Overleaf: St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, during the late nineteenth century
’There it is at last, this famous town,’ Napoleon remarked as he surveyed Moscow from the Sparrow Hills. The city’s palaces and golden cupolas, sparkling in the sun, were spread out spaciously across the plain, and on the far side he could just make out a long black column of people coiling out of the distant gates. ‘Are they abandoning all this?’ the Emperor exclaimed. ‘It isn’t possible!’1
The French found Moscow empty, like a ‘dying queenless hive’.2 The mass exodus had begun in August, when news of the defeat at Smolensk had arrived in Moscow, and it reached fever pitch after Borodino, when Kutuzov fell back to the outskirts of the city and finally decided to abandon it. The rich (like the Rostovs in War and Peace) packed up their belongings and left by horse and cart for their country houses. The poor walked, carrying their children, their chickens crated on to carts, their cows following behind. One witness recalled that the roads as far as Riazan were blocked by refugees.3
As Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin palace, incendiaries set fire to the trading stalls by its eastern wall. The fires had been ordered by Count Rostopchin, the city’s governor, as an act of sacrifice to rob the French of supplies and force them to retreat. Soon the whole of Moscow was engulfed in flames. The novelist Stendhal (serving in the Quartermaster’s section of Napoleon’s staff) described it as a ‘pyramid of copper coloured smoke’ whose ‘base is on the earth and whose spire rises towards the heavens’. By the third day, the Kremlin was surrounded by the flames, and Napoleon was forced to flee. He fought his way ‘through a wall of fire’, according to Segur, ‘to the crash of collapsing floors and ceilings, falling rafters and melting iron roofs’. All the time he expressed his outrage, and his admiration, at the Russian sacrifice. ‘What a people! They are Scythians! What resoluteness! The barbarians!’4 By the time the fires were burnt out, on 20 September 1812, four-fifths of the city had been destroyed. Re-entering Moscow, Segur ‘found only a few scattered houses standing in the midst of the ruins’.
This stricken giant, scorched and blackened, exhaled a horrible stench. Heaps of ashes and an occasional section of a wall or a broken column alone indicated the existence of streets. In the poorer quarters scattered groups of men and women, their clothes almost burnt off them, were wandering around like ghosts.5
All the city’s churches and palaces were looted, if not already burned. Libraries and other national treasures were lost to the flames. In a fit of anger Napoleon instructed that the Kremlin be mined as an act of retribution for the fires that had robbed him of his greatest victory. The Arsenal was blown up and part of the medieval walls were destroyed. But the Kremlin churches all survived. Three weeks later, the first snow fell. Winter had come early and unexpectedly. Unable to survive without supplies in the ruined city, the French were forced to retreat.
Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace that every Russian felt Moscow to be a mother. There was a sense in which it was the nation’s ‘home’, even for members of the most Europeanized elite of Petersburg. Moscow was a symbol of the old Russia, the place where ancient Russian customs were preserved. Its history went back to the twelfth century, when Prince Dolgoruky of Suzdal built a rough log fortress on the site of the Kremlin. At that time Kiev was the capital of Christian Rus’. But the Mongol occupation of the next two centuries crushed the Kievan states, leaving Moscow’s princes to consolidate their wealth and power by collaboration with the khans. Moscow’s rise was symbolized by the building of the Kremlin, which took shape in the fourteenth century, as impressive palaces and white-stoned cathedrals with golden onion domes began to appear within the fortress walls. Eventually, as the khanates weakened, Moscow led the nation’s liberation, starting with the battle of Kulikovo Field against the Golden Horde in 1380 and ending in the defeat of the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s, when it finally emerged as the capital of Russia’s cultural life.
To mark that final victory Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square. St Basil’s symbolized the triumphant restoration of the Orthodox traditions of Byzantium. Originally named the Intercession of the Virgin (to mark the fact that the Tatar capital of Kazan had been captured on that sacred feast day in 1552), the cathedral signalled Moscow’s role as the capital of a religious crusade against the Tatar nomads of the steppe. This Imperial mission was set out in the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome, a doctrine which St Basil’s set in stone. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow saw itself as the last surviving centre of the Orthodox religion, as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, and as such the saviour of mankind. Moscow’s princes claimed the imperial title ‘Tsar’ (a Russian derivation of ‘Caesar’); they added the double-headed eagle of the Byzantine emperors to the figure of St George on their coat of arms. The backing of the Church was fundamental to Moscow’s emergence as the mother city of Holy Rus’. In 1326 the Metropolitan had moved the centre of the Russian Church from Vladimir to Moscow and, from that point on, Moscow’s enemies were branded the enemies of Christ. The union of Moscow and Orthodoxy was cemented in the churches and the monasteries, with their icons and their frescoes, which remain the glory of medieval Russian art. According to folklore, Moscow boasted ‘forty times forty’ churches. The actual number was a little over 200 (until the fires of 1812), but Napoleon, it seems, was sufficiently impressed by his hilltop view of the city’s golden domes to repeat the mythic figure in a letter to the Empress Josephine.
By razing the medieval city to the ground, the fires carried out what Russia’s eighteenth-century rulers always hoped for. Peter the Great had hated Moscow: it embodied the archaic in his realm. Moscow was a centre of the Old Believers - devout adherents of the Russian Orthodox rituals which had been observed before the Nikonian Church reforms of the 1650s (most contentiously, an alteration to the number of fingers used in making the sign of the cross) had brought them into line with those of the Greek Orthodox liturgy. The Old Believers clung to their ancient rituals as the embodiment of their religious faith. They saw the reforms as a heresy, a sign that the Devil had gained a hold on the Russian Church and state, and many of them fled to the remote regions of the north, or even killed themselves in mass suicides, in the belief that the world would end. The Old Believers pinned their faith on Moscow’s messianic destiny as the Third Rome, the last true seat of Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople. They explained its capture by the Turks as a divine punishment for the reunion of the Greek Orthodox Church with Rome at the Council of Florence in 1439. Fearful and mistrustful of the West, or any innovation from the outside world, they lived in tightly knit patriarchal communities which, like medieval Moscow, were inward-looking and enclosed. They regarded Peter as the Antichrist - his city on the Baltic as a kingdom of the Devil and apocalypse. Many of the darker legends about Petersburg had their origins in the Old Belief.
With the building of St Petersburg, Moscow’s fortunes had declined rapidly. Its population had fallen, as half the city’s craftsmen, traders and nobility were forced to resettle in the Baltic capital. Moscow had been reduced to a provincial capital (Pushkin compared it to a faded dowager queen in purple mourning clothes obliged to curtsy before a new king) and until the middle of the nineteenth century it retained the character of a sleepy hollow. With its little wooden houses and narrow winding lanes, its mansions with their stables and enclosed courtyards, where cows and sheep were allowed to roam, Moscow had a distinct rural feel. It was called ‘the big village’ - a nickname it has retained to this day. As Catherine the Great saw it, though, Moscow was ‘the seat of sloth’ whose vast size encouraged the nobility to live in ‘idleness and luxury’. It was ‘full of symbols of fanaticism, churches, miraculous icons, priests and convents, side by side with thieves and brigands’,6 the very incarnation of the old medieval Russia which the Empress wished to sweep away. When in the early 1770s the Black Death swept through the city and several thousand houses needed to be burned, she thought to clear the lot. Plans were drawn up to rebuild the city in the European image of St Petersburg - a ring of squares and plazas linked by tree-lined boulevards, quays and pleasure parks. The architects Vasily Bazhenov and Matvei Kazakov persuaded Catherine to replace the greater part of the medieval Kremlin with new classical structures. Some demolition did take place, but the project was postponed for lack of cash.
After 1812 the centre of the city was finally rebuilt in the European style. The fire had cleared space for the expansive principles of classi-cism and, as Colonel Skalozub assures us in Griboedov’s drama Woe from Wit, it ‘improved the look of Moscow quite a lot’.7 Red Square was opened up through the removal of the old trading stalls that had given it the feeling of an enclosed market rather than an open public spac e. Three new avenues were laid out in a fan shape from the square. Twisting little lanes were flattened to make room for broad straight boulevards. The first of several planned ensembles, Theatre Square, with the Bolshoi Theatre at its centre, was completed in 1824, followed shortly after by the Boulevard and Garden Rings (still today the city’s main ring roads) and the Alexander Gardens laid out by the Kremlin’s western walls.8 Private money poured into the building of the city, which became a standard of the national revival after 1812, and it was not long before the central avenues were lined by graceful mansions and Palladian palaces. Every noble family felt instinctively the need to reconstruct their old ancestral home, so Moscow was rebuilt with fantastic speed. Tolstoy compared what happened to the way that ants return to their ruined heap, dragging off bits of rubbish, eggs and corpses, and reconstructing their old life with renewed energy. It showed that there was ‘something indestructible’ which, though intangible, was ‘the real strength of the colony’.9
Yet in all this frenzy of construction there was never slavish imitation of the West. Moscow always mixed the European with its own distinctive style. Classical facades were softened by the use of warm pastel colours, large round bulky forms and Russian ornament. The overall effect was to radiate an easygoing charm that was entirely absent from the cold austerity and imperial grandeur of St Petersburg. Petersburg’s style was dictated by the court and by European fashion; Moscow’s was set more by the Russian provinces. The Moscow aristocracy was really an extension of the provincial gentry. It spent the summer in the country and came to Moscow in October for the winter season of balls and banquets, returning to its estates in the countryside as soon as the roads were passable following the thaw. Moscow was located in the centre of the Russian lands, an economic crossroads between north and south, Europe and the Asiatic steppe. As its empire had expanded, Moscow had absorbed these diverse influences and imposed its own style on the provinces. Kazan was typical. The old khanate capital took on the image of its Russian conqueror - its kremlin, its monasteries, its houses and its churches all built in the Moscow style. Moscow, in this sense, was the cultural capital of the Russian provinces.
But oriental customs and colours and motifs were also to be seen on Moscow’s streets. The poet Konstantin Batiushkov saw the city as a ‘bizarre mix’ of East and West. It was an ‘amazing and incomprehensible confluence of superstition and magnificence, ignorance and enlightenment’, which led him to the disturbing conclusion that Peter had ‘accomplished a great deal - but he did not finish anything’.10 In the image of Moscow one could still make out the influence of Genghiz Khan. This Asiatic element was a source of magic and barbarity. ‘If there were minarets instead of churches’, wrote the critic Belinsky, ‘one might be in one of those wild oriental cities that Scheherazade used to tell about.’11 The Marquis de Custine considered that Moscow’s cupolas were like ‘oriental domes that transport you to Delhi, while donjon-keeps and turrets bring you back to Europe at the time of the crusades’.12 Napoleon thought its churches were like mosques.13
Moscow’s semi-oriental nature was given full expression in the so-called neo-Byzantine style of architecture that dominated its reconstruction in the 1830s and 1840s. The term is misleading, for the architecture was in fact quite eclectic, mixing elements of the neo-Gothic and medieval Russian styles with Byzantine and classical motifs. The term was fostered by Nicholas I and his ideologists to signal Russia’s cultural turning away from the West in the wake of the suppression of the Decembrists. The Tsar sympathized with a Slavophile world view that associated Russia with the eastern traditions of Byzantium. Churches like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, with its onion domes and belltowers, its tent roofs and kokoshnik pediments, combined elements of the Greek-Byzantine and medieval Russian styles. With buildings such as this, Moscow’s rebirth was soon mythologized as a national renaissance, a conscious rejection of the European culture of St Petersburg in favour of a return to the ancient native traditions of Muscovy.
The opposition between Moscow and St Petersburg was fundamental to the ideological arguments between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles about Russia’s cultural destiny. The Westernizers held up Petersburg as the model of their Europe-led ideas for Russia, while the Slavophiles idealized Moscow as a centre of the ancient Russian way of life. The Slavophile ideal of a spiritual community united by homegrown Russian customs seemed to be embodied in the medieval contours of the town - the Kremlin walls so firmly rooted to the ground that they seemed to grow from it. The city’s tightly knit communities, its homely character, symbolized the familial spirit of old Rus’.
Moscow’s mythic self-image was all about its ‘Russian character’.
The Moscow way of life was more provincial, it was closer to the habits of the Russian people than the gentry’s way of life in Petersburg. Moscow’s palaces resembled small estates. They were spacious and expansive, built for entertaining on a massive scale, with large central courtyards that functioned as farms, with pens for cows and poultry, vegetable allotments, sheds for storing produce brought in from the country for the winter months and, in some of the larger mansions, like Zinaida Volkonsky’s on the Tver Boulevard, extensive greenhouses for growing exotic winter fruits.* The poet Batiushkov has left a good description of the old-world country atmosphere in a Moscow noble house:
The mansion is built around a big courtyard which is full of litter and firewood; behind there is a garden with vegetables, and at the front a large porch with rails, as they used to have at the country houses of our grandfathers. Entering the house, you will come across the doorman playing cards - he plays from morning until night. The rooms are without wallpaper - the walls are covered in large portraits, on one side with heads of Russian Tsars, and on the other Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes on a large silver dish, and a naked Cleopatra with a snake: marvellous creations by the hand of a domestic servant. We see the table laid with bowls of cabbage soup, sweet pea porridge, baked mushrooms and bottles of kvas. The host is dressed in a sheepskin coat, the hostess in a coat; on the right side of the table are the parish priest, the parish teacher and the Holy Fool; on the left - a crowd of children, the old witchdoctor, a French madame and a German tutor.14
The interior of the Moscow palace was arranged for private comfort rather than public display. ‘All the rooms are furnished with rich carpets,’ remarked Batiushkov, ‘with mirrors, chandeliers, armchairs and divans - everything designed to make one feel at home.’15 The Moscow mansion was cosy and domestic, almost bourgeois, by comparison with the more formal palaces of Petersburg. The Empire style, which in Petersburg was principally expressed in a grandiose public architecture, manifested itself in Moscow in the opulence of the orna-
* The ground floor of the Volkonsky (Beloselsky) house was later taken over by the Eliseev shop, the ‘Russian Fortnum and Mason’, which remains there today.
merit and furnishing of private noble space.16 The Moscow mansion of the Sheremetev clan, the Staraya Vozdizhenka, had no formal reception rooms as such. The living rooms were cluttered with furniture, plants and ornaments, and the walls all covered with family portraits and icons with their votive lamps.17 This was where the Muscovite love of comfort met the Victorian aesthetics of the European middle class. The Sheremetevs called their Moscow house the ‘family refuge’. Owning as they did their most ancient lands in the Moscow region (including the estate that is occupied today by the city’s main airport at Sheremetevo), they thought of the old city as their home. ‘All our family traditions, all our historical connections to Russia, drew me back to Moscow,’ recalled Sergei Sheremetev, the grandson of Nikolai Petrovich, ‘and every time I returned to Moscow I felt spiritually renewed.’18
Sergei’s feeling was a common one. Many Russians felt that Moscow was a place where they could be more ‘Russian’, more at ease with themselves. Here was a city that reflected their spontaneous and relaxed character. One that shared their love of the good life. ‘Petersburg is our head, Moscow is our heart’, went a Russian proverb. Gogol drew the contrast in another way:
Petersburg is an accurate, punctual kind of person, a perfect German, and he looks at everything in a calculated way. Before he gives a party, he will look into his accounts. Moscow is a Russian nobleman, and if he’s going to have a good time, he’ll go all the way until he drops, and he won’t worry about how much he’s got in his pockets. Moscow does not like halfway measures… Petersburg likes to tease Moscow for his awkwardness and lack of taste. Moscow reproaches Petersburg because he doesn’t know how to speak Russian… Russia needs Moscow, Petersburg needs Russia.19
The idea of Moscow as a ‘Russian’ city developed from the notion of St Petersburg as a foreign civilization. The literary conception of St Petersburg as an alien and an artificial place became commonplace after 1812, as the romantic yearning for a more authentically national way of life seized hold of the literary imagination. But the foreign character of Petersburg had always been a part of its popular mythology. From the moment it was built, traditionalists attacked it for its European ways. Among the Old Believers, the Cossacks and the peasants, rumours spread that Peter was a German, and not the real Tsar, largely on account of the foreigners he had brought to Petersburg and the attendant evils of European dress, tobacco, and the shaving-off of beards. By the middle of the eighteenth century there was a thriving underground mythology of tales and rumours about Petersburg. Stories abounded of the ghost of Peter walking through the streets, of weird mythic beasts hopping over churches, or of all-destroying floods washing up the skeletons of those who had perished in the building of the town.20 This oral genre later nourished in the literary salons of St Petersburg and Moscow, where writers such as Pushkin and Odoev-sky used it as the basis of their own ghost stories from the capital. And so the myth of Petersburg took shape - an unreal city that was alien to Russia, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, a kingdom of oppression and apocalypse.
Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman - subtitled a ‘Tale of Petersburg’ - was the founding text of this literary myth. The poem was inspired by Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great which stands on Senate Square as the city’s genus loci. Like the poem that would make it so famous, the statue symbolized the dangerous underpinning of the capital’s imperial grandeur - on the one hand trumpeting Peter’s dazzling achievements in surpassing nature and, on the other, leaving it unclear to what extent he actually controlled the horse. Was he about to fall or soar up into space? Was he urging his mount on or trying to restrain it in the face of some catastrophe? The horseman seemed to teeter on the edge of an abyss, held back only by the taut reins of his steed.21 The huge granite rock - so wild in its appearance - on which the statue stood, was itself an emblem of the tragic struggle between man and nature. The city hewn in stone is never wholly safe from the incursions of the watery chaos from which it was claimed, and this sense of living on the edge was wonderfully conveyed by Falconet.
In 1909 a technical commission inspected the statue. Engineers bored holes into the bronze. They had to pump out 1,500 litres of water from inside.22 Without protective dikes, flooding was a constant threat to Petersburg. Pushkin set his poem in 1824, the year of one
10. Etienne-Maurice Falconet: The Bronze Horseman. Monument to Peter the Great, 1782
such flood. The Bronze Horseman tells the story of the flood and a sad clerk called Eugene, who finds the house of his beloved, Parasha, washed away. Driven to the verge of madness, Eugene roams the city and, coming across Falconet’s horseman, castigates the Tsar for having built a city at the mercy of the flood. The statue stirs in anger and chases the poor clerk, who runs all night in terror of its thundering brass hooves. Eugene’s body is finally washed up on the little island where Parasha’s house was taken by the flood. The poem can be read in many different ways - as a clash between the state and the individual, progress and tradition, the city and nature, the autocracy and the people - and it was the standard by which all those later writers, from Gogol to Bely, debated the significance of Russia’s destiny:
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden? Where leapest thou? and where, on whom Wilt plant thy hoof?23
For the Slavophiles, Peter’s city was a symbol of the catastrophic rupture with Holy Rus’; for the Westerners, a progressive sign of Russia’s Europeanization. For some, it was the triumph of a civilization, the conquering of nature by order and reason; for others, it was a monstrous artifice, an empire built on human suffering that was tragically doomed.
More than anyone, it was Gogol who fixed the city’s image as an alienating place. As a young ‘Ukrainian writer’ struggling to survive in the capital, Gogol lived among the petty clerks whose literary alter egos fill his Tales of Petersburg (1842). These are sad and lonely figures, crushed by the city’s oppressive atmosphere and doomed, for the most part, to die untimely deaths, like Pushkin’s Evgeny in The Bronze Horseman. Gogol’s Petersburg is a city of illusions and deceit. ‘Oh have no faith in this Nevsky Prospekt… It is all deception, a dream, nothing is what it seems!’ he warns in ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, the first of the Tales of Petersburg. ‘Nevsky Prospekt deceives at all hours of the day, but the worst time of all is night, when the entire city becomes a welter of noise and flashing lights… and when the Devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light.’24 Hidden in the shadows of this glittering parade, Gogol’s ‘little men’ scuttle between their offices in vast ministerial buildings and the equally soulless tenement apartments in which they live - alone, of course. Gogol’s Petersburg is a ghostly image of the real city, a nightmare vision of a world deprived of grace, where only human greed and vanity can thrive. In ‘The Overcoat’, the last of the Tales, the humble civil servant Akaky Akakievich is forced to scrimp and save to replace his threadbare overcoat that has long become the joke of his fashionable seniors in the ministry. The new coat restores his sense of pride and individual worth: it becomes a symbol of his acceptance by his peers, who throw a champagne party in celebration. But he is robbed of the prized fur while walking home across a dark and ‘endless square’. His efforts to retrieve it by appealing to an important Personage’ come to naught. He becomes ill and dies, a tragic figure crushed by a cold and uncaring society. But Akaky’s ghost walks the streets of Petersburg. One night it haunts the Important Personage and robs him of his coat.
Dostoevsky said that the whole of Russian literature ‘came out from underneath Gogol’s “Overcoat”’,25 His own early tales, especially The Double (1846), are very Gogolesque, although in later works, such as Crime and Punishment (1866), he adds an important psychological dimension to the capital’s topography. Dostoevsky creates his unreal city through the diseased mental world of his characters, so that it becomes ‘fantastically real’.26 In the minds of dreamers like Raskol-nikov, fantasy becomes reality, and life becomes a game in which any action, even murder, can be justified. Here is a place where human feelings are perverted and destroyed by human isolation and rationality. Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is full of dreamers, a fact which he explained by the city’s cramped conditions, by the frequent mists and fog which came in from the sea, by the icy rain and drizzle which made people sick. This was a place of fevered dreams and weird hallucinations, of nerves worn thin by the sleepless White Nights of the northern summer when dreamland and the real world became blurred. Dostoevsky himself was not immune to such flights of fantasy. In 1861 he recalled a ‘vision of the Neva’ which he himself had had in the early 1840s and included in the short story ‘A Weak Heart’ (1841). Dostoevsky claimed that it was the precise moment of his artistic self-discovery:
I remember once on a wintry January evening I was hurrying home from the Vyborg side… When I reached the Neva, I stopped for a minute and threw a piercing glance along the river into the smoky, frostily dim distance, which had suddenly turned crimson with the last purple of a sunset… Frozen steam poured from tired horses, from running people. The taut air quivered at the slightest sound, and columns of smoke like giants rose from all the roofs on both embankments and rushed upward through the cold sky, twining and untwining on the way, so that it seemed new buildings were rising above the old ones, a new city was forming in the air… It seemed as if all that world, with all its inhabitants, strong and weak, with all their habitations, the refuges of the poor, or the gilded palaces for the comfort of the powerful of this world, was at that twilight hour like a fantastic vision of fairyland, like a dream which in its turn would vanish and pass away like vapour in the dark blue sky.27
Moscow, by contrast, was a place of down-to-earth pursuits. With the rise of Petersburg in the eighteenth century, Moscow became the centre of the ‘good life’ for the nobility. Pushkin said that it attracted ‘rascals and eccentrics’ - independent noblemen who ‘shunned the court and lived without a care, devoting all their passions to harmless scandal-mongering and hospitality’.28 Moscow was a capital without a court -and without a court to occupy themselves, its grandees gave themselves to sensual amusement. Moscow was famous for its restaurants and clubs, its sumptuous balls and entertainments - in sum, for everything that Petersburg was not. Petersburgers despised Moscow for its sinful idleness. ‘Moscow is an abyss of hedonistic pleasure’, wrote Nikolai Turgenev, a poet in the circle of the Decembrists. ‘All its people do is eat, drink, sleep, go to parties and play cards - and all at the expense of the suffering of their serfs.’29 Yet no one could deny its Russian character. ‘Moscow may be wild and dissolute’, wrote F. F. Vigel, ‘but there is no point in trying to change it. For there is a part of Moscow in us all, and no Russian can expunge Moscow.’30
Moscow was the food capital of Russia. No other city could boast such a range of restaurants. There were high-class dining clubs like the Angleterre, where Levin and Oblonsky have their famous lunch in the opening scene of Anna Karenina; business restaurants like the Slavic Bazaar, where merchants made huge deals; fashionable late-night places like the Strelna and the Yar (which Pushkin often mentions in his poetry); coffee houses where women were allowed unaccompanied; eating houses (karchevnye) for the common people; and taverns so diverse that every taste was catered for. There were old-fashioned taverns, like the Testov, where parents took their children for a treat; taverns that were famous for their specialities, like Egorov’s pancakes or Lopashev’s pies; taverns that kept singing birds where hunters liked to meet; and taverns that were well known as places of revelry.” Moscow was so rich in its restaurant culture that it even taught the
French a thing or two. When Napoleon’s soldiers came to Moscow, they needed to eat fast. ‘Bistro!’ they would say, the Russian word for ‘fast’.
Moscow was a city of gourmands. It had a rich folklore of the fabulously fat, upon which its own self-image, as the capital of plenty, had been fed. In the early nineteenth century Count Rakhmanov, for example, spent his whole inheritance - said to be in excess of 2 million roubles (Ј200,000) - in just eight years of gastronomy. He fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water. And he had his favourite fish, a particularly rare specimen which could be caught only in the Sosna river 300 kilometres away, delivered live to Moscow every day. Count Musin-Pushkin was just as profligate. He would fatten his calves with cream and keep them in cradles like newborn babies. His fowl were fed on walnuts and given wine to drink to enhance the flavour of their meat. Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. Count Stroganov (an early nineteenth-century ancestor of the one who gave his name to the beef dish) hosted famous ‘Roman dinners’, where his guests lay on couches and were served by naked boys. Caviare and fruits and herring cheeks were typical hors-d’oeuvres. Next came salmon lips, bear paws and roast lynx. These were followed by cuckoos roasted in honey, halibut liver and burbot roe; oysters, poultry and fresh figs; salted peaches and pineapples. After the guests had eaten they would go into the banya and start to drink, eating caviare to build up a real thirst.32
Moscow banquets were more notable for their fantastic size than for the refinement of their food. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. The menu for one banquet shows that guests were served up to 10 different kinds of soup, 24 pies and meat dishes, 64 small dishes (such as grouse or teal), several kinds of roast (lamb, beef, goat, hare and suckling pig), 12 different salads, 28 assorted tarts, cheeses and fresh fruits. When the guests had had enough they retired to a separate room for sweets and sugared fruit.33 In this society, where prestige meant promotion at court, princes vied with one another in their hospitality. Vast sums were paid for the best serf cooks. Count Sheremetev (Nikolai Petrovich) paid an annual salary of 850 roubles to his senior chef-a huge sum for a serf.34 Cooks were regarded by their masters as the equals of artists, and no expense was spared to have them trained abroad. Princes attained fame for the dishes first created by their cooks. The illustrious Prince Potemkin, the most famous of them all, was well known for serving up whole pigs at his sumptuous feasts: all the innards were removed through the mouth, the carcass stuffed with sausage, and the whole beast cooked in pastry made with wine.35
It was not only courtiers who ate so well. Provincial families were just as prone to the consuming passion and, with little else to do on the estate, eating was, if nothing else, a way to pass the time. Lunch would last for several hours. First there were the zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), the cold and then the hot, followed by the soups, the pies, the poultry dishes, the roast, and finally the fruit and sweets. By then it was nearly time for tea. There were gentry households where the whole day was (in Pushkin’s words) ‘a chain of meals’. The Brodnit-skys, a middling gentry family in the Ukraine, were typical. When they got up they had coffee and bread rolls, followed by mid-morning zakuski, a full six-course lunch, sugared loaves and jams in the afternoon with tea, then poppy seeds and nuts, coffee, rolls and biscuits as an early evening snack. After that would come the evening meal -mainly cold cuts from lunch - then tea before they went to bed.36
Sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of seventeenth-century Muscovy had been plain and simple - the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats and domestic fowl, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot. Everything was cooked in hempseed oil, which made all the dishes taste much the same. Even the Tsar’s table was relatively poor. The menu at the wedding feast in 1670 of Tsar Alexei consisted of roast swan with saffron, grouse with lemon, goose giblets, chicken with sour cabbage and (for the men) kvas.37It was not until the eighteenth century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines and liqueurs. Even the zakuski were a copy of the European custom of hors-d’oeuvres. Although seen as the most ‘Russian’ part of any meal (caviare, sturgeon, vodka and all that), the ‘classic zakuski’. such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early nineteenth century. The same was true of Russian cooking as a whole. The ‘traditional specialities’ that were served in Moscow’s restaurants in the nineteenth century - national dishes such as kulebeika (a pie stuffed with several layers of fish or meat), carp with sour cream, or turkey with plum sauce - were in fact quite recent inventions: most of them created to appeal to the new taste for old-Russian fashions after 1812. The first Russian cookery book was published as late as 1816, in which it was stated that it was no longer possible to give a full description of Russian cooking: all one could do was try to re-create the ancient recipes from people’s memories.38 Lenten dishes were the only traditional foods that had not yet been supplanted by the European culinary fashions of the eighteenth century. Muscovy had a rich tradition of fish and mushroom dishes, vegetable soups such as borshcbt (beetroot) and shchi (cabbage), recipes for Easter breads and pies, and dozens of varieties of porridges and pancakes (bliny) which were eaten during Lent.
Not just nourishment, foodstuffs had an iconic part to play in Russian popular culture. Bread, for example, had a religious and symbolic importance that went far beyond its role in daily life; its significance in Russian culture was far greater than it was in the other Christian cultures of the West. The word for bread (khleb) was used in Russian for ‘wealth’, ‘health’ and ‘hospitality’. Bread played a central role in peasant rituals. Bird-shaped breads were baked in spring to symbolize the return of the migratory flocks. In the peasant wedding a special loaf was baked to symbolize the newly-weds’ fertility. At peasant funerals it was the custom to make a ladder out of dough and put it in the grave beside the corpse to help the soul’s ascent. For bread was a sacred link between this world and the next. It was connected with the folklore of the stove, where the spirits of the dead were said to live.39 Bread was often given as a gift, most importantly in the customary offering of bread and salt to visitors. All foodstuffs were used as gifts, in fact, and this was a custom shared by all classes. The eccentric Moscow nobleman Alexander Porius-Vizapursky (even his name was eccentric) made a habit of sending oysters to important dignitaries - and sometimes to people he didn’t even know (Prince Dolgorukov once received a parcel of a dozen oysters with a letter from Porius-Vizapursky saying he had called on him to make his acquaintance but had found him not at home). Wildfowl was also a common gift. The poet Derzhavin was well known for sending sandpipers. Once he sent an enormous pie to Princess Bebolsina. When it was cut open it revealed a dwarf who presented her with a truffle pie and a bunch of forget-me-nots.40 Festive gifts of food were also given to the people by the Tsars. To celebrate victory in the war against the Turks in 1791, Catherine the Great ordered two food mountains to be placed on Palace Square. Each was topped by fountains spouting wine. On her signal from the Winter Palace the general populace was allowed to feast on the cornucopia.41
Food also featured as a symbol in nineteenth-century literature. Memories of food were often summoned up in nostalgic scenes of childhood life. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilich concludes on his deathbed that the only happy moments in his life had been when he was a child: all these memories he associates with food - particularly, for some reason, prunes. Gastronomic images were frequently used to paint a picture of the good old life. Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm is filled with lyrical descriptions of Ukrainian gluttony; Goncharov’s Oblomov is always gorging himself on old-fashioned Russian foods - a symbol of his sloth; and then (no doubt in a send-up of this literary tradition) there is Feers, the ancient butler in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), who still recalls the cherries sent to Moscow from the estate more than fifty years before (‘And the dried cherries in those days were soft, juicy, sweet, tasty… They knew how to do it then… they had a recipe…’).42 Moscow itself had a mythical stature in this folklore about food. Ferapont, the butler in Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901), tells Andrei, who yearns to go to Moscow and eat at Testov’s or some other busy restaurant:
The other day at the office, a contractor was telling me about some business men who were eating pancakes in Moscow. One of them ate forty pancakes and died. It was either forty or fifty, I can’t remember exactly.43
Bingeing of this sort was often represented as a symbol of the Russian character. Gogol, in particular, used food metaphors obsessively. He often made the link between expansive natures and expansive waists. The Cossack hero of one of his short stories, Taras Bulba (whose name means ‘potato’ in Ukrainian), is the incarnation of this appetite for life. He welcomes his sons home from the seminary in Kiev with instructions to his wife to prepare a ‘proper meal’:
We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year-old mead! And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavouring, but pure foaming vodka that hisses and bubbles like mad!44
It was the test of a ‘true Russian’ to be able to drink vodka by the bucketful. Since the sixteenth century, when the art of distillation spread to Russia from the West, the custom had been to indulge in mammoth drinking bouts on festive occasions and holidays. Drinking was a social thing - it was never done alone - and it was bound up with communal celebrations. This meant that, contrary to the mythic image, the overall consumption of vodka was not that great (in the year there were 200 fasting days when drinking was prohibited). But when the Russian drank, he drank an awful lot. (It was the same with food - fasting and then feasting - a frequent alternation that perhaps bore some relationship to the people’s character and history: long periods of humility and patience interspersed with bouts of joyous freedom and violent release.) The drinking feats of Russian legend were awe-inspiring. At wedding feasts and banquets there were sometimes over fifty toasts - the guests downing the glass in one gulp - until the last man standing became the ‘vodka Tsar’.
Deaths from drinking claimed a thousand people every year in Russia between 1841 and 1859.45 Yet it would be wrong to conclude from this that the Russian drinking problem was an endemic or an ancient one. In fact, it was only in the modern period - starting in the late eighteenth century - that Russian levels of alcohol consumption became a threat to national life; and even then the problem was essentially fabricated by the gentry and the state.* The traditional
* Until the second half of the eighteenth century the annual consumption of spirits was around 2 litres tor every adult male but by the end of Catherine’s reign in the 1790s it had risen to around 5 litres (R. E. F. Smith and D. Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia (Cambridge, 1984), p. 218).
drinking pattern had been set in a context where alcohol was scarce -a rare commodity that could only be afforded on a holiday. But in the latter part of the eighteenth century the gentry distillers who were licensed by the state to manufacture vodka increased their production many times. With the 1775 reform of local government, which transferred the control of the police to gentry magistrates, there was little state control of the booming retail business, legal or illegal, which made vodka traders very rich. Suddenly, there were vodka shops in every town, taverns all over the place, and, other than religious proscription, no more limitations on drinking. The government was conscious of the social costs of increased drunkenness, and the Church was constantly raising the issue, campaigning noisily against the drinking shops. The problem was to modify a drinking pattern that had been formed over many centuries - the habit of overdrinking whenever the Russians drank - or else to reduce the supply of drink. But since the state derived at least a quarter of its total revenues from vodka sales, and the aristocracy had vested interests in the trade, there was little pressure for reform. It was not until the First World War that the state came down on the side of sobriety. But the ban on vodka which it introduced only made the drinking problem worse (for the Russians turned to paraffin and illegal moonshines that were far more dangerous), while the loss of tax revenues from vodka sales was a major contribution to the downfall of the regime in 1917.
’The difference between Moscow and St Petersburg is this. In Moscow, if you have not seen a friend for a few days, you think there’s something wrong and send out someone to check that he’s not dead. But in Peter, you may not be seen for a year or two and no one will miss you.’46Muscovites have always taken comfort from the image of their city as a warm and friendly ‘home’. Compared with the cold and formal Petersburg, Moscow prided itself on its relaxed ‘Russian’ customs and its hospitality. Without a court, or much to occupy them in their offices, Muscovites had little else to do but visit all their friends and do the rounds of parties, feasts and balls. The doors of Moscow’s mansions were always open and the Petersburg custom of set times for visits was regarded as absurd. Guests were expected to show up at any time, and on certain days, such as namedays, birthdays or religious holidays, or when someone had arrived from the country or abroad, houses were all come and go.
Moscow was famous for its lavish entertaining. It was not unusual for entire noble fortunes to be spent on it. At its most spectacular, the city’s bon vivants showed an appetite for gaiety that was unparalleled. Count Yushkov gave eighteen balls in the space of twenty days at his Moscow palace during 1801. Nearby factories had to be closed down because of the hazard of the fireworks, and the music was so loud that the nuns at the neighbouring Novodeviche convent could not sleep -instead of even trying, they gave in to the fun and climbed up on the walls to watch the spectacle.47 The Sheremetevs were even more renowned for their sumptuous house parties. Several times a year crowds of up to 50,000 guests would make their way from Moscow out to Kuskovo for grand entertainments in the park. The roads would be jammed with carriages and the line would stretch back fifteen miles to the centre of Moscow. Entering the park the guests were met by notices inviting them to make themselves at home and amuse themselves in any way they liked. Choirs sang amid the trees, horn bands played, and the guests were entertained by exotic animals, by operas in the garden and the indoor theatre, by firework displays and sons et lumieres. On the lake before the house there was even a mock battle between ships.48
Less grand houses could be just as generous in their hospitality, sometimes spending all their wealth on social gatherings. The Khi-trovos were neither rich nor important, but in nineteenth-century Moscow they were known by everyone for their frequent balls and soirees, which, though not lavish, were always very lively and enjoyable - they were ‘typical Moscow’.49 Another famous hostess in the Moscow style was Maria Rimsky-Korsakov, who became famous for her breakfast parties where Senator Arkady Bashilov, in apron and cap, would serve all the dishes he had cooked himself.50 Moscow was full of such eccentric hosts - none more so than the super-wealthy playboy Count Prokopy Demidov, whose love of entertaining was notorious. He liked to dress his servants in a special livery, one-half silk and one-half hempen cloth, a stocking on one foot and a bast shoe on the other, to underline their peasant origin. When he entertained he had naked servants take the place of statues in his garden and his house.51
The Russian custom of opening one’s doors at lunch and dinner time for anyone of rank was an important part of this culture of hospitality. There would be up to fifty guests at every meal in the Fountain House of the Sheremetevs, the grandest of the aristocracy in Petersburg. But in Moscow numbers such as this would be entertained by relatively minor gentry households, while at the grandest houses, such as Stroganov’s or Razumovsky’s, the numbers were significantly higher. Count Razumovsky was renowned for his open tables. He did not know the names of many of his guests, but since he was extremely keen on chess he was glad always to have new partners to play with. There was an army officer who was so good at chess that he stayed at the count’s house for six weeks - even though no one knew his name.52 Generally it was the custom that, after you had dined at a house once, you would be expected to return there on a regular basis: not to come again would be to give offence. The custom was so widespread that it was quite possible for a nobleman to dine out every day, yet never go so frequently to any house as to outstay his welcome. Grandees like the Sheremetevs, Osterman-Tolstoy and Stroganov acquired permanent hangers-on. General Kostenetsky dined at Count Osterman-Tolstoy’s for twenty years - it became such a habit that the count would send his carriage for the general half an hour before every meal. Count Stroganov had a guest whose name he did not learn in nearly thirty years. When one day the guest did not appear, the count assumed he must be dead. It turned out that the man had indeed died. He had been run over on his way to lunch.53
As with food and drink, the Russians knew no limits when it came to partying. Sergei Volkonsky, the grandson of the Decembrist, recalled nameday parties that dragged on until dawn.
First there was the tea-drinking, then the supper. The sun set, the moon came up - then there were the games, the gossip and the cards. At around three o’clock the first guests began to leave, but since their drivers were also given alcoholic refreshments, going home that early could be dangerous. I once travelled home from such a nameday party and my carriage toppled over.54
The cool light of morning was the enemy of any Moscow host, and there were some who would cover all the windows and stop all the clocks so as not to drive their guests away.55 From October to the spring, when provincial families with a daughter to marry off would take a house in Moscow for the social season, there were balls and banquets almost every night. Moscow balls were larger than those in Petersburg. They were national rather than society events, and the atmosphere was rather down to earth, with old provincial ladies in their dowdy dresses as much in evidence as dashing young hussars. Yet the champagne flowed all night - and the first guests never left before the morning light. This Moscow lived a nocturnal way of life, its body clock reset to the social whirl. Crawling into bed in the early morning, revellers would breakfast around noon, take their lunch at three or even later (Pushkin made a point of eating lunch at eight or nine in the evening) and go out at ten p.m. Muscovites adored this late-night life - it perfectly expressed their love of living without bounds. In 1850, the government in Petersburg imposed a ban on the playing of live music after four a.m. In Moscow the reaction was practically a fronde - a Muscovite rebellion against the capital. Led by Prince Golitsyn, famous for his all-night masquerades, the noblemen of Moscow petitioned Petersburg for a repeal of the ban. There was a lengthy correspondence, letters to the press, and, when their petitions were finally turned down, the Muscovites decided to ignore the rules and party on.56
In 1874 the Academy of Arts organized a show in remembrance of the artist Viktor Gartman, who had died the previous year, aged thirty-nine. Today Gartman is best known as a friend of Musorgsky, the painter at the centre of his famous piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). Musorgsky was struck down by grief at Gartman’s death, and the drinking bouts which led to his own death are dated from this time. He paid his own tribute to his artist friend by composing Pictures after visiting the show.57 Gartman’s ‘neo-Russian’ style had a huge influence on the music of Musorgsky - and indeed on all the trends of nineteenth-century art that took their inspiration from Moscow’s cultural world. His architectural drawings were based on years of
11. Viktor Gartman: design for the Kiev city gate
study of medieval ornament. The most famous was his fanciful design for the Kiev city gate, shaped in the form of a warrior’s helmet with a kokosbnik arch, which Musorgsky celebrated in the final picture of the piano suite. One critic called the Gartman design ‘marble towels and brick embroideries’.58
Moscow was the centre (and the central subject) of this renewal of interest in the ancient Russian arts. The artist Fedor Solntsev played a crucial role, making detailed drawings of the weapons, saddlery, church plate and wall hangings in the Kremlin Armoury, and unearthing many other treasures in the provinces. Between 1846 and 1853 Solntsev published six large volumes of his illustrations called Antiquities of the Russian State. They provided artists and designers with a grammar of historic ornament which they could incorporate in their own work. Solntsev himself used these ancient motifs in his restoration of the Kremlin’s Terem Palace - an authentic reproduction of the seventeenth-century Moscow style, complete with ceramic-tiled stoves, ornate vaulted ceilings with kokoshnik arches and red leather walls and chairs (plate 6). Solntsev’s work was carried on by the Stroganov Art School, founded in Moscow in 1860, which encouraged artists to work from ancient Russian church and folk designs. Many of the leading ‘Russian style’ designers who took the world by storm in the 1900s - Vashkov, Ovchinnikov and the Moscow masters of the Faberge workshop - had graduated from the Stroganov School.59 In contrast to the rigid European classicism of the St Petersburg Academy, the atmosphere in Moscow was rather more relaxed and open to the exploration of Russian themes and styles. Artists flocked to Moscow to study its icons, its lubok painting and Palekh lacquer work. Three giants of Russian painting, Repin, Polenov and Vasnetsov, all moved there as students from St Petersburg. These old crafts were still alive in Moscow and its environs, whereas they had died out in St Petersburg. There were several lubok publishers in Moscow, for example, but none in Petersburg. Icon painters flourished in the towns around Moscow, but there were none in Petersburg. Much of this was explained by the old-style merchant taste that dominated the art market in Moscow. The Moscow School of Painting was also more receptive to these native tra-ditions, and unlike the aristocratic Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, its doors were open to a wide social range of students, who brought with them the outlook of the common folk. The director of the Moscow School called on artists to use folk themes, and on the opening of the Ethnographic Exhibition, in 1867, he lectured on the need to study old folk clothing and embroidery so as to retrieve the ancient Russian style of art that had been buried under Western tastes.60
In Gartman’s world of architectural design, the mid-century boom in the neo-Russian style was made possible by the abolition of an eighteenth-century law stipulating that buildings in the centre of Moscow should be made from stone with facades in approved European styles. The repeal of this law, in 1858, opened the way for a spate of wooden buildings in the Russian peasant style. More than ever, Moscow took on the appearance of a ‘big village’. The historian and Slavophile Pogodin, himself a peasant son and a well-known collector of antique artefacts, commissioned several wooden houses in the peasant style. Wood was declared by nationalists the ‘fundamental folk material’ and every architect who aspired to be ‘national’ constructed buildings in that material.61Gartman designed the exhibition halls with their wooden folk-style decoration for the Moscow Polytechnic Exhibition which was held in 1872 to mark the bicentenary of Peter the Great’s birth. The exhibition heralded a return to the artistic principles of Muscovy. It was housed in the newly opened Russian Museum, opposite St Basil’s on Red Square, which had been designed by Vladimir Shervud (an architect of English origin) in the old ecclesiastical style of Moscow. The tall church-like towers of the museum reflected the contours of the neighbouring Kremlin - a symbol of the fact, as Shervud put it, that Orthodoxy was ‘the primary cultural element of [Russia’s] nationhood’.62 The neo-Russian style entered its heyday in the 1870s, largely as a result of the growing wealth and status of the Moscow merchant patrons of the arts. Pavel Tretiakov built his famous gallery of Russian art as an annexe to his mansion in the ancient Moscow style. Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow villa (which housed his huge collection of French painting) was a neo-Russian fantasy modelled on the seventeenth-century wooden architecture of Yaroslav and Kolo-menskoe. The centre of the city, between the Kremlin and Lubianka Square, was entirely reconstructed in the neo-Russian style favoured by the wealthy merchant councillors in Moscow’s city hall. New trading rows (later to become the state department store GUM) were constructed on Red Square in the 1880s; followed by a city Duma (to become the Lenin Museum) in 1892. The city’s business region was suddenly taken over by ancient tent roofs and kokoshnik pediments,
f z. Vladimir Shervud: Russian Museum, Red Square, Moscow (the Kremlin to the left). Early 1900s
fancy yellow brickwork and ornate folk designs. Moscow entered the twentieth century with its skyline in the form of the seventeenth.
Musorgsky fell in love with Moscow’s ‘Russianness’. He had spent nearly all his life in Petersburg. But as an artist he was drawn to the ‘realm of fairy tales’ which he discovered in the ancient capital. ‘You
know’, he wrote to Balakirev on his first trip to Moscow in 1859, ‘I had been a cosmopolitan, but now there’s been a sort of rebirth; everything Russian has become close to me and I would be offended if Russia were treated crudely, without ceremony; it’s as if at the present time I’ve really begun to love her.”33 As a mentor to the young composer, Balakirev was not pleased. For all his pioneering of the nationalist school, Balakirev was a Westernist and a thumping patriot of Petersburg who looked down on Moscow as parochial and archaic; he called it ‘Jericho’.64 Musorgsky’s love affair with Moscow, then, seemed almost a desertion from the Balakirev school. It was certainly a sign of the young artist finding his own style and theme. He began to spend his summers on the fabulous estate of the Shilovskys at Glebovo, near Moscow, renewing contact with his own gentry background in that area.* He made new friends in circles outside music where he found a stimulus to his own art: the poet Kutuzov (a descendant of the famous general), the sculptor Antokolsky, the painter Repin, as well as Gartman, who were all receptive to his unschooled style of music, and more tolerant of his alcoholic ways, than the rather staid composers of St Petersburg. Breaking free from the domination of the Balakirev school (which took Liszt and Schumann as the starting point for the development of a Russian style), Musorgsky began to explore a more native musical idiom in his ‘village scene’ for voice and piano, Savishna (1867), in Boris Godunov (1868-74) and then in his Pictures, which, like Gartman’s drawings, reworked Russian folklore in imaginative ways. Moscow thus delivered him from the ‘German’ orthodoxy of the Balakirev school. It allowed Musorgsky, who had always been perceived as something of an outcast in St Petersburg, to experiment with music from the Russian soil. Gartman’s fantastic folk forms were the equivalent of Musorgsky’s explorations in music: both were attempts to break free from the formal conventions of European art. Among the pictures at the exhibition there was a design for a clock in the form of Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken’s legs.+ Images like this demanded a new mode of
* The Musorgsky family owned 110,000 hectares - eighteen villages - with a total population of 400 serfs prior to the emancipation of 1861 (C. Emerson, The Life of Musorgsky (Cambridge, 1999), p. 37).
+ In Russian fairy rales the witch Baba Yagfl lives deep in the woods in a hut whose legs allow it to rotate to face each unfortunate new visitor.
musical expression, one entirely free from the sonata form of European music, if they were to be redrawn in sound; and this is what Musorg-sky’s Pictures did. They created a new Russian language in music.
’To you, Generalissimo, sponsor of the Gartman Exhibition, in remembrance of our dear Viktor, 27 June, ‘74.’ Thus Musorgsky dedicated Pictures to Vladimir Stasov, the critic, scholar and self-appointed champion of the national school in all the Russian arts. Stasov was a huge figure, one might say a tyrant, in the mid-nineteenth-century Russian cultural milieu. He discovered a large number of its greatest talents (Balakirev, Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Repin, Kramskoi, Vasnetsov and Antokolsky); he inspired many of their works (Borodin’s Prince Igor, Musorgsky’s Khovansh-cbina, Balakirev’s King Lear and Rimsky’s Sadko and Scheherazade); and he fought their battles in countless thunderous articles and letters to the press. Stasov had a reputation as a brilliant dogmatist. Turgenev carried on a lifelong argument with ‘our great all-Russian critic’, whom he caricatured in the figure Skoropikhin in his 1877 novel Virgin Soil (‘He is always foaming and frothing over like a bottle of sour kvas’). He also wrote a famous ditty about him:
Argue with someone more intelligent than you:
He will defeat you.
But from your defeat you will learn something useful.
Argue with someone of equal intelligence:
Neither will be victorious.
And in any case you will have the pleasure of the struggle.
Argue with someone less intelligent:
Not from a desire for victory
But because you may be of use to him.
Argue even with a fool: You will not gain glory But sometimes it is fun.
Only do not argue with Vladimir Stasov.65
Stasov wanted Russian art to liberate itself from Europe’s hold. By copying the West, the Russians could be at best second-rate; but by borrowing from their own native traditions they might create a truly national art that matched Europe’s with its high artistic standards and originality. ‘Looking at these paintings’, Stasov wrote of the Academy Exhibition of 1861, ‘it is difficult to guess without a signature or label that they have been done by Russians in Russia. All are exact copies of foreign works.’66 In his view, art should be ‘national’ in the sense that it portrayed the people’s daily lives, was meaningful to them, and taught them how to live.
Stasov was a towering figure in Musorgsky’s life. They first met in 1857, when Stasov was the champion of the Balakirev circle in its revolt against the Petersburg Conservatory. Founded by the pianist Anton Rubinstein in 1861, the Conservatory was dominated by the German conventions of composition developed in the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Its patron was the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German by origin and proselytizer of her nation’s cultural cause, who secured the court’s support after Rubinstein had failed to raise public finance for the Conservatory. Rubinstein was contemptuous of the amateurism of musical life in Russia (he called Glinka a dilettante) and he set about promoting music education on Germanic lines. Russian national music, Rubinstein maintained, was of only ‘ethnographic interest’, quaint but without artistic value in itself. Balakirev and Stasov were incensed. While they recognized that a standard had been set by the German tradition, as nationalists they worshipped what they perceived as Glinka’s ‘purely Russian’ music (in fact it is steeped in Italian and German influences)67 and retaliated by accusing Rubinstein of denigrating Russia from the heights of what they called his ‘European conservatorial grandeur’.68There was an element of xenophobia, even anti-Semitism, in their battles against Rubinstein. They called him ‘Tupinstein’ (‘dull’), ‘Dubinstein’ (‘dumbhead’) and ‘Grubinstein’ (‘crude’). But they were afraid that German principles would stifle Russian forms and their fear gave way to foreigner-baiting. In 1862 they established the Free Music School as a direct rival to the Conservatory, setting it the task of cultivating native talent. In Stasov’s phrase, it was time for the ‘hoopskirts and tailcoats’ of the Petersburg elites to make way for the ‘long Russian coats’ of the provinces.69 The School became the stronghold of the so-called ‘Mighty Five’, the kuchka, who pioneered the Russian musical style.
The kuchkist composers were all young men in 1862. Balakirev was twenty-five, Cui twenty-seven, Musorgsky twenty-three, Borodin the old man at twenty-eight, and Rimsky-Korsakov the baby of them all at just eighteen. All of them were self-trained amateurs. Borodin combined composing with a career as a chemist. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer (his First Symphony was written on a ship). Musorgsky had been in the Guards and then the civil service before taking up music, and even after that, at the height of his success in the 1870s, he was forced by the expense of his drinking habit to hold down a full-time job in the State Forestry Department. In contrast, moreover, to the elite status and court connections of Conservatory composers such as Tchaikovsky, the kuchkists, by and large, were from the minor gentry of the provinces. So to some degree their esprit de corps depended on the myth, which they themselves created, of a movement that was more ‘authentically Russian’, in the sense that it was closer to the native soil, than the classical academy.70
But there was nothing mythical about the musical language they developed, which set them poles apart from the conventions of the Conservatory. This self-conscious Russian styling was based on two elements. First they tried to incorporate in their music what they heard in village songs, in Cossack and Caucasian dances, in church chants and (cliched though it soon became) the tolling of church bells.* ‘Once again the sound of bells!’ Rimsky once exclaimed after a performance of Boris Godunov. He too had often reproduced the sound, in The Maid of Pskov (1873),the Easter Overture (1888), and his orchestra-lions of Borodin’s Prince Igor and Musorsgky’s Khovanshckina.71 Kuchkist music was filled with imitative sounds of Russian life. It tried to reproduce what Glinka had once called ‘the soul of Russian music’
*Russian church bells have a special musicality which is unlike the sound of any other bells. The Russian technique of bell-chiming is for the ringers to strike the different bells directly with hammers, or by using short cords attached to the clappers. This encourages a form of counterpoint - albeit with the dissonances which result from the resounding echoes of the bells. The Western technique of ringing bells by swinging them with long ropes from the ground makes such synchronization all but impossible to achieve.
- the long-drawn, lyrical and melismatic song of the Russian peasantry. Balakirev made this possible with his study of the folk songs of the Volga region in the 1860s (the heyday of populism in the arts). More than any previous anthology, his transcriptions artfully preserved the distinctive aspects of Russian folk music:
- its ‘tonal mutability’: a tune seems to shift quite naturally from one tonic centre to another, often ending up in a different key (usually a second lower or higher) from the one in which the piece began. The effect is to produce a feeling of elusiveness, a lack of definition or of logical progression in the harmony, which even in its stylized kuchkist form makes Russian music sound very different from the tonal structures of the West.
- its heterophony: a melody divides into several dissonant voices, each with its own variation of the theme, which is improvised by the individual singers until the end, when the song reverts to a single line.
- its use of parallel fifths, fourths and thirds. The effect is to give to Russian music a quality of raw sonority that is entirely missing in the polished harmonies of Western music.
Secondly the kuchkists invented a series of harmonic devices to create a distinct ‘Russian’ style and colour that was different from the music of the West. This ‘exotic’ styling of ‘Russia’ was not just self-conscious but entirely invented - for none of these devices was actually employed in Russian folk or church music:
- the whole-tone scale (C-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A sharp-C): invented by Glinka and used for the first time in the march of Chernomor, the sorcerer in his opera Ruslan and Liudmila (1842), this became the ‘Russian’ sound of spookiness and evil. It was used by all the major composers from Tchaikovsky (for the apparition of the Countess’s ghost in The Queen of Spades in 1890) to Rimsky-Korsakov (in all his magic-story operas, Sadko (1897), Kashchei the Immortal (1902) and Kitezh (1907)). The scale is also heard in the music of Debussy, who took it (and much else) from Musorgsky. Later it became a standard device in horror-movie scores.
- the octatonic scale, consisting of a whole tone followed by a semi-tone (C-D-E flat-F-G flat-A flat-B double flat-C double flat): used for the first time by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Sadko symphonic suite of 1867, it became a sort of Russian calling card, a leitmotif of magic and menace that was used not just by Rimsky but by all his followers, above all Stravinsky in his three great Russian ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). - the modular rotation in sequences of thirds: a device of Liszt’s which the Russians made their own as the basis of their loose symphonic-poem type of structure that avoids the rigid (German) laws of modulation in sonata form. Instead of the usual progression to the relative minor in the development section of the sonata form (e.g. C major to A minor), the Russians established a tonic centre in the opening section (say, C major) and then progressed through sequences of thirds (A flat major, F major, D flat major, and so on) in subsequent sections. The effect is to break away from the Western laws of development, enabling the form of a composition to be shaped entirely by the ‘content’ of the music (its programmatic statements and visual descriptions) rather than by formal laws of symmetry. This loose structure was especially important in Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work that probably did more than any other to define the Russian style. Musorgsky was the most original of the kuchkist composers. This was partly because he was the least schooled in European rules of composition. But the main reason was that he consciously rejected the European school and, more than any of the other nationalists, looked to the traditions of the Russian folk as a means of overturning it. There is a sense in which this very Russian figure (lazy, slovenly and heavy-drinking, full of swagger and explosive energy) played the Holy Fool in relation to the West. He rejected out of hand the received conventions of composition drawn up from the music of Bach, Mozart and Haydn. ‘Symphonic development, technically understood, is developed by the German, just as his philosophy is’, Musorgsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1868. ‘The German when he thinks first theorises at length and then proves; our Russian brother proves first and then amuses himself with theory.’72
Musorgsky’s direct approach to life is reflected in his Pictures. The suite is a loosely structured series of musical portraits, a gentle amble through a picture gallery, without any sign of the formal (‘German’) rules of elaboration or development, and little evidence of the Western conventions of musical grammar. At its heart is the magic reach and power of the Russian folk imagination. The opening ‘Promenade (in mode russico)’ is a folk-inspired tune with a metric flexibility, sudden tonal shifts, open fifths and octaves, and a choral heterophony echoing the patterns of the village song. The grotesque and tempestuous ‘Baba Yaga’ shifts violently between keys, persistently returning to the key of G in that static manner of the Russian peasant song (nepodvizbnost’) which, in a musical revolution yet to come, Stravinsky would deploy with such explosive force in The Rite of Spring. Musorgsky’s final picture, the glorious ‘Kiev Gate’, religiously uplifting, beautiful and tender, takes its cue from an ancient Russian hymn, the chant of Znamenny, originating from Byzantium and heard here, in the awesome closing moments, resounding to the clangour of the heavy bells. It is a wonderfully expressive moment, a picture of all Russia drawn in sound, and a moving tribute by Musorgsky to his friend.
Alongside their interest in its ‘Russian style’, writers, artists and composers developed an obsession with Moscow’s history. One only has to list the great historical operas (from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina), the history plays and novels (from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov to Alexei Tolstoy’s trilogy beginning with The Death of Ivan the Terrible), the huge proliferation of poetic works on historical themes and the epic history paintings of Surikov and Repin, or Vasnetsov and Vrubel, to see the importance of Moscow’s history to the cultural quest for ‘Russia’ in the nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that nearly all these works concerned the final years of Ivan the Terrible and the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ between the reign of Boris Godunov and the foundation of the Romanov dynasty. History was regarded as a battlefield for competing views of Russia and its destiny, and these fifty years were seen as a crucial period in Russia’s past. They were a time when everything was up for grabs and the nation was confronted by fundamental questions of identity. Was it to be governed by elected rulers or by Tsars? Was it to be part of Europe or remain outside of it? The same questions were being asked by thinking Russians in the nineteenth century.
Boris Godunov was a vital figure in this national debate. The histories, plays and operas that were written about him were also a discourse on Russia’s destiny. The Godunov we know from Pushkin and Musorgsky appeared first in Karamzin’s History. Karamzin portrayed Godunov as a tragic figure, a progressive ruler who was haunted by the past, a man of immense power and yet human frailty who was undone by the gap between political necessity and his own conscience. But in order to make the medieval Tsar the subject of a modern psychological drama, Karamzin had to invent much of his history.
Boris, in real life, was the orphaned son of an old boyar family who had been raised at the Muscovite court as a ward of the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The Godunovs became intimate with the Royal Family at a time when noble lineage was viewed as potentially seditious by the Tsar. Engaged in a protracted struggle with noble boyar clans, Ivan made a point of promoting loyal servicemen from humble origins like the Godunovs. Boris’s sister, Irina Godunova, married Fedor, the Tsar’s weak and feeble-minded son. Shortly after, Ivan struck down and killed his eldest son, Ivan the Tsarevich, an episode which gripped the nineteenth-century imagination through Repin’s famous painting of the scene, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581(1885). Dmitry, Ivan’s other son, was just two years old when Ivan died in 1584, and his claim to the succession was tenuous at best. He was the child of the Tsar’s seventh marriage, but Church law permitted only three. So Fedor was crowned when Ivan died. The practical affairs of government were taken over by Boris Godunov - addressed in official documents as ‘the great sovereign’s Brother-in-Law, Ruler of the Russian lands’. Boris made a notable success of government. He secured Russia’s borders in the Baltic lands, kept in check the Tatar raids from the southern steppe, strengthened ties with Europe and, to secure a stable labour force for the gentry, he laid down the administrative framework of serfdom - a measure which was deeply unpopular with the peasantry. In 1598 Fedor died. Irina refused the crown and went into a convent, overcome with grief at her failure to produce an heir. At the zemskii sobor, or ‘Assembly of the Land’, the Moscow boyars voted for Boris to become Tsar - the first elected Tsar in Russian history.
The early years of the Godunov reign were prosperous and peaceful. In many ways Boris was an enlightened monarch - a man ahead of his own time. He was interested in Western medicine, book printing and education, and he even dreamed of founding a Russian university on the European model. But in 1601-3 things went badly wrong. A series of harvest failures led to the starvation of about one-quarter of the peasantry in Muscovy, and since the crisis was made worse by the new laws of serfdom which took away the peasants’ rights of movement, the rural protests were aimed against the Tsar. The old princely clans took advantage of the famine crisis to renew their plots against the upstart elected Tsar whose power was a threat to their noble privilege. Boris stepped up his police surveillance of the noble families (especially the Romanovs) and banished many of them to Siberia or to monasteries in the Russian north on charges of treason. Then, in the middle of this political crisis, a young pretender to the Russian throne appeared with an army from Poland - a country always ready to exploit divisions within Russia for territorial gain. The pretender was Grigory Otrepev, a runaway monk who had been at one time in the service of the Romanovs, and he was probably approached by them before his escapade. He claimed to be the Tsarevich Dmitry, Ivan’s youngest son. Dmitry had been found with his throat cut in 1591; he was an epileptic and at the time it was established that he had stabbed himself in a fit. But Godunov’s opponents always claimed that he had killed the boy to clear his own passage to the Russian throne. The ‘False Dmitry’ played upon these doubts, claiming he had escaped the plot to murder him. It enabled him to rally supporters against the ‘usurper Tsar’ among disgruntled peasants and Cossacks on his march towards Moscow. Godunov died suddenly in 1605, as the pretender’s forces approached Moscow. According to Karamzin, he died of the ‘inner agitation of the soul which is inescapable for a criminal’.7’
The evidence implicating Godunov in the murder of Dmitry had been fabricated by the Romanovs, whose own claims to the throne had rested on their election by the boyars’ assembly to restore Russia’s unity, following the ‘Time of Troubles’, a period of civil wars and foreign invasion following the death of Boris Godunov. Perhaps Kar-amzin should have realized that Godunov was not a murderer. But nearly all the documents which he consulted had been doctored by official clerks or monks, and to challenge the Romanov myth would have got him into trouble with the government. In any case, the murder story was far too good for Karamzin to resist. It allowed him to explore the inner conflicts of Godunov’s mind in a way quite unsupported by the evidence. It underpinned his tragic concept of Boris Godunov - a progressive ruler who was haunted by his crime and in the end undone by his own illegitimacy as a Tsar. Karamzin’s History was dedicated to the Emperor Alexander - the reigning Tsar from the House of Romanov - and its vision was overtly monarchist. The moral lesson which he drew from the Godunov story - that elected rulers are never any good - was carefully attuned to the politics of Alexander’s reign. Boris was a Russian Bonaparte.
Pushkin’s Boris Godunov was very closely based on Karamzin’s History, sometimes even lifting sections word for word. The conception of the play is firmly royalist - the people play no active part in their own history. That is the meaning of the famous stage direction ‘the people remain silent’ (‘narod bezmolvstvuet’) with which the drama ends. Musorgsky, too, who followed Pushkin’s text in his first version of the opera (1868-9), portrayed the Russian people as a dark and passive force, mired in the customs and beliefs of the old Russia embodied in Moscow. This conception of the Russians is epitomized in the scene outside St Basil’s on Red Square. The starving people gather there and Boris is confronted by the Holy Fool, who by implication condemns the Tsar’s crimes. But the crowd remains inert, kneeling in supplication to the Tsar, and even when the Holy Fool says he will not pray for the ‘Tsar Herod’, the people just disperse. Hence what might have been a signal for revolt is allowed to pass, and the Holy Fool appears not as the people’s leader but as a voice of conscience and Boris’s remorse.74 It was only with the addition of the ‘Kromy Forest Scene’, in the second version of the opera (1871-2), that Musorgsky introduced the theme of conflict between the people and the Tsar. Indeed, this conflict becomes the motive force of the whole drama, and the people the real tragic subject of the opera. In the Kromy scene the people are revealed in rebellion, the crowd mocks the Tsar, and folk song is deployed as the embodiment of the people’s voice. Musorgsky was first inspired to insert the scene for musical effect, having been impressed by the choral heterophony of a similar crowd scene in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov. The two men were sharing an apartment (and a piano) at the time and Musorgsky set to work on the Kromy scene just as Rimsky was orchestrating his opera.75 But the substitution of the Kromy scene for the one before St Basil’s (which is what Musorgsky clearly intended) meant a complete switch in the intellectual emphasis of the opera.*
There was no Kromy revolt in Karamzin or Pushkin and, as the Russian music expert Richard Taruskin has brilliantly shown, the Populist redrafting of the opera was rather the result of Musorgsky’s friendship with the historian Nikolai Kostomarov, who also helped him in the planning of Khovanshchina (1874). Kostomarov viewed the common people as the fundamental force of history. His major work The Revolt of Stenka Razin (1859), one of the first fruits of the liberal laws on censorship passed in the early years of Alexander II’s reign, had made him a popular and influential figure in the liberal intellectual circles which did so much to advance the Russian arts in the 1860s and 1870s. In The Time of Troubles (1866) Kostomarov described how the famine led to bands of migrant serfs rallying behind the False Dmitry in opposition to Boris Godunov:
They were prepared to throw themselves with joy at whoever would lead them against Boris, at whoever would promise them an improvement in their lot. This was not a matter of aspiring to this or that political or social order; the huge crowd of sufferers easily attached itself to a new face in the hope that under a new order things would become better than under the old.76
It is a conception of the Russian people - suffering and oppressed, full of destructive and impulsive violence, uncontrollable and unable to control its own destiny - that applies equally to 1917.
* So the tendency of modern productions to include both these scenes, though understandable on the basis of the music, contradicts the will of Musorgsky, who physically ripped out the St Basil’s scene from the revised version of the score.
’History is my nocturnal friend’, Musorgsky wrote to Stasov in 1873; ‘it brings me pleasure and intoxication.’77 It was Moscow that had infected him with the history bug. He loved its ‘smell of antiquity’ which transported him ‘into another world’.78 For Musorgsky, Moscow was a symbol of the Russian land - it represented a huge weight of inertia in the customs and beliefs of old Russia. Beneath the thin veneer of European civilization that Peter had laid down, the common people were still the inhabitants of ‘Jericho’. ‘Paper, books, they’ve gone ahead, but the people haven’t moved’, the composer wrote to Stasov on the bicentennial jubilee of Peter’s birth in 1872. ‘Public benefactors are inclined to glorify themselves and to fix their glory in documents, but the people groan, and drink to stifle their groans, and groan all the louder: “haven’t moved!”’79 This was the pessimistic vision of old Russia that Musorgsky had expressed in the last prophetic words of the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov:
Darkest dark, impenetrable dark Woe, woe to Rus’ Weep, weep Russian people Hungry people.
After Godunov he began immediately on Khovanshchina, an opera set amid the political and religious struggles in Moscow from the eve of Peter’s coronation in 1682 to his violent suppression of the streltsy musketeers, the last defenders of the Moscow boyars and the Old Belief, who rose up in a series of revolts between 1689 and 1698. More than a thousand musketeers were executed on the Tsar’s orders, their mangled bodies displayed as a warning to others, in reprisal for their abortive plot to replace Peter with his sister Sophia, who had ruled as regent in the 1680s when he was still too young to govern by himself. As a punishment for her role in the revolts, Peter forced Sophia to become a nun. The same fate befell his wife, Eudoxia, who had sympathized with the insurrectionaries. The Streltsy revolt and its aftermath marked a crossroads in Russian history, a period when the new dynamic Petrine state clashed with the forces of tradition. The defenders of old Russia were represented in the opera by the hero Prince Khovansky, a Moscow patriarch who was the main leader of the streltsy musketeers (Khovansbchina means ‘Khovansky’s rule’); and by the Old Believer Dosifei (a fictional creation named after the last patriarch of the united Orthodox Church in Jerusalem). They are connected by the fictional figure of Marfa, Khovansky’s fiancee and a devout adherent to the Old Belief. Marfa’s constant prayers and lamentations for Orthodox Russia express the profound sense of loss that lies at the heart of this opera.
The Westernists viewed Khovansbchina as a progressive work, a celebration of the passing from the old Moscow to the European spirit of St Petersburg. Stasov, for example, tried to persuade Musorgsky to devote more of Act III to the Old Believers, because this would strengthen their association with ‘that side of ancient Russia’ that was ‘petty, wretched, dull-brained, superstitious, evil and malevolent’.80 This interpretation was then fixed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who, as the editor of the unfinished score after Musorgsky’s death in 1881, moved the prelude (‘Dawn over the Moscow River’) to the end, so that what in the original version had been a lyrical depiction of the old Moscow now became the sign of Peter’s rising sun. All before was night.
This simple message was reinforced by an act of vandalism on Rimsky’s part. To the end of the opera’s final chorus, a melismatic Old Believers’ melody that Musorgsky had transcribed from the singing of a friend, Rimsky added a brassy marching tune of the Preobrazhensky Regiment - the very regiment Peter had established as his personal guard to replace the streltsy musketeers (it was Musorgsky’s regiment as well). Without Rimsky’s programmatic alterations the Old Believers would have had the fifth and final act of the opera to themselves. The fifth act takes its subject from the mass suicides of the Old Believers in response to the suppression of the Streltsy revolt in 1698: some 20,000 Old Believers are said to have gathered in churches and chapels in various remote regions of the Russian north and burned themselves to death. At the end of Musorgsky’s original version of the opera the Old Believers marched off to their deaths, singing chants and prayers. The opera had thus ended with a sense of loss at the passing of the old religious world of Muscovy. As far as one can tell, it had been Musorgsky’s aim to close Khovansbchina in this melancholic vein, in the same pianissimo and pessimistic mood as Boris Godunov. He had never felt the need to ‘resolve’ the opera with a forward moving plot, like that imposed on it by Rimsky-Korsakov. Deadlock and immobility were Musorgsky’s overarching themes. He felt ambivalent about Russia’s progress since the fall of Muscovy. He was sympathetic to the idealism of the Old Believers. He thought that only prayer could overcome the sadness and despair of life in Russia. And he held to the conviction that the Old Believers were the last ‘authentic Russians’, whose way of life had not yet been disturbed by European ways. Such ideas were widely held in the 1860s, not just by the Slavophiles, who idealized the patriarchy of old Muscovy, but by Populist historians such as Kostomarov and Shchapov, who wrote social histories of the schismatics, and by ethnographers who made studies of the Old Believers in Moscow. These views were shared by writers such as Dostoevsky - at that time a member of the ‘native soil’ movement (pocbvennichestvo), a sort of synthesis between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles which was immensely influential among writers and critics in the early 1860s. The character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment has a name that means ‘schismatic’.
The painter Vasily Surikov also focused on the history of the Old Believers to explore the clash between the people’s native customs and the modernizing state. His two great history paintings, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1881) and The Boyar’s Wife Morozova (1884) (plate 7) are the visual counterparts of Khovanshchina. Surikov was closer to the Slavophiles than Musorgsky, whose mentor Stasov, despite his nationalism, was a confirmed Westernist. Surikov idealized Moscow as a ‘legendary realm of the authentic Russian way of life’.81 He was born in 1848 to a Cossack family in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk. Having graduated from the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, he settled down in Moscow, which made him ‘feel at home’ and inspired him to paint on historical themes. ‘When I first stepped out on to Red Square it evoked memories of home, and from that emerged the image of the Streltsy, right down to the composition and the colour scheme.’82 Surikov spent several years making ethnographic sketches of the Old Believers in the Rogozhskoe and Preobrazhenskoe areas of the city, where much of Moscow’s small trade, and about a third of its total population, was crammed into houses in the narrow winding streets. His idea was that history was depicted on the faces of these types. The Old Believers took a shine to him, Surikov recalled, ‘because
I was the son of a Cossack and because I didn’t smoke’. They overlooked their traditional superstition that to paint a person was a sin, allowing Surikov to sketch them. All the faces in The Boyar’s Wife Morozova were drawn from living people in Moscow. Morozova herself was modelled on a pilgrim from Siberia. Hence Tolstoy, who was among the first to see the painting, was so full of praise for the crowd figures: ‘The artist has caught them splendidly! It is as if they are alive! One can almost hear the words they’re whispering.’83
When they were exhibited in the 1880s Surikov’s two paintings were hailed by the democratic intelligentsia, who saw the Streltsy revolt and the stubborn self-defence of the Old Believers as a form of social protest against Church and state. The 1880s was a time of renewed political repression following the assassination of Alexander
II by revolutionary terrorists in March 1881. The new Tsar, Alexander III, was a political reactionary who soon sacked his father’s liberal ministers and passed a series of decrees rolling back their reforms: new controls were imposed on local government; censorship was tightened; the personal rule of the Tsar was reasserted through his direct agents in the provinces; and a modern police state began to take shape. In this context the democrats had reason to regard the historical figures of Surikov’s paintings as a symbol of their opposition to the Tsarist state. Morozova, in particular, was seen as a popular martyr. This was how the artist had portrayed the famous widow, a scion of the wealthy Moscow boyar family and a major patron of the Old Belief at the time of the Nikonian reforms in the mid-seventeenth century. In Surikov’s huge painting (it stands several metres high) she is depicted on a sledge, being dragged towards her execution on Red Square, her hand extended upwards in the Old Believers’ two-fingered sign of the cross as a gesture of defiance against the state. Morozova appears as a woman of real character and dignity who is prepared to die for an idea. The emotion on her face was drawn directly from contemporary life. In 1881 the artist had been present at the public execution of a female revolutionary - another woman who had been prepared to die for her ideas - and he had been shocked by the ‘wild look’ on her face as she was marched to the gallows.84 History was alive on Moscow’s streets.
Moscow grew into a great commercial centre in the nineteenth century. Within sixty years, the peaceful nest of gentlefolk Napoleon had found was transformed into a bustling metropolis of shops and offices, theatres and museums, with sprawling industrial suburbs that every year drew hordes of immigrants. By 1900, with 1 million people, Moscow was, along with New York, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Three-quarters of its population had been born elsewhere.85 The railways held the key to Moscow’s growth. All the major lines converged on the city, the geographic centre between east and west, the agricultural south and the new industrial regions of the north. Financed mainly by Western companies, the railways opened new markets for Moscow’s trade and linked its industries with provincial sources of labour and raw materials. Thousands of commuters came in every day by train. The cheap boarding houses in the areas around the city’s nine main stations were always overcrowded with casual labourers from the countryside. Moscow, then, emerged as the metropolis of capitalist Russia - a position it still occupies today. Provincial towns like Tver, Kaluga and Riazan, all brought into Moscow’s orbit by the train, fell into decay as Moscow’s manufacturers sent their goods by rail directly to the local rural markets, and shoppers came themselves to buy in Moscow, where, even taking into account the cost of a third-class railway fare, prices still worked out cheaper than in district towns. Moscow’s rise was the demise of its own provincial satellites, which spelt ruin for those gentry farmers, like the Ranevskys in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, who depended on these towns as consumers of their grain. They were unprepared for the international market which the railways opened up. Chekhov’s play begins and ends with a train journey. The railway was a symbol of modernity: it brought in a new life and destroyed the old.*
* It is interesting to compare Chekhov’s treatment of this symbol with Tolstoy’s. For Chekhov, who believed in progress through science and technology (he was, after all, a doctor), the railway was a force of good (for example, in the short story ‘Lights’) as well as bad (for example, in ‘My Life’). But for Tolstoy, a nobleman nostalgic for the simple country life, the railway was a force of destruction. The most important moments in the
Moscow’s emergence as an economic giant was associated with its transition from a noble- to a merchant-dominated town. But so, too, was its cultural renaissance in the nineteenth century - a renaissance that made Moscow one of the most exciting cities in the world: as their wealth grew, Moscow’s leading merchants grabbed hold of the city’s government and patronized its arts.
In the early nineteenth century Moscow’s trade was concentrated in the narrow winding streets of the Zamoskvoreche district, opposite the Kremlin on the Moscow river’s sleepy southern side. It was a world apart from the rest of Moscow, little touched by modern or European ways, with its patriarchal customs, its strict religious life and Old Beliefs, and its cloistered merchant houses built with their backs to the street. Belinsky called these homes ‘fortresses preparing for a siege, their windows shuttered and the gates firmly under lock and key. A knock starts a dog barking.’86The appearance of the merchants, with their long kaftans and beards, was reminiscent of the peasantry, from which many of them had in fact emerged. The great Moscow textile dynasties - the Riabushinskys and the Tretiakovs, the Guchkovs, Alekseevs and the Vishniakovs - were all descended from serf forebears. For this reason, the Slavophiles idealized the merchants as the bearers of a purely Russian way of life. Slavophiles and merchants joined together in their opposition to free trade, fearing Western goods would swamp the home markets. Outraged by the foreign domination of the railways, they clubbed together to finance the first ‘Russian’ line, from Moscow to Sergiev Posad, in 1863. It was symbolic that its destination was a monastery, the hallowed shrine, indeed, of the Russian Church, and the spiritual centre of old Muscovy.
The public image of the merchantry was fixed by the plays of Alexander Ostrovsky, himself a child of the Zamoskvoreche - his father had worked in the local judiciary, dealing mainly with the merchantry. After studying law at Moscow University, Ostrovsky
(continued) tragedy of Anna Karenina are all connected with this metaphor: Anna’s first meeting with Vronsky at the Moscow station; Vronsky’s declaration of his love for her on the train to Petersburg; and her suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Here was a symbol of modernity, of sexual liberation and adultery, that led unavoidably to death. All the more ironic and symbolic, then, that Tolstoy himself died in the stationmnster’s house at Astapovo (today ‘Lev Tolstoy’) on a dead end line to the south of Moscow.
worked as a clerk in the civil courts, so he had direct experience of the scams and squabbles that filled his merchant plays. His first drama, A Family Affair (1849), was based on a case in the Moscow courts. It tells the depressing tale of a merchant called Bolshov. To escape his debts he pretends to be bankrupt by transferring all his assets to his daughter and son-in-law, who then run off with the money, leaving Bolshov to go to debtors’ jail. The play was banned by the Tsar, who thought its portrait of the merchantry - even if it was based on a story from real life - might prove damaging to its relations with the Crown. Ostrovsky was placed under police surveillance. Sacked from his job in the civil courts, he was forced to earn a living as a dramatist, and he soon turned out a batch of sell-out plays that all dealt with the strange and (at that time) exotic mores of the Moscow business world. The corrupting power of money, the misery of arranged marriages, domestic violence and tyranny, the escape of adultery - these are the themes of Ostrovsky’s plays. The most famous is perhaps The Storm (1860), which the Czech composer Leos Janacek would use as the basis for his opera Katya Kabanova (1921).
The stereotype of the Russian merchant - greedy and deceitful, narrowly conservative and philistine, the embodiment of everything that was dreary and depressing in provincial towns - became a literary commonplace. In the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy the traders who swindled the squires of their land symbolized the menace of the new commercial culture to the old-world values of the aristocracy. Take the scene in Anna Karenina, for example, where Stiva Oblonsky, the hopelessly spendthrift but endearing nobleman, agrees to sell his forests to a local merchant at far too low a price. When Levin tells Oblonsky of their true value, Oblonsky’s sense of honour as a nobleman forces him to go through with the deal, even though he knows that the merchant took advantage of his ignorance. All over Europe it was commonplace for the nineteenth-century cultural elites to hold trade and commerce in contempt, and such attitudes were equally pronounced in the intelligentsia. But nowhere else did they have such an effect as in Russia, where they poisoned the relations of the middle classes with the cultural elites and thereby closed off the possibility of Russia going down the capitalist-bourgeois path - until it was too late. Even as late as the 1890s merchants were excluded from the social circles of Moscow’s aristocracy. The governor of the city, the Grand Duke Sergei, would not have a merchant at his ball, even though merchants paid the largest share of the city’s taxes and some lent money personally to him. Consequently, many merchants had a deep mistrust of the aristocracy. The textile magnate and patron of the arts Pavel Tretiakov, an old-style Moscow merchant and an Old Believer, forbade his daughter to marry the pianist Alexander Ziloti, on the grounds that he was a nobleman and thus only after her inheritance. He reacted in a similar way to the marriage of his niece to A. I. Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother), another nobleman, and not only that, but a nobleman from Petersburg.
Yet one could also form a brighter view of the Moscow merchants from Ostrovsky’s plays. Indeed, for this reason there were merchants like the Botkins, Moscow’s tea importers, who patronized his work. Another group who liked Ostrovsky’s plays for their positive message about the merchantry were the so-called ‘native soil’ critics (pochven-niki), whose outlet was the journal Moskvitianin (The Muscovite). The influential critic Apollon Grigoriev was a leading member of the ‘native soil’ movement, along with the writer Fedor Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail. Ostrovsky’s plays, they said, had spoken a ‘new word’ on Russian nationality. As a social group that lay somewhere between the peasantry and the educated classes, the merchants, they believed, were uniquely qualified to lead the nation in a way that reconciled its Muscovite and Petrine elements. Ostrovsky’s merchants were neither Slavophile nor Westernist, Mikhail Dostoevsky argued in a review of The Storm. They had flourished in the European culture of the new Russia, yet had managed to retain the culture of the old; and in this sense, Dostoevsky claimed, the merchants showed the way for Russia to progress without social divisions.87 This interpretation was a reflection of the ‘native soil’ ideals of national integration that followed in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs. The decree evoked high hopes of a spiritual rebirth in which the Russian nation, the noble and the peasant, would become reconciled and reunited around the cultural ideals of the intelligentsia. The mixed-class origins of the ‘native soil’ critics, most of whom were raznochintsy types (from a minor noble background, with close connections to the world of trade), perhaps led them to idealize the merchants as the pioneers of a new classless society. Yet the merchants were in fact developing in an interesting way - they were breaking out of the old cultural ghetto of the Zamoskvoreche - and this was reflected in Ostrovsky’s later plays. In The Final Sacrifice (1878) the usual themes of money and domestic tyranny are almost overshadowed by the appearance of a new generation of merchants’ sons and daughters who are European in their ways. When an actress would not play the part of a merchant’s wife in the first production of The Final Sacrifice, arguing that she did not want to be seen in a peasant shawl, Ostrovsky reassured her that the merchant’s wife now dressed more fashionably than the ladies of the aristocracy.88
By this time, indeed, there was a group of fabulously wealthy merchant dynasties, many far wealthier than the aristocracy, that had branched out from their family concerns to form vast conglomerates. The Riabushinskys, for example, added glass and paper, publishing and banking, and later motor cars, to their textile factories in Moscow; and the Mamontovs had an immense empire of railways and iron foundries. As they grew in confidence, these familes left behind the narrow cultural world of the Zamoskvoreche. Their sons adopted European ways, entered the professions and civic politics, patronized the arts, and generally competed with the aristocracy for pre-eminence in society. They acquired lavish mansions, dressed their wives in the latest clothes from Paris, gave brilliant parties, and dined at the elite English Club. Some of these young industrial barons were even rich enough to snub the aristocracy. Savva Morozov, the Moscow factory magnate and principal financier of the Moscow Arts Theatre, once received a request from the governor of Moscow to be shown around Morozov’s house. Morozov agreed and invited him to come the next day. But when the Grand Duke appeared with his retinue he was greeted by the butler, who informed him that Morozov was away.89
Despite the old mistrust between the classes, many of these magnates felt a strong desire for acceptance by the leaders of society. They did not want to join the aristocracy. But they did want to belong to the cultural elite, and they knew that their acceptance depended on their public service and philanthropy - above all, on their support for the arts. This condition was particularly important in Russia, where the cultural influence of the intelligentsia was far stronger than it was in the West. Whereas in America and many parts of Europe, money was
enough to become accepted in society, even if the old snobbish attitudes prevailed, Russia never shared the bourgeois cult of money, and its cultural elites were defined by a service ethic that placed a burden on the rich to use their wealth for the people’s benefit. Noble clans like the Sheremetevs spent huge sums on charity. In the case of Dmitry Sheremetev these sums represented a quarter of his income, and became a major reason for his growing debts in the middle of the nineteenth century. But Moscow’s leading merchants also took their charitable duties very earnestly indeed. Most of them belonged to the Old Belief, whose strict moral code (not unlike that of the Quakers) combined the principles of thrift, sobriety and private enterprise with a commitment to the public good. All the biggest merchant families assigned large chunks of their private wealth to philanthropic projects and artistic patronage. Savva Mamontov, the Moscow railway baron, became an opera impresario and a major patron of the ‘World of Art’, out of which the Ballets Russes emerged. He had been brought up by his father to believe that ‘idleness is vice’ and that ‘work is not a virtue’ but ‘a simple and immutable responsibility, the fulfilment of one’s debt in life’.90 Konstantin Stanislavsky, the co-founder of the Moscow Arts Theatre, was brought up with a similar attitude by his father, a Moscow merchant of the old school. Throughout the years from 1898 to 1917, when he acted and directed at the Moscow Arts, he carried on with business at his father’s factories. Despite his immense wealth, Stanislavsky could not contribute much to the theatre’s funds, because his father had allowed him only a modest income which did not allow him to ‘indulge in whims’.91
These principles were nowhere more in evidence than in the life and work of Pavel Tretiakov, Russia’s greatest private patron of the visual arts. The self-made textile baron came from a family of Old Believer merchants from the Zamoskvoreche. With his long beard, full-length Russian coat and square-toed boots, he cut the figure of an old-school patriarch. But while he adhered throughout his life to the moral code and customs of the Old Belief, he had broken out of its narrow cultural world at an early age. Because his father was opposed to education, he had taught himself by reading books and mixing in the student and artistic circles of Moscow. When he began to collect art, in the mid-1850s, Tretiakov bought mainly Western paintings, but he soon realized that he lacked the expertise to judge their provenance, so, to avoid the risk of being swindled, he bought only Russian works from that point on. Over the next thirty years Tretiakov spent in excess of 1 million roubles on Russian art. His collection, when he left it to the city as the Tretiakov Museum in 1892, included an astonishing 1,276 Russian easel paintings - far more numerous than the Spanish paintings in the Prado (about 500) or the British ones in the National Gallery (335). This huge new source of private patronage was a vital boost for the Wanderers - young painters such as Ilya Repin and Ivan Kramskoi who had broken from the Academy of Arts in the early 1860s and, like the kuchkists under Stasov’s influence, had begun to paint in a ‘Russian style’. Without the patronage of Tretiakov, the Wanderers would not have survived these first hard years of independence, when the private art market beyond the court and the aristocracy was still extremely small. Their down-to-earth provincial scenes and landscape paintings appealed to the merchant’s ethnocentric taste. ‘As for me,’ Tretiakov informed the landscape painter Apollinary Goravsky, ‘I want neither abundant nature scenes, elaborate composition, dramatic lighting, nor any kind of wonders. Just give me a muddy pond and make it true to life.’92 The injunction was perfectly fulfilled by Savrasov in his painting The Rooks Have Returned (1871), a poetic evocation of rural Russia in the early spring thaw, which became Tretiakov’s favourite landscape painting and something of an icon of the Russian School. Its simple realism was to become a hallmark of the Moscow landscape school compared to the carefully arranged veduta scenes, with their European styling, stipulated by the Academy in St Petersburg.
Tretiakov in business, the Wanderers in art - each sought to break free from the bureaucratic controls of St Petersburg; each looked to Moscow and the provinces for an independent market and identity. The Wanderers’ name (in Russian, Peredvizhniki) derived from the travelling exhibitions organized by their collective in the 1870s.* Nurtured on the civic and Populist ideals of the 1860s, they toured the provinces with their exhibitions, usually financed out of their own pockets, to raise the public’s consciousness of art. Sometimes they
*The word Peredvizhniki came from the Tovarishchestvo peredvizhnykb khu-dozhestvennykh vystavok (Collective of Travelling Art Exhibitions).
taught in country schools or set up their own art schools and museums, usually with the support of liberal noblemen in local government (the zemstvos) and the Populists. The impact of their tours was enormous. ‘When the exhibitions came,’ recalled a provincial resident, ‘the sleepy country towns were diverted for a short while from their games of cards, their gossip and their boredom, and they breathed in the fresh current of free art. Debates and arguments arose on subjects about which the townfolk had never thought before.’93 Through this mission the Wanderers created a new market for their art. Local merchants funded public galleries that purchased canvases from the Wanderers and their many emulators in provincial towns. In this way the ‘national style’ of Moscow became the idiom of the provinces as well.
Another merchant patron who helped to define the Moscow style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the railway magnate Savva Mamontov. A Siberian by birth, Mamontov had moved as a boy to Moscow, where his father was involved as the principal investor in the building of the railway to Sergiev Posad. He fell in love with the place. Its bustling energy was the perfect complement to his creativity and go-ahead panache. Benois (the voice of refined St Petersburg) described Mamontov as ‘grandiose and vulgar and dangerous’.94 He might have been describing Moscow, too.
Mamontov was not just a patron of the arts but an artistic figure in his own right. He studied singing in Milan, acted under Ostrovsky’s own direction in The Storm, and wrote and directed plays himself. He was strongly influenced by the Populist ideas which circulated around Moscow in his youth. Art was to be for the education of the masses. As a monument to this ideal, he commissioned the artist Korovin to decorate his Moscow railway station (today the Yaroslav) with murals showing rural scenes from the northern provinces where his trains were bound. ‘The eyes of the people must be trained to see beauty everywhere, in streets and railway stations,’ Mamontov declared.95 His wife Elizaveta was also influenced by Populist ideas. In 1870 the couple purchased the Abramtsevo estate, set amidst the birchwood forests near Sergiev Posad, sixty kilometres north-east of Moscow, where they set up an artists’ colony with workshops to revive the local peasant crafts and manufacture artefacts for sale in Moscow at a special shop. It is ironic that these crafts were dying out as a result of the spread of factory goods by rail. For this was what had made the Mamontovs so rich.
Abramtsevo was located in the heartland of historic Muscovy. It had previously belonged to the Aksakovs, the leading clan of the Slavophiles, and as an artists’ colony it attempted to restore the ‘authentic’ (that is, folk-based) Russian style which the Slavophiles had prized. Artists flocked to it to learn from the old peasant handicrafts and assimilate their style to their own work. Korovin and the two Vasnetsovs, Polenova, Vrubel, Serov and Repin were all active there. Gartman spent a year there before he died, building a workshop and a clinic for the village in the neo-Russian style. Alongside its mission to the peasantry, Abramtsevo was, like everything in which its merchant founder was involved, a commercial enterprise. Its workshops catered to the vibrant market for the neo-Russian style among Moscow’s fast expanding middle class. The same was true of other centres, like the Solomenko embroidery workshop, the Talashkino colony and the Moscow zemstvo studios, which all likewise combined conservation with commerce. Moscow’s middle classes were filling up their houses with the folk-styled tableware and furniture, the embroidery and objets d’art that workshops such as these were churning out. At the top end of the market there were spectacular interior designs. Elena Polenova (at Solomenko) built a dining room with elaborate folk wood carvings for the estate of the Moscow textile baroness Maria Yakunchikova (where Chekhov spent the summer of 1903 writing The Cherry Orchard). Sergei Maliutin (at the Moscow zemstvo studios) designed a similar dining room for the merchant Pertsova. Then there was the folk style, slightly simpler but equally archaic, favoured by the Populist intelligentsia. The artist Vladimir Konashevich recalled having learned to read from a special ABC designed by his father in the 1870s. ‘The book was crammed with cart axles, scythes, harrows, hayricks, drying barns and threshing floors.’
In my father’s study in front of the writing table stood an armchair whose back was the shaft bow of a harness, and whose arms were two axes. On the seat was a knout whip and a pair of bast shoes carved in oak. The finishing touch was a real little peasant hut which stood on the table. It was made of walnut and full of cigarettes.96
Chekhov liked to poke fun at this ‘folksy’ craze. In his story ‘The Grasshopper’ (1891) Olga is the wife of a Moscow doctor. She ‘plastered all the walls with lubok woodcuts, hung up bast shoes and sickles, placed a rake in the corner of the room, and voila!,she had a dining room in the Russian style’.97 Yet Chekhov himself was a purchaser of arts and crafts. At his Yalta house (now a museum) there are two cupboards from Abramtsevo and an armchair like the one described by Konashevich.*
From these arts and crafts, Moscow’s artists developed what they called the ‘style moderne‘, where Russian folk motifs were combined with the styling of European art nouveau. It can be seen in the extraordinary renaissance of Moscow’s architecture at the turn of the twentieth century, and perhaps above all in Fedor Shekhtel’s splendid mansion for Stepan Riabushinsky, which managed to combine a simple, even austere style with the modern luxuries expected by a rich industrialist. Discreetly hidden from the lavish style moderne of its living rooms was an Old Believer chapel designed in the ancient Moscow style. It perfectly expressed the split identity of this merchant caste - on the one hand looking back to the seventeenth century, on the other striding forward to the twentieth. Here indeed was Moscow’s paradox - a progressive city whose mythic self-image was in the distant past.
The fashion for old Moscow was also cultivated by the silversmiths and jewellery shops that catered to the city’s prosperous merchant class. Craftsmen such as Ivan Khlebnikov and Pavel Ovchinnikov (a former serf of Prince Sergei Volkonsky) produced silver tableware and samovars, dishes shaped like ancient Viking ships (kovshi), drinking vessels, ornaments and icon covers in the ancient Russian style. These firms were joined by Carl Faberge, who set up separate workshops in Moscow to produce goods for the rising merchant class. In St Petersburg the Faberge
* There are several similar examples of the armchair in the History Museum of Moscow. All of them were designed by the artist Vasily Shutov.
workshops made gems in the classical and rococo styles. But only Tsars and Grand Dukes could afford to buy such jewels. The Moscow workshops, by contrast, turned out mainly silver objects which were within the financial reach of the middle classes. These Moscow firms all had some artists of extraordinary talent, most of them unknown or neglected to this day. One was Sergei Vashkov, a silver craftsman who made religious objects in the Moscow workshops of the Olovyanishni-kovs - and later by commission for Faberge. Vashkov drew from the simple style of religious art in medieval Russia but he combined this with his own unique version of the style moderne, creating sacred objects of a rare beauty and (in a way that was important to the Moscow revival) reuniting church art with the cultural mainstream.
Nicholas II was a major patron of Vashkov and the Moscow workshop of Faberge.98 Vashkov designed the silver objects for the mock medieval church in the Fedorov village at Tsarskoe Selo, a sort of Muscovite theme park constructed for the Romanov tercentenary in 1913. This was the high point of the cult of Muscovy. It was engineered by the last Tsar in a desperate effort to invest the monarchy with a mythical historical legitimacy at a time when its right to rule was being challenged by the institutions of democracy. The Romanovs were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future. Nicholas, in particular, idealized the Tsardom of Alexei in the seventeenth century. He saw in it a golden age of paternal rule, when the Tsar had ruled in a mystical union with the Orthodox people, undisturbed by the complications of a modern state. He loathed St Petersburg, with its secular ideas and bureaucracy, its Western culture and intelligentsia, so alien to the ‘simple Russian folk’, and he tried to Muscovitize it by adding onion domes and kokoshnik pediments to the classical facades of its buildings. It was in his reign that the Church of the Spilt Blood was completed on the Catherine Canal. With its onion domes and colourful mosaics, its ornate decorations that contrasted so bizarrely with the classical ensemble in which it was placed, the church was a piece of Moscow kitsch. Yet today tourists flock to it, thinking they are getting something of the ‘real’ (exotic) Russia so evidently missing in St Petersburg.
Like the church, the Muscovite renaissance in the arts conjured up a land of fairy tales. The retreat to Russian wonderland was a general trend in the final decades of the nineteenth century, when the increased censorship of Alexander III’s reign and the early years of Nicholas II’s made it hard for the realist school to use art for social or political commentary. And so painters such as Vasnetsov, Vrubel and Bilibin turned to Russian legends as a new way to approach the national theme. Viktor Vasnetsov was the first major artist to make the transition from realist genre painting to fantastic history scenes. He graduated from the Petersburg Academy, but it was his move to Moscow which, by his own admission, accounted for the switch. ‘When I came to Moscow, I felt I had come home’, he wrote to Stasov. ‘The first time I saw the Kremlin and St Basil’s, tears welled in my eyes: so forceful was the feeling that they are a part of me.’99 Vasnetsov depicted monumental figures from the epic folk legends like Ilia Muromets, presenting them as studies of the national character. Nobody in Petersburg would countenance his art. Stasov condemned it for departing from the principles of realism. The Academy denounced it for rejecting classical mythology. Only Moscow welcomed Vasnetsov. The leading Moscow critics had long called on artists to take inspiration from legendary themes, and the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art proved an important outlet for Vasnetsov’s epic canvases.100 Mikhail Vrubel followed Vasnetsov from Petersburg, moving first to Moscow and then Abramtsevo, where he too painted scenes from Russian legends. Like Vasnetsov, Vrubel was inspired by the Moscow atmosphere. ‘I am back in Abramtsevo’, he wrote to his sister in 1891, ‘and again I am enveloped. I can hear that intimate national tone which I so long to capture in my work.’101
Vasnetsov and Vrubel brought this land of fairy tales to their colourful designs for Mamontov’s Private Opera, which had its origins at Abramtsevo. There was a strong collective spirit within the Abramtsevo circle which expressed itself in the amateur productions at the colony and at the Mamontovs’ house in Moscow. Stanislavsky, who was a cousin of Elizaveta Mamontov, recalled that during these productions ‘the house would become a tremendous workshop’, with actors, artists, carpenters, musicians hurriedly preparing everywhere.102 At the heart of this collaboration was the ideal of artistic synthesis. Vasnetsov and Vrubel joined with composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov in a conscious effort to unify the arts on the basis of the folk-inspired ‘Russian style’. Wagner’s idea of the total work of art, the Gesamtkunstwerk, was a major influence. Rimsky even planned a Russian version of the Ring cycle based on the epic Russian folk legends - with Ilia Muromets as a sort of Slav Siegfried.103 But Mamontov had also come quite independently to the idea of a total work of art. As he saw it, the opera could not succeed on the basis of good singing and musicianship alone; it had to unite these with its visual and dramatic elements in an organic synthesis. Mamontov established his Private Opera in 1885, three years after the state monopoly of the Imperial Theatre (already an anachronism when private theatres were outlawed in 1803) had finally been lifted by the Tsar. It immediately became the focal point of Moscow’s opera world, eclipsing the Bolshoi with its innovative productions of mainly Russian operas. Vasnetsov brought the vibrant primary colours of the folk tradition to the stage for Rimsky’s Snow Maiden, the big success of the first season. The bulky bulbous form of Tsar Berendei’s palace, with its lavishly ornate folk-style decorations and fantastic columns shaped and painted like Russian Easter eggs, was inspired by the wooden palace of Kolomenskoe just outside Moscow. The whole scene conjured up a magic Russian realm, and it left the public, which had never seen such folk art on the stage before, enraptured and amazed. The height of the company’s success came after 1896, when the great bass Shaliapin, still only a young man of twenty-four, signed with Mamontov. Shaliapin’s rise had been blocked at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg by senior singers such as Fedor Stravinsky (the composer’s father), but Mamontov believed in him and put him in the role of Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky’s Maid of Pskov, the Private Opera’s main production of the 1896-7 season at its new home in the Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow. It was a sensation. Rimsky was delighted and, having just had Sadko turned down by the Marinsky at the express command of Nicholas II (who wanted something ‘a bit merrier’),104 he had no hesitation in throwing in his lot with Mamontov. Rimsky, the young kuchkist of the 1860s, had risen to become a pillar of the Russian musical establishment and a professor of the Petersburg Conservatory after 1871; now he too became a convert to Moscow’s neo-nationalist school. All his last six major operas were performed by the Private Opera in its distinctive neo-Russian style, including
Sadko and May Night (with the 24-year-old Rachmaninov conducting) in 1897, The Tsar’s Bride in 1899, and Kashchei the Immortal in 1902. These were tremendously important productions - their great strength being their visual elements, with colourfully stylized folk-like sets and costumes by Korovin, Maliutin and Vrubel in perfect keeping with the music of these folk-based opera fantasies. They were a major influence on the synthetic ideals of the World of Art movement and the Ballets Russes. Such, indeed, was Mamontov’s success that in 1898 he agreed to co-finance the costs of Diaghilev’s review the World of Art. But then disaster struck. Mamontov was accused of appropriating funds from his railway empire to support the Opera. There was a scandal and a noisy trial in 1900. Mamontov was acquitted of corruption on a wave of public sympathy for a man whose love of art, it was generally concluded, had carried him away. But financially he was ruined. His company collapsed and the Private Opera closed. Mamontov himself was declared bankrupt, and the effects of his Moscow house were sold off by auction in 1903. One of the sale items was a peasant’s wooden model of a railway station crafted at Abramtsevo.105
Private theatrical undertakings were something of a Moscow fashion following the lifting of the state monopoly in 1882. The actress Maria Abramova, for example, set up her own theatre, with the help of merchant patrons, where Chekhov’s Wood Demon (1889) had its premiere; and in the 1900s another well-known actress, Vera Komis-sarzhevskaya, owned a private theatre in St Petersburg. By far the most important of these private ventures was the Moscow Arts Theatre, founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1898. Here Chekhov’s last great plays were first performed. Stanislavsky was born in Moscow to a merchant family which ‘had already crossed the threshold of culture’, as he would later write. ‘They made money in order to spend it on social and artistic institutions.’ His maternal grandmother was the French actress Marie Varley, who had made herself a star in Petersburg. But while his parents were rich enough to put on lavish balls, they basically inhabited the old Moscow mercantile world. Stanislavsky’s father slept (with his grandfather) in the same bed.106 As a student Stanislavsky took part in the Mamontov amateur productions. These convinced him that, while huge efforts had been put into the music, the costumes and the sets, very little had been done about the acting, which remained extremely amateurish, not just in the operas but in the theatre, too. He trained himself as an actor by standing for hours before a mirror every day and developing his gestures over several years to make them appear more natural. His famous ‘method’ (from which ‘method acting’ was to come) boiled down to a sort of naturalism. It was acting without ‘acting’ - which fitted in so well with the modern dialogue (where the pauses are as important as the words) and the everyday realities of Chekhov’s plays.107 Later his method was made more systematic through a series of techniques to help the actor convey the inner thoughts and emotions of a part. They were all about recalling moments of intense experience in the actor’s own life, supposedly to help him produce the emotion on demand. Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote a blistering satire of the Moscow Arts in his farcical, unfinished Black Snow (1939- ), ridiculed these methods in a scene in which the director tries to get an actor to feel what passion is by riding round the stage on a bicycle.
Stanislavsky’s vision of an independent theatre brought him together with the playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Both men were committed to the idea that the theatre should reach out to the masses by producing plays about contemporary life. The Moscow Arts was originally called the Accessible Arts Theatre. Cheap seats for students and the poor were mixed in with the expensive ones at the front of the stalls. Even the building, the rundown hermitage in Karetny Row, had a democratic feel. It had previously been used for circuses, and when the actors first moved in there was an all-pervasive smell of beer.108 After a quick coat of paint, they began in 1898 rehearsals for the opening performances of Alexei Tolstoy’s Tsar Fedor (1868) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896).
Nemirovich was a great admirer of Chekhov’s play. In St Petersburg it had been a dreadful failure; the critics had panned it. But in the simple, lifelike style of the Moscow Arts’ production it was a triumph. ‘The public lost all sense of the theatre’, wrote Nemirovich: ‘the life they now beheld in these simple human contacts on the stage was ”real”, not theatrical.’ People felt ‘almost embarrassed to be present’, as if they were eavesdropping on a mundane domestic tragedy. There was ‘nothing but shattered illusions, and tender feelings crushed by rude reality’.109 The production relaunched Chekhov’s career as a playwright - and he now came home to Moscow as its favourite literary son.
Born in Taganrog, in southern Russia, to a devout, old-style merchant, Anton Chekhov came to Moscow at the age of seventeen and two years later, in 1879, enrolled as a student of medicine at the university. He fell in love with the city from the start. ‘I will be a Muscovite for ever’, he wrote in a letter of 1881.110 As a hard-up student, and then as a doctor, Chekhov was acquainted with the city’s slums, and he was a lifelong client of its brothels, too. His first literary efforts were as a journalist (‘Antosha Chekhonte’) for the humorous tabloids and weekly magazines aimed at Moscow’s newly literate labourers and clerks. He wrote sketches of street life, vaudeville satires on love and marriage, and stories about doctors and magistrates, petty clerks and actors in Moscow’s poor districts. There were many writers of this kind - the most successful being Vladimir Giliarovsky, author of the 1920s classic Moscow and the Muscovites (still widely read and loved in Russia today) and something of a mentor to the young Chekhov. But Chekhov was the first major Russian writer to emerge from the penny press (nineteenth-century writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had written for the serious or ‘thick’ periodicals that combined literature with criticism and political commentary). His concise written style, for which he is so famed, was fashioned by the need to write for commuters on the train.
Chekhov knew these trains. In 1892 he purchased Melikhovo, a delightful small estate a short journey to the south of Moscow. Moscow often featured as a backdrop to his stories from this period - for example in ‘Three Years’ (1895) and ‘Lady with the Dog’ (1899). But the city was now felt by its absence, too. In all his greatest plays Moscow is perceived as a distant ideal realm, a paradise beyond the provinces, where his characters are trapped in a stagnant way of life. Chekhov understood their claustrophobia - he too yearned for city life. ‘I miss Moscow’, he wrote to Sobolevsky in 1899. ‘It’s boring without Muscovites, and without Moscow newspapers, and without the Moscow church bells which I love so much.’ And to Olga Knipper in 1903: ‘There’s no news. I’m not writing anything. I’m just waiting for you to give me the signal to pack and come to Moscow. “Moscow! Moscow!” These are not the refrain of Three Sisters: they are now the words of One Husband.’111 In Three Sisters (1901) Moscow becomes a symbol for the happiness so lacking in the sisters’ lives. They long to go to Moscow, where they lived as children and were happy when their father was alive. But they remain stuck in a provincial town, unable to escape, as youthful hopes give way to the bitter disappointments of middle age. There is no clear explanation for their inertia - a fact which has led critics to lose patience with the play. ‘Give the sisters a railway ticket to Moscow at the end of Act One and the play will be over’, Mandelstam once wrote.112 But that is to miss the whole point of the play. The three sisters are suffering from a spiritual malaise, not a geographical displacement. Stifled by the petty routines of their daily life, they strive for a higher form of existence, which they imagine there to be in Moscow, yet in their hearts they know does not exist. The sisters’ ‘Moscow’, then, is not so much a place (they never go there) as a legendary realm - a city of dreams which gives hope and the illusion of meaning to their lives. The real tragedy of the three sisters is voiced by Irena when she comes to realize that this paradise is a fantasy:
I’ve been waiting all this time, imagining that we’d be moving to Moscow, and I’d meet the man I’m meant for there. I’ve dreamt about him and I’ve loved him in my dreams… But it’s all turned out to be nonsense… nonsense.113
Chekhov’s Moscow, then, is a symbol of the happiness and better life to come. From Chekhov’s point of view, as a Russian and a liberal, its promise was in progress and modernity - a far cry from the image of inertia which Musorgsky saw just thirty years before. Chekhov put his faith in science and technology. He was a doctor by training, and by temperament a man who looked to practical solutions rather than to religion or ideologies. In a veiled attack on Tolstoy in 1894, Chekhov wrote that ‘there is more love of humanity in electricity and steam than in vegetarianism’.114Progress is a constant theme in Chekhov’s plays. Noblemen like Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1896) or Vershinin in
Three Sisters are constantly speculating about the future of Russia. They hope that one day life will become better and they talk about the need to work towards that end. Chekhov shared these dreamers’ hopes, although he was scathing on the subject of intellectuals who did no more than speak about the need to work. Trofimov, the eternal student in The Cherry Orchard, is always saying ‘we must work’, yet he himself has never done a thing. Chekhov thought that well-intentioned chatter was Russia’s greatest curse. He worked like one possessed throughout his life. He believed in work as the purpose of existence and as a form of redemption: it was at the heart of his own religious faith. ‘If you work for the present moment’, he wrote in his notebook, ‘your work will be worthless. One must work bearing only the future in one’s mind.’115 Perhaps his credo was best expressed by Sonya in the final moving moments of Uncle Vanya. There is, she says, no rest from work or suffering, and only in the ideal world is there a better life.
Well, what can we do? We must go on living! We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings. We shall patiently suffer the trials which Fate imposes on us; we shall work for others, now and in our old age, and we shall have no rest. When our time comes we shall die submissively, and over there, in the other world, we shall say that we have suffered, that we’ve wept, that we’ve had a bitter life, and God will take pity on us. And then, Uncle dear, we shall both begin to know a life that is bright and beautiful, and lovely. We shall rejoice and look back at all our troubles with tender feelings, with a smile - and we shall have rest. I believe it, Uncle, I believe it fervently, passionately… We shall have rest!116
Chekhov’s emphasis on the need to work was more than a Vol-tairean solution to the quest for meaning in one’s life. It was a critique of the landed gentry, which had never really known the meaning of hard work and for this reason was destined for decline. This is the theme of Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, written for the Moscow Arts in 1904. It has often been perceived as a sentimental drama about the passing from an old and charming gentry world to a brash, modern, city-based economy. The plot is, indeed, quite reminiscent of the ‘nest of gentry’ melodramas that had been in fashion since Turgenev’s time. The main characters, the Ranevskys, are forced by debt to sell their prized possession and inheritance (the orchard) to a merchant called Lopakhin, who plans to clear the land and build dachas on it for the new middle classes of Moscow. Stanislavsky, in the first production, played it as a sentimental tragedy: his actors cried when they first heard the script. No one was prepared to puncture the mystique of ‘the good old days’ on the estate - a mystique that had grown into a national myth. Journals such as Bygone Years (Starye gody) and Town and Country (Stolitsa i usad’ba) catered to this cult with their dreamy pictures and nostalgic memoirs about the old gentry way of life. The political agenda of these journals was the preservation of the landowners’ estates, not just as a piece of property, an economic system or ancestral home, but as the last remaining outposts of a civilization that was threatened with extinction by the social revolution of the towns. ‘Our country nests’, Count Pavel Sheremetev told the Moscow zemstvo, ‘are carrying the ancient torch of culture and enlightenment. God grant them success, if only they are spared the senseless movement to destroy them, supposedly in the interests of social justice.’117 Had Chekhov’s play been written after 1905, when the first agrarian revolution swept through Russia and thousands of those country nests were set alight or ransacked by the peasants, it might have been conceived in this nostalgic way. But Chekhov was insistent that the play should be performed as a comedy, not a sentimental tragedy; and in this conception the play could not have been written later than it was, even if Chekhov had lived for another twenty years. After the 1905 Revolution the passing of the old world was no longer a subject of comedy.
Chekhov called his play a ‘piece of vaudeville’.118 Throughout The Cherry Orchard he is subtly ironic and iconoclastic in his treatment of the gentry’s ‘cultivated ways’. He is sending up the mystique of the ‘good old days’ on the estate. We are meant to laugh at the cliched sentimental speeches of Madame Ranevskaya when she waxes lyrical on the former beauty of the old estate or her happy childhood there: a world she had abandoned long ago for France. Her overblown expressions of sadness and nostalgia are belied by the speed with which she recovers and then forgets her grief. This is not a tragedy: it is a satire of the old-world gentry and the cult of rural Russia which grew up around it. What are we to think of Pishchik, for example, the landowner who sings the praises of the ‘gentry on the land’ and yet at the first opportunity sells his land to some English businessmen who want it for its special clay (no doubt to be used for the manufacturing of lavatories in Stoke-on-Trent)? What are we to make of the Ranev-skys who set such store by the old paternal ways? Their ancient butler Feers looks back nostalgically to the days of serfdom (‘when the peasants belonged to the gentry and the gentry belonged to the peasants’). But he is left behind on the estate when its owners all pack up and go away. Chekhov himself felt nothing but contempt for such hypocrisy. He wrote The Cherry Orchard while staying on the estate of Maria Yakunchikova near Moscow. ‘A more disgracefully idle, absurd and tasteless life would be hard to find’, he wrote. ‘These people live exclusively for pleasure.’119 The merchant Lopakhin, on the other hand, was intended by Chekhov as the hero of the play. He is portrayed as an honest businessman, industrious and modest, kind and generous, with a real nobility of spirit underneath his peasant-like exterior. Although he stands to gain from buying the estate (where his father was a serf), Lopakhin does everything he can to persuade the Ranevskys to develop it themselves, offering to lend them money to help them (and no doubt giving money to them all the time). Here was the first merchant hero to be represented on the Russian stage. From the start Chekhov had the part in mind for Stanislavsky himself, who was of course the son of a merchant family from peasant stock. But mindful of this parallel, Stanislavsky took the role of the feckless noble Gaev, leaving Lopakhin to be played by Leonidov as the usual merchant stereotype - fat and badly dressed (in checkered trousers), speaking boorishly in a loud voice and ‘flailing with his arms’.120 As Meyerhold concluded, the effect was to deprive Chekhov’s play of its hero: ‘when the curtain falls one senses no such presence and one retains only an impression of “types”’.121
The Moscow Arts’ production of The Cherry Orchard, which became the standard view, has taken us away from the real conception of the play - and from the real Chekhov, too. For everything suggests that, by temperament and background, he identified himself with the outsider crashing through the barriers of society. Like Lopakhin,
Chekhov’s father was a merchant who had risen from the enserfed peasantry. He taught himself to play the violin, sang in the church choir, and became the choir master in the Taganrog cathedral in 1864. Chekhov shared his father’s industry. He understood that common people could be artists, too. Far from lamenting the old gentry world, his last play embraces the cultural forces that emerged in Moscow on the eve of the twentieth century.
On a trip to the city in the 1900s Diaghilev remarked that in the visual arts Moscow produced everything worth looking at. Moscow was the centre of the avant-garde; Petersburg was ‘a city of artistic gossiping, academic professors and Friday watercolour classes’.122 Coming as it did from an arch-patriot of Petrine culture, this was a remarkable acknowledgement. But Moscow really was the place to be in 1900, when the Russian avant-garde first burst on to the scene. Along with Paris, Berlin and Milan, it became a major centre in the world of art, and its extraordinary collection of avant-garde artists were as much influenced by trends in Europe as they were by Moscow’s heritage. Its progressive politics, its relaxed atmosphere, its noisy modern ways and new technologies - there was so much in Moscow’s cultural milieu to inspire artists in experimental forms. The poet Mikhail Kuzmin, another patriot of Petersburg, noted on a trip to Moscow at this time:
… the loud Moscow accent, the peculiar words, the way they clicked their heels as they walked along, the Tatar cheekbones and eyes, the moustaches twirled upwards, the shocking neckties, brightly coloured waistcoats and jackets, the sheer bravado and implacability of their ideas and judgements -all this made me think: new people have come forward.123
Moscow’s younger generation of merchant patrons embraced and collected modern art. They saw it as an ally of their own campaign to transform the old Russia along modern lines. As young playboys and decadents, these rich merchants’ sons moved in the same bohemian circles, the cafes, clubs and parties, as the young artists of the Moscow avant-garde. The poet Andrei Bely recalled sardonically that the Society of Free Aesthetics, the most fashionable of the artists’ clubs in Moscow, had been forced to close in 1917 because of an ‘excess of lady millionaires’. The merchant couples were everywhere, Bely noted.
The husbands would give subsidies to societies that tried to obtain something from us with the persistence of goats. The wives were languorous and, like Venuses, they would appear from a beautiful gossamer of muslin and diamond constellations.124
The most colourful of these younger merchant patrons was Nikolai Riabushinsky, who was famous for his decadent lifestyle - ‘I love beauty and I love a lot of women’ - and for his outrageous parties at his Moscow mansion, the Black Swan. Riabushinsky promoted avant-garde artists in the journal Golden Fleece and its exhibitions between 1908 and 1910. From his patronage stemmed the Blue Rose group of Moscow Symbolist painters who, together with their literary confreres and composers like Alexander Scriabin, sought a synthesis of art with poetry, music, religion and philosophy. Riabushinky also funded the famous ‘Jack of Diamonds’ exhibitions (1910-14), at which more than forty of the city’s youngest and most brilliant artists (Kandinsky, Malevich, Goncharova, Larionov, Lentulov, Rodchenko and Tatlin) declared war on the realist tradition and shocked the public with their art. Exhibits were assembled from a broken table leg, a sheet of iron and bits of a glass jug. Painters decorated their own naked bodies and walked as works of art through Moscow’s streets.
The critics fumed with rage. Sergei Yablonovsky said that none of it was art - whereupon Lentulov squeezed out some ochre paint on to a piece of cardboard and hung it in the exhibition he had criticized, with the caption ‘Sergei Yablonovsky’s Brain’.125 In other art forms, too, Moscow led the way in experimentation. Meyerhold branched out from the naturalism of the Moscow Arts to experiment with Symbolist drama, establishing his Theatre Studio, with its highly stylized acting, in 1905. Scriabin was the first Russian composer to experiment with what was later known as ‘serial music’ (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were doing the same thing). Scriabin was an inspiration to the avant-garde. The young Stravinsky was greatly influenced by Scriabin (and mortified to learn that Scriabin did not know his music when he went to visit him in 1913).126 In 1962, when Stravinsky revisited Russia for the first time after the 1917 Revolution, he made a pilgrimage to the Scriabin Museum in Moscow and learned that it had become a sort of underground meeting place for avant-garde electronic composers. The writer Boris Pasternak, a Scriabin devotee,* blazed the Futurist trail in poetry along with Vladimir Mayakovsky, his close friend and (from 1906) a fellow Muscovite. They were searching for a new poetic language and they heard it in the discord of the Moscow streets:
from the mouth of a tram,
hidden by clock-faces of a tower.
We are conquered!
The bodice of a soul is unfastened.
Hands burn the body.
Scream, or don’t scream:
’I didn’t mean…’ -
The prickly wind
a shred of smoky wool
* The poet’s father, Leonid Pasternak, was a fashionable painter in Moscow and his
mother, Rozalia Kaufman, a well-known pianist. Scriabin was a close friend of the
family. Under his impact the teenage Boris studied music composition for six years. ‘I loved music more than anything else, and I loved Scriabin more than anyone else in the world of music. Scriabin was my god and idol’ (F. Bowers, Scriabin, 2 vols. (London,
1969), vol. 1, p. 321).
from a chimney.
A bald-head streetlamp
a black stocking
from the street.127
Malevich called Maytovsky’s ‘From Street into Street’ (1913) the finest illustration of ‘versified Cubism’.128
Marina Tsvetaeva was equally a poet of Moscow. Her father was Ivan Tsvetaev, sometime professor of Art History at Moscow University and the founding director of the Pushkin Gallery, so, like Pasternak, she grew up in the middle of the Moscow intelligentsia. The spirit of the city breathed in every line of her poetry. She herself once wrote that her early verse was meant to ‘elevate the name of Moscow to the level of the name of Akhmatova… I wanted to present in myself Moscow… not with the goal of conquering Petersburg but of giving Moscow to Petersburg’:
Cupolas blaze in my singing city,
And a wandering blind man praises the Holy Saviour,
And I present to you my city of church bells
- Akhmatova! - and also my heart.129
Through their friendship in these years, Tsvetaeva gave Moscow to fellow poet Mandelstam as well. ‘It was a magic gift’, wrote the poet’s wife Nadezhda, ‘because with only Petersburg, without Moscow, it would have been impossible to breathe freely, to acquire the true feeling for Russia.’130
After 1917 Moscow superseded Petersburg. It became the Soviet capital, the cultural centre of the state, a city of modernity and a model of the new industrial society the Bolsheviks wanted to build. Moscow was the workshop of the avant-garde, the left-wing artists of the Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) and Constructivists like Malevich and Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova, who sought to construct the new Soviet man and society through art. It was a city of unprecedented freedom and experimentation in life as in art, and the avant-garde believed, if only for a few years in the 1920s, that they saw their ideal city taking shape in it. Tatlin’s ‘tower’ - his unrealized design for a monument to the Third International on Red Square - expressed these revolutionary hopes. A giant striding figure to be made out of steel and iron girders, tiered and rounded like the churches of medieval Muscovy, his would-be creation symbolized the city’s messianic role, in the words of the refrain of the Internationale, to ‘make the world anew’. From the old idea of Moscow as the Third Rome to the Soviet one of it as leader of the Third International, it was but a short step in the city’s mission to save humanity.
Soviet Moscow was supremely confident, its confidence reflected in the huge building projects of the 1930s, the mass manufacture of motor cars, the first metros, and the forward-upward images of Socialist Realist ‘art’. Moscow’s old wooden houses were bulldozed. Churches were destroyed. A vast new parade route was constructed through the centre of the city: the old Tver Boulevard was broadened out (and renamed Gorky Street), a Revolution Square was laid out on the site of the old market, and Red Square was cleared of its market stalls. In this way the Lenin Mausoleum, the sacred altar of the Revolution, became the destination of the mass parades on May Day and Revolution Day. With their armed march past the Kremlin, the citadel of Holy Russia, these parades were imitations of the old religious processions they had replaced. There were even plans to blow up St Basil’s cathedral so that the marchers could file past the Revolution’s leaders, standing in salute on the Mausoleum’s roof, and march off in one unbroken line.
Stalin’s Moscow was thus recast as an imperial city - a Soviet Petersburg - and, like that unreal city, it became a subject of apocalyp-tic myths. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1940), the Devil visits Moscow and brings its cultural temples crashing down; Satan descends on the city in the person of a magician called Woland, with a band of sorcerers and a supernatural cat called Behemoth. They cause havoc in the capital, exposing it as morally corrupt, before flying off from the Sparrow Hills, where Napoleon (that other devil) had first set his sights on the city. Flying off with them was a young Moscow girl called Margarita, who had sacrificed herself to Woland so as to redeem her beloved Master, the author of a suppressed manuscript about Pontius Pilate and the trial of Christ. As their horses leaped into the air and galloped upwards to the sky, Margarita ‘turned round in flight and saw that not only the many-coloured towers but the whole city had long vanished from sight, swallowed by the earth, leaving only mist and smoke where it had been’.131
And yet throughout the twentieth century Moscow was still ‘home’. It was still the mother city it had always been, and, when Hitler attacked it in the autumn of 1941, its people fought to defend it. There was no question of abandoning the city, as Kutuzov had abandoned it to Napoleon in 1812. A quarter of a million Muscovites dug last-ditch defences, carted food to the soldiers at the front and cared for the injured in their homes. With one last desperate effort the Germans were pushed back from the city’s gates - a spot still marked today by a giant iron cross on the road from Moscow to the Sheremetevo airport. It was not the Soviet capital but Mother Moscow which was saved. In the words of Pasternak:
A haze of legend will be cast Over all, like scroll and spiral Bedecking gilded boyar chambers And the Cathedral of St Basil.
By midnight denizens and dreamers Moscow most of all is cherished. Here is their home, the fount of all With which this century will flourish.132