Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power

by Richard Stites
586 pages,
ISBN: 0300108893

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Serfdom and the Arts in Imperial Russia
by Clara Thomas

This work of history by Richard Stites, a Professor at Georgetown University, has been described by one of his academic colleagues as "the latest of Stites' panoramic yet densely detailed studies of Russian culture and it will undoubtedly prove as invaluable to scholars, students, and general interest readers as his previous books have done." Although a general reader may find it difficult reading without background information about the history of Imperial Russia, and serfdom in particular, the text provides an eminently worthwhile and intriguing journey into Russia's past.
That Russia was importing much of her culture from Europe is not surprising; all societies separated from centres of cultural activity by distance and a lag in progress did the same. The practice of serfdom complicated indigenous cultural development in Russia far beyond that of other societies: "One might even say without undue exaggeration that Russia was the object (but not victim) of an uncoordinated three-power occupation: the Germans in music, the French in theatre, and the Italians in art." Tsar Nicholas, who died in 1855, had kept a tight reign on all forms of free speech and action, and it was not until various factors (including the Crimean war in which Russia was defeated on her own territory) began to have a cumulative effect, that a general impulse towards change began to sweep the country. When Alexander succeeded Nicholas, he immediately undertook various far-reaching reforms designed to bring Russia out of her backward state and in line with other European nations. Among these reforms was the freeing of the serfs in 1861, a measure that had the most serious impact on the culture of the country.
Before the emancipation, hundreds of thousands of peasants had been owned by individuals who were able to dictate their every activity. Some of these landowners had built theatre companies, orchestras, and artistic salons where their serfs performed entirely in accordance with their wishes. There were thousands of 'masters' who used serfs and their talents to bolster their own social standing. It was a form of slavery unimaginable today, but very much the norm in Russia until well into the 19th century. This system was subject to every vagary of human nature, and all manner of examples crowd the pages of this book. Stites divides his work into five parts: "Cultural and Social Terrain", "Music of the Spheres", "Empire of Performance", "Pictures at an Exhibition", and "Finale and Overture". These, as the names indicate, cover the large cultural topics: music, theatre, and visual art. Within them Stites treats urban and rural, domestic and professional manifestations, as well as training, performance, and every other facet of the arts. The book is replete with information and examples of the myriad activities he examines.
All cultural creativity centred around the two acknowledged capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow. The "Imperial" capital, St. Petersburg, was the better known of the two cities. Society was rigidly divided and governed: no aristocrat was allowed to work as a professional actor, musician, or artist. You were born into a particular class and there you stayed without hope of movement. Many famed artists were not originally from St. Peterburg or Moscow, the centres of aristocratic life, but were brought there to entertain the royals.
Anton Rubenstein, for instance, was the son of a successful merchant. Although he became an accomplished musician early in life, going abroad to be well trained, he was stalemated at home because he had no stature beyond "merchant's son". He became a court pianist, but he referred to himself as "the imperial family's 'furnace attendant' . . . Rubinstein was the ultimate stiffener at the musical evenings as he accompanied the tsar's son, a talented amateur." As a young man he was active in promoting the foundation of a Conservatory for the training of promising Russian musicians, but his plans were not to be fulfilled until the late 1850s when he returned from a sojourn in Vienna to find a social climate that was finally agreeable to his quest: "He began the process that would establish the musician as 'free artist' on the cultural landscape just as the mass of the enserfed population was being turned into free subjects of the Tsar."
Vast distances and limited means of travel were the main reasons for Russia's cultural isolation. There were very few paved roads, and few railways; the great advances in transportation of the 19th century were slow to infiltrate Russia and help master its immensities. Tsar Nicholas is often quoted as having said, "Russia suffers from space." However, by the 19th century the country became more accessible and more Europeanised. Successful merchants in every town could vote; they paid taxes and took part in their own governance. As their numbers and influence increased, so did their expectations of amusement and education in all its forms. A middle class emerged that was increasingly moneyed and influential. Those belonging to it were determined to achieve their own and their children's betterment. They were not slow to introduce polite accomplishments in all the arts into the education of their children. Music was the foremost of these enthusiasms and teachers of voice and instruments became ubiquitous. A well-raised young woman was expected to perform adequately in music and to sketch. Theatrical skills were also encouraged, for it seems to be a natural source of entertainment in every society.
Ninety percent of the population did not have the power of the merchant class, but had just as lively a set of ambitions for themselves and their children, which made town life vital and progressive. Foreign musicians and foreign theatre companies were invited to visit, and foreign artists to teach and exhibit their products. The very bottom rung of society comprised the serfs, whose owners exploited them, often in the most heartless ways. One owner maintained a serf choir; when one of his singers was not performing to his liking, he would send that serf away to the stables for a whipping and then bring him back to sing again. But there are other stories toołof serfs being trained and freed by sensitive masters. The history of serfdom in Russian is replete, as any comparable history would be, with examples of the inextinguishable impulse of the individual toward freedom.
It was said that in England, by 1910, there was a piano for every ten to twenty people of the middle class. The modernisation of Russia did not happen with anything like this speed. Stites's book is packed with fascinating examples of developments in all the arts, although the persistence of serfdom and the country's vastness, inhibited change, slowing down progress by comparison with other European nations. The final section is called "When Did the Real Day Dawn?" and Stites's final summary is this: "What awaited Russia were many dawns and many dusks, numerous arrivals and departures throughout the next half century which was to be the most glorious and spectacular period of its cultural history." The names Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsikov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekov offer their own testimony: "The days passed as did the nightsłand the real day kept dawning." ņ

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