Religion was especially strong in Russia, for poverty was bitter, and merchants of hope found many purchasers. Skepticism was confined to an upper class that could read French, and Freemasonry had many converts there.13 But the rural, and most of the urban, population lived in a supernatural world of fearful piety, surrounded by devils, crossing themselves a dozen times a day, imploring the intercession of saints, worshiping relics, awed by miracles, trembling over portents, prostrating themselves before holy images, and moaning somber hymns from stentorian breasts. Church bells were immense and powerful; Boris Godunov had set up one of 288,000 pounds, but the Empress Anna Ivanovna outrang him by having one cast of 432,000 pounds.14 The churches were filled; the ritual was more solemn here, and the prayers were more ecstatic, than in half-pagan papal Rome. The Russian priests—each of them a papa, or pope—wore awesome beards and flowing hair, and dark robes reaching to their feet (for legs are an impediment to dignity). They seldom mingled with the aristocracy or the court, but lived in modest simplicity, celibate in their monasteries or married in their rectories. Abbots and priors governed the monks, abbesses the nuns; the secular clergy submitted to bishops, these to archbishops, these to provincial metropolitans, these to the patriarch in Moscow; and the Church as a whole acknowledged the secular sovereign as its head. Outside the Church were dozens of religious sects, rivaling one another in mysticism, piety, and hate.
Religion served to transmit a moral code that barely availed to create order amid the strong natural impulses of a primitive people. The nobles of the court adopted the morals, manners, and language of the French aristocracy; their marriages were transactions in realty, and were alleviated with lovers and mistresses. The women of the court were better educated than the men, but in moments of passion they could erupt in hot words and murderous violence. Among the people language was coarse, violence was frequent, and cruelty corresponded with the strength of the frame and the thickness of the skin. Everyone gambled and drank according to his means, and stole according to his station,15 but everyone was charitable, and huts exceeded palaces in hospitality. Brutality and kindness were universal.
Dress varied from the fashions of Paris at the court to the fur caps, sheepskins, and thick mittens of the peasantry; from the silk stockings of the noble to the woolen bands that encased the legs and the feet of the serf. In summer the common people might bathe nude in the streams, sex ignored. Russian baths, like the Turkish, were heroic but popular. Otherwise hygiene was occasional, sanitation primitive. Nobles shaved; commoners, despite the ukases of Peter the Great, kept their beards.
Nearly every home had a balalaika, and St. Petersburg, under Elizabeth and Catherine II, had opera imported from Italy and France. Here came famous composers and conductors, and the finest singers and virtuosi of the age. Musical education was well financed, and justified itself in the outburst of musical genius in the second half of the nineteenth century. From all Russia promising male voices were sent to the leading churches to be trained. As the Greek rite allowed no instruments in choirs, the voices had free play, and attained such depths of unison and harmony as were hardly equaled elsewhere in the world. Boys took the soprano parts, but it was the bassos that astonished many a foreigner with their nether reach, and their range of feeling from whispers of tenderness to waves of guttural power.
Who composed this moving music for Russia’s choirs? Mostly obscure monks, unknelled and unknown. Two stand out in the eighteenth century. Sozonovich Berezovsky was a Ukrainian lad whose voice seemed designed for the adoration of God. Catherine II sent him to Italy at state expense to get the best musical education; he lived for years at Bologna, and under Padre Martini he learned the art of composition. Returning to Russia, he wrote religious music that combined Russian intensity with Italian elegance. His efforts to reform the singing of the choirs met with orthodox resistance; he fell into morbid melancholy, and killed himself at the age of thirty-two (1777).16 Still more famous was Dmitri Bortniansky. When only seven years old he was admitted to the Court Church Choir; the Empress Elizabeth commissioned Galuppi to tutor him; when Galuppi returned to Italy Catherine II sent Dmitri with him to Venice; thence he passed to Padre Martini, and then to Rome and Naples, where he composed music in the Italian style. In 1779 he returned to Russia; he was soon appointed director of the Court Church Choir, and he kept this post till his death (1825). For the choir he composed a Greek Mass, and settings in four and eight parts for forty-five Psalms. It was due especially to his training that the choir reached the excellence which made it one of the wonders of the musical world. In 1901 St. Petersburg celebrated with pomp the 150th anniversary of his birth.
French influence dominated Russian art, but the leading figure was an Italian, Francesco (or Bartolomeo) Rastrelli. His father, Carlo, had been called to Russia by Peter the Great (1715), and had cast in bronze an equestrian statue of Peter, and a full-length figure of the Empress Anna Ivanovna. The son inherited the Louis Quinze Style that Carlo had brought from France; he added to it some inspiration from the baroque masterpieces of Balthasar Neumann and Fischer von Erlach in Germany and Austria; and he adapted these influences so harmoniously with Russian needs and styles that he became the architectural favorite of Czarina Elizabeth. Almost every Russian building of artistic note from 1741 to 1765 was designed by him or his aides. On the left bank of the Neva he raised (1732-54) the Winter Palace, which was burned down in 1837 but was conjecturally restored on the original plan: a monstrous mass of windows and columns in three layers, topped by statues and battlements. More to Elizabeth’s taste was the Palace of Tsarskoe Selo (i.e., the Czar’s village), on a hill fifteen miles south of St. Petersburg. At its left he built a church; in the interior of the palace a ceremonial stairway led to a Grande Galerie which was illuminated by immense windows during the day and by fifty-six chandeliers at night; at the farther end were the throne room and the apartments of the Empress. A Chinese Room paid the usual homage of the eighteenth century to Chinese art; an Amber Room was paneled with plaques of amber, given to Peter the Great by Frederick William I in exchange for fifty-five tall grenadiers; and a picture gallery housed some of the imperial collections. The interior was mostly in rococo decoration, which an English traveler described as a “mixture of barbarism and magnificence.”17Catherine II, who was chaste if only in her taste, had the golden ornaments of the façade removed.
Literature developed more slowly than art. The paucity of readers gave it little encouragement, censorship by Church and state cramped expression, and the Russian language had not yet refined itself, in grammar or vocabulary, into a literary vehicle. And yet, even before the accession of Elizabeth (1742), three writers left their names on the face of history. Vasili Tatishchev was a man of action and thought, a traveler and historian, a diplomat and philosopher, loving Russia but opening his mind eagerly to economic and intellectual developments in the West. He was one of several promising youths whom Peter sent abroad for intellectual insemination. He came back with dangerous ideas: he had read, directly or in summaries, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Grotius, and Bayle; his Orthodox faith had withered, and he supported religion only as an aide to government.18 He served Peter in dangerous campaigns, became governor of Astrakhan, and was accused of peculation.19 In his wanderings he gathered a store of geographical, ethnological, and historical data, which he used in a History of Russia. The book offended the clergy; no one dared print it till the early and liberal years of Catherine II’s reign (1768–74).
Prince Antioch Cantemir continued the revolt against theology. Son of a Moldavian hospodar (governor), he was brought to Russia in his third year, learned to speak six languages, served in embassies to London and Paris, met Montesquieu and Maupertuis, and, returning, wrote satires of those “Pan-Slavic” patriots who opposed the contamination of Russian life with Western ideas. Here is a bit of his poem “To My Mind”:
Immature mind, fruit of recent studies, be quiet, urge not the pen into my hands. … Many easy paths lead in our days to honors; the least acceptable is the one the nine barefoot sisters [the Muses] have laid out. … You have to toil and moil there, and while you labor people avoid you as a pestilence, rail at you, loathe you. … “Who pores over books becomes an atheist”; thus Crito grumbles, his rosary in his hands, … and bids me see how dangerous is the seed of learning that is cast among us: our children, … to the horror of the Church, have begun to read the Bible; they discuss all, want to know the cause of all, and put little faith in the clergy; … they place no candles before the images, they observe no feasts. . . .
O Mind, I advise you to be dumber than a dumpling. … Complain not of your obscurity.... If gracious Wisdom has taught you anything, … explain it not to others.20
Kantemir offended further by translating Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. The book was denounced as Copernican, heretical, blasphemous, but Kantemir foiled his persecutors by dying at thirty-six (1744). Not till 1762 did his satires find a publisher.
Under Czarina Elizabeth Russian literature began to assert itself as something more than an echo of the French. Mikhail Lomonosov felt rather the German influence; having studied at Marburg and Freiburg, he married a Fräulein, and brought with her to St. Petersburg a heavy load of science. He became the lion of the Academy, adept in everything, even in drinking.21 He refused to specialize; he became a metallurgist, geologist, chemist, electrician, astronomer, economist, geographer, historian, philologist, orator; Pushkin called him “the first Russian university.”22 Amid all this he was a poet.
His chief rival for the applause of the intelligentsia was Alexis Sumarokov, who published a volume of odes by himself and by Lomonosov to display the latter’s inferiority. [The difference was negligible.] The real distinction of Sumarokov was his establishment of a Russian national theater (1756). For it he wrote plays echoing those of Racine and Voltaire. Elizabeth compelled the courtiers to attend; but as they paid no admission, Sumarokov complained that his salary of five thousand rubles per year did not suffice to keep both his theater and himself alive. “What was once seen at Athens, what is now to be seen in Paris, is also seen in Russia, by my care.... In Germany a crowd of poets has not produced what I have succeeded in doing by my own efforts.”23 In 1760 he tired of his labors and moved to Moscow, but there his flair for quarreling soon left him moneyless. He appealed to Catherine II to send him abroad at state expense, and assured her: “If Europe were described by such a pen as mine, an outlay of 300,000 rubles would seem small.”24 Catherine bore with him till he died of drink (1777).
Let us enliven our pages with the romance of a princess. Natalia Borisovna Dolgorukaya was the daughter of Count and Field Marshal Boris Cheremetyev, comrade in arms of Peter the Great. At the age of fifteen (1729), “radiantly beautiful,” and “one of the greatest heiresses in Russia,”25 she was betrothed to Vasili Lukich Dolgoruki, the prime favorite of Czar Peter II. Before they could be married Peter died, and his successor banished Vasili to Siberia. Natalia insisted on marrying him and following him into exile. She lived with him for eight years in Tobolsk, and bore him two children. In 1739 he was put to death. After three more years of exile she was allowed to return to European Russia. Having completed the education of her children, she entered a convent at Kiev. There, at the request of her son Mikhail, she composed her Memoirs (1768), which her poet grandson, Prince Ivan Mikhailovich Dolgoruki, published in 1810. Three Russian poets have celebrated her memory, and Russia, honors her as the type of the many Russian women who ennobled revolution with their heroism and constancy.
All in all, Russian civilization was a mixture of unavoidable discipline and callous exploitation, of piety and violence, of prayer and profanity, of music and vulgarity, of fidelity and cruelty, of servile obsequiousness and indomitable bravery. These people could not develop the virtues of peace because they had to fight, through long winters and long winter nights, a bitter war against the arctic winds that crossed unhindered over their frozen plains. They had never known the Renaissance or the Reformation, and so—except in their artificial capital—they were still imprisoned in medieval swaddling clothes. They comforted themselves with pride of race and surety of faith: not yet a territorial nationalism, but a fierce conviction that while the West was damning itself with science, wealth, paganism, and unbelief, “Holy Russia” remained loyal to the Christianity of the patriarchs, was more endeared to Christ, and would someday rule and redeem the world.