Wednesday 21 December 2016

Studies of Revolutionary Times by Imogen Robertson

Leo Tolstoy in 1908
Photograph by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky

Memory is a slippery thing. At the end of my first year studying Russian at University I went on a month long trip to St Petersburg which included a trip to Moscow and a tour of some of the ancient churches that surround the city, and it was there that I first heard a women’s choir singing in an orthodox church. My memories are fractured - being ushered under low ceilings, between thick walls and seeing over the shoulders of my friends, a neon blue rucksack, a fleece with the insignia of a university rowing team on it, a room of smoke-stained icons - gold, red and brown and hearing the high, unearthly, sharpened voices of the women singing. Parishioners leant forward to kiss an icon, the air was heavy with incense, and I had for the first time a feeling of voyeuristic shame, observing a deep devotion I did not share. I can’t put those images together into a coherent narrative, but I’m sure that was the day I began to understand something about Russia.
This was in 1992, so Russia was in a state of confusion and transition. It was a time of great want and great hope, and my fellow students and I staggered around in the middle of it suffering a continual whiplash of culture shock, trying to cope with the waves of frustration and fascination with which Russia often douses naive Western visitors. We weren’t as insulated from the realities of ordinary Russian life as the newly arrived Western businessmen, bankers and lawyers but of course we were still cushioned by each other, the dollars in our pocket and the sure and certain knowledge than unless we got caught doing something really stupid, we were only a few hours away from our comfortable, stable and familiar lives in Britain. 
When you start to study Russian literature, teachers tend to usher you first towards Tolstoy and for anyone who knows 19th century British and French literature, this feels like familiar ground even if the settings are different and it takes a bit of time to work out the names. Tolstoy tells you stories from above, he comments on the actions of his characters, watches them being pushed about by circumstance, history or their own nature and draws his moral lessons. You can sense Tolstoy, a great bearded sage in his peasant smock (on his country estate) handing down his moral and political wisdom - not God perhaps, but an un-jolly Santa who knows your secrets and will pass out punishments and rewards accordingly. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1872
by Vasily Perov
Then you encounter Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky is something rather different. The colours are over-saturated, the emotional volume turned so high it’s a scream of feedback. It’s messy and hard and it digs its claws into you. It’s like being chained to a madman on a bar crawl through the seediest parts of town, then through the drawing rooms of high society and back, once the crockery has been smashed, out into the gutter. He hauls you from one humiliation to another, one revelation to another, Mephistopheles to your Faust, and your safe word, the only safe word he allows is ‘God’. To an atheist like myself, that feels like an easy option, a throwing in of the towel, but I never doubt the sincerity of his conclusions.

When I first read him, safe in my university room, I sort of got it. I was having a fairly messy time, missing more lectures than I attended, drinking too much, the usual story, but even though I didn’t acknowledge it then, there was still a structure there. The lectures happened, dinner was served everyday, I was never hungry and I was never physically afraid, so even in that period when the colours of my own life seemed rather too bright to contemplate, I still didn’t get Dostoevsky in my gut. It took going to Russia in a time of continuing crisis for that to happen, and in particular being ushered into that church near Moscow, seeing those worshippers offering their devotions and resignation to God.

I started Russian from scratch at University, so I spent all of my year abroad there in a town about 300 miles south of Moscow. I got hungry, I got drunk, I made some close friends and sang folk songs round the dining table, exchanged toasts and listened to stories of lives lived under circumstances that seemed unendurable but which were endured. I began to get an idea of a culture which flowered in dark places, and grew strong and uncompromising in the soil of deep learning, black humour and cold winters. Some Russians talked, some prayed, and both methods seemed like valid techniques to deal with impossible times.

I haven’t been back since and when people ask me why, I often fall back on the excuse I’ve never had the time or the money to do so, but that’s not really it. I’m sure you have in your past a particular passionate all ravaging relationship that, though it caused you a great deal of pain at the time, you also recognise as being the making of you in some way. You probably still think of that person, but you don’t want to go and grab a quick coffee with them. Too complicated, too much history. For me, Russia is that lover. Popping over to Moscow for a week would be somehow a betrayal of the significance of the time I spent there. Does that sound melodramatic? Self-aggrandising? Fair enough, it’s probably both, but that’s what Russia does to you. 

Philosophers, 1917 (Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov)
by Mikhail Nesterov

I found this painting on wiki art. The artist is Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov, who was born in 1862 and survived the revolution to be an honoured artist of the Soviet Union. Not that medals were a guarantee of a comfortable life in that period. He was very poor when he died of a stroke in 1942. 

The two men in the painting are Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky and Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov. Both spent their philosophical energies grappling with the ideas of faith and science, Russian destiny, her intelligentsia and her people and the relationship between them. Both found some accommodation with the Bolshevik regime for a time. Florensky, on the left, was a remarkable scholar, mathematician and philosopher who ended up working on the electrification of the Russian countryside after the Bolsheviks closed the church where he was a priest, working alongside government officials while still wearing his priest’s cassock. He refused to go in exile and was arrested in 1928, and shot near St Petersburg in 1934. Bulgakov was expelled from Russia in 1922 on board the Philosopher’s Ship and died in Paris in 1944. The worldview, the opinions and policies of both men could not be further from my own, but there is something about this portrait of 1917 that transcends those differences. It it the attitude of engagement, of dedication and concentration, the nerve shredding attempt to understand rather than accept which punches through this image. It seems to me an portrait of struggle, how struggle is undertaken or understood. Nesterov apparently painted it ‘at one stroke’, without sketches or drafts. For me it is as powerful and as enlightening an image of the Russian revolution as any of the stills from Battleship Potemkin

I also recently read a novel dealing with individuals facing revolutionary change in Russia - The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by Peirene Press. I blurbed it, in fact. Huch was a remarkable German writer and historian who was born two years after Nesterov and died five years after him in 1947. 

The Last Summer was published in 1910 and like the painting, it is a small but telling study of Russia and revolution. Perhaps another reason I link them in my mind is that the novel is epistolary, consisting of the letters of a privileged Russian family from their summer estate (I imagine it looking like the landscape in the painting) caught up in the intimacies and betrayals of their own home, and in the larger violences of the time. In both works of art a character study sheds light on wider conflicts while remaining personal and particular. The novel is mix of very different voices, a clamour of them in fact, and deals with those ideas of what we accept, what we try to change, what we resist and what we sacrifice for peace or a higher cause.

This year has left me concerned that we are now caught up in the bow wave of revolutionary times, so I find myself  looking at European and Russian history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in a very different light, and discovering in the art and novels models of resistance and engagement which have become relevant and immediate once more. Prayer? Struggle? Accommodation? Resistance? Perhaps all and none of the above, but in the meantime I’m listening to history, trying to catch its repeating rhythms and learn from them. 

Slate will be discussing Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov early in 2017, and for Slate subscribers there's an excellent discussion available of Tolstoy v. Dostoevsky.

And is you subscribe to anything this year, I do recommend Peirene Press 


Exile on Peachtree Street said...


Leslie Wilson said...

A very interesting blog, which fascinated me even on Christmas Day afternoon. I must read Ricarda Huch. Staggered that I never have. I feel Dostoyevsky is more vivid and also more profound than Tolstoy, who's for all his moralising is part of 'le dix-neuvieme siecle stupide.' Must re-read Karamazov. Though I think the big flaw in Ivan Karamazov accepting punishment for the murder of his father because he wanted to kill him is that (by the mercy of God?) he didn't, and when he went to Siberia, the actual murderer went free. Yes, I'm feeling definitely I must go back to the book and see what I think. Ivan Karamazov's anguish about cruelty to children has stayed with me all my life..

Marie Macpherson said...

There's so much in this post that I can relate to, having studied Russian and spent a year in the Soviet Union. There is such a thing as the Russian soul - the babushkas in the churches keeping faith in spite of all the suffering - and it's difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't lived there. I, too, am fearful of returning to see the placards: Communism = Leninism + electricity replaced by advertising slogans.
You've captured the contradictions so well. Thank you.