and had only been adopted by her humble parents as an orphaned little girl. The count, it seems, was attempting to tie up the ends of his own life as if it was a work of art.

Praskovya was blessed with a rare intelligence and strength of character. She was the finest singer in the Russia of her day, literate and conversant with several languages. Yet until a year before her death she remained a serf. What were her feelings? How did she respond to the prejudice she met? How did she reconcile her deep religious faith, her acceptance of the sin of sexual relations outside marriage, with her feelings for the count? It is very seldom that one gets the chance to hear the confession of a serf. But in 1863 a document was found among the papers of the recently deceased Tatyana Shlykova, the opera singer (Sheremetev’s ‘Garnet’) and Praskovya’s lifelong friend, who had raised Dmitry, as if her own son, at the Fountain House after 1803. The document, in Praskovya’s own neat hand, was written in the form of a ‘prayer’ to God, clearly in the knowledge that she was about to die. It was handed by Praskovya to her friend before her death with instructions not to let the count see it. The language of the prayer is disjointed and obscure, its mood delirious with guilt and repentance, but the intense cry for salvation is unmistakable:

… O merciful Lord, the source of all goodness and endless charity, I confess to you my sins and place before your eyes all my sinful and unlawful deeds. I have sinned, my Lord, and my illness, all these scabs upon my body, is a heavy punishment. I bear a heavy labour and my naked body is defiled. My body is defiled by sinful bonds and thoughts. I am bad. I am proud. I am ugly and lascivious. A devil is inside my body. Cry, my angel, my soul has died. It is in a coffin, lying unconscious and oppressed by bitterness, because, my Lord, my base and unlawful deeds have killed my soul. But compared with my sins the power of my Lord is very great, greater than the sand in all the seas, and from the depths of my despair I beg you, Lord Almighty, do not reject me. I am begging for your blessing. I am praying for your mercy. Punish me, my Lord, but please don’t let me die.82


The musical life of eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by the court and by small private theatres such as Sheremetev’s. Public theatres, which were long-established in the towns of western Europe, did not really feature in the cultural life of Russia until the 1780s. The aristocracy preferred their own society and they rarely attended the public theatres, which catered mainly to the clerks and traders of the towns with vaudevilles and comic operas. ‘In our day,’ one Princess Yankova recalled, ‘it was considered more refined to go [to the theatre] by the personal invitation of the host, and not to one where anyone could go in exchange for money. And who indeed among our intimate friends did not possess his own private theatre?’83

There were serf theatres on 173 estates, and serf orchestras on 300 estates, between the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.84 Besides the Sheremetevs, the Goncharovs, the Saltykovs, the Orlovs and Shepelevs, the Tolstoys and Nashchokins all had large serf troupes and separate theatre buildings that could be compared with the court theatres of Catherine the Great (the Hermitage Theatre in the Winter Palace and the Chinese Theatre at Tsarskoe Selo) from which they took their cue. Catherine set the pattern for the theatre in Russia. She herself wrote plays and comic operas; she began the fashion for the high French style in the Russian theatre; and it was she who first advanced the Enlightenment idea of the theatre as a school of public manners and sensibilities. The serf theatre played a central role on the noble estate during Catherine’s reign.

In 1762, the Empress liberated the nobility from compulsory service to the state. She wanted her nobility to resemble a European one. It was a turning point in the cultural history of the aristocracy. Relieved of their stately duties, many noblemen retired to the country and developed their estates. The decades following the emancipation of the nobility were the golden age of the pleasure palace, with galleries for art, exquisite parks and gardens, orchestras and theatres appearing for the first time in the Russian countryside. The estate became much more than just an economic unit or living space. It became an island of European culture on Russian peasant soil.

The Sheremetev serf troupe was the most important theatre of its kind, and it played a major role in the development of the Russian opera. It was ranked on a level with the court theatre in Petersburg and was considered far superior to the leading company in Moscow, whose theatre was located on the site of the Bolshoi Theatre today. The Moscow theatre’s English director, Michael Meddox, complained that Kuskovo, which did not charge admission, had deprived his theatre of an audience.85 Pyotr Sheremetev had established the serf troupe at Kuskovo in the 1760s. He was not an artistic man, but the theatre was a fashionable addition to his grand estate and it enabled him to entertain the court. In 1775 the Empress Catherine attended a performance of the French opera in the open-air theatre at Kuskovo. This encouraged Sheremetev to build a proper theatre, large enough to stage the foreign operas so beloved by the Empress, between 1777 and 1787. He left its direction to his son, Count Nikolai Petrovich, who was well acquainted with the French and Italian opera from his European travels in the early 1770s. Nikolai trained his serf performers in the disciplined techniques of the Paris Opera. Peasants were selected at an early age from his various estates and trained as musicians for the theatre orchestra or as singers for the troupe. There was also a German who taught the violin, a French singing teacher, a language instructor in Italian and French, a Russian choir master, and several foreign ballet masters, most of them from the court. The Sheremetev theatre was the first in Russia to stage ballets on their own, rather than as part of an opera, as was common in the eighteenth century. Under the direction of Nikolai Petrovich it produced over twenty French and Russian ballets, many of them receiving their first performance in Russia, long before they were put on at court.86 The Russian ballet was born at Kuskovo.

So, too, was the Russian opera. The Sheremetev theatre began the practice of performing operas in Russian, which stimulated the composition of native works. The earliest, Anyuta (premiered at Tsarskoe Selo in 1772.), was produced at Kuskovo in 1781; and Misfortune from a Carriage by Vasily Pashkevich, with a libretto by Kniazhnin (first put on at the Hermitage Theatre in 1779) was seen at Kuskovo within a year.* Before the final quarter of the eighteenth century, opera was imported from abroad. Italians made the running early on. Giovanni Ristori’s Calandro was performed by a group of Italian singers from the Dresden court in 1731. The Empress Anna, enchanted by this ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’, recruited Francesco Araia’s Venetian company to entertain her court in Petersburg, which staged La Forza dell’amore in the Winter Palace on the Empress’s birthday in 1736. Starting with Araia, Italians occupied the post of maestro di capella at the Imperial court, with just two exceptions, until the nineteenth century. Consequently, the first Russian composers were strongly influenced by the Italian style. Maxim Berezovsky, Dmitry Bortnyansky and Yevstignei Fomin were all taught by the Italians of St Petersburg, and then sent to study in Italy itself.

* Stepan Degterov, the composer of Minin and Pozharsky (1811), was a former Sheremetev serf.

Berezovsky was Mozart’s fellow student in the composition school of Padre Martini.*

The love affair between Petersburg and Venice was continued by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. It was ironically a Venetian, Catterino Cavos, who pioneered the Russian national opera. Cavos came to Petersburg in 1798 and immediately fell in love with the city, which reminded him of his native town. In 1803 the Emperor Alexander took control of the public theatres and placed Cavos in charge of the Bolshoi Kamenny, until then the only public opera house and exclusively reserved for Italian opera. Cavos built the Bolshoi Kamenny into a stronghold of Russian opera. He wrote works such as Ilya Bogatyr (1807) on heroic national themes with librettos in Russian, and his music was strongly influenced by Russian and Ukrainian folk songs. Much of Glinka’s operatic music, which the nationalists would champion as the foundation of the Russian tradition, was in fact anticipated by Cavos. The ‘national character’ of Russian music was thus first developed by a foreigner.+

The French were also instrumental in the development of a distinctive Russian musical style. Catherine the Great had invited a French opera troupe to the Petersburg court as one of her first acts on the assumption of the throne in 1762. During her reign the court opera was among the best in Europe. It staged the premiere of several major works, including Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782). The French comic opera, with its rustic village setting and its reliance on folk dialect and music, was a major influence on early Russian operas and Singspiels like Anyuta (similar to Favart’s Annette et

* Berezovsky was elected to the Accademia Philharmonica in Bologna. He returned to Russia in 1775 and, two years later, committed suicide. Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia (1983) is a commentary on exile as told through the story of Berezovsky’s life. It tells of a Russian emigre in Italy engaged in research on his doppelganger and fellow countryman, an ill-fated eighteenth-century Russian composer.

+ This was not the end of the Cavos connection with the Russian opera. Catterino’s son, the architect Alberto Cavos, redesigned the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow after it was burned down in 1853. He also built the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. His daughter, Camille Cavos, married the court architect and portrait painter Nikolai Benois, whose family had fled to St Petersburg from the French Revolution in the 1790s, and their son, Alexander Benois, established the Ballets Russes with Sergei Diaghilev.

Lubin), St Petersburg Bazaar and The Miller Magician (based on Rousseau’s Le devin du village). These operas were the staple of the Sheremetev repertoire: huge numbers of them were performed at Kuskovo and Ostankino. With their comic peasant characters and their stylized motifs from folk song, they gave voice to an emerging Russian national consciousness.

One of the earliest Russian operas was specially commissioned by the Sheremetevs for the open-air theatre at Kuskovo in 1781. Green with Jealousy, or The Boatman from Kuskovo was a panegyric to the Sheremetev palace and its park, which served as a backdrop to the opera on the stage.87 The production was a perfect illustration of the way in which the palace had itself become a kind of theatre for the acting out of Russian noble life, a huge stage set for the display of wealth and European ways.

The design and the decor of the palace and its park contained much theatricality. The high stone archway into the estate marked the entrance into another world. The landscaped gardens and the manor house were laid out, like the props upon a stage, to create a certain emotion or theatrical effect. Features such as sculptured ‘peasants’ or ‘cattle’ in the woods, or temples, lakes and grottoes in the English park, intensified this sense of being in a place of make-believe.88 Kuskovo was full of dramatic artifice. The main house was made of wood that was carved to look like stone. In the park Fedor Argunov’s extraordinary grotto pavilion was full of playfulness: its internal walls were lined with artificial shells and sea creatures; and (in a reference to the house in Petersburg) its baroque cupola was constructed in the form of a fountain.

In its everyday routines and public entertainments the palace was a kind of theatre, too. The daily ceremonies of the nobleman - the rituals connected with his morning prayer, his breakfast, lunch and dinner, his dressing and undressing, his office work and hunting, his washing and his bed - were performed from a detailed script that needed to be learned by the master and a huge supporting cast of domestic serfs. Then there were certain social functions which served as an arena for the ritualized performance of cultivated ways, the salon or the ball where the nobles demonstrated their European manners and good taste. Women put on wigs and beauty spots. They were conscious of the need to take a leading role - dancing, singing at the piano, playing the coquette. Dandies turned their social lives into performance art: every mannered pose was carefully rehearsed. They prepared themselves, like Eugene Onegin, as actors going out before an audience.

At least three hours he peruses His figure in the looking-glass.89

Etiquette demanded that they hold themselves and act in the directed form: the way they walked and stood, the way they entered or left a room, the way they sat and held their hands, the way they smiled or nodded their heads - every pose and gesture was carefully scripted. Hence in the ballroom and reception hall the walls were lined with mirrors for the beau monde to observe their performance.

The aristocracy of eighteenth-century Russia was aware of acting out its life as if upon a stage. The Russian nobleman was not born a ‘European’ and European manners were not natural to him. He had to learn such manners, as he learned a foreign language, in a ritualized form by conscious imitation of the West. Peter the Great began it all -reinventing himself and his aristocracy in the European mould. The first thing he did on his return from Europe, in 1698, was to order all the boyars to give up their kaftans for Western codes of dress. In a symbolic rupture with the past, he forbade them to wear beards, traditionally seen as a sign of holiness, and himself took the shears to reluctant courtiers.* Peter commanded his nobles to entertain after the European fashion: with his head of police he personally supervised the lists of guests at balls to be thrown by his selected hosts. The aristocracy was to learn to speak in French, to converse politely and to dance the minuet. Women, who had been confined to private quarters in the semi-Asiatic world of Muscovy, were to squeeze their bodies into corsets and grace society.

These new social manners were expounded in a manual of etiquette,

* In the Orthodox belief the beard was a mark of God and Christ (both were depicted wearing beards) and a mark of manhood (animals had whiskers). Because of Peter’s prohibition, wearing beards became a sign of ‘Russianness’ and of resistance to his reforms.

The Honourable Mirror to Youth, which Peter had adapted and embellished from the German original. It advised its readers, among other things, not to ‘spit their food’, nor to ‘use a knife to clean their teeth’, nor ‘blow their nose like a trumpet’.90 To perform these manners required a conscious mode of action very different from the unself-conscious or ‘natural’ behaviour of the Russian; at such moments the Russian was supposed to be aware of acting differently from the way he would behave as a Russian. Books of etiquette like The Honourable Mirror advised the Russian nobleman to imagine himself in the company of foreigners while, at the same time, remaining conscious of himself as a Russian. The point was not to become a European, but rather to act as one. Like an actor with an eye to his own image on the stage, the nobleman was told to observe his own behaviour from a Russian point of view. It was the only way to judge its foreignness.91

The diaries and memoirs of the aristocracy are filled with descriptions of how young nobles were instructed to act in society. ‘The point was not to be but to appear,’92 recalled one memoirist. In this society, external appearances were everything and success was dependent on a subtle code of manners displayed only by those of breeding. Fashionable dress, good comportment, modesty and mildness, refined conversation and the capacity to dance with elegance - these were the qualities of being ‘comme il fauf’. Tolstoy boiled them down to first-class French; long, well-kept and polished nails; and ‘a constant expression of elegant and contemptuous ennui’.93 Polished nails and a cultivated air of boredom were also the defining features of the fop, according to Pushkin (this was how the poet was depicted in the famous portrait by Orest Kiprensky which appears to have been painted in the Fountain House).

The European Russian had a split identity. His mind was a state divided into two. On one level he was conscious of acting out his life according to prescribed European conventions; yet on another plane his inner life was swayed by Russian customs and sensibilities. The distinction was not absolute, of course: there could be conscious forms of ‘Russianness’, as the Slavophiles would prove, just as it was possible for European habits to be so ingrained that they appeared and felt ‘natural’. But generally speaking, the European Russian was a ‘European’ on the public stage and a ‘Russian’ in those moments of his private life when, without even thinking, he did things in a way that

only Russians did. This was the legacy from his ancestors which no European influence could totally erase. It enabled a countess like Natasha to dance the Russian dance. In every Russian aristocrat, however European he may have become, there was a discreet and instinctive empathy with the customs and beliefs, the habits and the rhythms of Russian peasant life. How, indeed, could it not be so when the nobleman was born in the countryside, when he spent his childhood in the company of serfs, and lived most of his life on the estate - a tiny island of European culture in a vast Russian peasant sea?

The layout of the palace was a map of this divide in the nobleman’s emotional geography. There were the grand reception rooms, always cold and draughty, where formal European manners were the norm; and then there were the private rooms, the bedrooms and the boudoirs, the study and the parlour, the chapel and the icon room, and the corridors that ran through to the servants’ quarters, where a more informal, ‘Russian’ way of life was to be found. Sometimes this divide was consciously maintained. Count Sheremetev rearranged the rooms at the Fountain House so that all his public life was conducted on its left, or embankment, side, while the right side and the rooms that faced on to the garden at the rear were sealed off for his secret life. These private rooms were entirely different in their feel and style, with warm-coloured fabrics, wallpaper, carpets and Russian stoves, compared to the cold and stoveless public rooms with their parquet floors and marble mirrored walls.94 It was as if the count was attempting to create an intimate, domestic and more ‘Russian’ space in which to relax with Praskovya.

In 1837 the Winter Palace in St Petersburg was gutted by a fire so immense it could be seen from villages some eighty kilometres away. It began in a wooden basement room and soon spread to the upper floors, which all had wooden walls and cavities behind the stone facades. The symbolism of the fire did not go unnoticed in a city built on myths of apocalypse: the old Russia was wreaking its revenge. Every palace had a ‘wooden Russia’ underneath its grand reception rooms. From the brilliant white ballroom in the Fountain House you could exit through a concealed mirror door and descend by a staircase to the servants’ quarters and another world. Here were kitchens where the open fires raged all day, a storehouse in the yard where peasant

4. Gerard de la Barthe: A Cure Bath in Moscow, 1790

carts delivered farm produce, a carriage house, a smithy, workshops, stables, cow sheds, an aviary, a large greenhouse, a laundry and a wooden banya or bath house.95

Going to the banya was an old Russian custom. From medieval times it was popularly seen as a national institution, and not to bathe in one at least three times a week was practically taken as a proof of foreign origins. Every noble household had its own steam house. In towns and villages there was invariably a communal bath, where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another, according to the custom, with young birch leaf whips, and cooling themselves down by rolling around together in the snow. Because of its reputation as a place for sex and wild behaviour, Peter the Great attempted to stamp out the banya as a relic of medieval Rus’ and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St Petersburg. But, despite heavy taxes on it, noblemen continued to prefer the Russian bath and, by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every palace in St Petersburg had one.96

The banya was believed to have special healing powers - it was called the ‘people’s first doctor’ (vodka was the second, raw garlic the third). There were all sorts of magical beliefs associated with it in folklore.97 To go to the banya was to give both your body and your soul a good cleaning, and it was the custom to perform this purge as a part of important rituals. The banya was a place for giving birth: it was warm and clean and private, and in a series of bathing rituals that lasted forty days, it purified the mother from the bleeding of the birth which, according to the Church and the popular belief that held to the idea of Christ’s bloodless birth, symbolized the fallen state of womanhood.98 The banyans role in prenuptial rites was also to ensure the woman’s purity: the bride was washed in the banya by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals. They were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court in the final decades of the seventeenth century. According to the customs of the 1670s Tsar Alexei’s bride was washed in the banya on the day before her wedding, while a choir chanted sacred songs outside, after which she received the blessing of a priest.99 This intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals was equally pronounced at Epiphany and Shrovetide (‘Clean Monday’), when ablution and devotion were the order of the day. On these holy days it was customary for the Russian family, of whatever social class, to clean the house, washing all the floors, clearing out the cupboards, purging the establishment of any rotten or unholy foods, and then, when this was done, to visit the bath house and clean the body, too.

In the palace, the salon upstairs belonged to an entirely different, European world. Every major palace had its own salon, which served as the venue for concerts and masked balls, banquets, soirees, and sometimes even readings by the greatest Russian poets of the age. Like all palaces, the Fountain House was designed for the salon’s rituals. There was a wide sweeping driveway for the grand arrival by coach-and-four; a public vestibule for divesting cloaks and furs; a ‘parade’ staircase and large reception rooms for the guests to advertise their tasteful dress and etiquette. Women were the stars of this society. Every salon revolved around the beauty, charm and wit of a particular hostess - such as Anna Scherer in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Having been excluded from the public domain under Muscovy, women took up leading roles in the European culture of the eighteenth century. For the first time in the history of the Russian state there was even a succession of female sovereigns. Women became educated and accomplished in the European arts. By the end of the eighteenth century the educated noblewoman had become the norm in high society - so much so that the uneducated noblewoman became a common subject of satire. Recalling his experience as the French ambassador in Petersburg during the 1780s, Count Segur believed that Russian noblewomen ‘had outstripped the men in this progressive march towards improvement: you already saw a number of elegant women and girls, remarkable for their graces, speaking seven or eight languages with fluency, playing several instruments, and familiar with the most celebrated romance writers and poets of France, Italy and England’. The men, by comparison, had nothing much to say.100

Women set the manners of the salon: the kissing of the hand, the balletic genuflections and the feminized apparel of the fop were all reflections of their influence. The art of salon conversation was distinctly feminine. It meant relaxed and witty conversation which skipped imperceptibly from one topic to another, making even the most trivial thing a subject of enchanting fascination. It was also de rigueur not to talk for long on serious, ‘masculine’ topics such as politics or philosophy, as Pushkin underlined in Eugene Onegin:

The conversation sparkled bright; The hostess kept the banter light And quite devoid of affectations; Good reasoned talk was also heard, But not a trite or vulgar word, No lasting truths or dissertations -And no one’s ears were shocked a bit By all the flow of lively wit.101

Pushkin said that the point of salon conversation was to flirt (he once claimed that the point of life was to ‘make oneself attractive to women’). Pushkin’s friends testified that his conversation was just as memorable as his poetry, while his brother Lev maintained that his real genius was for flirting with women.102

The readership of literature in Pushkin’s age was by and large female. In Eugene Onegin we first meet the heroine Tatiana with a French book in her hands. Russian literary language, which developed at this time, was consciously designed by poets such as Pushkin to reflect the female taste and style of the salon. Russia barely had a national literature until Pushkin appeared on the literary scene (hence his god-like status in that society). ‘In Russia’, wrote Madame de Stael in the early 1800s, ‘literature consists of a few gentlemen.’103 By the 1830s, when Russia had a growing and vibrant literature, the persistence of attitudes like this had become a source of literary satire by patriotic writers such as Pushkin. In his story The Queen of Spades (1834), the old countess, a lady from the reign of Catherine the Great, is astonished when her grandson, whom she has requested to bring her a new novel, asks if she would like a Russian one. ‘Are there any Russian novels?’ the old lady asks.104 Yet at the time when de Stael was writing the absence of a major literary canon was a source of great embarrassment to literate Russians. In 1802 the poet and historian Nikolai Karamzin compiled a ‘Pantheon of Russian Writers’, beginning with the ancient bard Bojan and ending in the present day: it stretched to only twenty names. The literary high points of the eighteenth century - the satires of Prince Antioch Kantemir, the odes of Vasily Trediakovsky and Pavel Sumarokov, the tragedies of Yakov Kniazhnin and the comedies of Denis Fonvizin - hardly amounted to a national literature. All their works were derived from genres in the neoclassical tradition. Some were little more than translations of European works with Russian names assigned to the characters and the action transferred to Russia. Vladimir Lukin, Catherine’s court playwright, Russified a large number of French plays. So did Fonvizin in the 1760s. In the last three-quarters of the eighteenth century some 500 works of literature were published in Russia. But only seven were of Russian origin.105

The absence of a national literature was to haunt Russia’s young intelligentsia in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Karamzin explained it by the absence of those institutions (literary societies, journals, newspapers) that helped constitute European society.106 The Russian reading public was extremely small - a minuscule proportion of the total population in the eighteenth century - and publishing was dominated by the Church and the court. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for a writer to survive from his writings. Most Russian writers in the eighteenth century were obliged, as noblemen, to serve as state officials, and those like the fabulist Ivan Krylov who turned their backs on the civil service and tried to make a living from their own writings nearly always ended up extremely poor. Krylov was obliged to become a children’s tutor in the houses of the rich. He worked for some time at the Fountain House.107

But the biggest impediment to the development of a national literature was the undeveloped state of the literary language. In France or England the writer wrote largely as people spoke; but in Russia there was a huge divide between the written and the spoken forms of the language. The written language of the eighteenth century was a clumsy combination of archaic Church Slavonic, a bureaucratic jargon known as Chancery, and Latinisms imported by the Poles. There was no set grammar or orthography, and no clear definition of many abstract words. It was a bookish and obscure language, far removed from the spoken idiom of high society (which was basically French) and the plain speech of the Russian peasantry.

Such was the challenge that confronted Russia’s poets at the beginning of the nineteenth century: to create a literary language that was rooted in the spoken language of society. The essential problem was that there were no terms in Russian for the sort of thoughts and feelings that constitute the writer’s lexicon. Basic literary concepts, most of them to do with the private world of the individual, had never been developed in the Russian tongue: ‘gesture’, ‘sympathy’, ‘privacy’, ‘impulsion’ and ‘imagination’ - none could be expressed without the use of French.108 Moreover, since virtually the whole material culture of society had been imported from the West, there were, as Pushkin commented, no Russian words for basic things:

But pantaloons, gilet, and frock -These words are hardly Russian stock.109

Hence Russian writers were obliged to adapt or borrow words from the French to express the sentiments and represent the world of their readers in high society. Karamzin and his literary disciples (including the young Pushkin) aimed to ‘write as people speak’ - meaning how the people of taste and culture spoke, and in particular the ‘cultivated woman’ of polite society, who was, they realized, their ‘principal reader’.110 This ‘salon style’ derived a certain lightness and refinement from its Gallicized syntax and phraseology. But its excessive use of French loan words and neologisms also made it clumsy and verbose. And in its way it was just as far removed from the plain speech of the people as the Church Slavonic of the eighteenth century. This was the language of social pretension that Tolstoy satirized in the opening passages of War and Peace:

    Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St Petersburg, used only by the elite.111

Yet this salon style was a necessary stage in the evolution of the literary language. Until Russia had a wider reading public and more writers who were willing to use plain speech as their literary idiom, there would be no alternative. Even in the early nineteenth century, when poets such as Pushkin tried to break away from the foreign hold on the language by inventing Russian words, they needed to explain these to their salon audience. Hence in his story ‘The Peasant Girl’, Pushkin had to clarify the meaning of the Russian word ‘samobytnost” by adding in parenthesis its French equivalent, ‘individualite‘.112


In November 1779 the Hermitage court theatre in St Petersburg staged the premiere of Kniazhnin’s comic opera Misfortune from a Carriage. It was an ironic venue for this hilarious satire on the slavish imitation of foreign ways. The sumptuous theatre, recently constructed by the Italian Quarenghi in the Winter Palace, was the home of the French Opera, the most prestigious of the foreign companies. Its elite public was impeccably turned out in the latest French clothes and hairstyles. Here was precisely the sort of Gallomania that Kniazhnin’s opera blamed for the moral corruption of society. The opera tells the story of a pair of peasant lovers, Lukian and Anyuta, who are prevented from getting married by their master’s jealous bailiff, Klimenty, who desires Anyuta for himself. As serfs, the pair belong to a foolish noble couple called the Firiulins (the ‘Ninnies’) whose only aim in life is to ape the newest fashions in Paris. The Firiulins decide that they must have a new coach that is all the rage. To raise the cash they instruct Klimenty to sell some of their serfs into military service. Klimenty picks Lukian. It is only when the lovers plead with their owners in the sentimental language of the Gallicized salon that Lukian is finally released. Until then, the Firiulins had regarded them as simply Russian serfs, and hence, they assumed, entirely unaffected by such emotions as love. But everything is put into a different perspective once Lukian and Anyuta speak in French cliches.113

Kniazhnin’s satire was one of several to equate the foreign pretensions of Petersburg with the moral ruin of society. The Petersburg dandy, with his fashionable clothes, his ostentatious manners and effeminate French speech, had become an anti-model of the ‘Russian man’. He was the butt of comedies, from the character of Medor in Kantemir’s satire A Poor Lesson (1729) to Fonvizin’s Ivan in The Brigadier (1769). These comedies contained the ingredients of a national consciousness based on the antithesis of foreign and native. The decadent and artificial manners of the fop were contrasted with the simple, natural virtues of the peasantry; the material seductions of the European city with the spiritual values of the Russian countryside. Not only did the young dandy speak a foreign language to his Russian elders (whose inability to understand his Gallicisms was a source of comic misunderstanding), he also lived by a foreign moral code that threatened Russia’s patriarchal traditions. In Kheraskov’s comedy The Detester, which ran in Petersburg during the same year as Misfortune from a Carriage, the dandy figure Stovid advises a friend, who is unable to persuade a young girl to go out with him against her parents’ wishes, to ‘convince her that in Paris a child’s love for her parents is considered philistine’. The impressionable girl is won over by this argument, and Stovid then relates how he heard her tell her father: ‘“Stay away! In France fathers do not keep the company of their children, and only merchants let their hands be kissed by their daughters.” And then she spat at him.’ 114

At the heart of all these satires was the notion of the West as a negation of Russian principles. The moral lesson was simple: through their slavish imitation of Western principles, the aristocrats had lost all sense of their own nationality. Striving to make themselves at home with foreigners, they had become foreigners at home.

The nobleman who worships France - and thus despises Russia -was a stock character in all these comedies. ‘Why was I born a Russian?’ laments Diulezh in Sumarokov’s The Monsters (1750). ‘O Nature! Are you not ashamed to have given me a Russian father?’ Such was his contempt for his fellow countrymen that in a sequel to the play, Diulezh even challenges an acquaintance to a duel because he had dared to call him a ‘fellow Russian and a brother’.115 Fonvizin’s Ivan, in The Brigadier, considers France his ‘spiritual homeland’ for the simple reason that he was once taught by a French coachman. Returning from a trip to France, Ivan proclaims that ‘anyone who has ever been in Paris has the right not to count himself a Russian any more’.116

This literary type continued as a mainstay of the nineteenth-century stage. Alexander Griboedov’s Chatsky in Woe from Wit (1822-4) becomes so immersed in European culture on his travels that he cannot bear to live in Moscow on his return. He departs again for Paris, claiming there is no longer any place for him in Russian life. Chatsky was a prototype of those ‘superfluous men’ who inhabit nineteenth-century Russian literature: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin (the Hero of Our Times (1840)), Turgenev’s Rudin (1856); the root of all their troubles a sense of alienation from their native land.

There were many Chatskys in real life. Dostoevsky encountered some of them in the Russian emigre communities of Germany and France in the 1870s:

[T]here have been all sorts of people [who have emigrated] but the vast majority, if not all of them, have more or less hated Russia, some of them on moral grounds, on the conviction that ‘in Russia there’s nothing to do for such decent and intelligent people as they’, others simply hating her without any convictions - naturally, one might say, physically: for her climate, her fields, her forests, her ways, her liberated peasants, her Russian history: in short, hating her for absolutely everything.117

But it was not just the emigres - or the almost permanent encampment of wealthy Russians in the spa and sea resorts of Germany and France - who became divorced from their native land. The whole idea of a European education was to make the Russian feel as much at home in Paris as in Petersburg. This education made for a certain cosmopolitanism, which was one of Russia’s most enduring cultural strengths. It gave the educated classes a sense that they belonged to a broader European civilization, and this was the key to the supreme achievements of their national culture in the nineteenth century. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky - they all combined their Russianness with a European cultural identity. Writing from the summit of the 1870s, Tolstoy evoked the almost magic charm of this European world as seen through the eyes of Levin as he falls in love with the Shcherbatsky household in Anna Karenina (1873-6):

Strange as it may seem, Levin was in love with the whole family - especially the feminine half of it. He could not remember his mother, and his only sister was older than himself, so that in the Shcherbatskys’ house he encountered for the first time the home life of a cultured, honourable family of the old aristocracy, of which he had been deprived by the death of his own father and mother. All the members of the family, in particular the feminine half, appeared to him as though wrapped in some mysterious, poetic veil, and he not only saw no defects in them but imagined behind that poetic veil the loftiest sentiments and every possible perfection. Why the three young ladies had to speak French one day and English the next; why they had, at definite times and each in her turn, to practise the piano (the sound of which reached their brothers’ room upstairs, where the boys were studying); why those masters of French literature, music, drawing, and dancing came to the house; why at certain hours the three young ladies accompanied by Mademoiselle Linon were driven in a barouche to the Tverskoy boulevard wearing satin pelisses - long for Dolly, shorter for Natalie, and so short for Kitty that her shapely little legs in the tightly pulled-up red stockings were quite exposed; why they had to walk up and down the Tverskoy boulevard accompanied by a footman with a gold cockade in his hat - all this and much more that happened in their mysterious world he did not understand; but he knew that everything was perfect, and he was in love with the mystery of it all.118

Yet this sense of being part of Europe also made for divided souls. ‘We Russians have two fatherlands: Russia and Europe,’ Dostoevsky wrote. Alexander Herzen was a typical example of this Westernized elite. After meeting him in Paris Dostoevsky said that he did not emigrate - he was born an emigrant. The nineteenth-century writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin explained this condition of internal exile well. ‘In Russia,’ he recalled of the 1840s, ‘we existed only in a factual sense, or as it was said then, we had a “mode of life”. We went to the office, we wrote letters to our relatives, we dined in restaurants, we conversed with each other and so on. But spiritually we were all inhabitants of France.’119 For these European Russians, then, ‘Europe’ was not just a place. It was a region of the mind which they inhabited through their education, their language, their religion and their general attitudes.

They were so immersed in foreign languages that many found it challenging to speak or write their own. Princess Dashkova, a vocal advocate of Russian culture and the only female president ever of the Russian Academy of Sciences, had the finest European education. ‘We were instructed in four different languages, and spoke French fluently,’ she wrote in her memoirs, ‘but my Russian was extremely poor.’120 Count Karl Nesselrode, a Baltic German and Russia’s foreign minister from 1815 to 1856, could not write or even speak the language of the country he was meant to represent. French was the language of high society, and in high-born families the language of all personal relation-ships as well. The Volkonskys, for example, a family whose fortunes we shall follow in this book, spoke mainly French among themselves. Mademoiselle Callame, a French governess in the Volkonsky household, recalled that in nearly fifty years of service she never heard the Volkonskys speak a word of Russian, except to give orders to the domestic staff. This was true even of Maria (nee Raevskaya), the wife of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, Tsar Alexander’s favourite aide-de-camp in 1812. Despite the fact that she had been brought up in the Ukrainian provinces, where noble families were more inclined to speak their native Russian tongue, Maria could not write in Russian properly. Her letters to her husband were in French. Her spoken Russian, which she had picked up from the servants, was very primitive and full of peasant slang. It was a common paradox that the most refined and cultured Russians could speak only the peasant form of Russian which they had learnt from the servants as children.121 Here was the European culture of Tolstoy’s War and Peace - a culture in which Russians ‘spoke in that refined French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought’.122 They conversed in their native Russian as if they were Frenchmen who had only been in Russia for a year.

This neglect of the Russian language was most pronounced and persistent in the highest echelons of the aristocracy, which had always been the most Europeanized (and in more than a few cases of foreign origin). In some families children were forbidden to speak Russian except on Sundays and religious holidays. During her entire education Princess Ekaterina Golitsyn had only seven lessons in her native tongue. Her mother was contemptuous of Russian literature and thought Gogol was ‘for the coachmen’. The Golitsyn children had a French governess and, if she ever caught them speaking Russian, she would punish them by tying a red cloth in the shape of a devil’s tongue around their necks.123 Anna Lelong had a similar experience at the Girls’ Gymnasium, the best school for noble daughters in Moscow. Those girls caught speaking Russian were made to wear a red tin bell all day and stand like dunces, stripped of their white aprons, in the corner of the class; they were forced to remain standing even during meals, and received their food last.124 Other children were even more severely punished if they spoke Russian - sometimes even locked in a room.125 The attitude seems to have been that Russian, like the Devil, should be beaten out of noble children from an early age, and that even the most childish feelings had to be expressed in a foreign tongue. Hence that tiny yet revealing episode in the Oblonsky drawing-room in Anna Karenina, when Dolly’s little daughter comes into the room where her mother is in conversation with Levin:

’You are very, very absurd!’ Dolly repeated, tenderly looking into his face.

’Very well, then, let it be as though we had not spoken a word about it. What is it, Tanya?’ she said in French to the little girl who had come in. ‘Where’s my spade, Mama?’

’I am speaking French, and you must answer in French.’ The little girl tried to, but she could not remember the French for spade; her mother prompted her, and then told her in French where to look. All this made a disagreeable impression on levin.

Everything in Dolly’s house and children struck him now as by no means so charming as before.

’Why does she talk French with the children?’ he thought. ‘It’s so affected and unnatural. And the children sense it. Learning French and unlearning sincerity,’ he thought to himself, unaware that Dolly had reasoned over and over again in the same fashion and yet had decided that, even at the cost of some loss of sincerity, the children must be taught French in that way.126

Such attitudes continued to be found in high-born families throughout the nineteenth century, and they shaped the education of some of Russia’s most creative minds. As a boy in the 1820s, Tolstoy was instructed by the kind of German tutor he portrayed so memorably in Childhood (1852). His aunt taught him French. But apart from a few of Pushkin’s poems, Tolstoy had no contact with Russian literature before he went to school at the age of nine. Turgenev was taught by French and German tutors, but he only learned to read and write in Russian thanks to the efforts of his father’s serf valet. He saw his first Russian book at the age of eight, after breaking into a locked room that contained his father’s Russian library. Even at the turn of the twentieth century there were Russian noblemen who barely spoke the language of their fellow countrymen. Vladimir Nabokov described his ‘Uncle Ruka’, an eccentric diplomat, as talking in a fastidious combination of French, English and Italian, all of which he spoke with vastly more ease than he did his native tongue. When he resorted to Russian, it was invariably to misuse or garble some extremely idiomatic or even folksy expression, as when he would say at table with a sudden sigh: ‘Je suis triste et seul comme une bylinka v pole (as lonesome as a “grass blade in the field”).’127

Uncle Ruka died in Paris at the end of 1916, the last of the old-world Russian aristocracy.

The Orthodox religion was equally remote from the consciousness of the Westernized elites. For religion played but a minor role in the upbringing of the aristocracy. Noble families, immersed in the secular culture of the French Enlightenment, thought little of the need to educate their children in the Russian faith, although by force of habit

and conformity they continued to baptize them in the state religion and observed its rituals. The Voltairean attitudes that ruled in many noble households brought a greater sense of religious tolerance - which was just as well since, with all their foreign tutors and their peasant serfs, the palace could be home to several different faiths. Orthodoxy, in so far as it was practised mainly in the servants’ quarters, came at the bottom of the social pile - below the Protestantism of the German tutors and the Catholicism of the French. This pecking order was reinforced by the fact that there was no Russian Bible - only a Psalter and a Book of Hours - until the 1870s. Herzen read the New Testament in German and went to church in Moscow with his Lutheran mother. But it was only when he was fifteen (and then only because it was an entry requirement for Moscow University) that his father hired a Russian priest to instruct him in the Orthodox religion. Tolstoy received no formal religious education as a child, while Turgenev’s mother was openly contemptuous of Orthodoxy, which she saw as the religion of the common people, and instead of the usual prayers at meals substituted a daily reading from a French translation of Thomas a Kempis. This tendency to patronize Orthodoxy as a ‘peasant faith’ was commonplace among the aristocracy. Herzen told the story of a dinner-party host who, when asked if he was serving Lenten dishes out of personal conviction, replied that it was ‘simply and solely for the sake of the servants’.128

Set against this domination by Europe, satires such as Kniazhnin’s and Kheraskov’s began to define the Russian character in terms which were distinct from the values of the West. These writers set up the antithesis between foreign artifice and native truth, European reason and the Russian heart or ‘soul’, that would form the basis of the national narrative in the nineteenth century. At the heart of this discourse was the old romantic ideal of the native soil - of a pure ‘organic’ Russia uncorrupted by civilization. St Petersburg was all deceit and vanity, a narcissistic dandy constantly observing its own reflection in the Neva river. The real Russia was in the provinces, a place without pretensions or alien conventions, where simple ‘Russian’ virtues were preserved.

For some this was a question of the contrast between Moscow and St Petersburg. The roots of the Slavophile movement go back to the late eighteenth century and the defence of the old gentry culture of Moscow and its provinces against the Europeanizing Petrine state. The landed gentry, it was said, were closer to the customs and religion of the people than Peter’s courtiers and career bureaucrats. The writer Mikhail Shcherbatov was the most vocal spokesman of the old nobility. In his Journey to the Land of Ophir (1784) he portrays a northern country ruled by the king Perega from his newly founded city of Peregrab. Like St Petersburg, the intended object of Shcherbatov’s satire, Peregrab is cosmopolitan and sophisticated but it is alien to the national traditions of Ophir, whose people still adhere to the moral virtues of Kvamo (read: Moscow), their former capital. At last the people of Peregrab rise up, the city falls and Ophir is returned to Kvamo’s simple way of life. Such idyllic views of the unspoilt past were commonplace in Rousseau’s age. Even Karamzin, a Westernist who was certainly not nostalgic for the old nobility, idealized the ‘virtuous and simple life of our ancestors’, when ‘the Russians were real Russians’, in his story Natalia (1792).

For others, Russia’s virtues were preserved in the traditions of the countryside. Fonvizin found them in the Christian principles of the ‘old thinker’ Starodum, the homespun village mystic in his satire The Minor (1782). ‘Have a heart, have a soul, and you’ll always be a man,’ advises Starodum. ‘Everything else is fashion.’129 The idea of a truly Russian self that had been concealed and suppressed by the alien conventions of Petersburg society became commonplace. It had its origins in the sentimental cult of rural innocence - a cult epitomized by Karamzin’s tearful tale of Poor Liza (1792). Karamzin tells the story of a simple flower girl who is deceived in love by a dandy from St Petersburg and kills herself by drowning in a lake. The tale contained all the elements of this vision of a new community: the myth of the wholesome Russian village from which Liza is ejected by her poverty; the corruption of the city with its foreign ways; the tragic and true-hearted Russian heroine; and the universal ideal of marriage based on love.

Poets like Pyotr Viazemsky idealized the village as a haven of natural simplicity:

Here there are no chains,

Here there is no tyranny of vanity.130

Writers like Nikolai Novikov pointed to the village as the place where native customs had survived. The Russian was at home, he behaved more like himself, when he lived close to the land.131 For Nikolai Lvov, poet, engineer, architect, folklorist, the main Russian trait was spontaneity.

In foreign lands all goes to a plan, Words are weighed, steps measured. But among us Russians there is fiery life, Our speech is thunder and sparks fly.132

Lvov contrasted the convention-ridden life of the European Russians with the spontaneous behaviour and creativity of the Russian peasantry. He called on Russia’s poets to liberate themselves from the constraints of the classical canon and find inspiration from the free rhythms of folk song and verse.

Central to this cult of simple peasant life was the notion of its moral purity. The radical satirist Alexander Radishchev was the first to argue that the nation’s highest virtues were contained in the culture of its humblest folk. His proof for this was teeth. In his Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790) Radishchev recalls an encounter with a group of village women dressed up in their traditional costumes for a holiday - their broad smiles ‘revealing rows of teeth whiter than the purest ivory’. The ladies of the aristocracy, who all had rotten teeth, would ‘be driven mad by teeth like these’:

Come hither, my dear Moscow and Petersburg ladies, look at their teeth and learn from them how they keep them white. They have no dentists. They do not scrape their teeth with brushes and powders every day. Stand mouth to mouth with any one of them you choose: not one of them will infect your lungs with her breath. While yours, yes yours may infect them with the germ - of a disease… I am afraid to say what disease.133


In eighteenth-century panoramas of St Petersburg the open sky and space connect the city with a broader universe. Straight lines stretch to the distant horizon, beyond which, we are asked to imagine, lies the rest of Europe within easy reach. The projection of Russia into Europe had always been the raison d’etre of St Petersburg. It was not simply Peter’s ‘window on to Europe’ - as Pushkin once described the capital - but an open doorway through which Europe entered Russia and the Russians made their entry to the world.

For Russia’s educated elites Europe was more than a tourist destination. It was a cultural ideal, the spiritual source of their civilization, and to travel to it was to make a pilgrimage. Peter the Great was the model of the Russian traveller to the West in search of self-improvement and enlightenment. For the next two hundred years Russians followed Peter’s journey to the West. The sons of the Petersburg nobility went to universities in Paris, Gottingen and Leipzig. The ‘Gottingen soul’ assigned by Pushkin to Lensky, the fashionable student in Eugene Onegin, became a sort of emblem of the European outlook shared by generations of Russian noblemen:

Vladimir Lensky, just returning From Gottingen with soulful yearning, Was in his prime - a handsome youth And poet filled with Kantian truth. From misty Germany our squire Had carried back the fruits of art: A freedom-loving, noble heart, A spirit strange but full of fire, An always bold, impassioned speech, And raven locks of shoulder reach.134

All the pioneers of Russia’s arts learned their crafts abroad: Tred-iakovsky, the country’s first real poet, was sent by Peter to study at the University of Paris; Andrei Matveev and Mikhail Avramov, its first secular painters, were sent to France and Holland; and, as we have seen, Berezovsky, Fomin and Bortnyansky learned their music in Italy. Mikhail Lomonosov, the nation’s first outstanding scholar and scientist, studied chemistry at Marburg, before returning to help found Moscow University, which today bears his name. Pushkin once quipped that the polymath ‘was our first university’.135

The Grand Tour was a vital rite of passage for the aristocracy. The emancipation of the nobles from obligatory state service in 1762 had unleashed Russia’s more ambitious and curious gentry on the world. Gaggles of Golitsyns and Gagarins went to Paris; Dashkovs and Demi-dovs arrived in droves in Vienna. But England was their favourite destination. It was the homeland of a prosperous and independent landed gentry, which the Russian nobles aspired to become. Their Anglomania was sometimes so extreme that it bordered on the denial of their own identity. ‘Why was I not born an Englishwoman?’ lamented Princess Dashkova, a frequent visitor to and admirer of England, who had sung its praises in her celebrated Journey of a Russian Noblewoman (177 5).136Russians flocked to the sceptred isle to educate themselves in the latest fashions and the designs of its fine houses, to acquire new techniques of estate management and landscape gardening, and to buy objets d’art, carriages and wigs and all the other necessary accoutrements of a civilized lifestyle.

The travel literature that accompanied this traffic played a vital role in shaping Russia’s self-perception vis-a-vis the West. Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller (1791-1801), the most influential of this genre, educated a whole generation in the values and ideas of European life. Karamzin left St Petersburg in May 1789. Then, travelling first through Poland, Germany and Switzerland, he entered revolutionary France in the following spring before returning via London to the Russian capital. Karamzin provided his readers with a panorama of the ideal European world. He described its monuments, its theatres and museums, celebrated writers and philosophers. His ‘Europe’ was a mythic realm which later travellers, whose first encounter with Europe had been through reading his work, would look for but never really find. The historian Mikhail Pogodin took the Letters with him when he went to Paris in 1839. Even the poet Mayakovsky responded to that city, in 1925, through the sentimental prism of Karamzin’s work.137 The Letters taught the Russians how to act and feel as cultivated Europeans. In his letters Karamzin portrayed himself as perfectly at ease, and accepted as an equal, in Europe’s intellectual circles. He described relaxed conversations with Kant and Herder. He showed himself approaching Europe’s cultural monuments, not as some barbaric Scythian, but as an urbane and cultivated man who was already familiar with them from books and paintings. The overall effect was to present Europe as something close to Russia, a civilization of which it was a part.

Yet Karamzin also managed to express the insecurity which all the Russians felt in their European self-identity. Everywhere he went he was constantly reminded of Russia’s backward image in the European mind. On the road to Konigsberg two Germans were ‘amazed to learn that a Russian could speak foreign languages’. In Leipzig the professors talked about the Russians as ‘barbarians’ and could not believe that they had any writers of their own. The French were even worse, combining a condescension towards the Russians as students of their culture with contempt for them as ‘monkeys who know only how to imitate’.138 At times such remarks provoked Karamzin to exaggerated claims for Russia’s achievements. As he travelled around Europe, however, he came to the conclusion that its people had a way of thinking that was different from his own. Even after a century of reform, it seemed to him that perhaps the Russians had been Euro-peanized in no more than a superficial way. They had adopted Western manners and conventions. But European values and sensibilities had yet to penetrate their mental world.139

Karamzin’s doubts were shared by many educated Russians as they struggled to define their ‘Europeanness’. In 1836 the philosopher Chaadaev was declared a lunatic for writing in despair that, while the Russians might be able to imitate the West, they were unable to internalize its essential moral values and ideas. Yet, as Herzen pointed out, Chaadaev had only said what every thinking Russian had felt for many years. These complex feelings of insecurity, of envy and resentment, towards Europe, still define the Russian national consciousness.

Five years before Karamzin set off on his travels, the writer and civil servant Denis Fonvizin had travelled with his wife through Germany and Italy. It was not their first trip to Europe. In 1777-8 they had toured the spas of Germany and France looking for a cure for Fonvi-zin’s migraines. On this occasion it was a stroke, which paralysed his arm and made him slur his speech, that compelled the writer to go abroad. Fonvizin took notes and wrote letters home with his observations on foreign life and the character of various nationalities. These Travel Letters were the first attempt by a Russian writer to define Russia’s spiritual traditions as different from, and indeed superior to, those of the West.

Fonvizin did not set out as a nationalist. Fluent in several languages, he cut the figure of a St Petersburg cosmopolitan, with his fashionable dress and powdered wig. He was renowned for the sharpness of his tongue and his clever wit, which he put to good effect in his many satires against Gallomania. But if he was repelled by the trivialities and false conventions of high society, this had less to do with xenophobia than with his own feelings of social alienation and superiority. The truth was that Fonvizin was a bit of a misanthrope. Whether in Paris or St Petersburg, he nursed a contempt for the whole beau monde - a world in which he moved as a senior bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry. In his early letters from abroad Fonvizin depicted all the nations as the same. ‘I have seen,’ he wrote from France in 1778, ‘that in any land there is much more bad than good, that people are people everywhere, that intelligence is rare and idiots abound in every country, and that, in a word, our country is no worse than any other.’ This stance of cultural relativism rested on the idea of enlightenment as the basis of an international community. ‘Worthwhile people,’ Fonvizin concluded, ‘form a single nation among themselves, regardless of the country they come from.’140 In the course of his second trip, however, Fonvizin developed a more jaundiced view of Europe. He denounced its achievements in no uncertain terms. France, the symbol of ‘the West’, was Fonvizin’s main target, perhaps in part because he was not received in the salons of its capital.141 Paris was ‘a city of moral decadence’, of ‘lies and hypocrisy’, which could only corrupt the young Russian who came to it in search of that crucial ‘comme il faut’. It was a city of material greed, where ‘money is the God’; a city of vanity and external appearances, where ‘superficial manners and conventions count for everything’ and ‘friendship, honesty and spiritual values have no significance’. The French made a great deal of their ‘liberty’ but the actual condition of the ordinary Frenchman was one of slavery - for ‘a poor man cannot feed himself except by slave labour, so that “liberty” is just an empty name’. The French philosophers were fraudulent because they did not practise what they preached. In sum, he concluded, Europe was a long way from the ideal the Russians imagined it to be, and it was time to acknowledge that ‘life with us is better’:

If any of my youthful countrymen with good sense should become indignant over the abuses and confusions prevalent in Russia and in his heart begin to feel estranged from her, then there is no better method of converting him to the love he should feel for his Fatherland than to send him to France as quickly as possible.142

The terms Fonvizin used to characterize Europe appeared with extraordinary regularity in subsequent Russian travel writing. ‘Corrupt’ and ‘decadent’, ‘false’ and ‘superficial’, ‘materialist’ and ‘egotistical’ - such was the Russian lexicon for Europe right up to the time of Herzen’s Letters from France and Italy (1847-52) and Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862), a travel sketch which echoed Fonvizin’s. In this tradition the journey was merely an excuse for a philosophical discourse on the cultural relationship between Europe and Russia. The constant repetition of these epithets signalled the emergence of an ideology - a distinctive view of Russia in the mirror of the West. The idea that the West was morally corrupt was echoed by virtually every Russian writer from Pushkin to the Slavophiles. Herzen and Dostoevsky placed it at the heart of their messianic visions of Russia’s destiny to save the fallen West. The idea that the French were false and shallow became commonplace. For Karamzin, Paris was a capital of ‘superficial splendour and enchantment’; for Gogol it had ‘only a surface glitter that concealed an abyss of fraud and greed’.143 Viazemsky portrayed France as a ‘land of deception and falsity’. The censor and litterateur Alexander Nikitenko wrote of the French: ‘They seem to have been born with a love of theatre and a bent to create it - they were created for showmanship. Emotions, principles, honour, revolution are all treated as play, as games.’144 Dostoevsky agreed that the French had a unique talent for ’simulating emotions and feelings for nature’.145 Even Turgenev, an ardent Westernizer, described them in A Nest of Gentlefolk (1859) as civilized and charming yet without any spiritual depth or intellectual seriousness. The persistence of these cultural stereotypes illustrates the mythical proportions of ‘Europe’ in the Russian consciousness. This imaginary ‘Europe’ had more to do with the needs of defining ‘Russia’ than with the West itself. The idea of ‘Russia’ could not exist without ‘the West’ (just as ‘the West’ could not exist without ‘the Orient’). ‘We needed Europe as an ideal, a reproach, an example,’ Herzen wrote. ‘If she were not these things we would have to invent her.’146

The Russians were uncertain about their place in Europe (they still are), and that ambivalence is a vital key to their cultural history and identity. Living on the margins of the continent, they have never been quite sure if their destiny is there. Are they of the West or of the East? Peter made his people face the West and imitate its ways. From that moment on the nation’s progress was meant to be measured by a foreign principle; all its moral and aesthetic norms, its tastes and social manners, were defined by it. The educated classes looked at Russia through European eyes, denouncing their own history as ‘barbarous’ and ‘dark’. They sought Europe’s approval and wanted to be recognized as equals by it. For this reason they took a certain pride in Peter’s achievements. His Imperial state, greater and more mighty than any other European empire, promised to lead Russia to modernity. But at the same time they were painfully aware that Russia was not ‘Europe’ - it constantly fell short of that mythical ideal - and perhaps could never become part of it. Within Europe, the Russians lived with an inferiority complex. ‘Our attitude to Europe and the Europeans,’ Herzen wrote in the 1850s, ‘is still that of provincials towards the dwellers in a capital: we are servile and apologetic, take every difference for a defect, blush for our peculiarities and try to hide them.’147 Yet rejection by the West could equally engender feelings of resentment and superiority to it. If Russia could not become a part of ‘Europe’, it should take more pride in being ‘different’. In this nationalist mythology the ‘Russian soul’ was awarded a higher moral value than the material achievements of the West. It had a Christian mission to save the world.


Russia’s idealization of Europe was profoundly shaken by the French Revolution of 1789. The Jacobin reign of terror undermined Russia’s belief in Europe as a force of progress and enlightenment. ‘The “Age of Enlightenment”! I do not recognize you in blood and flames,’ Karamzin wrote with bitterness in 1795.148 It seemed to him, as to many of his outlook, that a wave of murder and destruction would ‘lay waste to Europe’, destroying the ‘centre of all art and science and the precious treasures of the human mind’.149 Perhaps history was a futile cycle, not a path of progress after all, in which ‘truth and error, virtue and vice, are constantly repeated’? Was it possible that ‘the human species had advanced so far, only to be compelled to fall back again into the depths of barbarism, like Sisyphus’ stone’?150

Karamzin’s anguish was widely shared by the European Russians of his age. Brought up to believe that only good things came from France, his compatriots could now see only bad. Their worst fears appeared to be confirmed by the horror stories which they heard from the emigres who had fled Paris for St Petersburg. The Russian government broke off relations with revolutionary France. Politically the once Francophile nobility became Francophobes, as ‘the French’ became a byword for inconstancy and godlessness, especially in Moscow and the provinces, where Russian political customs and attitudes had always mixed with foreign convention. In Petersburg, where the aristocracy was totally immersed in French culture, the reaction against France was more gradual and complicated - there were many liberal noblemen and patriots (like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace) who retained their pro-French and Napoleonic views even after Russia went to war with France in 1805. But even in the capital there was a conscious effort by the aristocracy to liberate themselves from the intellectual empire of the French. The use of Gallicisms became frowned upon in the salons of St Petersburg. Russian noblemen gave up Cliquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, haute cuisine for cabbage soup.

In this search for a new life on ‘Russian principles’ the Enlightenment ideal of a universal culture was finally abandoned for the national way. ‘Let us Russians be Russians, not copies of the French’, wrote Princess Dashkova; ‘let us remain patriots and retain the character of our ancestors’.151 Karamzin, too, renounced ‘humanity’ for ‘nationality’. Before the French Revolution he had held the view that ‘the main thing is to be, not Slavs, but men. What is good for Man, cannot be bad for the Russians; all that Englishmen or Germans have invented for the benefit of mankind belongs to me as well, because I am a man’.152 But by 1802 Karamzin was calling on his fellow writers to embrace the Russian language and ‘become themselves’:

Our language is capable not only of lofty eloquence, of sonorous descriptive poetry, but also of tender simplicity, of sounds of feeling and sensibility. It is richer in harmonies than French; it lends itself better to effusions of the soul… Man and nation may begin with imitation but in time they must become themselves to have the right to say: ‘I exist morally’.’153

Here was the rallying cry of a new nationalism that flourished in the era of 1812.

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