Overleaf: Scythian figures: late nineteenth-century archaeological engraving


Before he turned to art Kandinsky thought he might become an anthropologist. As a student reading law at Moscow University, he had fallen ill in his final year, and to recuperate he had set off on a trip to the remote Komi region, 800 kilometres north-east of Moscow, to study the beliefs of its Finno-Ugric tribes. Travelling by train as far as Vologda, where the railway stopped, he then sailed east along the Sukhona river, entering the forests of ‘another world’, as he recalled, where the people still believed in demons and spirits. Anthropologists had long marked out the Komi region as a meeting point between Christianity and the old shamanic paganism of the Asiatic tribes. It was a ‘wonderland’ where ‘the people’s every action is accompanied by secret magic rituals’.1 The trip left an indelible impression on Kandinsky. The shamanism he discovered there became one of the major inspirations for his abstract art.2 ‘Here I learned how to look at art’, he would later write - ‘how to turn oneself around within a painting and how to live in it.’3

Kandinsky’s journey east was a journey back in time. He was looking for the remnants of the paganism which Russian missionaries had described in that region from medieval times. There were ancient records of the Komi people worshipping the sun, the river and the trees; of frenzied whirling dances to summon up their spirits; and there were legendary tales about the Komi shamans who beat their drums and flew off on their horse-sticks to the spirit world. Six hundred years of church-building had given no more than a gloss of Christianity to this Eurasian culture. The Komi people had been forcibly converted to the Christian faith by St Stephan in the fourteenth century. The area had been colonized by Russian settlers for several hundreds years, and the culture of the Komi, from their language to their dress, bore a close resemblance to the Russian way of life.

Ust-Sysolsk, the region’s capital, where Kandinsky lived for three summer months in 1889, looked much like any Russian town. It consisted of a small classical ensemble of administrative buildings in the centre of a sprawling settlement of log-built peasant huts. As Kandinsky did his fieldwork, recording the beliefs of the old people

21. Group of Komi people in typical clothing, c. 1912

and looking for motifs of shamanistic cults in their folk art, he soon found traces of this ancient pagan culture concealed underneath the Russian one. None of the Komi would describe themselves as anything but Orthodox (at least not to someone from Moscow), and in their public rituals they had a Christian priest. But in their private lives, as Kandinsky ascertained, they still looked to the old shamans. The Komi people believed in a forest monster called ‘Vorsa’. They had a ‘living soul’ they called an ‘ort’, which shadowed people through their lives and appeared before them at the moment of their death. They prayed to the spirits of the water and the wind; they spoke to the fire as if they were speaking to a living thing; and their folk art still showed signs of worshipping the sun. Some of the Komi people told Kandinsky that the stars were nailed on to the sky.4

Scratching the surface of Komi life Kandinsky had revealed its Asian origins. For centuries the Finno-Ugric tribes had intermingled with the Turkic peoples of northern Asia and the Central Asian steppe. Nineteenth-century archaeologists in the Komi region had unearthed large amounts of ceramic pottery with Mongolian ornament. Kandinsky found a chapel with a Mongolian roof, which he sketched in his journal of the trip.5 Nineteenth-century philologists subscribed to the theory of a Ural-Altaic family of languages that united the Finns with the Ostiaks, the Voguls, Samoyeds and Mongols in a single culture stretching from Finland to Manchuria. The idea was advanced in the 1850s by the Finnish explorer M. A. Castren, whose journeys to the east of the Urals had uncovered many things he recognized from home.6 Castren’s observations were borne out by later scholarship. There are shamanistic motifs, for example, in the Kalevala, or ‘Land of Heroes’, the Finnish national epic poem, which may suggest a historical connection to the peoples of the East, although the Finns themselves regard their poem as a Baltic Odyssey in the purest folk traditions of Karelia, the region where Finland and Russia meet.7 Like a shaman with his horse-stick and drum, its hero Vainamoinen journeys with his kantele (a sort of zither) to a magic underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead. One-fifth of the Kalevala is composed in magic charms. Not written down until 1822, it was usually sung to tunes in the pentatonic (‘Indo-Chinese’) scale corresponding to the five strings of the kantele, which, like its predecessor, the five-stringed Russian gusli, was tuned to that scale.8

Kandinsky’s exploration of the Komi region was not just a scientific quest. It was a personal one as well. The Kandinskys took their name from the Konda river near Tobolsk in Siberia, where they had settled in the eighteenth century. The family was descended from the Tungus tribe, who lived along the Amur river in Mongolia. Kandinsky was proud of his Mongol looks and he liked to boast that he was a descendant of the seventeenth-century Tungus chieftain Gantimur. During the eighteenth century the Tungus had moved north-west to the Ob and Konda rivers. They intermingled with the Ostiaks and the Voguls, who traded with the Komi and with other Finnic peoples on the Urals’ western side. Kandinsky’s ancestors were among these traders, who would have intermarried with the Komi people, so it is possible that he had Komi blood as well.9

Many Russian families had Mongol origins. ‘Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar,’ Napoleon once said. The coats of arms of Russian families - where Muslim motifs such as sabres, arrows, crescent moons and the 8-pointed star are much in evidence - bear witness to this Mongol legacy. There were four main groups of Mongol descendants. First there were those descended from the Turkic-speaking nomads who had swept in with the armies of Genghiz Khan in the thirteenth century and settled down in Russia following the break-up of the ‘Golden Horde’, the Russian name for the Mongol host with its gleaming tent encampment on the Volga river, in the fifteenth century. Among these were some of the most famous names in Russian history: writers like Karamzin, Turgenev, Bulgakov and Akhmatova; philosophers like Chaadaev, Kireevsky, Berdiaev; statesmen like Godunov, Bukharin, Tukhachevsky; and composers like Rimsky-Korsakov. * Next were the families of Turkic origin who came to Russia from the west: the Tiutchevs and Chicherins, who came from Italy; or the Rachmaninovs, who had arrived from Poland in the eighteenth century. Even the Kutuzovs were of Tatar origin (qutuz is the Turkic word for ‘furious’ or ‘mad’) - an irony in view of the great general Mikhail Kutuzov’s status as a hero made of purely Russian

* The name Turgenev derives from the Mongol word for ‘swift’ (tiirgen); Bulgakov from the Turkic word ‘to wave’ (bulgaq); Godunov from the Mongol word godon (‘a stupid person’); and Korsakov from the Turkic word qorsaq, a type of steppeland fox. Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko. She changed her name to Akhmatova (said to be the name of her Tatar great-grandmother) when her father said he did not want a poet in his family. Akhmatova claimed descent from Khan Akhmat, a direct descendant of Genghiz Khan and the last Tatar khan to receive tribute from the Russian princes the was assassinated in 14X1). Nadezhda Mandelstam believed that Akhmatova had invented the Tatar origins of her great-grandmother (N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned (London,1989), p. 449).

22. (opposite) Vastly Kandinsky: sketches of buildings in the Komi region, including a church with a Mongolian-type roof. From the Vologda Diary of 1889

stuff. Families of mixed Slav and Tatar ancestry made up a third category. Among these were some of Russia’s grandest dynasties - the Sheremetevs, Stroganovs and Rostopchins - although there were many at a lower level, too. Gogol’s family, for instance, was of mixed Polish and Ukrainian descent but it shared a common ancestry with the Turkic Gogels, who derived their surname from the Chuvash word gogul-a type of steppeland bird (Gogol was renowned for his bird-like features, especially his beaky nose). The final group were Russian families who changed their names to make them sound more Turkic, either because they had married into a Tatar family, or because they had bought land in the east and wanted smooth relations with the native tribes. The Russian Veliaminovs, for example, changed their name to the Turkic Aksak (from aqsaq, meaning ‘lame’) to facilitate their purchase of enormous tracts of steppeland from the Bashkir tribes near Orenburg: and so the greatest family of Slavophiles, the Aksakovs, was founded.10

Adopting Turkic names became the height of fashion at the court of Moscow between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Tatar influence from the Golden Horde remained very strong and many noble dynasties were established. During the eighteenth century, when Peter’s nobles were obliged to look westwards, the fashion fell into decline. But it was revived in the nineteenth century - to the point where many pure-bred Russian families invented legendary Tatar ancestors to make themselves appear more exotic. Nabokov, for example, claimed (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that his family was descended from no less a personage than Genghiz Khan himself, who ‘is said to have fathered the Nabok, a petty Tatar prince in the twelfth century who married a Russian damsel in an era of intensely artistic Russian culture’.11

After Kandinsky had returned from the Komi region he gave a lecture on the findings of his trip to the Imperial Ethnographic Society in St Petersburg. The auditorium was full. The shamanistic beliefs of the Eurasian tribes held an exotic fascination for the Russian public at

23. Masked Buriat shaman with drum, drumstick and horse-sticks. Note the iron on his robe. Early 1900s

this time, when the culture of the West was widely seen as spiritually dead and intellectuals were looking towards the East for spiritual renewal. But this sudden interest in Eurasia was also at the heart of an urgent new debate about the roots of Russia’s folk culture.

In its defining myth Russia had evolved as a Christian civilization,

Its culture was a product of the combined influence of Scandinavia and Byzantium. The national epic which the Russians liked to tell about themselves was the story of a struggle by the agriculturalists of the northern forest lands against the horsemen of the Asiatic steppe -the Avars and Khazars, Polovtsians and Mongols, Kazakhs, Kalmyks and all the other bow-and-arrow tribes that had raided Russia from the earliest times. This national myth had become so fundamental to the Russians’ European self-identity that even to suggest an Asiatic influence on Russia’s culture was to invite charges of treason.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, cultural attitudes shifted. As the empire spread across the Asian steppe, there was a growing movement to embrace its cultures as a part of Russia’s own. The first important sign of this cultural shift had come in the 1860s, when Stasov tried to show that much of Russia’s folk culture, its ornament and folk epics (byliny), had antecedents in the East. Stasov was denounced by the Slavophiles and other patriots. Yet by the end of the 1880s, when Kandinsky made his trip, there was an explosion of research into the Asiatic origins of Russia’s folk culture. Archaeologists such as D. N. Anuchin and N. I. Veselovsky had exposed the depth of the Tatar influence on the Stone Age culture of Russia. They had equally revealed, or at least suggested, the Asiatic origins of many folk beliefs among the Russian peasants of the steppe.12 Anthropologists had found shamanic practices in Russian peasant sacred rituals.13 Others pointed out the ritual use of totems by the Russian peasantry in Siberia.14 The anthropologist Dmitry Zelenin maintained that the peasants’ animistic beliefs had been handed down to them from the Mongol tribes. Like the Bashkirs and the Chuvash (tribes of Finnish stock with a strong Tatar strain), the Russian peasants used a snakelike leather charm to draw a fever; and like the Komi, or the Ostiaks and the Buriats in the Far East, they were known to hang the carcass of an ermine or a fox from the portal of their house to ward away the ’evil eye’. Russian peasants from the Petrovsk region of the Middle Volga had a custom reminiscent of the totemism practised by many Asian tribes. When a child was born they would carve a wooden figurine of the infant and bury it together with the placenta in a coffin underneath the family house. This, it was believed, would guarantee a long life for the child.15 All these findings raised disturbing questions about the identity of the Russians. Were they Europeans or Asians? Were they the subjects of the Tsar or descendants of Genghiz Khan?


In 1237 a vast army of Mongol horsemen left their grassland bases on the Qipchaq steppe to the north of the Black Sea and raided the principalities of Kievan Rus’. The Russians were too weak and internally divided to resist, and in the course of the following three years every major Russian town, with the exception of Novgorod, had fallen to the Mongol hordes. For the next 250 years Russia was ruled, albeit indirectly, by the Mongol khans. The Mongols did not occupy the central Russian lands. They settled with their horses on the fertile steppelands of the south and collected taxes from the Russian towns, over which they exerted their domination through periodic raids of ferocious violence.

It is hard to overstress the sense of national shame which the ‘Mongol yoke’ evokes in the Russians. Unless one counts Hungary, Kievan Rus’ was the only major European power to be overtaken by the Asiatic hordes. In terms of military technology the Mongol horsemen were far superior to the forces of the Russian principalities. But rarely did they need to prove the point. Few Russian princes thought to challenge them. It was as late as 1380, when the power of the Mongols was already weakening, that the Russians waged their first real battle against them. And even after that it took another century of in-fighting between the Mongol khans - culminating in the breakaway of three separate khanates from the Golden Horde (the Crimean khanate in 1430, the khanate of Kazan in 1436, and that of Astrakhan in 1466) - before the Russian princes found the wherewithal to fight a war against each one in turn. By and large, then, the Mongol occupation was a story of the Russian princes’ own collaboration with their Asiatic overlords. This explains why, contrary to national myth, relatively few towns were destroyed by the Mongols; why Russian arts and crafts, and even major projects such as the building of churches, showed no signs of slowing down; why trade and agriculture carried on as normal; and why in the period of the Mongol occupation there was no great migration by the Russian population from the southern regions closest to the Mongol warriors.16

According to the national myth, the Mongols came, they terrorized and pillaged, but then they left without a trace. Russia might have succumbed to the Mongol sword, but its Christian civilization, with its monasteries and churches, remained unaffected by the Asiatic hordes. This assumption has always remained central to the Russians’ identity as Christians. They may live on the Asiatic steppe but they face towards the West. ‘From Asia’, wrote Dmitry Likhachev, the leading twentieth-century cultural historian of Russia, ‘we received extraordinarily little’ - and his book, called Russian Culture, has nothing more to say on the Mongol legacy.17 This national myth is based on the idea of the Mongols’ cultural backwardness. They ruled by terror, bringing (in Pushkin’s famous phrase) ‘neither algebra nor Aristotle’ with them when they came to Russia, unlike the Moors when they conquered Spain. They plunged Russia into its ‘Dark Age’. Karamzin, in his History of the Russian State, did not write a thing about the cultural legacies of Mongol rule. ‘For how’, he asked, ‘could a civilized people have learned from such nomads?’18 The great historian Sergei Soloviev devoted just three pages to the cultural influence of the Mongols in his 28-volume History of Russia. Even Sergei Platonov, the leading nineteenth-century Mongol scholar, suggested that the Mongols had no influence on Russian cultural life.

In fact the Mongol tribes were far from backward. If anything, particularly in terms of their military technology and organization, they were considerably in advance of the Russian people whose lands they mastered for so long. The Mongols had a sophisticated system of administration and taxation, from which the Russian state would develop its own structures, and this is reflected in the Tatar origins of many related Russian words like dengi (money), tamozbna (customs) and kazna (treasury). Archaeological excavations near the Mongol capital of Sarai (near Tsaritsyn, today Volgograd, on the Volga river) showed that the Mongols had the capacity to develop large urban settlements with palaces and schools, well laid-out streets and hydraulic systems, craft workshops and farms. If the Mongols did not occupy the central part of Russia, it was not, as Soloviev suggested, because they were too primitive to conquer or control it, but because, without rich pastures or trade routes, the northern forest lands were of little benefit to their nomadic life. Even the taxes which they levied on the Russians, although burdensome to the peasantry, were insignificant compared to the riches they derived from their silk-route colonies in the Caucasus, Persia, Central Asia and northern India.

The Mongol occupation left a profound mark on the Russian way of life. As Pushkin wrote to Chaadaev in 1836, it was then that Russia became separated from the West. That history posed a fundamental challenge to the Russians’ European self-identification:

Of course the schism separated us from the rest of Europe and we took no part in any of the great events which stirred her; but we have had our own mission. It was Russia who contained the Mongol conquest within her vast expanses. The Tatars did not dare cross our western frontiers and so leave us in the rear. They retreated to their deserts, and Christian civilization was saved. To this end we were obliged to lead a completely separate existence which, while it left us Christians, almost made us complete strangers in the Christian world… The Tatar invasion is a sad and impressive history… Do you not discern something imposing in the situation of Russia, something that will strike the future historian? Do you think he will put us outside Europe?… I do not by any means admire all that I see around me… but I swear to you that not for anything in the world would I change my country for another, nor have any history other than that of our ancestors, such as it has been given us by God.1

Pushkin’s willingness to embrace this legacy was exceptional, given the taboo which Asia represented to the educated classes of Russia at that time. Perhaps it was explained by Pushkin’s origins - for he himself was of African descent on his mother’s side. Pushkin was the great-grandson of Abram Gannibal, an Abyssinian who had been found at the palace of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul and purchased by the Russian ambassador as a present for Peter the Great. A favourite at Peter’s court, Gannibal was sent to study in Paris. He rose to become a major-general under the Empress Elizabeth, who granted him an estate with 1,400 serfs at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov. Pushkin took much pride in his great-grandfather - he had inherited his African lips and thick black curly hair. He wrote an unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great (1827), and in the opening chapter of Eugene Onegin he appended a long footnote on his ancestry to the line (no doubt composed to necessitate the note) ‘Beneath the sky of my Africa’.20 But Russian Europhiles like Chaadaev found nothing to impress them in the Mongol legacy. Seeking to explain why their country took a separate path from Western Europe, many Russians blamed the despotism of the Mongol khans. Karamzin pointed to the Mongols for the degeneration of Russia’s political morals. The historian V. O. Kliuchevsky described the Russian state as ‘an Asiatic structure, albeit one that has been decorated by a European facade’.21

The Asiatic character of Russia’s despotism became a commonplace of the nineteenth-century democratic intelligensia and was also later used as an explanation for the Soviet system. Herzen said that Nicholas I was ‘Genghiz Khan with a telegraph’ - and, continuing in that tradition, Stalin was compared to Genghiz Khan with a telephone. The Russian autocratic tradition had many roots, but the Mongol legacy did more than most to fix the basic nature of its politics. The khans demanded, and mercilessly enforced, complete submission to their will from all their subjects, peasants and noblemen alike. Moscow’s princes emulated the behaviour of the khans when they ousted them from the Russian lands and succeeded them as Tsars in the sixteenth century. Indeed, they justified their new imperial status not just on the basis of their spiritual descent from Byzantium but also on the basis of their territorial inheritance from Genghiz Khan. The title ‘Tsar’ had been used by the last khan of the Golden Horde and for a long time the Russian terms for Tsar and khan were interchangeable. Even Genghiz Khan was rendered Genghiz Tsar.22

As the Golden Horde broke up and the Tsarist state pushed east, many of the Mongols who had served the khan remained in Russia and entered into service in the court of Muscovy. Genghiz Khan’s descendants held a prominent position in the Moscow court and, by any estimate, a sizeable proportion of the Russian aristocracy had the great khan’s blood running through their veins. There were at least two Tsars who were descended from the Golden Horde. One was Simeon Bekbulatovich (also known as Sain Bulat), who was Tsar of part of Russia for the best part of a year, in 1575. The grandson of a khan of the Golden Horde, Bekbulatovich had joined the Moscow court and risen through its ranks to become a retainer of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’). Ivan set Bekbulatovich to rule over the boyars’ domains while he himself retreated to the countryside, taking the title ‘Prince of Moscow’. The appointment was a temporary and tactical manoeuvre on Ivan’s part to tighten his control of his rebellious guards, the oprichnina. Bekbulatovich was only nominally in charge. But Ivan’s choice was clearly motivated by the high prestige which the Golden Horde retained within society. At the end of his short ‘reign’, Ivan rewarded Bekbulatovich with a rich estate of 140,000 hectares along with the title of the Grand Prince of Tver. But under Boris Godunov Bekbulatovich was accused of treason, deprived of his estate and forced into the monastery of St Cyril, near Belo Ozero. Boris Godunov was the other Tsar descendant of the Golden Horde - the great-great-great-great-grandson of a Tatar khan named Chet who had entered the service of the Moscow princes in the middle of the fourteenth century.23

It was not just Mongol nobles who settled down in Russia. The Mongol invasion involved a huge migration of nomadic tribes who had been forced to find new pastures on the steppe through the overpopulation of Mongolia. The whole Eurasian steppe, from the Ukraine to Central Asia, was engulfed by incoming tribes. Many of the immigrants became absorbed in the settled population and stayed behind in Russia when the Golden Horde was pushed back to Mongolia. Their Tatar names are still marked on maps of southern Russia and the Volga lands: Penza, Chembar, Ardym, Anybei, Kevda, Ardatov and Alatyr. Some of the settlers were cohorts of the Mongol army stationed as administrators in the southern borderlands between the Volga and the river Bug. Others were traders or artisans who went to work in the Russian towns, or poor nomads who were forced to become peasant farmers when they lost their herds. There was such a heavy influx of these Tatar immigrants, and so much intermingling with the native population over several centuries, that the idea of a peasantry of purely Russian stock must be seen as no more than myth.

The Mongol influence went deep into the roots of Russian folk culture. Many of the most basic Russian words have Tatar origins -loshad (horse), bazar (market), ambar (barn), sunduk (chest) and several hundred more.24 As already noted, imported Tatar words were particularly common in the languages of commerce and administration, where the descendants of the Golden Horde dominated. By the fifteenth century the use of Tatar terms had become so modish at the court of Muscovy that the Grand Duke Vasily accused his courtiers of ‘excessive love of the Tatars and their speech’.25But Turkic phrases also left their mark on the language of the street - perhaps most notably in those ‘davai’ verbal riffs which signal the intention of so many daily acts: ‘davai poidem’ (‘Come on, let’s go’), ‘ davai posidim’ (‘Come on, let’s sit down’), and ‘ davai popem’ (‘Come on, let’s get drunk’).

Russian customs were equally influenced by the Tatar immigration, although this is easier to establish at the level of the court and high society, where Russian customs of hospitality were clearly influenced by the culture of the khans, than it is at the level of the common Russian folk. None the less, the archaeologist Veselovsky traced the Russian folk taboos connected with the threshold (such as not to step on it or not to greet a person across it) to the customs and beliefs of the Golden Horde. He also found a Mongol origin for the Russian peasant custom of honouring a person by throwing them into the air - a ceremony performed by a crowd of grateful peasants on Nabokov’s father after he had settled a dispute on the estate.26

From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvellous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curious casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of fold in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute Flames in the midst of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.27

There is also reason to suppose that the shamanistic cults of the Mongol tribes were incorporated in the Russian peasant faith, as Kandinsky and his fellow anthropologists had argued at the end of the nineteenth century (although it is telling that they found no trace of the Muslim religion which the Golden Horde adopted in the fourteenth century).* Many of the peasant sects, the ‘Wailers’ and the ‘Jumpers’, for example, used techniques that were highly reminiscent of the Asian shamans’ to reach a trance-like state of religious ecstasy.28

The Holy Fool (yurodivyi) was probably descended from the Asian shamans, too, despite his image as the quintessential ‘Russian type’ in many works of art. It is difficult to say where the Holy Fools came from. There was certainly no school for Holy Fools and, like Rasputin (who was in his way a sort of Holy Fool), they seem to have emerged as simple men, with their own techniques of prophecy and healing, which enabled them to set out on their life of religious wandering. In Russian folklore, the ‘fool for the sake of Christ’, or Holy Fool for short, held the status of a saint - though he acted more like an idiot or madman than the self-denying martyr demanded by St Paul. Widely deemed to be clairvoyant and a sorcerer, the Holy Fool dressed in bizarre clothes, with an iron cap or harness on his head and chains beneath his shirt. He wandered as a poor man round the countryside, living off the alms of the villagers, who generally believed in his supernatural powers of divination and healing. He was frequently received and given food and lodgings in the households of the provincial aristocracy.

The Tolstoy family retained the services of a Holy Fool at Yasnaya Polyana. In his semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical Childhood, Tolstoy recounts a memorable scene in which the children of the household hide in a dark cupboard in Fool Grisha’s room to catch a glimpse of his chains when he goes to bed:

Almost immediately Grisha arrived with his soft tread. In one hand he had his staff, in the other a tallow candle in a brass candlestick. We held our breaths.

’Lord Jesus Christ! Most Holy Mother of God! To the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost…’ he kept saying, drawing the air into his lungs and speaking

* Long after shamanism became fashionable, the Muslim impact on Russian culture remained taboo. Even in St Petersburg, a city founded on the principle of religious tolerance, there was no mosque until 1909.

with the different intonations and abbreviations peculiar to those who often repeat these words.

With a prayer he placed his staff in a corner of the room and inspected his bed; after which he began to undress. Unfastening his old black girdle, he slowly divested himself of his tattered nankeen coat, folded it carefully and hung it over the back of a chair… His movements were deliberate and thoughtful.

Clad only in his shirt and undergarment he gently lowered himself on the bed, made the sign of the cross all round it, and with an effort (for he frowned) adjusted the chains beneath his shirt. After sitting there for a while and anxiously examining several tears in his linen he got up and, lifting the candle with a prayer to the level of the glass case where there were some icons, he crossed himself before them and turned the candle upside down. It spluttered and went out.

An almost full moon shone in through the windows which looked towards the forest. The long white figure of the fool was lit up on one side by its pale silvery rays; from the other its dark shadow, in company with the shadow from the window-frames, fell on the floor, on the walls and up to the ceiling. Outside in the courtyard the watchman was striking on his iron panel.

Folding his huge hands on his breast, Grisha stood in silence with bowed head before the icons, breathing heavily all the while. Then with difficulty he sank to his knees and began to pray.

At first he softly recited familiar prayers, only emphasizing certain words; then he repeated them, but louder and with much animation. Then he began to pray in his own words, making an evident effort to express himself in Church Slavonic. Though incoherent, his words were touching. He prayed for all his benefactors (as he called those who received him hospitably), among them for our mother and us; he prayed for himself, asking God to forgive him his grievous sins, and he kept repeating: ‘Oh God, forgive my enemies!’ He rose to his feet with a groan and repeating the same words again and again, fell to the floor and again got up despite the weight of his chains, which knocked against the floor every time with a dry harsh sound…

For a long time Grisha continued in this state of religious ecstasy, improvising prayers. Now he would repeat several times in succession Lord, have mercy but each time with renewed force and expression. Then he prayed Forgive me, O Lord teach me how to live… teach me how to live, O Lord so feelingly that he might be expecting an immediate answer to his petition.

The piteous sobs were all that we could hear… He rose to his knees, folded his hands on his breast and was silent.29

Writers and artists portrayed the Holy Fool as an archetype of the simple Russian believer. In Pushkin’s and in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov the Holy Fool appears as the Tsar’s conscience and as the voice of the suffering people. Prince Myshkin, the epileptic, Christ-like hero of The Idiot, is called a Holy Fool by the rich landowner Rogo-zhin; and Dostoevsky clearly wanted to create in him a genuinely Christian individual who, like the Holy Fool, is driven to the margins of society. In his painting In Russia (1916) Mikhail Nesterov portrayed the Holy Fool as the unofficial spiritual leader of the Russian people. Yet the Fool’s untutored and largely improvised sacraments probably owed more to the Asian shamans than they did to the Russian Church. Like a shaman, the Holy Fool performed a sort of whirling dance with strange shrieks and cries to enter into a state of religious ecstasy; he used a drum and bells in his magic rituals; and he wore his chains in the belief, which was shared by Asian shamans, that iron had a supernatural quality. Like a shaman, too, the Holy Fool frequently employed the image of the raven in his rituals - a bird with a magic and subversive status in Russian folklore. Throughout the nineteenth century the peasants of the Volga region saw the Cossack rebel leaders Pugachev and Razin in the form of giant ravens in the sky.30

Many common elements of Russian clothing were also Asiatic in their origins - a fact reflected in the Turkic derivation of the Russian words for clothes like kaftan, zipun (a light coat), armiak (heavy coat), sarafan and khalat.31Even the Tsar’s crown or Cap of Monomakh -by legend handed down from Byzantium - was probably of Tatar origin.32 The food of Russia, too, was deeply influenced by the cultures of the East, with many basic Russian dishes, such as plov (pilaff), lapsha (noodles) and tvorog (curd cheese) imported from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and other eating habits, like the Russian taste for horsemeat and koumis (fermented mare’s milk) no doubt handed down from the Mongol tribes. In contrast to the Christian West and most Buddhist cultures of the East, there was no religious sanction against eating horsemeat in Russia. Like the Mongol tribes, the Russians even bred a type of horse specifically to eat or (in the Volga region) to milk for koumis. Such practices were practically unknown in western Europe - at least until the nineteenth century, when French social reformers began to advocate the eating of horsemeat as a solution to the problems of poverty and malnutrition. But even then there was something of a stigma attached to eating horses. The practice of breeding horses for meat was regarded as barbaric in the West.33

All the major tribes of Central Asia - the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Kalmyks and Kirghiz - were offshoots of the Golden Horde. With the dissolution of the Horde in the fifteenth century, they had remained on the Russian steppe and became the allies or the subjects of the Tsar. The ancestors of the Kazakhs - Islamic-Turkic Mongols - left the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century. Gradually they became closer to the Russians as they were forced out of the richest steppeland pastures by their rival tribes, the Dzhungars and the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks also came out of the Horde in the fifteenth century. They settled down to an agricultural life on the fertile plain of Ferghana, inheriting the riches of the old Iranian oasis towns between the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers (the heritage of Tamerlane), on which basis they went on to found the Uzbek states of Bukhara, Khiva and Khokand and established trade relations with the Tsar. As for the Kalmyks, they were western Mongols (Oirats) who had left the Mongol army and stayed put on the steppe when the Golden Horde dissolved (the Turkic verb kalmak - from which the Kalmyks get their name - means ‘to stay’). Driven west by other tribes, they settled with their herds near Astrakhan on the northern Caspian shores and became the main suppliers of the Russian cavalry, driving 50,000 horses every year to Moscow until the trade declined in the eighteenth century.34 Russian settlers drove the Kalmyks off the Volga steppe in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Most of the tribesmen moved back east, but others settled in Russia, where they took up trades or farming, and converted to the Orthodox belief. Lenin was descended from one of these Kalmyks. His paternal grandfather, Nikolai Ulianov, was a Kalmyk son from Astrakhan. This Mongol descent was clearly visible in Lenin’s looks.


To commemorate the defeat of the Mongol khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of a new cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. St Basil’s, as it was to become popularly known in honour of the city’s favourite Holy Fool, was completed in 1560, just five years after its construction had begun. The cathedral was far more than a symbol of Russia’s victory over the Mongol khanates. It was a triumphant proclamation of the country’s liberation from the Tatar culture that had dominated it since the thirteenth century. With its showy colours, its playful ornament and outrageous onion domes, St Basil’s was intended as a joyful celebration of the Byzantine traditions to which Russia now returned (although, to be truthful, there was nothing so ornate in the Orthodox tradition and the mosque-like features of the cathedral were probably derived from an oriental style).

The cathedral was originally named the Intercession of the Virgin -to mark the fact that Kazan was captured on that sacred feast day (Pokrova) in 1552. Moscow’s victory against the Tatars was conceived as a religious triumph, and the empire which that victory launched was in many ways regarded as an Orthodox crusade. The conquest of the Asiatic steppe was portrayed as a holy mission to defend the Church against the Tatar infidels. It was set out in the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome - a doctrine which St Basil’s cast in stone - whereby Russia came to see itself as the leader of a truly universal Christian empire built on the traditions of Byzantium. Just as the mighty Russian state was built on the need to defend its Christian settlers on the heathen steppe, so the Russian national consciousness was forged by this religious war against the East. In the Russian mind this religious boundary was always more important than any ethnic one, and the oldest terms for a foreigner (for example, inoverets) carry connotations of a different faith. It is equally telling that the word in Russian for a peasant (krestianin), which in all other European languages stems from the idea of the country or the land, is connected with the word for a Christian (khristianin).

From the capture of Kazan in 1552 to the revolution in 1917, the

Russian Empire grew at the fantastic rate of over 100,000 square kilometres every year. The Russians were driven east by fur, the ‘soft gold’ that accounted for one-third of the Imperial coffers at the height of the fur trade in the seventeenth century.35 Russia’s colonial expansion was a massive hunt for bears and minks, sables, ermine, foxes and otters. Close on the heels of the fur trappers came the Cossack mercenaries, such as those commanded by the Russian hero Ermak, who seized the ore-rich mines of the Urals for his patron Stroganov and finally defeated the khanate of Siberia in 1582. Then came the Tsar’s troops, who constructed fortresses and exacted tributes from the native tribes, followed shortly after by the Church’s missionaries, who set out to deprive them of their shamanistic cults. Surikov’s enormous painting Ermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895) - a crowded battlescene between the icon-bearing, musket-firing Cossacks and the heathen bow-and-arrow tribesmen with their shamans beating drums - did more than any other work of art to fix this mythic image of the Russian empire in the national consciousness. As Surikov portrayed it, the real point of the conquest was to undermine the shamans who enjoyed a divine status in the Asiatic tribes.

This religious conquest of the Asiatic steppe was far more fundamental to the Russian empire than the equivalent role such missions played in the overseas empires of the European states. The explanation for this is geography. There was no great ocean to divide Russia from its Asian colonies: the two were part of the same land mass. The Ural mountains, which officially divided the European steppe from the Asiatic one, were physically no more than a series of big hills with large tracts of steppeland in between, and the traveller who crossed them would have to ask his driver where these famous mountains were. So without a clear geographical divide to distinguish them from their Asian colonies, the Russians looked instead to cultural categories. This became especially important in the eighteenth century, when Russia sought to redefine itself as a European empire with a presence in the West. If Russia was to be styled as a Western state, it needed to construct a clearer cultural boundary to set itself apart from this Asiatic other’ in the Orient. Religion was the easiest of these categories. All the Tsar’s non-Christian tribes were lumped together as ‘Tartars’, whatever their origins or faith, Muslim, shamanic or Buddhist. To reinforce this ‘good and evil’ split, the word ‘Tartar’ was deliberately misspelled (with the extra V) to bring it into line with the Greek word for ‘hell’ (tartarus). More generally, there was a tendency to think of all of Russia’s newly conquered territories (Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia) as one undifferentiated ‘east’ - an ‘Aziatshchina’ - which became a byword for ‘oriental langour’ and ‘backwardness’. The image of the Caucasus was orientalized, with travellers’ tales of its wild and savage tribes. Eighteenth-century maps consigned the Caucasus to the Muslim East, though geographically it was in the south, and historically it was an ancient part of the Christian West. In Georgia and Armenia the Caucasus contained Christian civilizations which went back to the fourth century, five hundred years before the Russians converted to Christianity. They were the first states in Europe to adopt the Christian faith - before even the conversion of Constantine the Great and the foundation of the Byzantine empire.

Nowhere were the Russians more concerned to erect cultural boundaries than in Siberia. In the eighteenth-century imagination the Urals were built up into a vast mountain range, as if shaped by God on the middle of the steppe to mark the eastern limit of the civilized world.* The Russians on the western side of these mountains were Christian in their ways, whereas the Asians on the eastern side were described by Russian travellers as ‘savages’ who needed to be tamed.36 To Asianize its image, Russian atlases in the eighteenth century deprived Siberia of its Russian name (Sibir’) and referred to it instead as the ‘Great Tatary’, a title borrowed from the Western geographic lexicon. Travel writers wrote about its Asiatic tribes, the Tungus and the Yakuts and the Buriats, without ever mentioning the settled Russian population in Siberia, even though it was already sizeable. In this way, which came to justify the whole colonial project in the east, the steppe was reconstructed in the Russian mind as a savage and exotic wilderness whose riches were untapped. It was ‘our Peru’ and ‘our India’.37

This colonial attitude was further strengthened by the economic decline of Siberia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As

* The cultural importance of the Ural mountains for Russia’s European self-identification has persisted to this day - as testified by the notion of a Europe ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ advanced by Gorbachev.

fashions in Europe changed and the fur trade declined in importance, and efforts by the Russian state to develop mining failed to compensate for the loss of revenues, so the promise of a virgin continent suddenly became supplanted by the bleak image of a vast wasteland. ‘Nevsky Prospekt, on its own, is worth at least five times as much as the whole of Siberia’, wrote one bureaucrat.38 Russia would be better off, another writer thought in 1841, if the ‘ocean of snow’ that was Siberia could be replaced by a real sea, which would at least enable more convenient maritime trade with the Far East.39 This pessimistic vision of Siberia was reinforced by its transformation into one vast prison camp. The term ‘Siberia’ became synonymous in colloquial expressions with penal servitude, wherever it occurred, with savage cruelty (sibirnyi) and a harsh life (sibirshchina).40In the poetic imagination the unforgiving nature of Siberia was itself a kind of tyranny:

The gloomy nature of these lands Is always harsh and wild, The angry river roars Storms often rage, And the clouds are dark.

Fearing the winters,

Endless and icy,

Nobody will visit

This wretched country,

This vast prison house for exiles.41

This Siberia was a region of the mind, an imaginary land to which all the opposites of European Russia were consigned. Its boundaries were in constant flux. For the city-bound elites of the early nineteenth century, ‘Siberia’ began where their own little ‘Russia’ - St Petersburg or Moscow and the road to their estate - gave way to a world they did not know. Katenin said that Kostroma, just 300 kilometres to the north-east of Moscow, was ‘not far from Siberia’. Herzen thought that Viatka, several hundred kilometres to the west of the Urals, was in Siberia (and in a sense it was, for he was exiled there in 1835). Vigel thought that Perm -a little further east but still not within view of the

Ural mountains - was ‘in the depths of Siberia’. Others thought that Vladimir, Voronezh or Riazan, all within a day or so’s coach ride from Moscow, were the start of the ‘Asiatic steppe’.42

But Russian attitudes toward the East were far from being all colonial. Politically, Russia was as imperialist as any Western state. Yet culturally there was a deep ambivalence, so that in addition to the usual Western stance of superiority towards the ‘Orient’ there was an extraordinary fascination and even in some ways an affinity with it.* Much of this was a natural consequence of living on the edge of the Asiatic steppe, torn between the counter-pulls of East and West. This ambiguous geography was a source of profound insecurity - mainly in relation to the West, though such feelings were always the mainspring of Russia’s wavering attitude towards the East as well. The Russians might define themselves as Europeans in relation to Asia, but they were ‘Asiatics’ in the West. No Western writer failed to score this point. According to the Marquis de Custine, the centre of St Petersburg was the only European part of the Tsar’s vast empire, and to go beyond the Nevsky Prospekt was to venture into the realm of the ‘Asiatic barbarism by which Petersburg is constantly besieged’.43 Educated Russians themselves cursed their country’s ‘Asiatic backwardness’. They craved to be accepted as equals by the West, to enter and become part of the mainstream of European life. But when they were rejected or they felt that Russia’s values had been underestimated by the West, even the most Westernized of Russia’s intellectuals were inclined to be resentful and to lurch towards a chauvinistic pride in their country’s threatening Asiatic size. Pushkin, for example, was a thorough European in his upbringing and, like all the men of the Enlightenment, he saw the West as Russia’s destiny. Yet when Europe denounced Russia for its suppression of the Polish insurrection in 1831, he wrote a nationalistic poem, ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’, in which he emphasized the Asiatic nature of his native land, ‘from the cold cliffs of Finland to the fiery cliffs of Colchis’ (the Greek name for the Caucasus).

* This makes Russia an extremely big exception to Edward Said’s provocative argument in Orientalism: that the arrogant European sense of cultural superiority imposed on the ‘Orient’ an ‘antitype’ or ‘other’ which underwrote the West’s conquest of the East (E, Said, Orientalism (New York, 1979)). Said does not refer to the Russian case at all.

There was far more, however, than simply resentment of the West in this Asiatic orientation. The Russian empire grew by settlement, and the Russians who moved out into the frontier zones, some to trade or farm, others to escape from Tsarist rule, were just as likely to adopt the native culture as they were to impose their Russian way of life on the local tribes. The Aksakovs, for example, who settled on the steppes near Orenburg in the eighteenth century, used Tatar remedies when they fell ill. These entailed drinking koumis from a horse-skin bag, using special herbs and going on a diet of mutton fat.44 Trade and intermarriage were universal forms of cultural interchange on the Siberian steppe, but the further east one went the more likely it became that the Russians were the ones who would change their ways. In Yakutsk, for example, in north-east Siberia, ‘all the Russians spoke in the Yakut language’, according to one writer in the 1820s.45 Mikhail Volkonsky, the son of the Decembrist, who played a leading role in the Russian conquest and settlement of the Amur basin in the 1850s, recalls stationing a detachment of Cossacks in a local village to teach Russian to the Buriats. One year later Volkonsky returned to see how the Cossacks were getting on: none of the Buriats could converse in Russian yet, but all 200 Cossacks spoke fluent Buriat.46

Such a thing would never have occurred in the overseas empires of the European states, at least not once their mode of operation had been switched from trade to colonial mastery. For, with a few exceptions, the Europeans did not need to settle in their colonies (and did not have to take much interest in their cultures) to siphon off their wealth. But such things were almost bound to happen in a territorial empire as enormous as the Tsar’s, where the Russian settlers in the remotest regions, six months’ journey from the capital, were often forced to adopt local ways. The Russian Empire developed by imposing Russian culture on the Asian steppe, but in that very process many of the colonizers became Asian, too. One of the consequences of this encounter was a cultural sympathy towards the colonies that was rarely to be found in colonizers from the European states. It was frequently the case that even the most gung-ho of the Tsar’s imperialists were enthusiasts and experts about oriental civilizations. Potemkin, Prince of Tauride, for example, revelled in the ethnic mix of the Crimea, which he wrested from the last of the Mongol khanates in 1783. To celebrate the victory he built himself a palace in the Moldavian-Turkish style, with a dome and four minaret towers, like a mosque.47 Indeed, it was typical, not just of Russia but of eighteenth-century Europe as a whole, that precisely at that moment when Russian troops were marching east and crushing infidels, Catherine’s architects at Tsarskoe Selo were building Chinese villages and pagodas, oriental grottoes, and pavilions in the Turkish style.48

A living embodiment of this dualism was Grigory Volkonsky, the father of the famous Decembrist, who retired as a hero of Suvorov’s cavalry to become Governor of Orenburg between 1803 and 1816. Orenburg was a vital stronghold of the Russian Empire at this time. Nestled in the southern foothills of the Ural mountains, it was the gateway into Russia for all the major trade routes between Central Asia and Siberia. Every day a thousand camel caravans with precious goods from Asia, cattle, carpets, cottons, silks and jewels, would pass through Orenburg on their way to the markets of Europe.49 It was the duty of the governor to tax, protect and promote this trade. Here Volkonsky was extremely successful, developing new routes to Khiva and Bukhara, important cotton kingdoms, which opened up the way to Persia and India.50 But Orenburg was also the last outpost of the Imperial state - a fortress to defend the Russian farmers on the Volga steppelands from the nomadic tribes, the Nogai and the Bashkirs, the Kalmyks and Kirghiz, who roamed the arid steppes on its eastern side.

During the course of the eighteenth century the Bashkir pastoralists had risen up in a series of revolts against the Tsarist state, as Russian settlers had begun to move on to their ancient grazing lands. Many of the Bashkirs joined the Cossack leader Pugachev in his rebellion against the harsh regime of Catherine the Great in 1773-4. They besieged Orenburg (a story told by Pushkin in The Captain’s Daughter) and captured all the other towns between the Volga and the Urals, plundering property and terrorizing the inhabitants. After the suppression of the rebellion, the Tsarist authorities reinforced the town of Orenburg. From this fortress they carried out a brutal campaign of pacification against the steppeland tribes. This campaign was continued by Volkonsky, who also had to cope with a serious uprising by the Ural Cossacks. In his dealings with them both he was extremely harsh. On Volkonsky’s order several hundred Bashkir and Cossack rebel leaders were publicly flogged and branded on their foreheads or sent off to the penal camps in the Far East. Among the Bashkirs, the governor became known as ‘Volkonsky the Severe’; he was a demon figure in the folklore of the Cossacks, who still sang songs about him in the 1910s.51 Yet Volkonsky was by no means all severe. By nature he was soft and kind-hearted, according to his family, with a poetic spirit and a passion for music, intensely Christian in his private life. Among the citizens of Orenburg, he had the reputation of an eccentric. It was perhaps the consequence of a shrapnel wound he had received in the war against the Turks which left him with strange voices in his head. In mid-winter, when the temperature in Orenburg would sink as low as -30 degrees centigrade, he would walk about the streets in his dressing gown, or sometimes only dressed in his underpants, proclaiming that Suvorov (who had died ten years before) was ‘still alive’ in him. In this state he would set off to the market and hand out food and money to the poor, or go entirely naked into church to pray.52

Despite his brutal treatment of the Bashkir population, Volkonsky was an expert on their Turkic culture. He learned their Turkic language and spoke with the local tribesmen in their native tongue.53 He travelled widely throughout Central Asia and wrote extensively about its flora and fauna, its customs and its history and ancient cultures in his private diaries and letters home. He thought the Tobol river, on the eastern side of the Ural mountains, was ‘the best corner of all Russia’.54 He was a connoisseur of oriental shawls, carpets, chinaware and jewellery, which friends from Petersburg would commission him to buy.55 During his last years in Orenburg he even came to lead a semi-oriental life. ‘I love this place’, he wrote to his nephew Pavel Volkonsky, the Emperor Alexander’s Chief-of-Staff. ‘I love its nomadic way of life.’56 Volkonsky lived like a Persian sultan in his exotic palace, surrounded by a retinue of Kirghiz and Kalmyk household serfs whom he regarded as his ‘second family’.57 He also kept a secret harem of Bashkir ‘wives’.58 Volkonsky mixed in a large society of Tatar tribesmen, whom he liked to refer to as ‘my natives’.59 Abandoning his Imperial uniform, he would receive the Kirghiz khans in a Mongol ceremonial uniform, or even in a khalat.60All the years he lived in Orenburg, Volkonsky never said he missed St Petersburg, and throughout this time he went back only once. ‘The quiet life of the Asian steppe suits my temperament’,

he wrote to his daughter Sofia. ‘You may consider me an Asiatic -perhaps I even count myself as one.’61


’A fairytale land from The Thousand and One Nights,’ proclaimed Catherine the Great on her first trip to the newly annexed Tatar lands of the Crimea in 1783.62 Literature and empire had a close relationship in the Russian conquest of the Orient. The marvels of these places were such a fertile source for the imagination that many statesmen came to view them through their images in literature and art. Eighteenth-century tales, starting with the Russian translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1763-71), portrayed the Orient as a hedonistic kingdom of sensual luxury and indolence, seraglios and sultans, as everything, in fact, that the austere north was not. These themes reappeared in the oriental dream worlds of the nineteenth century.

This ‘Orient’ was not a place that could be found on any map. It was in the south, in the Caucasus and the Crimea, as well as in the east. The two compass points of south and east became combined in an imaginary ‘Orient’ - an exotic counter-culture in the Russian imagination - and it was made up as a sort of pot-pourri from many different cultural elements. In Borodin’s Prince Igor, for example, the melismatic music of the Polovtsian Dances, which came to represent the quintessential sound of the Orient, was actually drawn from Chuvash, Bashkir, Hungarian, Algerian, Tunisian and Arabian melodies. It even contained slave songs from America.63

Long before the Russians ever knew their colonies as ethnographic facts, they had invented them in their literature and arts. The Caucasus occupied a special place in the Russian imagination, and for much of the nineteenth century, as the Tsar’s armies struggled to control its mountainous terrain and fought a bloody war against its Muslim tribes, Russian writers, artists and composers identified with it in a romantic way. The Caucasus depicted in their works was a wild and dangerous place of exotic charm and beauty, where the Russians from the north were strikingly confronted by the tribal cultures of the

Muslim south. It was Pushkin who did more than anyone to fix the Russian image of the Caucasus. He reinvented it as the ‘Russian Alps’, a place for contemplation and recuperation from the ills of urban life, in his poem The Prisoner of the Caucasus - a sort of Childe Harold of the Orient. The poem served as a guidebook for several generations of Russian noble families who travelled to the Caucasus for a spa cure. By the 1830s, when Lermontov set his novel A Hero of Our Times in the spa resort of Piatigorsk, the ‘Caucasian cure’ had become so fashionable among the upper classes that the annual trek southwards was even being compared to the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca.64 Some travellers were disappointed not to find the wild, exotic spirit of Pushkin’s poem in the grey and prosaic actuality of the Russian garrison towns where, for safety’s sake, they were obliged to stay. Such was the craving for adventure and romance that even a patently second-rate (and today almost entirely forgotten) belletrist like Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky was widely hailed as a literary genius (the ‘Pushkin of prose’) simply on account of his Caucasian tales and travelogues.65

This fascination with the Caucasus centred on more than a search for exotic charm, at least as far as Russia’s writers were concerned. Pushkin’s generation was deeply influenced by the ‘southern theory’ of Romanticism expounded by Sismondi in his De la litterature du Midi de I’Europe (1813), which portrayed the ancient Arabs as the original Romantics. For Russia’s young Romantics, who were looking for a source to distinguish Russian culture from the West, Sismondi’s theory was a revelation. Suddenly, it seemed, the Russians had their own ‘south’ in the Caucasus, a unique colony of Muslim-Christian culture whose possession brought them closer to the new Romantic spirit than any of the nations of the West. In his essay On Romantic Poetry (1823) the writer Orest Somov claimed that Russia was the birthplace of a new Romantic culture because through the Caucasus it had taken in the spirit of Arabia. The Decembrist poet Vilgem Kiukhelbeker called for a Russian poetry that combined ‘all the mental treasures of both Europe and Arabia’.66 Lermontov once said that Russian poetry would find its destiny by ‘following the East instead of Europe and the French’.67

The Cossacks were a special caste of fiercely Russian soldiers living since the sixteenth century on the empire’s southern and eastern frontiers in their own self-governing communities in the Don and Kuban regions along the Terek river in the Caucasus, on the Orenburg steppe and, in strategically important settlements, around Omsk, lake Baikal and the Amur river in Siberia. These ur-Russian warriors were semi-Asiatic in their way of life, with little to distinguish them from the Tatar tribesmen of the eastern steppes and the Caucasus, from whom indeed they may have been descended (‘Cossack’ or ‘quzzaq’ is a Turkic word for horseman). Both the Cossack and the Tatar tribesman displayed a fierce courage in the defence of their liberties; both had a natural warmth and spontaneity; both loved the good life. Gogol emphasized the ‘Asiatic’ and ‘southern’ character of the Ukrainian Cossacks in his story ‘Taras Bulba’: in fact, he used these two terms interchangeably. In a related article (‘A Look at the Making of Little Russia’, that is, Ukraine) he spelled out what he meant:

The Cossacks are a people belonging to Europe in terms of their faith and location, but at the same time totally Asiatic in their way of life, their customs and their dress. They are a people in which two opposite parts of the world, two opposing spirits have strangely come together: European prudence and Asiatic abandon; simplicity and cunning; a strong sense of activity and a love of laziness; a drive towards development and perfection and at the same time a desire to appear scornful of any perfection.68

As a historian Gogol tried to link the nature of the Cossacks to the periodic waves of nomadic in-migration that had swept across the steppe since ‘the Huns in ancient times’. He maintained that only a warlike and energetic people such as the Cossacks was able to survive on the open plain. The Cossacks rode ‘in Asiatic fashion across the steppe’. They rushed with the ‘swiftness of a tiger out of hiding places when they launched a raid’.69 Tolstoy, who had come to know the Cossacks as an officer in the army, also thought of them as semi-Asiatic in character. In The Cossacks (1863) Tolstoy showed in ethnographic detail that the Russian Cossacks on the northern side of the Terek river lived a way of life that was virtually indistinguishable from that of the Chechen hill tribes on the Terek’s southern side.

When Pushkin travelled to the Caucasus, in the early 1820s, he thought of himself as going to a foreign land. ‘I have never been beyond my own unbounded Russia’, he wrote in A Journey to Arzrum (1836).70 But Lermontov, who went there a decade later, embraced the Caucasus as his ‘spiritual homeland’ and asked its mountains to bless him ‘as a son’:

At heart I am yours

Forever and everywhere yours!71

The mountains were the inspiration and indeed the setting of many his works, including his greatest masterpiece, A Hero of Our Times, the first Russian prose novel. Born in Moscow in 1814, Lermontov had suffered from rheumatic fevers as a boy and so he was taken on a number of occasions to the spa resort of Piatigorsk. The wild romantic spirit of its mountain scenery left a lasting imprint on the young poet. In the early 1830s he was a student of oriental literature and philosophy at Moscow University. From that time he was strongly drawn to the fatalistic outlook which he saw as Russia’s inheritance from the Muslim world (an idea he explores in the final chapter of A Hero of Our Times). Lermontov took a keen interest in Caucasian folklore, especially the legends told by Shora Nogmov, a mullah-turned-Guards-officer from Piatigorsk, about the exploits of the mountain warriors. One of these tales inspired him to write his first major poem, Izmail Bey, in 1832 (though it was not passed for publication until many years later). It told the story of a Muslim prince surrendered as a hostage to the Russian troops in their conquest of the Caucasus. Brought up as a Russian nobleman, Izmail Bey abandons his commission in the Russian army and takes up the defence of his Chechen countrymen, whose villages are destroyed by the Tsarist troops. Lermontov himself was enrolled in the Guards to fight these mountain tribes, and to some degree he identified with Izmail Bey, feeling much the same divided loyalties. The poet fought with extraordinary courage against the Chechens at Fort Grozny, but he was repulsed by the savage war of terror he witnessed against the Chechen strongholds in the mountain villages. In Izmail Bey Lermontov concludes with a bitter condemnation of the Russian Empire which the Tsarist censor’s pen could not disguise:

Where are the mountains, steppes and oceans Yet to be conquered by the Slavs in war? And where have enmity and treason Not bowed to Russia’s mighty Tsar? Circassian fight no more! Likely as not, Both East and West will share your lot. The time will come: you’ll say, quite bold, ‘I am a slave but my Tsar rules the world.’ The time will come: the North will be graced By an awesome new Rome, a second Augustus.

Auls are burning, their defenders mastered,

The homeland’s sons have fallen in battle.

Like steady comets, fearful to the eyes,

A glow is playing across the skies,

A beast of prey with bayonet, the victor

Charges into a peaceful house,

He kills the children and the old folks,

And with his bloody hand he strokes

The unmarried girls and young mothers.

But a woman’s heart can match her brother’s!

After those kisses, a dagger’s drawn,

A Russian cowers, gasps - he’s gone!

’Avenge me comrade!’ And in just a breath

(A fine revenge for a murderer’s death)

The little house now burns, a delight to their gaze,

Circassian freedom set ablaze!72

Lermontov was an accomplished watercolourist and in one self-portrait he paints himself with a Circassian sword gripped firmly in his hand, his body wrapped in a Caucasian cloak, and the cartridge cases worn by mountain tribesmen fixed on to the front of his Guards uniform. This same mixed identity, semi-Russian and semi-Asiatic, was assigned by Lermontov to Pechorin, the subject of A Hero of Our Times. Restless, cynical and disillusioned with the high society of St Petersburg, Pechorin undergoes a transformation when he is trans-ferred, as a Guards officer, to the Caucasus. He falls in love with Bela,

24. Watercolour copy of a lost self-portrait with Circassian sword and cloak by Mikhail Lermontov, 1837

the daughter of a Circassian chief, learns her Turkic language, and wears Circassian dress to declare his love for her. At one point the narrator compares him to a Chechen bandit. This, it seems, was the essential point: there was no clear boundary between the ‘civilized’ behaviour of the Russian colonists and the ‘barbarous’ acts of the Asiatic tribes.

Lermontov was not the only Russian to adopt the Caucasus as his ’spiritual home’. The composer Balakirev was another ‘son of the mountains’. The founder of the ‘Russian music school’ came from ancient Tatar stock, and he was proud of it, judging from the frequency with which he posed for portraits in Caucasian costumes.73 ‘The Circassians’, he wrote to Stasov in 1862, ‘beginning with their costume (I know no better dress than that of the Circassians) are as much to my taste as to Lermontov’s.’74 Rimsky-Korsakov described Balakirev as ‘half-Russian and half-Tatar in his character’. Stravinsky recalled him as a ‘large man, bald, with a Kalmyk head and the shrewd, sharp-eyed look of a Lenin’.75 In 1862 Balakirev toured the Caucasus. He fell in love with the region’s wild landscape. It summoned up the spirit of his favourite poet, Lermontov. ‘Of all things Russian’, he wrote to Stasov from Piatigorsk, ‘Lermontov affects me most of all.’76

Balakirev attempted to evoke this love for the writer in his symphonic poem Tamara (1866-81), based upon Lermontov’s poem of that name. Lermontov’s Tamara (1841) retold the folk story of a Georgian queen whose seductive voice lured lovers to her castle in the mountains overlooking the Terek river. After a night of orgiastic dancing she would throw the bodies of the lovers she had murdered from the tower of the castle into the river far below. It was the spirit of Tamara’s ‘whirling dance’, as Stasov was to put it, which Balakirev tried to re-create in the frenzied music of his piano suite:

And strange wild sounds

All night were heard from there

As if in this empty tower

A hundred horny young men and girls

Came together on a wedding night

Or on the feast of a great funeral.’

The musical devices which Balakirev used were mostly from the common stock of ‘oriental sounds’ - sensuous chromatic scales, syncopated dance-like rhythms and languorous harmonies designed to conjure up the exotic world of hedonistic pleasure which people in the West had long associated with the Orient. But Balakirev also intro duced a stunning new device which he had picked up from his transcriptions of Caucasian folk songs. For Balakirev had noticed that in all these songs the harmonies were based on the pentatonic (or five-tone) scale common to the music of Asia. The distinctive feature of the pentatonic or ‘Indo-Chinese’ scale is its avoidance of semitones and thus of any clear melodic gravitation towards any particular tone. It creates the sense of ‘floating sounds’ which is characteristic of Southeast Asian music in particular. Tamara was the first major piece of Russian music to make extensive use of the pentatonic scale. Bala-kirev’s innovation was akin to the discovery of a new artistic language with which to give Russian music its ‘Eastern feel’ and make it so distinct from the music of the West. The pentatonic scale would be used in striking fashion by every Russian composer who followed in the Balakirev ‘national school’, from Rimsky-Korsakov to Stravinsky.

This oriental element was one of the hallmarks of the Russian music school developed by the kucbkists - the ‘Mighty Handful’ (kuchka) of nationalist composers which included Balakirev, Musorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Many of the kuchkists’ quintessential ‘Russian’ works - from Balakirev’s fantasy for piano Islamei (a cornerstone of the Russian piano school and a ‘must perform’ at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition) to Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade - were composed in this oriental style. As the founding father of the school, Balakirev had encouraged the use of Eastern themes and harmonies to distinguish this self-conscious ‘Russian’ music from the German symphonism of Anton Rubinstein and the Conservatory. The ‘First Russian Symphony’ of Rimsky-Korsakov -which was in fact composed more than twelve years after the Ocean Symphony of Rubinstein - earned its nickname because of its use of Russian folk and oriental melodies, which Rimsky’s teacher, Balakirev, had transcribed in the Caucasus. ‘The symphony is good’, wrote the composer Cesar Cui to Rimsky in 1863. ‘We performed it a few days ago at Balakirev’s - to the great pleasure of Stasov. It is really Russian. Only a Russian could have composed it, because it lacks the slightest trace of any stagnant Germanness [nemetschina].’78

Along with Balakirev, Stasov was the major influence on the devel-opment of a Russian-oriental musical style. Many of the pioneering kuchkist works which shaped that style, including Prince Igor and Scheherazade, were dedicated to the nationalist critic. In 1882 Stasov wrote an article on ‘Twenty five Years of Russian Art’, in which he tried to account for the profound influence of the Orient on Russian composers:

Some of them personally saw the Orient. Others, although they had not travelled to the East, had been surrounded with Orienral impressions all their lives. Therefore, they expressed them vividly and strikingly. In this they shared a general Russian sympathy with everything Oriental. Its influence has pervaded Russian life and given to its arts a distinctive colouring… To see in this only a strange whim and capriciousness of Russian composers… would be absurd.79

For Stasov the significance of the Eastern trace in Russian art went far beyond exotic decoration. It was a testimony to the historical fact of Russia’s descent from the ancient cultures of the Orient. Stasov believed that the influence of Asia was ‘manifest in all the fields of Russian culture: in language, clothing, customs, buildings, furniture and items of daily use, in ornaments, in melodies and harmonies, and in all our fairy tales’.80

Stasov had first outlined the argument in his thesis on the origins of Russian ornament during the 1860s.81Analysing medieval Russian Church manuscripts, he had linked the ornamentation of the lettering to similar motifs (rhomboids, rosettes, swastikas and chequered patterns, and certain types of floral and animal design) from Persia and Mongolia. Comparable designs were found in other cultures of Byzantium where the Persian influence was also marked; but whereas the Byzantines had borrowed only some of the Persian ornaments, the Russians had adopted nearly all of them, and to Stasov this suggested that the Russians had imported them directly from Persia. Such an argument is difficult to prove - for simple motifs like these are found all over the world. But Stasov focused on some striking similarities. There was, for example, a remarkable resemblance in the ornamental image of the tree, which Stasov thought was linked to the fact that both the Persians and the pagan Russians had ‘idealized the tree as a sacred cult’.82 In both traditions the tree had a conic base, a spiral round the trunk, and bare branches tipped with magnoliaceous flowers. The image appeared frequently in pagan rituals of the tree cult, which, as Kandinsky had discovered, was still in evidence among the Komi

25. Vladimir Stasov: study of the Russian letter ‘B’ from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Novgorod

people in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Stasov even found it as the calligraphic trunk of the letter ‘B’ in a fourteenth-century Gospel from Novgorod, where a man kneels in prayer at the base of the tree. Here is a perfect illustration of the complex mix of Asian, pagan and Christian elements which make up the main strands of Russian folk culture.

Stasov turned next to the study of the byliny, the epic songs which contained Russia’s oldest folk myths and legends, claiming that these too were from Asia. In his Origins of the Russian Byliny (1868) he agued that the byliny were Russified derivatives of Hindu, Buddhist or Sanskrit myths and tales, which had been brought to Russia by armies, merchants and nomadic immigrants from Persia, India and Mongolia. Stasov’s argument was based upon the theory of cultural borrowing - at that time just recently advanced by the German philologist Theodor Benfey. During the last decades of the nineteenth century Benfey’s theory was increasingly accepted by those folklorists in the West (Godeke and Kohler, Clouston and Liebrecht) who maintained that European folk tales were secondary versions of oriental originals. Stasov was the first to make a detailed argument for Benfey’s case. His argument was based on a comparative analysis of the byliny with the texts of various Asian tales - especially the ancient Indian stories of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Panchantra, which had been translated into German by Benfey in 1859.

Stasov paid particular attention to the narrative details, the symbols and the motifs of these ancient tales (not perhaps the strongest basis from which to infer a cultural influence, for basic similarities of plot and character can easily be found in folk tales from around the world). * Stasov concluded, for example, that the Russian legend of Sadko (where a merchant goes to an underwater kingdom in search of wealth) was derived from the Brahmin story of the Harivansa (where the flight to the underworld is a spiritual journey in search of truth). According to Stasov, it was only in the later versions of the Russian tale (those that date from after the fifteenth century) that the religious element was supplanted by the motif of commercial wealth. It was at this time that the legend was transposed on to the historical figure of Sadko - a wealthy member of a seafaring guild in Novgorod who had endowed a church of St Boris and St Gleb in the twelfth century.83

Similarly, Stasov argued that the folk heroes (bogatyrs) of the byliny were really the descendants of the oriental gods. The most famous of these bogatyrs was Ilia Muromets - a brave and honest warrior who championed the people’s cause against such enemies as Solovei Raz-boinik, the ‘Nightingale Robber’, who was usually recast with Tatar features in the later versions of this Russian tale. Stasov drew attention to the supernatural age of Ilia Muromets - several hundred years by logical deduction from the details of the tale. This suggested that

* There is some historical evidence to support Stasov’s thesis, however. Indian tales were certainly transported by migrants to South-east Asia, where these tales are widely known today; and the Ramayana tale was known from translations in Tibet from at least the thirteenth century (see J. W. de Jong, The Story of Rama in Tibet: Text and Translation of the Tun-huang Manuscripts (Stuttgart, 1989)).

Muromets was descended from the mythic kings who reigned over India for centuries, or from the oriental gods who transcended human time.84 The word ‘bogatyr’ was itself derived from the Mongol term for ‘warrior’ (bagadur), according to Stasov. He drew on evidence from European philologists, who had traced the word’s etymological relatives to all those countries that had once been occupied by the Mongol hordes: bahadir (in Persian), behader (in Turkish), bohater (in Polish), bator (in Magyar), etc.85

Finally, Stasov analysed the ethnographic details of the texts - their place names, number systems, scenery and buildings, household items and furniture, clothing, games and customs - all of which suggested that the byliny had come, not from the northern Russian forests, but rather from the steppe.

If the byliny really did grow out of our native soil in ancient times, then, however much they were later altered by the princes and the Tsars, they should still contain the traces of our Russian land. So we should read in them about our Russian winters, our snow and frozen lakes. We should read about our Russian fields and meadows; about the agricultural nature of our people; about our peasant huts and generally about the native, always wooden buildings and uten-sils; about our Russian hearth and the spiritual beliefs that surround it; about the songs and rituals of the village chorus; about the way we worship our ancestors; about our belief in mermaids, goblins, house spirits and various other superstitions of pagan Rus’. Everything, in short, should breathe the spirit of our country life. But none of this is in the byliny. There is no winter, no snow or ice, as if these tales are not set in the Russian land at all but in some hot climate of Asia or the East. There are no lakes or mossy river banks in the byliny. Agricultural life is never seen in them. There are no wooden buildings. None of our peasant customs is described. There is nothing to suggest the Russian way of life - and what we see instead is the arid Asian steppe.86

Stasov caused considerable outrage among the Slavophiles and other nationalists with his Asiatic theory of the byliny. He was accused of nothing less than ‘slandering Russia’; his book was denounced as a ‘source of national shame’, its general conclusions as ‘unworthy of a Russian patriot’.” It was not just that Stasov’s critics took offence at his ‘oriental fantasy’ that ‘our culture might have been descended from the barbarous nomads of the Asian steppe’.88 As they perceived it, Stasov’s theory represented a fundamental challenge to the nation’s identity. The whole philosophy of the Slavophiles had been built on the assumption that the nation’s culture grew from its native soil. For over thirty years they had lavished their attentions on the byliny, going round the villages and writing down these tales in the firm belief that they were true expressions of the Russian folk. Tales such as Sadko and Ilia Muromets were sacred treasures of the people’s history, the Slavophiles maintained, a fact which was suggested by the very word bylina, which was, they said, derived from the past tense of ‘to be’ (byl).89

One of the strongholds of the Slavophiles was the ‘mythological school’ of folklorists and literary scholarship which had its origins in the European Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. Stasov’s fiercest critics belonged to the school, which numbered the most venerable folklorists, such as Buslaev and Afanasiev, among its followers. The exponents of the mythological theory worked on the rather questionable assumption that the ancient beliefs of the Russian people could be reconstructed through their contemporary life and art. For Buslaev, the songs about Sadko were ‘the finest living relics of our people’s poetry which have been preserved in all their purity and without the slightest trace of outside influence’. Ilia Muromets was a real folk hero of the ancient past ‘who embodies, in their purest form, the spiritual ideals of the people’.90 In the early 1860s the byliny had suddenly become a new and vital piece of evidence for the mythological school. For it had been revealed by Pavel Rybnikov that they were still a living and evolving form. Rybnikov was a former civil servant who had been exiled to the countryside of Olonets, 200 kilometres to the north-east of Petersburg, as a punishment for his involvement in a revolutionary group. Like so many of the Tsar’s internal exiles, Rybnikov became a folklorist. Travelling around the villages of Olonets, he recorded over thirty different singers of the byliny, each with his own versions of the major tales such as Ilia Muromets. The publication of these Songs, in four volumes between 1861 and 1867, sparked a huge debate about the character and origins of Russia’s folk culture which, if one is to judge from Turgenev’s novel Smoke (1867), even engulfed the emigre community in Germany. Suddenly the origins of the byliny had become the battleground for opposing views of Russia and its cultural destiny. On the one side there was Stasov, who argued that the pulse of ancient Asia was still beating in the Russian villages; and on the other the Slavophiles, who saw the byliny as living proof that Russia’s Christian culture had remained there undisturbed for many centuries.

This was the background to the intellectual conflicts over the conception of Sadko (1897), the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. The evolution of the opera was typical of the collectivist traditions of the kuchkist school. The original idea had been given by Stasov to Balakirev as early as 1867; Balakirev passed it on to Musorgsky; and Musorgsky handed it to Rimsky-Korsakov. It is easy to see why Rimsky should have been attracted to the story of the opera. Like Sadko, Rimsky was a sailor (a former naval officer, to be precise) and musician who came from Novgorod. Moreover, as Stasov wrote to him with his draft scenario in 1894, the subject would allow the composer to explore ‘the magic elements of Russian pagan culture which are so strongly felt in your artistic character’.91 In the standard versions of the bylina Sadko is a humble minstrel (skomorokh) who plays the gusli and sings of setting sail for distant lands in search of new markets for the town. None of the merchant elites will back him, so Sadko sings his songs to Lake Ilmen, where the Sea Princess appears and declares her love for him. Sadko journeys to the underwater world, where the Sea King, delighted by the minstrel’s singing, rewards him with his daughter’s hand in marriage. At their wedding there is such wild dancing to the tunes played by Sadko that it causes hurricanes and a violent sea storm, which sinks all the ships from Novgorod. When the storm subsides, Sadko is washed up, with a net of golden fish, on the shores of lake Ilmen. He returns to Novgorod, gives away his money to the merchants ruined by the storm, and endows the church of St Boris and St Gleb.

For Stasov this bylina was the perfect vehicle for his cultural politics. The spirit of rebellion which Sadko showed against the Novgorod elites symbolized the struggle of the Russian school against the musical establishment. But more importantly, as Stasov hoped, the opera was a chance to draw attention to the Eastern elements of the Sadko tale. As Stasov explained in his draft scenario for Rimsky-Korsakov, Sadko was full of shamanistic magic, and this pointed to its Asian provenance, in particular to the Brahmin Hariuansa tale. The skomorokh, in

Stasov’s view, was a Russian descendant of the Asian shamans (a view, incidentally, which many modern scholars share).92 Like a shaman, the skomorokh was known to wear a bearskin and a mask, to bang his gusli like a drum, and to sing and dance himself into a trance-like frenzy, chanting magic charms to call upon the spirits of the magic world.93 In the draft scenario Stasov underlined these shamanistic powers by having Sadko’s music serve as the main agency of transcendental flight to the underwater world and back again; and, as he emphasized to Rimsky-Korsakov, it was the ‘magic effect of his music that should be seen to cause the sea-storm, which sinks all the ships’.* Sadko’s odyssey was to be portrayed as a shamanistic flight to a dreamworld, a ‘spiritual voyage into his own being’, as Stasov mapped it out for the composer, and the hero of the opera should return to Novgorod ‘as if waking from a dream’.94

There was good reason for Stasov to look to Rimsky as the ideal composer for the opera. Rimsky had in the past been interested in Stasov’s Eastern version of Sadko. In 1867 he had composed the symphonic suite Sadko, a work whose debt to Balakirev’s Tamara (‘far from completed at the time but already well-known to me from the fragments played by the composer’) was candidly acknowledged by Rimsky in his Reminiscences.95Sadko’s whirling dance is practically identical to the Tamara theme, and, like Balakirev, Rimsky used the pentatonic scale to create an authentic oriental feel.+ However, by the time of his Sadko opera, Rimsky had become a professor at the Conservatory and, like many professors, was rather too conformist to experiment again with pentatonic harmonies or oriental programmes for the plot. Besides, Rimsky by this stage was much more interested in the Christian motifs of the bylina. It was an interest which reflected his increasing preoccupation with the Christian ideal of Russia - an ideal he expressed in his last great opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907). Rimsky rejected the draft scenario which Stasov, in his usual cajoling manner, had insisted

* According to A. N. Afanasiev, the great nineteenth-century scholar of mythology, Sadko was the pagan god of wind and storms among the ancient Slavs (see his Poeticheskie vozzreniia slavian na prirodu, 3 vols. (Moscow,1865-9), vol. 2., p. 214). + Sadko’s dance is even written in Balakirev’s favourite key of D flat major,

he adopt (the only place where Rimsky gave way to Stasov was in the opening civic scene: it enabled him to begin Sadko with the large set-piece for orchestra and chorus that had become an almost mandatory feature for Russian nationalist opera). There was nothing in the music to re-create the Eastern feel of the symphonic suite - other than the common stock of ornamental features which composers in the past had used to evoke the ‘exotic Orient’ (Rimsky used it here to summon up the other-worldly Sea Kingdom). With the help of the Slavophile folklorists who had criticized Stasov, Rimsky made Sadko a ‘Russian opera’, with a civic Christian message for the public at the end. At the height of the wedding scene the Sea King calls upon the seas to overflow and ‘destroy the Orthodox people!’ But just then a Russian pilgrim (St Nicholas of Mozhaisk in the bylina) appears on the scene to break the Sea King’s spell and send Sadko back to Novgorod. By a miracle the Sea Princess is transformed into the river Volkhova, providing Novgorod with an outlet to the sea. Her disappearance is meant to represent the demise of paganism and the triumph of the Christian spirit in Russia - a spirit symbolized by the building of the church of St Boris and St Gleb. In the end, it seems, the conception of Sadko as a story linking Russia to the Asian steppe was far too controversial to produce on stage. Sadko, after all, was a national myth - as important to the Russians as Beowulf is to the English or the Kalevala to the Finns. The only place where Asia left its imprint on the opera was in Stasov’s design for the title page of the score. Stasov used the motifs of medieval manuscripts which he identified as clearly oriental in origin. The middle letter ‘D’ is formed into the shape of a skomorokh with his gusli. He sits there like an idol or a buddha of the East. The rosette underneath the letter ‘S’ was taken from a portal in the palace of Isphahan.96 The opera’s Christian message was subtly undermined by its very first utterance.


In April 1890 Chekhov left from Moscow on a three-month trek to Sakhalin, a barren devil’s island in the Okhotsk sea, 800 kilometres north of Japan, where the Tsarist government sentenced some of its

26. Vladimir Stasov: title page of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera score Sadko (1897). The title features an authentic fourteenth-century Novgorodian capital ‘D’ formed around a skomorokh or minstrel playing the gusli

most dangerous criminals to penal servitude. Few of Chekhov’s friends could understand why the newly famous writer should abandon everything for such a long and miserable trip, especially in view of his own poor health. Chekhov himself told Suvorin that he was ‘departing totally convinced that my journey will yield a valuable contribution neither to literature nor to science’.97 But self-deprecation was natural to him. Whether he was driven by the end of a romance,* the need to find new inspiration for his work, the recent death of his brother Nikolai from tuberculosis, or simply the desire to escape from the oppressive atmosphere of his own illness, it would appear that Chekhov felt a desperate need to get away and achieve something ‘serious’ before he died.

One of Chekhov’s heroes was the traveller and writer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who had opened up the world of Central Asia and Tibet to the Russian reading public when Chekhov was a boy. On Przhevalsky’s death, Chekhov wrote a eulogy which tells us a great deal about his state of mind. ‘One Przhevalsky’, Chekhov wrote, is worth dozens of scholarly institutions and hundreds of fine books… In our sick times, when European societies are seized by indolence, heroes are as necessary as the sun. Their personalities are living proof that besides people who out of boredom write trifling tales, unneeded plans and dissertations, there are people with a clear faith and objective who perform great feats.98

Chekhov wanted to become a Przhevalsky - to carry out some obvious achievement for humanity and write something of greater consequence than the ‘trifling tales’ he had penned so far. He read a huge amount in preparation for the trip, researching everything from the geology to the penal settlement of the remote island, to the point where he complained that he was being driven to insanity: Mania Sachalinosa.99

Chekhov’s original aim, as far as one can tell from his correspondence, was to ‘repay a little of my debt to the science of medicine’ by focusing attention on the treatment of the prisoners in Sakhalin. ‘I regret that I am not a sentimentalist’, he wrote to Suvorin, otherwise I would say that we should go on pilgrimages to places like Sakhalin, as the Turks go to Mecca. From the books I have read, it is clear that we have allowed millions of people to rot in prisons, to rot for no purpose, without

* With Lidya Avilova (a married woman).

any care, and in a barbarous way… All of us are guilty, but none of this has anything to do with us, it is just not interesting.100

During the three months he spent on Sakhalin, Chekhov interviewed several thousand prisoners, working up to eighteen hours every day and recording all the details on a database of cards which he had printed up for his research. Officials were amazed by the ease with which he gained the convicts’ trust, a capacity he had perhaps developed from his work as a doctor. It gave to his findings, which he wrote up in a simple factual style in The Island of Sakhalin (1893-4), the unmistakable authority of truth. In one of the final chapters of that work Chekhov gave an unforgettable description of the brutal beatings which were meted out on an almost casual basis to male and female prisoners alike.

The executioner stands to one side and strikes in such a way that the lash falls across the body. After every five strokes he goes to the other side and the prisoner is permitted a half-minute rest. [The prisoner] Prokhorov’s hair is matted to his forehead, his neck is swollen. After the first five or ten strokes his body, covered by scars from previous beatings, turns blue and purple, and his skin bursts at each stroke.

Through the shrieks and cries there can be heard the words, ‘Your worship! Your worship! Mercy, your worship!’

And later, after twenty or thirty strokes, he complains like a drunken man or like someone in delirium:

’Poor me, poor me, you are murdering me… Why are you punishing me?’

Then follows a peculiar stretching of the neck, the noise of vomiting. A whole eternity seems to have passed since the beginning of the punishment. The warden cries, ‘Forty-two! Forty-three!’ It is a long way to ninety.101

The passage made such an impression on the Russian public that it helped to bring about the eventual abolition of corporal punishment - first for women (in 1897) and then for men (in 1904). The campaign was led by members of the medical profession, with Chekhov in a vocal role.102

A stirring indictment of the tsarist penal system, Sakhalin is also a masterpiece of travel writing whose extraordinary feel for the landscape and the wildlife of the Siberian steppe remains unsurpassed.

Let it be said without offence to the jealous admirers of the Volga that I have never in my life seen a more magnificent river than the Yenisey. A beautifully dressed, modest, melancholy beauty the Volga may be, but, at the other extreme, the Yenisei is a mighty, raging Hercules, who does not know what to do with his power and youth. On the Volga a man starts out with spirit, but finishes up with a groan which is called a song; his radiant golden hopes are replaced by an infirmity which it is the done thing to term ‘Russian pessimism’, whereas on the Yenisei life commences with a groan and finishes with the kind of high spirits which we cannot even dream about. Shortly after the Yenisei the celebrated taiga commences. At first one is really a little disappointed. Along both sides of the road stretch the usual forests of pine, larch, spruce and birch. There are no trees of five arm-girths, no crests, at the sight of which one’s head spins; the trees are not a whit larger than those that grow in the Moscow Sokol-niki. I had been told that the taiga was soundless, and that its vegetation had no scent. This is what I had been expecting, but, the entire time I travelled through the taiga, birds were pouring out songs and insects were buzzing; pine-needles warmed by the sun saturated the air with the thick fragrance of resin, the glades and edges of the forest were covered with delicate pale-blue, pink and yellow flowers, which caress not merely the sense of sight. The power and enchantment of the taiga lie not in titanic trees or the silence of the graveyard, but in the fact that only birds of passage know where it ends.103

As he sailed down the Amur passing Russian villages that had been settled only forty years before, he had the impression that he was ‘no longer in Russia, but somewhere in Patagonia, or Texas; without even mentioning the distinctive, un-Russian scenery, it seemed to me the entire time that the tenor of our Russian life is completely alien to the native of Amur, that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here and therefore not necessary, that our history is boring, and that we who arrive from European Russia seem like foreigners’.104 The Russian prisoners were overwhelmed by this same sense of estrangement, so much so that, according to Chekhov, the convicts who attempted to escape the island were motivated chiefly by the physical yearning to see their native land:

First and foremost an exile is spurred to leave Sakhalin by his passionate love for his home district. If you listen to the convicts - what happiness it is, what joy, to live in one’s own place in one’s own country! They talk about Sakhalin, the land here, the people, the trees and the climate, with scornful laughter, with exasperation and loathing, while in European Russia everything is wonderful and enchanting; the most daring thinking cannot acknowledge that in European Russia there might be unhappy people, since to live somewhere in the Tula or Kursk region, to see log cabins every day, and to breathe Russian air already by itself constitutes the supreme happiness. God knows, a person might suffer poverty, sickness, blindness, dumbness and disgrace from the people around, just as long as God permits him to die at home.105

The visual engagement with the landscape of Sakhalin is so intense that it seems at times as if Chekhov’s words are surrogates for paint:

If a landscape painter should happen to come to Sakhalin, then I recommend the Arkovo Valley to his notice. This spot, besides the beauty of its location, is extremely rich in hues and tints, so that it is difficult to get by without the hackneyed simile of a multicoloured carpet or a kaleidoscope. Here there is dense, sappy verdure with giant burdocks glittering from the rain that has only just fallen; beside it, in an area no larger than a few square feet or so, there is the greenery of rye, then a scrap of land with barley, and then burdocks again, with a space behind it covered with oats, after that beds of potatoes, two immature sunflowers with drooping heads, then, forming a little wedge, a deep-green patch of hemp; here and there plants of the umbelliferous family similar to candelabras proudly hold up their heads, and this whole diversity of colour is strewn with pink, bright-red and crimson specks of poppies. On the road you meet peasant women who have covered themselves against the rain with big burdock leaves, like headscarves, and because of this look like green beetles. And the sides of the mountains - well, maybe they are not the mountains of the Caucasus, but they are mountains all the same.106

There was in fact a landscape painter who had meant to go with Chekhov on the trip to Sakhalin. Isaak Levitan was a close friend of the writer. Exact contemporaries, they had known each other since their teenage years, when Levitan met Chekhov’s brother at art school. Born into a poor Jewish family in Lithuania, Levitan was orphaned by the time he met the Chekhovs, who adopted him as a brother and a friend. Levitan and Chekhov shared the same passions - hunting, fishing, womanizing, brothels - and perhaps it was because he knew his friend so well that, when the artist fell in love with Chekhov’s sister, the writer told Maria not to marry him.107 The two men were such close friends, they shared so much in common in artistic temperament, that their lives and art were intertwined in many different ways. Levitan appears in various forms in Chekhov’s works - perhaps most famously (and almost at the cost of their friendship) in ‘The Grasshopper’ as the lecherous artist Ryabovsky who has an affair with a married woman to whom he teaches art. Many of the scenes in The Seagull - the suicide attempt by the playwright Treplyov, the killing of the bird - were taken directly from Levitan’s own life.108

Levitan’s approach to landscape painting was very similar to Chekhov’s own depictions of nature. Both men shared a passion for the humble, muddy countryside of Moscow’s provinces, whose melancholic poetry was captured perfectly in both their works. Each admired deeply the other’s work. Many of Levitan’s paintings are the prototypes for Chekhov’s best descriptions of the countryside, while Levitan thought this passage from the story ‘Fortune’ (1887) was ‘the height of perfection’ in landscape art:109

A large flock of sheep was spending the night by the wide steppe road that is called the main highway. Two shepherds were watching over them. One was an old man of about eighty, who was toothless, with a face which shook, and who was lying on his stomach by the edge of the road, with his elbows resting on dusty plants. The other was a young lad with thick black brows and no moustache, dressed in the sort of cloth from which they make cheap bags, and lying on his back with his hands behind his head looking up at the sky, where stars were twinkling and the Milky Way stretched out right over his face… The sheep slept. Silhouettes of the sheep which were awake could be seen here and there against the grey background of the dawn, which was already beginning to cover the eastern part of the sky; they were standing up and had their heads lowered, thinking about something… In the sleepy, still air there was a monotonous humming sound which you cannot get away from on a summer night on the steppe. Crickets chirped without stopping, quails sang and young nightingales whistled lazily about a mile away from the flock in a gully where a stream ran and where willows grew… It was already getting light. The Milky Way was pair and inching away little by little like snow, losing its definition. The sky became cloudy and dull, so that you could not determine whether it was clear or completely filled with clouds, and it was only by the clear and glossy strip towards the east and the occasional star here and there that you could work out what was going on… And when the sun began to scorch the earth, promising a long, unvanquished sultriness, everything that had moved during the night and emitted sounds now sank into somnolence.110

What Chekhov most admired in Levitan’s art (and Levitan in Chekhov’s) was its spiritual response to the natural world. Levitan’s landscapes evoke reflective moods and emotions, even when their subjects are the most mundane. In this respect he was very much the pupil of his teacher Savrasov, whose famous painting The Rooks Have Returned (1871) was a perfect illustration of the poetry contained in the most ordinary provincial scene. Chekhov found in Levitan the sort of images he wanted to create in his reader’s mind. In ‘Three Years’ (1895) he gives a description of Levitan’s painting A Quiet Dwelling (1891) which captures perfectly the effect which Chekhov himself wanted to achieve:

In Easter week the Laptevs went to the School of Art to see a picture exhibition… Julia stopped by a small landscape and idly looked at it. The foreground was a stream crossed by a wooden bridge with a path merging into dark grass on the far side. On the right was part of a wood with a bonfire near it - there must be grazing horses and watchmen hereabouts. Far away the sunset’s last fires smouldered. Julia imagined going over the bridge, and then further and further down the path. It was quiet there, sleepy landrails cried. A light winked far away. Suddenly she vaguely felt that she had often seen them long ago -those clouds spanning the red of the sky, that wood, those fields. She felt lonely, she wanted to walk on, on, on down the path. There, at the sunset’s end, lay reflected an eternal, unearthly something.111

Chekhov knew the works of Monet and Cezanne; none the less, he considered Levitan the greatest landscape painter of his day.112 Throughout his life he bitterly regretted that he had not bought his favourite Levitan painting, The Village (1888). As he told a journalist in 1904, it was just a ‘village that was dull and miserable, God-forsaken and lifeless, but the picture imparts such an inexpressible charm that

you can’t take your eyes off it; you just want to keep looking and looking at it. No one has managed to achieve the simplicity and purity of conception which Levitan achieved at the end of his life and I do not know if anyone else will ever achieve anything like it.’113

In 1886 Levitan made the first of several trips to the Volga steppe. These marked the start of a new epic style in his landscape painting, completely different from the intimate and lyrical approach to nature in his earlier landscapes of the Moscow provinces. The first of these epic canvases was Evenings on the Volga (1888), where the steppe-land’s broad expanse is suggested indirectly by the dominating presence of the sky. Chekhov, too, was inspired by a visit to the Volga steppe-lands at this time. His approach to landscape in ‘The Steppe’ (1887), the first story to bring him literary fame, was very similar to Levitan’s:

A wide boundless plain encircled by a chain of low hills lay stretched before the travellers’ eyes. Huddling together and peeping out from behind one another, these hills melted together into rising ground, which stretched right to the very horizon and disappeared into the violet distance; one drives on and on and cannot discern where it begins or where it ends…114

Enthused by the steppe, the two men thought of travelling together to Siberia, and Chekhov included his friend in his plans for the trip to Sakhalin. Levitan was in the entourage of friends and family who accompanied the writer on the first leg of his trip. But he did not go with Chekhov to Siberia, deciding in the end that he could not leave his lover and her husband for that long. Chekhov was annoyed at Levitan (it was perhaps the cause of his cruel satire in ‘The Grasshopper’ which broke off their relations for three years). In several letters from Siberia Chekhov told his sister that the artist was a fool to miss out on the scenery of the Yenisei, on the unknown forests and the mountains of Baikal: ‘What ravines! What cliffs!’115

Like Chekhov, Levitan was drawn towards Siberia’s penal history. In his Vladimirka (1892) (plate 23) he combined landscape art with a social history of the steppe. It was Levitan’s attempt to achieve in painting what Chekhov had achieved in Sakhalin. The idea of the painting had come to levitan on a hunting trip with his lover, the young artist Sofya Kuvshinnikova (the one described by Chekhov in

’The Grasshopper’). The painter had chanced upon the famous highway near Boldino in Vladimir province. Levitan had just been staying with Chekhov and Chekhov had told him of his trip to Sakhalin, so perhaps this influenced the way he saw the road.116‘The scene was pregnant with a wondrous silence’, recalled Kuvshinnikova.

The long white line of the road faded as it disappeared among the forests on the blue horizon. In the distance one could just make out the figures of two pilgrims… Everything was calm and beautiful. All of a sudden, Levitan remembered what sort of road this was. ‘Stop,’ he said. ‘This is the Vladimirka, the one on which so many people died on their long walk to Siberia.’ In the silence of this beautiful landscape we were suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling of sadness.117

Looking at this scene, as Levitan portrayed it, one cannot fail to feel the desolation - it is haunted by the suffering of those distant prisoners, by people like Volkonsky, who for three hot summer months had dragged his heavy chains along the Vladimirka to Siberia.

Chekhov’s ‘Steppe’ is also dominated by this atmosphere of suffering. Its boundless space seems inescapable - a prison in itself. The landscape in the story is stifling and oppressive, without sound or movement to disrupt the tedium. Time seems to come to a standstill, the scenery never changes, as four men cross the steppe in a ‘shabby covered chaise’. Everything is subdued by a feeling of stagnation and desolation. Even the singing of a woman in the distance sounds so sad that it ‘made the air more suffocating and stagnant’.118

Chekhov’s ambiguity toward the steppe - seeing both the beauty and the bleak monotony of its vast space - was shared by many artists and writers. There were many, on the one hand, who took pride and inspiration from the grandeur of the steppe. In the epic history paintings of Vasnetsov and Vrubel, for example, the heroic stature of the legendary figures of the Russian past is thrown into relief by the monumental grandeur of the steppe. In Vasnetsov’s painting After Igor’s Battle with the Polovtsians (1880), the notion of the epic is carried entirely by the vastness of the steppe, for what commands the eye is the lowered line of the horizon. Similarly, in his Bogatyrs (1898), it is the landscape which is the real subject of the painting, rather than the legendary warriors from which it takes its name. This is emphasized by the central bogatyr, who puts his hand against his brow to gaze farther into the distance. Vrubel’s panneau of the legendary ploughman Mikula Selianovicb (1896) is similar in this respect - the strangely inert peasant figure is raised to epic status by his relationship with the landscape. For these artists the national character had been shaped by the open plain: the Russians were as ‘broad and unrestrained’ in nature as the boundless steppe. This was the view which Gogol took in his ‘Thoughts on Geography’, published in his collection Arabesques in 1835. He also expounded it in his story ‘Taras Bulba’, where the vast size of the steppe is used as a projection of the Cossacks’ open nature and expansiveness. Many artists thought that the boundless plains were a spur to contemplation and religious hope - its infinite horizon forcing people to look upwards to the sky.119 Chekhov, too, was inclined to fantasize that ‘giants with immense strides such as Ilia Muromets’ were still alive and that, if they were, ‘how perfectly in keeping with the steppe… they would have been!’120

On the other hand, the sheer monotony of the never-ending steppe drove many Russian poets to despair. Mandelstam called it the ‘watermelon emptiness of Russia’ and Musorgsky, ‘the All-Russian bog’.121 At such moments of despair these artists were inclined to view the steppe as a limitation on imagination and creativity. Gorky thought that the boundless plain had the poisonous peculiarity of emptying a man, of sucking dry his desires. The peasant has only to go out past the bounds of the village and look at the emptiness around him to feel in a short time that this emptiness is creeping into his very soul. Nowhere around can one see the results of creative labour. The estates of the landowners? But they are few and inhabited by enemies. The towns? But they are far away and not much more cultured. Round about lie endless plains and in the centre of them, insignificant, tiny man abandoned on this dull earth for penal labour. And man is filled with the feeling of indifference killing his ability to think, to remember his past, to work out his ideas from experience.122

but it was not just the peasant who became more dull from living on the steppe. The gentry did as well. The loneliness of living in a country house, miles away from any neighbours in that social class, the lack of stimulation, the interminable hours without anything to do but stare out of the windows at the endless plain: is it any wonder that the gentry became fat and sluggish on the steppe? Saltykov-Shchedrin gives a wonderful description of this mental slumber in The Golovlyov Family (1880):

[Arina] spent most of the day dozing. She would sit in her armchair by the table where her grubby playing-cards were laid out and doze. Then she would wake with a start, look through the window and vacantly stare at the seemingly boundless fields, stretching away into the remote distance… All around lay fields, fields without end, with no trees on the horizon. However, since Arina had lived almost solely in the country since childhood, this miserable landscape did not strike her as in the least depressing; on the contrary, it even evoked some kind of response in her heart, stirring sparks of feeling still smouldering there. The better part of her being had lived in those bare endless fields and instinctively her eyes sought them out at every opportunity. She would gaze at the fields receding into the distance, at rain-soaked villages resembling black specks on the horizon, at white churches in village graveyards, at multi-coloured patches of light cast on the plain by clouds wandering in the rays of the sun, at a peasant she had never seen before, who was in fact walking between the furrows but who seemed quite still to her. As she gazed she would think of nothing - rather, her thoughts were so confused they could not dwell on anything for very long. She merely gazed and gazed, until a senile drowsiness began to hum in her ears again, veiling the fields, churches, villages and that distant, trudging peasant in mist.123

The Russians have a word for this inertia - Oblomovshchina - from the idle nobleman in Goncharov’s Oblomov who spends the whole day dreaming and lying on the couch.* Thanks to the literary critic Nikolai Dobroliubov, who first coined the term soon after the book’s publication in 1859, Oblomovsh china came to be regarded as a national disease. Its symbol was Oblomov’s dressing gown (khalat).

* Though Gogol, too, had referred to such Russian ‘lie-a-beds’ in the second volume of Dead Souls (N. Gogol, Dead Souls, trans. D. Magarshack (Harmondsworth, 1961), p. 265).

Dobroliubov even claimed that the ‘most heartfelt striving of all our Oblomovs is their striving for repose in a dressing gown’.124 Goncharov made a careful point of emphasizing the Asian origin of his hero’s dressing gown. It was ‘a real oriental dressing-gown, without the slightest hint of Europe, without tassels, without velvet trimmings’, and in the true ‘Asiatic fashion’ its sleeves ‘got wider from the shoulders to the hands’.125 Living ‘like a sultan’, surrounded by his serfs, and never doing anything that they could be commanded to do instead for him, Oblomov became a cultural monument to Russia’s ‘Asiatic immobility’. Lenin used the term when he grew frustrated with the unreformability of Russian social life. ‘The old Oblomov is with us’, he wrote in 1920, ‘and for a long while yet he will still need to be washed, cleaned, shaken and given a good thrashing if something is to come of him.’126


In 1874 the Ministry of Internal Affairs in St Petersburg hosted an extraordinary exhibition by the artist Vasily Vereshchagin, whose enormous battle scenes of the Turkestan campaign had recently returned with high acclaim from a European tour. Huge crowds came to see the exhibition (30,000 copies of the catalogue were sold in the first week) and the building of the Ministry became so cramped that several fights broke out as people jostled for a better view. Veresh-chagin’s pictures were the public’s first real view of the Imperial war which the Russians had been fighting for the past ten years against the Muslim tribes as the Tsar’s troops conquered Turkestan. The Russian public took great pride in the army’s capture of the khanates of Kokand, Bukhara and Khiva, followed by its conquest of Tashkent and the arid steppe of Central Asia right up to the borders with Afghanistan and British India. After its defeat in the Crimean War, the campaign showed the world that Russia was a power to be reckoned with. But Vereshchagin’s almost photographic battle images revealed a savagery which had not been seen by civilians before. It was not clear who was more ‘savage’ in his pictures of the war: the Russian troops or their Asiatic opponents. There was ‘something fascinating, something deeply horrifying, in the wild energy of these canvases’, concluded one reviewer in the press. ‘We see a violence that could not be French or even from the Balkans: it is half-barbarian and semi-Asiatic - it is a Russian violence.’127

It had not originally been the painter’s aim to draw this parallel. Vereshchagin started out as an official war artist, and it was not part of his remit to criticize the conduct of the Russian military. He had been invited by General Kaufman, the senior commander of the Turkestan campaign, to join the army as a surveyor, and had fought with distinction (the only Russian painter ever to be honoured with the Order of St George) before receiving the commission from the Grand Duke Vladimir (the same who had bought Repin’s The Volga Barge Haulers) for the Asian battle scenes.128But his experience of the war in Turkestan had given rise to doubts about the ‘civilizing mission’ of the Russian Empire in the East. On one occasion, after the Russian troops had massacred the people of a Turkmen village, Vereshchagin dug their graves himself. None of his compatriots would touch the dead.129 Vereshchagin came to see the war as a senseless massacre. ‘It is essential to underline that both sides pray to the same God’, he advised his friend Stasov on a piece he was preparing for the exhibition, ‘since this is the tragic meaning of my art.’130 The message of Vereshchagin’s epic canvases was clearly understood. He portrayed the Asian tribesmen, not as savages, but as simple human beings who were driven to defend their native land. ‘What the public saw’, Stasov later wrote, ‘was both sides of the war - the military conquest and the human suffering. His paintings were the first to sound a loud protest against the barbarism of the Imperial war.’131

There was a huge storm of controversy. Liberals praised the artist for his stance against all war.* Conservatives denounced him as a ‘traitor to Russia’, and mounted a campaign to strip him of his Order of St George.132 General Kaufman became so enraged when he saw the artist’s pictures that he began to shout and swear at Vereshchagin and

* Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, the most militarist of the German Emperors, told Vereshchagin at his Berlin exhibition in 1897:’ Vos tableaux sont la meilleure assurance contre la guerre’ (F. I. Bulgakov, V. V. Vereshchagin i ego proizvedeniia (St Petersburg, 1905), P. 11).

physically attacked him in the presence of his fellow officers. The General Staff condemned his paintings as a ‘slander against the Imperial army’, and called for them to be destroyed; but the Tsar, ironically, was on the liberals’ side. Meanwhile, the right-wing press was outraged by the fact that Vereshchagin had been offered a professorship by the Imperial Academy of Arts (and even more outraged when the artist turned it down). Critics attacked his ‘barbarous art’ on the racist grounds that no real Russian worth the name could paint such tribesmen as equal human beings. ‘It is an offence’, argued a professor in the journal Russian World, ‘to think that all these works were painted by a man who calls himself a European! One can only suppose that he ceased to be a Russian when he painted them; he must have taken on the mind of one of his Asian savages.’133

As his opponents knew, Vereshchagin was of Tatar origin. His grandmother had been born into a Turkmen tribe.134 For this reason he felt a close affinity for the landscape and the people of the Central Asian steppe. ‘I insist’, he once wrote to Stasov, ‘that I only learned to paint when I went to Turkestan. I had more freedom for my studies there than I would have had if I had studied in the West. Instead of the Parisian attic, I lived in a Kirghiz tent; instead of the paid model, I drew real people.’135 Stasov claimed that Vereshchagin’s feeling for the Central Asian steppe ‘could only have been felt by an artist from Russia (not a European) who had lived among the people of the East’.136

Bitter and depressed by the campaign against him in the nationalist press, Vereshchagin fled St Petersburg, where the police had refused to protect him from threats against his life. He left Russia well before the exhibition’s end. Vereshchagin travelled first to India, where he felt, as he wrote to tell Stasov, ‘that something draws me ever farther to the East’. Then he trekked through the Himalayas, pointing out in sketches which he sent back to his friend ‘the architectural similarities between Tibet and ancient Rus”.137Stasov was forbidden to display these sketches in the public library of St Petersburg (even though he was its chief librarian).138 Under pressure from the right-wing press, a warrant for the arrest of the exiled painter was despatched to the border with Mongolia.139The warrant was issued from the very building where Vereshchagin’s paintings were displayed, until they were purchased by Tretiakov (no academy would accept them). Banned for twenty years from his native land, Vereshchagin spent the remainder of his life in western Europe, where his paintings were acclaimed. But he always longed to return to the East, and he finally did so in 1904, when Admiral Makarov invited him to join the fleet as an artist during the war against Japan. He was killed three months later on the Petropav-lovsk when a bomb explosion sank the ship, drowning all on board.

In Russia’s educated circles the military conquest of the Central Asian steppe produced two opposing reactions. The first was the sort of imperialist attitude which Vereshchagin’s paintings had done so much to offend. It was based on a sense of racial superiority to the Asiatic tribes, and at the same time a fear of those same tribes, a fear of being swamped by the ‘yellow peril’ which reached fever pitch in the war against Japan. The second reaction was no less imperialist but it justified the empire’s eastern mission on the questionable grounds that Russia’s cultural homeland was on the Eurasian steppe. By marching into Asia, the Russians were returning to their ancient home. This rationale was first advanced in 1840 by the orientalist Grigoriev. ‘Who is closer to Asia than we are?’ Grigoriev had asked. ‘Which of the European races retained more of the Asian element than the Slavic races did, the last of the great European peoples to leave their ancient homeland in Asia?’ It was ‘Providence that had called upon the Russians to reclaim the Asian steppe’; and because of ‘our close relations with the Asiatic world’, this was to be a peaceful process of ‘reunion with our primeval brothers’, rather than the subjugation of a foreign race.140 During the campaign in Central Asia the same thesis was advanced. The Slavs were returning to their ‘prehistoric home’, argued Colonel Veniukov, a geographer in Kaufman’s army, for ‘our ancestors had lived by the Indus and the Oxus before they were displaced by the Mongol hordes’. Veniukov maintained that Central Asia should be settled by the Russians. The Russian settlers should be encouraged to intermarry with the Muslim tribes to regenerate the ‘Turanian’ race that had once lived on the Eurasian steppe. In this way the empire would expand on the ‘Russian principle’ of ‘peaceful evolution and assimilation’ rather than by conquest and by racial segregation, as in the empires of the European states.141

The idea that Russia had a cultural and historic claim in Asia became a founding myth of the empire. During the construction of the

FOLKLORE FANTASIES. The Rite of Spring (1913): the original score by Igor Stravinsky. Below: Viktor Vasnetsov: set design for Mamontov’s production of Rumsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden (Abramtsevo, 1881). Vasnetsov’s designs, with their folk-like use of colour, became a visual model for the Ballets Russes and primitivist painters such as Goncharova, Malevich and Chagall.

SCYTHIAN RUSSI A. The Rite of Spring was conceived by Nikolai Roerich as the re-enactment of an ancient (‘Scythian’) ritual of human sacrifice. A trained archaeologist, Roerich designed the sets and costumes of The Rite of Spring. These were reproduced by the Joffrey Ballet for its revival of the original ballet in 1987 (above).

The rhythm of the music and the choreography emphasized the dancers’ weight and immobility, a sense conveyed by Roerich in his many paintings of Scythian Russia.

Below: Roerich: The Idols (1901).

Roerich: costume designs for The Snow Maiden (Chicago, 1921). A disciple of Stasov, Roerich believed in the Asiatic origins of Russian folk culture, as suggested hereby the heavy jewellery and the Tatar-like headgear.

PAGAN RUSSIA. Vastly Kandinsky: Motley Life (1907). Ostensibly a Russian-Christian scene, the painting is filled with pagan symbols from the Komi region, which Kandinsky had explored as an anthropologist. Below: Kandinsky: All Saints II (1911) tells the story of the confrontation between St Stephan and the Komi shaman Pam. Like Pam (seen escaping persecution in a boat) the two saints (standing on the rock) wear sorcerer’s caps but they also have halos to symbolize the fusion of the Christian and the pagan traditions.


AS SHAMAN. Left: Kandinsky: Oval No. 2 (1925). The oval shapes and hieroglyphia of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings were largely copied from the symbols he had seen on the drums of Siberian shamans. A hooked curve and line symbolized a horse, circles symbolized the sun and moon, while beaks and eyes were meant to represent the birdlike headdress worn by many shamans for their dance rituals (below).

RUSSIA AND THE ASIATIC STEPPE. Isaak Levitan: Vladimirka (1892). This was the road on which Russia’s convicts travelled to their penal exile in Siberia. Below: Vasily Vereshchagin: Surprise Attack (1871). An official war artist with Russia’s army on the Turkestan campaign, Vereshchagin’s canvases were perceived as an attack on the savage Russian violence against the Asian tribes.

HORSES AND APOCALYPSE. Prom Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, the horse became the great poetic metaphor of Russia’s destiny and a symbol of apocalypse, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Bathing the Red Horse (1912), a work strongly influenced by the Russian icon tradition. Below: Kazimir Malevich: Red Cavalry (1930).

Nathan Altman: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1914).

Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s, Prince Ukhtomsky, the press baron and adviser to the young Tsar Nicholas II, advocated the expansion of the empire across the whole of the Asian continent, reasoning that Russia was a sort of ‘older brother’ to the Chinese and the Indians. ‘We have always belonged to Asia,’ Ukhtomsky told the Tsar. ‘We have lived its life and felt its interests. We have nothing to conquer.’142 Inspired by the conquest of Central Asia, Dostoevsky, too, advanced the notion that Russia’s destiny was not in Europe, as had so long been supposed, but rather in the East. In 1881 he told the readers of his Writer’s Diary:

Russia is not only in Europe but in Asia as well… We must cast aside our servile fear that Europe will call us Asiatic barbarians and say that we are more Asian than European… This mistaken view of ourselves as exclusively Europeans and not Asians (and we have never ceased to be the latter)… has cost us very dearly over these two centuries, and we have paid for it by the loss of our spiritual independence… It is hard for us to turn away from our window on Europe; but it is a matter of our destiny… When we turn to Asia, with our new view of her, something of the same sort may happen to us as happened to Europe when America was discovered. For, in truth, Asia for us is that same America which we still have not discovered. With our push towards Asia we will have a renewed upsurge of spirit and strength… In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters. In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we can be Europeans. Our mission, our civilizing mission in Asia will encourage our spirit and draw us on; the movement needs only to be started.143

This quotation is a perfect illustration of the Russians’ tendency to define their relations with the East in reaction to their self-esteem and status in the West. Dostoevsky was not actually arguing that Russia is an Asiatic culture; only that the Europeans thought of it as so. And likewise, his argument that Russia should embrace the East was not that it should seek to be an Asiatic force: but, on the contrary, that only in Asia could it find new energy to reassert its Europeanness. The root of Dostoevsky’s turning to the East was the bitter resentment which he, like many Russians, felt at the West’s betrayal of Russia’s Christian cause in the Crimean War, when France and Britain had sided with the Ottomans against Russia to defend their own imperial interests. In the only published verse he ever wrote (and the poetic qualities of ‘On the European Events of 1854’ are such that one can see why this was so) Dostoevsky portrayed the Crimean War as the ‘crucifixion of the Russian Christ’. But, as he warned the Western readers of his poem, Russia would arise and, when she did so, she would turn toward the East in her providential mission to Christianize the world.

Unclear to you is her [Russia’s] predestination!

The East - is hers! To her a million generations

Untiringly stretch out their hands…

And the resurrection of the ancient East

By Russia (so God had commanded) is drawing near.144

A resentful contempt for Western values was a common Russian response to the feeling of rejection by the West. During the nineteenth century the ‘Scythian temperament’ - barbarian and rude, iconoclastic and extreme, lacking the restraint and moderation of the cultivated European citizen - entered the cultural lexicon as a type of ‘Asiatic’ Russianness that insisted on its right to be ‘uncivilized’. This was the sense of Pushkin’s lines:

Now temperance is not appropriate I want to drink like a savage Scythian.145

And it was the sense in which Herzen wrote to Proudhon in 1849:

But do you know, Monsieur, that you have signed a contract [with Herzen to co-finance a newspaper] with a barbarian, and a barbarian who is all the more incorrigible for being one not only by birth but by conviction?… A true Scythian, I watch with pleasure as this old world destroys itself and I don’t have the slightest pity for it.146

The ‘Scythian poets’ - as that loose group of writers which included Blok and Bely and the critic Ivanov-Razumnik called themselves -embraced this savage spirit in defiance of the West. Yet at the same time their poetry was immersed in the European avant-garde. They took their name from the ancient Scyths, the nomadic Iranian-speaking tribes that had left Central Asia in the eighth century bc and had ruled the steppes around the Black and Caspian seas for the next 500 years. Nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals came to see the Scyths as a sort of mythical ancestor race of the eastern Slavs. In the final decades of the century archaeologists such as Zabelin and Veselovsky led huge excavations of the Scythian kurgans, the burial mounds which are scattered throughout southern Russia, the south-eastern steppe, Central Asia and Siberia, in an effort to establish a cultural link between the Scyths and the ancient Slavs. In 1897, the artist Roerich, who was a fully-trained archaeologist before he became famous for his Scythian designs for The Rite of Spring, worked with Veselovsky on the excavation of the Maikop kurgan in the Crimea. The gold and silver treasures which they excavated there can still be seen today in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.147

As a student of archaeology, Roerich had been deeply influenced by the ideas of Stasov on the Eastern origins of Russian culture. In 1897, he made plans for a series of twelve paintings on the founding of Russia in the ninth century. Only one of these paintings was ever completed - The Messenger: Tribe Has Risen against Tribe (1897), which Roerich submitted as his graduation project at the Academy -but it is a good example of the ethnographic programme which he planned to execute. Roerich checked on every minor detail of the way of life of the early Slavs by writing to Stasov. Not that much was known about the early Slavs. So there was artistic licence to extrapolate these details from the archaeology of the ancient Scyths and other Eastern tribes, on the assumption, as Stasov wrote to Roerich, that ‘the ancient East means ancient Russia: the two are indivisible’.148 Asked about designs for window frames, Stasov replied, for example, that there was no record of Russian ornament before the eleventh century. He advised the artist to make friezes up from motifs found in ancient Asia and in the Near East.149

This imaginary quality was also to be found in Roerich’s paintings of the Stone Age in Russia. Roerich idealized the prehistoric world of this Scythia cum-Rus’ as a perfect realm of spiritual beauty where man and nature lived in harmony, and life and art were one. In his essay ’Joy in Art’ (1909), in which he describes the ancient Slav spring ritual of human sacrifice upon which The Rite of Spring was based, Roerich argues that this prehistoric Russia could not be known thorugh ethnographic facts: it could only be approached through artistic intuition or religious faith. This was the spirit of his Stone Age paintings such as The Idols (1901) (plate 17), which, for all their look of archaeological authenticity, were really no more than abstract or iconic illustrations of his mystical ideals. The same was true of his designs for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. The Asiatic image of ancient Scythian Rus’ was conjured up by Roerich in the set designs and costumes for The Rite of Spring and Rimsky’s opera The Snow Maiden (plate 18). Set in the mythic world of Russia’s Scythian past, the designs for both these works combined motifs from medieval Russian ornament with ethnographic details (such as the heavy jewellery or the Tatar-like head-dress of the village girls) to suggest the semi-Asian nature of the early Slavs. It is easy to forget that, in the controversy surrounding the first performance of The Rite of Spring, it was the Asiatic look of Roerich’s costumes which was seen by many critics as the ballet’s most shocking element.150

The Scythian poets were fascinated by this prehistoric realm. In their imaginations the Scyths were a symbol of the wild rebellious nature of primeval Russian man. They rejoiced in the elemental spirit (‘stikhiia’) of savage peasant Russia, and convinced themselves that the coming revolution, which everybody sensed in the wake of the 1905 one, would sweep away the dead weight of European civilization and establish a new culture where man and nature, art and life, were one. Blok’s famous poem The Scythians (1918) was a programmatic statement of this Asiatic posturing towards the West:

You are millions, we are multitudes And multitudes and multitudes. Come fight! Yes, we are Scythians, Yes, Asiatics, a slant-eyed greedy tribe.

It was not so much an ideological rejection of the West as a threatening embrace, an appeal to Europe to join the revolution of the ‘savage hordes’ and renew itself through a cultural synthesis of East and West: otherwise it ran the risk of being swamped by the ‘multitudes’. For centuries, argued Blok, Russia had protected a thankless Europe from the Asiatic tribes:

Like slaves, obeying and abhorred, We were the shield between the breeds Of Europe and the raging Mongol horde.

But now the time had come for the ‘old world’ of Europe to ‘halt before the Sphinx’:

Yes, Russia is a Sphinx. Exulting, grieving, And sweating blood, she cannot sate Her eyes that gaze and gaze and gaze At you with stone-lipped love and hate.

Russia still had what Europe had long lost - ‘a love that burns like fire’ - a violence that renews by laying waste. By joining the Russian Revolution, the West would experience a spiritual renaissance through peaceful reconciliation with the East.

Come to us from the horrors of war,

Come to our peaceful arms and rest.

Comrades, before it is too late,

Sheathe the old sword, may brotherhood be blest.

But if the West refused to embrace this ‘Russian spirit’, Russia would unleash the Asiatic hordes against it:

Know that we will no longer be your shield But, careless of the battle cries, We shall look on as the battle rages Aloof, with indurate and narrow eyes

We shall not move when the savage Hun

Despoils the corpse and leaves it bare,

Burns towns, herds the cattle in the church,

And the smell of white flesh roasting fills the air.151

The inspiration of Blok’s apocalyptic vision (and of much else besides in the Russian avant-garde) was the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. The opening lines of his memorable poem ‘Pan-Mongolism’ (1894) were used by Blok for the epigraph of The Scythians. They perfectly expressed the ambivalent unease, the fear and fascination, which Blok’s generation felt about the East:

Pan-Mongolism! What a savage name! Yet it is music to my ears.152

In his last major essay, Three Conversations on War, Progress and the End of History (1900), Soloviev described a vast Asiatic invasion of Europe under the banner of the Antichrist. For Soloviev this ‘yellow peril’ was an awesome threat. But for the Scythians it represented renewal. Mixed with Russia’s European culture, the elemental spirit of the Asiatic steppe would reunite the world.

Andrei Bely was another disciple of Soloviev. In Petersburg Bely maps a city living on the edge of a huge catastrophe. Set in the midst of the 1905 Revolution, when Russia was at war with Japan, its Petersburg is swept by howling winds from the Asiatic steppe that almost blow the city back into the sea. The novel builds on the nineteenth-century vision of an all-destroying flood, which was a constant theme in the literary myth of the Russian capital. Built in defiance of the natural order, on land stolen from the sea, Peter’s stone creation was, it seemed, an invitation to Nature’s revenge. Pushkin was the first of many Russian writers to develop the diluvial theme, in The Bronze Horseman. Odoevsky used it, too, as the basis of his story ‘A Joker from the Dead’ in Russian Nights.*

By the middle of the nineteenth century the notion of the flood had become so integral to the city’s own imagined destiny that even Karl Bruillov’s famous painting The Last Days of Pompeii (1833) was

* The story of a beautiful princess who abandons her young lover to marry a middle-aged official. One stormy autumn night they attend a ball in St Petersburg, where she has a fainting fit. In her dreams the Neva breaks its banks. Its waters flood the ballroom, bringing in a coffin whose lid flies open to reveal her dead lover. The palace walls come crashing down, and Petersburg is swept into the sea.

viewed as a warning to St Petersburg.* Slavophiles like Gogol, a close friend of Bruillov, saw it as a prophecy of divine retribution against Western decadence. ‘The lightning poured out and flooded everything’, commented Gogol, as if to underline that the city on the Neva lived in constant danger of a similar catastrophe.153 But Westernists like Herzen drew the parallel as well: ‘Pompeii is the Muse of Petersburg!’154 As the year 1917 approached, the flood became a revolutionary storm. Everybody was aware of imminent destruction. This was expressed in all the arts - from Benois’ illustrations for The Bronze Horseman (1905-18), which seemed to presage the impending revolution in the swirling sea and sky, to the violent (‘Scythian’) rhythms of The Rite of Spring and the poetry of Blok:

And over Russia I see a quiet Far-spreading fire consume all.155

Bely portrays Petersburg as a fragile Western civilization precariously balanced on the top of the savage ‘Eastern’ culture of the peasantry. Peter the Great - in the form of the Bronze Horseman - is recast as the Antichrist, the apocalyptic rider spiralling towards the end of time and dragging Russia into his vortex. The bomb which structures the thin plot (a student is persuaded by the revolutionaries to assassin-ate his father, a high-ranking bureaucrat) is a symbol of this imminent catastrophe.

The novel takes division as its central theme. The city is divided into warring class-based zones, and the two main characters, the senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov and his student revolutionary son Nikolai Apollonovich, are on opposing sides of the barricades. Like Russia itself, the Ableukhovs are made up of discordant elements from Europe and Asia. They are descended from the Mongol horsemen who rode into Russia with Genghiz Khan; however Europeanized they might appear, this Asiatic element is still within them. Nikolai is a

* Apocalyptic fantasies of modern technological cities destroyed by Nature obsessed the literary imagination in nineteenth-century Europe (see G. Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven, 1971), pp.20-24)

follower of Kant but ‘entirely Mongol’ in his way of life, so that ‘his soul is divided in two halves’. Apollon is a typically European bureaucrat, who thinks on rational lines and likes well-ordered city grids. But he has a morbid fear of the Asiatic steppe, where he was once nearly frozen as a boy, and he thinks he hears the thundering sound of horses’ hoofs as Mongol tribesmen ride in from the plain.

He had a fear of space. The landscape of the countryside actually frightened him. Beyond the snows, beyond the ice, and beyond the jagged line of the forest the blizzard would come up. Out there, by a stupid accident, he had nearly frozen to death. That had happened some fifty years ago. While he had been freezing to death, someone’s cold fingers, forcing their way into his breast, had harshly stroked his heart, and an icy hand led him along. He had climbed the rungs of his career with that same incredible expanse always before his eyes. There, from there an icy hand beckoned. Measureless immensity flew on: the Empire of Russia.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov ensconced himself behind city walls for many years, hating the orphaned distances of the provinces, the wisps of smoke from tiny villages, and the jackdaw. Only once had he risked transecting these distances by express train: on an official mission from Petersburg to Tokyo. Apollon Apollonovich did not discuss his stay in Japan with anyone. He used to say to the Minister: ‘Russia is an icy plain. It is roamed by wolves!’ And the Minister would look at him, stroking his well-groomed grey moustache with a white hand. And he said nothing, and sighed. On the completion of his official duties he had been intending to…

But he died.

And Apollon Apollonovich was utterly alone. Behind him the ages stretched into immeasurable expanses. Ahead of him an icy hand revealed immeasurable expanses. Immeasurable expanses flew to meet him.

Oh, Rus’, Rus’!

Is it you who have set the winds, storms and snows howling across the steppe? It seemed to the senator that from a mound a voice was calling him. Only hungry wolves gather in packs out there.156

This agoraphobic fear of Asia reaches fever pitch in a nightmare vision of his revolutionary son:

Nikolai Apollonovich was a depraved monster… he was in China, and there Apollon Apollonovich, the Emperor of China, ordered him to slaughter many thousands (which was done). In more recent times thousands of Tamerlane’s horsemen had poured down on Rus’. Nikolai Apollonovich had galloped into this Rus’ on a charger of the steppes. He was then incarnated in the blood of a Russian nobleman. And he reverted to his old ways: he slaughtered thousands there. Now he wanted to throw a bomb at his father. But his father was Saturn. The circle of time had come full turn. The kingdom of Saturn had returned.157

The thunder of those chargers from the steppe was the approaching sound of 1917. For in the minds of Russia’s Europeans, the destructive violence of the revolution was an Asiatic force.

Among the scattered emigres who fled Soviet Russia was a group of intellectuals known as the Eurasianists. Stravinsky found himself at the centre of their circle in Paris in the 19 20s; his friends the philosopher Lev Karsavin and the brilliant music critic Pierre Souvchinsky (Karsa-vin’s son-in-law) were leading members of the group. But Eurasianism was a dominant intellectual trend in all the emigre communities. Many of the best-known Russian exiles, including the philologist Prince N. S. Trubetskoi, the religious thinker Father George Florovsky, the historian George Vernadsky and the linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson, were members of the group. Eurasianism was essentially a phenomenon of the emigration insofar as it was rooted in the sense of Russia’s betrayal by the West in 1917-21. Its largely aristocratic followers reproached the Western powers for their failure to defeat the Bolsheviks in the Revolution and civil war, which had ended with the collapse of Russia as a European power and their own expulsion from their native land. Disillusioned by the West, but not yet hopeless about a possible future for themselves in Russia, they recast their homeland as a unique (‘Turanian’) culture on the Asiatic steppe.

The founding manifesto of the movement was Exodus to the East, a collection of ten essays published in Sofia in 1921, in which the Eurasianists foresaw the West’s destruction and the rise of a new civilization led by Russia or Eurasia. At root, argued Trubetskoi, the author the most important essays in the collection, Russia was a steppeland Asian culture. Byzantine and European influences, which had shaped the Russian state and its high culture, barely penetrated to the lower strata of Russia’s folk culture, which had developed more through contact with the East. For centuries the Russians had freely intermingled with the Finno-Ugric tribes, the Mongolians and other nomad peoples from the steppe. They had assimilated elements of their languages, their music, customs and religion, so that these Asiatic cultures had become absorbed in Russia’s own historical evolution.

Trubetskoi drew on Russian geography, where the Eurasianist idea had a long pedigree. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the geologist Vladimir Lamansky had shown that the soil structure was the same on either side of the Ural mountains: there was one vast steppe stretching from the western borders of the Russian Empire to the Pacific. Building on the work of Lamansky, the Eurasianist geographer Savitsky showed that the whole land mass of Eurasia was one continuum in biogeographic terms. It was made up of a series of parallel zones that ran like ribbons latitudinally across the continent -completely unaffected by the Ural mountains - from the plains of Hungary to Mongolia. Savitsky grouped these strips into four categories - starting with the tundra of the north, followed by the forest, the steppe and then the desert in the extreme south. There was nothing exceptional in this geography, but it served as a sort of ‘scientific’ basis for more daring arguments about the Eastern influence on Russia’s folk culture.

In his essay ‘On the Higher and Lower Strata of Russian Culture’ (1921), Trubetskoi set out to prove the Asian influence on Russian music, dancing and psychology. He argued that Russian folk music was essentially derived from the pentatonic scale - an argument he based on the observation of the simplest peasant songs. Folk dance, too, according to Trubetskoi, had much in common with the dancing of the East, especially that of the Caucasus. Russian dancing was in lines and circles, rather than in pairs, as in the Western tradition. Its rhythmic movements were performed by the hands and shoulders as well as by the feet. The male dancing was virtuosic, as exemplified by the Cossack dance, with heels hitting fingers and high jumps. There was nothing like this in the Western tradition - with the single exception of Spanish dancing (which Trubetskoi put down to the Moorish influence). Female dancing also showed an Eastern character, with great importance placed on keeping the head still and on subtle doll-like movements by the rest of the body. All these cultural forms were seen by Trubetskoi as the Russian manifestations of a distinctively Eastern inclination for schematic formulae. This ‘Eastern psyche’ was manifested in the Russian people’s tendency to contemplation, in their fatalistic attitudes, in their love of abstract symmetry and universal laws, in their emphasis on religious ritual, and in their ‘udal’ or fierce bravery. According to Trubetskoi these mental attributes were not shared by the Slavs in Eastern Europe, suggesting, in his view, that they must have come to Russia from Asia rather than from Byzantium. The ‘Turanian psychology’ had penetrated into the Russian mind at a subconscious level and had left a profound mark on the national character. Even Russian Orthodoxy, although superficially derived from Byzantium, was ‘essentially Asiatic in its psychological structures’, insofar as it depended on ‘a complete unity between ritual, life and art’. For Trubetskoi this unity explained the quasi-religious nature of state authority in Russia and the readiness of the Russians to submit themselves to it. Church, state and nation were indivisible.158

Such ideas had little in the way of ethnographic evidence to support them. They were all polemic and resentful posturing against the West. In this respect they came from the same stable as that notion first advanced by Dostoevsky that the empire’s destiny was in Asia (where the Russians could be ‘Europeans’) rather than in Europe (where they were ‘hangers-on’). Yet because of their emotive power, Eurasianist ideas had a strong cultural impact on the Russian emigration of the 1920s, when those who mourned the disappearance of their country from the European map could find new hope for it on a Eurasian one. Stravinsky, for one, was deeply influenced by the mystical views of the Eurasianists, particularly the notion of a natural Russian (‘Turanian’) inclination for collectivity, which the music of such works as The Peasant Wedding, with its absence of individual expression in the tinging parts and its striving for a sparse, impersonal sound, was Intended to reflect.159 According to Souvchinsky, the rhythmic immo-bility (nepodvizhnost‘) which was the most important feature of Strav-insky’s music in The Peasant Wedding and The Rite of Spring was ‘Turanian’ in character. As in the Eastern musical tradition, Strav-insky’s music developed by the constant repetition of a rhythmic pattern, with variations on the melody, rather than by contrasts of musical ideas, as in the Western tradition. It was this rhythmic immobility which created the explosive energy of Stravinsky’s ‘Turanian’ music. Kandinsky strived for a similar effect of built-up energy in the geometric patterning of lines and shapes, which became the hallmark of his abstract art.


’In their primitive habitat I found something truly wonderful for the first time in my life, and this wonderment became an element of all my later works.’160 So Kandinsky recalled the impact of his encounter with the Komi people on his evolution towards abstract art.

The link between the ‘primitive’ and modern abstract art is not unique to the Russian avant-garde. Throughout the Western world there was a fascination with the life and art of tribes in distant colonies, of prehistoric cultures, peasants and even children, whose primal forms of expression were an inspiration to artists as diverse as Gauguin and Picasso, Kirchner and Klee, Nolde and Franz Marc. But whereas Western artists had to travel to Martinique or other far-off lands for their savage inspiration, the Russians’ ‘primitives’ were in their own back yard. It gave their art an extraordinary freshness and significance.

The Russian Primitivists (Malevich and Kandinsky, Chagall, Gon-charova, Larionov and Burliuk) took their inspiration from the art of Russian peasants and the tribal cultures of the Asiatic steppe. They saw this ‘barbarism’ as a source of Russia’s liberation from the stranglehold of Europe and its old artistic norms. ‘We are against the West,’ declared Larionov. ‘We are against artistic societies which lead to stagnation.’161 The avant-garde artists grouped around Larionov and his wife Goncharova looked to Russian folk and oriental art as a new outlook on the world. Goncharova talked about a ‘peasant aesthetic’ that was closer to the symbolic art forms of the East than the representational tradition of the West. She reflected this symbolic quality (the quality of icons) in the monumental peasants, whom she even gave an Asiatic look, in such works as Haycutting (1910). All these artists embraced Asia as a part of Russia’s cultural identity. ‘Neoprimitivism is a profoundly national phenomenon’, wrote the painter Shevchenko. ‘Russia and the East have been indissolubly linked from as early as the Tatar invasions, and the spirit of the Tatars, of the East, has become so rooted in our life that at times it is difficult to distinguish where a national feature ends and where an Eastern influence begins… Yes we are Asia and are proud of this.’ Shevchenko made a detailed case for Russian art originating in the East. Comparing Russian folk with Indo-Persian art, he claimed that one could ‘see their common origin’.162

Kandinsky himself was a great admirer of Persian art and equated its ideals of simplicity and truth with ‘the oldest icons of our Rus’ ‘.163 Before the First World War, Kandinsky lived in Munich, where he and Marc were the co-editors of The Blue Rider almanac. Alongside the works of Europe’s leading artists, The Blue Rider featured peasant art and children’s drawings, folk prints and icons, tribal masks and totems - anything, in fact, that reflected the ideal of spontaneous expression and vitality which Kandinsky placed at the heart of his artistic philosophy. Like the Scythians, Kandinsky at this time was moving to the idea of a synthesis between Western, primitive and oriental cultures. He looked to Russia as the Promised Land (and returned to it after 1917). This search for synthesis was the key theme in Kandinsky’s early (so-called ‘Russian’) works (which were still pictorial rather than abstract). In these paintings there is in fact a complex mix of Christian, pagan and shamanic images from the Komi area. In Motley Life (1907) (plate 19), for example, the scene is clearly set in the Komi capital of Ust Sysolk, at the confluence of the Sysola and Vychegda rivers (a small log structure in the upper right-hand corner of the canvas, just below the hilltop monastery, confirms the locale: the Komi used these Inns on stilts as storage sheds). On the surface this appears to be a Russian-Christian scene. But, as Kandinsky suggests in the title Motley Life, underneath the surface there is a collision of diverse beliefs. The red squirrel in the tree, directly at the visual centre of the painting and echoing the golden dome of the chapel to the right, is an emblem of the forest spirits, to whom the Komi people offered squirrel pelts as a sacrifice. The old man in the foreground may have the appearance of a Christian pilgrim, but his supernaturally coloured beard (a pale green) may also mark him out as a sorcerer, while his stick and musical accomplice, in the form of the piper to his right, suggest shamanic lore.164 Several of Kandinsky’s early works narrate the story of St Stephan’s confrontation with the Komi shaman Pam on the banks of the Vychegda river. According to legend, Pam led the resistance of the Komi people to the fourteenth-century Russian missionary. In a public debate by the riverside Pam based his defence of the pagan religion on the notion that the shamans were better than the Christians at hunting bears and other forest animals. But Stephan challenged him to a ‘divine trial by fire and water’, inviting Pam to walk through a burning hut and dive into the icy river. The shaman was forced to concede defeat. In Kandinsky’s version of the legend, as portrayed in All Saints II (1911) (plate 20), Pam escapes from persecution in a boat. He wears a pointed ‘sorcerer’s hat’. A mermaid swims alongside the boat; another sits on the rock to its right. Standing on the rock are a pair of saints. They, too, wear sorcerer’s caps, but they also have haloes to symbolize the fusion of the Christian and the pagan traditions. On the left St Elijah rides his troika through a storm - blown by the piper in the sky - a reference to the Finno-Ugric god the ‘Thunderer’, whose place Elijah took in the popular religious imagination. St Simon stands on a column in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting. He is another compound figure, combining elements of the blacksmith Simon, who builds an iron pillar to survey the world in the Russian peasant tale of ‘The Seven Simons’, and St Simeon the Stylite, who spent his life in meditation on top of a pillar and became the patron saint of all blacksmiths. Finally, the figure in the foreground, seated on a horse with his arms outstretched, is the World-watching Man. He is seen here in a double form: as the shaman riding his horse to the spirit world and as St George.165 This figure reappears throughout Kandinsky’s work, from his first abstract canvas, Composition II, in 1910, to his final painting, Tempered Elan, in 1944. It was a sort of symbolic signature of his shaman alter ego who used art as his magic instrument to evoke a higher spiritual world.

The shaman’s oval drum is another leitmotif of Kandinsky’s art. The circle and the line which dominate Kandinsky’s abstract schemata were symbols of the shaman’s drum and stick. Many of his paintings, like Oval No. 2 (1925) (plate 21), were themselves shaped like drums. They were painted with hieroglyphs invented by Kandinsky to emulate the symbols he had seen on the drums of Siberian shamans: a hooked curve and line to symbolize the horse, circles for the sun and moon, or beaks and eyes to represent the bird form which many shamans used as a dance head-dress (plate 22).166 The hooked curve and line was a double cipher. It stood for the horse-stick on which the shaman rode to the spirit world in seances. Buriat shamans hit their sticks (called ‘horses’) while they danced: the tops were shaped like horses’ heads, the bottom ends like hoofs. Among Finno-Ugric tribes the shaman’s drum itself was called a ‘horse’ and was equipped with reins, while the drumstick was referred to as a ‘whip’.167

In eastern Europe the hobby horse has a preternatural pedigree which belies its benign status in the Western nursery. The Hungarian taltos, or sorcerer, rode with magic speed on a reed horse - a reed between his legs - which in turn became the model of a peasant toy. In the Kalevala the hero Vainamoinen travels to the north on a straw stallion - as emulated by generations of Finnish boys and girls. In Russia the horse has a special cultural resonance as a symbol of the country’s Asiatic legacy - the suc-cessive waves of invasion by nomadic horsemen of the steppe, from the Khazars to the Mongols, which have shaped the course of Russian history. The horse became the great poetic metaphor of Russia’s destiny. Pushkin started it with The Bronze Horseman.

Where will you gallop, charger proud, Where next your plunging hoofbeats settle?168

For the Symbolist circles in which Kandinsky moved, the horse was a symbol of the Asiatic steppe upon which Russia’s European civilization had been built. It featured constantly in Symbolist paintings (perhaps most famously in Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing the Red Horse (1912) (plate 25) and it was a leitmotif of Scythian poetry, from Blok’s ‘Mare of the Steppes’ to Briusov’s ‘Pale Horseman’. And the hoofbeat sound of Mongol horses approaching from the steppe echoes throughout Bely’s Petersburg. To attribute a ‘dark side’ to the hobby horse in Russia, where children no doubt rode it in all innocence, would be absurd. But from an early age Russians were aware of what it meant to ‘gallop on a charger of the steppes’. They felt the heavy clatter of the horses’ hooves on the Asiatic steppeland beneath their feet.

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