Overleaf: Adolphe Ladurnier: View of the White Hall in the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, 1838


At the height of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in August 1812, Prince Sergei Volkonsky was delivering a report to the Emperor Alexander in St Petersburg. Alexander asked the young aide-de-camp about the morale of the troops. ‘Your Majesty!’ the prince replied. ‘From the Supreme Commander to the ordinary soldier, every man is prepared to lay down his life in the patriotic cause.’ The Emperor asked the same about the common people’s mood, and again Volkonsky was full of confidence. ‘You should be proud of them. For every single peasant is a patriot.’ But when that question turned to the aristocracy, the prince remained silent. Prompted by the Emperor, Volkonsky at last said: ‘Your Majesty! I am ashamed to belong to that class. There have been only words.” It was the defining moment of Volkonsky’s life - a life that tells the story of his country and his class in an era of national self-discovery.

There were many officers who lost their pride in class but found their countrymen in the ranks of 1812. For princes like Volkonsky it must have been a shock to discover that the peasants were the nation’s patriots: as noblemen they had been brought up to revere the aristocracy as the ‘true sons of the fatherland’. Yet for some, like Volkonsky, this revelation was a sign of hope as well - the hope that in its serfs the nation had its future citizens. These liberal noblemen would stand up for ‘the nation’ and the ‘people’s cause’, in what would become known as the Decembrist uprising on 14 December 1825.* Their alliance with the peasant soldiers on the battlefields of 1812 had shaped their democratic attitudes. As one Decembrist later wrote, ‘we were the children of 1812’.2

Sergei Volkonsky was born in 1788 into one of Russia’s oldest noble families. The Volkonskys were descended from a fourteenth-century prince, Mikhail Chernigovsky, who had attained glory (and was later made a saint) for his part in Moscow’s war of liberation against the Mongol hordes, and had been rewarded with a chunk of land on the

* They shall be referred to here as the Decembrists, even though they did not gain that name until after 1825.

Volkona river, to the south of Moscow, from which the dynasty derived its name.3 As Moscow’s empire grew, the Volkonskys rose in status as military commanders and governors in the service of its Grand Dukes and Tsars. By the 1800s the Volkonskys had become, if not the richest of the ancient noble clans, then certainly the closest to the Emperor Alexander and his family. Sergei’s mother, Princess Alexandra, was the Mistress of the Robes to the Dowager Empress, the widow of the murdered Emperor Paul, and as such the first non-royal lady of the Empire. She lived for the most part in the private apartments of the Imperial family at the Winter Palace and, in the summer, at Tsarskoe Selo (where the schoolboy poet Pushkin once caused a scandal by jumping on this cold and forbidding woman whom he had mistaken for her pretty French companion Josephine). Sergei’s uncle, General Paul Volkonsky, was a close companion of the Emperor Alexander and, under his successor Nicholas I, was appointed Minister of the Court, in effect the head of the royal household, a post he held for over twenty years. His brother Nikita was married to a woman, Zinaida Volkonsky, who became a maid of honour at Alexander’s court and (perhaps less honourably) the Emperor’s mistress. His sister Sophia was on first name terms with all the major European sovereigns. At the Volkonsky house in Petersburg - a handsome mansion on the Moika river where Pushkin rented rooms on the lower floor - there was a china service that had been presented to her by the King of England, George IV. ‘That was not the present of a king,’ Sophia liked to say, ‘but the gift of a man to a woman.’4 She was married to the Emperor’s closest friend, Prince Pyotr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, who rose to become his general chief-of-staff.

Sergei himself had practically grown up as an extended member of the Imperial family. He was educated at the Abbot Nicola’s on the Fontanka, an institute established by the emigres from France and patronized by the most fashionable families of Petersburg. From there he graduated to the Corps des Pages, the most elite of the military schools, from which, naturally, he joined the Guards. At the battle of Eylau in 1807 the young cornet was wounded by a bullet in his side. Thanks to his mother’s lobbying, he was transferred to the Imperial staff in St Petersburg, where he joined a select group of glamorous young men - the aides-de-camp to the Emperor. The Tsar was fond of the serious young man with charming manners and softly spoken views, even though his idol-worship of Napoleon - a cult shared at that time by many noblemen (like Pierre Bezukhov at the start of War and Peace) - was frowned upon at court. He called him ‘Monsieur Serge’, to distinguish him from his three brothers (who were also aides-de-camp) and the other Volkonskys in his entourage.5 The prince dined with the Emperor every day. He was one of the few who were permitted to enter the Emperor’s private apartments unannounced. The Grand Duke Nicholas - later to become Tsar Nicholas I - who was nine years younger than Sergei, would, as a boy, ask the aide-decamp to position his toy soldiers in the formation of Napoleon’s armies at Austerlitz.6 Two decades later he sent his playmate to Siberia.

In 1808 Volkonsky returned to the army in the field and, in the course of the next four years, he took part in over fifty battles, rising by the age of twenty-four to the rank of major-general. Napoleon’s invasion shook the Prince from the pro-French views he had held in common with much of the Petersburg elite. It stirred in him a new sense of ‘the nation’ that was based upon the virtues of the common folk. The patriotic spirit of the ordinary people in 1812 - the heroism of the soldiers, the burning-down of Moscow to save it from the French, and the peasant partisans who forced the Grande Armee to hurry back to Europe through the snow - all these were the signs, it seemed to him, of a national reawakening. ‘Russia has been honoured by its peasant soldiers,’ he wrote to his brother from the body-littered battlefield of Borodino on 26 August 1812. ‘They may be only serfs, but these men have fought like citizens for their motherland.’7

He was not alone in entertaining democratic thoughts. Volkonsky’s friend (and fellow Decembrist), the poet Fedor Glinka, was equally impressed by the patriotic spirit of the common folk. In his Letters of a Russian Officer (1815) he compared the serfs (who were ‘ready to defend their motherland with scythes’) with the aristocracy (who ‘ran off to their estates’ as the French approached Moscow).8 Many officers came to recognize the peasant’s moral worth. ‘Every day,’ wrote one, ‘I meet peasant soldiers who are just as good and rational as any nobleman. These simple men have not yet been corrupted by the absurd conventions of our society, and they have their own moral ideas which are just as good.’9 Here, it seemed, was the spiritual potential for a national liberation and spiritual rebirth. ‘If only we could find a common language with these men’, wrote one of the future Decembrists, ‘they would quickly understand the rights and duties of a citizen.’10

Nothing in the background of these officers had prepared them for the shock of this discovery. As noblemen they had been brought up to regard their fathers’ serfs as little more than human beasts devoid of higher virtues and sensibilities. But in the war they were suddenly thrown into the peasants’ world: they lived in their villages, they shared their food and fears with the common soldiers, and at times, when they were wounded or lost without supplies, they depended on those soldiers’ know-how to survive. As their respect for the common people grew, they adopted a more humanitarian approach to the men under their command. ‘We rejected the harsh discipline of the old system,’ recalled Volkonsky, ‘and tried through friendship with our men to win their love and trust.’11 Some set up field schools to teach the soldiers how to read. Others brought them into discussion circles where they talked about the abolition of serfdom and social justice for the peasantry. A number of future Decembrists drew up ‘army constitutions’ and other proposals to better the conditions of the soldiers in the ranks. These documents, which were based on a close study of the soldier’s way of life, may be seen as embryonic versions of the ethnographic works which so preoccupied the Slavophile and democratic intelligentsia in the 1830s and 1840s. Volkonsky, for example, wrote a detailed set of ‘Notes on the Life of the Cossacks in Our Battalions’, in which he proposed a series of progressive measures (such as loans from the state bank, communal stores of grain and the establishment of public schools) to improve the lot of the poorer Cossacks and lessen their dependence on the richer ones.12

After the war these democratic officers returned to their estates with a new sense of commitment to their serfs. Many, like Volkonsky, paid for the upkeep of the soldiers’ orphaned sons on their estates, or, like him, gave money for the education of those serfs who had shown their potential in the ranks of 1812.13 Between 1818 and 1821 Count Mikhail Orlov and Vladimir Raevsky, both members of the Union of Welfare out of which the Decembrist conspiracy would evolve, established schools for soldiers in which they disseminated radical ideas of political reform. The benevolence of some of these former officers was extraordinary. Pavel Semenov dedicated himself to the welfare of his serfs with the fervour of a man who owed his life to them. At the battle of Borodino, a bullet hit the icon which he had been given by his soldiers and had worn around his neck. Semenov organized a clinic for his serfs, and turned his palace into a sanctuary for war widows and their families. He died from cholera in 1830 - an illness he contracted from the peasants in his house.14

For some officers it was not enough to identify themselves with the common people’s cause: they wanted to take on the identity of common men themselves. They Russified their dress and behaviour in an effort to move closer to the soldiers in the ranks. They used Russian words in their military speech. They smoked the same tobacco as their men; and in contravention of the Petrine ban, they grew beards. To some extent such democratization was necessary. Denis Davydov, the celebrated leader of the Cossack partisans, had found it very hard to raise recruits in the villages: the peasants saw his glittering Hussar uniform as alien and ‘French’. Davydov was forced, as he noted in his diary, to ‘conclude a peace with the villagers’ before he could even speak to them. ‘I learned that in a people’s war it is not enough to speak the common tongue: one must also step down to the people’s level in one’s manners and one’s dress. I began to wear a peasant’s kaftan, I grew a beard, and instead of the Order of St Anne, I wore the image of St Nicholas.’15 But the adoption of these peasant ways was more than just a strategy of quick-thinking officers. It was a declaration of their nationality.

Volkonsky took command of a partisan brigade and pursued Napoleon’s troops as far as Paris during 1813-14. The next year, with 20,000 roubles in his chest, a carriage and three servants provided by his mother, he travelled to Vienna for the Peace Congress. He then returned to Paris, where he moved in the circles of the political reformers Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant, and went on to London, where he saw the principles of constitutional monarchy in operation as he watched the House of Commons discuss the lunacy of George III. Volkonsky had planned to go to the United States - ‘a country that had captured the imagination of all Russian youth because of its independence and democracy’ - but the resumption of the war with Napoleon’s escape from Elba obliged him to return to Petersburg.16 None the less, like those of many Decembrists, Volkonsky’s views had been deeply influenced by his brief encounter with the West. It confirmed his conviction in the personal dignity of every human being - an essential credo of the Decembrists which lay at the foundation of their opposition to the autocratic system and serfdom. It formed his belief in meritocracy - a view strengthened by his conversations with Napoleon’s officers, who impressed him with their free thought and confidence. How many Neys and Davouts had been stifled by the rigid caste system of the Russian army? Europe made him think of Russia’s backwardness, of its lack of basic rights or public life, and helped him focus his attention on the need to follow Europe’s liberal principles.

The young officers who came back from Europe were virtually unrecognizable to their parents. The Russia they returned to in 1815 was much the same as the Russia they had left. But they had greatly changed. Society was shocked by their ‘rude peasant manners’.17 And no doubt there was something of a pose - the swagger of the veteran - in these army ways. But they differed from their elders in far more than their manners and dress. They also differed from them in their artistic tastes and interests, their politics and general attitudes: they turned their backs on the frivolous diversions of the ballroom (though not their own revelry) and immersed themselves in serious pursuits. As one explained: ‘We had taken part in the greatest events of history, and it was unbearable to return to the vacuous existence of St Petersburg, to listen to the idle chatter of old men about the so-called virtues of the past. We had advanced a hundred years.’18 As Pushkin wrote in his verse ‘To Chaadaev’ in 1821:

The fashionable circle is no longer in fashion.

You know, my dear, we’re all free men now.

We keep away from society; don’t mingle with the ladies.

We’ve left them at the mercy of old men,

The dear old boys of the eighteenth century.19

Dancing, in particular, was regarded as a waste of time. The men of 1812 wore their swords at formal balls to signal their refusal to take part. The salon was rejected as a form of artifice. Young men retreated to their studies and, like Pierre in War and Peace, went in search of the intellectual key to a simpler and more truthful existence. Together, the Decembrists formed a veritable ‘university’. Between them they had an encyclopaedic range of expertise, from folklore, history and archaeology to mathematics and the natural sciences, and they published many learned works, as well as poetry and literature, in the leading journals of their day.

The alienation felt by these young men from their parents’ generation and society was common to all ‘children of 1812’, poets and philosophers as well as officers. It left a profound imprint on the cultural life of Russia in the nineteenth century. The ‘men of the last century’ were defined by the service ethic of the Petrine state. They set great store by rank and hierarchy, order and conformity to rational rules. Alexander Herzen - who was actually born in 1812 - recalled how his father disapproved of all emotional display. ‘My father disliked every sort of abandon, every sort of frankness; all this he called familiarity, just as he called every feeling sentimentality.’20 But the children who grew up in Herzen’s age were all impulsiveness and familiarity. They rebelled against the old disciplinarianism, blaming it for ‘Russia’s slave mentality’, and they looked instead to advance their principles through literature and art.21 Many withdrew from the military or civil service with the aim of leading a more honest life. As Chatsky put it, in Griboedov’s drama Woe from Wit, ‘I’d love to serve, but I am sickened by servility.’

It is hard to overstate the extent to which the Russian cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century entailed a revolt against the service ethic of the eighteenth century. In the established view, rank quite literally defined the nobleman: unlike all other languages, the word in Russian for an official (chinovnik) derived from that for rank (chin). To be a nobleman was to take one’s place in the service of the state, either as a civil servant or as an officer; and to leave that service, even to become a poet or an artist, was regarded as a fall from grace. ‘Service now in Russia is the same as life’, wrote one official in the 1810s: ‘we leave our offices as if we are going to our graves.’22 It was inconceivable for a nobleman to be an artist or a poet, except in his spare time after office work, or as a gentleman enthusiast on his estate. Even the great eighteenth-century poet Gavril Derzhavin combined his writing with a military career, followed by appointments as a senator and provincial governor, before ending up as Minister of Justice in 1802-3.

During the early nineteenth century, as the market for books and painting grew, it became possible, if not easy, for the independent writer or artist to survive. Pushkin was one of the first noblemen to shun the service and take up writing as a ‘trade’; his decision was seen as derogation or breaking of ranks. The writer N. I. Grech’ was accused of bringing shame upon his noble family when he left the civil service to become a literary critic in the 1810s.23 Music too was thought unsuitable as a profession for the nobleman. Rimsky-Korsakov was pushed into the naval service by his parents, who looked upon his music ‘as a prank’.24 Musorgsky was sent to the Cadet School in Petersburg and was then enrolled in the Preobrazhensky Guards. Tchaikovsky went to the School of Jurisprudence where his family expected him to graduate to the civil service and not forget but put away his childish passion for music. For the nobleman to become an artist, then, was to reject the traditions of his class. He had, in effect, to reinvent himself as an ‘intelligent’ - a member of the intelligentsia - whose duty was defined as service to ‘the nation’ rather than to the state.

Only two of the great nineteenth-century Russian writers (Gonch-arov and Saltykov-Shchedrin) ever held high rank in the government service, although nearly all of them were noblemen. Goncharov was a censor. But Saltykov-Shchedrin was a tireless critic of the government, and as a vice-governor and a writer he always took the side of the ‘little man’. It was axiomatic to this literary tradition that the writer should stand up for human values against the service ethic based on rank. Thus in Gogol’s ‘The Diary of a Madman’ (1835), the literary lunatic, a humble councillor, ridicules a senior official: ‘And what if he is a gentleman of the court? It’s only a kind of distinction conferred on you, not something that you can see, or touch with your hands. A court chamberlain doesn’t have a third eye in the middle of his forehead.’ Similarly, in Chekhov’s story ‘Abolished!’ (1891) we are meant to laugh at the retired major (Izhits) who is thrown into confusion by the abolition of his former rank: ‘God knows who I am,’ the old major says. ‘They abolished all the majors a year ago!’25

Unwilling to conform to their fathers’ rules and bored by the routines of the civil service, the young men of Pushkin’s generation sought release in poetry, philosophy and drunken revelry. As Silvio remarks in Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (1831), wild behaviour ‘was the fashion in our day’.26 Carousing was perceived as a sign of freedom, an assertion of the individual spirit against the regimentation of the army and bureaucracy. Volkonsky and his fellow officers demonstrated their independence from the deferential customs of high society by mocking those who followed the Emperor and his family on their Sunday promenades around St Petersburg.27 Another officer, the Decembrist Mikhail Lunin, was well known for his displays of the free will. On one occasion he turned his brilliant wit against a general who had forbidden his officers to ‘offend propriety’ by bathing in the sea at Peterhof, a fashionable resort on the Gulf of Finland near St Petersburg where there was a garrison. One hot afternoon Lunin waited for the general to approach. He leapt into the water fully clothed, and stood at attention and saluted him. The bewildered general asked what this was all about. ‘I am swimming,’ Lunin said, ‘and so as not to disobey Your Excellency’s order, I am swimming in a manner not to offend propriety.’28

The young men of the Decembrist circles spent much time in revelry. Some, like the serious Volkonsky, disapproved. But others, like Pushkin and his friends of the Green Lamp, a loose symposium of libertines and poets, saw the fight for freedom as a carnival. They found liberty in a mode of life and art that dispensed with the stifling conventions of society.29 When they were playing cards or drinking and debating with their friends, they were able to relax and express themselves, ‘as Russians’, in the easy language of the street. This was the idiom of much of Pushkin’s verse - a style that fused the language of politics and philosophical thought with the vocabulary of intimate emotion and the crude colloquialisms of the whorehouse and the inn.

Friendship was the saving grace of these wild orgies, according to Pushkin:

For one can live in friendship

With verses and with cards, with Plato and with wine, And hide beneath the gentle cover of our playful pranks A noble heart and mind.30

Volkonsky said the same of his fellow officers. They happily transgressed the public code of decency, but in their dealings with each other they kept themselves in moral check through the ‘bonds of comradeship’.31 There was a cult of brotherhood in the Decembrist camp. It evolved into the cult of the collective which would become so important to the political life of the Russian intelligentsia. The spirit was first forged in the regiment - a natural ‘family’ of patriots. Nikolai Rostov in War and Peace discovers this community on his return from leave. Suddenly he felt for the first time how close was the bond that united him to Denisov and the whole regiment. On approaching [the camp] Rostov felt as he had done when approaching his home in Moscow. When he saw the first hussar with the unbuttoned uniform of his regiment, when he recognized red-haired Dementyev and saw the picket ropes of the roan horses, when Lavrushka gleefully shouted to his master, ‘The Count has come!’ and Denisov, who had been asleep on his bed, ran all dishevelled out of the mud hut to embrace him, and the officers collected round to greet the new arrival, Rostov experienced the same feeling as when his mother, his father, and his sister had embraced him, and tears of joy choked him so that he could not speak. The regiment was also a home, and as unalterably dear and precious as his parents’ house.32

Through such bonds young officers began to break away from the rigid hierarchies of the service state. They felt themselves to belong to a new community - a ‘nation’, if you will - of patriotic virtue and fraternity where the noble and the peasant lived in harmony. The nineteenth-century quest for Russian nationhood began in the ranks of 1812.

This outlook was shared by all the cultural figures in the orbit of the Decembrists: not just by those in its leading ranks, but by those, more numerous, who sympathized with the Decembrists without actively engaging in plans for a rebellion (‘Decembrists without December’). Most of the poets among them (Gnedich, Vostokov, Merzliakov, Odoevsky and Ryleev, though less so Pushkin) were preoccupied with civic themes. Renouncing the aesthetics and the frivolous concerns of Karamzin’s salon style, they wrote epic verses in a suitably spartan style. Many of them compared the soldiers’ bravery in the recent wars to the heroic deeds of ancient Greece and Rome.

Some monumentalized the peasants’ daily toil; they raised it to the status of patriotic sacrifice. The duty of the poet, as they saw it, was to be a citizen, to dedicate himself to the national cause. Like all the men of 1812, they saw their work as part of a democratic mission to learn about and educate the common people so as to unite society on Russian principles. They rejected the Enlightenment idea that ‘all the nations should become the same’ and, in the words of one critic, called on ‘all our writers to reflect the character of the Russian folk’.33

Pushkin holds a special place in that enterprise. He was too young - just thirteen in 1812 - to fight against the French, but as a schoolboy at the lycee he watched the Guards from the garrison at Tsarskoe Selo march off to war. The memory remained with him throughout his life:

You’ll recollect: the wars soon swept us by, We bade farewell to all our elder brothers, And went back to our desks with all the others, In envy of all those who had gone to die Without us…34

Though Pushkin, unlike them, had never been to Europe, he breathed the European air. As a boy he had immersed himself in the French books of his father’s library. His first verse (written at the age of eight) was composed in French. Later he discovered Byron’s poetry. This European heritage was strengthened by the years he spent between 1812 and 1817 at the lycee at Tsarskoe Selo - a school modelled on the Napoleonic lycees that drew heavily on the curriculum of the English public schools, stressing the humanities: classical and modern languages, literature, philosophy and history. The cult of friendship was strong at the lycee. The friendships he formed there strengthened Pushkin’s sense of European Russia as a spiritual sphere:

My friends, our union is wondrous! Like a soul, it will last for eternity -Undivided, spontaneous and joyous, Blessed by the muse of fraternity. Whatever partings destiny may bring, Whatever fortunes fate may have in hand,

We are still the same: the world to us an alien thing, And Tsarskoe Selo our Fatherland.35

Yet, for all his Western inclinations, Pushkin was a poet with a Russian voice. Neglected by his parents, he was practically brought up by his peasant nurse, whose tales and songs became a lifelong inspiration for his verse. He loved folk tales and he often went to country fairs to pick up peasant stories and turns of phrase which he then incorporated in his poetry. Like the officers of 1812, he felt that the landowner’s obligation as the guardian of his serfs was more important than his duty to the state.36

He felt this obligation as a writer, too, and looked to shape a written language that could speak to everyone. The Decembrists made this a central part of their philosophy. They called for laws to be written in a language ‘that every citizen can understand’.37They attempted to create a Russian lexicon of politics to replace imported words. Glinka called for a history of the war of 1812 to be written in a language that was ‘plain and clear and comprehensible by people of all classes, because people of all classes took part in the liberation of our motherland’.38 The creation of a national language seemed to the veterans of 1812 a means of fostering the spirit of the battlefield and of forging a new nation with the common man. ‘To know our people’, wrote the Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, ‘one has to live with them and talk with them in their language, one has to eat with them and celebrate with them on their feast days, go bear-hunting with them in the woods, or travel to the market on a peasant cart.’39 Pushkin’s verse was the first to make this link. It spoke to the widest readership, to the literate peasant and the prince, in a common Russian tongue. It was Pushkin’s towering achievement to create this national language through his verse.

Volkonsky returned to Russia in 1815 and took up the command of the Azov regiment in the Ukraine. Like all the Decembrists, he was deeply disillusioned by the reactionary turn taken by the Emperor

Alexander, on whom he had pinned his liberal hopes. In the first years of his reign (1801-12) Alexander had passed a series of political reforms: censorship was immediately relaxed; the Senate was promoted to the supreme judicial and administrative institution in the Empire -an important counterbalance to the personal power of the sovereign; a more modern system of government began to take shape with the establishment of eight new ministries and an upper legislative chamber (the State Council) modelled on Napoleon’s Conseil d’Etat. There were even some preliminary measures to encourage noblemen to emancipate their serfs. To the liberal officers, Alexander seemed like one of them: a man of progressive and enlightened views.

The Emperor appointed his adviser Mikhail Speransky to draw up plans for a constitution that was largely based on the Code Napoleon. Had Speransky got his way, Russia would have moved toward becoming a constitutional monarchy governed by a law-based bureaucratic state. But Alexander hesitated to implement his minister’s proposals and, once Russia went to war with France, they were condemned by the conservative nobility, which mistrusted them because they were ‘French’. Speransky fell from power - to be replaced by General Arakcheev, the Minister of War, as the outstanding influence on Alexander’s reign in its second half, from 1812 to 1825. The harsh regime of Arakcheev’s military settlements, where serf soldiers were dragooned into farming and other labour duties for the state, enraged the men of 1812, whose liberal sympathies had been born of respect for the soldiers in the ranks. When the Emperor, against their opposition, persevered with the military camps and put down the peasants’ resistance with a brutal massacre, the Decembrists were enraged. ‘The forcible imposition of the so-called military colonies was received with amazement and hostility’, recalled Baron Vladimir Steigel. ‘Does history show anything similar to this sudden seizure of entire villages, this taking over of the houses of peaceful cultivators, this expropriation of everything which they and their forefathers earned and their involuntary transformation into soldiers?’40 These officers had marched to Paris in the hope that Russia would become a modern European state. They had dreamed of a constitution where every Russian peasant would enjoy the rights of a citizen. But they came back disappointed men - to a Russia where the peasant was still treated as a slave. As

Volkonsky wrote, to return to Russia after Paris and London ‘felt like going back to a prehistoric past’.41

The prince fell into the circle of Mikhail Orlov, an old school friend and fellow officer from 1812, who was well connected to the main Decembrist leaders in the south. At this stage the Decembrist movement was a small and secret circle of conspirators. It began in 1816, when six young Guards officers formed what they initially called the Union of Salvation, a clandestine organization committed to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and a national parliament. From the start the officers were divided over how to bring this end about: some wanted to wait for the Tsar to die, whereupon they would refuse to swear their oath of allegiance to the next Tsar unless he put his name to their reforms (they would not break the oath they had already sworn to the present Tsar); but Alexander was not even forty years of age and some hotheads like Mikhail Lunin favoured the idea of regicide. In 1818 the society broke up - its more moderate members immediately regrouping as the Union of Welfare, with a rather vague programme of educational and philanthropic activities but no clear plan of action for revolt, although Count Orlov, a leading member of the Union, organized a brave petition to the Tsar calling for the abolition of serfdom. Pushkin, who had friends in the Decembrist camp, characterized their conspiracy as no more than a game in these immortal (but, in Tsarist times, unpublishable) lines intended for his novel Eugene Onegin, whose action was set in 1819:

’Twas all mere idle chatter

’Twixt Chateau-Lafite and Veuve Cliquot.

Friendly disputes, epigrams

Penetrating none too deep.

This science of sedition

Was just the fruit of boredom, of idleness,

The pranks of grown-up naughty boys.42

Without a plan for insurrection, the Union concentrated on developing its loose network of cells in Petersburg and Moscow, Kiev, Kishinev and other provincial garrison towns like Tulchin, the headquarters of the Second Army, where Volkonsky was an active member. Volkonsky had entered Orlov’s conspiracy through the Masonic Lodge in Kiev -a common means of entry into the Decembrist movement - where he also met the young Decembrist leader, Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Pestel.

Like Volkonsky, Pestel was the son of a provincial governor in western Siberia (their fathers were good friends).43 He had fought with distinction at Borodino, had marched to Paris, and had returned to Russia with his head full of European learning and ideals. Pushkin, who met Pestel in 1821, said that he was ‘one of the most original minds I have ever met’.44 Pestel was the most radical of the Decembrist leaders. Charismatic and domineering, he was clearly influenced by the Jacobins. In his manifesto Russian Truth he called for the Tsar’s overthrow, the establishment of a revolutionary republic (by means of a temporary dictatorship if necessary), and the abolition of serfdom. He envisaged a nation state ruling in the interests of the Great Russians. The other national groups - the Finns, the Georgians, the Ukrainians, and so on -would be forced to dissolve their differences and ‘become Russian’. Only the Jews were beyond assimilation and, Pestel thought, should be expelled from Russia. Such attitudes were commonplace among the Decembrists as they struggled in their minds to reform the Russian Empire on the model of the European nation states. Even Volkonsky, a man of relatively enlightened views, referred to the Jews as ‘little yids’.45

By 1825 Pestel had emerged as the chief organizer of an insurrection against the Tsar. He had a small but committed band of followers in the Southern Society, which had replaced the Union of Salvation in the south, and an ill-conceived plan to arrest the Tsar during his inspection of the troops near Kiev in 1826, and then march on Moscow and, with the help of his allies in the Northern Society in St Petersburg, seize power. Pestel brought Volkonsky into his conspiracy, placing him in charge of co-ordinating links with the Northern Society and with the Polish nationalists, who agreed to join the movement in exchange for independence should they succeed. The Northern Society was dominated by two men: Nikita Muraviev, a young Guards officer in 1812, who had built up good connections at the court; and the poet Ryleev, who attracted officers and liberal bureaucrats to his ‘Russian lunches’, where cabbage soup and rye bread were served up in preference to European dishes, vodka toasts were drunk to Russia’s liberation from the foreign-dominated court, and revolutionary songs were sung. The Northern Society’s political demands were more moderate than those of Pestel’s group - a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and civil liberties. Volkonsky shuttled between Petersburg and Kiev, mustering support for Pestel’s planned revolt. ‘I have never been so happy as I was at that time’, he later wrote. ‘I took pride in the knowledge that I was doing something for the people - I was liberating them from tyranny.’46 Although he was in love with, and then married to, Maria Raevsky, he saw very little of his beautiful young bride.

Maria was the daughter of General Raevsky, a famous hero of 1812 who had even been praised by Napoleon. Born in 1805, Maria met Volkonsky when she was seventeen; she had extraordinary grace and beauty for her years. Pushkin called her the ‘daughter of the Ganges’ on account of her dark hair and colouring. The poet was a friend of the Raevskys and had travelled with the general and his family to the Crimea and the Caucasus. As one might expect, Pushkin fell in love with Maria. He often fell in love with beautiful young girls - but this time it was serious, judging by the frequency with which Maria appeared in his poetry. At least two of Pushkin’s heroines - Princess Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1822) and the young Circassian girl in The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1820-21) - had been inspired by her. It is perhaps significant that both are tales of unrequited love. The memory of Maria playing in the waves in the Crimea inspired him to write in Eugene Onegin:

How I envied the waves -

Those rushing tides in tumult tumbling

To fall about her feet like slaves!

I longed to join the waves in pressing

Upon those feet these lips… caressing.47

Volkonsky was given the task of recruiting Pushkin to the conspiracy. Pushkin belonged to the broad cultural circles of the Decembrists and had many friends in the conspiracy (he later claimed that, had it not been for a hare that crossed his path and made him superstitious about travelling, he might well have gone to Petersburg to join his friends on Senate Square). As it was, he had been banished to his estate at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov, because his poetry had inspired them:

There will rise, believe me, comrade A star of captivating bliss, when Russia wakes up from her sleep And when our names will both be written On the ruins of despotism.48

It seems, however, that Volkonsky was afraid of exposing the great poet to the risks involved - so he did not carry out this promise to Pestel. In any case, as Volkonsky no doubt knew, Pushkin was so famous for his indiscretion, and so well connected at court, that he would have been a liability.49 Rumours of an uprising were already circulating around St Petersburg, so, in all likelihood, the Emperor Alexander knew about the Decembrists’ plans. Volkonsky certainly thought so. During an inspection of his regiment, the Emperor gently warned him: ‘Pay more attention to your troops and a little less to my government, which, I am sorry to say, my dear prince, is none of your business.’50

The insurrection had been scheduled for the late summer of 1826. But these plans were hastily brought forward by the Emperor’s sudden death and the succession crisis caused by the refusal of the Grand Duke Constantine to accept the throne in December 1825. Pestel resolved to seize the moment for revolt, and with Volkonsky he travelled up from Kiev to St Petersburg for noisy arguments with the Northern society about the means and timing of the uprising. The problem was how to muster the support of the ordinary troops, who showed no inclination towards either regicide or armed revolt. The conspirators had only the vaguest notion of how to go about this task. They thought of the uprising as a military putsch, carried out by order from above; as its commanding officers, they based their strategy on the idea that they could somehow call upon their old alliance with the soldiers. They rejected the initiatives of some fifty junior officers, sons of humble clerks and small landowners, whose organization, the United Slavs, had called upon the senior leaders to agitate for an uprising among the soldiers and the peasantry. ‘Our soldiers are good and simple’, explained one of the Decembrist leaders. ‘They don’t think much and should serve merely as instruments in attaining our goals.’51Volkonsky shared this attitude. ‘I am convinced that I will carry my brigade’, he wrote to a friend on the eve of the revolt, ‘for the simple reason that I have my soldiers’ trust and love. Once the uprising commences they will follow my command.’52

In the end, the Decembrist leaders carried with them only some 3,000 troops in Petersburg - far less than the hoped-for 20,000 men, but still enough perhaps to bring about a change of government if well organized and resolute. But that they were not. On 14 December, in garrisons throughout the capital, soldiers were assembled for the ceremony of swearing an oath of allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas I. The 3,000 mutineers refused to swear their oath and, with flags unfurled and drums beating, marched to Senate Square, where they thronged in front of the Bronze Horseman and called for ‘Constantine and a Constitution’. Two days earlier, Nicholas had decided to take the crown when Constantine had made it clear that he would not. Constantine had a large following among the soldiers, and when the Decembrist leaders heard the news, they sent out leaflets misinforming them that Nicholas had usurped the throne, and calling on them to ‘fight for their liberty and human dignity’. Most of the soldiers who appeared on Senate Square had no idea what a ‘constitution’ was (some thought it was the wife of Constantine). They displayed no inclination to capture the Senate or the Winter Palace, as envisaged in the hasty plans of the conspirators. For five hours the soldiers stood in freezing temperatures, until Nicholas, assuming the command of his loyal troops, ordered them to commence firing against the mutineers. Sixty soldiers were shot down; the rest ran away.

Within hours the ringleaders of the insurrection had all been arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress (the police had known who they were all along). The conspirators might still have had some chance of success in the south, where it was possible to combine with the Poles in a march on Kiev, and where the main revolutionary forces (something in the region of 60,000 troops) were massed in garrisons. But the officers who had previously declared their support for an uprising were now so shocked by the events in Petersburg that they dared not act. Volkonsky found only one officer who was prepared to join him in the call for a revolt, and in the end, the few hundred troops who marched on Kiev on 3 January were easily dispersed by the government’s artillery.53 Volkonsky was arrested two days later, while on his way to Petersburg to see Maria one last time. The police had an arrest warrant signed in person by the Tsar.

Five hundred Decembrists were arrested and interrogated, but most of them were released in the next few weeks, once they had provided evidence for the prosecution of the main leaders. At their trial, the first show trial in Russian history, 121 conspirators were found guilty of treason, stripped of their noble titles and sent as convict labourers to Siberia. Pestel and Ryleev were hanged with three others in a grotesque scene in the courtyard of the Fortress, even though officially the death penalty had been abolished in Russia. When the five were strung up on the gallows and the floor traps were released, three of the condemned proved too heavy for their ropes and, still alive, fell down into the ditch. ‘What a wretched country!’ cried out one of them. ‘They don’t even know how to hang properly.’54

Of all the Decembrists, none was closer to the court than Volkonsky. His mother, the Princess Alexandra, could be found in the Winter Palace, smiling in attendance on the Dowager Empress, at the same time as he sat, just across the Neva river in the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prisoner detained at His Majesty’s pleasure. Nicholas was harsh on Volkonsky. Perhaps he felt betrayed by the man he had once played with as a boy. Thanks to the intervention of his mother, Volkonsky was spared the death sentence handed down to the other leaders. But twenty years of penal labour followed by a lifetime of compulsory settlement in Siberia was a draconian enough punishment. The prince was stripped of his noble title and all his medals from the battlefields of the wars against France. He lost control of all his lands and serfs. Henceforth his children would officially belong to the category of ‘state peasants’.55

Count Alexander Benckendorff, the Chief of Police who sent him into exile, was an old school friend of Volkonsky. The two men had been fellow officers in 1812. Nothing better illustrates the nature of the Petersburg nobility, a small society of clans in which everybody knew each other, and most families were related in some way.* Hence the shame the Volkonskys felt on Sergei’s disgrace. None the less, it is

* In 1859 Volkonsky’s son Misha would marry the granddaughter of Count Benckendorff. One of his cousins would marry Benckendorff’s daughter (S. M. Volkonskii, O dekabristakh: po semeinum vospominaniiam, p. 114).

hard to comprehend their attempt to erase his memory. Sergei’s elder brother, Nikolai Repnin, disowned him altogether, and in the long years Volkonsky spent in Siberia he never sent him a single letter. A typical courtier, Nikolai was worried that the Tsar might not forgive him if he wrote to an exile (as if the Tsar was incapable of understanding the feelings of a brother). Such small-minded attitudes were symptomatic of an aristocracy which had been brought up to defer all values to the court. Sergei’s mother, too, put her loyalty to the Tsar before her own feelings for her son. She attended the coronation of Nicholas I and received the diamond brooch of the Order of St Catherine on the same day as Sergei, with heavy chains around his feet, began the long journey to Siberia. An old-fashioned lady of the court, Princess Alexandra had always been a stickler for ‘correct behaviour’. The next day she retired to her bed and stayed there, crying inconsolably. ‘I only hope,’ she would tell her visitors, ‘that there will be no other monsters in the family.’56 She did not write to her son for several years. Sergei was profoundly wounded by his mother’s rejection: it contributed to his own rejection of the mores and the values of the aristocracy. In his mother’s view, Sergei’s civil death was a literal death as well. ‘Il n’ya plus de Serge,’ the old princess would tell her courtly friends. ‘These words’, Sergei wrote in one of his last letters in 1865, ‘haunted me throughout my life in exile. They were not just meant to satisfy her conscience but to justify her own betrayal of me.’57

Maria’s family was just as unforgiving. They blamed her for her marriage and attempted to persuade her to use her right to petition for its annulment. They had reason to suppose that she might do so. Maria had a newborn son to think about and it was far from clear whether she would be allowed to take him with her if she followed Sergei to Siberia. Besides, she did not appear to be entirely happy in the marriage. During the past year - only the first year of their marriage - she had hardly seen her husband, who was absent in the south and preoccupied with the conspiracy, and she had complained to her family that she found the situation ‘quite unbearable’.58 Yet Maria chose to share her husband’s fate. She gave up everything and followed Sergei to Siberia. Warned by the Tsar that she would have to leave her son behind, Maria wrote to him: ‘My son is happy but my husband is unhappy and he needs me more.

It is hard to say exactly what was in Maria’s mind. When she made her choice she did not realize that she would be stripped of the right to return to Russia if she followed Sergei - she was told only when she reached Irkutsk, on the border between Russia and the penal region of Siberia - so it is possible that she was expecting to return to Petersburg. That indeed was what her father thought. But would she have turned back if she had known?

Maria acted out of her sense of duty as a wife. Sergei appealed to this when he wrote to her from the Peter and Paul Fortress on the eve of his departure for Siberia. ‘You yourself must decide what to do. I am placing you in a cruel situation, but chere amie, I cannot bear the sentence of eternal separation from my lawful wife.’60 Such a sense of duty was ingrained in Maria by her noble upbringing. Romantic love, though by no means uncommon, was not a high priority in the conjugal relations of the early nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy. And nor does it seem to have played a major role in Maria’s decision. In this sense she was very different from Alexandra Muraviev, the wife of the Decembrist Nikita Muraviev, who came from a rather less aristocratic background than Maria Volkonsky. It was romantic love that compelled Alexandra to give up everything for a life of penal exile in Siberia - she even claimed that it was her ‘sin’ to ‘love my Nikitishchina more than I love God’.61 Maria’s conduct, by contrast, was conditioned by the cultural norms of a society in which it was not unusual for a noblewoman to follow her husband to Siberia. Convoys of prisoners were frequently accompanied by carts carrying their wives and children into voluntary exile.62 There was a custom, moreover, for the families of officers to go along with them on military campaigns. Wives would speak about ‘our regiment’ or ‘our brigade’ and, in the words of one contemporary, ‘they were always ready to share in all the dangers of their husbands, and lay down their lives’.63 Maria’s father, General Raevsky, took his wife and children on his main campaigns - until his young son was injured when a bullet pierced his breeches as he gathered berries near the battlefield.64

It has also been suggested that Maria was responding to the literary cult of heroic sacrifice.65 She had read Ryleev’s poem ‘Natalia Dolgoru-kaya’ (1821-3), which may indeed have served as the moral inspiration for her own behaviour. The poem was based on the true story of a young princess, the favourite daughter of Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev, who had followed her husband, Prince Ivan Dolgoruky, to Siberia when he was banished there by the Empress Anna in 1730.*

I have forgotten my native city, Wealth, honours, and family name To share with him Siberia’s cold And endure the inconstancy of fate.66

Maria’s doting father was convinced that the reason she followed Sergei to Siberia was not because she was ‘a wife in love’ but because she was ‘in love with the idea of herself as a heroine’.67 The old general never stopped suffering over his beloved daughter’s voluntary exile - he blamed Sergei for it- and this led to a tragic break in their relationship. Maria felt her father’s disapproval in his infrequent letters to Siberia. No longer able to suppress her anguish, she wrote to him (in the last letter he received before his death) in 1829:

I know that you have ceased to love me for some time, though I know not what I have done to merit your displeasure. To suffer is my lot in this world - but to make others suffer is more than I can bear… How can I be happy for a moment if the blessing which you give me in your letters is not given also to Sergei?68

On Christmas Eve Maria said farewell to her son and family and left for Moscow on the first leg of her journey to Siberia. In the old capital she stopped at the house of her sister-in-law Princess Zinaida Volkonsky, a famous beauty and close friend of the late Emperor Alexander, called by Pushkin the ‘Tsarina of the arts’. Zinaida was the hostess of a dazzling literary salon where, unusually for that time, no Fench verses were declaimed. Pushkin and Zhukovsky, Viazemsky and Delvig, Baratynsky, Tiutchev, the Kireevsky brothers and the Polish poet Mickiewicz were all habitues. On the eve of Maria’s departure there was a special evening where Pushkin read his ‘Message to Siberia’ (1827):

*Allowed to return to St Petersburg in the 1730s, Natalia Dolgorukaya became the first woman in Russian history to write her memoirs.

In deep Siberian mines retain A proud and patient resignation; Your grievous toil is not in vain Nor yet your thought’s high aspiration. Grief’s constant sister, hope, is nigh, Shines out in dungeons black and dreary To cheer the weak, revive the weary; The hour will come for which you sigh,

When love and friendship reaching through Will penetrate the bars of anguish, The convict warrens where you languish, As my free voice now reaches you.

Each hateful manacle and chain Will fall; your dungeons break asunder; Outside waits freedom’s joyous wonder As comrades give you swords again.69

One year after Maria had arrived in Siberia, her baby boy Nikolenka died. Maria never ceased to grieve for him. At the end of her long life, after thirty years of penal exile, when someone asked her how she felt about Russia, she gave this reply: ‘The only homeland that I know is the patch of grass where my son lies in the ground.’70


Maria took eight weeks to travel to Nerchinsk, the penal colony on the Russian-Chinese border where her exiled husband, Sergei Volkonsky, was a convict labourer in the silver mines. It was about 6,000 kilometres across the snow-bound steppe by open carriage from Moscow to Irkutsk, at that time the last outpost of Russian civilization in Asia, and from there a hazardous adventure by cart and sledge around the icy mountain paths of Lake Baikal. At Irkutsk the governor had tried to dissuade Maria from continuing with her journey, warning her that, if she did so, she would be deprived of all her rights by a

special order of the Tsar for all the wives of the Decembrists. By entering the penal zone beyond Irkutsk, the Princess would herself become a prisoner. She would lose direct control of her property, her right to keep a maid or any other serfs, and even on the death of her husband, she would never be allowed to return to the Russia she had left. This was the import of the document she had signed to join her husband in Nerchinsk. But any doubts she might have had about her sacrifice were immediately dispelled on her first visit to his prison cell.

At first I could not make out anything, it was so dark. They opened a small door on the left and I entered my husband’s tiny cell. Sergei rushed towards me: I was frightened by the clanking of his chains. I had not known that he was manacled. No words can ever describe what I felt when I saw the immensity of his suffering. The vision of his shackles so enraged and overwhelmed my soul that at once I fell down to the floor and kissed his chains and feet.71

Nerchinsk was a bleak, ramshackle settlement of wooden huts built around the stockades of the prison camp. Maria rented a small hut from one of the local Mongolian settlers. ‘It was so narrow,’ she recalled, ‘that when I lay down on my mattress on the floor my head touched the wall and my feet were squashed against the door.’72 She shared this residence with Katya Trubetskoi, another young princess who had followed her Decembrist husband to Siberia. They survived on the small income the authorities allowed them from their dispossessed estates. For the first time in their lives they were forced to do the chores that had always been performed for them by the huge domestic staff in their palaces. They learned to clean clothes, bake bread, grow vegetables and to cook their food on the wood stove. They soon forgot their taste for French cuisine and began to live ‘like Russians, eating pickled cabbage and black bread’.73 Maria’s strength of character - reinforced by the routines of the culture she had left behind - was the key to her survival in Siberia. She scrupulously observed all the saints’ days and the birthdays of the relatives in Russia who had long forgotten hers. She always made a point of dressing properly, in a fur hat and a veil, even on her journeys to the peasant market in Nerchinsk. She played the French clavichord she had carefully packed up and carted all the way across the frozen Asian steppes, no doubt at enormous inconvenience. She kept up her English by translating books and journals sent out in the post; and every day she took dictation from the prisoners, who as ‘politicals’ were strictly barred from writing letters in the camp. They called Maria their ‘window on to the world’.74

Siberia brought the exiles together. It showed them how to live truly by the principles of communality and self-sufficiency which they had so admired in the peasantry. In Chita, where they moved in 1828, the dozen prisoners and their families formed themselves into an artel, a collective team of labourers, and divided up the tasks between themselves. Some built the log huts in which their wives and children were to live, later to be joined by the prisoners themselves. Others took up trades like carpentry, or making shoes and clothes. Volkonsky was the gardener-in-chief. They called this community their ‘prison family’ and in their imaginations it came close to re-creating the egalitarian simplicity of the peasant commune.75 Here was that spirit of togetherness which the men of 1812 had first encountered in the regiment.

Family relations became closer, too. Gone were the servants who had taken over child care for the noble family of the eighteenth century. The Siberian exiles brought up their own children and taught them all they knew. ‘I was your wet nurse,’ Maria told her children, ‘your nanny and, in part, your tutor, too.’76 Misha, a new son, was born in 1832; Elena (‘Nellinka’), a daughter, in 1834. The following year the Volkonskys were resettled in the village of Urik, thirty kilometres outside Irkutsk, where they had a wooden house and a plot of land, just like all the other villagers. Misha and Elena grew up with the local peasant children. They learned to play their games - hunting for birds’ nests, fishing for brown trout, setting rabbit traps and catching butterflies. ‘Nellinka is growing up a true Siberian’, Maria wrote to her friend Katya Trubetskoi.

She talks only in the local dialect and there is no way of stopping her doing so. As for Misha, I have to allow him to go camping in the woods with the wild boys from the village. He loves adventure; he wept uncontrollably the other day because he had slept through an alarm caused by the appearance of a wolf on our doorstep. My children are growing up a la Rousseau, like two little savages, and there is very little I can do about it except to insist that they talk French with us when at home… But I must say that this existence suits their health.77

The boy’s father took a different view. Full of pride, he told a friend that Misha had grown up a ‘true Russian in feeling’.78

For the adults, too, exile meant a simpler and more ‘Russian’ way of life. Some of the Decembrist exiles settled in the countryside and married local girls. Others took up Russian customs and pastimes, in particular hunting in the game-rich forests of Siberia.79And all of them were forced, for the first time in their lives, to become fluent in their native tongue. For Maria and Sergei, accustomed as they were to speak and think in French, this was one of the hardest aspects of their new existence. On their first encounter in that Nerchinsk prison cell they were forced to speak in Russian (so that the guards could understand), but they did not know the words for all the complex emotions they were feeling at that moment, so their conversation was somewhat artificial and extremely limited. Maria set about the study of her native language from a copy of the Scriptures in the camp. Sergei’s Russian, which he had written as an officer, became more vernacular. His letters from Urik are littered with Siberian colloquialisms and misspellings of elementary words (‘if, ‘doubt’, ‘May’ and ‘January’).80

Sergei, like his son, was ‘going native’. With every passing year he became more peasant-like. He dressed like a peasant, grew his beard, rarely washed, and began to spend most of his time working in the fields or talking with the peasants at the local market town. In 1844 the Volkonskys were allowed to settle in Irkutsk. Maria was immediately accepted into the official circles of the new governor, Muraviev-Amursky, who made no secret of his sympathy for the Decembrist exiles and looked upon them as an intellectual force for the development of Siberia. Maria welcomed this opportunity to become integrated in society again. She set up several schools, a foundling hospital and a theatre. She hosted the town’s main salon in their house, where the governor himself was a frequent visitor. Sergei was seldom there. He found the ‘aristocratic atmosphere’ of Maria’s household disagreeable and preferred to remain at his farm in Urik, coming into Irkutsk just for market days. But after twenty years of seeing his wife suffer in Siberia, he was not about to stand in her way.

5. The ‘peasant prince’: Sergei Volkonsky in Irkutsk. Daguerreotype, 1845

The ‘peasant prince’, for his part, was widely viewed as an eccentric. N. A. Belogolovy, who grew up in Irkutsk in the 1840s, recalls how people were shocked ‘to see the prince on market days sitting on the seat of a peasant cart piled high with flour bags and engaged in a lively conversation with a crowd of peasants whilst they shared a grey bread roll’.81 The couple had constant petty arguments. Maria’s brother, A. N. Raevsky, who had been entrusted with the management of her estates, used the rents to pay his gambling debts. Sergei accused Maria of siding with her brother, who had the support of the Raevskys, and in the end he made legal provisions to separate his own estates from hers so as to secure his children’s legacy.82 From the annual income which they received from their land back in Russia (approximately 4,300 roubles) Sergei assigned 3,300 roubles to Maria (enough for her to live comfortably in Irkutsk), leaving just 1,000 roubles for himself to manage on his little farm.83Increasingly estranged, Sergei and Maria began to live separately (in his letters to his son, Sergei later called it a ‘divorce’)84 - although at the time only the ‘prison family’ was aware of their arrangements.* Maria had a love affair with the handsome and charismatic Decembrist exile Alessandro Poggio, the son of an Italian nobleman who had come to Russia in the 1770s. In Irkutsk Poggio was a daily visitor to Maria’s house, and, although he was a friend of Sergei, he was seen there much too often in her husband’s absence for the gossip not to spread. It was rumoured that Poggio was the father of Misha and Elena - a suggestion which still bothered Sergei in 1864, the year before his death, when he wrote his final letter to his ‘dear friend’ Poggio.85 Eventually, to keep up the appearance of a married life, Sergei built a wooden cabin in the courtyard of Maria’s house, where he slept and cooked his meals and received his peasant friends. Belogolovy recalls a rare appearance in Maria’s drawing room. ‘His face was smeared with tar, his long unkempt beard had bits of straw, and he smelled of the cattle yard… Yet he still spoke perfect French, pronouncing all his “r’s” like a true Frenchman.’86

The urge to lead a simple peasant life was shared by many noblemen (Volkonsky’s distant cousin, Leo Tolstoy, comes to mind). This very ‘Russian’ quest for a ‘Life of Truth’ was more profound than the romantic search for a ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’ existence which motivated cultural movements elsewhere in Europe. At its heart was a religious vision of the ‘Russian soul’ that encouraged national prophets - from the Slavophiles in the 1830s to the Populists in the 1870s - to

* Their marital problems were later covered up by the Raevsky and Volkonsky families by excising whole chunks of their correspondence from their family archives, and this was continued in the publications of the Soviet period, when the Decembrists were heroized. None the less, traces of their separation are still to be found in the archives.

worship at the altar of the peasantry. The Slavophiles believed in the moral superiority of the Russian peasant commune over modern Western ways and argued for a return to these principles. The Populists were convinced that the egalitarian customs of the commune could serve as a model for the socialist and democratic reorganization of society; they turned to the peasants in the hope of finding allies for their revolutionary cause. For all these intellectuals, Russia was revealed, as a messianic truth, in the customs and beliefs of its peasantry. To enter into Russia, and to be redeemed by it, entailed a renunciation of the sinful world into which these children of the gentry had been born. Volkonsky, in this sense, was the first in a long line of Russian noblemen who found their nation, and their salvation, in the peasantry, and his moral quest was rooted in the lessons he had drawn from 1812. He turned his back on what he saw as the false relations of the old class-based society and looked with idealistic expectations towards a new society of equal men. ‘I trust no one with society connections’, he wrote to Ivan Pushchin, his old Decembrist friend, in 1841. ‘There is more honesty and integrity of feeling in the peasants of Siberia.’87

Like all the Decembrist exiles, Volkonsky saw Siberia as a land of democratic hope. Here, it seemed to them, was a young and childlike Russia, primordial and raw, rich in natural resources. It was a frontier land (an ‘America’) whose pioneering farmers were not crushed by serfdom or the state (for there were few serf owners in Siberia), so that they had retained an independent spirit and resourcefulness, a natural sense of justice and equality, from which the old Russia might renew itself. The youthful energy of its unbridled peasants contained Russia’s democratic potential. Hence the Decembrists immersed themselves in the study of Siberian folklore and history; they set up village schools or, like Maria, taught the peasants in their homes; and, like Sergei, they took up peasant crafts or worked the land themselves. The Prince found comfort and a sense of purpose in his peasant toil. It was a release from the endlessness of captive time. ‘Manual labour is such a healthy thing’, Volkonsky wrote to Pushchin. ‘And it is a joy when it feeds one’s family and is of benefit to other people too.’88

But Volkonsky was more than a farmer; he was an agricultural institute. He imported textbooks and new types of seed from European Russia (Maria’s letters home were filled with lists of gardening needs) and he spread the fruits of his science to the peasants, who came to him for advice from miles around.89 The peasants, it would seem, had a genuine respect for ‘our prince’, as they called Volkonsky. They liked his frankness and his openness with them, the ease with which he spoke in their local idiom. It made them less inhibited than they normally were with noblemen.90

This extraordinary ability to enter into the world of the common people requires comment. Tolstoy, after all, never really managed it, even though he tried for nearly fifty years. Perhaps Volkonsky’s success is explained by his long experience of addressing the peasant soldiers in his regiments. Or perhaps, once the conventions of his European culture were stripped away, he could draw on the Russian customs he had grown up with. His transformation was not unlike the one that takes place in Natasha in the scene in War and Peace when she suddenly discovers in her ‘Uncle’s‘ forest cabin that the spirit of the peasant dance is in her blood.


As readers of War and Peace will know, the war of 1812 was a vital watershed in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. It was a war of national liberation from the intellectual empire of the French - a moment when noblemen like the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys struggled to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and began new lives on Russian principles. This was no straightforward metamorphosis (and it happened much more slowly than in Tolstoy’s novel, where the nobles rediscover their forgotten national ways almost overnight). Though anti-French voices had grown to quite a chorus in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the aristocracy was still immersed in the culture of the country against which they were at war. The salons of St Petersburg were filled with young admirers of Bonaparte, such as Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace. The most fashionable set was that of Counts Rumiantsev and Caulaincourt, the French ambassador in Petersburg, the circle in which Tolstoy’s Helene moved. ‘How can we fight the French?’ asks Count Rostopchin, the Governor of Moscow, in War and Peace. ‘Can we arm ourselves against our teachers and divinities? Look at our youths! Look at our ladies! The French are our Gods. Paris is our Kingdom of Heaven.’91 Yet even in these circles there was horror at Napoleon’s invasion, and their reaction against all things French formed the basis of a Russian renaissance in life and art.

In the patriotic climate of 1812 the use of French was frowned upon in the salons of St Petersburg - and in the streets it was even dangerous. Tolstoy’s novel captures perfectly the spirit of that time when nobles, who had been brought up to speak and think in French, struggled to converse in their native tongue. In one set it was agreed to ban the use of French and impose a forfeit on those who made a slip. The only trouble was that no one knew the Russian word for ‘forfeit’ - there was none - so people had to call out ‘forfaiture’. This linguistic nationalism was by no means new. Admiral Shishkov, sometime Minister of Public Education, had placed the defence of the Russian language at the heart of his campaign against the French as early as 1803. He was involved in a long dispute with the Karamzinians, in which he attacked the French expressions of their salon style and wanted literary Russian to return to its archaic Church Slavonic roots.* For Shishkov the influence of French was to blame for the decline of the Orthodox religion and the old patriarchal moral code: the Russian way of life was being undermined by a cultural invasion from the West.

Shishkov’s stock began to rocket after 1812. Renowned as a card player, he was a frequent guest in the fashionable houses of St Petersburg, and between rounds of vingt-et-un he would preach the virtues of the Russian tongue. Among his hosts, he took on the status of a ‘national sage’ and (perhaps in part because they owed him gambling debts) they paid him to tutor their sons.92 It became a fashion

* These disputes over language involved a broader conflict about ‘Russia’ and what it should be - a follower of Europe or a unique culture of its own. They looked forward to the arguments between the Slavophiles and the Westerners. The Slavophiles did not emerge as a distinct grouping for another thirty years, but the term ‘Slavophile’ was first used in the 1800s to describe those, like Shishkov, who favoured Church Slavonic as the ‘national’ idiom (see Iu. Lotman and B. Uspenskii, ‘Spory o iazyke v nachale XIX v. kak fakt russkoi kul’tury’, in Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii, 24, Uchenye zapiski tartuskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, vyp. 39 (Tartu, 1975), pp. 210-1 1).

for the sons of noblemen to learn to read and write their native tongue. Dmitry Sheremetev, the orphaned son of Nikolai Petrovich and Praskovya, spent three years on Russian grammar and even rhetoric as a teenager in the 1810s - as much time as he spent on learning French.93 For lack of Russian texts, children learned to read from the Scriptures - indeed, like Pushkin, they were often taught to read by the church clerk or a local priest.94 Girls were less likely to be taught the Russian script than boys. Unlike their brothers, who were destined to become army officers or landowners, they would not have much business with the merchants or the serfs and hence little need to read or write their native tongue. But in the provinces there was a growing trend for women as well as men to learn Russian. Tolstoy’s mother, Maria Volkonsky, had a fine command of literary Russian, even writing poems in her native tongue.95 Without this growing Russian readership the literary renaissance of the nineteenth century would have been inconceivable. Previously the educated classes in Russia had read mainly foreign literature.

In the eighteenth century the use of French and Russian had demarcated two entirely separate spheres: French the sphere of thought and sentiment, Russian the sphere of daily life. There was one form of language (French or Gallicized ‘salon’ Russian) for literature and another (the plain speech of the peasantry, which was not that far apart from the spoken idiom of the merchants and the clergy) for daily life. There were strict conventions on the use of languages. For example, a nobleman was supposed to write to the Tsar in Russian, and it would have seemed audacious if he wrote to him in French; but he always spoke to the Tsar in French, as he spoke to other noblemen. On the other hand, a woman was supposed to write in French, not just in her correspondence with the sovereign but with all officials, because this was the language of polite society; it would have been deemed a gross indecency if she had used Russian expressions.96 In private correspondence, however, there were few set rules, and by the end of the eighteenth century the aristocracy had become so bilingual that they slipped quite easily and imperceptibly from Russian into French and back again. Letters of a page or so could switch a dozen times, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence, without prompting by a theme.

Tolstoy played on these differences in War and Peace to highlight the social and cultural nuances involved in Russian French. For example, the fact that Andrei Bolkonsky speaks Russian with a French accent places him in the elite pro-French section of the Petersburg aristocracy. Or that Andrei’s friend, the diplomat Bilibin, speaks by preference in French and says ‘only those words in Russian on which he wished to put a contemptuous emphasis’ indicates that Bilibin was a well-known cultural stereotype that readers would easily recognize: the Russian who would rather he were French. But perhaps the best example is Helene - the princess who prefers to speak in French about her extramarital affairs because ‘in Russian she always felt that her case did not sound clear, and French suited it better’.97 In this passage Tolstoy is deliberately echoing the old distinction between French as the language of deceit and Russian as the language of sincerity. His use of dialogue has a similarly nationalist dimension. It is no coincidence that the novel’s most idealized characters speak exclusively in Russian (Princess Maria and the peasant Karataev) or (like Natasha) speak French only with mistakes.

Of course, no novel is a direct window on to life and, however much it might approach that realist ideal in War and Peace, we cannot take these observations as an accurate reflection of reality. To read the correspondence of the Volkonskys - of course not forgetting that they became the Bolkonskys of War and Peace - is to find a far more complex situation than that presented by Tolstoy. Sergei Volkonsky wrote in French but inserted Russian phrases when he mentioned daily life on the estate; or he wrote in Russian when he aimed to underline a vital point and emphasize his own sincerity. By inclination, particularly after 1812, he wrote mostly in Russian; and he was obliged to in his letters from Siberia after 1825 (for his censors only read Russian). But there were occasions when he wrote in French (even after 1825): for example, when he wrote in the subjunctive mode or used formal phrases and politesses; or in passages where, in contravention of the rules, he wanted to express his views on politics in a language the censors would not understand. Sometimes he used French to explain a concept for which there was no Russian word - ‘diligence’, ‘duplicite’ and ‘discretion’.98

In its customs and its daily habits the aristocracy was struggling to become more ‘Russian’, too. The men of 1812 gave up feasts of haute cuisine for spartan Russian lunches, as they strived to simplify and Russianize their opulent lifestyle. Noblemen took peasant ‘wives’ with growing frequency and openness (what was good for a Sheremetev was also good for them) and there were even cases of noblewomen living with or marrying serfs.” Even Arakcheev, the Minister of War who became so detested for his brutal regime in the army, kept an unofficial peasant wife by whom he had two sons who were educated in the Corps des Pages.100Native crafts were suddenly in vogue. Russian china with scenes from rural life was increasingly preferred to the classical designs of imported eighteenth-century porcelain. Karelian birch and other Russian woods, especially in the more rustic stylings of serf craftsmen, began to compete with the fine imported furniture of the classical palace, and even to displace it in those private living spaces where the nobleman relaxed. Count Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy, a military hero of 1812, was the owner of a magnificent mansion on the English Embankment in St Petersburg. The reception rooms had marble walls and mirrors with sumptuous decorations in the French Empire style, but after 1812 he had his bedroom lined with rough wooden logs to give it the appearance of a peasant hut.101

Recreations were going Russian, too. At balls in Petersburg, where European dances had always reigned supreme, it became the fashion to perform the pliaska and other Russian dances after 1812. Countess Orlova was renowned for these peasant dances, which she studied and performed at Moscow balls.102 But there were other noblewomen who, like Natasha Rostov, had somehow taken in the spirit of the dance, as if they had breathed it ‘from the Russian air’. Princess Elena Golitsyn danced her first pliaska at a New Year’s Ball in Petersburg in 1817. ‘Nobody had taught me how to dance the pliaska. It was simply that I was a “Russian girl”. I had grown up in the country, and when I heard the refrain of our village song, “The Maid Went to Fetch the Water”, I could not stop myself from the opening hand movements of the dance.’103

Rural recreations were another indication of this newfound Russian-ness. It was at this time that the dacha first emerged as a national institution, although the country or suburban summer house did not become a mass phenomenon until the final decades of the nineteenth century (Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard was famously cut down for dacha building land). The high aristocracy of Petersburg was renting dachas in the eighteenth century. Pavlovsk and Peterhof were their preferred resorts, where they could escape the city’s heat and take in the fresh air of the pinewood forests or the sea. The Tsars had elaborate summer palaces with immense pleasure gardens in both of these resorts. During the early nineteenth century the dacha fashion spread to the minor gentry, who built more modest houses in the countryside.

In contrast to the formal classicism of the urban palace, the dacha was constructed in a simple Russian style. It was usually a double-storeyed wooden building with a mezzanine verandah that ran all round the house with ornate window and door-frame carvings seen more commonly on peasant huts, although some of the grander dachas might incongruously add a Roman arch and columns to the front. The dacha was a place for Russian relaxations and pursuits: picking mushrooms in the woods, making jams, drinking tea from the samovar, fishing, hunting, visiting the bath house, or spending the whole day, like Goncharov’s Oblomov, in an oriental khalat. A month in the country allowed the nobleman to throw off the pressures of the court and official life, to become more himself in a Russian milieu. It was common to dispense with formal uniforms and to dress in casual Russian clothes. Simple Russian food took the place of haute cuisine, and some dishes, such as summer soup with kvas (okroshka), fish in aspic and pickled mushrooms, tea with jam, or cherry brandy, became practically synonymous with the dacha way of life.104

Of all the countryside pursuits, hunting was the one that came the closest to a national institution, in the sense that it united nobleman and serf as fellow sportsmen and fellow countrymen. The early nineteenth century was the heyday of the hunt - a fact that was connected to the gentry’s rediscovery of ‘the good life on the estate’ after 1812. There were noblemen who gave up their careers in the civil service and retired to the country for a life of sport. The Rostovs’ ‘Uncle’ in War and Peace was typical:

’Why don’t you enter the service, Uncle?’

’I did once, but gave it up. I am not fit for it…I can’t make head or tail of it. That’s for you- I haven’t brains enough. Now hunting is another matter…

There were two kinds of hunting in Russia - the formal chase with hounds, which was very grand, and the simple type of hunting by a man on foot with a solitary hound and a serf companion, as immortalized in Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852). The formal chase was conducted in the manner of a military campaign, sometimes lasting several weeks, with hundreds of riders, huge packs of dogs and a vast retinue of hunting serfs camping out on the estates of the nobility. Lev Izmailov, Marshal of the Riazan Nobility, took 3,000 hunters and 2,000 hounds on his ‘campaigns’.106 Baron Mengden kept an elite caste of hunting serfs with their own scarlet livery and special Arab horses for the hunt. When they left, with the baron at their head, they took several hundred carts with hay and oats, a hospital on wheels for wounded dogs, a mobile kitchen and so many servants that the baron’s house was emptied, leaving his wife and daughters with only a bartender and a boy.107 This type of hunting was dependent on the gentry’s ownership of vast serf armies and virtually all the land - conditions which persisted until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Like the English hunt, it was serious and stuffy, rigidly observing the social hierarchy, with the hunting serfs, if not running with the hounds, then clearly in a subservient role.

By contrast, Turgenev’s type of hunting was relatively egalitarian -and it was so in a distinctly Russian way. When the nobleman went hunting with his serf companion he left behind the civilization of his palace and entered the world of the peasantry. Squire and serf were brought together by this type of sport. They dressed much the same; they shared their food and drink when they stopped along the way; they slept side by side in peasant huts and barns; and, as described in Turgenev’s Sketches, they talked about their lives in a spirit of companionship that often made them close and lasting friends.108 There was much more to this than the usual ‘male bonding’ around sport. As far as the squire was concerned, the hunt on foot was a rural odyssey, an encounter with an undiscovered peasant land; it was almost incidental how many birds or beasts were shot. In the final lyrical episode of the Sketches, where the narrator sums up all the joys of hunting, there is barely mention of the sport itself. What emerges from this perfect piece of writing is the hunter’s intense love of the Russian countryside and its changing beauty through the different seasons of the year:

And a summer morning in July! Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn? Your feet leave green imprints in grass that is heavy and white with dew. You push aside wet bushes - the warm scent accumulated in the night almost smothers you; the air is impregnated with the fresh bitter-sweet fragrance of wormwood, the honeyed scent of buckwheat and clover; far off an oak forest rises like a wall, shining purple in the sunshine; the air is still fresh, but the coming heat can already be felt. Your head becomes slightly dizzy from such an excess of sweet scents. And there’s no end to the bushes. Away in the distance ripening rye glows yellow and there are narrow strips of rust-red buckwheat. Then there’s the sound of a cart; a peasant drives by at walking pace, leaving his horse in the shade before the sun gets hot. You greet him, pass on, and after a while the metallic rasping of a scythe can be heard behind you. The sun is rising higher and higher, and the grass quickly dries out. It’s already hot. First one hour, then another passes. The sky darkens at the edges and the motionless air is aflame with the prickly heat.109

Russian forms of dress became the height of fashion after 1812. At balls and receptions in St Petersburg, and from the 1830s at the court as well, society ladies began to appear in national costume, complete with the sarafan tunic and kokoshnik head-dress of old Muscovy. The Russian peasant shawl was hugely popular with noblewomen in the 1810s. There had been a fashion for oriental shawls in Europe during the last decades of the eighteenth century which the Russians had copied by importing their own shawls from India. But after 1812 it was Russian peasant shawls that became the rage, and serf workshops emerged as major centres of the fashion industry.110 The Russian gown (kapot), traditionally worn by peasant and provincial merchant wives, entered haute couture slightly earlier, in the 1780s, when Catherine the Great took to wearing one, but it too was widely worn from about 1812. The kaftan and khalat (a splendid sort of housecoat or dressing gown in which one could lounge about at home and receive guests) came back into fashion among noblemen. The podyovka, a short kaftan traditionally worn by the peasantry, was added to the wardrobe of the nobleman as well. To wear such clothes was not just to relax and be oneself at home; it was, in the words of one memoirist, ‘to make a conscious statement of one’s Russianness’.111 When, in 1827,

Tropinin painted Pushkin wearing a khalat (plate 22), he was portraying him as a gentleman who was perfectly at ease with the customs of his land.

A fashion for the ‘natural’ look took hold of noblewomen in the 1820s. The new ideal of beauty focused on a vision of the purity of the female figures of antiquity and the Russian peasantry. Fidel Bruni’s portrait of Zinaida Volkonsky (1810) illustrates this style. Indeed, according to society rumour, it was precisely her simplicity of dress that had attracted the amorous attentions of the Emperor,112 who was himself susceptible to all of Nature’s charms. * Women took to wearing cotton clothes. They dressed their hair in a simple style and rejected heavy make-up for the pale complexion favoured by this cult of unadorned Nature.113 The turn toward Nature and simplicity was widespread throughout Europe from the final decades of the eighteenth century. Women had been throwing out their powdered wigs and renouncing heavy scents like musk for light rose waters that allowed the natural fragrance of clean flesh to filter through. There it had developed under the influence of Rousseau and Romantic ideas about the virtues of Nature. But in Russia the fashion for the natural had an extra, national dimension. It was linked to the idea that one had to strip away the external layers of cultural convention to reveal the Russian personality. Pushkin’s Tatiana in Eugene Onegin was the literary incarnation of this natural Russianness - so much so that the simple style of dress worn by noblewomen became known as the ‘Onegin’.114 Readers saw Tatiana as a ‘Russian heroine’ whose true self was revealed in the memories of her simple childhood in the countryside:

’To me, Onegin, all these splendours, This weary tinselled life of mine,

* The Emperor Alexander began taking a daily promenade along the Palace Embankment and the Nevsky Prospekt as far as the Anichkov bridge. It was, in the words of the memoirist Vigel, a ‘conscious striving by the Tsar for simplicity in daily life’ (F. F. Vigel’, Zapiski, chast’ 2 (Moscow, 1892.), p. 32.). Before 1800, no self-respecting nobleman would go anywhere in Petersburg except by carriage, and (as Kniazhnin’s comic opera testified) vast personal fortunes would be spent on the largest carriages imported from Europe. But, under Alexander’s influence, it became the fashion in St Petersburg to ‘faire le tour imperial‘.

This homage that the great world tenders,

My stylish house where princes dine -

Are empty… I’d as soon be trading

This tattered life of masquerading,

This world of glitter, fumes, and noise,

For just my books, the simple joys

Of our old home, its walks and flowers,

For all those haunts that I once knew…

Where first, Onegin, I saw you;

For that small churchyard’s shaded bowers,

Where over my poor nanny now

There stands a cross beneath a bough.’115

Pushkin’s masterpiece is, among many other things, a subtle exploration of the complex Russian-European consciousness that typified the aristocracy in the age of 1812. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky said that Eugene Onegin was an encyclopaedia of Russian life, and Pushkin himself, in its final stanzas, developed the idea of the novel as life’s book. In no other work can one see so clearly the visceral influence of cultural convention on the Russian sense of self. In many ways, indeed, the novel’s central subject is the complex interplay between life and art. The syncretic nature of Tatiana’s character is an emblem of the cultural world in which she lives. At one moment she is reading a romantic novel; at another listening to her nanny’s superstitions and folk tales. She is torn between the gravitational fields of Europe and Russia. Her very name, Tatiana, as Pushkin underlines in a footnote, comes from the ancient Greek, yet in Russia it is ‘used only among the common people’.116 In the affairs of the heart, as well, Tatiana is subject to the different cultural norms of European Russia and the peasant countryside. As a rather young and impressionable girl from the provinces, she inhabits the imaginary world of the romantic novel and understands her feelings in these terms. She duly falls in love with the Byronic figure of Eugene and, like one of her fictional heroines, she writes to declare her love to him. Yet when the lovesick Tatiana asks her nanny if she has ever been in love, she becomes exposed to the influence of a very different culture where romantic love is a foreign luxury and obedience is a woman’s main virtue. The peasant nurse tells Tatiana how she was married off at the age of just thirteen to an even younger boy whom she had never seen before:

I got so scared… my tears kept falling; And weeping, they undid my plait, Then sang me to the churchyard gate.117

This encounter between the two cultures represents Tatiana’s own predicament: whether to pursue her own romantic dreams or sacrifice herself in the traditional ‘Russian’ way (the way chosen by Maria Volkonsky when she gave up everything to follow her Decembrist husband to Siberia). Onegin rejects Tatiana - he sees her as a naive country girl - and then, after killing his friend Lensky in a duel, he disappears for several years. Meanwhile Tatiana is married to a man she does not really love, as far as one can tell, a military hero from the wars of 1812 who is ‘well received’ at court. Tatiana rises to become a celebrated hostess in St Petersburg. Onegin now returns and falls in love with her. Years of wandering through his native land have somehow changed the former dandy of St Petersburg, and finally he sees her natural beauty, her ‘lack of mannerisms or any borrowed tricks’. But Tatiana remains faithful to her marriage vows. She has come, it seems, to embrace her ‘Russian principles’ - to see through the illusions of romantic love. Looking through the books in Onegin’s library, she understands at last the fictive dimension of his personality:

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak, Compendium of affectation, A lexicon of words in vogue… Mere parody and just a rogue?118

Yet even here, when Tatiana tells Onegin,

I love you (why should I dissemble?); But I am now another’s wife, And I’ll be faithful all my life119 we see in her the dense weave of cultural influences. These lines are adapted from a song well known among the Russian folk. Thought in Pushkin’s time to have been written by Peter the Great, it was translated into French by Pushkin’s own uncle. Tatiana could have read it in an old issue of Mercure de France. But she could also have heard it from her peasant nurse.120 It is a perfect illustration of the complex intersections between European and native Russian culture during Pushkin’s age.

Pushkin himself was a connoisseur of Russian songs and tales. Chulkov’s ABC of Russian Superstitions (1780-83) and Levshin’s Russian Tales (1788) were well-thumbed texts on Pushkin’s shelves. He had been brought up on the peasant tales and superstitions of his beloved nanny, Arina Rodionova, who became the model for Tatiana’s nurse. ‘Mama’ Rodionova was a talented narrator, elaborating and enriching many standard tales, judging by the transcripts of her stories that Pushkin later made.121 During his years of exile in the south in 1820-24 he became a serious explorer of the folk traditions, those of the Cossacks in particular, and then, when exiled to his family estate at Mikhailovskoe in 1824-6, he carried on collecting songs and tales. Pushkin used these as the basis of Ruslan and Liudmila (1820), his first major poem, which some critics panned as mere ‘peasant verse’, and for his stylized ‘fairy tales’ like Tsar Sultan which he composed in his final years. Yet he had no hesitation in mixing Russian stories with European sources, such as the fables of La Fontaine or the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers. For The Golden Cockerel (1834) he even borrowed from the Legend of the Arabian Astrologer which he had come across in the 1832 French translation of The Legends of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. As far as Pushkin was concerned, Russia was a part of Western and world culture, and it did not make his ‘folk tales’ any less authentic if he combined all these sources in literary re-creations of the Russian style. How ironic, then, that Soviet nationalists regarded Pushkin’s stories as direct expressions of the Russian folk.*

* Akhmatova was denounced by the Soviet literary authorities for suggesting, quite correctly, that some of Pushkin’s sources for his ‘Russian tales’ were taken from The Thousand and One Nights.

By Pushkin’s death, in 1837, the literary use of folk tales had become commonplace, almost a condition of literary success. More than any other Western canon, Russian literature was rooted in the oral narrative traditions, to which it owed much of its extraordinary strength and originality. Pushkin, Lermontov, Ostrovsky, Nekrasov, Tolstoy, Leskov and Saltykov-Shchedrin - all to some degree could be thought of as folklorists, all certainly used folklore in many of their works. But none captured the essential spirit of the folk tale better than Nikolai Gogol.

Gogol was in fact a Ukrainian, and, were it not for Pushkin, who was his mentor and gave him the true plots of his major works, The Government Inspector (1836) and Dead Souls (1835-52), he might have written in the peasant dialect of his native Mirgorod, where Gogol’s father was well known (though unpublishable under Tsarist laws) as a writer in Ukrainian. During his childhood Gogol fell in love with the earthy idiom of the local peasantry. He loved their songs and dances, their terrifying tales and comic stories, from which his own fantastic tales of Petersburg would later take their cue. He first rose to fame as ‘Rudy [i.e. redhead] Panko, Beekeeper’, the pseudonymous author of a bestselling collection of stories, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1831-2), which fed the growing craze for Ukrainian folk tales. Aladin’s Kochubei, Somov’s Haidamaki and Kulzhinsky’s Cossack Hat had all been great successes in the Russian capital. But Gogol was nothing if not ambitious and, in 1828, when barely out of school, he came to Petersburg in the hope of making his own literary name. Working during the day as a humble clerk (of the sort that filled his stories), he wrote at night in his lonely attic room. He badgered his mother and sister to send him details of Ukrainian songs and proverbs, and even bits of costume which he wanted them to buy from the local peasants and send to him in a trunk. Readers were delighted with the ‘authenticity’ of Evenings on a Farm. Some critics thought that the stories had been spoilt by a ‘coarse’ and ‘improper’ folk language. But the language of the stories was their principal success. It echoed perfectly the musical sonorities of peasant speech - one of the reasons why the stories were adapted by Musorgsky for the unfinished Soroch-intsy Fair (1874-) and for St John’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867), and by Rimsky-Korsakov for May Night (1879) - and it could be

understood by Everyman. During the proof stage of Evenings on a Farm Gogol paid a visit to the typesetters. ‘The strangest thing occurred’, he explained to Pushkin. ‘As soon as I opened the door and the printers noticed me, they began to laugh and turned away from me. I was somewhat taken aback and asked for an explanation. The printer explained: “The items that you sent are very amusing and they have greatly amused the typesetters.”’122

More and more, common speech entered literature, as writers like Gogol began to assimilate the spoken idiom to their written form. Literary language thus broke free from the confines of the salon and flew out, as it were, into the street, taking on the sounds of colloquial Russian and ceasing in the process to depend on French loan words for ordinary things. Lermontov’s civic poetry was filled with the rhythms and expressions of the folk, as recorded by himself from peasant speech. His epic Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov (1837) imitates the style of the bylina; while his brilliantly patriotic Borodino (1837) (written to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon’s army) re-creates the spirit of the battlefield by having it described from the peasant soldiers’ point of view:

For three long days we fired at random, We knew that we had not unmanned them, And neither meant to yield. Each soldier thought it should be ended: For had we fought or just pretended? And then it was that night descended Upon that fateful field.123

Russian music also found its national voice through the assimilation of folk song. The first Collection of Russian Folk Songs was assembled by Nikolai Lvov and annotated by Ivan Prach in 1790. The distinctive features of the peasant chant - the shifting tones and uneven rhythms that would become such a feature of the Russian musical style from Musorgsky to Stravinsky - were altered to conform to Western musical formulas so that the songs could be performed with conventional keyboard accompaniment (Russia’s piano-owning classes needed their folk music to be ‘pleasing to the ear’).124 The Lvov-Prach collection was an instant hit, and it quickly went through several editions. Throughout the nineteenth century it was plundered by composers in search of ‘authentic’ folk material, so that nearly all the folk tunes in the Russian repertory, from Glinka to Rimsky-Korsakov, were derived from Lvov-Prach. Western composers also turned to it for exotic Russian colour and themes russes. Beethoven used two songs from the Lvov collection in the ‘Razumovsky’ string quartets (opus 59), commissioned in 1805 by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, at the height of the Russo-Austrian alliance against Napoleon. One of the songs was the famous ‘Slava’ (‘Glory’) chorus -later used by Musorgsky in the coronation scene of Boris Godunov -which Beethoven used as the subject for a fugue in the scherzo of the opus 59 number 2 quartet. It was originally a sviatochnaya, a folk song sung by Russian girls to accompany their divination games at the New Year. Trinkets would be dropped into a dish of water and drawn out one by one as the maidens sang their song. The simple tune became a great national chorus in the war of 1812 - the Tsar’s name being substituted for the divine powers in the ‘Glory’ choruses; in later versions, the names of officers were added, too.125

The Imperial recruitment of this peasant theme was equally pronounced in Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). Its climactic version of the same ‘Glory’ chorus practically became a second national anthem in the nineteenth century.* Mikhail Glinka was exposed to Russian music from an early age. His grandfather had been in charge of music at the local church of Novospasskoe - in a region of Smolensk that was famous for the strident sound of its church bells - and his uncle had a serf orchestra that was renowned for performing Russian songs. In 1812 the Glinka home was overrun and pillaged by French troops as they advanced towards Moscow. Though he was only eight at the time, it must have stirred the patriotic feelings of the future Composer of A Life, whose plot was suggested by the peasant partisans. The opera tells the story of Ivan Susanin, a peasant from the estate of Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the Romanov dynasty, in Kostroma. According to legend, in the winter of 1612 Susanin had saved Mikhail’s

*After 1917 there were suggestions that the ‘Glory’ chorus should become the national anthem.

life by misdirecting the Polish troops who had invaded Russia in its ‘Time of Troubles’ (1605-13) and had come to Kostroma to murder Mikhail on the eve of his assumption of the throne. Susanin lost his life, but a dynasty was saved. The obvious parallels between Susanin’s sacrifice and the peasant soldiers’ in 1812 stimulated a romantic interest in the Susanin myth. Ryleev wrote a famous ballad about him and Mikhail Zagoskin two bestselling novels, set respectively in 1612 and 1812.

Glinka said that his opera was conceived as a battle between Polish and Russian music. The Poles were heard in the polonaise and the mazurka, the Russians in his own adaptations of folk and urban songs. Glinka’s supposed debt to folklore made him Russia’s first canonical ‘national composer’; while A Life took on the status of the quintessential ‘Russian opera’, its ritual performance on all national occasions practically enforced by Imperial decree. Yet in fact there were relatively few folk melodies (in a noticeable form) in the opera. Glinka had assimilated the folk style and expressed its basic spirit, but the music he wrote was entirely his own. He had fused the qualities of Russian peasant music with the European form. He had shown, in the words of the poet Odoevsky, that ‘Russian melody may be elevated to a tragic style’.126

In painting, too, there was a new approach to the Russian peasantry. The canons of good taste in the eighteenth century had demanded that the peasant be excluded, as a subject, from all serious forms of art. Classical norms dictated that the artist should present universal themes: scenes from antiquity or the Bible, set in a timeless Greek or Italian landscape. Russian genre painting developed very late, in the final decades of the eighteenth century, and its image of the common man was sentimentalized: plump peasant cherubs in a pastoral scene or sympathetic ‘rustic types’ with stock expressions to display that they had human feelings, too. It was a visual version of the sentimental novel or the comic opera which had highlighted the serfs’ humanity by telling of their love lives and romantic suffering. Yet, in the wake of 1812, a different picture of the peasantry emerged - one that emphasized their heroic strength and human dignity.

This can be seen in the work of Alexei Venetsianov, a quintessential child of 1812. The son of a Moscow merchant (from a family that

6. Alexei Venetsianov: Cleaning Beetroot, 1820

came originally from Greece), Venetsianov was a draughtsman and a land surveyor for the government before setting up as a painter and engraver in the 1800s. Like many of the pioneers of Russian culture (Musorgsky comes to mind), he received no formal education and remained outside the Academy throughout his life. In 1812 he came to the attention of the public for a series of engravings of the peasant partisans. Selling in huge numbers, they glorified the image of the partisans, drawing them in the form of warriors of ancient Greece and Rome, and from that point on the public called the partisans the ‘Russian Hercules’.127 The war of 1812 formed Venetsianov’s views. Although not a political man, he moved in the same circles as the Decembrists and shared their ideals. In 1815 he acquired through his wife a small estate in Tver and, four years later, he retired there, setting up a school for the village children and supporting several peasant artists from his meagre income off the land. One of them was Grigory Soroka, whose tender portrait of his teacher, painted in the 1840s, is a moving testimony to Venetsianov’s character.

Venetsianov knew the peasants of his village individually - and in his best portraits, that is how he painted them. He conveyed their personal qualities, just as other portrait painters set out to convey the individual character of noblemen. This psychological aspect was revolutionary for its day, when, with few exceptions, portraitists turned out generic ‘peasant types’. Venetsianov focused on the close-up face, forcing viewers to confront the peasant and look him in the eyes, inviting them to enter his inner world. Venetsianov also pioneered the naturalist school of landscape painting in Russia. The character of the Tver countryside - its subdued greens and quiet earth colours - can be seen in all his work. He conveyed the vastness of the Russian land by lowering the horizon to enhance the immensity of the sky over its flat open spaces - a technique derived from icon painting and later copied by epic landscape painters such as Vrubel and Vasnetsov. Unlike the artists of the Academy, who treated landscape as mere background and copied it from European works, Venetsianov painted directly from nature. For The Threshing Floor (1820) he had his serfs saw out the end wall of a barn so that he could paint them at work inside it. No other painter brought such realism to his depictions of agricultural life. In Cleaning Beetroot (1820) he makes the viewer look at the dirty callused hands and exhausted expressions of the three young female labourers who dominate the scene. It was the first time that such ugly female forms - so foreign to the classical tradition - had appeared in Russian art. Yet these sad figures win our sympathy for their human dignity in the face of suffering. Venetsianov’s elevated vision of human toil was most apparent in his many images of peasant women. In perhaps his finest painting, a symbolic study of a peasant with her child, In the Ploughed Field: Spring (1827) (plate 4), he combines the distinctive Russian features of his female labourer with the sculptural proportions of an antique heroine. The woman in the field is a peasant goddess. She is the mother of the Russian land.


Compared to their parents, the Russian nobles who grew up after 1812 put a higher valuation on childhood. It took a long time for such attitudes to change, but already by the middle decades of the nineteenth century one can discern a new veneration of childhood on the part of those memoirists and writers who recalled their upbringing after 1812. This nostalgia for the age of childhood merged with a new reverence for the Russian customs which they had known as children through their fathers’ household serfs.

In the eighteenth century the aristocracy had seen childhood as a preparation for the adult world. It was a stage to be overcome as soon as possible, and children who delayed this transition, like Mitrofan in Fonvizin’s The Minor, were regarded as simpletons. High-born children were expected to behave like ‘little adults’ and they were prepared to enter into society from an early age. Girls were taught to dance from eight years old. By the age of ten or twelve they were already going to the ‘children’s balls’ that were run by dancing masters in the fashionable houses, from which, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, they would graduate to their first grown-up ball. Natasha Rostov was relatively old, at eighteen years, when she attended her first ball and danced with Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Boys, meanwhile, were signed up for the Guards and dressed in their regimental uniforms long before they were old enough to hold a sword. Volkonsky joined his father’s regiment (a sergeant in absentia) at the tender age of six. By eight he was a sergeant in the Kherson Grenadiers; by nine, an adjutant to General Suvorov; although, of course, it was only later, at the age of sixteen, that he began active service on the battlefield. Boys destined for the civil service were sent to boarding school at the age of eight or nine, where they were indoctrinated in the service ethic and, like adult State officials, they wore a civil (rather than a school) uniform. School was seen as little more than an apprenticeship for the civil service and, since the student was allowed to join the service on his fifteenth birthday, few noble families thought it necessary to educate their sons beyond that age. Indeed, in so far as the Table of Ranks reinforced the principle of promotion by seniority, any further education was considered disadvantageous: the sooner one got on to the promotion ladder the better.

The memoirist Vasily Selivanov grew up in a household where the seven sons were all prepared for military service from an early age. His father ran the family like a regiment, the sons all ranked by age and under strict instructions to stand up in his presence and call him ‘sir’. When Selivanov joined the Dragoons in 1830, at the age of seventeen, the transition from palace to barracks must have felt like going from one home to another.128 Not all noble families were quite as regimented as the Selivanovs, of course, but in many the relations between parents and their children were conducted on the same basic principles of discipline that ruled the institutions of the army and the state. Such rigour had not always been the case: the domestic life of the noble family in the seventeenth century might have been extremely patriarchal but it was also intimate. Rather, it was copied by the Russians from the West, especially England - although, like much that was brought to Russia in the eighteenth century, it became so ingrained in the nobility that it practically defined that class in the nineteenth century. Noble parents kept their children at arm’s length, which often meant the length of the longest corridor, or down the longest staircase to a separate basement floor in the servants’ quarters of their house. V. A. Sollogub grew up in a mansion on the Palace Embankment in St Petersburg. The adults lived in the main house while the children were consigned with their nanny and a wet nurse to an annexed wing, and only saw their parents briefly once or twice a day - for example, to thank them for their dinner (but not to eat with them) or to kiss them goodbye when they went away. ‘Our lives were entirely separate,’ Sollogub recalled, ‘and there was never any sign of emotion. We children were allowed to kiss our parents on the hand, but there was no fondling, and we had to address them in French with the formal “vous“. Children were subjected to a strict domestic code of servility, almost like the laws for serfs’.129 Nikolai Shatilov, who grew up in a wealthy landowning family of Tula province in the 1860s, was confined as a young boy to a separate apartment in the house, where he lived with his tutor and took all his meals: he did not see his parents ‘for months on end’.130

Distant fathers were, of course, the norm in nineteenth-century Europe, but there were few cultures where the mother was as remote as she tended to be in the Russian noble family. It was the custom for a noble child to be put into the care of a wet nurse almost from the day they were born. Even as the child grew up there were many noble mothers who were just too busy with their social life, or with other babies, to give them the attention that they must have surely craved. ‘Mother was extremely kind, but we hardly ever saw her’ is a phrase that crops up often in nineteenth-century memoirs about gentry life.131 Anna Karenina, although not a model parent, was not exceptional in her ignorance of the routines of her children’s nursery (‘I’m so useless here’).132

It was not unusual, then, for the noble child to grow up without any direct parental discipline. Parents often left their children to the care of relatives (typically a spinster aunt or grandmother) or to the supervision of their nannies and the maids and the rest of the domestic staff. Yet the servants were naturally afraid to discipline their master’s children (the ‘little masters’ and the ‘little mistresses’), so they tended to indulge them and let them have their way. Boys, in particular, were prone to misbehave (‘little monsters’), knowing very well that their parents would defend them if their nanny, a mere serf, dared to complain. Critics of the social system, like the writer Saltykov-Shchedrin, argued that this latitude encouraged noble children to be cruel to serfs; in their adult lives they carried on in the belief that they could lord it over all their serfs and treat them as they liked. It is certainly conceivable that the selfishness and cruelty towards the serfs that ran right through the governing elites of Tsarist Russia went back in some cases to the formative experiences of childhood. For example, if a noble child was sent to the local parish school (a practice that was common in the provinces), he would go with a serf boy, whose sole purpose was to take the whipping for his master’s misdemeanours in the class. How could this develop any sense of justice in the noble child?

Yet there were bonds of affection and respect between many noble children and their serfs. Herzen argued that children liked to be with the servants ‘because they were bored in the drawing-room and happy in the pantry’ and because they shared a common temperament.

This resemblance between servants and children accounts for their mutual attraction. Children hate the aristocratic ideas of the grown-ups and their benevolently condescending manners, because they are clever and understand that in the eyes of grown-up people they are children, while in the eyes of servants they are people. Consequently they are much fonder of playing cards or lotto with the maids than with visitors. Visitors play for the children’s benefit with condescension. They give way to them, tease them, and stop playing whenever they feel like it; the maids, as a rule, play as much for their own sakes as for the children’s, and that gives the game interest. Servants are extremely devoted to children, and this is not the devotion of a slave, but the mutual affection of the weak and the simple.133

Writing as a socialist, Herzen put down his ‘hatred of oppression’ to the ‘mutual alliance’ he had formed with the servants as a child against the senior members of the house. He recalled: ‘At times, when I was a child, Vera Artamonovna [his nanny] would say by way of the greatest rebuke for some naughtiness: “Wait a bit, you will grow up and turn into just such another master as the rest.” I felt this a horrible insult. The old woman need not have worried herself - just such another as the rest, anyway, I have not become.’14 Much of this, of course, was written for effect; it made for a good story. Yet other writers similarly claimed that their populist convictions had been formed by their childhood contacts with the serfs.135

The high-born Russian boy spent his childhood in the downstairs servants’ world. He was cared for by his serf nanny, who slept by his side in the nursery, held him when he cried, and in many cases became like a mother to him. Everywhere he went he was accompanied by his serf ‘uncle’. Even when he went to school or enrolled in the army this trusted servant would act as his guardian. Young girls, too, were chaperoned by a ‘shaggy footman’ - so-called on account of the fur coat he wore over the top of his livery - like the one imagined as ‘a huge and matted bear’ in Tatiana’s dream in Eugene Onegin:

She dare not look to see behind her, And ever faster on she reels; At every turn he seems to find her, The shaggy footman at her heels!…136

By necessity the children of the servants were the playmates of the high-born child - for in the countryside there would not be other children of a similar social class for miles around. Like many nineteenth-century memoirists, Anna Lelong had fond memories of the games she played with the village girls and boys: throwing games with blocks of wood (gorodki); bat-and-ball games played with bones and bits of scrap metal (babki and its many variants); clapping-singing-dancing games; and divination games. In the summer she would go swimming with the village children in the river, or she would be taken by her nanny to the villages to play with the younger children as their mothers threshed the rye. Later, in the autumn, she would join the village girls to pick whortleberries and make jam. She loved these moments when she was allowed to enter the peasant world. The fact that it was forbidden by her parents, and that her nanny made her promise not to tell, made it even more exciting for the girl. In the pantry was an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy that was missing in her parents’ drawing room. ‘I would get up very early and go into the maids’ room where they were already at their spinning wheels, and nanny would be knitting socks. I would listen to the stories about peasants being sold, about young boys sent to Moscow or girls married off. There was nothing like this in my parents’ house.’ Listening to such stories, she ‘began to understand what serfdom meant and it made me wish that life was different’.137

Herzen wrote that there existed ‘a feudal bond of affection’ between the noble family and its household serfs.138 We have lost sight of this bond in the histories of oppression that have shaped our views of serfdom since 1917. But it can be found in the childhood memoirs of the aristocracy; it lives on in every page of nineteenth-century literature; and its spirit can be felt in Russian paintings - none more lyrical than Venetsianov’s Morning of the Lady of the Manor (1823) (plate 3).

Of all the household servants, those associated with childcare (the maid, the wet nurse and the nanny) were the closest to the family. They formed a special caste that died out suddenly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. They were set apart from the other serfs by their fierce devotion and, hard though it may be to understand today, many of them derived all their joy from serving the family. Given special rooms in the main house and treated, on the whole, with kindness and respect, such women became part of the family and many were kept on and provided for long after they had ceased to work. The nostalgia

7. A wet nurse in traditional Russian dress. Early-twentieth-century photograph

of the nobleman for his childhood was associated with the warmth and tenderness of his relationship with these people.

The wet nurse was a particularly important figure in the Russian noble family. Russians continued to employ a peasant wet nurse long after it had become the conventional wisdom in the rest of Europe for mothers to breastfeed their own infants. Child-rearing handbooks of the early nineteenth century were overtly nationalist in their defence of this habit, claiming that the ‘milk of a peasant girl can give lifelong health and moral purity to the noble child’.139 It was common for the wet nurse to be dressed, and sometimes even painted, in traditional Russian dress - a custom that continued in many families until the revolution of 1917.* Ivan Argunov, the Sheremetevs’ artist, depicted several ‘unknown peasant girls’ who were most probably wet nurses. The fact that a girl like this should become the subject of a portrait painting, commissioned for display in her owner’s house, in itself speaks volumes about her position in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. Pavel Sumarokov, recalling daily life among the nobility in the eighteenth century, said that the wet nurse was given pride of place among all the domestic staff. The family would call her by her name and patronymic rather than by the nickname that was given to most serfs. She was also the only servant who was allowed to remain seated in the presence of the mistress or the master of the house.140 Noble memoirs from the nineteenth century are filled with descriptions of the family’s affection for their old wet nurse, who was likely to be treated as a much-loved member of the family and provided with living quarters until she died. Anna Lelong loved her nurse Vasilisia ‘more than anyone’, and parting from her, as she had to do when she left home to get married, caused her ‘dreadful grief. The intimacy of their relationship, which was ‘like that of a mother and a daughter’, stemmed from the death of the nurse’s infant son. Because of her duties to nurse Anna, she had been obliged to abandon him. Guilt and surrogacy became intertwined, for both Anna and her nurse. Later on, when Anna’s husband died, she took it upon herself to care for her old nurse, who came to live with her at the family estate.141

But it was the nanny who was closest to the heart of the noble child.

” The artist Dobuzhinsky described the spectacular appearance of the traditional wet nurse on the streets of Petersburg before 1917: ‘She had a kind of “parade uniform”, a pseudo-peasant costume, theatrically designed, which was worn right up to the outbreak of the war in 1914. One often saw a fat, red-cheeked wet nurse walking beside her fashionably dressed mistress. She would be dressed in a brocade blouse and cape, and a pink head-dress if the baby was a girl, or a blue one if it was a boy. In the summer the wet nurses used to wear coloured sarafans with lots of small gold or glass buttons and muslin balloon sleeves’. (M. V. Dobuzhinskii vospominaniia (New York, 1976, p. 34.)

The stereotype of the old-fashioned nanny - the sort that appears in countless works of art from Eugene Onegin to Boris Godunov -was a simple and kind-hearted Russian peasant woman who got the children up, supervised their play, took them out for walks, fed them, washed them, told them fairy tales, sang them songs and comforted them at night when they woke up with nightmares. More than a surrogate mother, the nanny was the child’s main source of love and emotional security. ‘Simply and unthinkingly,’ reminisced one woman of her noble childhood, ‘I imbibed the life-giving fluids of love from my nanny, and they keep me going even now. How many loyal and loving Russian nannies have guarded and inspired the lives of their children, leaving an indelible impression upon them.’142

Such indeed was the lasting influence of the nanny’s tender care that many nineteenth-century memoirists became obsessed with the nostalgic topic of their nursery years. This was not some arrested development. Rather it was a reflection of the fact that their primary emotions were locked up in that distant chamber of their past. Time and time again these memoirists stress that it was their nanny who taught them how to love and how to live. For some, the key was their nanny’s innate kindness, which awoke their moral sensibilities; for others, it was her religious faith, which brought them into contact with the spiritual world. ‘How wonderful was our nanny!’ Lelong recalled. ‘She was intelligent and always serious, and she was very devout; I would often wake up in the nursery at night and see nanny praying by the door of our room, from where she could see the votive lamp. What fantastic fairy tales she told us when we went for a walk in the woods. They made me see the forest world anew, to love nature from a poetic point of view.’143 The lost idyll of ‘a Russian childhood’, if ever it existed, was contained in these emotions, which remained associated with the image of the nanny in the adult memory. ‘It may seem strange’, wrote A. K. Chertkova (the wife of Tolstoy’s secretary), ‘but forty years have passed since our childhood, and our nanny still remains alive in my memory. The older I become, the clearer is the memory of childhood in my mind, and these recollections are so vivid that the past becomes the present and everything connected in my heart to the memory of my dear good little nanny becomes all the more precious.’144

At the age of six or seven the noble child was transferred from the care of a nanny to the supervision of a French or German tutor and then sent off to school. To be separated from one’s nanny was to undergo a painful rite of passage from the world of childhood to that of youth and adulthood, as Guards officer Anatoly Vereshchagin recalled. When at the age of six he was told that he would be sent to school, he was ‘frightened most of all by the thought of being separated from my nanny. I was so scared that I woke up crying in the night; I would call out for my nanny, and would plead with her not to leave me’.145 The trauma was compounded by the fact that it entailed a transition from the female-regulated sphere of childhood play to the strict male domain of the tutor and the boarding school; from the Russian-speaking nursery to a house of discipline where the child was forced to speak French. The young and innocent would no longer be protected from the harsh rules of the adult world; he would suddenly be forced to put aside the language that had expressed his childhood feelings and adopt an alien one. To lose nanny was, in short, to be wrenched from one’s own emotions as a child. But the separation could be just as difficult on the nanny’s side:

Because Fevronia Stepanovna had always spoiled me endlessly, I became a cry-baby, and a proper coward, which I came to regret later when I joined the army. My nanny’s influence paralysed the attempts of all my tutors to harden me and so I had to be sent away to boarding school. She found it difficult when I started to grow up and entered into the world of adult men. After cosseting me my whole childhood, she cried when I went swimming in the river with my elder brother and our tutor, or when I went riding, or when I first shot my father’s gun. When, years later, as a young officer, I returned home, she got ready two rooms in the house for my return, but they looked like a nursery. Every day she would place two apples by my bed. It hurt her feelings that I had brought my batman home, since she thought it was her duty to serve me. She was shocked to discover that I smoked, and I did not have the heart to tell her that I drank as well. But the greatest shock was when I went to war to fight the Serbs. She tried to dissuade me from going and then, one evening, she said that she would come with me. We would live together in a little cottage and while I went to war she would clean the house and prepare the supper for the evening. Then on holidays we would spend the day together baking pies, as we had always done, and when the war was over we would come back home with medals on my chest. I went to sleep peacefully that night, imagining that war was just as idyllic as she thought it was… Yet I needed nanny more than I had thought. When I was nine and our Swiss tutor first arrived, my father said that I had to share a room with my elder brother and this Mr Kaderli, moving out of the room I had shared with my nanny. It turned out that I was completely unable to undress or wash myself or even go to bed without my nanny’s help. I did not know how to go to sleep without calling out for her, at least six times, to check that she was there. Getting dressed was just as hard. I had never put my own socks on.146

It was not at all unusual for grown men and women to remain in frequent contact with their former nannies; indeed, for them to provide for them in their old age. Pushkin remained close to his old nanny, and he put her image into many of his works. In some ways she was his muse - a fact recognized by many of his friends, so that Prince Viazemsky, for example, signed off his letters to the poet with ‘a deep bow of respect and gratitude to Rodionova!’147 Pushkin loved his nanny more than anyone. Estranged from his own parents, he always called her ‘Mama’ and when she died, his was the grief of a son:

My friend in days devoid of good, My ageing and decrepit dove! Abandoned in a far-off wood, You still await me with your love. Beside the window in the hall, As if on watch, you sit and mourn, At times your knitting needles stall In hands now wrinkled and forlorn. Through long-deserted gates you peer Upon the dark and distant way: Forebodings, anguish, cares and fear Constrict your weary breast today.148

Diaghilev, as well, was famously attached to his nanny. He had never known his mother, who had died when he was born. Nanny Dunia had been born a serf on the Yevreinov estate of his mother’s family. She had nursed Diaghilev’s mother before coming as part of the dowry to his father’s family in Perm. When Diaghilev moved as a student to St Petersburg, his nanny went with him and lived as a housekeeper in his flat. The famous Monday meetings of the ‘World of Art’ (Mir iskusstva) - the circle formed around the journal of that name from which the ideas of the Ballets Russes emerged - were all held in Diaghilev’s apartment, where Nanny Dunia presided like a hostess near the samovar.149The painter Leon Bakst, a regular attender of these meetings, immortalized her image in his famous 1906 portrait of Diaghilev (plate 13).

The nanny was an almost sacred figure in that cult of childhood which the Russian gentry made its own. No other culture has been so sentimental or quite so obsessed about childhood. Where else can one find so many memoirs where the first few years of the writer’s life were given so much space? Herzen’s, Nabokov’s and Prokofiev’s - all of them inclined to linger far too long in the nursery of their memory. The essence of this cult was a hypertrophied sense of loss - loss of the ancestral home, loss of the mother or the nanny’s tender care, loss of the peasant, child-like Russia contained in fairy tales. Little wonder, then, that the cultural elites became so fixated on folklore - for it took them back to their happy childhoods, to the days when they had listened to their nannies’ tales on woodland walks and the nights when they had been sung off to sleep with lullabies. Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7), Aksakov’s Childhood Years (1856), Herzen’s Past and Thoughts (1852-68), Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1947) - this is the canon of a literary cult that reinvented childhood as a blissful and enchanted realm:

Happy, happy, irrecoverable days of childhood! How can one fail to love and cherish its memories? Those memories refresh and elevate my soul and are the source of my greatest delight.150

The way these Russians wrote about their childhood was extraordi-nary, too. They all summoned up a legendary world (Aksakov’s memoirs were deliberately structured as a fairy tale), mixing myth and memory, as if they were not content to recollect their childhood, but felt a deeper need to retrieve it, even if that meant reinventing it. This same yearning to recover what Nabokov termed ‘the legendary Russia of my boyhood’ can be felt in Benois and Stravinsky’s Petrusbka (1911). This ballet expressed their shared nostalgia for the sounds and colours which they both recalled from the fairgrounds of their St Petersburg childhoods. And it can be felt in the musical childhood fantasies of Prokofiev, from The Ugly Duckling for voice and piano (1914) to the ‘symphonic fairy tale’ Peter and the Wolf (1936), which were inspired by the bedtime tales he had heard as a small boy.


’Oh please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow.’ Thus Herzen starts his sublime memoir My Past and Thoughts, one of the greatest works of Russian literature. Born in 1812, Herzen had a special fondness for his nanny’s stories of that year. His family had been forced to flee the flames that engulfed Moscow, the young Herzen carried out in his mother’s arms, and it was only through a safe conduct from Napoleon himself that they managed to escape to their Yaroslav estate. Herzen felt great ‘pride and pleasure at [having] taken part in the Great War’. The story of his childhood merged with the national drama he so loved to hear: ‘Tales of the fire of Moscow, of the battle of Borodino, of the Berezina, of the taking of Paris were my cradle songs, my nursery stories, my Iliad and my Odyssey.’151 For Herzen’s generation, the myths of 1812 were intimately linked with their childhood memories. Even in the 1850s children were still brought up on the legends of that year.152 History, myth and memory were intertwined. For the historian Nikolai Karamzin, 1812 was a tragic year. While his Moscow neighbours moved to their estates, he refused to ‘believe that the ancient holy city could be lost’ and, as he wrote on 20 August, he chose instead to ‘die on Moscow’s walls’.153Karamzin’s house burned down in the fires and, since he had not thought to evacuate his library, he lost his precious books to the flames as well. But Karamzin saved one book - a bulging notebook that contained the draft of his celebrated History of the Russian State (1818-26). Karamzin’s masterpiece was the first truly national history - not just in the sense that it was the first by a Russian, but also in the sense that it rendered Russia’s past as a national narrative. Previous histories of Russia had been arcane chronicles of monasteries and saints, patriotic propaganda, or heavy tomes of documents compiled by German scholars, unread and unreadable. But Karamzin’s History had a literary quality that made its twelve large volumes a nationwide success. It combined careful scholarship with the narrative techniques of a novelist. Karamzin stressed the psychological motivations of his historical protagonists - even to the point of inventing them - so that his account became more compelling to a readership brought up on the literary conventions of Romantic texts. Medieval Tsars like Ivan the Terrible or Boris Godunov became tragic figures in Karamzin’s History - subjects for a modern psychological drama; and from its pages they walked on to the stage in operas by Musorgsky and Rimsky Korsakov.

The first eight volumes of Karamzin’s History were published in 1818. ‘Three thousand copies were sold within a month - something unprecedented in our country. Everyone, even high-born ladies, began to read the history of their country,’ wrote Pushkin. ‘It was a revelation. You could say that Karamzin discovered ancient Russia as Columbus discovered America.’154 The victory of 1812 had encouraged a new interest and pride in Russia’s past. People who had been raised on the old conviction that there was no history before the reign of Peter the Great began to look back to the distant past for the sources of their country’s unexpected strengths. After 1812 history books appeared at a furious pace. Chairs were established in the universities (Gogol applied unsuccessfully for one at St Petersburg). Historical associations were set up, many in the provinces, and huge efforts were suddenly devoted to the rescuing of Russia’s past. History became the arena for all those troubling questions about Russia’s nature and its destiny. As Belinsky wrote in 1846, ‘we interrogate our past for an explanation of our present and a hint of our future.’155 This historical obsession was reinforced by the failure of the Decembrists. If Russia was no longer to pursue the Western path of history toward a modern constitutional stare, as the Decembrists and their supporters had hoped, what then was its proper destiny?

This was the question posed by Pyotr Chaadaev, the Guards officer and foppish friend of Pushkin, in his sensational First Philosophical Letter (1856). Chaadaev was another ‘child of 1812’. He had fought at Borodino, before resigning from the army, at the height of his career in 1821, to spend the next five years in Europe. An extreme Westernist - to the extent that he converted to the Roman Church - he was thrown into despair by Russia’s failure to take the Western path in 1825. This was the context in which he wrote his Letter - ‘at a time of madness’ (by his own admission) when he tried to take his life. ‘What have we Russians ever invented or created?’ Chaadaev wrote in 1826. ‘The time has come to stop running after others; we must take a fresh and frank look at ourselves; we must understand ourselves as we really are; we must stop lying and find the truth.’156 The First Letter was an attempt to reveal this bleak and unpalatable truth. It was more a work of history than of philosophy. Russia, it concluded, stood ‘outside of time, without a past or a future’, having played no part in the history of the world. The Roman legacy, the civilization of the Western Church and the Renaissance - these had all passed Russia by - and now, after 1825, the country was reduced to a ‘cultural void’, an ‘orphan cut off from the human family’ which could imitate the nations of the West but never become one of them. The Russians were like nomads in their land, strangers to themselves, without a sense of their own national heritage or identity.157

To the reader in the modern world - where self-lacerating national declarations are made in the media almost every month - the cataclysmic shock of the First Letter may be hard to understand. It took away the ground from under the feet of every person who had been brought up to believe in ‘European Russia’ as their native land. The outcry was immense. Patriots demanded the public prosecution of the ‘lunatic’ for ‘the cruellest insult to our national honour’, and, on the orders of the Tsar, Chaadaev was declared insane, placed under house arrest and visited by doctors every day.158 Yet what he wrote had been felt by every thinking Russian for many years: the overwhelming sense of living in a wasteland or ‘phantom country’, as Belinsky put it, a country which they feared they might never really know; and the acute fear that, contrary to the raison d’etre of their civilization, they might never in fact catch up with the West. There were many similar expressions of this cultural pessimism after 1825. The triumph of reaction had engendered a deep loathing of the ‘Russian way’. ‘Real patriotism’, wrote Prince Viazemsky in 1828, ‘should consist of hatred for Russia as she manifests herself at the present time.’159 The literary critic Nadezhdin (who published the First Letter in his journal Telescope) himself wrote in 1834: ‘We [the Russians] have created nothing. There is no branch of learning in which we can show something of our own. There is not a single person who could stand for Russia in the civilization of the world.’160

The Slavophiles had an opposite response to the crisis posed by Chaadaev. They first emerged as a distinct grouping in the 1830s, when they launched their public disputes with the Westernists, but they too had their roots in 1812. The horrors of the French Revolution had led the Slavophiles to reject the universal culture of the Enlightenment and to emphasize instead those indigenous traditions that distinguished Russia from the West. This search for a more ‘Russian’ way of life was a common response to the debacle of 1825. Once it became clear that Russia would diverge from the Western path, European Russians, like Lavretsky in Turgenev’s Nest of Gentlefolk (1859), began to explore - and find virtue in - those parts of Russian culture that were different from the West:

The free-thinker began to go to church and to order prayers to be said for him; the European began to steam himself in the Russian bath, to dine at two o’clock, to go to bed at nine, and to be talked to sleep by the gossip of an old butler…161

The Slavophiles looked first to the virtues they discerned in the patriarchal customs of the countryside - hardly surprising, given that they were born, for the most, to landed families that had lived in the same region for several hundred years. Konstantin Aksakov, the most famous and the most extremist of the Slavophiles, spent practically his entire life in one house, clinging to it, in the words of one contemporary, ‘like an oyster to his shell’.162 They idealized the common folk (narod) as the true bearer of the national character (narodnost’). Slavophile folklorists such as Pyotr Kireevsky went out to the villages to transcribe the peasant songs, which they thought could be interpreted as historical expressions of the ‘Russian soul’. As devout upholders of the Orthodox ideal, they maintained that the Russian was defined by Christian sacrifice and humility. This was the foundation of the spiritual community (sobornost’) in which, they imagined, the squire and his serfs were bound together by their patriarchal customs and Orthodox beliefs. Aksakov argued that this ‘Russian type’ was incarnated in the legendary folk hero Ilia Muromets, who appears in epic tales as protector of the Russian land against invaders and infidels, brigands and monsters, with his ‘gentle strength and lack of aggression, yet his readiness to fight in a just defensive war for the people’s cause’.* The peasant soldiers of 1812 had shown these very qualities. Myth entering history.

Karamzin’s History was the opening statement in a long debate on Russia’s past and future that would run right through its culture in the nineteenth century. Karamzin’s own work was squarely situated in the monarchist tradition, which portrayed the Tsarist state and its noble servitors as a force for progress and enlightenment. The overarching theme of the History was Russia’s steady advance towards the ideal of a unitary Imperial state whose greatness lay in the inherited wisdom of its Tsar and the innate obedience of its citizens. The Tsar and his nobles initiated change, while ‘the people remain silent’ (‘narod bezmolvstvuet’), as Pushkin put it in the final stage direction of Boris Godunov. Pushkin shared Karamzin’s statist view of Russian history -at least in his later years, after the collapse of his republican convictions (which were in any case extremely dubious) in 1825. In The History of Pugachev (1833) Pushkin emphasized the need for enlightened monarchy to protect the nation from the elemental violence (‘cruel and merciless’) of the Cossack rebel leader Pugachev and his peasant followers. By highlighting the role of paternal noblemen such as General Bibikov and Count Panin, who put down Pugachev yet pleaded with the Empress to soften her regime, Pushkin underscored the national leadership of the old landed gentry from which he was so proud to descend.

In contrast to these views was the democratic trend of Russian history advanced by the Decembrists and their followers. They stressed

* Dostoevsky shared this view. The Russians, he wrote in 1876, were ‘a people devoted to sacrifice, seeking truth and knowing where truth can be found, as honest and pure in heart as one of their high ideals, the epic hero Ilia Muromets, whom they cherish as a saint’ (F. Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, trans. K. Lantz, 2 vols. (London, 1993), vol. 1, p. 660).

the rebellious and freedom-loving spirit of the Russian people and idealized the medieval republics of Novgorod and Pskov, and the Cossack revolts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Pugachev’s. They believed that the common people had always been the (hidden) moving force of history - a theory largely shaped by their observation of the peasant soldiers in the war of 1812. In response to Karamzin’s famous motto ‘The history of the nation belongs to the Tsar’, the Decembrist historian Nikita Muraviev began his study with the fighting words: ‘History belongs to the people.’163

The origins of Russia was a major battlefield in this war between historians. Monarchists subscribed to the so-called Norman theory, originally devised by German historians in the eighteenth century, which maintained that the first ruling princes had arrived in Russia from Scandinavia (in the ninth century) by invitation from the warring Slavic tribes. The only real evidence for this argument was the Primary Chronicle - an eleventh-century account of the founding of the Kievan state in 862 - which had probably been written to justify what actually amounted to the Scandinavian conquest of Russia. The theory became increasingly untenable as nineteenth-century archaeologists drew attention to the advanced culture of the Slavic tribes in southern Russia. A picture emerged of a civilization stretching back to the ancient Scythians, the Goths, the Romans and the Greeks. Yet the Norman theory was a good foundation myth for the defenders of autocracy - supposing, as it did, that without a monarchy the Russians were incapable of governance. In Karamzin’s words, before the establishment of princely rule, Russia had been nothing but an ‘empty space’ with ‘wild and warring tribes, living on a level with the beasts and birds’.164 Against that the democrats maintained that the Russian state had evolved spontaneously from the native customs of the Slavic tribes. According to this view, long before the Varangians arrived the Slavs had set up their own government, whose republican liberties were gradually destroyed by the imposition of princely rule. Versions of the argument were made by all those groups who believed in the natural predilection of the Slavic people for democracy: not just the Decembrists but left-wing Slavophiles, Polish historians (who used it to denounce the Tsarist system in Poland), and Populist historians in the Ukraine and (later on) in Russia, too.

Another battlefield was medieval Novgorod - the greatest monument to Russian liberty and, in the Decembrist view, historic proof of the people’s right to rule themselves. Along with nearby Pskov, Novgorod was a flourishing civilization connected to the Hanseatic League of German trading towns prior to its conquest by Tsar Ivan III and its subjugation to Muscovy during the late fifteenth century. The Decembrists made a cult of the city republic. As a symbol of the people’s long-lost freedoms, they saw its veche, or assembly, as a sacred legacy connecting Russia to the democratic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. The teenage members of the ‘holy artel’ (1814-17) - among them several of the future Decembrists - opened all their meetings with the ceremonial ringing of the veche bell. In their manifestos the Decembrists used the terminology of medieval Novgorod, calling the future parliament the ‘national veche‘.165 The myth of Novgorod took on a new meaning and subversive power after the suppression of their uprising. In 1830 Lermontov wrote a poem entitled Novgorod (‘Brave sons of the Slavs, for what did you die?’), in which it was left deliberately unclear whether it was the fallen heroes of medieval Novgorod or the freedom fighters of 1825 whose loss was to be mourned. The same nostalgic note was struck by Dimtry Venevitanov in his pro-Decembrist poem Novgorod (1826):

Answer great city:

Where are your glorious days of liberty,

When your voice, the scourge of kings,

Rang true like the bells at your noisy assembly?

Say, where are those times?

They are so far away, oh, so far away!166

The monarchist perception of medieval Novgorod formed a stark contrast. According to Karamzin, Moscow’s conquest of the city was a necessary step towards the creation of a unitary state, and was recognized as such by its citizens. This submission was a sign of the Russian people’s wisdom, in Karamzin’s view: they recognized that freedom was worth nothing without order and security. The Novgoro-dians were thus the original consenting members in the leviathan of autocracy. They chose the protection of the Tsar in order to save themselves from their own internal squabbles, which had played into the hands of the city’s boyars, who became despotic and corrupt and who threatened to sell out to the neighbouring state of Lithuania. Karamzin’s version was almost certainly closer to the historical truth than the Decembrists’ vision of an egalitarian and harmonious republican democracy. Yet it too was a justifying myth. For Karamzin the lesson to be learned from his History was clear: that republics were more likely to become despotic than autocracies - and a lesson well worth underlining after the collapse of the French republic into the Napoleonic dictatorship.

The war of 1812 was itself a battlefield for these competing myths of Russian history. This was shown by its commemoration in the nineteenth century. For the Decembrists, 1812 was a people’s war. It was the point at which the Russians came of age, the moment when they passed from childhood into adult citizens, and with their triumphant entry into Europe, they should have joined the family of European states. But for the defenders of the status quo, the war symbolized the holy triumph of the Russian autocratic principle, which alone saved Europe from Napoleon. It was a time when the Tsarist state emerged as God’s chosen agent in a new historical dispensation.

The regime’s image of itself was set in stone with the Alexandrine Column, built, ironically, by the French architect Auguste de Montfer-rand on Palace Square in Petersburg, and opened on the twentieth anniversary of the battle of Borodino. The angel on the top of the column was given the Tsar Alexander’s face.167 Five years later, work began in Moscow on a larger monument to the divine mission of the Russian monarchy - the grandiose Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on a site overlooking the Kremlin walls. Half war museum and half church, it was intended to commemorate the miraculous salvation of Moscow in 1812. Constantin Ton’s design echoed the architectural language of the ancient Russian Church, but enlarged its proportions to an imperial scale. This colossal cathedral was the tallest building in Moscow when it was completed, after fifty years, in 1883, and even today, reconstructed after Stalin had it blown up in 1931 (one death sentence that might be justified on artistic grounds), it still dominates the cityscape.

Throughout the nineteenth century these two images of 1812 - as

8. Monument to the millennium of Russia in the square in front of St Sophia’s Cathedral, Novgorod

a national liberation or imperial salvation - continued to compete for the public meaning of the war. On the one side was Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a truly national drama which tells its history from the viewpoint of the noble and the serf. On the other were the monuments in stone, the triumphant arches and gates of victory in the pompous ‘Empire style’ that trumpeted Russia’s imperial might; or the sound of all those cannons in Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812. Even in the early1860s, when there were high hopes for national unity in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs, these two visions were at loggerheads. The fiftieth anniversary of 1812 coincided with the millennium of the Russian state in 1862. The millennium was due to be commemorated in the spring in (of all symbolic places) Novgorod. But the Emperor Alexander II ordered its postponement to 26 August - the anniversary of the battle of Borodino and the sacred date of his own coronation in 1856. By merging these three anniversaries, the Romanov dynasty was attempting to reinvent itself as a national institution, consecrated by the holy victory of 1812, and one as old as the Russian state itself. The granite monument unveiled in Novgorod was a symbol of this claim. Shaped like the bell of the Novgorod assembly, it was encircled by a band of bas-reliefs with the sculptures of those figures - saints and princes, generals and warriors, scientists and artists - who had shaped a thousand years of Russian history. The great bell was crowned by Mother Russia, bearing in one hand the Orthodox cross and in the other a shield emblazoned with the Romanov insignia. The Decembrists were irate. Volkonsky, who had by now returned from his thirty years of exile, told Tolstoy that the monument had ‘trampled on the sacred memory of Novgorod as well as on the graves of all those heroes who fought for our freedom in 1812’.168


’He is an enthusiast, a mystic and a Christian, with high ideals for the new Russia,’ Tolstoy wrote to Herzen after meeting Volkonsky in 1859.169 A distant cousin of the Decembrist, Tolstoy was extremely proud of his Volkonsky heritage. Having lost his mother at the age of three, he had more than just an academic interest in researching the background of her family: for him, it was an emotional necessity. Sergei Volkonsky was a childhood hero of Tolstoy’s (all the Decembrists were idolized by the progressive youths of Tolstoy’s age) and in time he became the inspiration for Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace.170 Much of Tolstoy’s commitment to the peasants, not to men-tion his desire to become one himself, was inspired by the example of his exiled relative.

In 1859 Tolstoy started a school for peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana, the old Volkonsky estate that had passed down to him on his mother’s side. The estate had a special meaning for Tolstoy. He had been born in the manor house - on a dark green leather sofa which he kept throughout his life in the study where he wrote his great novels. He spent his childhood on the estate, until the age of nine, when he moved to Moscow with his father. More than an estate, Yasnaya Polyana was his ancestral nest, the place where his childhood memories were kept, and the little patch of Russia where he felt he most belonged. ‘I wouldn’t sell the house for anything,’ Tolstoy told his brother in 1852. ‘It’s the last thing I’d be prepared to part with.’171 Yasnaya Polyana had been purchased by Tolstoy’s great-grandmother, Maria Volkonsky, in 1763. His grandfather, Nikolai Volkonsky, had developed it as a cultural space, building the splendid manor house, with its large collection of European books, the landscaped park and lakes, the spinning factory, and the famous white stone entrance gates that served as a post station on the road from Tula to Moscow. As a boy, Tolstoy idolized his grandfather. He fantasized that he was just like him.172 This ancestor cult, which was at the emotional core of Tolstoy’s conservatism, was expressed in Eugene, the hero of his story ‘The Devil’ (1889):

It is generally supposed that Conservatives are old people, and that those in favour of change are the young. That is not quite correct. Usually Conservatives are young people: those who want to live but who do not think about how to live, and have not time to think, and therefore take as a model for themselves a way of life that they have seen. Thus it was with Eugene. Having settled in the village, his aim and ideal was to restore the form of life that had existed, not in his father’s time… but in his grandfather’s.173

Nikolai Volkonsky was brought back to life as Andrei’s father Nikolai Bolkonsky in War and Peace - the retired general, proud and independent, who spends his final years on the estate at Bald Hill, dedicating himself to the education of his daughter called (like Tolstoy’s mother) Maria.

War and Peace was originally conceived as a ‘Decembrist novel’, loosely based on the life story of Sergei Volkonsky. But the more the writer researched into the Decembrists, the more he realized that their intellectual roots lay in the war of 1812. In the novel’s early form (The Decembrist) the Decembrist hero returns after thirty years of exile in Siberia to the intellectual ferment of the late 1850s. A second Alexandrine reign has just begun, with the accession of Alexander II to the throne in 1855, and once again, as in 1825, high hopes for political reform are in the air. It was with such hopes that Volkonsky returned to Russia in 1856 and wrote about a new life based on truth:

Falsehood. This is the sickness of the Russian state. Falsehood and its sisters, hypocrisy and cynicism. Russia could not exist without them. Yet surely the point is not just to exist but to exist with dignity. And if we want to be honest with ourselves, then we must recognize that if Russia cannot exist otherwise than she existed in the past, then she does not deserve to exist.174

To live in truth, or, more importantly, to live in truth in Russia - these were the questions of Tolstoy’s life and work, and the main concerns of War and Peace. They were first articulated by the men of 1812.

Volkonsky’s release from exile was one of the first acts of the new Tsar. Of the 121 Decembrists who had been sent into exile in 1826, only nineteen lived to return to Russia in 1856. Sergei himself was a broken man, and his health never really recovered from the hardships of Siberia. Forbidden to settle in the two main cities, he was none the less a frequent guest in the Moscow houses of the Slavophiles, who saw his gentle nature, his patient suffering, his simple ‘peasant’ lifestyle and his closeness to the land as quintessential ‘Russian’ qualities.175 Moscow’s students idolized Volkonsky. With his long white beard and hair, his sad, expressive face, ‘pale and tender like the moon’, he was regarded as a ‘sort of Christ who had emerged from the Russian wilderness’.176 A symbol of the democratic cause that had been interrupted by the oppressive regime of Nicholas I, Volkonsky was a living connection between the Decembrists and the Populists, who emerged as the people’s champions in the 1860s and 1870s. Volkonsky himself remained true to the ideals of 1812. He continued to reject the values of the bureaucratic state and the aristocracy and, in the spirit of the Decembrists, he continued to uphold the civic obligation to live an honest life in the service of the people, who embodied the nation. ‘You

9. Maria Volkonsky and her son Misha. Daguerreotype, 1862. Maria was suffering from a kidney disease and died a year later

know from experience,’ he wrote to his son Misha (now serving in the army in the Amur region) in 1857, that I have never tried to persuade you of my own political convictions -they belong to me. In your mother’s scheme you were directed towards the governmental sphere, and I gave my blessing when you went into the service of the Fatherland and Tsar. But I always taught you to conduct yourself without lordly airs when dealing with your comrades from a different class. You made your own way - without the patronage of your grandmother - and knowing that, my friend, will give me peace until the day when I go to my grave.177

Volkonsky’s notion of the Fatherland was intimately linked with his idea of the Tsar: he saw the sovereign as a symbol of Russia. Throughout his life he remained a monarchist - so much so indeed that when he heard about the death of Nicholas I, the Tsar who had sent him into exile thirty years before, Volkonsky broke down and cried like a child. ‘Your father weeps all day’, Maria wrote to Misha, ‘it is already the third day and I don’t know what to do with him.’178 Perhaps Volkonsky was grieving for the man he had known as a boy. Or perhaps his death was a catharsis of the suffering he had endured in Siberia. But Volkonsky’s tears were tears for Russia, too: he saw the Tsar as the Empire’s single unifying force and was afraid for his country now that the Tsar was dead.

Volkonsky’s trust in the Russian monarchy was not returned. The former exile was kept under almost constant police surveillance on the orders of the Tsar after his return from Siberia. He was refused the restoration of his princely title and his property. But what hurt him most was the government’s refusal to return his medals from the war of 1812.* Thirty years of exile had not changed his love for Russia. He followed the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856 with obsessive interest and was deeply stirred by the heroism of the defenders at Sevastopol (among them the young Tolstoy). The old soldier (at the age of sixty-four) had even petitioned to join them as a humble private in the infantry, and it was only his wife’s pleading that eventually

* Eventually, after several years of petitioning, the Tsar returned them in 1864. But other forms of recognition took longer. In 1822 the English artist George Dawe was commissioned to paint Volkonsky’s portrait for the ‘Gallery of Heroes’ - 332: portraits of the military leaders of 1812. - in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. After the Decembrist uprising Volkonsky’s portrait was removed, leaving a black square in the line-up of portraits. In 1903 Volkonsky’s nephew, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Hermitage, petitioned Tsar Nicholas II to restore the picture to its rightful place. ‘Yes, of course,’ replied the Tsar, ‘it was so long ago’ (S. M. Volkonskii, O dekabristakh: po semeinum vospominaniiam (Moscow, 1994), p. 87).

dissuaded him. He saw the war as a return to the spirit of 1812, and he was convinced that Russia would again be victorious against the French.179

It was not. Yet Russia’s defeat made more likely Volkonsky’s second hope: the emancipation of the serfs. The new Tsar, Alexander II, was another child of 1812. He had been educated by the liberal poet Vasily Zhukovsky, who had been appointed tutor to the court in 1817. In 1822 Zhukovsky had set free the serfs on his estate. His humanism had a major influence on the future Tsar. The defeat in the Crimean War had persuaded Alexander that Russia could not compete with the Western powers until it swept aside its old serf economy and modernized itself. The gentry had very little idea how to make a profit from their estates. Most of them knew next to nothing about agriculture or accounting. Yet they went on spending in the same old lavish way as they had always done, mounting up enormous debts. By 1859, one-third of the estates and two-thirds of the serfs owned by the landed nobles had been mortgaged to the state and noble banks. Many of the smaller landowners could barely afford to feed their serfs. The economic argument for emancipation was becoming irrefutable, and many landowners were shifting willy-nilly to the free labour system by contracting other people’s serfs. Since the peasantry’s redemption payments would cancel out the gentry’s debts, the economic rationale was becoming equally irresistible.*

But there was more than money to the arguments. The Tsar believed that the emancipation was a necessary measure to prevent a revolution from below. The soldiers who had fought in the Crimean War had been led to expect their freedom, and in the first six years of Alexander’s reign, before the emancipation was decreed, there were 500 peasant uprisings against the gentry on the land.180 Like Volkonsky, Alexander was convinced that emancipation was, in Volkonsky’s words, a ‘ques-

* Under the terms of emancipation the peasants were obliged to pay redemption dues on the communal lands which were transferred to them. These repayments, calculated by the gentry’s own land commissions, were to be repaid over a 49-year period to the state, which recompensed the gentry in 1861. Thus, in effect, the serfs bought their freedom by paying off their masters’ debts. The redemption payments became increasingly difficult to collect, not least because the peasantry regarded them as unjust from the start. They were finally cancelled in 1905.

tion of justice… a moral and a Christian obligation, for every citizen who loves his Fatherland’.181 As the Decembrist explained in a letter to Pushchin, the abolition of serfdom was ‘the least the state could do to recognize the sacrifice the peasantry has made in the last two wars: it is time to recognize that the Russian peasant is a citizen as well’.182

In 1858 the Tsar appointed a special commission to formulate proposals for the emancipation in consultation with provincial gentry committees. Under pressure from the diehard squires to limit the reform or to fix the rules for the land transfers in their favour, the commission became bogged down in political wrangling for the best part of two years. Having waited all his life for this moment, Volkonsky was afraid that he ‘might die before emancipation came to pass’.183 The old prince was sceptical of the landed gentry, knowing their resistance to the spirit of reform and fearing their ability to obstruct the emancipation or use it to increase their exploitation of the peasantry. Although not invited on to any commission, Volkonsky sketched out his own progressive plans for the emancipation, in which he envisaged a state bank to advance loans to individual peasants to buy small plots of the gentry’s land as private property. The peasants would repay these loans by working their allotments of communal land.184 Volkonsky’s programme was not dissimilar to the land reforms of Pyotr Stolypin, the Prime Minister and last reformist hope of Tsarist Russia between 1906 and 1911. Had such a programme been implemented in 1861, Russia might have become a more prosperous place.

In the end the diehard gentry was defeated and the moderate reformists got their way, thanks in no small measure to the personal intervention of the Tsar. The Law of the Emancipation was signed by Alexander on 19 February 1861. It was not as far-reaching as the peasantry had hoped, and there were rebellions in many areas. The Law allowed landowners considerable leeway in choosing the bits of land for transfer to the peasantry - and in setting the price for them. Overall, perhaps half the farming land in European Russia was transferred from the gentry’s ownership to the communal tenure of the peasantry, although the precise proportion depended largely on the landowner’s will. Owing to the growth of the population it was still far from enough to liberate the peasantry from poverty. Even on the old estates of Sergei Volkonsky, where the prince’s influence ensured that nearly all the land was transferred to the peasants, there remained a shortage of agricultural land, and by the middle of the 1870s there were angry demonstrations by the peasantry.185 None the less, despite its disappointment for the peasantry, the emancipation was a crucial watershed. Freedom of a sort, however limited it may have been in practice, had at last been granted to the mass of the people, and there were grounds to hope for a national rebirth, and reconciliation between the landowners and the peasantry. The liberal spirit of 1812 had triumphed in the end - or so it seemed.

Prince Volkonsky was in Nice when he heard the news of the decree. That evening he attended a thanksgiving service at the Russian church. At the sound of the choir he broke down into tears. It was, he said later, the ‘happiest moment of my life’.186

Volkonsky died in 1865 - two years after Maria. His health, weakened in exile, was broken by her death, but right to the end his spirit was intact. During these last months he wrote his memoirs. He died, pen in hand, in the middle of a sentence where he started to recount that vital moment after his arrest when he was interrogated by the Tsar: ‘The Emperor said to me: “I…”.’

Towards the end of his memoirs Volkonsky wrote a sentence which the censors cut from the first edition (not published until 1903). It could have served as his epitaph: ‘The path I chose led me to Siberia, to exile from my homeland for thirty years, but my convictions have not changed, and I would do the same again.’187

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