Overleaf: Igor and Vera Stravinsky arriving at Sheremetevo Airport in Moscow, 21 September 1962
Homesickness! that long Exposed weariness! It’s all the same to me now Where I am altogether lonely
Or what stones I wander over Home with a shopping bag to A house that is no more mine Than a hospital or a barracks.
It’s all the same to me, a captive Lion - what faces I move through Bristling, or what human crowd will Cast me out as it must -
Into myself, into my separate internal World, a Kamchatka bear without ice. Where I fail to fit in (and I’m not trying) or Where I’m humiliated it’s all the same.
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of My native language, its milky call. How can it matter in what tongue I Am misunderstood by whomever I meet
(Or by what readers, swallowing Newsprint, squeezing for gossip?) They all belong to the twentieth Century, and I am before time,
Stunned, like a log left
Behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
Is the same, and it may be that the most
Indifferent of all are those
Signs and tokens which once were
Native but the dates have been
Rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere,
But my country has taken so little care Of me that even the sharpest spy could Go over my whole spirit and would Detect no birthmark there!
Houses are alien, churches are empty Everything is the same: But if by the side of the path a Bush arises, especially a rowanberry…’
The rowanberry tree stirred up painful memories for the exiled poet Marina Tsvetaeva. It was a reminder of her long-lost childhood in Russia and the one native ‘birthmark’ that she could neither disguise nor bury underneath these lines of feigned indifference to her native land. From her first attempts at verse, Tsvetaeva adopted the rowanberry tree as a symbol of her solitude:
The red mound of a rowanberry kindled, Its leaves fell, and I was born.2
From such associations the homesick exile constitutes a homeland in his mind. Nostalgia is a longing for particularities, not some devotion to an abstract fatherland. For Nabokov, ‘Russia’ was contained in his dreams of childhood summers on the family estate: mushroom-hunting in the woods, catching butterflies, the sound of creaking snow. For Stravinsky it was the sounds of Petersburg which he also recalled from his boyhood: the hoofs and cart wheels on the cobblestones, the cries of the street vendors, the bells of the St Nicholas Church, and the buzz of the Marinsky Theatre where his musical persona was first formed. Tsvetaeva’s ‘Russia’, meanwhile, was conjured up by the mental image of her father’s Moscow house at Three Ponds Lane. The house was stripped apart for firewood in the cold winter of 1918. But after nearly twenty years of exile, when she returned to it in 1939, she found her favourite rowanberry growing as before. The tree was all that remained of her ‘Russia’, and she begged Akhmatova not to tell a soul of its existence, unless ‘they find out and cut it down’.3
Of the many factors that lay behind Tsvetaeva’s return to Stalin’s Russia, the most important was her desire to feel the Russian soil beneath her feet. She needed to be near that rowanberry tree. Her return was the outcome of a long and painful struggle within herself. Like most emigres, she was torn between two different notions of her native land. The first was the Russia that ‘remains inside yourself: the written language, the literature, the cultural tradition of which all Russian poets felt themselves a part.4 This interior Russia was a country that was not confined to any territory. ‘One can live outside of Russia and have it in one’s heart,’ Tsvetaeva explained to the writer Roman Gul. It was a country that one could ‘live in anywhere’.5 As Khodasev-ich put it when he left for Berlin in 1922, this was a ‘Russia’ that could be encapsulated in the works of Pushkin and ‘packed up in a bag’.
All I possess are eight slim volumes, And they contain my native land.6
The other Russia was the land itself - the place that still contained memories of home. For all her declarations of indifference, Tsvetaeva could not resist its pull. Like an absent lover, she ached for its physical presence. She missed the open landscape, the sound of Russian speech, and this visceral web of associations was the inspiration of her creativity.
Three million Russians fled their native land between 1917 and 1929. They made up a shadow nation stretching from Manchuria to California, with major centres of Russian cultural life in Berlin, Paris and New York. Here were the remnants of a vanished world: former advisers to the Tsar and government officials lived from the sale of their last jewels; ex-landowners worked as waiters; ruined businessmen as factory hands; officers of the defeated White armies worked by night as taxi drivers and by day composed their memoirs about the mistakes of the White Army leader, General Denikin. Large families, like the Sheremetevs, were fragmented as their members fled in all directions. The main branch of the Sheremetevs left in 1918 with Count Sergei, travelling to Paris and then to New York. But others fled to South America, Belgium, Greece and Morocco.
Berlin was the first major centre of the emigration. It was a natural crossroads between Russia and Europe. The post-First World War economic crisis and the collapse of the mark made the city relatively inexpensive for those Russians who arrived with jewels or Western currency, and in the suburbs of the ruined middle classes a large but cheap apartment could be easily obtained. In 1921 the Soviet government lifted its controls on exit visas as part of its New Economic Policy. At that time Germany was the only major European country to have diplomatic and commercial relations with Soviet Russia. Still paying for the war through reparations and trade embargoes imposed by the victorious Western governments, it looked to Soviet Russia as a trading partner and a diplomatic friend. Half a million Russians crowded into Charlottenburg and the other south-western suburbs of the German capital in the early 1920s. Berliners dubbed the city’s major shopping street, the Kurfurstendamm, the ‘Nepskii Prospekt’. Berlin had its own Russian cafes, its own Russian theatres and bookshops, its own Russian cabaret. In the suburbs there were Russian everythings: Russian hairdressers, Russian grocers, Russian pawn shops and Russian antique stores. There was even a Russian orchestra. And a Russian football team (with a young Vladimir Nabokov playing in goal).7
Berlin was the undisputed cultural capital of the Russian emigre community. Its musical talent was extraordinary: Stravinsky, Rach-maninov, Heifetz, Horowitz and Nathan Milstein could have shared the stage in any concert there. By the time Tsvetaeva arrived, in 1922, Berlin had become the adopted home of some of the most brilliant literary talents of the Russian avant-garde (Khodasevich, Nabokov, Berberova, Remizov). The city had an astounding eighty-six Russian-language publishers - comfortably outnumbering the German ones -while its Russian newspapers were sold throughout the world.8
Berlin was also a halfway house between Soviet Russia and the West for writers such as Gorky, Bely, Pasternak, Aleksei Tolstoy and Ilya
Ehrenburg, who were yet to make up their minds where they wanted to be based. It became a meeting place for writers from the Soviet Union, their literary confreres from the West, and the already-established Russian emigre community. Publishing costs in Berlin were extremely low - so low that several Soviet publishers and periodicals set up offices in the German capital. In the Russian Berlin of the early 1920s there was still no clear divide between Soviet and emigre culture. The city was the centre of the left-wing avant-garde, among whom the idea of a common Russian culture uniting Soviet Russia with the emigration remained strongest after 1917. Such ideas were generally rejected in the other major centres of the emigration. But Berlin was different - and for a brief period it was possible for writers to move freely between Moscow and Berlin. The climate changed in the middle of the decade when a group of emigres known as Smena vekh (Change of Landmarks) began to campaign for a permanent return to the Soviet Union and established their own journal Nakanune (On the Eve) with Soviet backing. The turning point came in 1923, when the historical novelist Aleksei Tolstoy defected back to Moscow. In the ensuing scandal the Berlin emigre community became sharply polarized between left and right - between those who wanted to build bridges to the Soviet homeland and those who wanted to burn them.
During the middle of the 1920s the German mark was stabilized, the economy began to recover, and Berlin suddenly became expensive for the Russian emigres. Its Russian population halved as the emigres dispersed across the continent. Tsvetaeva and her husband, Sergei Efron, left for Prague so that he could study at the Charles University. Prague was a centre of Russian scholarship. Tomas Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, was a distinguished Russian scholar. The Czechs welcomed the ‘White Russians’ as their fellow Slavs and allies in the Russian civil war. In 1918 a legion of Czech nationalists had fought alongside the anti-Bolsheviks in the hope of getting Russia to rejoin the war against the Central Powers.* After the establishment of
* As nationalists fighting for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the 35,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion wanted to return to the battlefields in France to continue their own struggle against Austria. Rather than run the risk of crossing enemy lines, they resolved to travel eastwards, right around the world, reaching Europe via Vladivostok and the USA. But as they moved east along the Trans-Siberian Railway (continued)
an independent Czechoslovakia that year, the government in Prague gave grants to Russian students like Efron.
In 1925, Tsvetaeva and Efron moved on to Paris. If Berlin was the cultural centre of Russia Abroad, Paris was its political capital. The post-war Versailles Conference had attracted delegates from all the major parties and would-be governments of Russia-in-exile. By the middle of the 1920s Paris was a hotbed of political intrigue, with Russian factions and movements of all types vying for attention from the Western governments and for the support of the wealthy Russian emigres who tended to live there. Tsvetaeva and Efron stayed with their two young children in the cramped apartment of Olga Chernov, former wife of Viktor Chernov, the veteran Socialist Revolutionary leader who had been chairman of the short-lived Constituent Assembly which had been closed down by the Bolsheviks in January 1918. In the ‘Little Russia’ that formed around the Rue Daru, the Efrons regularly came across the other fallen heroes of the Revolution: Prince Lvov, Prime Minister of the first Provisional Government; Pavel Miliukov, its Foreign Minister; and the dashing young Alexander Kerensky, another former Prime Minister whom Tsvetaeva had compared to her idol Bonaparte in that fateful summer of 1917.
And someone, falling on the map, Does not sleep in his dreams. There came a Bonaparte In my country.9
By the end of the 1920s Paris had become the undisputed centre of the Russian emigration in Europe. Its status was confirmed in the years
(continued) they soon became bogged down in petty fighting with the local Soviets, who tried to seize their arms. The Czechs ended up joining forces with the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had fled from Moscow and St Petersburg to the Volga provinces to rally the support of the peasantry against the Bolshevik regime and the ending of the war following the closure of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. On 8 June the Czech Legion captured the Volga city of Samara, where a government composed of former members of the Constituent Assembly was in tenuous control until its defeat by the Red Army the following October, when the Czech Legion broke up and lost the will to fight, following the declaration of Czech independence on 28 October 1918.
of the depression, as Russians fled to the French capital from Hitler’s Germany. The literary and artistic life of Russian Paris flourished in the cafes of the sixteenth arrondissement, where artists such as Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov, Benois, Bakst and Alexandra Exter mixed with Stravinsky and Prokofiev and writers like Bunin and Merezhkovsky, or Nina Berberova and her husband Khodasevich, who had moved there from Berlin in 1925.
As most of the exiles saw it, Russia had ceased to exist in October 1917. ‘Sovdepia’, as they contemptuously referred to Soviet Russia (from the acronym for Soviet department), was in their view an impostor unworthy of the name. Stravinsky always said that when he went into exile he did not so much leave as ‘lose’ Russia for good.10 In her ‘Poems to a Son’, written in the early 1930s, Tsvetaeva concluded that there was no Russia to which she could return:
With a lantern search through The whole world under the moon. That country exists not On the map, nor yet in space.
Drunk up as though from the Saucer: the bottom of it shines! Can one return to a House which has been razed?11
The idea of Russia as an optical illusion, as something that had vanished like a childhood memory, was a central theme of Russian verse abroad. As Georgy Ivanov put it:
Russia is happiness, Russia is all light.
Or perhaps Russia disappeared into the night.
And on the Neva the sun does not go down, And Pushkin never died in our European town,
And there is no Petersburg, no Kremlin in Moscow -Only fields and fields, snow and yet more snow.’2
For Tsvetaeva the mirage of Russia was the fading memory of her dismantled house at Three Ponds Lane. For Nabokov, in his poem ‘The Cyclist’ (1922), it was the dream of a bike ride to Vyra, his family’s country house, which always promised to appear round the next bend - yet never did.13 This nostalgic longing for an irretrievable patch of one’s own childhood is beautifully evoked by Nabokov in Speak, Memory (1951). To be cut off from the place of one’s childhood is to watch one’s own past vanish into myth.
Tsvetaeva was the daughter of Ivan Tsvetaev, Professor of Art History at Moscow University and founding director of Moscow’s Museum of Fine Arts (today known as the Pushkin Gallery). Like Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the young poet lived in a world of books. ‘I am all manuscript,’ Tsvetaeva once said.14 Pushkin and Napoleon were her first romantic attachments and many of the real people (both men and women) with whom she fell in love were probably no more than projections of her literary ideals. She called these affairs ‘amities litteraires’ - and the objects of her affections included the poets Blok and Bely, Pasternak and Mandelstam. It was never clear to what degree the passion was in her own mind. Efron was the exception - the single lasting human contact in her tragic life and the one person she could not live without. So desperate was her longing to be needed that for him she was prepared to ruin her own life. They met in 1911 when he was still at school, and she barely out of it, on a summer holiday in the Crimea. Efron was a beautiful young man -slender-faced with enormous eyes - and she cast him as her ‘Bonaparte’. The two shared a romantic attachment to the idea of the Revolution (Efron’s father had been a terrorist in the revolutionary underground). But when the Revolution finally arrived they both sided with the Whites. Tsvetaeva was repulsed by the crowd mentality, which seemed to her to trample individuals underfoot. When Efron left Moscow to join Denikin’s army in south Russia, she portrayed him as her hero in The Camp of Swans (1917-21).
White guards: Gordian knot
Of Russian valour.
White Guards: white mushrooms
Ot the Russian folksong.
31. Sergei Efron and Marina Tsvetaeva, 1911
White Guards: white stars, Not to be crossed from the sky. White Guards: black nails In the ribs of the Antichrist.15
For the next five years, from 1918 to 1922, the young couple lived apart. Tsvetaeva pledged that, if both of them survived the civil war, she would follow Efron ‘like a dog’, living wherever he chose to live. While Efron was fighting for Denikin’s armies in the south, Tsvetaeva stayed in Moscow. She grew prematurely old in the daily struggle for bread and fuel. Prince Sergei Volkonsky, who became a close friend during those years, recalled her life in the ‘unheated house, sometimes without light, a bare apartment… little Alya sleeping behind a screen surrounded by her drawings… no fuel for the wretched stove, the electric light dim… The dark and cold came in from the street as though they owned the place.’16 The desperate hunt for food exposed Tsvetaeva to the brutalizing effect of the Revolution. It seemed to her
that the common people had lost all sense of human decency and tenderness. Despite her love of Russia, the revelation of this new reality made her think about emigrating. The death of her younger daughter, Irina, in 1920 was a catastrophic shock. ‘Mama could never put it out of her mind that children can die of hunger here’, her elder daughter, Alya, later wrote.17 Irina’s death intensified Tsvetaeva’s need to be with Efron. There was no news of him after the autumn of 1920, when the defeated White armies retreated south through the Crimea and crowded on to ships to flee the Bolsheviks. She said she would kill herself if he was not alive. At last, Efron was located in Constantinople. She left Moscow to join him in Berlin.
Tsvetaeva describes leaving Russia as a kind of death, a parting of the body from the soul, and she was afraid that, separated from the country of her native tongue, she would not be capable of writing poetry. ‘Here a broken shoe is unfortunate or heroic’, she wrote to Ehrenburg shortly before her departure from Moscow, ‘there it’s a disgrace. People will take me for a beggar and chase me back where I came from. If that happens I’ll hang myself.”8
The loss of Russia strengthened Tsvetaeva’s concern with national themes. During the 1920s she wrote a number of nostalgic poems. The best were collected in After Russia (1928), her last book to be published during her lifetime:
My greetings to the Russian rye,
To fields of corn higher than a woman.19
Increasingly she also turned to prose (‘emigration makes of me a prose writer’20) in a series of intensely moving recollections of the Russia she had lost. ‘I want to resurrect that entire world’, she explained to a fellow emigree, ‘so that all of them should not have lived in vain, so that I should not have lived in vain.’21 What she longed for, in essays like ‘My Pushkin’ (1937), was the cultural tradition that made up the old Russia in her heart. This was what she meant when she wrote in ‘Homesickness’ that she felt
Stunned, like a log left
Behind from an avenue of trees.22
As an artist she felt she had been orphaned by her separation from the literary community founded by Pushkin.
Hence her intense, almost daughterly, attraction to Sergei Volkon-sky, the eurhythmic theorist and former director of the Imperial Theatre who was forced to flee from Soviet Russia in 1921. In Paris Volkonsky became a prominent theatre critic in the emigre press. He lectured on the history of Russian culture in universities throughout Europe and the USA. But it was his link to the cultural tradition of the nineteenth century that made him so attractive to Tsvetaeva. The prince was the grandson of the famous Decembrist; his father had been a close friend of Pushkin. And he himself had met the poet Tiutchev in his mother’s drawing room. There was even a connection between the Volkonskys and the Tsvetaev family. As Ivan Tsvetaev mentioned in his speech at the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1912., the idea of founding such a museum in Moscow had first been voiced by the prince’s great-aunt, Zinaida Volkonsky.23 Tsvetaeva fell in love with Volkonsky - not in a sexual way (Volkonsky was almost certainly homosexual) but in the heady fashion of her amities litteraires. After several barren years, lyric poetry began to flow from Tsvetaeva again. In the cycle of poems The Disciple (1921-2) she cast herself at the feet of a prophet (the ‘father’) who linked her with the wisdom and the values of the past. The poem ‘To the Fathers’ was dedicated to ‘the best friend of my life’, as she described Volkonsky to Evgenia Chiri-kova, ‘the most intelligent, fascinating, charming, old-fashioned, curious and - most brilliant person in the world. He is 63 years old. Yet when you see him you forget how old you are. You forget where you are living, the century, the date.’24
In the world which roars: ‘Glory to those who are to come!’ Something in me whispers: ‘Glory to those who have been!’25
Volkonsky dedicated his own Memoirs (1923) to Tsvetaeva - recompense, perhaps, for the fact that she had typed out its two thick volumes for the publisher. She saw his recollections as a sacred testament to the nineteenth-century tradition that had been broken in 191 7.
To mark their publication she wrote an essay called ‘Cedar: An Apology’. The title had been taken from the Prince’s nickname, given to him because he had planted cedars on his favourite patch of land (today it is a forest of 12,000 hectares) at the family estate in Borisoglebsk, Tambov province.
The cedar is the tallest of trees, the straightest too, and it comes from the North (the Siberian cedar) and the South as well (the Lebanese). This is the dual nature of the Volkonsky clan: Siberia and Rome [where Zinaida settled as an emigree]!26
In the preface to his memoirs Volkonsky voiced the exile’s agony:
Motherland! What a complex idea, and how difficult to catch. We love our motherland - who does not? But what is it we love? Something that existed? Or something that will be? We love our country. But where is our country? Is it any more than a patch of land? And if we are separated from that land, and yet in our imagination we can re-create it, can we really say that there is a motherland; and can we really say that there is exile?27
Russian emigre communities were compact colonies held together by their cultural heritage. The first generation of Russian exiles after 1917 was basically united by the hope and conviction that the Soviet Union would not last and that they would eventually return to Russia. They compared their situation to that of the nineteenth-century political exiles who had gone abroad to fight the Tsarist regime from the relative freedom of Europe and then returned to their native land. Living as they did in constant readiness for their own return, they never really unpacked their suitcases. They refused to admit that they were any-thing but temporary exiles. They saw it as their task to preserve the old traditions of the Russian way of life - to educate their children in Russian-language schools, to keep alive the liturgy of the Russian Church, and to uphold the values and achievements of Russian cul-ture in the nineteenth century - so that they could restore all these institutions when they returned home. They saw themselves as the guardians of the true Russian way of life which was being undermined by the Soviet regime.
In the ‘Little Russias’ of Berlin, Paris and New York the emigres created their own mythic versions of the ‘good Russian life’ before 1917. They returned to a past that never was - a past, in fact, that had never been as good, or as ‘Russian’, as that now recalled by the emigres. Nabokov described the first generation of exiles from Soviet Russia as ‘hardly palpable people who imitated in foreign cities a dead civilization, the remote, almost legendary, almost Sumerian mirages of St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1916 (which even then, in the twenties and thirties, sounded like 1916-1900 bc)’.28 There were literary soirees in private rooms and hired halls, where faded actresses provided nostalgic echoes of the Moscow Arts Theatre and mediocre authors ‘trudged through a fog of rhythmic prose’.29 There were midnight Easter masses in the Russian church; summer trips to Biarritz (‘as before’); and weekend parties at Chekhovian houses in the south of France which recalled a long-gone era of the ‘gentry idyll’ in the Russian countryside. Russians who before the Revolution had assumed foreign ways, or had never gone to church, now, as exiles, clung to their native customs and Orthodox beliefs. There was a revival of the Russian faith abroad, with much talk among the emigres of how the Revolution had been brought about by European secular beliefs, and a level of religious observance which they had never shown before 1917. The exiles stuck to their native language as if to their personality. Nabokov, who had learned to read English before he could read Russian, became so afraid of losing his command of the Russian language when he was at Cambridge University in the early 1920s that he resolved to read ten pages of Dahl’s Russian Dictionary every day.
This accentuation of their Russianness was reinforced by a mutual animosity between the exiles and their hosts. The French and the Germans, in particular, looked upon the Russians as barbaric parasites on their own war-torn economies; while the Russians, who were destitute but on the whole much better read than either the French or the Germans, thought themselves a cut above such ‘petty bourgeois’ types (according to Nabokov, the Russians of Berlin mixed only with the Jews). In a passage of Speak, Memory that still smacks of such attitudes Nabokov claims that the only German in Berlin he ever got to know was a university student, well-bred, quiet, bespectacled, whose hobby was capital punishment… Although I have lost track of Dietrich long ago, I can well imagine the look of calm satisfaction in his fish-blue eyes as he shows nowadays (perhaps at the very minute I am writing this) a never-expected profusion of treasures to his thigh-clapping, guffawing co-veterans - the absolutely wunderbar pictures he took during Hitler’s reign.30
The sheer volume of artistic talent in the emigre communities was bound to divide them from the societies in which they found themselves. ‘The ghetto of emigration was actually an environment imbued with a greater concentration of culture and a deeper freedom of thought than we saw in this or that country around us,’ Nabokov reminisced in an interview in 1966. ‘Who would want to leave this inner freedom in order to enter the outer unfamiliar world?’31 There was, moreover, a political division between the mainly left-wing intellectuals of the West and those Russians who had fled the Bolsheviks. Berberova maintained that there was ‘not one single writer of renown who would have been for us [the emigres]’ - and it is hard to disagree. H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Stefan Zweig all declared their support for the Soviet regime; while others, such as Hemingway or the Bloomsbury set, were basically indifferent to what was going on inside the Soviet Union.
Isolated in this way, the emigres united around the symbols of Russian culture as the focus of their national identity. Culture was the one stable element they had in a world of chaos and destruction - the only thing that remained for them of the old Russia - and for all their political squabbles, the thing that gave the emigres a sense of common purpose was the preservation of their cultural heritage. The ‘Little Russias’ of the emigration were intellectual homelands. They were not defined by attachment to the soil or even to the history of the real Russia (there was no period of Russian history around which they could agree to unite: for the emigre community contained both monarchists and anti-monarchists, socialists and anti-socialists).
In these societies literature became the locus patriae, with the ‘thick’ literary journal as its central institution. Combining literature with social commentary and politics, these journals organized their readers in societies of thought, as they had done in Russia before 1917. Every major centre of the emigration had its thick journals, and each journal was in turn associated with the literary clubs and cafes which represented the different shades of political opinion. The biggest-selling journal was published in Paris - Sovremenny zapiski (Contemporary Annals), a title which was meant as a reference to the two most prestigious liberal journals of the nineteenth century: Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and Otechestvennye zapiski (Annals of the Fatherland). Its stated mission was the preservation of Russia’s cultural heritage. This meant keeping to the well-tried names that had been established before 1917 -writers such as Ivan Bunin, Aleksei Remizov and (the queen of literary Paris) Zinaida Gippius - which made it very hard for younger or more experimental writers such as Nabokov and Tsvetaeva. There was enough demand for the reassuring presence of the Russian classics to sustain a score of publishers.32
Pushkin became a sort of figurehead of Russia Abroad. His birthday was celebrated as a national holiday in the absence of any other historical event the emigres could agree to commemorate. There was much in Pushkin with which the emigres could identify: his liberal-conservative (Karamzinian) approach to Russian history; his cautious support of the monarchy as a bulwark against the anarchistic violence of the revolutionary mob; his uncompromising individualism and belief in artistic liberty; and his ‘exile’ from Russia (in his case, from Moscow and St Petersburg). It is perhaps no coincidence that the emigration spawned some of the most brilliant Pushkin scholars of the twentieth century - among them Nabokov, with his 4-volume annotated English translation of Eugene Onegin.33
Among the Parisian emigres Bunin was revered as the heir to this literary heritage, a living affirmation that the realist tradition of Turg-enev and Tolstoy continued on in the diaspora. As Bunin himself put it in a celebrated speech of 1924, it was ‘The Mission of the Emigration’ to act for the ‘True Russia’ by protecting this inheritance from the modernist corruptions of left-wing and Soviet art. The mantle of national leadership had been conferred on Bunin, as a writer, only after 1917. Before the Revolution he had not been placed by many in
the highest class: his prose style was heavy and conventional compared to the favoured writers of the avant-garde. But after 1917 there was a revolution in the artistic values of the emigres. They came to reject the literary avant-garde, which they associated with the revolutionaries, and, once they found themselves abroad, they took great comfort in the old-fashioned ‘Russian virtues’ of Bunin’s prose. As one critic put it, Bunin’s works were the ‘repository of a covenant’, a ‘sacred link’ between the emigration and the Russia that was lost. Even Gorky, in Berlin, would abandon everything and lock himself away to read the latest volume of Bunin’s stories as soon as it arrived in the mail from Paris. As an heir to the realist tradition, Gorky thought of Bunin as the last great Russian writer in the broken line of Chekhov and Tolstoy.34 In 1933 Bunin was awarded the Nobel Prize, the first Russian writer to be honoured in this way. Coming as it did at a time when Stalin was putting Soviet culture into chains, the award was perceived by the emigres as a recognition of the fact that the True Russia (as defined by culture) was abroad. Gippius, who was somewhat prone to hero-worship, called Bunin ‘Russia’s prime minister in exile’. Others hailed him as the ‘Russian Moses’ who would lead the exiles back to their promised land.35
The Russia Bunin re-creates in his stories is a dreamland. In ‘The Mowers’ (1923) and ‘Unhurried Spring’ (1924) he conjures up a vision of the old rural Russia that had never been - a sunny happy land of virgin forests and boundless steppes where the peasants were hardworking and happy in their work, in harmony with nature and their fellow farmers - the nobility. There could not have been a starker contrast with Bunin’s dark portrayal of provincial rot in The Village, the novel that had first brought him to fame in 1910, nor a more ironic one. For Bunin was now escaping to precisely the sort of rural fantasy which he himself had done so much to puncture in his earlier work. In exile, his literary mission was to contrast the idyll he imagined in the Russian countryside with the evil of the cities where Bolshevism had corrupted the good old Russian ways. But the land he portrayed was, in his own admission, ‘an Elysium of the Past’, a shift ‘into a kind of dream’,36 and not an actual place to which the exiles could return. Retreating into a legendary past is perhaps a natural response of the artist who is dislocated from his native land. Nabokov even took artistic inspiration from the experience of exile. But for Bunin it must have been particularly difficult to write when he was cut off from his own country. How could a realist write about a Russia that no longer was?
Emigration tends to breed conservatives in art. Retrospection and nostalgia are its moods. Even Stravinsky found himself moving away from the ultra-modernism of The Rite of Spring, the last major work of his ‘Russian period’, to the neoclassicism of the Bach-like works of his Parisian exile. Others became stuck in the style they had developed in their native land - unable to move on in the new world. This was true of Rachmaninov. Like Bunin’s writing, his music remained trapped in the late Romantic mode of the nineteenth century.
Sergei Rachmaninov had learned composition at the Moscow Conservatory at a time when Tchaikovsky was its musical hero, and it was Tchaikovsky who had made the deepest impact on his life and art. In exile in New York after 1917, Rachmaninov remained untouched by the avant-garde - the last of the Romantics in the modern age. In a revealing interview in 1939, which the composer forbade to be published in his own lifetime, he explained to Leonard Liebling of The Musical Courier his feelings of estrangement from the world of modernism. His musical philosophy was rooted in the Russian spiritual tradition, where the role of the artist was to create beauty and to speak the truth from the depths of his heart.
I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me… I always feel that my own music and my reactions to all music remain spiritually the same, unendingly obedient in trying to create beauty… The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt - they mediate, protest, analyse, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.’7
In his last major interview, in 1941, Rachmaninov revealed the spiritual connection between this outpouring of emotion and his Russianness.
I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is a product of the temperament, and so it is Russian music. I never consciously attempt to write Russian music, or any other kind of music. What I try to do when writing down my music is to say simply and directly what is in my heart.38
The ‘Russianness’ of Rachmaninov’s music, a kind of lyrical nostalgia, became the emotional source of his musical conservatism in exile.
Being out of step had always been a part of his persona. Born in 1873 to an ancient noble family from Novgorod province, Rachmaninov had been an unhappy child. His father had walked out on the family and left his mother penniless when he was only six. Two years later the young boy was sent to study music in St Petersburg. He invested his emotions in his music. He came to view himself as an outsider, and that Romantic sense of alienation became fused with his identity as an artist and later as an emigre. Exile and isolation as a theme figured in his music from an early stage. It was even there in his graduation piece from the Conservatory, a one-act opera called Aleko (1892), based on Pushkin’s ‘Gypsies’, in which the Russian hero of the poem is rejected by the gypsies and banished to the life of a lonely fugitive. Rachmaninov’s best-known music before 1917 was already marked by a precocious nostalgia for his native land: the Vespers (1915), with their conscious imitation of the ancient church plainchants; The Bells (1912), which allowed him to explore that Russian sound; and above all the piano concertos. The haunting opening theme of the Third Piano Concerto (1909) is liturgical in manner and very similar to the Orthodox chant from the vesper service used at the Pechersk monastery in Kiev, although Rachmaninov himself denied that it had any religious source. Rachmaninov had never been a regular churchgoer and after his marriage to his first cousin, Natalia Satina, a marriage forbidden by the Russian Church, he ceased to go at all. Yet he felt a deep attachment to the rituals and the music of the Church, especially the sound of Russian bells, which reminded him of his childhood in Moscow. This became a source of his nostalgia after 1917.
The other source of Rachmaninov’s nostalgia was his longing for the Russian land. He yearned for one patch of land in particular: his wife’s estate at Ivanovka, five hundred kilometres south-east of Moscow, where he had spent his summers from the age of eight, when the Rachmaninovs were forced to sell their own estate. Ivanovka contained his childhood and romantic memories. In 1910, the estate became his own through marriage and he moved there with Natalia. Ivanovka was the place where he composed nearly all his works before 1917. ‘It had no special wonders - no mountains, ravines or ocean views’, Rachmaninov remembered in 1931. ‘It was on the steppe, and instead of the boundless ocean there were endless fields of wheat and rye stretching to the horizon.’39 This is the landscape whose spirit is expressed in Rachmaninov’s music. ‘The Russians’, he explained to an American magazine (and he was clearly thinking mainly of himself), ‘feel a stronger tie to the soil than any other nationality. It comes from an instinctive inclination towards quietude, tranquillity, admiration of nature, and perhaps a quest for solitude. It seems to me that every Russian is something of a hermit.’40In 1917 the Ivanovka peasants forced Rachmaninov to abandon his home. ‘They often got drunk and ran round the estate with flaming torches,’ recalled one of the villagers. ‘They stole the cattle and broke into the stores.’ After his departure -first for Sweden and then for the USA - the house was looted and burned down.41 For Rachmaninov, the loss of Ivanovka was equated with the loss of his homeland, and the intense pain of exile which he always felt was mingled with its memory.
Financial hardship forced Rachmaninov, at the age of forty-five, to start a new career as a piano virtuoso, touring Europe or the US every year. His peripatetic lifestyle left little time for composition. But he himself put his failure to compose down to his painful separation from the Russian soil: ‘When I left Russia, I left behind the desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also.’42
In America, where they bought their first home in 1921, and then in France and Switzerland from 1930, the Rachmaninovs tried to re-create the special Russian atmosphere of Ivanovka, holding house parties for their Russian friends: Bunin, Glazunov, Horowitz, Nabokov, Fokine and Heifetz - all were frequent guests. They spoke in Russian, employed Russian servants, Russian cooks, a Russian secretary, consulted Russian doctors and scrupulously observed all the Russian customs such as drinking tea from a samovar and attending midnight mass. Their country house in France, at Clairefontaine near Paris, was purchased because it bordered on a secluded pine wood like the one in which Rachmaninov had liked to walk at Ivanovka. The Russian atmosphere the couple re-created there was described by their American friends, the Swans, who visited them in 1931:
The chateau-like house, Le Pavilion, protected from the street by a solid wrought fence, lent itself well to this Russian life on a large scale… The wide steps of the open veranda led into the park. The view was lovely: an unpretentious green in front of the house, a tennis court tucked away among shrubs, sandy avenues flanked with tall, old trees, leading into the depths of the park, where there was a large pond. The whole arrangement was very much like that of an old Russian estate… A small gate opened into the vast hunting grounds: pine woods with innumerable rabbits. Rachmaninov loved to sit under the pine trees and watch the pranks of the rabbits. In the morning the big table in the dining room was set for breakfast. As in the country in Russia, tea was served and with it cream, ham, cheese, hard-boiled eggs. Everybody strolled in leisurely. There were no rigid rules or schedules to disturb the morning sleep.43
Gradually, as the old routines of Ivanovka were resumed, Rachmaninov returned to composing music once again - full-blown nostalgic works like the Third Symphony (1936). Western critics were surprised by the conservatism of the symphony’s harmonic language, comparing it to the romanticism of a bygone age. But this was to miss its Russianness. The Third Symphony was a retrospective work - a farewell to the Russian tradition - and its whole purpose was to dwell on the spirit of the past. At a rehearsal of the Three Russian Songs (1926) in the USA in the 1930s Rachmaninov implored the chorus to slow down. ‘I beg you,’ he told the singers, ‘do not spoil it for a devout Russian Orthodox churchman. Please, sing more slowly.’44
’Our tragedy’, wrote Nina Berberova of the younger exiled writers in the 1920s, was ‘our inability to evolve in terms of style.’45 The renewal of style entailed a fundamental problem for the emigres. If their purpose as Russian artists was to preserve their national culture, how could they evolve Stylistically without adapting to their new environment and hence, in some ways, abandoning Russia? The problem mainly affected the younger generation - writers like Nabokov who had ‘emerged naked from the Revolution’.46 Older writers like Bunin brought with them to the West an established readership and written style from which they could not break. There was too much pressure on them to continue in the comforting traditions of the past - to churn out plays and stories about nests of Russian gentlefolk - and those who tried to break away were little prized or understood. Tsvetaeva’s tragedy - to lose the readership that had sustained her as the rising star of the pre-revolutionary avant-garde - was yet another variant of this experience.
Scattered in bookshops, greyed by dust and time, Unseen, unsought, unopened, and unsold, My poems will be savoured as are rarest wines -When they are old.47
Even Miliukov, former statesman, historian and editor of the Parisian journal Poslednie novosti, said, ‘I don’t understand Tsvetaeva.’48 But for writers like Nabokov who had yet to find their feet there was little point or prospect in returning to the past. The old generation was dying out and the new becoming less Russian by the day as it assimilated into the mainstream of European culture. To create a new readership such writers had to break out of the mould.
Nabokov was the first major writer to complete this literary metamorphosis. According to Berberova, he was the only Russian-language writer of her generation with the genius to create not just a new style of writing but a new reader, too. ‘Through him we learned to identify not with his fictional heroes’ - as the nineteenth-century writers expected of their readers - ‘but with the author, with Nabokov, and his existential themes became our theme as well.’49 Nabokov always claimed that his writings were not about Russia or the emigres. But exile was their central theme. And even if he saw that as a universal theme, a metaphor of the human condition, the appearance of Nabokov’s writings in the Berlin of the 1920s was received by the Russian emigres as an affirmation of their own national identity. Nabokov’s writings were proof that ‘Russia’ (as embodied in its culture) was still with them in the West. As Berberova put it, with the publication of his first great novel, The Luzhin Defence, in 1930, ‘a great Russian writer had been born, like a phoenix from the ashes of the Revolution and exile. Our existence acquired a new meaning. All my generation were justified. We were saved.’50
Exile was Nabokov’s omnipresent theme, though he discovered the ‘sorrows and delights of nostalgia’ long before the Revolution had removed the scenery of his early years.51 Nabokov was born in 1899, the elder son of a highly cultured and prominently liberal aristocratic family from St Petersburg who fled Russia in 1919. His grandfather, Dmitry Nabokov, had been Minister of Justice in the final years of Alexander II’s reign, when the Emperor had considered the adoption of a liberal constitution in the European mould. Until his dismissal in 1885, he had opposed the attempts by Alexander III to overturn the liberal judicial reforms of 1864. The writer’s father, V. D. Nabokov, was a well-known liberal lawyer and an influential member of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party in the First Duma of 1906. He had drafted the abdication manifesto of the Grand Duke Mikhail, briefly invited to assume the throne in the February Revolution of 1917, which brought the monarchy to an official end. He had also been head of the Chancellery in the Provisional Government, a sort of executive secretary to the cabinet, and had played a leading role in formulating the electoral system of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolshevik seizure of power forced the Nabokovs to leave Russia, moving first to London and then to Berlin, where the writer’s father was the editor of the newspaper Rul’ until his assassination by a Russian monarchist in 1922. Throughout his career as a Russian writer in Europe Nabokov kept the pen name ‘Sirin’ (the name of a legendary bird of paradise in Russian mythology) to set himself apart from his famous father in the emigre community.
The Nabokov family was strongly Anglophile. Its mansion in St Petersburg was filled with ‘the comfortable products of Anglo-Saxon civilization’, Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory:
Pears’ soap, tar-black when dry, topaz-like when held to the light between wet fingers, took care of one’s morning bath. Pleasant was the decreasing weight of the English collapsible tub when it was made to protrude a rubber underlip and disgorge its frothy contents into the slop pail. ‘We could not improve the cream, so we improved the tube,’ said the English toothpaste. At breakfast, Golden Syrup imported from London would entwist with its glowing coils the revolving spoon from which enough of it had slithered on to a piece of Russian bread and butter. All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls.52
Nabokov was taught to read English before he could read his native tongue. He and his brother and sister were looked after by ‘a bewildering sequence of English nurses and governesses’, who read them Little Lord Fauntleroy; and later by a mademoiselle who read to the children Les Malbeurs de Sophie, Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours and Le Comte de Monte Cristo. In a sense Nabokov was brought up as an emigre. As a schoolboy he would set himself apart, imagining himself as an ‘exiled poet who longed for a remote, sad and - unquenchable Russia’.53Pushkin was Nabokov’s inspiration. Many of the heroes in his novels were meant to be the poet in disguise. Nabokov saw himself as Pushkin’s heir. So much so, in fact, that when, at the age of eighteen, Nabokov found himself a refugee in the Crimea, where his family had fled the Bolsheviks, he took inspiration from the image of himself as a romantic exile, wandering in the footsteps of Pushkin, who had been sent into exile a hundred years before. His first published collections of poems, The Empyrean Path (1923),contains an epigraph from Pushkin’s poem ‘Anon’ on the title page.
From the Crimea the family sailed to England, where Nabokov completed his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1919 and 1922. The reality of post-war England was a long way from the Anglo-Saxon dreamworld of the Nabokov mansion in St Petersburg. The rooms at Trinity were cold and damp, the food unspeakable, and the student clubs were full of naive socialists, like the pipe-smoking ‘Nesbit’ in Speak, Memory who saw only bad in Russia’s past and only good in the Bolsheviks.* Nabokov grew homesick. ‘The story of my college years in England is really the story of my trying to become
* Nabokov later identified R. A. (‘Rab’) Butler, the future Tory Deputy Prime Minister and ‘a frightful bore’, as the man behind the mask of R. Nesbit Bain in Speak, Memory (B. Boyd, Nabokov: The Russian Years (London, 1990), p. 1 68).
a Russian writer’, he recalled. ‘I had the feeling that Cambridge and all its famed features - venerable elms, blazoned windows, loquacious tower clocks - were of no consequence in themselves but existed merely to frame and support my rich nostalgia.’54
The focus of Nabokov’s longing for Russia was the family estate at Vyra, near St Petersburg. It contained his childhood memories. In Speak, Memory he claimed to have felt his first pangs of nostalgia at the tender age of five, when, on holiday in Europe, ‘I would draw with my forefinger on my pillow the carriage road sweeping up to our Vyra house.’55 The pain of losing Vyra was acute - perhaps more acute than the loss of much of the family wealth or the loss of his homeland, which Nabokov hardly knew, apart from Vyra and St Petersburg. In Speak, Memory he emphasizes the point.
The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me.
My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the emigre who ‘hates the Reds’ because they ‘stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.
And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:
… Beneath the sky Of my America to sigh For one locality in Russia.
The general reader may now resume.56
From the gloom of Cambridge - where the porridge at breakfast in Trinity College was ‘as grey and dull as the sky above Great Court’ -he wrote to his mother, who had settled in Berlin, in October 1920:
Mother, dear, yesterday I woke up in the middle of the night and asked someone - I don’t know whom - the night, the stars, God: will I really never return, is it really all finished, wiped out, destroyed? Mother, we must return, mustn’t we, it cannot be that all this has died, turned to dust - such an idea could drive one mad. I would like to describe every little bush, every stalk in our divine park at Vyra - but no one can understand this. How little we valued our paradise! - we should have loved it more pointedly, more consciously.57
This nostalgia for Vyra was the inspiration for Speak, Memory, in which he lovingly describes its ‘every little bush’ in an effort to recover his childhood memories and desires. It was a sort of Proustian discourse on the sinuosity of time and consciousness. Nabokov’s ‘memory’ was a creative act, a reanimation of the past which blended with the present through association, and was then transfigured into personality and art. He once wrote that the exile has a sharper sense of time. His extraordinary capacity to re-create through words the sensations of the past was surely his own exile’s dividend.
Exile is a leitmotif throughout Nabokov’s works. Mary, his first novel, published in Berlin in 1926, was intended as a portrait of the emigre condition, even if Nabokov, in his introduction to the English version in 1970, stressed its autobiographical nature. Ganin, the hero, in yearning for Mary, becomes an emblem of the exile’s dream: the hope of retrieving and reliving the lost happiness of his youth in Russia. In Glory (1932) the hero, Martin Edelweiss, a Russian emigre from the Crimea who is studying at Cambridge University, dreams of returning to Russia. His fantasies take shape as he travels to Berlin and ventures through the woods to cross the Russian border, never to return. The subject of The Gift (1938) is equally the ‘gloom and glory of exile’.58 It is the theme of all Nabokov’s Russian-language novels (of which there are nine). Their tragic characters are emigres, lost and isolated in a foreign world or haunted by a past which is irretrievable except through the creative memory of fantasy or art. In The Gift its hero, the writer Fedor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, re-creates the literary life of Russia through his poetry. In Glory and Pale Fire (written in English in 1962) the hero lives in a dreamworld Russia to escape the misery of his exile. Nabokov’s thoughts about the ‘distant Northern land’ he called Zembla in Pale Fire reveal the writer’s response to exile:
1. The image of Zembla must creep up on the reader very gradually… 4. Nobody knows, nobody should know - even Kinbote hardly knows - if Zembla really exists.
5. Zembla and its characters should remain in a fluid misty condition…
6. We do not even know whether Zembla is pure invention or a kind of lyrical simile of Russia (Zembla: Zemlya [the Russian word for ‘land’]).59
In the first of Nabokov’s English-language novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the exile theme appears in a different form: the split identity. The hero, Sebastian, is the subject of a biography, ostensibly written by his brother, who gradually emerges as the real Sebastian. This sense of confusion and inner division was experienced by many emigres. Khodasevich writes very movingly about it in ‘Sorrento Photographs’ (in his collection of poems European Nights (1922-7)), in which he compares the exile’s divided consciousness, the confusion in his mind of images from his two lives at home and abroad, to the double exposure of a film.
Nabokov’s switch from writing in Russian to writing in English is a complicated story intimately linked with his adoption of a new (American) identity. It must have been a painful switch, as Nabokov, who was famous for his showmanship, always liked to stress. It was, he said, ‘like learning to handle things after losing seven or eight fingers in an explosion’.60 Throughout his life Nabokov complained about the handicap of writing in English - perhaps too often to be totally believed (he once confessed in a letter to a friend that his ‘best work was written in English’).61Even at the height of his literary prowess he argues, in his 1956 afterword to Lolita, that it had been his ‘private tragedy’ to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses - the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions - which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.62
But even if such claims were a form of affectation, his achievement is undeniable. It is extraordinary that a writer who has been hailed as the supreme stylist of the modern English language should have written it as a foreigner. As his wife Vera put it, not only had he ‘switched from a very special and complex brand of Russian, all his own, which he had perfected over the years into something unique and peculiar to him’, but he had embraced ‘an English which he then proceeded to wield and bend to his will until it, too, became under his pen something it had never been before in its melody and flexibility’. She came to the conclusion that what he had done was substitute for his passionate affair with the Russian language un manage de raison which ‘as it sometimes happens with a manage de raison - became in turn a tender love affair’.63
Until the Revolution destroyed his plans, Nabokov had set out to become the next Pushkin. In later life he played upon this image of the stymied genius, even if in fact his English writing style, which he had developed since the age of five, had always been as good as, if not better than, his Russian one. But once he was in exile Nabokov had a sense of writing in a void. Liberated from the Soviet regime, he began to feel that the freedom he enjoyed was due to his working in vacuo - without readers or a public context in which to write - so that ‘the whole thing acquired a certain air of fragile unreality’.64 (Tsvetaeva expressed a similar despair - although in her case, without another language to fall back on, it signalled a more profound private tragedy: ‘From a world where my poems were as necessary as bread I came into a world where no one needs poems, neither my poems nor any poems, where poems are needed like - dessert: if anyone - needs - dessert…’)65
The need for an audience was the fundamental motive of Nabokov’s switch. As he himself explained, a writer ‘needs some reverberation, if not a response’.66 His Russian-language reading public was reduced in size with every passing year, as the children of the emigres became assimilated into the culture in which they lived. It was virtually impossible for a young Russian writer like Nabokov to make a living from writing alone, and the competition was intense. ‘To get into literature is like squeezing into an overcrowded trolley car. And once inside, you do your best to push off any new arrival who tries to hang on’, complained another writer, Georgy Ivanov.67
Berlin was a particularly difficult place to live, as thousands of Russians fled the city after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The Nabokovs stayed in the German capital. They lived in poverty - Vera working as a secretary and Nabokov giving private lessons in English and in French. But it was obvious that they, too, would have to leave. Vera was Jewish, and in 1936 the man who had assassinated Nabokov’s father, Sergei Taboritsky, was appointed second-in-command of Hitler’s department for emigre affairs. Nabokov searched in desperation for an academic post in London or New York, anywhere but Hitler’s Germany, and settled in the end for a move to Paris in 1938. From there the Nabokovs made arrangements to go to New York in the spring of 1940, just two weeks before the Germans reached Paris. In their studio apartment near the Bois de Boulogne Nabokov locked himself in the bathroom, laid a suitcase across the bidet and typed out his entry ticket to the English literary world: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, published in New York in 1941.
Nabokov’s passage to New York had been arranged by Alexandra Tolstoy, the novelist’s daughter and the head of the Tolstoy Foundation, which had just been set up to look after the interests of Russian emigres in America. The outbreak of the Second World War had brought about a flood of well-known refugees from Hitler’s Europe: Einstein, Thomas Mann, Huxley, Auden, Stravinsky, Bartok and Chagall - all made new homes for themselves in the USA. New York was swollen with Russian emigres. The literary capital of Russia in America, its daily Russian newspaper, Novoe russkoe slovo (New Russian Word) had a national readership of half a million. The Nabokovs settled in ‘a dreadful little flat’ on West 87th Street, near Central Park. As a writer Nabokov was not well known among the emigres in the USA. Until the scandal and success of Lolita, completed in 1952 but not published until 1955, he struggled to survive from his writing. Like the hero of his novel Pnin (1957), he was forced to make his living from temporary lecturing jobs at, among other universities, Stanford, Wellesley and Cornell. Not that his financial hardship reduced Nabokov’s considerable pride. When Rachmaninov sent the struggling writer some of his old clothes, Nabokov, who was something of a dandy and the son of possibly the best-dressed man in the entire history of St Petersburg,* returned the suits to the composer, complaining that they had been tailored ‘in the period of the Prelude’.68
* Nabokov pere was famous for his finely tailored English suits, which he wore, without self-consciousness, in the Duma assembly, where many of the rural deputies were dressed in peasant clothes (A. Tyrkova-Williams, Na putiakh k svobode (New York, 1952), P. 2.70). His sartorial extravagance was a common source of anecdotes in pre-revolutionary Petersburg. It was even said that he sent his underpants to England to be washed.
’America is my home now,’ Nabokov said in interviews in 1964. ‘I am an American writer.’69 Despite his sometimes rather scathing portraits of the USA (most notoriously in Lolita), it appears the sentiment was genuinely held. Nabokov liked to play the real American. Having lost the Nabokov inheritance in the Old World way, through revolution, he had earned his fortune in the New World way: by hard work and brains.70 The bounty of Lolita was a badge of his success as an American, and he wore it with great pride. ‘This is the only known case in history when a European pauper ever became his own American uncle’, writes an envious but admiring reviewer of the Russian writer and emigre Vadim (read: Nabokov) in Look at the Harlequins! (1974).71 Nabokov would not tolerate any criticism of America. He was a patriot. Throughout his life he kept the oath which he had sworn when he became a US citizen in 1945. When Gallimard produced a cover design for the French edition of Pnin showing the professor standing on the US flag, Nabokov objected to the Stars and Stripes ‘being used as a floor coverage or a road surfacing’.72
Nabokov’s anti-Soviet politics were at the core of his Americanism. He sided with McCarthy. He despised the liberals who harboured sympathies for the Soviet Union. He refused to have anything to do with Soviet Russia - even at the height of the Second World War when it was an ally of the West. When Nabokov learned, in 1945, that Vasily Maklakov, the official representative of the Russian emigres in France, had attended a luncheon at the Soviet embassy in Paris, and had drunk a toast ‘to the motherland, to the Red Army, to Stalin’, he wrote in anger to a friend:
I can understand denying one’s principles in one exceptional case: if they told me that those closest to me would be tortured or spared according to my reply, I would immediately consent to anything, ideological treachery or foul deeds and would even apply myself lovingly to the parting on Stalin’s backside. Was Maklakov placed in such a situation? Evidently not.
All that remains is to outline a classification of the emigration. I distinguish five main divisions:
1. The philistine majority, who dislike the Bolsheviks for taking from them their little bit of land or money, or twelve Ilf-and-Petrov chairs.
2. Those who dream of pogroms and a Rumanian Tsar, and now fraternize with the Soviets because they sense in the Soviet Union the Soviet Union of the Russian people.
4. Those who ended up across the border by inertia, vulgarians and careerists who pursue their own advantage and lightheartedly serve any leader at all.
5. Decent freedom-loving people, the old guard of the Russian intelligentsia, who unshakeably despise violence against language, against thought, against truth.73
Nabokov placed himself in the final category. In his courses on Russian literature he refused to lecture on any literature since 1917, although in his classes at Cornell he made a concession for Akhmatova and the poetry of Pasternak.* Nabokov maintained that the communist regime had prevented the development of an ‘authentic literature’.74 He was equally hostile to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century which looked to literature for social content and ideas - a tradition which he rightly saw as a predecessor of the Soviet approach to literature. It was on this basis that he criticized both Dr Zhivago (‘dreary conventional stuff), which competed with Lolita at the top of the bestseller lists in 1958, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973-5) (‘a kind of juicy journalese, formless, wordy and repetitious’)75 - although there must have been some jealousy at work
* Nabokov was normally dismissive of Akhmatova and of the many female imitators of her early style. In Pnin the professor’s estranged wife Liza sings out ‘rhythmically, in long-drawn, deep-voiced tones’ a cruel parody of Akhmatova’s verse:
’I have put on a dark dress And am more modest than a nun; An ivory crucifix Is over my cold bed.
But the lights of fabulous orgies Burn through my oblivion, And I whisper the name George -Your golden name!’
(V. Nabokov, Pnin (Harmondsworth, 2000), p. 47). Akhmatova was deeply offended by the parody, which had played upon the ‘half-harlot, half-nun’ image used by Zhdanov in 1948 (L.Chukovskaia, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi, 2 vols. (Paris, 1980), vol. 2, p. 383).
there as well (for unlike Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov never won the Nobel Prize). And yet, despite his political denials, he felt a deep attachment to the Russian tradition. He longed to write another novel in his native tongue. He felt that there was something of his tragic hero Pnin - the bumbling, noble-hearted emigre professor of Russian who cannot quite adapt to his American environment - not only in himself but in all the best emigres.
In 1965 Nabokov worked on a Russian translation of Lolita. In the afterword to the English edition he had referred to his switch from Russian into English as a ‘private tragedy’. But he now began his afterword to the Russian edition by confessing that the process of translating his prose back again had been disillusioning:
Alas, that ‘marvellous Russian language’ that I thought awaited me somewhere, blossoming like a faithful springtime behind a tightly locked gate whose key I had kept safe for so many years, proved to be nonexistent, and beyond the gate are nothing but charred stumps and the hopeless autumnal vista, and the key in my hand is more like a jimmy.76
The Russian language had moved on since Nabokov left his native land, and ‘the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions’ which he had used like a magician in his early Russian novels were now lost on his Soviet audience.
When the poet Zinaida Gippius and her husband Dmitry Merezhkov-sky arrived in Paris in 1919 they opened the door of their flat with their own key and found everything in place: books, linen, kitchenware.77 Exile was a return to their second home. For many of the old St Petersburg elite, coming to Paris was like returning to the old cosmopolitan lifestyle that they themselves had imitated in St Petersburg. The Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, brother-in-law to the last Tsar, arrived in Paris in the same year as the Merezhkovskys and made like a homing pigeon for the Ritz Hotel - his bills paid courtesy of a rare collection of Tsarist coins with which he had fled from his native land. This Paris was not so much a ‘Little Russia’ as a microcosm (and continuation) of the extraordinary cultural renaissance in St Petersburg between 1900 and 1916. Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Benois, Bakst, Shaliapin, Goncharova, Koussevitsky and Prokofiev - they all made Paris home.
The effect of the arrival of such emigres was to accentuate two related facets of Russia’s cultural image in the West. The first of these was a renewed appreciation of the European character of Russian culture as manifested in the so-called ‘neoclassical’ style of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky himself disliked the term, claiming that it meant ‘absolutely nothing’ and that music, by its very nature, could not express anything at all.78 But his neoclassicism was itself a statement of artistic principles. It was a conscious rejection of the Russian peasant music of his early neo-nationalist phase, of the violent Scythian rhythms in The Rite of Spring which had erupted in the Revolution of 1917. Forced into exile, Stravinsky now clung nostalgically to the ideal of beauty embodied in the classical inheritance of his native Petersburg. He borrowed from Bach and Pergolesi and, above all, from the Italo-Slavs (Berezovsky, Glinka and Tchaikovsky) who had shaped a particular strand of the Russian musical style in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
An important aspect of this renewed engagement with the Imperial past was Diaghilev’s promotion of Tchaikovsky’s ballets in Paris. Before 1917 Tchaikovsky had been regarded in the West as the least interesting of the Russian composers. His music, in the words of the French critic Alfred Bruneau in 1903, was ‘devoid of the Russian character that pleases and attracts us in the music of the New Slavic school’.79 Seen as a pale imitation of Beethoven and Brahms, it lacked the exotic Russian character which the West expected from the Ballets Russes; Tchai-kovksy’s ballets did not feature in the saisons russes. But after 1917 a nostalgia for the old Imperial St Petersburg and its classical traditions, which Tchaikovsky’s music epitomized, led to a conscious effort by the Paris emigres to redefine themselves by this identity. Diaghilev revived The Sleeping Beauty (1890) for the Paris season of 1921. Stravinsky, who re-orchestrated parts of the score, wrote an open letter to the London Times in which he saluted the ballet as ‘the most authentic expression of the epoch in our Russian life that we call the “Petersburg period”’. This tradition, Stravinsky now maintained, was just as Russian as the folk-based culture which before 1914 the Ballets Russes had pedalled to the West in the form of works like his own Firebird:
The music of Tchaikovsky, which does not seem obviously Russian to everyone, is often more profoundly Russian than that which long ago received the superficial label of Muscovite picturesqueness. This music is every bit as Russian as Pushkin’s verse or Glinka’s songs. Without specifically cultivating ‘the Russian peasant soul’ in his art, Tchaikovsky imbibed unconsciously the true national sources of our race.80
The second cultural feature of the emigres in Paris was their reassertion of the aristocratic values that lay at the heart of the Petrine Imperial legacy. Beneath the surface gloss of its Slav exotica, this aristocratism constituted the essential spirit of the World of Art. This, too, was rooted in the music of Tchaikovsky, which had first brought together the three co-founders of the World of Art, Benois, Filosofov and Diaghilev, in the early 1890s. What they loved about the ballets of Tchaikovsky, as Benois was to put it in his Reminiscences in 1939, was their ‘aristocratic spirit’ which remained ‘untouched by any democratic deviations’ such as were to be found in utilitarian forms of art.81 These were precisely the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ values which the emigres in Paris came to prize above all. They made a cult of the Alexandrine age with its high French Empire style and raffine artistic aristocracy exemplified by Pushkin. Harking back to these old certainties was a natural response by the emigres. The Revolution had destroyed the aristocratic civilization from which most of them had come, forcing them to find a second home in Europe. To some degree, despite Nabokov’s claims to the contrary, they were shaken, too, by the loss of status they had enjoyed as members of their country’s propertied elite. With their Nansen (League of Nations) passports* and their Alien
* The Russian passports of the emigres were no longer valid after the formation of the Soviet Union: Russia as a country had ceased to exist. In place of their old papers the emigres and other stateless persons were issued with temporary ‘Nansen’ passports (named after the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The carriers of these flimsy passports suffered long delays and hostile questioning by functionaries throughout the West whenever they travelled or registered for work.
Registration Cards, landowners’ sons like Stravinsky and Nabokov resented being treated by the Western states as ‘second-class citizens’.82
The Ballets Russes was the centre of Russian cultural life in Paris. It was a sort of Parisian embassy of the Petersburg renaissance headed by Ambassador Diaghilev. After its wartime tours of America he had brought the company to France in the hope of reuniting his winning team of artists and of ending its perpetual cash flow crises by tapping the French market for the Russian arts that had done so well for it before the war. Fokine having settled in America, Diaghilev needed a new choreographer to carry on that distinctive Russian balletic tradition that went back to the school of Petipa. He found it in Georges Balanchine (ne Georgy Balanchivadze). Born in 1904 in St Petersburg, the son of a Georgian composer, Balanchine had trained at Petipa’s Imperial Ballet Academy and worked in the troupe of the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg before going on tour to Europe in 1924. Diaghilev perceived Balanchine as a vital link with the Petersburg traditions, and the first thing he asked him after Balanchine’s dancers had run through a few routines they had brought with them from Russia was whether he could transfer them to the stage.83 Balanchine’s affinity for the music of Stravinsky made him the ideal choice for Diaghilev, whose plans for Paris had Stravinsky’s ballets centre stage. The first collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine, Apollon Musagete (1928), was the start of a lifelong partnership between composer and choreographer. It was a partnership that would ensure the survival of the modern ballet - Diaghilev’s invention - as an art form.
The Ballets Russes of the 1920s was defined by the principles of neoclassicism. In dance this entailed a return to the Apollonian rigour of the classical academy: an abstract, almost architectural, design in the manoeuvres of the ensemble; the rehabilitation of the male dancer in heroic mode; and the sacrifice of plot to the sensual connections between music, colour and movement. In music it entailed a renunciation of the Russian nationalist school and a stylized imitation of the classical (and predominantly Italian) traditions of Petersburg - as, for example, in Stravinsky’s commedia dell’arte Pulci-nella (1920) and his one-act opera bouffe entitled Mavra (1922), which was dedicated to the memory of Pushkin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky.
This re-engagement with the classical tradition was an obvious reaction by the emigres. After the chaos and destruction of the revolutionary period, they longed for some sense of order. They looked back to the European values and inheritance of Petersburg to redefine themselves as Europeans and to shift their ‘Russia’ west. They wanted to recover the old certainties from underneath the rubble of St Petersburg.
With the death of Diaghilev, in 1929, the Ballets Russes split up. The impresario had always been the inspiration of the group. He possessed the sort of presence that gave people a feeling of anticlimax when he left the room. So when he left the world it was almost bound to happen that his stars should go their separate ways. Many worked in the various ‘Ballet Russes’ touring companies that inherited the repertoire and glamour of the original Diaghilev organization: Fokine, Massine, Benois, Nijinska, Balanchine. Others, like Anna Pavlova, struck out on their own, establishing small companies that carried on Diaghilev’s experimentalist tradition. In England his alumni laid the foundations of the British ballet: Ninette de Valois and the Vic-Wells Ballet (which later became the Royal Ballet), the Ballet Rambert and the Markova-Dolin Ballet were all descendants of the Ballets Russes. Balanchine transported the Diaghilev tradition to America, where he set up the New York City Ballet in 1933.
Paris was an outlet to the West, a door through which exiled Russians reached a new homeland. Most of those who made their home in Paris in the 1920s ended up by fleeing to America as the threat of war approached in the 1930s. The main attraction of America was its freedom and security. Artists like Stravinsky and Chagall escaped from Hitler’s Europe to work in peace in the United States. For Stravinsky, this was not a question of politics: he publicly supported the Italian fascists (‘I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce. He is the saviour of Italy and - let us hope of Europe’, he had told an Italian newspaper in the early 1930s);84 and although he loathed the Nazis (they attacked his music), he was careful to put space between himself and his German-Jewish contacts after 1933. It was more a question of his own convenience: he loved order and needed it to work.
The composer Nicolas Nabokov (a cousin of the writer) recalls a revealing incident. Shortly after his arrival in America, Stravinsky became worried by the possibility of revolution there. He asked an acquaintance whether this was likely and, when he was told that it was possible, he asked in ‘an appalled and indignant tone’: ‘But where will I go?’85Having lived through the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky’s deepest political instinct was a fear of disorder.
After teaching for a year at Harvard University, he found his refuge in Los Angeles, where he purchased his first house, a small suburban villa in West Hollywood which would remain his home for the next thirty years. Los Angeles had attracted many artists from Europe, largely on account of its film industry; the German writer Thomas Mann described wartime Hollywood as a ‘more intellectually stimulating and cosmopolitan city than Paris or Munich had ever been’.86 Among the Stravinskys’ friends were Bertolt Brecht and Charlie Chaplin, Rene Clair and Greta Garbo, Max Reinhardt and Alma Mahler (married to Franz Werfel), Lion Feuchtwanger and Erich Maria Remarque. Such cosmopolitanism made the United States a natural home for many of the Russian emigres. Its ‘melting pot’ of nations, in New York and Los Angeles especially, was reminiscent of the cultural milieu in which they had lived in Petersburg. America enabled them to develop as international artists not troubled, as they had been in Europe, by irksome questions of national identity.
This sense of wanting to be rid of Russia - of wanting to break free to a new identity - was expressed by Nabokov in his poem ‘To Russia’ (1939), written just before his own departure from Paris for the USA.
Will you leave me alone? I implore you! Dusk is ghastly. Life’s noises subside. I am helpless. And I am dying Of the blind touch of your whelming tide.
He who freely abandons his country on the heights to bewail it is free. But now I am down in the valley and now do not come close to me.
I’m prepared to lie hidden forever and to live without a name. I’m prepared, lest we only in dreams come together, all conceivable dreams to forswear;
to be drained of my blood, to be crippled, to have done with the books I most love, for the first available idiom to exchange all I have: my own tongue.
But for that, through the tears, oh, Russia, through the grass of two far-parted tombs, through the birch tree’s tremulous macules, through all that sustained me since youth,
with your blind eyes, your dear eyes, cease looking
at me, oh, pity my soul,
do not rummage around in the coalpit,
do not grope for my life in this hole
because years have gone by and centuries, and for sufferings, sorrow, and shame, too late - there is no one to pardon and no one to carry the blame.87
Stravinsky’s exodus to America followed a similar emotional path. He wanted to forget about the past and move on. His childhood was a painful memory. He had lost his father, two brothers and a daughter before he ‘lost’ Russia in 1917. He needed to put Russia behind him. But it would not let him be. As an emigre in France, Stravinsky tried to deny his own Russianness. He adopted a sort of European cosmopolitanism which at times became synonymous, as it had once been in St Petersburg itself, with an aristocratic hauteur and contempt for what was thought of as ‘Russia’ in the West (that is, the version of peasant culture which he had imitated in The Firebird and The Rite of Spring). ‘I don’t think of myself as particularly Russian,’ he told a Swiss journalist in 1928. ‘I am a cosmopolitan.’88 In Paris
Stravinsky mixed in the fashionable circles of Cocteau and Proust, Poulenc and Ravel, Picasso and Coco Chanel. Chanel became his lover and transformed him from the rather unattractive and self-effacing man who had arrived in Paris in 1920 into the homme dur et monocle, elegantly dressed in finely tailored suits and drawn (with Asiatic eyes) by Picasso.
Stravinsky made a very public show of distancing himself from the peasant Russia that had inspired his earlier works. It had turned into the Red Russia he despised - the Russia which had betrayed him. He denied the influence of folklore on his work. He claimed (mendaciously) that the ancient Russian setting of The Rite of Spring was an incidental choice that followed from the music, which he had composed first, without regard for the folklore.89 He similarly denied the Russian roots of The Peasant Wedding - a work entirely based on musical folklore. ‘I borrowed nothing from folk pieces’, he wrote in his Chronique de ma vie in 1935. ‘The recreation of a country wedding ritual, which in any case I had never seen, did not enter my mind. Ethnographic questions were of very little interest to me.’90 Perhaps he was trying to distinguish his own music from the ersatz folklore (one should really call it ‘fakelore’) of the Stalinist regime, with its pseudo folk-dance troupes and balalaika orchestras, its Red Army choirs which dressed up in generic ‘folk’ costumes and played the role of happy peasants while the real peasants starved or languished in the gulags in the wake of Stalin’s war to force them all into collective farms. But the lengths to which he went to erase his Russian roots suggest a more violent, personal reaction.
The music of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period was an expression of his ‘cosmopolitan’ identity. There is almost nothing evidently ‘Russian’ - and certainly no musical folklore - in jazz-inspired works such as the Octet for Wind (1923), or in classically formed works like the Piano Concerto (1924); and even less in later works like Dumbarton Oaks (1937) or the Symphony in C (1938). The fact that he chose Latin - rather than his native Russian or adopted French - as the language of his ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus Rex (1927) lends further weight to this idea. Nicolas Nabokov, who spent the Christmas of 1947 with the Stravinskys in Hollywood, was struck by the apparent thoroughness of the composer’s break with his native land. ‘For Stravinsky, Russia is a language which he uses with superb, gourmandlike dexterity; it is a few books; Glinka and Tchaikovsky. The rest either leaves him indifferent or arouses his anger, contempt and violent dislike.’91 Stravinsky had an amazing chameleon-like capacity to adapt and make himself at home in foreign habitats. This, too, was perhaps a product of his Petersburg background. His son recalled that ‘every time we moved house for a few weeks my father always managed to give an air of permanence to what was in fact very temporary… All his life, wherever he might be, he always managed to surround himself with his own atmosphere.’92
In 1934 the composer became a citizen of France - a decision he explained by claiming he had found his ‘intellectual climate’ in Paris, and by what he called ‘a kind of shame towards my motherland’.93 Yet despite his French passport and his orchestrated image as an Artist of the World, Stravinsky harboured deeply felt emotions for the country of his birth. He was far more rooted in his native culture than he readily acknowledged; and these feelings were expressed in a concealed way within his works. Stravinsky felt profound nostalgia for St Petersburg - a city that was ‘so much a part of my life’, he wrote in 1959, ‘that I am almost afraid to look further into myself, lest I discover how much of me is still joined to it’.94 So painful was its memory that in 1955 the composer refused an invitation to Helsinki on the grounds that it was ‘too near a certain city that I have no desire to see again’.95 Yet he loved Rome, and Venice too, because they reminded him of Petersburg. Stravinsky’s sublimated nostalgia for the city of his birth is clearly audible in his Tchaikovskian ballet The Fairy’s Kiss (1928). He was equally nostalgic about Ustilug, the family’s estate in Volhynia, where he had composed The Rite of Spring. Ustilug was a subject he would not discuss with anyone.96 It was an immeasurable source of pain to him that he did not know what had happened to the house where he had spent his happiest childhood days. Yet the fact that he laboured longer on The Peasant Wedding than on any other score is an indication of his feelings for the place. The work was based on sources he had retrieved from the house on his final visit there.
Throughout his life in exile Stravinsky remained emotionally attached to the rituals and the culture of the Russian Church - even if in France he became attracted intellectually to the Catholic tradition, which he celebrated in his Symphony of Psalms (1930). In the mid-1920s, after nearly thirty years of non-observance, Stravinsky resumed an active life in the Orthodox community, in part under the influence of his wife Katya, who became increasingly devout during the long illness from which she eventually died in 1939. As an artist and as an emigre, Stravinsky found solace in the discipline and order of the Russian Church. ‘The more you cut yourself off from the canons of the Christian Church,’ he told an interviewer while at work on the Symphony of Psalms, ‘the more you cut yourself off from the truth.’
These canons are as true for the composition of an orchestra as they are for the life of an individual. They are the only place where order is practised to the full: not a speculative, artificial order, but the divine order which is given to us and which must reveal itself as much in the inner life as in its exteriorization in painting, music, etc. It’s the struggle against anarchy, not so much disorder as the absence of order. I’m an advocate of architecture in art, since architecture is the embodiment of order; creative work is a protest against anarchy and nonexistence.97
Stravinsky became a regular attender at services in the Russian church in the Rue Daru. He surrounded himself with the paraphernalia of Orthodox worship - his homes in Nice and Paris were filled with icons and crosses. He dated his musical sketches by the Orthodox calendar. He corresponded with Russian priests in all the major centres of the emigration, and the Russian priest in Nice became ‘practically a member’ of his household there.98 Stravinsky claimed that the strongest pull of the Russian Church was ‘linguistic’: he liked the sound of the Slavonic liturgy.” It comes across in his Slavonic chants for the Russian church.*
This desire to return to the religion of his birth was connected to a profound love of Russia, too. Throughout his life Stravinsky adhered to the Russian customs of his childhood in pre-revolutionary Petersburg. Even in Los Angeles, his home remained an outpost of the old Russia.
* Before switching to Latin he had intended to set the Symphony of Psalms in Slavonic, too.
The living room was filled with Russian books and ornaments, pictures and icons. The Stravinskys mixed with Russian friends. They employed Russian servants. They spoke Russian in their home. Stravinsky spoke in English or in French only if he had to, and then in a thick accent. He drank tea in the Russian way - in a glass with jam. He ate his soup from the same spoon with which as a child he had been fed by his babushka.100
Chagall was another Artist of the World who concealed a Russian heart. Like Stravinsky, he invented his own image as a cosmopolitan. He liked to claim that the questions of identity which critics always asked (‘Are you a Jewish artist? A Russian? Or a French?’) did not actually bother him. ‘You talk, I will work,’ he used to say.101 But such statements cannot be taken at face value. Chagall made up his own biography - and he frequently changed it. The major decisions of his life were taken, he claimed, on the basis of his own convenience as a practising artist. In 1912 he emigrated from Soviet Russia because conditions there made it hard for him to work. In western Europe, by contrast, he was already famous and he knew that he could become rich. There is no evidence to suggest that he was affected by the Bolshevik destruction of the synagogues and a good deal of the Jewish quarter in his home town of Vitebsk.102 In 1941, when Chagall fled Paris for America, the danger from the Nazis was real enough - though here again he justified the move in terms of personal convenience. Throughout his life Chagall remained a wanderer, never settling down in any land, or calling it his own. Like the subjects of his paintings, he lived with his feet off the ground.
None the less, the unanswered question of his nationality was central to the painter’s life and art. Of the diverse elements that were fused together in his personality (Jewish, Russian, French, American and international), it was the Russian that meant the most to him. ‘The title “A Russian Painter”’, Chagall once remarked, ‘means more to me than any international fame. In my pictures there is not one centimetre free from nostalgia for my native land.’103 Chagall’s homesickness was focused on Vitebsk, the half-Jewish half-Russian town on the border between Russia and Belarus, where he had grown up, the son of a petty trader, in the 1890s. In 1941 it was overrun by the Nazis and all its Jewish inhabitants were killed. Three years later Chagall wrote a moving lamentation ‘To My Native Town, Vitebsk’ that was published as a letter in The New York Times.
It is a long time since I last saw you, and found myself among your fenced streets. You didn’t ask in pain, why I left you for so many years when I loved you. No, you thought: the lad’s gone off somewhere in search of brilliant unusual colours to shower like snow or stars on our roofs. But where will he get them from? Why can’t he find them nearer to hand? In your ground I left the graves of my ancestors and scattered stones. I did not live with you and yet there was not a single one of my pictures in which your joys and sorrows were not reflected. All through these years I had one constant worry: does my native town understand me?104
Vitebsk was the world Chagall idealized. It was not so much a place as a mythical ideal, the artistic site of his childhood memories. In his fanciful paintings he re-created Vitebsk as a world of dreams. The muddy streets of the real town were magically transformed into colours reminiscent of a festive set for Mother Goose. Such was the demand for his Vitebsk theme, and the ruthlessness with which Chagall exploited it, that critics accused him of merchandizing his own exotica as art. Picasso said he was a businessman. The painter Boris Aronson complained that Chagall was ‘always doing a Fiddler on the Roof’.105 Yet, however much he might have traded on the Vitebsk theme, his homesickness was genuine enough.
Jews in Israel could not understand how Chagall could be so nostalgic about life in Russia. Wasn’t it a country of pogroms? But Vitebsk was a town where the Jews had not just co-existed with the Russians; they were beneficiaries of Russian culture, as well. Like Mandelstam, a Polish-Russian Jew, Chagall had identified with the Russian tradition: it was the means of entry to the culture and values of Europe. Russia was a big, cosmopolitan civilization before 1917. It had absorbed the whole of Western culture, just as Chagall, as a Jew, had absorbed the culture of Russia. Russia liberated Jews like Chagall from the provincial attitudes of their home towns and connected them with the wider world.106 Only Russia could inspire feelings such as these. None of the other East European civilizations was large enough to provide the Jews with a cultural homeland.
When Tsvetaeva moved to Paris in 1925 it had been in the hope that she would find a broader readership for her verse. In Prague she had struggled to keep ‘body and pen together’, as Nabokov would so memorably describe the predicament of the emigre writers.107 She scraped by through translation work and hand-outs from her friends. But the constant struggle put a strain on her relations with Efron, a perpetual student who could not find a job, and with her daughter and her newborn son.
Efron began to drift away from her - no doubt losing patience with her constant love affairs - and became involved in politics. In Paris he immediately threw himself into the Eurasian movement, whose conception of Russia as a separate Asiatic or Turanian continent had already taken hold of Stravinsky. By the middle of the 192Os the movement had begun to split. Its right wing flirted with the fascists, while its left wing, towards which Efron veered, favoured an alliance with the Soviet regime as champion of their imperial ideals for Russia as the leader of a separate Eurasian civilization in hostile opposition to the West. They put aside their old opposition to the Bolshevik regime, recognizing it (mistakenly perhaps) as the popular, and therefore rightful, victor of the civil war, and espoused its cause as the only hope for the resurrection of a Great Russia. Efron was a vocal advocate of a return to the motherland. He wanted to expiate his ‘guilt’ for having fought on the White side in the civil war by laying down his life for the Soviet (read: the Russian) people’s cause. In 1931 Efron applied to return to Stalin’s Russia. His well-known feelings of homesickness for Russia turned him into an obvious target for the NKVD, which had a policy of playing on such weaknesses to infiltrate the emigre community. Efron was recruited as an NKVD agent on the promise that eventually he would be allowed to return to Soviet Russia. During the 1930s he became the leading organizer of the Parisian Union for a Return to the Motherland. It was a front for the NKVD.
Efron’s politics placed enormous strain on his relationship with Tsvetaeva. She understood his need to return home but she was equally aware of what was happening in Stalin’s Russia. She accused her husband of naivety: he closed his eyes to what he did not want to see. They argued constantly - she warning him that if he went back to the Soviet Union he would end up in Siberia, or worse, and he retorting that he would ‘go wherever they send me’.108 Yet Tsvetaeva knew that, if he went, she would follow her husband, as ever, ‘like a dog’.
Efron’s activities made Tsvetaeva’s own position in emigre society untenable. It was assumed that she herself was a Bolshevik, not least because of her continued links with ‘Soviet writers’ such as Pasternak and Bely, who like her had their roots in the pre-revolutionary avant-garde. She found herself ever more alone in a community that increasingly shunned any contact with the Soviet world. ‘I feel that I have no place here’, she wrote to the Czech writer Anna Teskova. The French were ‘sociable but superficial’ and ‘interested only in themselves’, while ‘from the Russians I am separated by my poetry, which nobody understands; by my personal views, which some take for Bolshevism, others for monarchism or anarchism; and then again - by all of me’.109 Berberova described Tsvetaeva as an ‘outcast’ in Paris: ‘she had no readers’ and there was ‘no reaction to what she wrote’.110After Russia, the last collection of her poetry to be published during her lifetime, appeared in Paris in 1928. Only twenty-five of its hundred numbered copies were bought by subscription.111 In these final years of life abroad Tsvetaeva’s poetry shows signs of her growing estrangement and solitude.
Just say: enough of torment - take A garden - lonesome like myself. (But do not stand near by, Yourself!) A garden, lonesome, like Myself.112
’Everything is forcing me towards Russia’, she wrote to Anna Teskova in 1931. ‘Here I am unnecessary. There I am impossible.’113 Tsvetaeva became increasingly frustrated with the editors of the emigre periodicals - professors and politicians like Miliukov who failed to understand her prose and hacked it into pieces to conform to the neat, clean style of their journals. Her frustration drove her to form an over-rosy view of literary life in the Soviet Union. She talked herself into believing that she was ‘needed’ there, that she would be able to be published once again, and that she could find a new circle of writer friends who would ‘look on me as one of their own’.114 “With every passing year she felt the ‘milky call’ of her native tongue, which she knew was so essential, not just to her art but to her very identity. This physical longing for Russia was far stronger and more immediate than any intellectual rationalization for her continued exile: that Russia was contained inside herself and, like a suitcase filled with Pushkin’s works, could be taken anywhere. ‘The poet’, she concluded, ‘cannot survive in emigration: there is no ground on which to stand - no medium or language. There are - no roots.’115 Like the rowanberry tree, her art needed to be rooted in the soil.
In 1937 Efron was exposed as a Soviet agent and implicated in the assassination of a Soviet spy who had refused to return to the Soviet Union. Pursued by the French police, Efron fled to the Soviet Union, where Alya had already settled earlier that year. Now Tsvetaeva could not remain in France. Shunned by everyone, her life there became impossible. Berberova saw her for the last time in the autumn of 1938. It was the funeral of Prince Sergei Volkonsky - at the moment when his coffin was carried out of the church on the Rue Francois Gerard. ‘She stood at the entrance, her eyes full of tears, aged, almost grey, hands crossed on her bosom… She stood as if infected with plague: no one approached her. Like everyone else I walked by her.’116 On 12 June 1939, Tsvetaeva and her son left by boat from Le Havre for the Soviet Union. The evening before her departure she wrote to Teskova: ‘Goodbye! What comes now is no longer difficult, what comes now is fate.’117
Pasternak had warned Tsvetaeva: ‘Don’t come back to Russia - it’s cold, there is a constant draught.’ It was an echo of her own prophetic fear
That the Russian draught should blow away my soul!118
But she was like her husband: she did not hear what she did not want to hear.
Many of the exiles who returned to Stalin’s Russia did so in the knowledge, or with the intuition, that they were going back to a life of slavery. It was a mark of their desperate situation in the West, of their longing
for a social context in which they could work, that they were prepared to close their eyes to the harsh realities of the ‘new life’ in the Soviet Union. Homesickness overcame their basic instinct of survival.
Maxim Gorky was the first major cultural figure to discover the perils of return. The writer, who had championed the Revolution’s cause in his early novels like Mother, became disillusioned by its violence and chaos during 1917. He had looked to socialism as a force of cultural progress and enlightenment bringing Russia closer to the ideals of the West. But instead of heralding a new civilization, the street fighting that brought Lenin into power also brought the country, as Gorky had warned, to the brink of a ‘dark age’ of ‘Asiatic barbarism’. The people’s class hatred and desire for revenge, stoked up by the rhetoric of the Bolsheviks, threatened to destroy all that was good. The savage terror of the civil war, followed by the famine in which millions perished, seemed a gruesome proof of Gorky’s prophecy. Bravely, he spoke out against the Leninist regime between 1917 and 1921, when, profoundly shaken by everything he had seen in those years, he left Russia for Berlin. Unable to live in Soviet Russia, neither could Gorky bear to live abroad. For several years, he wavered in this schizophrenic state, homesick for Russia and yet too sick of it to return home. From Berlin, he wandered restlessly through the spa towns of Germany and Czechoslovakia before settling in the Italian resort of Sorrento. ‘No, I cannot go to Russia’, he wrote to Romain Rolland in 1924. ‘In Russia I would be the enemy of everything and everyone, it would be like banging my head against a wall.’119
On Lenin’s death in 1924, however, Gorky revised his attitude. He was overwhelmed with remorse for having broken off with the Bolshevik leader and convinced himself, as Berberova put it, ‘that Lenin’s death had left him orphaned with the whole of Russia’.120 His eulogistic Memories of Lenin was the first step towards his reconciliation with Lenin’s successors in the Kremlin. He began to think about the idea of returning to the Soviet Union but put off a decision, perhaps afraid of what he might find there. Meanwhile, his two epic novels, The Artamonov Business (1925) and The Life of Klim Samgin (1925-36) did poorly in the West, where his didactic style no longer found favour. The rise of fascism in his adopted homeland of Italy made Gorky question all his earlier ideals - ideals that had formed the basis of his opposition to the Bolsheviks - about Europe as a historic force of moral progress and civilization. The more disillusioned he became with fascist Europe the more he was inclined to extol Soviet Russia as a morally superior system. In 1928 Gorky returned on the first of five summer trips to the Soviet Union, settling there for good in 1931. The prodigal son was showered with honours; he was given as his residence the famous Riabushinsky mansion (built by Shekhtel) in Moscow; two large country dachas; private servants (who turned out to be Lubianka spies); and supplies of special foods from the same NKVD department that catered for Stalin. All of this was given with the aim of securing Gorky’s political support and of presenting him as a Soviet author to the Western world.121 At that time opinion in the West was equally divided over whether Gorky or Bunin should win the Nobel Prize. Once the Kremlin took up Gorky’s cause, the competition between the two writers became a broader political struggle over who should have the right to speak in the name of the cultural tradition that went back to Pushkin and Tolstoy - Moscow or the Paris emigres?
The Soviet regime to which Gorky had returned was deeply split between the Stalinists and the so-called Rightists, like Tomsky and Bukharin, who opposed Stalin’s murderous policies of collectivization and industrialization. To begin with, Gorky occupied a place somewhere between the two: he broadly supported Stalin’s goals while attempting to restrain his extremist policies. But increasingly he found himself in opposition to the Stalinist regime. Gorky had never been the sort of person who could remain silent when he did not like something. He had opposed Lenin and his reign of terror, now he was a thorn in Stalin’s side as well. He protested against the persecution of Zamyatin, Bulgakov and Pilnyak - though he failed to draw attention to the arrest of Mandelstam in 1934. He voiced his objections to the cult of Stalin’s personality and even refused a commission from the Kremlin to write a hagiographic essay about him. In his diaries of the 1930s - locked up in the NKVD archives on his death - Gorky compared Stalin to a ‘monstrous flea’ which propaganda and mass fear had ‘enlarged to incredible proportions’.122
The NKVD placed Gorky under close surveillance. There is evidence that Gorky was involved in a plot against Stalin with Bukharin and Kirov, the Party boss of Leningrad who was assassinated, perhaps on Stalin’s orders, in 1934. Gorky’s death in 1936 may also have been a consequence of the plot. For some time he had been suffering from chronic influenza caused by lung and heart disease. During the Buk-harin show trial of 1938 Gorky’s doctors were found guilty of the writer’s ‘medical murder’. Perhaps Stalin used the writer’s natural death as a pretext to destroy his political enemies, but Gorky’s involvement with the opposition makes it just as likely that Stalin had him killed. It is almost certain that the NKVD murdered Gorky’s son, Maxim Peshkov, in 1934; and this may have been part of a plan to weaken Gorky.123 Certainly the writer’s death came at a highly convenient time for Stalin - just before the show trials of Zinoviev and Kamenev, which Gorky had intended to expose as a sham in the Western press. Gorky’s widow was adamant that her husband had been killed by Stalin’s agents when she was asked about this in 1963. But the truth will probably never be known.124
Prokofiev was the other major figure to return to Stalin’s Russia -at the height of the Great Terror in 1936. The composer had never been known for his political acumen but the unhappy timing of his return was, even by his standards, the outcome of extraordinary naivety. Politics meant little to Prokofiev. He thought his music was above all that. He seemed to believe that he could return to the Soviet Union and remain unaffected by Stalin’s politics.
Perhaps it was connected with his rise to fame as an infant prodigy in St Petersburg. The child of prosperous and doting parents, Prokofiev had had instilled in him from an early age an unshakeable belief in his own destiny. By the age of thirteen, when he entered the St Petersburg Conservatory, he already had four operas to his name. Here was the Russian Mozart. In 1917 he escaped the Revolution by travelling with his mother to the Caucasus and then emigrated via Vladivostok and Japan to the United States. Since Rachmaninov had recently arrived in America, the press inevitably made comparisons between the two. Prokofiev’s more experimental style made him second best in the view of the generally conservative American critics. Years later, Prokofiev recalled wandering through New York’s Central Park and chinking with a cold fury of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music… I arrived here too early; this enfant- America - still had not matured to an understanding of new music. Should I have gone back home? But how? Russia was surrounded on all sides by the forces of the Whites, and anyway, who wants to return home empty-handed?125
According to Berberova, Prokofiev had been heard to say on more than one occasion: ‘There is no room for me here while Rachmaninov is alive, and he will live another ten or fifteen years. Europe is not enough for me and I do not wish to be second in America.’126
In 1920 Prokofiev left New York and settled in Paris. But with Stravinsky already ensconced there, the French capital was even harder for Prokofiev to conquer. The patronage of Diaghilev was all-important in Paris - and Stravinsky was the impresario’s ‘favourite son’. Prokofiev liked to write for the opera, an interest that stemmed from his love for setting Russian novels to music: War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Gambler and Briusov’s Fiery Angel were all turned into operas by him. But Diaghilev had famously declared that the opera was an art form that was ‘out of date’.127The Ballets Russes had been founded on the search for a non-verbal synthesis of the arts - dance, mime and music and the visual arts but not literature. Stravinsky, by contrast, was committed to the ballet, an art form that enjoyed enormous kudos in the West as quintessentially ‘Russian’. Encouraged by Diaghilev, Prokofiev composed the music for three ballets in the 1920s. The Buffoon (1921) was a moderate success - though it rankled with Stravinsky, who subsequently plotted to turn the arbiters of musical taste in Paris (Nadia Boulanger, Poulenc and Les Six) against Prokofiev. The second, The Steel Step (1927), which handled Soviet themes, was denounced by the Paris emigres as ‘Kremlin propaganda’, though in fact its idea was Diaghilev’s. Only the last of Prokofiev’s ballets, The Prodigal Son (1929), was an unqualified success. Its theme was close to the composer’s heart.
Prokofiev became a lonely figure in Paris. He had a small circle of Russian friends which included the composer Nicolas Nabokov, the conductor Sergei Koussevitsky and the poet Konstantin Balmont. For seven years he laboured on his opera The Fiery Angel (1927), a work he always thought of as his masterpiece but which he never saw performed. Its central theme - the unconquerable divide between two worlds - spoke in many ways of his own separation from Russia.
Isolated from the emigre community in Paris, Prokofiev began to develop contacts with the Soviet musical establishment. In 1927 he accepted an invitation from the Kremlin to make a concert tour of the Soviet Union. On his return to Petersburg he was overcome by emotion. ‘I had somehow managed to forget what Petersburg was really like’, he recorded in his diary of the trip. ‘I had begun to think that its European charm would pale in comparison with the West and that, on the contrary, Moscow was something unique. Now, however, the grandeur of the city took my breath away.’128 The lavish production of his Love for Three Oranges (1919) in the Marinsky Theatre made him feel that he had at last been recognized as Russia’s greatest living composer. The Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops to lure him back for good. Lunacharsky, the commissar of culture who had allowed him to go abroad in 1917 (‘You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life… I shall not stop you’),129 now tried to persuade the composer to return to Soviet Russia by citing Mayakov-sky’s famous open ‘Letter-Poem’ to Gorky (1927), in which he had asked him why he lived in Italy when there was so much work to do in Russia. Mayakovsky was an old acquaintance of Prokofiev; on the eve of Prokofiev’s departure for America Mayakovsky had dedicated a volume of his poems ‘To the World President of Music from the World President of Poetry: to Prokofiev’. Another of his old friends, the avant-garde director Meyerhold, talked enthusiastically of new collaborations to realize the Russian classics on the stage. Missing these old allies was a crucial factor in Prokofiev’s decision to return. ‘Foreign company does not inspire me’, he confessed in 1933, because I am a Russian, and that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile, to remain myself in a psychological climate that isn’t of my race. My compatriots and I carry our country about with us. Not all of it, but just enough for it to be faintly painful at first, then increasingly so, until at last it breaks us down altogether… I’ve got to live myself back into the atmosphere of my homeland. I’ve got to see real winters again, and springs that burst into being from one moment to the next. I’ve got to hear the Russian language echoing in my ears. I’ve got to talk to people who are my own flesh and blood, so that they can give me something I lack here - their songs - my songs.130
From 1932. Prokofiev began to spend half the year in Moscow; four years later he moved his wife and two sons there for good. He was afforded every luxury - a spacious apartment in Moscow with his own furniture imported from Paris and the freedom to travel to the West (at a time when Soviet citizens were despatched to the gulag for ever having spoken to a foreigner). With his uncanny talent for writing tunes, Prokofiev was commissioned to compose numerous scores for the Soviet stage and screen, including his Lieutenant Kije suite (1934) and Romeo and Juliet (1935-6). Prizes followed - he was awarded the prestigious Stalin Prize on no less than five occasions between 1942 and 1949 - and even though he knew that they were window-dressing, he was flattered by the recognition of his native land.
Still, in spite of all the accolades, Prokofiev’s working life at home became steadily more difficult. Attacked as a ‘formalist’ in the campaign which began, in 1936, with the suppression of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Prokofiev retreated by turning his attention to music for the young: Peter and the Wolf (1936) is a product (and perhaps an allegory) of the Terror years (the hunt for the wolf has overtones of the assault on the ‘enemies of the people’). Many of his more experimental works remained unperformed: the huge Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937); the music for Meyerhold’s 1937 Pushkin centenary production of Boris Godunov; even the opera War and Peace was not staged in Russia (in its final version) until 1959. After 1948, when Zhdanov renewed the Stalinist assault against the ‘formalists’, nearly all the music which Prokofiev had written in Paris and New York was banned from the Soviet concert repertory.
Prokofiev spent his last years in virtual seclusion. Like Shostakovich, he turned increasingly to the intimate domain of chamber music, where he could find expression for his private sadness. The most moving of all these works is the Violin Sonata in D Major (ironically awarded the Stalin Prize in 1947). Prokofiev told the violinist David Oistrakh that its haunting opening movement was meant to sound ‘like the wind in a graveyard’.131 Oistrakh played the sonata at Prokofiev’s funeral, a sad affair that was scarcely noticed by the Soviet public. Stalin had died on the same day as Prokofiev, 5 March 1953. There were no flowers left to buy, so a single pine branch was placed on the composer’s grave.
Tsvetaeva returned to live with Efron and their son and daughter in a dacha near Moscow in 1939. Having hoped to rediscover the sort of writers’ circles that she had left behind nearly twenty years before, it was a shock to find herself almost completely isolated on her return to Russia. As Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled, under Stalin ‘it had become a matter of second nature to ignore people who had returned from the West’.132 Everything about Tsvetaeva made her dangerous to know -or be seen to know. She seemed alien and outmoded, a figure of the past, from another world. Few people recalled her poetry.
Two months after their return, Tsvetaeva’s daughter Alya was arrested and accused of spying for the Western powers in league with the Trotskyites. Shortly after, they arrested Efron as well. Tsvetaeva joined the women in the prison queues whose dreadful burden was recorded by Akhmatova. Tsvetaeva never saw her husband or daughter again. She did not even find out what had become of them. * With her son, she was taken in by Efron’s sister in Moscow. Thin and exhausted, her face grey and colourless, she scraped a living by translating poetry. Finally, after Pasternak had come to her aid, she moved to a village near the writers’ colony at Golitsyno, on the road between Moscow and Minsk, where she found a job as a dishwasher and was allowed to take her meals. Some of the older writers there still recalled her poetry and treated her with a respect bordering on awe. But from the viewpoint of official Soviet literature Tsvetaeva had ceased to exist long ago. Her last book in Russia had been published in 1922 - and in the climate of 1939 there was very little chance that her poems would be published there again. She submitted a collection of her verse to the state publishers in 1940, but instead of her more patriotic or civic verse she chose to include many of her poems from the period when Efron was fighting for the Whites. Unsurprisingly, the collection was turned down as anti-Soviet. It was typical of Tsvetaeva’s wilful refusal to compromise. She was incapable of reining herself in, even if at the risk of disaster for herself. She could not come to terms with the age in which she was compelled to live.
Shortly before she left France, Tsvetaeva had told a friend that, if she could not write in the Soviet Union, she would kill herself.
* Alya served eight years in a labour camp. Efron was shot in 1941.
Tsvetaeva was increasingly fixated on the idea of her suicide. She had often used it as a threat. After 1940 she wrote little verse, and the few lines that she wrote were full of death:
It’s time to take off the amber, It’s time to change the language, It’s time to extinguish the lantern Above the door.1”
Her last poem, written in March 1941, was addressed to the young and handsome poet Arseny Tarkovsky (the father of the future film director), with whom she had been in love. It was a ghostly refrain which spoke about her own sense of abandonment, not just by Tarkovsky, but by all those unnamed friends whom she referred to here as the ‘six souls’:
I am no one: not a brother, not a son, not a husband, Not a friend - and still I reproach you: You who set the table for six - souls But did not seat me at the table’s end.134
Tsvetaeva’s son Mur was her last hope and emotional support. But the teenager was struggling to break free from his mother’s suffocating hold. In August 1941, as the Germans swept through Russia towards Moscow, the two were evacuated to the small town of Elabuga, in the Tatar republic near Kazan. They rented half a room in a little wooden house. Tsvetaeva had no means of support. On Sunday 30 August her landlords and her son went off fishing for the day. While they were away she hanged herself. She left a note for Mur:
Murlyga! Forgive me, but to go on would be worse. I am gravely ill, this is not me anymore. I love you passionately. Do understand that I could not live anymore. Tell Papa and Alya, if you ever see them, that I loved them to the last moment and explain to them that I found myself in a trap.135
Tsvetaeva was buried in an unmarked grave. Nobody attended her funeral, not even her son.
In 1962 Stravinsky accepted a Soviet invitation to visit the country of his birth. It was exactly fifty years since he had left Russia and there was a complicated tangle of emotions behind his decision to return. As an emigre he had always given the impression of violently rejecting his own Russian past. He told his close friend and musical assistant, the conductor Robert Craft, that he thought about his childhood in St Petersburg as a ‘period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell’.136 Much of this antipathy was an emigre’s reaction to the Soviet regime, which had rejected his music and deprived the composer of his native land. The mere mention of the Soviet Union was enough to send him into a rage. In 1957, when a hapless German waiter came up to his table and asked if he was proud of the Russians because of the recent Sputnik breakthrough into space, Stravinsky became ‘furious in equal measure with the Russians for having done it and with the Americans for not having done it’.137
He was particularly scathing about the Soviet musical academy, where the spirit of the Rimsky-Korsakovs and Glazunovs who had howled abuse at The Rite of Spring was still alive and kicking against the modernists. ‘The Soviet virtuoso has no literature beyond the nineteenth century,’ Stravinsky told a German interviewer in 1957. Soviet orchestras, if asked to perform the music of Stravinsky or ‘the three Viennese’ (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) would be ‘unable to cope with the simplest problems of rhythmic execution that we introduced to music fifty years ago’.138 His own music had been banned from the Soviet concert repertory since the beginning of the 1930s, when Stravinsky was denounced by the Soviet musical establishment as ‘an artistic ideologist of the Imperialist bourgeoisie’.139 It was a sort of musical Cold War.
But after Stalin’s death the climate changed. The Khrushchev ‘thaw’ had brought an end to the Zhdanovite campaign against the so-called ‘formalists’ and had restored Shostakovich to his rightful place at the head of the Soviet musical establishment. Young composers were emerging who took inspiration from Stravinsky’s work (Edison Denisov, Sofya Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke). A brilliant generation of Soviet musicians (Oistrakh, Richter, Rostropovich, the Beethoven Quartet) was becoming well known through recordings and tours in the West. Russia, in short, appeared to be returning to the centre of the European music world - the place it had occupied when Stravinsky had left in 1912.
Despite his own denials, Stravinsky had always regretted the circumstances of his exile from Russia. He bore the severance from his past like an open wound. The fact that he turned eighty in 1962 must have played a part in his decision to return. As he grew older, he thought more of his own childhood. He often slipped into childish Russian phrases and diminutives. He re-read the books he had read in Russia - like Gorky’s Mother. ‘I read it when it was first published [in 1906] and am trying again now,’ he told Craft, ‘probably because I want to go back into myself.’140Stravinsky told the US press that his decision to go to the Soviet Union was ‘due primarily to the evidence I have received of a genuine desire or need for me by the younger generation of Russian musicians’.141 Perhaps there was a desire on Stravinsky’s part to secure his legacy in the country of his birth. Yet, despite his claims that nostalgia played no role in his intended visit, that sentiment was surely at its heart. He wanted to see Russia before he died.
On 21 September 1962, the Stravinskys landed in a Soviet plane at Sheremetevo. Straining to catch a glimpse of the forests turning yellow, the meadows, fields and lakes as the plane came in to land, Stravinsky was choking with excitement and emotion, according to Craft, who accompanied the couple throughout their trip. When the plane came to a halt and the hatch was opened, Stravinsky emerged and, standing at the top of the landing stairs, bowed down low in the Russian tradition. It was a gesture from another age, just as Stravinsky’s sunglasses, which now protected him from the television lights, symbolized another kind of life in Hollywood. As he descended, Stravinsky was surrounded by a large welcoming committee, out of which emerged Maria Yudina, a stout woman with Tatar eyes (or so it seemed to Craft) who introduced herself to the composer as his niece. Also there was the daughter of Konstantin Balmont, the poet who had introduced Stravinsky to the ancient pagan world of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. She presented Craft with a ‘birch-bark basket containing a twig, a leaf, a blade of wheat, an acorn, some moss, and other souvenirs of the Russian earth’ which the young American did ‘not greatly need at that moment’. For these two women a lifelong dream was coming true. Craft compared the atmosphere to a child’s birthday party: ‘everyone, not least I.S. [Stravinsky] himself, is bursting with relief ‘.142
The trip released a huge outpouring of emotion in Stravinsky. In the fifteen years that Robert Craft had known him he had never realized how important Russia was to the composer, or how much of it was still inside his heart. ‘Only two days ago, in Paris, I would have denied that I.S… could ever be at home here again… Now I see that half a century of expatriation can be, whether or not it has been, forgotten in a night.’143 It was not to the Soviet Union that Stravinsky had returned, but to Russia. When Khrennikov, the head of the Soviet Composers’ Union, met him at the airport, Stravinsky refused to shake hands with the old Stalinist and offered him his walking stick instead.144 The next day, the Stravinskys drove with Craft to the Sparrow Hills, from where Napoleon had first surveyed Moscow, and as they looked down on the city, they were, Craft thought, ‘silent and more moved than I have ever seen them’.145 At the Novodeviche monastery the Stravinskys were visibly ‘disturbed not for any religious or political reason but simply because the Novodeviche is the Russia that they knew, the Russia that is still a part of them’. Behind the ancient walls of the monastery was an island of old Russia. In the gardens women in black kerchiefs and worn-out coats and shoes were tending the graves, and in the church a priest was leading a service where, as it seemed to Craft, the ‘more fervent members [of the congregation] lie kow-tow, in the totally prostrate position that I.S. used to assume during his own devotions in the Russian Church in Hollywood’.146 Despite all the turmoil that the Soviet Union had gone through, there were still some Russian customs that remained unchanged.
The same was true of the musical tradition, as Robert Craft found out when he rehearsed the Moscow National Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky Hall of the Conservatory for a performance of The Rite of Spring.
The orchestral ensemble is good, quick to adopt my alien demands of phrasing and articulation, and harder working than European orchestras in general.
The Sacre, played with an emotion I can describe only as non-Gallic and un-Teutonic, is an entirely different piece. The sound does not glitter as it does with American orchestras, and it is less loud, though still deafening in this very live room… This sobriety is very much to I.S.’s taste… Another satisfying oddity is the bass drum, which is open on one side as if sawed in two; the clear, secco articulation from the single head makes the beginning of Danse de la terre sound like the stampede I.S. says he had in mind… I.S. notes that the bassoon timbre is different than in America, and that ‘The five fagiotti at the end of the Evocation des ancetres sound like the cinq vieillards I had imagined.’147
Stravinsky took delight in this distinct orchestral sound. It brought his Russian ballets back to life.
He also rejoiced in his rediscovery of spoken Russian. From the moment he arrived back on Russian soil he slipped easily into modes of speech and conversation, using terms and phrases, even long-forgotten childhood expressions, he had not employed for over fifty years. When he spoke in Russian, he had always seemed to Craft ‘a different person’; but now, ‘speaking it with musicians who call him “Igor Fedorovich” which quickly established that family feeling peculiar to Russians - he is more buoyant than I can remember him’.148 Craft was struck by the transformation in Stravinsky’s character. Asked whether he believed that he was now seeing ‘the true Stravinsky’, the American replied that ‘all I.S.s are true enough… but my picture of him is finally being given its background, which does wash out a great deal of what I had supposed to be “traits of character” or personal idiosyncrasies’.149 Craft wrote that, as a result of the visit to Russia, his ear became attuned to the Russian elements of Stravinsky’s music during the post-Russia years. The Russianness of Stravinsky’s later compositions is not immediately obvious. But it is there - in the rhythmic energy and the chant-like melodies. From the Symphony of Psalms to the Requiem (1966) his musical language retains a Russian core.150As he himself explained to the Soviet press:
I have spoken Russian all my life, I think in Russian, my way of expressing myself is Russian. Perhaps it may not be noticeable in my music on a first hearing, but it is inherent in my music and part of its hidden character.151
There was much of Russia in Stravinsky’s heart. It was made up of more than the icons in his house, the books he read, or the favourite childhood spoon from which he ate. He retained a physical sensation and memory of the land, Russian habits and customs, Russian ways of speech and social interaction, and all these feelings came flooding back to him from the moment he set foot on his native soil. A culture is more than a tradition. It cannot be contained in a library, let alone the ‘eight slim volumes’ which the exiles packed up in their bags. It is something visceral, emotional, instinctive, a sensibility that shapes the personality and binds that person to a people and a place. The Western public saw Stravinsky as an exile visiting the country of his birth. The Russians recognized him as a Russian coming home.
Stravinsky barely knew Moscow. He had only been there once on a short day trip sixty years or so before.152 His return to Petersburg, the city of his birth, was even more emotional. At the airport the Stravinskys were welcomed by an elderly gentleman who began to weep. Craft recalls the encounter:
It is Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov [the son of the composer], and I.S. has failed to recognize him, for the given reason that he has a moustache instead of, as when last seen (1910), a beard; but the real reason, I.S. tells me later, is that ‘He said “Igor Fedorovich” instead of “Gima”. He always called us, me and my brother, “Gury and Gima”.’153
In the few days since arriving in Russia Stravinsky had stepped back some fifty years. His face rippled with pleasure on recognizing the Marinsky Theatre (at that time renamed the Kirov) where, as a boy, he had sat in his father’s box and watched the ballet. He remembered the winged cupids in the box, the ornate blue and gold decoration of the auditorium, the glittering chandeliers, the richly perfumed audience, and on one occasion, in 1892, as he had stepped out of the box into the foyer at a gala performance of Glinka’s Ruslan and Liudmila (in which his father had sung the role of Farlaf), catching sight of Tchaikovsky, all white-haired at the age of fifty-two.154 Stravinsky had practically grown up in the Marinsky Theatre. It was only a few yards from his family’s apartment on the Kryukov Canal. When they went to see the house where he had lived for the first twenty-four years of his life, Stravinsky displayed no emotion. But, as he explained to Craft, it was only because ‘I could not let myself’.155 Every building was ‘chudno’ (magical) or ‘krasivo’ (beautiful). The queue for the concert in Stravinsky’s honour at the Great Hall of the Philharmonia was a living monument to the role of art in Russia and his own place in that sacred tradition: the queue had begun a year before and had developed as a complex social system, with people taking turns to stand in the line for a large block of seats. An 84-year-old cousin of Stravinsky was forced to watch the concert on the television because her number in the queue was 5001.156
’Where is Shostakovich?’ Stravinsky kept asking from the moment he arrived. While Stravinsky was in Moscow, Shostakovich was in Leningrad; and just as Stravinsky went to Leningrad, Shostakovich returned to Moscow. ‘What is the matter with this Shostakovich?’ Stravinsky asked Khachaturian. ‘Why does he keep running away from me?’157 As an artist Shostakovich worshipped Stravinsky. He was his secret muse. Underneath the glass of his working desk Shostakovich kept two photographs: one of himself with the Beethoven Quartet; the other, a large portrait of Stravinsky.158 Although he never expressed any public sympathy for Stravinsky’s music, its influence is clear on many of his works (such as the Petrushka motif in the Tenth Symphony, or the adagio of the Seventh Symphony, which is clearly reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms).
The Khrushchev thaw was a huge release for Shostakovich. It enabled him to re-establish links with the classical tradition of St Petersburg where he and Stravinsky had been born. Not that his life was entirely trouble-free. The Thirteenth Symphony (1962), based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar (1961), was attacked by the Party (which tried to prevent its first performance) for supposedly belittling the suffering of the Russians in the war by focusing attention on the Nazi massacre of the Jews in Kiev. But otherwise the thaw was a creative spring for Shostakovich. He returned to his teaching post at the Leningrad Conservatory. His music was widely performed. He was honoured with official prizes and allowed to travel abroad extensively. Some of his most sublime music was composed in the last years of his life - the last three string quartets and the Viola Sonata, a personal requiem and artistic summing-up of his own life which was completed
a month before his death on 9 August 1975. He even managed to find time to write two film scores - Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971) -commissioned by his old friend, the film director Grigory Kozintsev, for whom Shostakovich had written his first film score in 1929. Much of the music he composed in these years found its inspiration in the European heritage of Petersburg which had been lost in 1917. In his private world Shostakovich lived in literature. His conversation was full of literary allusions and expressions from the classic Russian novels of the nineteenth century. He loved the satires of Gogol and the stories of Chekhov. He felt a particularly close affinity for Dostoevsky which he was careful to conceal - until the final years, when he composed a song cycle based on the ‘Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin’ from The Devils. Shostakovich once confessed that he had always dreamed of composing work on Dostoevsky’s themes, but that he had always been ‘too frightened’ to do so. ‘I love him and admire him as a great artist’, Shostakovich wrote. ‘I admire his love for the Russian people, for the humiliated and the wretched.’159
Shostakovich and Stravinsky met at last in Moscow, at the Metro-pole Hotel, where a banquet for Stravinsky was being laid on by the Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva (whom Shostakovich called ‘Catherine the Third’). The meeting was neither a reunion nor a reconciliation of the two Russias that had gone their separate ways in 1917. But it was a symbol of a cultural unity which in the end would triumph over politics. The two composers lived in separate worlds but their music kept a single Russian beat. ‘It was a very tense meeting’, Khachaturian recalls:
They were placed next to each other and sat in complete silence. I sat opposite them. Finally Shostakovich plucked up the courage and opened the conversation:
’What do you think of Puccini?’
’I can’t stand him,’ Stravinsky replied.
’Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,’ said Shostakovich.160
That was virtually all the two men said. But at a second banquet at the Metropole, the evening before Stravinsky left, they resumed their conversation and a dialogue of sorts was established. It was a memorable occasion - one or those quintessentially Russian events which are punctuated by a regular succession of increasingly expansive vodka toasts - and soon, as Craft recalled, the room was turned into a ‘Finnish bath, in whose vapours everyone, proclaiming and acclaiming each other’s Russianness, says almost the same thing… Again and again, each one abases himself before the mystery of their Russianness, and so, I realize with a shock, does I.S., whose replies are soon overtaking the toasts.’ In a perfectly sober speech - he was the least alcoholically elevated of anyone in the room - Stravinsky proclaimed:
’The smell of the Russian earth is different, and such things are impossible to forget… A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country - he can have only one country - and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life. I regret that circumstances separated me from my fatherland, that I did not give birth to my works here and, above all, that I was not here to help the new Soviet Union create its new music. I did not leave Russia of my own will, even though I disliked much in my Russia and in Russia generally. Yet the right to criticize Russia is mine, because Russia is mine and because I love it, and I do not give any foreigner that right.’161
He meant every word.