Russia is a country that has produced far greater artists than leaders. The brooding self-centered tsars cared little for the world outside their borders, and it was left to writers, painters and musicians to seek grander territory, the microcosm of the mind and the big landscape. It was through its artists that the world knew Russia. And it was they who were rejected, revised, villified and crushed by their government.
Yet it's all peculiarly Russian. Portraits of soldiers and peasants, stories of peasants and soldiers. More than anything, Russian writers drew on their own dynamic folklore, to the extent that it became not just fashionable but downright compulsory to glorify the idyllic. There was a general obsession about the glories of peasant life which surely could not have been sustained by anyone who had actually to live that life. But to dip in, write a few lines, and return to the drawing rooms of the intelligentsia, this was not so stressful, and to their credit, their work was sound. It had the ring of truth as it treated with universal themes.
Tolstoy delighted in the common man, "the spring-like smell of their beards" - and in the peasant women, one of whom became his wife in all but legal name. As his life progressed he realized he must place his faith "in the suffering, laboring and communal life of the Russian peasantry." He wrote, "It has been my monastery." From affecting peasant garb to making his own furniture, Tolstoy sought redemption through relinquishing his claim to nobility, convinced that "these people know God."
Gorky, by contrast, also "went to the people" and was beaten senseless by a mob of peasant men when he tried to help "a woman who had been stripped naked and horsewhipped by her husband and a howling mob after being found guilty of adultery. This left Gorky with a bitter mistrust of the 'noble savage.'" Gorky laid the blame for the violence of revolution on this mob instinct.
The painter Repin declared, "It is the people I want to depict...I can see them rise before me in all their reality, huge, unvarnished, without their tinsel trappings!" In such rich portraits as The Volga Barge Haulers he succeeded in bringing the simple folk to life, at work, with no "tinsel trappings."
Oscar Figes, a London history professor and author of this work and A People's Tragedy, a history of the Russian Revolution, recreates the atmosphere that created the revolution - a profound respect, among the rich and educated , for the working classes. The intelligentsia selflessly took up the banner of the poor even while the peasantry itself was unaware of the rhetoric of revolution or the canvas of events swirling around them.
Their struggle was then rewarded with denunciation, persecution, isolation, imprisonment and death. Yet, hadn't they glorified the suffering of convicts? "Gogol...had envisaged that in the final volume of Dead Souls the old rogue Chickov would see the light in a Siberian penal colony." Dostoevsky's Kamarozov attests at his trial: "And what does it matter if I spend twenty years in the mines hacking out ore with a hammer? I'm not afraid of that at all."
Unlike playing peasant, playing martyr to the cause with the real prospect of the gulag was a sudden terror that rose up to face the artists of Russia who would not conform. The incessant grind of political machinery crushed all, as writers were denounced, evicted, or forced to flee.
There was much bravery, a touch of nobility that shone through. The Russian spirit thrives on its art and on its own legends. The book opens with the founding of St. Petersburg on "a network of small islands in the Neva's boggy delta." In 1942, a remnant of an orchestra played Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in a bombed out hall in what was then called Leningrad, a city despised by Stalin and ignored during its three-year siege. "Ordinary citizens were brought together by music - they felt united by a sense of their city's spiritual strength, by a conviction that their city would be saved."
The poet Anna Akmatova, who survived to die peacefully in 1966, was witness to all, experiencing the alienation of expatriate life and the shock of returning to a Russia that in 1944 seemed to her "a vast cemetery, the graveyard of her friends." Stalin referred to her sarcastically as "our nun" and denounced her work. In 1963, she composed the redemptive masterpiece "Poem Without a Hero," which laments lovingly the many vanished friends:
We shall meet again in Petersburg
as though we had interred the sun in it
and shall pronounce for the first time
that blessed, senseless word.
In the black velvet of the Soviet night,
in the velvet of the universal void
the familiar eyes of blessed women sing
and still the deathless flowers bloom.