From whatever side the traveller approaches St. Petersburg, unless he goes thither by sea, he must traverse several hundred miles of forest and morass, presenting few traces of human habitation or agriculture. This fact adds powerfully to the first impression which the city makes on his mind. In the midst of a waste howling wilderness, he suddenly comes on a magnificent artificial oasis.
Of all the great European cities, the one that most resembles the capital of the Tsars is Berlin. Both are built on perfectly level ground; both have wide, regularly arranged streets; in both there is a general look of stiffness and symmetry which suggests military discipline and German bureaucracy. But there is at least one profound difference. Though Berlin is said by geographers to be built on the Spree, we might live a long time in the city without noticing the sluggish little stream on which the name of a river has been undeservedly conferred. St. Petersburg, on the contrary, is built on a magnificent river, which forms the main feature of the place. By its breadth, and by the enormous volume of its clear, blue, cold water, the Neva is certainly one of the noblest rivers of Europe. A few miles before reaching the Gulf of Finland it breaks up into several streams and forms a delta. It is here that St. Petersburg stands.
Like the river, everything in St. Petersburg is on a colossal scale. The streets, the squares, the palaces, the public buildings, the churches, whatever may be their defects, have at least the attribute of greatness, and seem to have been designed for the countless generations to come, rather than for the practical wants of the present inhabitants. In this respect the city well represents the Empire of which it is the capital. Even the private houses are built in enormous blocks and divided into many separate apartments. Those built for the working classes sometimes contain, I am assured, more than a thousand inhabitants. How many cubic feet of air is allowed to each person, I do not know; not so many, I fear, as is recommended by the most advanced sanitary authorities.
For a detailed description of the city I must refer the reader to the guide books. Among its numerous monuments, of which the Russians are justly proud, I confess that the one which interested me most was neither St. Isaac's Cathedral, with its majestic gilded dome, its colossal monolithic columns of red granite, and its gaudy interior; nor the Hermitage, with its magnificent collection of Dutch pictures; nor the gloomy, frowning fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, containing the tombs of the Emperors. These and other "sights" may deserve all the praise which enthusiastic tourists have lavished upon them, but what made a far deeper impression on me was the little wooden house in which Peter the Great lived whilst his future capital was being built. In its style and arrangement it looks more like the hut of a navvy than the residence of a Tsar, but it was quite in keeping with the character of the illustrious man who occupied it. Peter could and did occasionally work like a navvy without feeling that his Imperial dignity was thereby impaired. When he determined to build a new capital on a Finnish marsh, inhabited chiefly by wildfowl, he did not content himself with exercising his autocratic power in a comfortable arm chair. Like the Greek gods, he went down from his Olympus and took his place in the ranks of ordinary mortals, superintending the work with his own eyes, and taking part in it with his own hands. If he was as arbitrary and oppressive as any of the pyramid-building Pharaohs, he could at least say in self- justification that he did not spare himself any more than his people, but exposed himself freely to the discomforts and dangers under which thousands of his fellow-labourers succumbed.
In reading the account of Peter's life, written in part by his own pen, we can easily understand how the piously Conservative section of his subjects failed to recognise in him the legitimate successor of the orthodox Tsars. The old Tsars had been men of grave, pompous demeanour, deeply imbued with the consciousness of their semi-religious dignity. Living habitually in Moscow or its immediate neighbourhood, they spent their time in attending long religious services, in consulting with their Boyars, in being present at ceremonious hunting-parties, in visiting the monasteries, and in holding edifying conversations with ecclesiastical dignitaries or revered ascetics. If they undertook a journey, it was probably to make a pilgrimage to some holy shrine; and, whether in Moscow or elsewhere, they were always protected from contact with ordinary humanity by a formidable barricade of court ceremonial. In short, they combined the characters of a Christian monk and of an Oriental potentate.
Peter was a man of an entirely different type, and played in the calm, dignified, orthodox, ceremonious world of Moscow the part of the bull in the china shop, outraging ruthlessly and wantonly all the time-honored traditional conceptions of propriety and etiquette. Utterly regardless of public opinion and popular prejudices, he swept away the old formalities, avoided ceremonies of all kinds, scoffed at ancient usage, preferred foreign secular books to edifying conversations, chose profane heretics as his boon companions, travelled in foreign countries, dressed in heretical costume, defaced the image of God and put his soul in jeopardy by shaving off his beard, compelled his nobles to dress and shave like himself, rushed about the Empire as if goaded on by the demon of unrest, employed his sacred hands in carpentering and other menial occupations, took part openly in the uproarious orgies of his foreign soldiery, and, in short, did everything that "the Lord's anointed" might reasonably be expected not to do. No wonder the Muscovites were scandalised by his conduct, and that some of them suspected he was not the Tsar at all, but Antichrist in disguise. And no wonder he felt the atmosphere of Moscow oppressive, and preferred living in the new capital which he had himself created.
His avowed object in building St. Petersburg was to have "a window by which the Russians might look into civilised Europe"; and well has the city fulfilled its purpose. From its foundation may be dated the European period of Russian history. Before Peter's time Russia belonged to Asia rather than to Europe, and was doubtless regarded by Englishmen and Frenchmen pretty much as we nowadays regard Bokhara or Kashgar; since that time she has formed an integral part of the European political system, and her intellectual history has been but a reflection of the intellectual history of Western Europe, modified and coloured by national character and by peculiar local conditions.
When we speak of the intellectual history of a nation we generally mean in reality the intellectual history of the upper classes. With regard to Russia, more perhaps than with regard to any other country, this distinction must always carefully be borne in mind. Peter succeeded in forcing European civilisation on the nobles, but the people remained unaffected. The nation was, as it were, cleft in two, and with each succeeding generation the cleft has widened. Whilst the masses clung obstinately to their time-honoured customs and beliefs, the nobles came to look on the objects of popular veneration as the relics of a barbarous past, of which a civilised nation ought to be ashamed.
The intellectual movement inaugurated by Peter had a purely practical character. He was himself a thorough utilitarian, and perceived clearly that what his people needed was not theological or philosophical enlightment, but plain, practical knowledge suitable for the requirements of everyday life. He wanted neither theologians nor philosophers, but military and naval officers, administrators, artisans, miners, manufacturers, and merchants, and for this purpose he introduced secular technical education. For the young generation primary schools were founded, and for more advanced pupils the best foreign works on fortification, architecture, navigation, metallurgy, engineering and cognate subjects were translated into the native tongue. Scientific men and cunning artificers were brought into the country, and young Russians were sent abroad to learn foreign languages and the useful arts. In a word, everything was done that seemed likely to raise the Russians to the level of material well-being already attained by the more advanced nations.
We have here an important peculiarity in the intellectual development of Russia. In Western Europe the modern scientific spirit, being the natural offspring of numerous concomitant historical causes, was born in the natural way, and Society had, consequently, before giving birth to it, to endure the pains of pregnancy and the throes of prolonged labour. In Russia, on the contrary, this spirit appeared suddenly as an adult foreigner, adopted by a despotic paterfamilias. Thus Russia made the transition from mediaeval to modern times without any violent struggle between the old and the new conceptions such as had taken place in the West. The Church, effectually restrained from all active opposition by the Imperial power, preserved unmodified her ancient beliefs; whilst the nobles, casting their traditional conceptions and beliefs to the winds, marched forward unfettered on that path which their fathers and grandfathers had regarded as the direct road to perdition.
During the first part of Peter's reign Russia was not subjected to the exclusive influence of any one particular country. Thoroughly cosmopolitan in his sympathies, the great reformer, like the Japanese of the present day, was ready to borrow from any foreign nation--German, Dutch, Danish, or French--whatever seemed to him to suit his purpose. But soon the geographical proximity to Germany, the annexation of the Baltic Provinces in which the civilisation was German, and intermarriages between the Imperial family and various German dynasties, gave to German influence a decided preponderance. When the Empress Anne, Peter's niece, who had been Duchess of Courland, entrusted the whole administration of the country to her favourite Biron, the German influence became almost exclusive, and the Court, the official world, and the schools were Germanised.
The harsh, cruel, tyrannical rule of Biron produced a strong reaction, ending in a revolution, which raised to the throne the Princess Elizabeth, Peter's unmarried daughter, who had lived in retirement and neglect during the German regime. She was expected to rid the country of foreigners, and she did what she could to fulfil the expectations that were entertained of her. With loud protestations of patriotic feelings, she removed the Germans from all important posts, demanded that in future the members of the Academy should be chosen from among born Russians, and gave orders that the Russian youth should be carefully prepared for all kinds of official activity.
This attempt to throw off the German bondage did not lead to intellectual independence. During Peter's violent reforms Russia had ruthlessly thrown away her own historic past with whatever germs it contained, and now she possessed none of the elements of a genuine national culture. She was in the position of a fugitive who has escaped from slavery, and, finding himself in danger of starvation, looks about for a new master. The upper classes, who had acquired a taste for foreign civilisation, no sooner threw off everything German than they sought some other civilisation to put in its place. And they could not long hesitate in making a choice, for at that time all who thought of culture and refinement turned their eyes to Paris and Versailles. All that was most brilliant and refined was to be found at the Court of the French kings, under whose patronage the art and literature of the Renaissance had attained their highest development. Even Germany, which had resisted the ambitious designs of Louis XIV., imitated the manners of his Court. Every petty German potentate strove to ape the pomp and dignity of the Grand Monarque; and the courtiers, affecting to look on everything German as rude and barbarous, adopted French fashions, and spoke a hybrid jargon which they considered much more elegant than the plain mother tongue. In a word, Gallomania had become the prevailing social epidemic of the time, and it could not fail to attack and metamorphose such a class as the Russian Noblesse, which possessed few stubborn deep-rooted national convictions.
At first the French influence was manifested chiefly in external forms--that is to say, in dress, manners, language, and upholstery-- but gradually, and very rapidly after the accession of Catherine II., the friend of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, it sank deeper. Every noble who had pretensions to being "civilised" learned to speak French fluently, and gained some superficial acquaintance with French literature. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine and the comedies of Moliere were played regularly at the Court theatre in presence of the Empress, and awakened a real or affected enthusiasm among the audience. For those who preferred reading in their native language, numerous translations were published, a simple list of which would fill several pages. Among them we find not only Voltaire, Rousseau, Lesage, Marmontel, and other favourite French authors, but also all the masterpieces of European literature, ancient and modern, which at that time enjoyed a high reputation in the French literary world--Homer and Demosthenes, Cicero and Virgil, Ariosto and Camoens, Milton and Locke, Sterne and Fielding.
It is related of Byron that he never wrote a description whilst the scene was actually before him; and this fact points to an important psychological principle. The human mind, so long as it is compelled to strain the receptive faculties, cannot engage in that "poetic" activity--to use the term in its Greek sense--which is commonly called "original creation." And as with individuals, so with nations. By accepting in a lump a foreign culture a nation inevitably condemns itself for a time to intellectual sterility. So long as it is occupied in receiving and assimilating a flood of new ideas, unfamiliar conceptions, and foreign modes of thought, it will produce nothing original, and the result of its highest efforts will be merely successful imitation. We need not be surprised therefore to find that the Russians, in becoming acquainted with foreign literature, became imitators and plagiarists. In this kind of work their natural pliancy of mind and powerful histrionic talent made them wonderfully successful. Odes, pseudo-classical tragedies, satirical comedies, epic poems, elegies, and all the other recognised forms of poetical composition, appeared in great profusion, and many of the writers acquired a remarkable command over their native language, which had hitherto been regarded as uncouth and barbarous. But in all this mass of imitative literature, which has since fallen into well- merited oblivion, there are very few traces of genuine originality. To obtain the title of the Russian Racine, the Russian Lafontaine, the Russian Pindar, or the Russian Homer, was at that time the highest aim of Russian literary ambition.
Together with the fashionable literature the Russian educated classes adopted something of the fashionable philosophy. They were peculiarly unfitted to resist that hurricane of "enlightenment" which swept over Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century, first breaking or uprooting the received philosophical systems, theological conceptions, and scientific theories, and then shaking to their foundations the existing political and social institutions. The Russian Noblesse had neither the traditional conservative spirit, nor the firm, well-reasoned, logical beliefs which in England and Germany formed a powerful barrier against the spread of French influence. They had been too recently metamorphosed, and were too eager to acquire a foreign civilisation, to have even the germs of a conservative spirit. The rapidity and violence with which Peter's reforms had been effected, together with the peculiar spirit of Greek Orthodoxy and the low intellectual level of the clergy, had prevented theology from associating itself with the new order of things. The upper classes had become estranged from the beliefs of their forefathers without acquiring other beliefs to supply the place of those which had been lost. The old religious conceptions were inseparably interwoven with what was recognised as antiquated and barbarous, whilst the new philosophical ideas were associated with all that was modern and civilised. Besides this, the sovereign, Catherine II., who enjoyed the unbounded admiration of the upper classes, openly professed allegiance to the new philosophy, and sought the advice and friendship of its high priests. If we bear in mind these facts we shall not be surprised to find among the Russian nobles of that time a considerable number of so-called "Voltaireans" and numerous unquestioning believers in the infallibility of the Encyclopedie. What is a little more surprising is, that the new philosophy sometimes found its way into the ecclesiastical seminaries. The famous Speranski relates that in the seminary of St. Petersburg one of his professors, when not in a state of intoxication, was in the habit of preaching the doctrines of Voltaire and Diderot!
The rise of the sentimental school in Western Europe produced an important change in Russian literature, by undermining the inordinate admiration for the French pseudo-classical school. Florian, Richardson, Sterne, Rousseau, and Bernardin de St. Pierre found first translators, and then imitators, and soon the loud- sounding declamation and wordy ecstatic despair of the stage heroes were drowned in the deep-drawn sighs and plaintive wailings of amorous swains and peasant-maids forsaken. The mania seems to have been in Russia even more severe than in the countries where it originated. Full-grown, bearded men wept because they had not been born in peaceful primitive times, "when all men were shepherds and brothers." Hundreds of sighing youths and maidens visited the scenes described by the sentimental writers, and wandered by the rivers and ponds in which despairing heroines had drowned themselves. People talked, wrote, and meditated about "the sympathy of hearts created for each other," "the soft communion of sympathetic souls," and much more of the same kind. Sentimental journeys became a favourite amusement, and formed the subject of very popular books, containing maudlin absurdities likely to produce nowadays mirth rather than tears. One traveller, for instance, throws himself on his knees before an old oak and makes a speech to it; another weeps daily on the grave of a favourite dog, and constantly longs to marry a peasant girl; a third talks love to the moon, sends kisses to the stars, and wishes to press the heavenly orbs to his bosom! For a time the public would read nothing but absurd productions of this sort, and Karamzin, the great literary authority of the time, expressly declared that the true function of Art was "to disseminate agreeable impressions in the region of the sentimental."
The love of French philosophy vanished as suddenly as the inordinate admiration of the French pseudo-classical literature. When the great Revolution broke out in Paris the fashionable philosophic literature in St. Petersburg disappeared. Men who talked about political freedom and the rights of man, without thinking for a moment of limiting the autocratic power or of emancipating their serfs, were naturally surprised and frightened on discovering what the liberal principles could effect when applied to real life. Horrified by the awful scenes of the Terror, they hastened to divest themselves of the principles which led to such results, and sank into a kind of optimistic conservatism that harmonised well with the virtuous sentimentalism in vogue. In this the Empress herself gave the example. The Imperial disciple and friend of the Encyclopaedists became in the last years of her reign a decided reactionnaire.
During the Napoleonic wars, when the patriotic feelings were excited, there was a violent hostility to foreign intellectual influence; and feeble intermittent attempts were made to throw off the intellectual bondage. The invasion of the country in 1812 by the Grande Armee, and the burning of Moscow, added abundant fuel to this patriotic fire. For some time any one who ventured to express even a moderate admiration for French culture incurred the risk of being stigmatised as a traitor to his country and a renegade to the national faith. But this patriotic fanaticism soon evaporated, and exaggerations of the ultra-national party became the object of satire and parody. When the political danger was past, and people resumed their ordinary occupations, those who loved foreign literature returned to their old favourites--or, as the ultra- patriots called it, to their "wallowing in the mire"--simply because the native literature did not supply them with what they desired. "We are quite ready," they said to their upbraiders, "to admire your great works as soon as they appear, but in the meantime please allow us to enjoy what we possess." Thus in the last years of the reign of Alexander I. the patriotic opposition to West European literature gradually ceased, and a new period of unrestricted intellectual importation began.
The intellectual merchandise now brought into the country was very different from that which had been imported in the time of Catherine. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic domination, the patriotic wars, the restoration of the Bourbons, and the other great events of that memorable epoch, had in the interval produced profound changes in the intellectual as well as the political condition of Western Europe. During the Napoleonic wars Russia had become closely associated with Germany; and now the peculiar intellectual fermentation which was going on among the German educated classes was reflected in the society of St. Petersburg. It did not appear, indeed, in the printed literature, for the Press-censure had been recently organised on the principles laid down by Metternich, but it was none the less violent on that account. Whilst the periodicals were filled with commonplace meditations on youth, spring, the love of Art, and similar innocent topics, the young generation was discussing in the salons all the burning questions which Metternich and his adherents were endeavouring to extinguish.
These discussions, if discussions they might be called, were not of a very serious kind. In true dilettante style the fashionable young philosophers culled from the newest books the newest thoughts and theories, and retailed them in the salon or the ballroom. And they were always sure to find attentive listeners. The more astounding the idea or dogma, the more likely was it to be favourably received. No matter whether it came from the Rationalists, the Mystics, the Freemasons, or the Methodists, it was certain to find favour, provided it was novel and presented in an elegant form. The eclectic minds of that curious time could derive equal satisfaction from the brilliant discourses of the reactionary jesuitical De Maistre, the revolutionary odes of Pushkin, and the mysticism of Frau von Krudener. For the majority the vague theosophic doctrines and the projects for a spiritual union of governments and peoples had perhaps the greatest charm, being specially commended by the fact that they enjoyed the protection and sympathy of the Emperor. Pious souls discovered in the mystical lucubrations of Jung-Stilling and Baader the final solution of all existing difficulties--political, social, and philosophical. Men of less dreamy temperament put their faith in political economy and constitutional theories, and sought a foundation for their favourite schemes in the past history of the country and in the supposed fundamental peculiarities of the national character. Like the young German democrats, who were then talking enthusiastically about Teutons, Cheruskers, Skalds, the shade of Arminius, and the heroes of the Niebelungen, these young Russian savants recognised in early Russian history--when reconstructed according to their own fancy--lofty political ideals, and dreamed of resuscitating the ancient institutions in all their pristine imaginary splendour.
Each age has its peculiar social and political panaceas. One generation puts its trust in religion, another in philanthropy, a third in written constitutions, a fourth in universal suffrage, a fifth in popular education. In the Epoch of the Restoration, as it is called, the favourite panacea all over the Continent was secret political association. Very soon after the overthrow of Napoleon the peoples who had risen in arms to obtain political independence discovered that they had merely changed masters. The Princes reconstructed Europe according to their own convenience, without paying much attention to patriotic aspirations, and forgot their promises of liberal institutions as soon as they were again firmly seated on their thrones. This was naturally for many a bitter deception. The young generation, excluded from all share in political life and gagged by the stringent police supervision, sought to realise its political aspirations by means of secret societies, resembling more or less the Masonic brotherhoods. There were the Burschenschaften in Germany; the Union, and the "Aide toi et le ciel t'aidera," in France; the Order of the Hammer in Spain; the Carbonari in Italy; and the Hetairai in Greece. In Russia the young nobles followed the prevailing fashion. Secret societies were formed, and in December, 1825, an attempt was made to raise a military insurrection in St. Petersburg, for the purpose of deposing the Imperial family and proclaiming a republic; but the attempt failed, and the vague Utopian dreams of the romantic would- be reformers were swept away by grape-shot.
This "December catastrophe," still vividly remembered, was for the society of St. Petersburg like the giving way of the floor in a crowded ball-room. But a moment before, all had been animated, careless, and happy; now consternation was depicted on every face. The salons, that but yesterday had been ringing with lively discussions on morals, aesthetics, politics, and theology, were now silent and deserted. Many of those who had been wont to lead the causeries had been removed to the cells of the fortress, and those who had not been arrested trembled for themselves or their friends; for nearly all had of late dabbled more or less in the theory and practice of revolution. The announcement that five of the conspirators had been condemned to the gallows and the others sentenced to transportation did not tend to calm the consternation. Society was like a discomfited child, who, amidst the delight and excitement of letting off fireworks, has had its fingers severely burnt.
The sentimental, wavering Alexander I. had been succeeded by his stern, energetic brother Nicholas, and the command went forth that there should be no more fireworks, no more dilettante philosophising or political aspirations. There was, however, little need for such an order. Society had been, for the moment at least, effectually cured of all tendencies to political dreaming. It had discovered, to its astonishment and dismay, that these new ideas, which were to bring temporal salvation to humanity, and to make all men happy, virtuous, refined, and poetical, led in reality to exile and the scaffold! The pleasant dream was at an end, and the fashionable world, giving up its former habits, took to harmless occupations--card-playing, dissipation, and the reading of French light literature. "The French quadrille," as a writer of the time tersely expresses it, "has taken the place of Adam Smith."
When the storm had passed, the life of the salons began anew, but it was very different from what it had been. There was no longer any talk about political economy, theology, popular education, administrative abuses, social and political reforms. Everything that had any relation to politics in the wider sense of the term was by tacit consent avoided. Discussions there were as of old, but they were now confined to literary topics, theories of art, and similar innocent subjects.
This indifference or positive repugnance to philosophy and political science, strengthened and prolonged by the repressive system of administration adopted by Nicholas, was of course fatal to the many-sided intellectual activity which had flourished during the preceding reign, but it was by no means unfavourable to the cultivation of imaginative literature. On the contrary, by excluding those practical interests which tend to disturb artistic production and to engross the attention of the public, it fostered what was called in the phraseology of that time "the pure-hearted worship of the Muses." We need not, therefore, be surprised to find that the reign of Nicholas, which is commonly and not unjustly described as an epoch of social and intellectual stagnation, may be called in a certain sense the Golden Age of Russian literature.
Already in the preceding reign the struggle between the Classical and the Romantic school--between the adherents of traditional aesthetic principles and the partisans of untrammelled poetic inspiration--which was being carried on in Western Europe, was reflected in Russia. A group of young men belonging to the aristocratic society of St. Petersburg embraced with enthusiasm the new doctrines, and declared war against "classicism," under which term they understood all that was antiquated, dry, and pedantic. Discarding the stately, lumbering, unwieldy periods which had hitherto been in fashion, they wrote a light, elastic, vigorous style, and formed a literary society for the express purpose of ridiculing the most approved classical writers. The new principles found many adherents, and the new style many admirers, but this only intensified the hostility of the literary Conservatives. The staid, respectable leaders of the old school, who had all their lives kept the fear of Boileau before their eyes and considered his precepts as the infallible utterances of aesthetic wisdom, thundered against the impious innovations as unmistakable symptoms of literary decline and moral degeneracy--representing the boisterous young iconoclasts as dissipated Don Juans and dangerous freethinkers.
Thus for some time in Russia, as in Western Europe, "a terrible war raged on Parnassus." At first the Government frowned at the innovators, on account of certain revolutionary odes which one of their number had written; but when the Romantic Muse, having turned away from the present as essentially prosaic, went back into the distant past and soared into the region of sublime abstractions, the most keen-eyed Press Censors found no reason to condemn her worship, and the authorities placed almost no restrictions on free poetic inspiration. Romantic poetry acquired the protection of the Government and the patronage of the Court, and the names of Zhukofski, Pushkin, and Lermontof--the three chief representatives of the Russian Romantic school--became household words in all ranks of the educated classes.
These three great luminaries of the literary world were of course attended by a host of satellites of various magnitudes, who did all in their power to refute the romantic principles by reductiones ad absurdum. Endowed for the most part with considerable facility of composition, the poetasters poured forth their feelings with torrential recklessness, demanding freedom for their inspiration, and cursing the age that fettered them with its prosaic cares, its cold reason, and its dry science. At the same time the dramatists and novelists created heroes of immaculate character and angelic purity, endowed with all the cardinal virtues in the superlative degree; and, as a contrast to these, terrible Satanic personages with savage passions, gleaming daggers, deadly poisons, and all manner of aimless melodramatic villainy. These stilted productions, interspersed with light satirical essays, historical sketches, literary criticism, and amusing anecdotes, formed the contents of the periodical literature, and completely satisfied the wants of the reading public. Almost no one at that time took any interest in public affairs or foreign politics. The acts of the Government which were watched most attentively were the promotions in the service and the conferring of decorations. The publication of a new tale by Zagoskin or Marlinski--two writers now well-nigh forgotten--seemed of much greater importance than any amount of legislation, and such events as the French Revolution of 1830 paled before the publication of a new poem by Pushkin.
The Transcendental philosophy, which in Germany went hand in hand with the Romantic literature, found likewise a faint reflection in Russia. A number of young professors and students in Moscow, who had become ardent admirers of German literature, passed from the works of Schiller, Goethe, and Hoffmann to the writing of Schelling and Hegel. Trained in the Romantic school, these young philosophers found at first a special charm in Schelling's mystical system, teeming with hazy poetical metaphors, and presenting a misty grandiose picture of the universe; but gradually they felt the want of some logical basis for their speculations, and Hegel became their favourite. Gallantly they struggled with the uncouth terminology and epigrammatic paradoxes of the great thinker, and strove to force their way through the intricate mazes of his logical formulae. With the ardour of neophytes they looked at every phenomenon--even the most trivial incident of common life-- from the philosophical point of view, talked day and night about principles, ideas, subjectivity, Weltauffassung, and similar abstract entities, and habitually attacked the "hydra of unphilosophy" by analysing the phenomena presented and relegating the ingredient elements to the recognised categories. In ordinary life they were men of quiet, grave, contemplative demeanour, but their faces could flush and their blood boil when they discussed the all-important question, whether it is possible to pass logically from Pure Being through Nonentity to the conception of Development and Definite Existence!
We know how in Western Europe Romanticism and Transcendentalism, in their various forms, sank into oblivion, and were replaced by a literature which had a closer connection with ordinary prosaic wants and plain everyday life. The educated public became weary of the Romantic writers, who were always "sighing like a furnace," delighting in solitude, cold eternity, and moonshine, deluging the world with their heart-gushings, and calling on the heavens and the earth to stand aghast at their Promethean agonising or their Wertherean despair. Healthy human nature revolted against the poetical enthusiasts who had lost the faculty of seeing things in their natural light, and who constantly indulged in that morbid self-analysis which is fatal to genuine feeling and vigorous action. And in this healthy reaction the philosophers fared no better than the poets, with whom, indeed, they had much in common. Shutting their eyes to the visible world around them, they had busied themselves with burrowing in the mysterious depths of Absolute Being, grappling with the ego and the non-ego, constructing the great world, visible and invisible, out of their own puny internal self-consciousness, endeavouring to appropriate all departments of human thought, and imparting to every subject they touched the dryness and rigidity of an algebraical formula. Gradually men with real human sympathies began to perceive that from all this philosophical turmoil little real advantage was to be derived. It became only too evident that the philosophers were perfectly reconciled with all the evil in the world, provided it did not contradict their theories; that they were men of the same type as the physician in Moliere's comedy, whose chief care was that his patients should die selon les ordonnances de la medicine.
In Russia the reaction first appeared in the aesthetic literature. Its first influential representative was Gogol (b. 1808, d. 1852), who may be called, in a certain sense, the Russian Dickens. A minute comparison of those two great humourists would perhaps show as many points of contrast as of similarity, but there is a strong superficial resemblance between them. They both possessed an inexhaustible supply of broad humour and an imagination of singular vividness. Both had the power of seeing the ridiculous side of common things, and the talent of producing caricatures that had a wonderful semblance of reality. A little calm reflection would suffice to show that the characters presented are for the most part psychological impossibilities; but on first making their acquaintance we are so struck with one or two life-like characteristics and various little details dexterously introduced, and at the same time we are so carried away by the overflowing fun of the narrative, that we have neither time nor inclination to use our critical faculties. In a very short time Gogol's fame spread throughout the length and breadth of the Empire, and many of his characters became as familiar to his countrymen as Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp were to Englishmen. His descriptions were so graphic--so like the world which everybody knew! The characters seemed to be old acquaintances hit off to the life; and readers revelled in that peculiar pleasure which most of us derive from seeing our friends successfully mimicked. Even the Iron Tsar could not resist the fun and humour of "The Inspector" (Revizor), and not only laughed heartily, but also protected the author against the tyranny of the literary censors, who considered that the piece was not written in a sufficiently "well-intentioned" tone. In a word, the reading public laughed as it had never laughed before, and this wholesome genuine merriment did much to destroy the morbid appetite for Byronic heroes and Romantic affectation.
The Romantic Muse did not at once abdicate, but with the spread of Gogol's popularity her reign was practically at an end. In vain some of the conservative critics decried the new favourite as talentless, prosaic, and vulgar. The public were not to be robbed of their amusement for the sake of any abstract aesthetic considerations; and young authors, taking Gogol for their model, chose their subjects from real life, and endeavoured to delineate with minute truthfulness.
This new intellectual movement was at first purely literary, and affected merely the manner of writing novels, tales, and poems. The critics who had previously demanded beauty of form and elegance of expression now demanded accuracy of description, condemned the aspirations towards so-called high art, and praised loudly those who produced the best literary photographs. But authors and critics did not long remain on this purely aesthetic standpoint. The authors, in describing reality, began to indicate moral approval and condemnation, and the critics began to pass from the criticism of the representations to the criticism of the realities represented. A poem or a tale was often used as a peg on which to hang a moral lecture, and the fictitious characters were soundly rated for their sins of omission and commission. Much was said about the defence of the oppressed, female emancipation, honour, and humanitarianism; and ridicule was unsparingly launched against all forms of ignorance, apathy, and the spirit of routine. The ordinary refrain was that the public ought now to discard what was formerly regarded as poetical and sublime, and to occupy itself with practical concerns--with the real wants of social life.
The literary movement was thus becoming a movement in favour of social and political reforms when it was suddenly arrested by political events in the West. The February Revolution in Paris, and the political fermentation which appeared during 1848-49 in almost every country of Europe, alarmed the Emperor Nicholas and his counsellors. A Russian army was sent into Austria to suppress the Hungarian insurrection and save the Hapsburg dynasty, and the most stringent measures were taken to prevent disorders at home. One of the first precautions for the preservation of domestic tranquillity was to muzzle the Press more firmly than before, and to silence the aspirations towards reform and progress; thenceforth nothing could be printed which was not in strict accordance with the ultra-patriotic theory of Russian history, as expressed by a leading official personage: "The past has been admirable, the present is more than magnificent, and the future will surpass all that the human imagination can conceive!" The alarm caused by the revolutionary disorders spread to the non-official world, and gave rise to much patriotic self-congratulation. "The nations of the West," it was said, "envy us, and if they knew us better--if they could see how happy and prosperous we are--they would envy us still more. We ought not, however, to withdraw from Europe our solicitude; its hostility should not deprive us of our high mission of saving order and restoring rest to the nations; we ought to teach them to obey authority as we do. It is for us to introduce the saving principle of order into a world that has fallen a prey to anarchy. Russia ought not to abandon that mission which has been entrusted to her by the heavenly and by the earthly Tsar."*
* These words were written by Tchaadaef, who, a few years before, had vigorously attacked the Slavophils for enouncing similar views.
Men who saw in the significant political eruption of 1848 nothing but an outburst of meaningless, aimless anarchy, and who believed that their country was destined to restore order throughout the civilised world, had of course little time or inclination to think of putting their own house in order. No one now spoke of the necessity of social reorganisation: the recently awakened aspirations and expectations seemed to be completely forgotten. The critics returned to their old theory that art and literature should be cultivated for their own sake and not used as a vehicle for the propagation of ideas foreign to their nature. It seemed, in short, as if all the prolific ideas which had for a time occupied the public attention had been merely "writ in water," and had now disappeared without leaving a trace behind them.
In reality the new movement was destined to reappear very soon with tenfold force; but the account of its reappearance and development belongs to a future chapter. Meanwhile I may formulate the general conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing pages. Ever since the time of Peter the Great there has been such a close connection between Russia and Western Europe that every intellectual movement which has appeared in France and Germany has been reflected--albeit in an exaggerated, distorted form--in the educated society of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Thus the window which Peter opened in order to enable his subjects to look into Europe has well served its purpose.