Overleaf: A typical one-street village in central Russia, c. 1910


In the summer of 1874 thousands of students left their lecture halls in Moscow and St Petersburg and travelled incognito to the countryside to start out on a new life with the Russian peasantry. Renouncing their homes and families, they were ‘going to the people’ in the hopeful expectation of finding a new nation in the brotherhood of man. Few of these young pioneers had ever seen a village, but they all imagined it to be a harmonious community that testified to the natural socialism of the Russian peasantry. They thus convinced themselves that they would find in the peasant a soul mate and an ally of their democratic cause. The students called themselves the Populists (narodniki), ‘servants of the people’ (the narod), and they gave themselves entirely to the ‘people’s cause’. Some of them tried to dress and talk like peasants, so much did they identify themselves with their ‘simple way of life’. One of them, a Jew, even wore a cross in the belief that this might bring him closer to the ‘peasant soul’.1 They picked up trades and crafts to make themselves more useful to the peasantry, and they brought books and pamphlets to teach the peasants how to read. By merging with the people and sharing in the burdens of their lives, these young revolutionaries hoped to win their trust and make them understand the full horror of their social condition.

Yet this was no ordinary political movement. The ‘going to the people’ was a form of pilgrimage, and the type of person who became involved in it was similar to those who went in search of truth to a monastery. These young missionaries were riddled with the guilt of privilege. Many of them felt a personal guilt towards that class of serfs - the nannies and the servants - who had helped to bring them up in their families’ aristocratic mansions. They sought to free themselves from their parents’ sinful world, whose riches had been purchased by the people’s sweat and blood, and set out for the village in a spirit of repentance to establish a ‘New Russia’ in which the noble and the peasant would be reunited in the nation’s spiritual rebirth. By dedicating themselves to the people’s cause - to the liberation of the peasantry from poverty and ignorance and from the oppression of the gentry and the state - the students hoped to redeem their own sin: that of being born into privilege. ‘We have come to realize’, the prominent Populist theoretician Nikolai Mikhailovsky wrote, ‘that our awareness of the universal truth could only have been reached at the cost of the age-old suffering of the people. We are the people’s debtors and this debt weighs down our conscience.’2

What had given rise to these idealistic hopes was the emancipation of the serfs. Writers such as Dostoevsky compared the Decree of 1861 to the conversion of Russia to Christianity in the tenth century. They spoke about the need for the landlord and the peasant to overcome their old divisions and become reconciled by nationality. For, as Dostoevsky wrote in 1861, ‘every Russian is a Russian first of all, and only after that does he belong to a class’.3 The educated classes were called upon to recognize their ‘Russianness’ and to turn towards the peasants as a cultural mission - educating them as citizens and reuniting Russia on the basis of a national literature and art.

It was such a vision that inspired the students to go to the people. Brought up as they were in the European world of the noble palace and the university, they were on a journey to an unknown land and a new and moral life based on ‘Russian principles’. They saw the emancipation as an exorcism of Russia’s sinful past - and out of that a new nation would be born. The writer Gleb Uspensky, who joined the Populists in their ‘going to the people’, vowed to start a new life in ‘the year of’ 61’. ‘It was utterly impossible to take any of my personal past forward… To live at all I had to forget the past entirely and erase all the traits which it had instilled in my own personality.’4

Some of the Populists who left their parents’ homes to live in labouring communes’ where everything was shared (sometimes including lovers) according to the principles set out by the radical critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his seminal novel What Is to Be Done (1862). Here was a novel that offered its readers a blueprint of the new society. It became a bible for the revolutionaries, including the young Lenin, who said that his whole life had been transformed by it. Most of these communes soon broke down: the students could not bear the strains of agricultural work, let alone the taste of peasant food, and there were endless squabbles over property and love affairs. But the spirit of the commune, the ascetic lifestyle and material-ist beliefs which the students had imbibed from Chernyshevsky, continued to inspire their rejection of the old society. This generation gap was the subject of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children (1862) (often mistranslated as Fathers and Sons). It was set in the student protest culture of the early 1860s when the call of youth for direct action in the people’s name opened up a conflict with the ‘men of the forties’, liberal men of letters like Turgenev and Herzen, who were content to criticize the existing state of affairs without addressing the future. Nineteenth-century Russia had its ‘sixties’ movement, too.

’The peasants have completely overwhelmed us in our literature’, wrote Turgenev to Pavel Annenkov in 1858. ‘Yet I am beginning to suspect that we still don’t really understand them or anything about their lives.’5 Turgenev’s doubts were at the heart of his critique of the student ‘nihilists’ (as they were called). But they applied equally to the intelligentsia’s obsession with the ‘peasant question’, which dominated Russian culture after 1861. With the emancipation of the serfs, the rest of society was forced to recognize the peasant as a fellow citizen. Suddenly the old accursed questions about Russia’s destiny became bound up with the peasant’s true identity. Was he good or bad? Could he be civilized? What could he do for Russia? And where did he come from? No one knew the answers. For, in the famous lines of the poet Nekrasov:

Russia is contained in the rural depths Where eternal silence reigns.6

Armies of folklorists set out to explore these rural depths. ‘The study of the people is the science of our times’, declared Fedor Buslaev in 1868.7 Ethnographic museums were set up in Moscow and St Petersburg - their aim being, in the words of one of their founders, Ivan Beliaev, ‘to acquaint the Russians with their own nation’.8 The public was astounded by the peasant costumes and utensils on display, the photographs and mock-ups of their living quarters in the various regions of the countryside. They seemed to have come from some exotic colony. In almost every field of serious enquiry - geography, philosophy, theology, philology, mythology and archaeology - the question of the peasant was the question of the day.

SERF ARTISTS. Nikolai Argunov: Portrait of Praskovya Sheremeteva (1802). At the time of this portrait the serf singer’s marriage to Count Sheremetev (whose image is depicted in the miniature) was concealed from the public and the court. Argunov was the first Russian artist of serf origin to be elected to the Imperial icademy of Arts.


Left: Vasily Tropinin: Portrait of Pushkin (1827). Wearing a khalat, the writer is portrayed as a European gentleman yet perfectly at ease with the customs of his native land.

Below: Alexei Venetsianov: Morning of the Lady of the Manor (1823), a picture of what Herzen called the ‘feudal bond of affection’ between the noble family and its household serfs.

RUSSIAN PASTORAL. Above: Venetsianov: In the Ploughed Field: Spring 1827), an idealized depiction of the female agricultural labourer in traditional Russian dress. Below: Vasily Perov: Hunters at Rest (1871). Like Turgenev, Perov portrays hunting as a recreation that brought the social classes together. Here the squire (left) and the peasant (right) share their food and drink.


Above: The Kremlin’s Terem Palace restored in the1850s by Fedor Solntsev in the seventeenth-century Muscovite style, complete with tiled ovens and kokoshnik-shaped arches. Below: Vasily Surikov: The Boyar’s Wife Morozova (1884). The faces were all drawn by Surikov from Old Believers living in Moscow.

The Faberge Workshop in Moscow crafted objects in a Russian style that was very different from the Classical and Rococo jewels it made in Petersburg. Above: Imperial Presentation Kovsh (an ancient type of ladle) in green nephrite, gold, enamel and diamonds, presented by the Tsar Nicholas II to the French Ambassador in 1906. Below: Silver siren vase by Sergei Vashkov (1908). The female bird wears a kokoshnik and her wings are set with tourmalines.


CAUSE. Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Vladimir Stasov (1873), the nationalist critic whose dogmatic views on the need for art to engage with the people were a towering and, at times, oppressive influence on Musorgsky and Repin. ‘What a picture of the Master you have made!’ the composer wrote. ‘He seems to crawl out of the canvas and into the room.’ Below: Repin: The Volga Barge Haulers (1873,). Stasov saw the painting as a commen- tary on the latent force of social protest in the Russian people. Opposite: Ivan Kramskoi: The Peasant Ignatii Pirogov (1874) - a startlingly ethnographic portrait of the peasant as an individual human being.

Leon Bakst: Portrait of Diaghilev with his Nanny (1906). Diaghilev had never known his mother, who had died when he was born.

Writers, too, immersed themselves in peasant life. In the words of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the peasant had become ‘the hero of our time’.9 The literary image of the Russian peasant in the early nineteenth century was by and large a sentimental one: he was a stock character with human feelings rather than a thinking individual. Everything changed in 1852, with the publication of Turgenev’s masterpiece, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. Here, for the first time in Russian literature, readers were confronted with the image of the peasant as a rational human being, as opposed to the sentient victim depicted in previous sentimental literature. Turgenev portrayed the peasant as a person capable of both practical administration and lofty dreams. He felt a profound sympathy for the Russian serf. His mother, who had owned the large estate in Orel province where he grew up, was cruel and ruthless in punishing her serfs. She had them beaten or sent off to a penal colony in Siberia - often for some minor crime. Turgenev describes her regime in his terrifying story ‘Punin and Barburin’ (1874), and also in the unforgettable ‘Mumu’ (1852), where the princess has a serf’s dog shot because it barks. Sketches from a Hunter’s Album played a crucial role in changing public attitudes towards the serfs and the question of reform. Turgenev later said that the proudest moment in his life came shortly after 1861, when two peasants approached him on a train from Orel to Moscow and bowed down to the ground in the Russian manner to ‘thank him in the name of the whole people’.10

Of all those writing about peasants, none was more inspiring to the Populists than Nikolai Nekrasov. Nekrasov’s poetry gave a new, authentic voice to the ‘vengeance and the sorrow’ of the peasantry. It was most intensely heard in his epic poem Who Is Happy in Russia? (1863-78), which became a holy chant among the Populists. What attracted them to Nekrasov’s poetry was not just its commitment to the people’s cause, but its angry condemnation of the gentry class, from which Nekrasov himself came. His verse was littered with colloquial expressions that were taken directly from peasant speech. Poems such as On the Road (1844) or The Peddlers (1861) were practically tran-scriptions of peasant dialogue. The men of the forties, such as Turg-enev, who were brought up to regard the language of the peasants as too coarse to be ‘art’, accused Nekrasov of launching an ‘assault on poetry’.11 But the students were inspired by his verse.

The question of the peasant may have been the question of the day. But every answer was a myth. As Dostoevsky wrote:

The question of the people and our view of them… is our most important question, a question on which our whole future rests… But the people are still a theory for us and they still stand before us as a riddle. We, the lovers of the people, regard them as part of a theory, and it seems not one of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be. And should the Russian people turn out not as we imagined them, then we, despite our love of them, would at once renounce them without regret.12

Each theory ascribed certain virtues to the peasant which it then took as the essence of the national character. For the Populists, the peasant was a natural socialist, the embodiment of the collective spirit that distinguished Russia from the bourgeois West. Democrats like Herzen saw the peasant as a champion of liberty - his wildness embodying the spirit of the Russia that was free. The Slavophiles regarded him as a Russian patriot, suffering and patient, a humble follower of truth and justice, like the folk hero Ilia Muromets. They argued that the peasant commune was a living proof that Russia need not look beyond its national borders for guiding moral principles. ‘A commune,’ declared one of the movement’s founding members, Konstantin Aksakov, ‘is a union of the people who have renounced their egoism, their individuality, and who express their common accord; this is an act of love, a noble Christian act.’13 Dostoevsky, too, saw the peasant as a moral animal, the embodiment of the ‘Russian soul’; once he even claimed, in a famous argument, that the simple ‘kitchen muzhik’ was morally superior to any bourgeois European gentleman. The peasants, he maintained, ‘will show us a new path’, and, far from having something to teach them, ‘it is we who must bow down before the people’s truth’.14

This convergence on the peasant issue was indicative of a broader national consensus or ideology which emerged in Russia at this time. The old arguments between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles gradually died down as each side came to recognize the need for Russia to find a proper balance between Western learning and native principles. There were hints of such a synthesis as early as 1847, when the doyen of the Westernizers, the radical critic Belinsky, said that, as far as art was concerned, he was ‘inclined to side with the Slavophiles’ against the cosmopolitans.15 For their part, the younger Slavophiles were moving to the view in the 1850s that ‘the nation’ was contained in all classes of society, not just the peasants, as the older ones maintained. Some even argued, in a way that made them virtually indistinguishable from the Westernizers, that the nation’s true arena was the civic sphere and that Russia’s progress in the world was dependent on the raising of the peasants to that sphere.16 In short, by the 1860s there was a common view that Russia should evolve along a European path of liberal reform, yet not break too sharply from its unique historical traditions. It was a case of keeping Peter and the peasant, too. This was the position of the ‘native soil’ movement to which Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail belonged in the 1860s.

Populism was the cultural product of this synthesis and, as such, it became something of a national creed. The romantic interest in folk culture which swept through Europe in the nineteenth century was nowhere felt more keenly than among the Russian intelligentsia. As the poet Alexander Blok wrote (with just a touch of irony) in 1908:

… the intelligentsia cram their bookcases with anthologies of folk-songs, epics, legends, incantations, dirges; they investigate Russian mythology, wedding, and funeral rites; they grieve for the people; go to the people; are filled with high hopes; fall into despair; they even give up their lives, face execution or starve to death for the people’s cause.17

The intelligentsia was defined by its mission of service to the people, just as the noble class was defined by its service to the state; and the intelligentsia lived by the view, which many of its members came to regret, that ‘the good of the people’ was the highest interest, to which all other principles, such as law or Christian precepts, were subordinate. Such attitudes were so endemic that they were even shared by members of the court, the state administration and the aristocracy. The liberal spirit of reform which had brought about the emancipation continued to inform the government’s approach towards the peasantry in the 1 860s and 1870s. With the peasant’s liberation from the gentry’s jurisdiction there was a recognition that he had become the state’s responsibility: he had become a citizen.

After 1861 the government set up a whole range of institutions to improve the welfare of its peasant citizens and integrate them into national life. Most of these initiatives were carried out by the new assemblies of local government, the zemstvos, established at the district and provincial level in 1864. The zemstvos were run by paternal squires of the sort who fill the pages of Tolstoy and Chekhov -liberal, well-meaning men who dreamed of bringing civilization to the backward countryside. With limited resources, they founded schools and hospitals; provided veterinary and agronomic services for the peasantry; built new roads and bridges; invested in local trades and industries; financed insurance schemes and rural credit; and carried out ambitious statistical surveys to prepare for more reforms at a future date.* The optimistic expectations of the zemstvo liberals were widely shared by the upper classes of society. There was a general attitude of paternal populism - a sympathy for the people and their cause which induced the high-born from all walks of life to support the students radicals.

The Minister of Justice, in a report to the Tsar, listed a whole catalogue of foolish acts in the ‘mad summer’ of 1874: the wife of a colonel in the Gendarmes had passed on secret information to her son; a rich landowner and magistrate had hidden one of the leading revolutionaries; a professor had introduced a propagandist to his students; and the families of several state councillors had given warm approval to their children’s revolutionary activities.18 Even Turgenev, who saw the solution to the peasant problem in liberal reform, could not help admiring (and perhaps envying) the idealistic passion of these revolutionaries.19 He mixed in their circles in France and Switzerland, and he even gave some money to the Populist theorist Pyotr Lavrov

* The hopes of the zemstvo liberals were never realized. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the powers of the zemstvos were severely curtailed by the government of the new Tsar, Alexander III, who looked upon the zemstvos as dangerous breeding grounds for radicals. Many of the students who had taken part in the ‘going to the people’ ended up as zemstvo employees - teachers, doctors, statisticians and agronomists whose democratic politics attracted the police. Police raids were carried out on zemstvo offices - including even hospitals and lunatic asylums - in the search for such ‘revolutionaries’. They even arrested noblewomen for teaching peasant children how to read. (A. Tyrkogo-Williams, To, chego bol’she ne budet (Paris, n.d.), p. 153).

(whose writings had inspired the student radicals) so that he could publish his journal Forwards! in Europe.20 In his novel Virgin Soil (1877), Turgenev gave a portrait of the types who answered Lavrov’s call. Though he saw through the illusions of the Populists, he managed to convey his admiration, too. These ‘young people are mostly good and honest’, he wrote to a friend on finishing the novel in 1876, ‘but their course is so false and impractical that it cannot fail to lead them to complete fiasco’.21

Which is just how it turned out. Most of the students were met by a cautious suspicion or hostility on the part of the peasants, who listened humbly to their revolutionary sermons without really understanding anything they said. The peasants were wary of the students’ learning and their urban ways, and in many places they reported them to the authorities. Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, later one of Russia’s leading socialists, found herself in jail after the peasant woman with whom she was staying in the Kiev region ‘took fright at the sight of all my books and denounced me to the constable’.22 The socialist ideas of the Populists were strange and foreign to the peasantry, or at least they could not understand them in the terms in which they were explained to them. One propagandist gave the peasants a beautiful account of the future socialist society in which all the land would belong to the toilers and nobody would exploit anybody else. Suddenly a peasant triumphantly exclaimed: ‘Won’t it be just lovely when we divide up the land? I’ll hire two labourers and what a life I’ll have!’23 As for the idea of turning out the Tsar, this met with complete incomprehension and even angry cries from the villagers, who looked upon the Tsar as a human god. ‘How can we live without a Tsar?’ they said.24

Rounded up by the police, forced into exile or underground, the Populists returned from their defeat in deep despair. They had invested so much of their own personalities in their idealized conception of the peasantry, they had hung so much of their personal salvation on the ‘people’s cause’, that to see them both collapse was a catastrophic blow to their identity. The writer Gleb Uspensky, to cite an extreme and tragic example, eventually became insane after many years of trying to reconcile himself to the stark reality of peasant life; and many of the Populists were driven to the bottle by this rude awakening. It was suddenly made clear that the idea of the peasantry they had in their minds did not in fact exist - it was no more than a theory and a myth - and that they were cut off from the actual peasants by a cultural, social and intellectual abyss that they could not hope to bridge. Like an unsolved riddle, the peasant remained unknown and perhaps unknowable.


In the summer of 1870 Ilia Repin left St Petersburg for ‘an undiscovered land’.25 Together with his brother and a fellow student painter called Fedor Vasilev, he travelled by steamer down the Volga river as far as the town of Stavropol, about 700 kilometres east of Moscow. The young artist’s aim was to make a study of the peasants for a painting he had planned of the Volga barge haulers. The idea of the picture had first come to him in the summer of 1868, when he had observed a team of haulers trudging wearily along a river bank near St Petersburg. Repin had originally thought to contrast these sad figures with a well-groomed group of happy picnickers. It would have been a typical example of the sort of expository genre painting favoured by most Russian realists at the time. But he was dissuaded from this propagandist picture by his friend Vasilev, a gifted landscape painter from the Wanderers’ school, who persuaded him to depict the haulers on their own.

It took two years to obtain the finance and the permits for their trip - the Tsarist authorities being naturally suspicious of the art students and fearing that they might have revolutionary aims. For three months Repin lived among the former serfs of Shiriayevo, a village overlooking the Volga near Samara. He filled his sketchbooks with ethnographic details of their fishing boats and nets, their household utensils and rag-made shoes and clothes. The villagers did not want to be drawn. They believed that the Devil stole a person’s soul when his image was depicted on the page. One day they discovered Repin trying to persuade a group of village girls to pose for him. They accused the painter of the Devil’s work and demanded his ‘passport’, threatening to hand him over to the local constable. The only document which Repin had on him was a letter from the Academy of Arts. The impressive Imperial insignia on the letterhead was enough to restore calm. ‘See,’ said the village scribe who scrutinized the ‘passport’, ‘he comes to us from the Tsar.’26

Eventually the painter found a team of haulers who, for a fee, allowed him to sketch them. For several weeks he lived with these human beasts of burden. As he got to know them, he came to see their individual personalities. One had been an icon painter; another a soldier; and a third, named Kanin, was formerly a priest. Repin was struck by the sheer waste of talent in their bestial servitude. Strapped into their riggings, their noble faces weathered, the haulers were for him ‘like Greek philosophers, sold as slaves to the barbarians’.27 Their bondage was a symbol of the Russian people’s oppressed creativity. Kanin, Repin thought, had ‘the character of Russia on his face’:

There was something eastern and ancient about it… the face of a Scyth… And what eyes! What depth of vision!… And his brow, so large and wise… He seemed to me a colossal mystery, and for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his clothes in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared none the less as a man of dignity: he was like a saint.28

In the final painting of The Volga Barge Haulers (1873) (plate n) it is this human dignity that stands out above all. The image at the time was extraordinary and revolutionary. Hitherto, even in the paintings of a democratic artist such as Alexei Venetsianov, the image of the peasant had been idealized or sentimentalized. But each of Repin’s boatmen had been drawn from life and each face told its own story of private suffering. Stasov saw the painting as a comment on the latent force of social protest in the Russian people, a spirit symbolized in the gesture of one young man readjusting his shoulder strap. But Dostoevsky praised the painting for its lack of crude tendentiousness, seeing it instead as an epic portrait of the Russian character. What Repin meant, however, is more difficult to judge. For his whole life was a struggle between politics and art.

Repin was a ‘man of the sixties’-a decade of rebellious questioning in the arts as well as in society. In the democratic circles in which he moved it was generally agreed that the duty of the artist was to focus

13. Ilia Repin: sketches for The Volga Barge Haulers, 1870

the attention of society on the need for social justice by showing how the common people really lived. There was a national purpose in this, too: for, if art was to be true and meaningful, if it was to teach the people how to feel and live, it needed to be national in the sense that it had its roots in the people’s daily lives. This was the argument of Stasov, the domineering mentor of the national school in all the arts.

Russian painters, he maintained, should give up imitating European art and look to their own people for artistic styles and themes. Instead of classical or biblical subjects they should depict ‘scenes from the village and the city, remote corners of the provinces, the god-forsaken life of the lonely clerk, the corner of a lonely cemetery, the confusion of a market place, every joy and sorrow which grows and lives in peasant huts and opulent mansions’.29 Vladimir Stasov was the self-appointed champion of civic realist art. He took up the cause of the Wanderers in art, and the kuchkists in music, praising each in turn for their break from the European style of the Academy, and pushing each in their own way to become more ‘Russian’. Virtually every artist and composer of the 1860s and 1870s found himself at some point in Stasov’s tight embrace. The critic saw himself as the driver of a troika that would soon bring Russian culture on to the world stage. Repin, Musorgsky and the sculptor Antokolsky were its three horses.30

Mark Antokolsky was a poor Jewish boy from Vilna who had entered the Academy at the same time as Repin and had been among fourteen students who left it in protest against its formal rules of classicism, to set up an artel, or commune of free artists, in 1863. Antokolsky quickly rose to fame for a series of sculptures of daily life in the Jewish ghetto which were hailed as the first real triumph of democratic art by all the enemies of the Academy. Stasov placed himself as Antokolsky’s mentor, publicized his work and badgered him, as only Stasov could, to produce more sculptures on national themes. The critic was particularly enthusiastic about The Persecution of the Jews in the Spanish Inquisition (first exhibited in 1867), a work which Antokolsky never really finished but for which he did a series of studies. Stasov saw it as an allegory of political and national oppression - a subject as important to the Russians as to the Jews.31

Repin identified with Antokolsky. He, too, had come from a poor provincial family - the son of a military settler (a type of state-owned peasant) from a small town called Chuguev in the Ukraine. He had learned his trade as an icon painter before entering the Academy and, like the sculptor, he felt out of place in the elite social milieu of Petersburg. Both men were inspired by an older student, Ivan Kram-skoi, who led the protest in 1863. Kramskoi was important as a portraitist. He painted lending figures such as Tolstoy and Nekrasov, but he also painted unknown peasants. Earlier painters such as Venetsi-anov had portrayed the peasant as an agriculturalist. But Kramskoi painted him against a plain background, and he focused on the face, drawing viewers in towards the eyes and forcing them to enter the inner world of people they had only yesterday treated as slaves. There were no implements or scenic landscapes, no thatched huts or ethnographic details to distract the viewer from the peasant’s gaze or reduce the tension of this encounter. This psychological concentration was without precedent in the history of art, not just in Russia but in Europe, too, where even artists such as Courbet and Millet were still depicting peasants in the fields.

It was through Kramskoi and Antokolsky that Repin came into the circle of Stasov in 1869, at the very moment the painter was preparing his own portrait of the peasantry in The Volga Barge Haulers. Stasov encouraged him to paint provincial themes, which were favoured at that time by patrons such as Tretiakov and the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, the Tsar’s younger son, who, of all people, had commissioned the Barge Haulers and eventually put these starving peasants in his sumptuous dining room. Under Stasov’s domineering influence, Repin produced a series of provincial scenes following the success of the Barge Haulers in 1873. They were all essentially populist - not so much politically but in the general sense of the 1870s, when everybody thought the way ahead for Russia was to get a better knowledge of the people and their lives. For Repin, having just returned from his first trip to Europe in 1873-6, this goal was connected to his cultural rediscovery of the Russian provinces - ‘that huge forsaken territory that interests nobody’, as he wrote to Stasov in 1876, ‘and about which people speak with derision or contempt; and yet it is here that the simple people live, and do so more authentically than we’.32

Musorgsky was roughly the same age as Repin and Antokolsky but he had joined Stasov’s stable a decade earlier, in 1858, when he was aged just nineteen. As the most historically minded and musically original of Balakirev’s students, the young composer was patronized by Stasov and pushed in the direction of national themes. Stasov never let up in his efforts to direct his protege’s interests and musical approach. He cast himself in loco parentis, visiting the ‘youngster’ Musorgsky (then thirty-two) when he shared a room with Rimsky-

Korsakov (then twenty-seven) in St Petersburg. Stasov would arrive early in the morning, help the men get out of bed and wash, fetch their clothes, prepare tea and sandwiches for them, and then, as he put it, when ‘we [got] down to our business [my emphasis - O. F.]’, he would listen to the music they had just composed or give them new historical materials and ideas for their works.33 The Populist conception of Boris Godunov (in its revised version with the Kromy scene) is certainly in line with Stasov’s influence. In a general sense all Musorgsky’s operas are ‘about the people’ - if one understands that as the nation as a whole. Even Kbovanshchina - which drove Stasov mad with all its ‘princely spawn’34 - carried the subtitle ‘A national [people’s] music history’ (‘narodnaya muzikal’naya drama’). Musorgsky explained his Populist approach in a letter to Repin, written in August 1873, congratulating him on his Barge Haulers:

It is the people I want to depict: when I sleep I see them, when I eat I think of them, when I drink I can see them rise before me in all their reality, huge, unvarnished, and without tinsel trappings! And what an awful (in the true sense of that word) richness there is for the composer in the people’s speech -as long as there’s a corner of our land that hasn’t been ripped open by the railway.35

And yet there were tensions between Musorgsky and the Populist agenda set out for him by Stasov - tensions which have been lost in the cultural politics that have always been attached to the composer’s name.36 Stasov was crucially important in Musorgsky’s life: he discovered him; he gave him the material for much of his greatest work; and he championed his music, which had been unknown in Europe in his lifetime and would surely have been forgotten after his death, had it not been for Stasov. But the critic’s politics were not entirely shared by the composer, whose feeling for ‘the people’, as he had explained to Repin, was primarily a musical response. Musorgsky’s populism was not political or philosophical - it was artistic. He loved folk songs and incorporated many of them in his works. The distinctive aspects of the Russian peasant song - its choral heterophony, its tonal shifts, drawn out melismatic passages which make it sound like a chant or a lament - became part of his own musical language. Above all, the folk song was the model for a new technique of choral writing which Musorgsky first developed in Boris Godunov. building up the different voices one by one, or in discordant groups, to create the sort of choral heterophony which he achieved, with such brilliant success, in the Kromy scene.

Musorgsky was obsessed with the craft of rendering human speech in musical sound. That is what he meant when he said that music should be a way of ‘talking with the people’ - it was not a declaration of political intent.* Following the mimetic theories of the German literary historian Georg Gervinus, Musorgsky believed that human speech was governed by musical laws - that a speaker conveys emotions and meaning by musical components such as rhythm, cadence, intonation, timbre, volume, tone, etc. ‘The aim of musical art’, he wrote in 1880, ‘is the reproduction in social sounds not only of modes of feeling but of modes of human speech.’37 Many of his most important compositions, such as the song cycle Savishna or the unfinished opera based on Gogol’s ‘Sorochintsy Fair’, represent an attempt to transpose into sound the distinctive qualities of Russian peasant speech. Listen to the music in Gogol’s tale:

I expect you will have heard at some time the noise of a distant waterfall, when the agitated environs are filled with tumult and a chaotic whirl of weird, indistinct sounds swirls before you. Do you not agree that the very same effect is produced the instant you enter the whirlpool of a village fair? All the assembled populace merges into a single monstrous creature, whose massive body stirs about the market-place and snakes down the narrow side-streets, shrieking, bellowing, blaring. The clamour, the cursing, mooing, bleating, roaring - all this blends into a single cacophonous din. Oxen, sacks, hay, gypsies, pots, wives, gingerbread, caps - everything is ablaze with clashing colours, and dances before your eyes. The voices drown one another and it is impossible to distinguish one word, to rescue any meaning from this babble; not a single exclamation can be understood with any clarity. The ears are

* It is telling, in this context, that the word he used for ‘people’ was ‘liudi’ - a word which has the meaning of individuals - although it has usually been translated to mean a collective mass (the sense of the other word for people - the ‘narod’). J. Leyda and S. Bertensson (eds.), The Musorgsky Reader: A Life of Modeste Petrovich Musorgsky in Letters and Documents (New York, 1947), pp. 84-5.

assailed on every side by the loud hand-clapping of traders all over the market-place. A cart collapses, the clang of metal rings in the air, wooden planks come crashing to the ground and the observer grows dizzy, as he turns his head this way and that.38

In Musorgsky’s final years tensions with his mentor became more acute. He withdrew from Stasov’s circle, pouring scorn on civic artists such as Nekrasov, and spending all his time in the alcoholic company of fellow aristocrats such as the salon poet Count Golenishchev-Kutuzov and the arch-reactionary T. I. Filipov. It was not that he became politically right-wing - now, as before, Musorgsky paid little attention to politics. Rather, he saw in their ‘art for art’s sake’ views a creative liberation from Stasov’s rigid dogma of politically engaged and idea-driven art. There was something in Musorgsky - his lack of formal schooling or his wayward, almost childlike character - that made him both depend on yet strive to break away from mentors like Stasov. We can feel this tension in the letter to Repin:

So, that’s it, glorious lead horse! The troika, if in disarray, bears what it has to bear. It doesn’t stop pulling… What a picture of the Master [Stasov] you have made! He seems to crawl out of the canvas and into the room. What will happen when it has been varnished? Life, power - pull, lead horse! Don’t get tired! I am just the side horse and I pull only now and then to escape disgrace. I am afraid of the whip!39

Antokolsky felt the same artistic impulse pulling him away from Stasov’s direction. He gave up working on the Inquisition, saying he was tired of civic art, and travelled throughout Europe in the 1870s, when he turned increasingly to pure artistic themes in sculptures like The Death of Socrates (1875-7) and Jesus Christ (1878). Stasov was irate. ‘You have ceased to be an artist of the dark masses, the unknown figure in the crowd’, he wrote to Antokolsky in 1883. ‘Your subjects have become the “aristocracy of man” - Moses, Christ, Spinoza, Socrates.’40

Even Repin, the ‘lead horse’, began to pull away from Stasov’s harnesses: he would no longer haul his Volga barge. He travelled to the West, fell in love with the Impressionists, and turned out French-styled portraits and pretty cafe scenes which could not have been farther from the Russian national school of utilitarian and thought-provoking art. ‘I have forgotten how to reflect and pass judgement on a work of art’, Repin wrote to Kramskoi from Paris, ‘and I don’t regret the loss of this faculty which used to eat me up; on the contrary, I would rather it never return, though I feel that back in my native land it will reclaim its right over me - that is the way things are there.’41 Stasov condemned Repin for his defection, charging him with the neglect of his artistic duty to the Russian people and his native land. Relations became strained to breaking point in the early 1890s, when Repin rejoined the Academy and reassessed his views of the classical tradition - effectively denying the whole national school. ‘Stasov loved his barbarian art, his small, fat, ugly, half-baked artists who screamed their profound human truths’, Repin wrote in 1892…42 For a while the artist even flirted with the World of Art - Benois and Diaghilev, or the ‘decadents’ as Stasov liked to call them - and their ideal of pure art. But the pull of ‘Russia’ was too strong - and in the end he patched up his relations with Stasov. However much he loved the light of France, Repin knew that he could not be an artist who was disengaged from the old accursed questions of his native land.


In 1855 Tolstoy lost his favourite house in a game of cards. For two days and nights he played shtoss with his fellow officers in the Crimea, losing all the time, until at last he confessed to his diary ‘the loss of everything - the Yasnaya Polyana house. I think there’s no point writing - I’m so disgusted with myself that I’d like to forget about my existence.’43 Much of Tolstoy’s life can be explained by that game of cards. This, after all, was no ordinary house, but the place where he was born, the home where he had spent his first nine years, and the sacred legacy of his beloved mother which had been passed down to him. Not that the old Volkonsky house was particularly impressive when Tolstoy, aged just nineteen, inherited the estate, with its 2,000 acres and 200 serfs, on his father’s death in 1847. The paint on the house had begun to flake, there was a leaky roof and a rotten verandah, the paths were full of weeds and the English garden had long gone to seed. But all the same it was precious to Tolstoy. ‘I wouldn’t sell the house for anything’, he had written to his brother in 1852. ‘It’s the last thing I’d be prepared to part with.’44 And yet now, to pay his gambling debts, Tolstoy was obliged to sell the house he was born in. He had tried to avoid the inevitable by selling all eleven of his other villages, together with their serfs, their timber stocks and horses, but the sum these had raised was still not quite enough to get him into the black. The house was purchased by a local merchant and dismantled, to be sold in lots.

Tolstoy moved into a smaller house, an annexe of the old Volkonsky manor, and, as if to atone for his sordid game of cards, he set about the task of restoring the estate to a model farm. There had been earlier projects of this kind. In 1847, when he had first arrived as the young landlord, he had set out to become a model farmer, a painter, a musician, a scholar and a writer, with the interests of his peasants close to heart. This was the subject of A Landowner’s Morning (1852) - the unfinished draft of what was intended to become a grand novel about a landowner (for which read: Tolstoy) who seeks a life of happiness and justice in the country and learns that it cannot be found in an ideal but in constant labour for the good of others less happy than himself. In that first period Tolstoy had proposed to reduce the dues of the serfs on his estate - but the serfs mistrusted his intentions and had turned his offer down. Tolstoy was annoyed - he had underestimated the gap between nobleman and serf - and he left the country-side for the high life of Moscow, then joined the army in the Caucasus. But by the time of his return in 1856, there was a new spirit of reform in the air. The Tsar had told the gentry to prepare for the liberation of their serfs. With new determination Tolstoy threw himself into the task of living with the peasants in a ‘life of truth’. He was disgusted with his former life - the gambling, the whoring, the excessive feasting and drinking, the embarrassment of riches, and the lack of any real work or purpose in his life. Like the Populists with their ‘going to the people’, he vowed to live a new life, a life of moral truth that was based on peasant labour and the brotherhood of man.

In 1859 Tolstoy set up his first school for the village children in Yasnaya Polyana; by 1862 there were thirteen schools in the locality,

    14. Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, late nineteenth century. The huts and fields in the foreground belong to the villagers

the teachers being drawn in the main from those students who had been expelled from their universities for their revolutionary views.45 Tolstoy became a magistrate, appointed by the Tsar to implement the emancipation manifesto, and angered all his colleagues, the leading squires of the Tula area, by siding with the peasants in their claims for land. On his own estate Tolstoy gave the peasants a sizeable proportion of his land - nowhere else in Russia was the manifesto fulfilled in a spirit of such generosity. Tolstoy almost yearned, it seemed, to give away his wealth. He dreamed of abandoning his privileged existence and living like a peasant on the land. For a while he even tried. In 1862 he settled down for good with his new wife, Sonya, at Yasnaya Polyana, dismissed all the stewards, and took charge of the farming by himself. The experiment was a complete failure. Tolstoy did not care for looking after pigs - and ended up deliberately starving them to death. He did not know how to cure hams, how to make butter, when to plough or hoe the fields, and he soon became fed up and ran away to Moscow, or locked himself away in his study, leaving everything to the hired labourers.46

The fantasy, however, would not go away. ‘Now let me tell you what I’ve just decided,’ he would tell the village children at his school. ‘I am going to give up my land and my aristocratic way of life and become a peasant. I shall build myself a hut at the edge of the village, marry a country woman, and work the land as you do: mowing, ploughing, and all the rest.’ When the children asked what he would do with the estate, Tolstoy said he would divide it up. ‘We shall own it all in common, as equals, you and me.’ And what, the children asked, if people laughed at him and said he had lost everything: ‘Won’t you feel ashamed?’ ‘What do you mean “ashamed”?’ the count answered gravely. ‘Is it anything to be ashamed of to work for oneself? Have your fathers ever told you they were ashamed to work? They have not. What is there to be ashamed of in a man feeding himself and his family by the sweat of his brow? If anybody laughs at me, here’s what I would say: there’s nothing to laugh at in a man’s working, but there is a great deal of shame and disgrace in his not working, and yet living better than others. That is what I am ashamed of. I eat, drink, ride horseback, play the piano, and still I feel bored. I say to myself: “You’re a do-nothing.”’47 Did he really mean it? Was he saying this to give the children pride in the life of peasant toil that awaited them or was he really planning to join them? Tolstoy’s life was full of contradictions and he never could decide if he should become a peasant or remain a nobleman. On the one hand he embraced the elite culture of the aristocracy. War and Peace is a novel that rejoices in that world. There were times while working on that epic novel - like the day one of the village schools shut down in 1863 - when he gave up on the peasants as a hopeless cause. They were capable neither of being educated nor of being understood. War and Peace would depict only ‘princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children’, he had promised in an early draft, because, as a nobleman himself, he could no more understand what a peasant might be thinking than he ‘could understand what a cow is thinking as it is being milked or what a horse is thinking as it is pulling a barrel’.48 On the other hand, his whole life was a struggle to renounce that elite world of shameful privilege and live ‘by the sweat of his own brow’. The quest for a simple life of toil was a constant theme in Tolstoy’s works. Take Prince Levin, for example, the peasant-loving squire in Anna Karenina - a character so closely based on Tolstoy’s life and dreams that he was virtually autobiographical. Who can forget that blissful moment when Levin joins the peasant mowers in the field and loses himself in the labour and the team?

After breakfast Levin was not in the same place in the string of mowers as before, but found himself between the old man who had accosted him quizzically, and now invited him to be his neighbour, and a young peasant who had only been married in the autumn and who was mowing this summer for the first time.

The old man, holding himself erect, went in front, moving with long, regular strides, his feet turned out and swinging his scythe as precisely and evenly, and apparently as effortlessly, as a man swings his arms in walking. As if it were child’s play, he laid the grass in a high, level ridge. It seemed as if the sharp blade swished of its own accord through the juicy grass.

Behind Levin came the lad Mishka. His pleasant boyish face, with a twist of fresh grass bound round his hair, worked all the time with effort; but whenever anyone looked at him he smiled. He would clearly sooner die than own it was hard work for him.

Levin kept between them. In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigour and dogged energy to his labour; and more and more often now came those moments of oblivion, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. Those were happy moments.49

Tolstoy loved to be among the peasants. He derived intense pleasure - emotional, erotic - from their physical presence. The ‘spring-like’ smell of their beards would send him into raptures of delight. He loved to kiss the peasant men. The peasant women he found irresistible -sexually attractive and available to him by his ‘squire’s rights’. Tolstoy’s diaries are filled with details of his conquests of the female serfs on his estate - a diary he presented, according to the custom, to his bride Sonya (as Levin does to Kitty) on the eve of their wedding:* ‘21 April 1858. A wonderful day. Peasant women in the garden and by the well. I’m like a man possessed.’50 Tolstoy was not handsome,

* Similar diaries were presented to their future wives by Tsar Nicholas II, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the poet Vladimir Khodasevich.

but he had a huge sex drive and, in addition to the thirteen children Sonya bore, there were at least a dozen other children fathered by him in the villages of his estate.

But there was one peasant woman who represented more than a sexual conquest. Aksinia Bazykina was twenty-two - and married to a serf on his estate - when Tolstoy first saw her in 1858. ‘I’m in love as never before in my life’, he confessed to his diary. ‘Today in the wood. I am a fool. A beast. Her bronze flush and her eyes… Have no other thought.’51 This was more than lust. ‘It’s no longer the feelings of a stag’, he wrote in 1860, ‘but of a husband for a wife.’52 Tolstoy, it appears, was seriously considering a new life with Aksinia in some ‘hut at the edge of the village’. Turgenev, who saw him often at this time, wrote that Tolstoy was ‘in love with a peasant woman and did not want to discuss literature’.53 Turgenev himself had several love affairs with his own serfs (one even bore him two children), so he must have understood what Tolstoy felt.54 In 1862, when Tolstoy married Sonya, he tried to break relations with Aksinia; and in the first years of their marriage, when he was working without rest on War and Peace, it is hard to imagine his wandering off to find Aksinia in the woods. But in the 1870s he began to see her once again. She bore him a son by the name of Timofei, who became a coachman at Yasnaya Polyana. Long after that, Tolstoy continued to have dreams about Aksinia. Even in the final year of his long life, half a century after their first encounter, he recorded his joy, on seeing the ‘bare legs’ of a peasant girl, ‘to think that Aksinia is still alive’.55 This was more than the usual attraction of a squire to a serf. Aksinia was Tolstoy’s unofficial ‘wife’, and he continued to love her well into her old age. Aksinia was not beautiful in any conventional sense, but she had a certain quality, a spiritual strength and liveliness, that made her loved by all the villagers. ‘Without her’, Tolstoy wrote, ‘the khorovod was not a khorovod, the women did not sing, the children did not play’.56 Tolstoy saw her as the personification of everything that was good and beautiful in the Russian peasant woman - she was proud and strong and suffering - and that is how he drew her in a number of his works. She appears, for example, in ‘The Devil’, which tells the story of his love affair with her both before and after his marriage. It may be significant that Tolstoy did not know how to end the tale. Two different conclusions were published: one in which the hero kills the peasant woman, the other where he commits suicide.

Tolstoy’s own life story was unresolved as well. In the middle of the 1870s, when the ‘going to the people’ reached its apogee, Tolstoy experienced a moral crisis that led him, like the students, to seek his salvation in the peasantry. As he recounts in A Confession (1879-80), he had suddenly come to realize that everything which had provided meaning in his life - family happiness and artistic creation - was in fact meaningless. None of the great philosophers brought him any comfort. The Orthodox religion, with its oppressive Church, was unacceptable. He thought of suicide. But suddenly he saw that there was a true religion in which to place his faith - in the suffering, labouring and communal life of the Russian peasantry. ‘It has been my whole life’, he wrote to his cousin. ‘It has been my monastery, the church where I escaped and found refuge from all the anxieties, the doubts and temptations of my life.’57

Yet even after his spiritual crisis Tolstoy was ambivalent: he idealized the peasants and loved to be with them, but for many years he could not bring himself to break from the conventions of society and become one himself. In many ways he only played at being a ‘peasant’. When he went out for a walk or rode his horse he put on peasant garb - he was known throughout the world for his peasant shirt and belt, his trousers and bast shoes - but when he went to Moscow, or dined with friends, he dressed in tailored clothes. During the day he would labour in the fields at Yasnaya Polyana - then return to his manor house for a dinner served by waiters in white gloves. The painter Repin visited the writer in 1887 to paint the first in a series of portraits of Tolstoy. A man of genuinely humble origins, Repin was disgusted by the count’s behaviour. ‘To descend for a day into this darkness of the peasantry’s existence and proclaim: “I am with you” - that is just hypocrisy.’58 Nor, it seems, were the peasants taken in. Four years later, at the height of the famine in 1891, Repin visited the count again. Tolstoy insisted on showing him the ‘peasant way’ to plough a field. ‘Several times’, Repin recalled, ‘some Yasnaya Polyana peasants walked by, doffed their caps, bowed, and then walked on as if taking no notice of the count’s exploit. But then another peasant group appears, evidently from the next village. They stop and stare for a long while. And then a strange thing happens. Never in my life have I seen a clearer expression of irony on a simple peasant’s face.’59

Tolstoy was aware of the ambiguity, and for years he agonized. As a writer, and a Russian one at that, he felt the artist’s responsibility to provide leadership and enlightenment for the people. This was why he had set up the peasant schools, expended his energy on writing country tales, and started a publishing venture (‘The Intermediary’) to print the classics (Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov and Chekhov) for the growing mass of readers in the countryside. Yet at the same time he was moving to the view that the peasants were the teachers of society and that neither he nor any other scion of the world’s immoral civilizations had anything to give. From his teaching at the village schools, he came to the conclusion that the peasant had a higher moral wisdom than the nobleman - an idea he explained by the peasant’s natural and communal way of life. This is what the peasant Karataev teaches Pierre in War and Peace:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships, or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly with man - not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.60

With every passing year, Tolstoy strived to live more and more like a peasant. He learned how to make his own shoes and furniture. He gave up writing and spent his time working in the fields. In a turn from his previous life, he even advocated chastity, and became a vegetarian. Sometimes in the evening he would join the pilgrims walking on the road from Moscow to Kiev, which passed by the estate. He would walk with them for miles, returning barefoot in the early morning hours with a new confirmation of his faith. ‘Yes, these people know God,’ he would say. ‘Despite all their superstitions, their belief in St Nicholas-of-the-spring and St Nicholas-of-the-winter, or the Icon of Three Hands, they are closer to God than we are. They lead moral, working lives, and their simple wisdom is in many ways superior to all the artifices of our culture and philosophy.’61


In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya (Sonya) Behrs, the daughter of Dr Andrei Behrs, the house doctor of the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, in a ceremony at the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Tolstoy drew on this event when he came to write the splendid wedding scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. As in many gentry weddings of the time, the ceremony combines Orthodox and peasant rituals; and there is an insistence, voiced by Kitty’s mother Princess Shcherbatskaya, ‘on all the conventions being strictly observed’.62 Indeed, one can read the scene as an ethnographic document about this special aspect of the Russian way of life.

    Every Russian knows the verses from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in which the lovesick Tatiana asks her nurse if she has ever been in love. The peasant woman replies by telling the sad story of how she came to be married, at the age of just thirteen, to an even younger boy she had never seen before:

’Oh, come! Our world was quite another! We’d never heard of love, you see. Why, my good husband’s sainted mother Would just have been the death of me!’ ‘Then how’d you come to marry, nanny?’ ‘The will of God, I guess… My Danny Was younger still than me, my dear, And I was just thirteen that year. The marriage maker kept on calling For two whole weeks to see my kin, Till father blessed me and gave in. I got so scared - my tears kept falling; And weeping, they undid my plait, Then sang me to the churchyard gate.

’And so they took me off to strangers… But you’re not even listening, pet.’63

The scene encapsulates the contrast between the two different cultures - the European and the folk - in Russian society. Whereas Tatiana looks at marriage through the prism of romantic literature, her nurse regards it from the viewpoint of a patriarchal culture where individual sentiments or choices about love are foreign luxuries. Tolstoy draws the same contrast in Kitty’s wedding scene. During the ceremony Dolly thinks back tearfully to her own romance with Stiva Oblonsky and, ‘forgetting the present’ (meaning all his sexual infidelities), ‘she remembered only her young and innocent love’. Meanwhile, in the entrance to the church stands a group of ordinary women who have come in from the street to ‘look on breathless with excitement’ as the bridal couple take their marriage vows. We listen to them chattering among themselves:

’Why is her face so tear-stained? Is she being married against her will?’ ‘Against her will to a fine fellow like that? A prince, isn’t he?’ ‘Is that her sister in the white satin? Now hear how the deacon will roar:

”Wife, obey thy husband!” ‘ ‘Is it the Tchudovsky choir?’ ‘No, from the Synod.’ ‘I asked the footman. It seems he’s taking her straight to his home in the country. They say he’s awfully rich. That’s why she’s being married to him.’ ‘Oh no. They make a very well-matched pair.’

’What a dear little creature the bride is - like a lamb decked for the slaughter. Say what you like, one does feel sorry for the girl.’64

’A lamb decked for the slaughter’ is perhaps not how Kitty felt - her love affair with Levin was a true romance - but, if Sonya’s own experience is anything to go by, she might have found some points of contact with these women from the street.

Sonya was eighteen when she married Tolstoy - rather young by European standards but not by Russian ones. Eighteen was in fact the average age of marriage for women in nineteenth-century Russia - far younger than even in those pre-industrial parts of western Europe where women tended to marry relatively early (around the age of twenty-five).65 (For the past 300 years no other European country has had an average female age at first marriage as low as twenty years -and in this respect Russian marriage more closely fits the Asiatic pattern.)66 Tatiana’s nurse was, therefore, not exceptional in marrying so young, even though thirteen was the youngest she could marry under Russian canon law. Serf owners liked their peasant girls to marry young, so that they could breed more serfs for them; the burden of taxation could be easily arranged so that peasant elders took the same opinion. Sometimes the serf owners enforced early marriages -their bailiffs lining up the marriageable girls and boys in two separate rows and casting lots to decide who would marry whom.67 Among the upper classes (though not the merchantry) girls married at an older age, although in the provinces it was not unusual for a noble bride to be barely older than a child. Sonya Tolstoy would have sympathized with Princess Raevskaya, who became a widow at the age of thirty-five - by which time she had given birth to seventeen children, the first at the age of just sixteen.68

The arranged marriage was the norm in peasant Russia until the beginning of the twentieth century. The peasant wedding was not a love match between individuals (‘We’d never heard of love,’ recalls Tatiana’s nurse). It was a collective rite intended to bind the couple and the new household to the patriarchal culture of the village and the Church. Strict communal norms determined the selection of a spouse - sobriety and diligence, health and child-rearing qualities being more important than good looks or personality. By custom throughout Russia, the parents of the groom would appoint a matchmaker in the autumn courting season who would find a bride in one of the nearby villages and arrange for her inspection at a smotrinie. If that was successful the two families would begin negotiations over the bride price, the cost of her trousseau, the exchange of household property and the expenses of the wedding feast. When all this was agreed a formal marriage contract would be sealed by the drinking of a toast which was witnessed by the whole community and marked by the singing of a ceremonial song and a kborovod.69Judging from the plaintive nature of these songs, the bride did not look forward to her wedding day. There was a whole series of prenuptial songs - most of them laments in which the bride would ‘wail’, as the nineteenth-century folklorist Dahl described it, ‘to mourn the loss of maidenhood’.70 The prenuptial khorovod, which was sung and danced by the village girls in spring, was a sad and bitter song about the life to come in their husband’s home:

They are making me marry a lout

With no small family.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!

With a father, and a mother

And four brothers

And sisters three.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!

Says my father-in-law,

’Here comes a bear!’

Says my mother-in-law,

’Here comes a slut!’

My sisters-in-law cry,

’Here comes a do-nothing!’

My brothers-in-law cry,

’Here comes a mischief-maker!’

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh dear me!71

The bride and groom played a largely passive role in the peasant wedding rituals, which were enacted by the whole community in a highly formalized dramatic performance. The night before the wedding the bride was stripped of the customary belt that protected her maid enly purity and was washed by village girls in the bath house. The bridal shower (devichnik) had an important symbolic significance. It was accompanied by ritual songs to summon up the magic spirits of the bath house which were believed to protect the bride and her children. The water from the towel with which the bride was dried was then wrung out and used to leaven dough for the ritual dumplings served to the guests at the wedding feast. The climax of this bath-house rite was the unplaiting of the maiden’s single braid, which was then replaited as two braids to symbolize her entry into married life. As in Eastern cultures, the display of female hair was seen as a sexual enticement, and all married Russian peasant women kept their plaited hair hidden underneath a kerchief or head-dress. The bride’s virginity was a matter of communal importance and, until it had been confirmed, either by the finger of the matchmaker or by the presence of bloodstains on the sheets, the honour of her household would remain in doubt. At the wedding feast it was not unusual for the guests to act as witnesses to the bride’s deflowering - sometimes even for guests to strip the couple and tie their legs together with embroidered towels.

Among the upper classes there were still traces of these patriarchal customs in the nineteenth century, and among the merchants, as anyone familiar with Ostrovsky’s plays will know, this peasant culture was very much alive. In the aristocracy arranged marriages remained the norm in Russia long after they had been replaced in Europe by romantic ones; and although romantic love became more influential in the nineteenth century, it never really became the guiding principle. Even among the most educated families, parents nearly always had the final say over the choice of a spouse, and the memoir literature of the time is filled with accounts of love affairs that crashed against their opposition. By the end of the nineteenth century a father would rarely refuse to sanction his child’s marriage; yet, in deference to the old custom, it remained accepted practice for the suitor to approach the parents first and ask for their permission to propose.

In the provinces, where the gentry was generally closer to the culture of the peasants, noble families were even slower to assimilate the European notion of romantic love. The marriage proposals were usually handled by the parents of the suitor and the prospective bride. Sergei Aksakov’s father was married in this way, his parents having made the proposal to his bride’s father.72 The peasant custom of appointing a matchmaker was also retained by many gentry families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as was the inspection of the bride - albeit as a customary dinner where the nobleman could get to know the daughter of the house and, if he approved, propose a marriage contract to her parents there and then.73 Marriage contracts, too, were commonly agreed between the families of a noble bride and groom. When Sergei Aksakov’s parents were engaged, in the 1780s, they sealed the marriage contract with a feast that was attended by the whole community - much as was the custom among the peasantry.74 The noble marriage contract was a complicated thing, recalled Elizaveta Rimsky-Korsakov, who became engaged in the 1790s. It took several weeks of careful preparation while ‘the people who knew prices arranged everything’, and it needed to be sealed at a large betrothal party, attended by the relatives from both the families, where prayers were said, precious gifts were given as a token of intention and pictures of the bride and groom were swapped.75

Moscow was the centre of the marriage market for the gentry from the provinces. The autumn balls in Moscow were a conscious translation of the autumn courtship rituals played out by the peasants and their matchmakers. Hence the advice given to Tatiana’s mother in Eugene Onegin:

To Moscow and the marriage mart! They’ve vacancies galore… take heart!76

Pushkin himself met his wife, Natalia Goncharova, who was then aged just sixteen, at a Moscow autumn ball. In Moscow, according to the early nineteenth-century memoirist F. F. Vigel, there was a whole class of matchmakers to whom noble suitors could apply, giving them the age of their prospective bride and the various conditions of their proposal. These matchmakers would make their business known in the Nobles’ Assembly, particularly in the autumn season when noblemen would come from the provinces to find themselves a bride.77

In War and Peace Levin comes to Moscow to court Kitty. The rituals of their wedding draw in equal measure from the Church’s sacraments and the pagan customs of the peasantry. Kitty leaves her parents’ house and travels with the family icon to the church to meet Levin (who is late, as Tolstoy was at his own wedding, because his man servant had misplaced his shirt). The parents of the bride and groom are absent from the service, as demanded by custom, for the wedding was perceived as the moment when the bridal couple leave their earthly homes and join together in the family of the Church. Like all Russian brides, Kitty is accompanied by her godparents, whose customary role is to help the priest administer this rite of passage by offering the bride and groom the sacred wedding loaf, blessing them with icons and placing on their heads the ‘wedding crowns’.

’Put it right on!’ was the advice heard from all sides when the priest brought forward the crowns and Shcherbatsky, his hand shaking in its three-button glove, held the crown high above Kitty’s head.

’Put it on!’ she whispered, smiling.

Levin looked round at her and was struck by her beatific expression. He could not help being infected by her feeling and becoming as glad and happy as she was.

With light hearts they listened to the reading of the Epistle and heard the head-deacon thunder out one last verse, awaited with such impatience by the outside public. With light hearts they drank the warm red wine and water from the shallow cup, and their spirits rose still higher when the priest, flinging back his stole and taking their hands in his, led them round the lectern while a bass voice rang out ‘Rejoice, O Isaiah!’ Shcherbatsky and Tchirikov, who were supporting the crowns and getting entangled in the bride’s train, smiled too, and were inexplicably happy. They either lagged behind or stumbled on the bride and bridegroom every time the priest came to a halt. The spark of joy glowing in Kitty’s heart seemed to have spread to everyone in church. Levin fancied that the priest and deacon wanted to smile as much as he did.

Lifting the crowns from their heads, the priest read the last prayer and congratulated the young couple. Levin glanced at Kitty and thought he had never seen her look like that before, so lovely with the new light of happiness shining in her face. Levin longed to say something to her but did not know whether the ceremony was over yet. The priest came to his aid, saying softly, a smile on his kindly mouth, ‘Kiss your wife, and you, kiss your husband,’ and took the candles from their hands.78

The ‘coronation’ (venchane), as the wedding ceremony was called in Russia, symbolized the grace that the bridal couple received from the Holy Spirit as they founded a new family or domestic church. The crowns were usually made of leaves and flowers. They were crowns of joy and martyrdom, for every Christian marriage involved sacrifice by either side. Yet the crowns had a more secular significance as well: for among the common people the bridal pair were called the ‘Tsar’ and ‘Tsarina’, and proverbs said the wedding feast was meant to be ‘po tsarskii’ - a banquet fit for kings.79

The traditional Russian marriage was a patriarchal one. The husband’s rights were reinforced by the teachings of the Church, by custom, by canon and by civil laws. According to the 1835 Digest of Laws, a wife’s main duty was to ‘submit to the will of her husband’ and to reside with him in all circumstances, unless he was exiled to Siberia.80 State and Church conceived the husband as an autocrat - his absolute authority over wife and family a part of the divine and natural order. ‘The husband and the wife are one body,’ declared Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the arch-reactionary Procurator-General of the Holy Synod and personal tutor to the last two Tsars. ‘The husband is the head of the wife. The wife is not distinguished from her husband. Those are the basic principles from which the provisions of our law proceed.’81 In fact, Russian women had the legal right to control their property - a right, it seems, that was established in the eighteenth century, and in some respects to do with property they were better off than women in the rest of Europe or America.82 But women were at a severe disadvantage when it came to inheriting family property; they had no legal right to request a separation or to challenge the authority of their husband; and, short of a severe injury, they had no protection against physical abuse.

’Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh dear me!’ The bridal lament was not unwarranted. The peasant wife was destined for a life of suffering - so much so, indeed, that her life became a symbol of the peasant’s misery, used by nineteenth-century writers to highlight the worst aspects of Russian life. The traditional peasant household was much larger than its European counterpart, often containing more than a dozen members, with the wives and families of two or three brothers living under the same roof as their parents. The young bride who arrived in this household was likely to be burdened with the meanest chores, the fetching and the cooking, the washing and the childcare, and generally treated like a serf. She would have to put up with the sexual advances of not just her husband, but his father, too, for the ancient peasant custom of snokbachestvo gave the household elder rights of access to her body in the absence of his son. Then there were the wife-beatings. For centuries the peasants had claimed the right to beat their wives. Russian proverbs were full of advice on the wisdom of such violence:

’Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.’

’The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.’

’Beat your wife like a fur coat, then there’ll be less noise.’

’A wife is nice twice: when she’s brought into the house [as a bride] and when she’s carried out of it to her grave.’83

For those who saw the peasant as a natural Christian (that is, practically the whole of the intelligentsia) such barbaric customs presented a problem. Dostoevsky tried to get around it by claiming that the people should be judged by the ‘sacred things for which they yearn’ rather than ‘their frequent acts of bestiality’, which were no more than surface covering, the ‘slime of centuries of oppression’. Yet even Dostoevsky stumbled when it came to wife-beating:

Have you ever seen how a peasant beats his wife? I have. He begins with a rope or a strap. Peasant life is devoid of aesthetic pleasures - music, theatres, magazines; naturally this gap has to be filled somehow. Tying up his wife or thrusting her legs into the opening of a floorboard, our good little peasant would begin, probably, methodically, cold-bloodedly, even sleepily, with measured blows, without listening to her screams and entreaties. Or rather he does listen - and listens with delight: or what pleasure would there be in beating her?… The blows rain down faster and faster, harder and harder -countless blows. He begins to get excited and finds it to his taste. The animal cries of his tortured victim go to his head like vodka… Finally, she grows quiet; she stops shrieking and only groans, her breath catching violently. And now the blows come even faster and more furiously. Suddenly he throws away the strap; like a madman he grabs a stick or branch, anything, and breaks it on her back with three final terrifying blows. Enough! He stops, sits down at the table, heaves a sigh, and has another drink.84

Wife-beating was a rare phenomenon in the gentry class, but the patriarchal customs of the Domostroi, the sixteenth-century manual of the Muscovite household, were still very much in evidence. Alexandra Labzina, the daughter of a minor gentry family, was married off on her thirteenth birthday, in 1771, to a man she only met on her wedding day. Her father having died, and her mother being gravely ill, she was given to her husband with instructions from her mother ‘to obey in all things’. It turned out that her husband was a beast, and he treated her with cruelty. He locked her in her room for days on end, while he slept with his niece, or went out for days on drinking-whoring binges with his friends. He forbade her to attend her mother’s funeral, or to see her nanny when she became ill. Eventually, like so many of his type, her husband was sent out to administer the mines at Petrozavodsk and later at Nerchinsk, the Siberian penal colony where Volkonsky was exiled. Away from any social censure, his treatment of his wife became increasingly sadistic. One freezing night he locked her naked in the barn while he carried on with prostitutes inside the house. She bore it all with Christian meekness, until he died from syphilis and she returned to Russia, where eventually she married the vice-president of the Academy of Arts.85

Labzina’s treatment was exceptionally cruel, but the patriarchal culture that had produced it was pretty universal in the provinces until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The landowner Maria Adam, for example, had an aunt in Tambov province who had married a neighbouring landowner in the 1850s. Her husband, it transpired, had only married her to gain possession of her property and, as soon as they were wed, he made her life unbearable. The aunt ran away and sought shelter at her niece’s house, but the husband came and found her, threatened to ‘skin her alive’ and, when his wife’s maid intervened, he beat her with his whip. Eventually, after dreadful scenes, Maria took her aunt and the badly beaten maid to appeal for help at the house of the provincial governor, but the governor would not accept the women’s evidence and sent them away. For three months they lived at Maria’s house, barricaded inside to protect themselves from the husband who came and abused them there every day, until finally, in the liberal atmosphere of 1855, a new governor was appointed who secured the Senate’s permission for Maria’s aunt to live apart from her husband.86 Such divorces were very rare indeed - about fifty a year for the whole of Russia in the 1850s, rising to no more than a few hundred in the final decades of the nineteenth century87 - much fewer than in Europe at the time. Until 1917 the Russian Church retained control of marriage and divorce, and it stubbornly resisted the European trend to relax the divorce laws.

Near the end of Kitty’s wedding in Anna Karenina the priest motions the bridal pair to a rose silk carpet where they are to perform the sacraments.

Often as they had both heard the saying that the one who steps first on the carpet will be the head of the house, neither Levin nor Kitty could think of that as they took those few steps towards it. They did not even hear the loud remarks and disputes that followed, some maintaining that Levin was first and others insisting that they had both stepped on together.88

Tolstoy saw the Kitty-Levin marriage as an ideal Christian love: each lives for the other and, through that love, they both live in God. Tolstoy’s own life was a search for just this communion, this sense of belonging. The theme runs right through his literary work. There was a time when he had believed that he might find this community in army life - but he ended up by satirizing military ‘brotherhood’ and calling for the army to be abolished. Then he looked for it in the literary world of Moscow and St Petersburg - but he ended up by condemning that as well. For a long time he believed that the answer to his problem lay in the sanctity of marriage; so many of his works express that ideal. But here too he failed to find true union. His own selfishness was always in the way. Tolstoy might have pictured his marriage to Sonya as the idyllic attachment of Levin and Kitty, but real life was very different. In the Tolstoy marriage there was never any doubt about who had stepped on to the carpet first. The count was as good as any peasant when it came to his relations with his wife. In the first eight years of their marriage Sonya bore him eight children (according to her diary, he would make sexual demands before she had even healed from giving birth). Sonya served as his private secretary, working for long hours through the night copying out the manuscripts of War and Peace. Later Tolstoy would confess that he had ‘acted badly and cruelly - as every husband acts towards his wife. I gave her all the hard work, the so-called “women’s work”, and went hunting or enjoyed myself.’89 Repulsed by his own behaviour, Tolstoy came to question the romantic basis of marriage. Here was the central theme of all his fiction from Anna Karenina to The Kreutzer Sonata (1891) and Resurrection (1899). Anna is doomed to self destruction, not so much as a tragic victim of society, but because she is the tragic victim of her own passions (as Tolstoy was of his). Despite her immense suffering and the sacrifice she makes by losing her own child to pursue her love for Vronsky, Anna commits the sin of living to be loved. Tolstoy spelled out his own judgement in an essay called ‘On Life’, in which he talked about the contradiction of people living only for themselves, looking for their happiness as individuals, whereas it can only be found in living for others. This is the lesson which Levin learns as he settles down to married life with wife and child: happiness depends on a form of love that gives; and we can only find ourselves through a communion with our fellow human beings. Tolstoy had not found this in his own marriage. But he thought he had found it in the peasantry.


In 1897 Russian society was engulfed in a storm of debate over a short tale. Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’ tells the story of a sick Moscow waiter who returns with his wife and daughter to his native village, only to find that his poverty-stricken family resent him for bringing another set of mouths to feed. The waiter dies and his widow, who has grown thin and ugly from her short stay in the village, returns to Moscow with these sad reflections on the hopelessness of peasant life:

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarrelling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion. Who maintains the pubs and makes the peasants drunk? The peasant. Who embezzles the village, school and parish funds and spends it all on drink? The peasant. Who robs his neighbour, sets fire to his house and perjures himself in court for a bottle of vodka? Who is the first to revile the peasant at district council and similar meetings? The peasant. Yes, it was terrible living with these people; nevertheless, they were still human beings, suffering and weeping like other people and there was nothing in their lives which did not provide some excuse.

The myth of the good peasant had been punctured by the tale. The peasant was now just a human being, brutalized and coarsened by his poverty, not the bearer of special moral lessons for society. The Populists denounced Chekhov for failing to reflect the spiritual ideals of peasant life. Tolstoy called the story ‘a sin before the people’ and said that Chekhov had not looked into the peasant’s soul.91 Slavophiles attacked it as a slander against Russia. But the Marxists, whose opinions were beginning to be heard, praised the story for revealing the way the rise of the capitalist town had caused the decline of the village. Reactionaries were pleased with the story, too, because it proved, they said, that the peasant was his own worst enemy.92

It may seem odd that a work of literature should cause such huge shock waves throughout society. But Russia’s identity was built upon the myth which Chekhov had destroyed. The Populist ideal of the peasantry had become so fundamental to the nation’s conception of itself that to question this ideal was to throw the whole of Russia into agonizing doubt. The impact of the story was all the more disturbing for the simple factual style in which it was composed. It seemed not so much a work of fiction as a documentary study: the Tsarist censor had referred to it as an ‘article’.93

Chekhov’s story was the fruit of its author’s first-hand knowledge of the peasantry. The villages around his small estate at Melikhovo contained many peasants who went to work as waiters or as other service staff in nearby Moscow. The influence of city life was clearly to be seen in the behaviour of those who stayed behind. Shortly before he wrote the story Chekhov had observed a group of drunken servants in his own kitchen. One of them had married off his daughter, much against her will, in exchange for a bucket of vodka. They were now drinking it.94 But Chekhov was not shocked by such a scene. Over the years he had come to know the peasants through his work as a doctor. Sickly peasants came to Melikhovo from many miles around, and he treated them free of charge. During the cholera epidemic that followed on the heels of the famine crisis in 1891 he had given up his writing and worked as a doctor for the district zemstvo in Moscow. The gruelling work had acquainted him with the squalid conditions in which the poorest peasants lived and died. ‘The peasants are crude, unsanitary and mistrustful’, Chekhov wrote to a friend, ‘but the thought that our labours will not be in vain makes it all unnoticeable.’95 Five years later, in 1897, Chekhov helped to collect the statistics for the first national census in Russian history. He was horrified by what he learned - that just a few kilometres from Moscow there were villages where six out of every ten infants would die in their first year. Such facts angered him, a ‘small deeds’ liberal, pushing him politically towards the left. On learning, for example, that the poor discharged from hospital were dying for lack of proper aftercare, Chekhov delivered a tirade to Yezhov, a well-known columnist for the right-wing daily Novoe vremia, in which he maintained that, since the rich got richer by turning the poor peasants into drunks and whores, they should be made to meet the costs of their health care.96

Beneath all the din surrounding Chekhov’s story there was a profound question about Russia’s future as a peasant land. The old rural Russia was being swept aside by the advance of the towns, and the nation was divided over it. For the Slavophiles and the Populists, who saw Russia’s unique virtues in the old peasant culture and community, the growing subjugation of the village to the town was a national catastrophe. But for Westernists, the liberals and the Marxists, who embraced the city as a modernizing force, the peasantry was backward and bound to die away. Even the government was forced to reassess its peasant policy as the influence of the urban market began to change the countryside. The peasant commune was no longer feeding the growing population of the countryside, let alone providing a market-able surplus for the state to tax; and as the agrarian crisis deepened, it became the organizing kernel of the peasant revolution. Since 1861 the government had left villages in the hands of the communes -believing them to be the bulwarks of the patriarchal order in the countryside: its own state administration stopped at the level of the dist rict towns. But after the 1905 Revolution the government changed its policy. Under Stolypin, Prime Minister between 1906 and 1911, it atempted to break up the village commune, which had organized the peasant war against the manors, by encouraging the stronger peasants to set up private farms on land removed from communal control, and at the same time helping those who were too weak to farm, or deprived of access to the land by the new laws of private property, to move as labourers into the towns.

The root cause of this transformation was the slow decline of peasant farming in the overpopulated central Russian zone. The peasantry’s egalitarian customs gave them little incentive to produce anything other than babies. For the commune distributed land among the households according to the number of mouths to feed. The birth rate in Russia (at about fifty births per 1,000 people per year) was nearly twice the European average during the second half of the nineteenth century, and the highest rates of all were in the areas of communal tenure where land holdings were decided according to family size. The astronomical rise of the peasant population (from 50 to 79 million between 1861 and 1897) resulted in a growing shortage of land. By the turn of the century, one in ten peasant households had no land at all; while a further one in five had a tiny plot of little more than one hectare which could barely feed a family, given the primitive methods of cultivation used in the central agricultural zone. The communes kept the open three-field system used in western Europe in medieval times in which two fields were sown and one lay fallow every year. Each household got a certain number of arable strips according to its size and, because the livestock were allowed to graze on the stubble and there were no hedges, all the farmers had to follow the same rotation of crops. As the population grew, the strips of productive arable land became progressively narrower. In the most overcrowded regions these strips were no more than a couple of metres wide, making it impossible to employ modern ploughs. To feed the growing population the communes brought more land under the plough by reducing fallow and pasture lands. But the long-term effect was to make the situation worse - for the soil became exhausted from being overworked, while livestock herds (the main source of fertilizer) were reduced because of the shortage of grazing lands. By the end of the nineteenth century, one in three peasant households did not even own a horse.97 Millions of peasants were driven off the land by crushing poverty. Some managed to survive through local trades, such as weaving, pottery or carpentry, timber-felling and carting, although many of these handicrafts were being squeezed out by factory competition; or by working as day labourers on the gentry’s estates, although the influx of new machines reduced demand for them with every passing year. Others left the overcrowded central areas for the vast and empty steppelands of Siberia, where land was made available to colonists. But most were forced into the towns, where they picked up unskilled jobs in factories or worked as domestic or service staff. Chekhov’s waiter had been one of these.

New urban ways were also filtering down to the remote villages. The traditional extended peasant family began to break up as the younger and more literate peasants struggled to throw off the patriarchal tyranny of the village and set up households of their own. They looked towards the city and its cultural values as a route to independence and self-worth. Virtually any urban job seemed desirable compared with the hardships and dull routines of peasant life. A survey of rural schoolchildren in the early 1900s found that half of them wanted to pursue an ‘educated profession’ in the city, whereas less than 2 per cent held any desire to follow in the footsteps of their peasant parents. ‘I want to be a shop assistant,’ said one schoolboy, ‘because I do not like to walk in the mud. I want to be like those people who are cleanly dressed and work as shop assistants.’98Educators were alarmed that, once they had learned to read, many peasant boys, in particular, turned their backs on agricultural work and set themselves above the other peasants by swaggering around in raffish city clothes. Such boys, wrote a villager, ‘would run away to Moscow and take any job’.99 They looked back on the village as a ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ world of superstition and crippling poverty - a world Trotsky would describe as the Russia of ‘icons and cockroaches’ - and they idealized the city as a force of social progress and enlightenment. Here was the basis of the cultural revolution on which Bolshevism would be built. For the Party rank and file was recruited in the main from peasant boys like these; and its ideology was a science of contempt for the peasant world. The revolution would sweep it all away.

    Bolshevism was built on the mass commercial culture of the towns. The urban song, the foxtrot and the tango, the gramophone, the fairground entertainment and the cinema - these were its forms after 1917. Yet this urban culture was already attracting peasants in the 1890s, when its presence was first felt in the countryside. The village song was gradually being supplanted by the urban ‘cruel romance’, or the chastushka, a crude rhyming song which was usually accompanied by an accordion (another new invention) in the tavern or streets. Unlike the folk song, whose performance was collective and impersonal, these urban songs were personal in theme and full of individual expression. The folk tale was also dying out, as the new rural readership created by the recent growth of primary schooling turned instead to the cheap urban literature of detective stories and tales of adventure or romance. Tolstoy was afraid that the peasants would be poisoned by the egotistic values of this new book trade. He was concerned that these urban tales had heroes who prevailed by cunning and deceit, whereas the old peasant tradition had upheld moral principles. Joining forces with the publisher Sytin, a humble merchant’s son who had become rich by selling such cheap pamphlets in the provinces, Tolstoy set up the Intermediary to publish cheap editions of the Russian classics and simple country tales such as ‘How a Little Devil Redeemed a Hunk of Bread’ and ‘Where There Is God There Is Love’ which Tolstoy himself wrote for the new mass peasant readership. Within four years of the publishing house’s foundation, in 1884, sales had risen from 400,000 books to a staggering 12 million100 - book sales that could not be matched by any other country until China under Mao. But sales declined in the 1890s, as more exciting books were brought out in the city, and readers turned away from Tolstoy’s ‘fairy stories’ and ‘moralizing tales’.101

For the intelligentsia, which defined itself by its cultural mission to raise the masses to its own levels of civilization, this defection was a mortal blow. The peasant had been ‘lost’ to the crass commercial culture of the towns. The peasant who was meant to bear the Russian soul - a natural Christian, a selfless socialist and a moral beacon to the world - had become a victim of banality. Suddenly the old ideals were crushed, and, as Dostoevsky had predicted, once the champions of ‘the people’ realized that the people were not as they had imagined them to be, they renounced them without regret. Where before the peasant was the light, now he was the darkening shadow that descended over Russia in the decades leading up to 1917. The educated classes were thrown into a moral panic about what they saw as the peasantry’s descent into barbarity.

The 1905 Revolution confirmed all their fears. For years the intelligentsia had dreamed of a genuinely democratic revolution. Since the 1890s liberals and socialists had joined together in their campaign for political reform. They rejoiced in the spring of 1905, when the entire country appeared to be united in the demand for democratic rights. In October 1905, with the Russian empire engulfed by popular revolts, the army crippled by soldiers’ mutinies, and his own throne threatened by a general strike, Nicholas II finally gave in to the pressure of his liberal ministers to concede a series of political reforms. The October Manifesto, as these became known, was a sort of constitution -although it was not issued in that name because the Tsar refused to recognize any formal constraints on his autocratic power. The Manifesto granted civil liberties and a legislative parliament (or Duma) elected on a broad franchise. The country celebrated. New political parties were formed. People talked of a new Russia being born. But the political revolution was all the time developing into a social one, as the workers pressed their radical demands for industrial democracy in a growing wave of strikes and violent protests, and the peasantry resumed their age-old struggle for the land, confiscating property and forcing the nobility from their estates. The national unity of 1905 was soon shown to be illusory, as liberals and socialists went their separate ways after October. For the propertied elites, the October Manifesto was the final goal of the revolution. But for the workers and the peasantry, it was only the beginning of a social revolution against all property and privilege. The frightened liberals recoiled from their commitment to the revolution. The growing insubordination of the lower classes, the fighting in the streets, the rural arson and destruction of estates, and the mistrust and the hatred on the faces of the peasants which continued to disturb the landed nobles long after order was bloodily restored - all these destroyed the romance of ‘the people’ and their cause.

In 1909 a group of philosophers critical of the radical intelligentsia and its role in the Revolution of 1905 published a collection of essays called Vekhi (Landmarks) in which this disenchantment was power-fully expressed. The essays caused a huge storm of controversy - not least because their writers (former Marxists like Pyotr Struve and Nikolai Berdyaev) had all had spotless (that is, politically radical) credentials - which in itself was symptomatic of the intelligentsia’s new mood of doubt and self-questioning. The essays were a fierce attack on the nineteenth-century cult of ‘the people’ and its tendency to subordinate all other interests to the people’s cause. Through this pursuit of material interests the intelligensia was pushing Russia to a second revolution, much more violent and destructive than the first. Civilization was under threat and it was the duty of the educated classes to face this reality:

This is the way we are: not only can we not dream about fusing with the people but we must fear them worse than any punishment by the government, and we must bless that authority which alone with its bayonets and prisons manages to protect us from the popular fury.102

There was a general feeling, which the essays had expressed, that the masses would destroy Russia’s fragile European civilization and that, come the revolution, Russia would be dragged down to the level of the semi-savage peasantry. Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913-14) is filled with images of the city being overrun by Asiatic hordes. Even Gorky, a hero and a champion of the common man, succumbed to the new apocalyptic mood. ‘You are right 666 times over’, he wrote to a literary friend in 1905, ‘[the revolution] is giving birth to real barbarians, just like those that ravaged Rome.’103

This dark mood was captured in what must surely be the bleakest portrait of rural life in any literature: Ivan Bunin’s novella The Village (1910). Bunin had experience of peasant life. Unlike Turgenev or Tolstoy, who were scions of the elite aristocracy, Bunin belonged to the minor provincial gentry, who had always lived in close proximity to the peasants and whose lives resembled theirs in many ways. Bunin saw the peasant as the ‘national type’ and his stories about them were intended to be judgements on the Russian people and their history. He had never had any illusions about the spiritual or noble qualities of the peasants. His diaries are filled with horrific incidents he had seen or heard about in the villages: a woman who was beaten by her drunken husband so that she had to be ‘bandaged up like a mummy’; another woman raped so often by her husband that she bled to death.104 Bunin’s early stories dealt with the harsh realities of country life in the 1890s - a decade of famine and flight from the land. They are full of images of destruction and decay: abandoned villages, factories belching blood red smoke, the peasants old or sick. Here Bunin’s village was a realm of natural beauty that was being undermined and gradually destroyed by the new industrial economy. After 1905, however, Bunin changed his view of the village. He came to see it not just as a victim, but as the main agent of its own demise. The Village is set in 1905 in a place called Durnovo (from the word ‘durnoi’, meaning ‘bad’ or ‘rotten’). Its peasants are portrayed as dark and ignorant, thieving and dishonest, lazy and corrupt. Nothing much takes place in Durnovo. There is no plot in Bunin’s work. It consists of a description of the dreary existence of a tavern keeper who has just enough intelligence to realize the emptiness of his own life. ‘God, what a place! It’s a prison!’ he concludes. Yet, as Bunin’s tale implies, all of peasant Russia is a Durnovo.105

The Village gave a huge jolt to society. More perhaps than any other work, it made the Russians think about the hopeless destiny of their peasant land. ‘What stunned the reader in this book’, wrote one critic, ‘was not the depiction of the peasant’s material, cultural and legal poverty… but the realization that there was no escape from it. The most that the peasant, as depicted by Bunin, was capable of achieving… was only the awareness of his hopeless savagery, of being doomed.’106 Gorky wrote about The Village that it had forced society to think seriously ‘not just about the peasant but about the question of whether Russia is to be or not to be’.107

Like Bunin, Maxim Gorky knew what village life was like: his disenchantment with the peasantry was based on experience. He came from the ‘lower depths’ himself - an orphan who had survived by scavenging along the banks of the Volga river and roaming round the towns, a street urchin dressed in rags. Tolstoy once said of Gorky that he seemed ‘to have been born as an old man’ - and indeed Gorky had known more human suffering in his first eight years than the count would see in all his eight decades. Gorky’s grandfather’s household in Nizhnyi Novgorod, where he had been brought up after the death of his father, was, as he described it in My Childhood (1913), a microcosm of provincial Russia - a place of poverty, cruelty and meanness, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God. All his life he felt a profound loathing for this ‘backward’ peasant Russia-a contempt that aligned him with the Bolsheviks:

When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them? And with ever stronger conviction I find the answer is yes, because that was the real loathsome truth and to this day it is still valid. It is that truth which must be known down to the very roots, so that by tearing them up it can be completely erased from the memory, from the soul of man, from our whole oppressive and shameful life.108

In 1888, at the age of twenty, Gorky had ‘gone to the people’ with a Populist called Romas who tried to set up a co-operative and organize the peasants in a village on the Volga near Kazan. The enterprise ended in disaster. The villagers burned them out after Romas failed to heed the threats of the richer peasants, who had close links with the established traders in the nearby town and resented their meddling. Three years later, Gorky was beaten unconscious by a group of peasant men when he tried to intervene on behalf of a woman who had been stripped naked and horsewhipped by her husband and a howling mob after being found guilty of adultery. Experience left Gorky with a bitter mistrust of the ‘noble savage’. It led him to conclude that, however good they may be on their own, the peasants left all that was fine behind when they ‘gathered in one grey mass’:

Some dog-like desire to please the strong ones in the village took possession of them, and then it disgusted me to look at them. They would howl wildly at each other, ready for a fight - and they would fight over any trifle. At these moments they were terrifying and they seemed capable of destroying the very church where only the previous evening they had gathered humbly and submissively, like sheep in a fold.109

Looking back on the violence of the revolutionary years - a violence he put down to the ‘savage instincts’ of the Russian peasantry - Gorky wrote in 1922:

Where then is that kindly, contemplative Russian peasant, the indefatigable searcher after truth and justice, so convincingly and beautifully presented to the world by Russian nineteenth-century literature? In my youth I earnestly sought for such a man throughout the Russian countryside but I did not find him.110


In 1916 Diaghilev was asked where the Ballets Russes had its intellectual origins. In the Russian peasantry, he replied: ‘in objects of utility (domestic implements in the country districts), in the painting on the sleighs, in the designs and the colours of peasant dresses, or the carving around a window frame, we found our motifs, and on this foundation we built’.111 In fact the Ballets Russes was a direct descendant of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s.

It all began at Abramtsevo, the artists’ colony established by the Mamontovs on their estate near Moscow, which soon became the focus for the arts and crafts movement. The railway magnate’s wife Elizaveta was a well-known sympathizer of the Populists and, soon after the estate was purchased in 1870, she set up a school and a hospital for the peasants in its grounds. In 1876 a carpentry workshop was added where pupils who had graduated from the school might learn a useful trade. The aim was to revive the peasant handicrafts that were fast disappearing as the railways brought in cheaper factory products from the towns. Artists like Gartman and Elena Polenova took their inspiration from this peasant art and, under Polenova’s direction, new workshops were soon set up to cater to the growing middle-class market for pottery and linen in the peasant style. Polenova and her artists would go around the villages copying the designs on the window frames and doors, household utensils and furniture, which they would then adapt for the stylized designs of the craft goods manufactured in the colony’s workshops. Polenova collected several thousand peasant artefacts which can still be seen in the Craft Museum at Abramtsevo. She saw these artefacts as the remnants of an ancient Russian style that was still alive, and which gave them, in her view, a value that was higher than the Muscovite designs that had inspired artists in the past. For the latter were a part of a dead tradition that was now as remote to the Russian people as ‘the art of Africa or Ancient Greece’.112 In her own pictures and furniture designs Polenova tried, as she put it, to express ‘the vital spirit of the Russian people’s poetic view of nature’, using animal motifs and floral ornaments which she had sketched from peasant artefacts.113

15. Elena Polenova: ‘Cat and Owl’ carved door, Abramtsevo workshop, early 1890s

Urban fans of this ‘neo-national’ style took it as a pure and authentic Russian art. Stasov, for example, thought that Polenova’s ‘Cat and Owl’ door could be taken for the work of ‘some amazingly talented but anonymous master of our ancient Rus”.114 But in fact it was a fantasy. By the early 1890s, when the door was carved, Polenova had moved on from copying folk designs to assimilating them to the art nouveau style, which made her work even more appealing to the urban middle class.

Other artists trod the same path from ethnographic to commercial art. At the Solomenko embroidery workshops in Tambov province, for example, the artists’ designs were becoming increasingly attuned to the bourgeois tastes of the city women who could afford these luxury goods. Instead of the gaudy colours favoured by the peasants in their own designs (orange, red and yellow), they used the subdued colours (dark green, cream and brown) that appealed to urban tastes. The same change took place at the textile workshops of Talashkino, established by Princess Maria Tenisheva on her estate in Smolensk in 1898. The local peasant women ‘did not like our colours’, Tenisheva recalled, ‘they said they were too “drab”’, and she had to pay the weavers bonuses to get them to use them in their work.115

The folk-like crafted goods of Sergei Maliutin, the principal artist at Talashkino, were pure invention. Maliutin was the creator of the first matriosbka, or Russian nesting doll, in 1891. At that time he was working at the Moscow zemstvo’s craft workshops at Sergiev Posad which specialized in making Russian toys. Contrary to the popular belief today, the matrioshka has no roots in Russian folk culture at all. It was dreamed up in response to a commission from the Mamontovs to make a Russian version of the Japanese nesting doll. Maliutin created a red-cheeked peasant girl in the shape of a barrel with a chicken underneath her arm. Each smaller doll portrayed a different aspect of peasant life; and at the core was a baby tightly swaddled in the Russian style. The design became immensely popular and by the end of the 1890s several million dolls were being manufactured every year. The myth was then established that the matriosbka was an ancient Russian toy.116 At Talashkino Maliutin also applied his distinctive style to furniture, ceramics, book illustrations, stage designs and buildings. Urban admirers like Diaghilev saw his work as the essence of an ‘organic peasant Russianness’ which, Diaghilev claimed in one of his most nationalistic utterances, would herald a ‘Renaissance of the North’.117 But the real Russian peasants took a different view. When, in 1902, Tenisheva put on an exhibition of the Talashkino products in Smolensk, less than fifty people came to see it and, as she recalled, the peasants ‘viewed our things not with delight but with dumb amazement which we found hard to explain’.118

It is not immediately obvious what attracted Diaghilev to the neo-nationalists of Abramtsevo and Talashkino - a marriage that gave birth to the folklore fantasies of the Ballets Russes. In 1898, he delivered a tirade on ‘peasant art’, attacking artists who thought to ‘shock the world’ by ‘dragging peasant shoes and rags on to the canvas’.119 By artistic temperament the impresario was aristocratic and cosmopolitan, even if he came from the provincial town of Perm. At his grandfather’s house, where he had been brought up from the age of ten, there was an atmosphere of cultivated dilettantism, with regular concerts and literary evenings, in which the young Sergei, with his fluent French and German and his piano-playing skills, was in his element. As a law student at St Petersburg University in the early 1890s, Diaghilev was perfectly at home with young aesthetes such as Alexander Benois, Dmitry Filosofov (Diaghilev’s cousin) and Walter (‘Valechka’) Nouvel. There was a general mood of Populism in these circles, especially at the Bogdanovskoe estate near Pskov which belonged to Filo-sofov’s aunt Anna Pavlovna, a well-known activist for women’s liberation and a literary hostess whose salon in St Petersburg was frequently attended by Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Blok. The four students would spend their summers at Bogdanovskoe; and it was then that they first conceived the idea of a magazine to educate the public in the great art of the past. Together with the artist Leon Bakst (an old schoolfriend of Benois, Filosofov and Nouvel at the May Academy in Petersburg) they established the World of Art movement, which arranged concerts, exhibitions and lectures on artistic themes, and founded a magazine of the same name which lasted from 1898 to 1904. Subsidized by Tenisheva and Mamontov, the magazine would come to feature the folk-inspired artists of their colonies alongside modern Western art - the same combination that would later be repeated by Diaghilev and Benois in the Ballets Russes.

The co-founders of the World of Art saw themselves as cosmopolitans of Petersburg (they called themselves the ‘Nevsky Pickwickians’) and championed the idea of a universal culture which they believed was embodied in that civilization. They identified themselves with the aristocracy, and saw that class as a great repository of Russia’s cultural heritage. In a passage of his Memoirs that is crucial to an understanding of the World of Art, Benois underlined this point when he reminisced about the Filosofovs, one of Russia’s ancient noble families:

Theirs was the class to which all the chief figures of Russian culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries belonged, the class that created the delights of the characteristic Russian way of life. From this class came the heroes and heroines in the novels of Pushkin and Lermontov, Turgenev and Tolstoy. This was the class that achieved all that is peaceful, worthy, durable and meant to last for ever. They set the tempo of Russian life… All the subtleties of the Russian psychology, all the nuances of our characteristically Russian moral sensibility arose and matured within this milieu.120

Above all, they identified with the artistic values of the aristocracy. They saw art as a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, not as a vehicle for social programmes or political ideas, as they believed the Russian arts had become under Stasov’s leadership. Their veneration of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky stemmed from this philosophy - not ‘art for art’s sake’, as they frequently insisted, but the belief that ideas should be integrated in the work of art.

Reacting against the nineteenth-century realist tradition, the World of Art group sought to restore an earlier ideal of beauty as the artistic principle of what they envisaged (and successfully promoted) as Russia’s cultural renaissance. The classical tradition of St Petersburg was one expression of this ideal. The World of Art circle made a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg. It was practically defined by nostalgia for a civilization which they sensed was about to pass away. Benois and his nephew Eugene Lanceray each produced a series of prints and lithographs depicting city scenes in the reigns of Peter and Catherine the Great. Benois lamented that the classical ideal of eighteenth-century Petersburg had been abandoned by the vulgar nationalists of the nineteenth century. In the revolutionary year of 1905, Diaghilev mounted an exhibition of eighteenth-century Russian portraits in the Tauride Palace, shortly to become the home of the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet. He introduced the portraits as ‘a grandiose summing-up of a brilliant, but, alas, dying period in our history’.121

But peasant art could also be regarded as a form of ‘classicism’ - at least in the stylized forms in which it was presented by the neo-nationalists. It was impersonal, symbolic and austere, strictly regulated by the folk traditions of representation, a mystical expression of the spiritual world yet intimately linked with the collective rituals and practices of village life. Here was an ancient, a different ‘world of art’, whose principles of beauty could be used to overturn the deadening influence of nineteenth-century bourgeois and romantic art.

For Diaghilev, money played a part. Always keen to spot a new market opportunity, the impresario was impressed by the growing popularity of the neo-nationalists’ folk-like art. Fin-de-siecle Europe had an endless fascination for ‘the primitive’ and ‘exotic’. The savage of the East was regarded as a force of spiritual renewal for the tired bourgeois cultures of the West. Diaghilev had spotted this trend early on. ‘Europe needs our youth and spontaneity’, he wrote on his return from a tour there in 1896. ‘We must go forth at once. We must show our all, with all the qualities and defects of our nationality.’122 His instincts were confirmed in 1900 when Russia’s arts and crafts made a huge splash at the Paris Exhibition. The centre of attention was Korovin’s ‘Russian Village’, a reconstruction of the wooden architecture he had studied on a trip to the Far North, complete with an ancient teremok, or timber tower, and a wooden church, which was built on site by a team of peasants brought in from Russia. The Parisians were enchanted by these ‘savage carpenters’, with their ‘unkempt hair and beards, their broad, child-like smiles and primitive methods’, and as one French critic wrote, ‘if the objects on display had been for sale, there would not be a single item left’.123 There was a steady flow of peasant-crafted goods from Russia to the West - so much so that special shops were opened in Paris, London, Leipzig, Chicago, Boston and New York in the 1900s.124 The Parisian couturier Paul Poiret travelled to Russia in 1912 to buy up peasant garb, from which he drew inspiration for his fashionable clothes. The term ‘blouse russe’ echoed round the fashion halls, and models could be seen in clothes which bore the mark of Russian sarafans and homespun coats.125

But there was more than business to draw Diaghilev to the neo-nationalists. The fact that artists such as Polenova and Maliutin were increasingly rendering their ‘peasant art’ in the stylized forms of modernism brought them into line with the ethos of the World of Art. Diaghilev was particularly attracted to the paintings of Viktor Vasnet-sov, which displayed less folk content than a general sense of peasant colouring. Vasnetsov believed that colour was the key to the Russian people’s understanding of beauty, and he developed his own palette from the study of folk art (the lubok woodcuts and icons) and peasant artefacts, which he collected on his tours of Viatka province in the 1870s. The artist brought these vibrant primary colours to his brilliant stage designs for Mamontov’s production of The Snow Maiden (plate 15), a production that became the visual model for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Vasnetsov’s designs were an inspiration for the neo-nationalists who followed in his footsteps from Abramtsevo to the World of Art. Their fairytale-like quality was clearly to be seen in later stage designs for the Ballets Russes by Alexander Golovine (Boris Godunov: 1908; The Firebird: 1910) and Konstantin Korovin (Ruslan and Liudmila: 1909). Even more influential, in the longer term, was Vasnetsov’s use of colour, motifs, space and style to evoke the essence of folk art, which would inspire primitivist painters such as Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. These artists, too, gravitated towards the folk tradition, to the icon and the lubok and to peasant artefacts, in their quest for a new poetic outlook on the world. Introducing an exhibition of icons and woodcuts in Moscow in 1913, Goncharova talked about a ‘peasant aesthetic’ that was closer to the symbolic art forms of the East than the representational tradition of the West. ‘This art does not copy or improve on the real world but reconstitutes it.’ Here was the inspiration of Goncharova’s designs for the Ballets Russes, such as Le Coq d’Or of 1914.

The Ballets Russes was meant to be a synthesis of all the arts, and it has often been described as a Russian brand of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, art and drama are united. But in fact that synthesis had less to do with Wagner than with the Russian peasantry. It had its roots in Mamontov’s Private Opera which had been founded on the spirit of artistic collaboration at Abramtsevo. The whole purpose of the colony was to bring together all the arts and crafts to unite life and art-through a collective enterprise which its pioneers equated with their own idealized notion of the peasant commune. What

16. Church at Abramtsevo. Designed by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881-2

the artists at Abramtsevo admired most about peasant culture was the synthetic nature of its arts and crafts. Simple artefacts, like textiles or ceramics, brought artistic beauty into people’s daily lives. Collective rituals like the khorovod were total works of art - little ‘rites of spring’ - combining folk song and ceremonial dance with real events in village life. The colony was an attempt to re-create this ‘world of art’. The whole community - artists, craftsmen and peasant builders - became involved in the building of its church. Artists combined with singers and musicians, costume-makers with set-builders, to stage productions of the opera. This was what Diaghilev meant when he said the Ballets Russes was built on the foundations of peasant arts and crafts.

’I am sending you a proposal’, Diaghilev wrote to the composer Anatoly Lyadov in 1909.

I need a ballet and a Russian one - the first Russian ballet, since there is no such thing. There is Russian opera, Russian symphony, Russian song, Russian dance, Russian rhythm - but no Russian ballet. And that is precisely what I need - to perform in May of the coming year in the Paris Grand Opera and in the huge Royal Drury Lane Theatre in London. The ballet needn’t be three-tiered. The libretto is ready. Fokine has it. It was dreamed up by us all collectively. It’s The Firebird - a ballet in one act and perhaps two scenes.126

Diaghilev’s enthusiasm for the ballet was not always evident. His professional entree into the art world had been through painting, and his first job in the theatre was a long way from the stage. In 1899 he was employed by Prince Sergei Volkonsky, the grandson of the famous Decembrist, who had just been appointed by the Tsar as Director of the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg. Volkonsky asked Diaghilev to run the theatre’s in-house magazine. Eight years later, when Diaghilev took his first stage productions to the West, it was opera, not ballet, that made up his exotic saisons russes. It was only the comparative expense of staging operas that made him look to ballet for a cheap alternative.

The importance of the ballet as a source of artistic innovation in the twentieth century is something that no one would have predicted before its rediscovery by Diaghilev. The ballet had become an ossified art form; in much of Europe it was disregarded as an old-fashioned entertainment of the court. But in Russia it lived on in St Petersburg, where the culture was still dominated by the court. At the Marinsky Theatre, where Stravinsky spent much of his childhood, there were regular Wednesday and Sunday ballet matinees - ‘the half-empty auditorium’ being made up, in the words of Prince Lieven, of ‘a mixture of children accompanied by their mothers or governesses, and old men with binoculars’.127 Among serious intellectuals the ballet was considered ‘an entertainment for snobs and tired businessmen’,128 and with the exception of Tchaikovsky, whose reputation suffered as a consequence of his involvement with the form, the composers for the ballet (such as Pugni, Minkus and Drigo) were mostly foreign hacks.* Rimsky-Korsakov, the ultimate authority on musical taste when Stravinsky studied with him in the early 1900s, was famous for his remark that the ballet was ‘not really an art form’.129

Benois was the real ballet lover in the World of Art group. It appealed

* Cesare Pugni (1802-70), in Russia from 1851; Ludwig Minkus (1826-1907), in Russia from 1850 to 1890; Riccardo Drigo (1846-1930), in Russia from 1879 to

to his aristocratic outlook, and to his nostalgia for the classical culture of eighteenth-century Petersburg. This retrospective aesthetic was shared by all the founders of the Ballets Russes: Benois, Dobuzhinsky, the critic Filosofov and Diaghilev. The ballets of Tchaikovsky were the incarnation of the classical ideal and, even though they never featured in the saison russe in Paris, where Tchaikovsky was the least appreciated of the Russian composers, they were an inspiration to the founders of the Ballets Russes. Tchaikovsky was the last of the great European court composers (he lived in the last of the great European eighteenth-century states). Staunchly monarchist, he was among the intimates of Tsar Alexander III. His music, which embodied the ‘Imperial style’, was preferred by the court to the ‘Russian’ harmonies of Musorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Imperial style was virtually defined by the polonaise. Imported into Russia by the Polish composer Jozek Kozlowski towards the end of the eighteenth century, the polonaise became the supreme courtly form and the most brilliant of all the ballroom genres. It came to symbolize the European brilliance of eighteenth-century Petersburg itself. In Eugene Onegin Pushkin (like Tchaikovsky) used the polonaise for the climactic entry of Tatiana at the ball in Petersburg. Tolstoy used the polonaise at the climax of the ball in War and Peace, where the Emperor makes his entrance and Natasha dances with Andrei. In The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and in his opera The Queen of Spades (1890) Tchaikovsky reconstructed the imperial grandeur of the eighteenth-century world. Set in the reign of Louis XIV, The Sleeping Beauty was a nostalgic tribute to the French influence on eighteenth-century Russian music and culture. The Queen of Spades, based on the story by Pushkin, evoked the bygone Petersburg of Catherine the Great, an era when the capital was fully integrated, and played a major role, in the culture of Europe. Tchaikovsky infused the opera with rococo elements (he himself described the ballroom scenes as a ‘slavish imitation’ of the eighteenth-century style).130 He used the story’s layers of ghostly fantasy to conjure up a dream world of the past. The myth of Petersburg as an unreal city was thus used to travel back in time and recover its lost beauty and classical ideals.

On the evening of the premiere of The Queen of Spades Tchaikovsky left the Marinsky Theatre and wandered on his own through the streets of Petersburg, convinced that his opera was a dismal failure. Suddenly he heard a group of people walking towards him singing one of the opera’s best duets. He stopped them and asked them how they were acquainted with the music. Three young men introduced themselves: they were Benois, Filosofov and Diaghilev, the co-founders of the World of Art. From that moment on, according to Benois, the group was united by their love of Tchaikovsky and his classical ideal of Petersburg. ‘Tchaikovsky’s music’, Benois wrote in his old age, ‘was what I seemed to be waiting for since my earliest childhood.’131

In 1907 Benois staged a production of Nikolai Cherepnin’s ballet Le Pavilion d’Armide (based on Gauthier’s Omphale) at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Like The Sleeping Beauty, it was set in the period of Louis XIV and was classical in style. The production made a deep impression on Diaghilev. Benois’ own sumptuous designs, Fokine’s modern choreography, the dazzling virtuosity of Nijinsky’s dancing - all this, declared Diaghilev, ‘must be shown to Europe’.132 Le Pavilion became the curtain-raiser to the 1909 season in Paris, alongside the Polovtsian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor (also choreographed by Fokine), in a mixed programme of Russian classical and nationalist works. The exotic ‘otherness’ of these mises-en-scene caused a sensation. The French loved ‘our primitive wildness’, Benois later wrote, ‘our freshness and our spontaneity’.133 Diaghilev could see that there was money to be made from the export of more Russian ballets in this vein. And so it was, as he wrote to tell Lyadov, that they cooked up the libretto of The Firebird. Diaghilev and Benois and Fokine, with the fabulist Remizov, the painter Golovine, the poet Potemkin and the composer Cherepnin (of Le Pavilion fame) dreamt up the whole thing around the kitchen table in the true collective spirit of the Russian tradition. But in the end Lyadov did not want to write the score. It was offered to Glazunov, and then Cherepnin, who turned it down, and then, in a state of utter desperation, Diaghilev resorted to the young, and at that time still little known composer, Igor Stravinsky.

Benois called the ballet a ‘fairy tale for grown-ups’. Patched together from various folk tales, its aim was to create what Benois called a ‘mysterium of Russia’ for ‘export to the West’.134 The real export was the myth of peasant innocence and youthful energy. Each ingredient of the ballet was a stylized abstraction of folklore. Stravinsky’s score     was littered with borrowings from folk music, especially the peasant wedding songs (devichniki and khorovody) in the Ronde des princesses and the finale. The scenario was a patchwork compilation of two entirely separate peasant tales (for there was no single tale of the Firebird) as retold by Afanasiev and various lubok prints from the nineteenth century: the tale of Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird, and the tale of Kashchei the Immortal. These two stories were rewritten to shift their emphasis from a tale of pagan magic (by the grey wolf of the peasant stories) into one of divine rescue (by the Firebird) consistent with Russia’s Christian mission in the world.135

In the ballet the Tsarevich is lured into the garden of the monster Kashchey by the beauty of the maiden princess. Ivan is saved from the monster and his retinue by the Firebird, whose airborne powers compel Kashchey and his followers to dance wildly until they fall asleep. Ivan then discovers the enormous egg which contains Kashchey’s soul, the monster is destroyed, and Ivan is united with the princess. Reinvented for the stage, the Firebird herself was made to carry far more than she had done in the Russian fairy tales. She was transformed into the symbol of a phoenix-like resurgent peasant Russia, the embodiment of an elemental freedom and beauty, in the pseudo-Slavic mythology of the Symbolists which came to dominate the ballet’s conception (as immortalized by Blok’s ‘mythic bird’, which adorned the cover of the Mir iskusstva journal in the form of a woodcut by Leon Bakst). The production for the Paris season was a self-conscious package of exotic Russian props - from Golovine’s colourful peasant costumes to those weird mythic beasts, the ‘kikimora’, ‘boliboshki’ and ‘two-headed monsters’, invented by Remizov for the Suite de Kashchei - all of them designed to cater to the fin-de-siecle Western fascination with ‘primitive’ Russia.

But the real innovation of The Firebird was Stravinsky’s use of folk music. Previous composers of the Russian national school had thought of folklore as purely thematic material. They would frequently cite folk songs but would always subject them to the conventional (and essentially Western) musical language canonized by Rimsky-Korsakov. To their trained ears, the heterophonic harmonies of Russian folk music were ugly and barbaric, and not really ‘music’ in the proper sense at all, so that it would be highly inappropriate to adopt them as a part of their

17. Gusli player. The gusli was an ancient type of Russian zither, usually five-stringed, and widely used in folk music

art form. Stravinsky was the first composer to assimilate folk music as an element of style - using not just its melodies but its harmonies and rhythms as the basis of his own distinctive ‘modern’ style.*

The Firebird was the great breakthrough. But it was only made possible by the pioneering work of two ethnographers, whose musical discoveries were yet another product of the ‘going to the people’ in the 1870s. The first was by Yury Melgunov, a pianist and philologist who carried out a series of field trips to Kaluga province in the 1870s. On these trips he discovered the polyphonic harmonies of Russian peasant song, and worked out a scientific method of transcribing them. The other was by Evgenia Linyova, who confirmed Melgunov’s findings by recording peasant singing with a phonograph on field trips to the provinces. These recordings were the basis of her Peasant Songs of Great Russia as They Are in the Folk’s Harmonization, published in St Petersburg in 1904-9,136 which directly influenced the music of Stravinsky in The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The most important aspect of Linyova’s work was her discovery that the voice of the peasant chorus singer was not inflected with individual characteristics, as previously believed by the kuchkist composers, but rather strived for a kind of impersonality. In the preface to her Peasant Songs she described this last quality:

[A peasant woman called Mitrevna] started singing my favourite song, ‘Little Torch’, which I had been looking for everywhere but had not yet succeeded in recording. Mitrevna took the main melody. She sang in a deep sonorous voice, surprisingly fresh for a woman so old. In her singing there were absolutely no sentimental emphases or howlings. What struck me was its simplicity. The song flowed evenly and clearly, not a single word was lost. Despite the length of the melody and the slowness of the tempo, the spirit with which she invested the words of the song was so powerful that she seemed at once to be singing and speaking the song. I was amazed at this pure, classical strictness of style, which went so well with her serious face.137

* Because he had found, in Russian peasant music, his own alternative to the German symphonism of the nineteenth century, Stravinsky did not share the interest of other modernists such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in serial (twelve-tone) music. It was only after 1945 that Stravinsky began to develop his own form of serialism.

It was precisely this ‘classical’ quality that became so central, not just to the music of Stravinsky, but to the whole theory of primitivist art. As Bakst put it, the ‘austere forms of savage art are a new way forward from European art’.138

In Petrushka (1911) Stravinsky used the sounds of Russian life to overturn the entire musical establishment with its European rules of beauty and technique. Here was another Russian revolution - a musical uprising by the lowlife of St Petersburg. Everything about the ballet was conceived in ethnographic terms. Benois’ scenario conjured up in detail the vanished fairground world of the Shrovetide carnival of his beloved childhood in St Petersburg. Fokine’s mechanistic choreography echoed the jerky ostinato rhythms which Stravinsky heard in vendors’ cries and chants, organ-grinder tunes, accordion melodies, factory songs, coarse peasant speech and the syncopated music of village bands.139 It was a kind of musical lubok - a symphonic tableau of the noises of the street.

But of all Stravinsky’s Russian ballets, by far the most subversive was The Rite of Spring (1913). The idea of the ballet was originally conceived by the painter Nikolai Roerich, although Stravinsky, who was quite notorious for such distortions, later claimed it as his own. Roerich was a painter of the prehistoric Slavs and an accomplished archaeologist in his own right. He was absorbed in the rituals of neolithic Russia, which he idealized as a pantheistic realm of spiritual beauty where life and art were one, and man and nature lived in harmony. Stravinsky approached Roerich for a theme and he came to visit him at the artists’ colony of Talashkino, where the two men worked together on the scenario of ‘The Great Sacrifice’, as The Rite of Spring was originally called. The ballet was conceived as a re-creation of the ancient pagan rite of human sacrifice. It was meant to be that rite - not to tell the story of the ritual but (short of actual murder) to re-create that ritual on the stage and thus communicate in the most immediate way the ecstasy and terror of the human sacrifice. The ballet’s scenario was nothing like those of the romantic story ballets of the nineteenth century. It was simply put together as a succession of ritual acts: the tribal dance in adoration of the earth and sun; the choosing of the maiden for the sacrifice; the evocation of the ancestors by the elders of the tribe which forms the central rite of the sacrifice; and the chosen maiden’s sacrificial dance, culminating in her death at the climax of the dance’s feverish energy.

The evidence of human sacrifice in prehistoric Russia is by no means clear. Ethnographically it would have been more accurate to base the ballet on a midsummer rite (Kupala) in which Roerich had found some inconclusive evidence of human sacrifice among the Scythians - a fact he publicized in 1898.140 Under Christianity the Kupala festival had merged with St John’s Feast but traces of the ancient pagan rites had entered into peasant songs and ceremonials - especially the khorovod, with its ritualistic circular movements that played such a key role in The Rite of Spring. The switch to the pagan rite of spring (Semik) was partly an attempt to link the sacrifice with the ancient Slavic worship of the sun god Yarilo, who symbolized the notion of apocalyptic fire, the spiritual regeneration of the land through its destruction, in the mystical world view of the Symbolists. But the change was also based on the findings of folklorists such as Alexander Afanasiev, who had linked these vernal cults with sacrificial rituals involving maiden girls. Afanasiev’s magnum opus, The Slavs’ Poetic View of Nature (1866-9), a sort of Slavic Golden Bough, became a rich resource for artists like Stravinsky who sought to lend an ethnographic authenticity to their fantasies of ancient Rus’. Musorgsky, for example, borrowed heavily from Afanasiev’s descriptions of the witches’ sabbath for his St John’s Night on Bald Mountain. Afanasiev worked on the questionable premise that the world view of the ancient Slavs could be reconstructed through the study of contemporary peasant rituals and folk beliefs. According to his study, there was still a fairly widespread peasant custom of burning effigies, as symbols of fertility, in ritualistic dances marking the commencement of the spring sowing. But in parts of Russia this custom had been replaced by a ritual that involved a beautiful maiden: the peasants would strip the young girl naked, dress her up in garlands (as Yarilo was pictured in the folk imagination), put her on a horse, and lead her through the fields as the village elders watched. Sometimes a dummy of the girl was burned.141 Here essentially was the scenario of The Rite of Spring.

Artistically, the ballet strived for ethnographic authenticity. Roerich’s costumes were drawn from peasant clothes in Tenisheva’s collection at Talashkino. His primitivist sets were based on archaeol-

18. Nikolai Roerich: costumes for the Adolescents in the first production of The Rite of Spring, Paris, 1913

ogy. Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography - the real scandal of the ballet’s infamous Paris premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on 29 May 1913. For the music was barely heard at all in the commotion, the shouting and the fighting, which broke out in the auditorium when the curtain first went up. Nijinsky had choreographed movements which were ugly and angular. Everything about the dancers’ movements emphasized their weight instead of their lightness, as demanded by the principles of classical ballet. Rejecting all the basic positions, the ritual dancers had their feet turned inwards, elbows clutched to the sides of their body and their palms held flat, like the wooden idols that were so prominent in Roerich’s mythic paintings of Scythian Russia. They were orchestrated, not by steps and notes, as in conventional ballets, but rather moved as one collective mass to the violent off-beat rhythms of the orchestra. The dancers pounded their feet on the stage, building up a static energy which finally exploded, with electrifying force, in the sacrificial dance. This rhythmic violence was the vital innovation of Stravinsky’s score. Like most of the ballet’s themes, it was taken from the music of the peas-antry.142 There was nothing like these rhythms in Western art music

(Stravinsky said that he did not really know how to notate or bar them) - a convulsive pounding of irregular downbeats, requiring constant changes in the metric signature with almost every bar so that the conductor of the orchestra must throw himself about and wave his arms in jerky motions, as if performing a shamanic dance. In these explosive rhythms it is possible to hear the terrifying beat of the Great War and the Revolution of 1917.


The Revolution found Stravinsky in Clarens, Switzerland, where he had been stranded behind German lines since the outbreak of war in 1914. ‘All my thoughts are with you in these unforgettable days of happiness’, he wrote to his mother in Petrograd on hearing of the downfall of the monarchy in 1917.143 Stravinsky had high hopes of the Revolution. In 1914 he had told the French writer Romain Rolland that he was ‘counting on a revolution after the war to bring down the dynasty and establish a Slavic United States’. He claimed for Russia, as Rolland put it, ‘the role of a splendid and healthy barbarism, pregnant with the seeds of new ideas that will change the thinking of the West’.144 But Stravinsky’s disillusionment was swift and emphatic. In the autumn of 1917 his beloved estate at Ustilug was ransacked and destroyed by the peasantry. For years he did not know its fate - though there were signs that it had been destroyed. Rummaging through a bookstall in Moscow in the 1950s, the conductor Gennady Rozh-destvensky found the title page of Debussy’s Preludes (Book Two) inscribed by the composer ‘To entertain my friend Igor Stravinsky’: it had come from Ustilug.145 Not knowing what had happened to the place for all these years could only have intensified Stravinsky’s sense of loss. Ustilug was where Stravinsky had spent the happy summers of his childhood years - it was the patch of Russia which he felt to be his own - and his profound loathing of the Soviet regime was intimately linked to the anger which he felt at being robbed of his own past. (Nabokov’s politics were similarly defined by his ‘lost childhood’ at the family estate of Vyra, a vanished world he retrieved through Speak, Memory.)

19. Stravinsky transcribes a folk song sung by a peasant gusli player on the porch of the Stravinsky house at Ustilug, 1909. Stravinsky’s mother, Anna, holds Theodore, his son

Stravinsky did the same through his music. Cut off from Russia, he felt an intense longing for his native land. His notebooks from the war years are filled with notations of Russian peasant songs which reappeared in Four Russian Songs (1918-19). The final song in this quartet was taken from an Old Believer story about a sinful man who cannot find a path back towards God. Its words read like a lament of the exile’s tortured soul: ‘Snowstorms and blizzards close all the roads to Thy Kingdom.’ Stravinsky seldom talked about this brief and haunting song. Yet his notebooks show that he laboured over it, and that he made frequent changes to the score. The song’s five pages are the product of no fewer than thirty-two pages of musical sketching. It suggests how much he struggled to find the right musical expression for these words.146

Stravinsky laboured even longer on The Peasant Wedding (Svad-ebka), a work begun before the First World War and first performed in Paris (as Let Noces) nine years later, in 1923. He worked on it longer than on any other score. The ballet had its origins in his final trip to Ustilug. Stravinsky had been working on the idea of a ballet that would re-create the wedding rituals of the peasantry and, knowing that his library contained useful transcriptions of peasant songs, he made a hurried trip to Ustilug to fetch them just before the outbreak of war. The sources became, for him, a sort of talisman of the Russia he had lost. For several years he worked on these folk songs, trying to distil the essence of his people’s musical language, and striving to combine it with the austere style which he had first developed in The Rite of Spring. He thinned out his instrumental formula, rejecting the large Romantic orchestra for the small ensemble, using pianos, cimbaloms and percussion instruments to create a simpler, more mechanistic sound. But his truly momentous discovery was that, in contrast to the language and the music of the West, the accents of spoken Russian verse were ignored when that verse was sung. Looking through the song books he had retrieved from Ustilug, Stravinsky suddenly realized that the stress in folk songs often fell on the ‘wrong’ syllable. ‘The recognition of the musical possibilities inherent in this fact was one of the most rejoicing discoveries of my life,’ he explained to his musical assistant Robert Craft; ‘I was like a man who suddenly finds that his finger can be bent from the second joint as well as from the first.’147The freedom of accentuation in the peasant song had a clear affinity with the ever-shifting rhythms of his own music in The Rite of Spring; both had the effect of sparkling play or dance. Stravinsky now began writing music for the pleasure of the sound of individual words, or for the joy of puns and rhyming games, like the Russian limericks (Pribautki) which he set to music in 1918. But beyond such entertainments, his discovery came as a salvation for the exiled composer. It was as if he had found a new homeland in this common language with the Russian peasantry. Through music he could recover the Russia he had lost.

This was the idea behind The Peasant Wedding - an attempt, in his own words, to re-create in art an essential ur-Russia, the ancient peasant Russia that had been concealed by the thin veneer of European civilization since the eighteenth century. It was the holy Russia of the Orthodox, a Russia stripped of its parasitic vegetation; its bureaucracy from Germany, a certain strain of English liberalism much in fashion with the aristocracy; its scientism (alas!), its ‘intellectuals’ and their inane and bookish faith in progress; it is the Russia of before Peter the Great and before Europeanism… a peasant, but above all Christian, Russia, and truly the only Christian land in Europe, the one which laughs and cries (laughs and cries both at once without always really knowing which is which) in The Peasant Wedding, the one we saw awaken to herself in confusion and magnificently full of impurities in The Rite of Spring.148

Stravinsky had hit upon a form of music that expressed the vital energy and spirit of the people - a truly national music in the Stasovian sense. Stravinsky had drafted the first part of The Peasant Wedding by the end of 1914. When he played it to Diaghilev, the impresario broke down in tears and said it was ‘the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet’.149

The Peasant Wedding was a work of musical ethnography. In later years Stravinsky tried to deny this. Immersed in the cosmopolitan culture of interwar Paris, and driven by his hatred of the Soviet regime, he made a public show of distancing himself from his Russian heritage. But he was not convincing. The ballet was precisely what Stravinsky claimed that it was not: a direct expression of the music and the culture of the peasantry. Based on a close reading of the folklore sources, and drawing all its music from the peasants’ wedding songs, the ballet’s whole conception was to re-create the peasant wedding ritual as a work of art on stage.

Life and art were intimately linked. The Russian peasant wedding was itself performed as a series of communal rituals, each accompanied by ceremonial songs, and at certain junctures there were ceremonial dances like the khorovod. In the south of Russia, from where Stravinsky’s folklore sources were derived, the wedding rite had four main parts. First there was the matchmaking, when two appointed elders, one male and one female, made the first approach to the household of the bride, followed by the inspection of the bride, when by custom she sang her lament for her family and her home. Next came the betrothal, the complex negotiations over the dowry and exchange of property and the sealing of the contract with a vodka toast, which was witnessed by the whole community and marked symbolically by the singing of the song of ‘Cosmas and Demian’, the patron saints of blacksmiths (for, as the peasants said, all marriages were ‘forged’). Then came the prenuptial rituals like the washing of the bride and the devicbnik (the unplaiting of the maiden’s braid), accompanied by more laments, which were followed on the morning of the wedding by the blessing of the bride with the family icon and then, amid the wailing of the village girls, her departure for the church. Finally there was the wedding ceremony itself, followed by the marriage feast. Stravinsky rearranged these rituals into four tableaux in a way that emphasized the coming together of the bride and groom as ‘two rivers into one’:1) ‘At the Bride’s’; 2) ‘At the Groom’s’; 3) ‘Seeing off the Bride’; and 4) ‘The Wedding Feast’. The peasant wedding was taken as a symbol of the family’s communion in the village culture of these ancient rituals. It was portrayed as a collective rite - the binding of the bridal couple to the patriarchal culture of the peasant community - rather than as a romantic union between two individuals.

It was a commonplace in the Eurasian circles in which Stravinsky moved in Paris that the greatest strength of the Russian people, and the thing that set them apart from the people of the West, was their voluntary surrender of the individual will to collective rituals and forms of life. This sublimation of the individual was precisely what had attracted Stravinsky to the subject of the ballet in the first place -it was a perfect vehicle for the sort of peasant music he had been composing since The Rite of Spring. In The Peasant Wedding there was no room for emotion in the singing parts. The voices were supposed to merge as one, as they did in church chants and peasant singing, to create a sound Stravinsky once described as ‘perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical’. The same effect was produced by the choice of instruments (the result of a ten-year search for an essential ‘Russian’ sound): four pianos (on the stage), cimbalom and bells and percussion instruments - all of which were scored to play ‘mechanically’. The reduced size and palette of the orchestra (it was meant to sound like a peasant wedding band) were reflected in the muted colours of Goncharova’s sets. The great colourist abandoned the vivid reds and bold peasant patterns of her original designs for the minimalist pale blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth which were used in the production. The choreography (by Bronislava Nijinska) was equally impersonal - the corps de ballet moving all as one, like some vast machine made of human beings, and carrying the whole of the storyline. ‘There were no leading parts’, Nijinska explained; ‘each member would blend through the movement into the whole… [and] the action of the separate characters would be expressed, not by each one individually, but rather by the action of the whole ensemble.’150 It was the perfect ideal of the Russian peasantry.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!