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The Fire Every Time

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003
All Russia Is Burning: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia. By Cathy Frierson. University of Washington Press. $45.00.

The East Slavs—principally Russians and Ukrainians—have traditionally not given safety a high priority at home or in the workplace, and they have paid an awful price. The world knows all about Chernobyl (“Dark True Story”) but rarely hears anything about the 18,000 Russians who die in routine fires every year—50 people a day, 12.5 per 100,000 population, compared with the United Kingdom rate of 1 per 100,000. Fire claims nearly five times as many victims in Russia as in the United States, where there are about twice as many people. Most Russian fires occur in the villages, where wooden buildings are heated with wood-burning stoves.

Fire has always been a problem, but in the latter half of the 19th century it seemed as though every village in European Russia was ablaze: the number of reported incidents rose more than 500 percent over four decades. That was due in part to new laws and regulations that made it easier to get insurance and file claims, in part to reporting bias, and finally to a heightened civic consciousness in the 1855—1881 reform era under Tsar Alexander II. No amount of rationalization, however, could conceal the fact that there were more fires than ever before.

According to Cathy Frierson, professor of Russian history at the University of New Hampshire, so numerous were the conflagrations that “rural fire and arson entered the Russian national consciousness as features of national identity and as problems requiring the attention of officials and active citizens.” The fires, she writes, were “most frequent in the spring, summer, and fall.” Now we know why Russians have never dreaded winter. In the period from the 1850s to the turn of the century, “Russia’s national fire narrative” took shape: “[W]hen fire entered the national imagination in 1862, knowing fire came to mean knowing disaster.” The flames did not burn any hotter, but the dimensions of the catastrophe finally registered in people’s minds.

Frierson insists that All Russia Is Burning is not a “prehistory of the revolution of 1905,” the upheaval that unleashed the “red rooster”—socially targeted arson—on a nationwide scale. In the first settling of accounts since the great peasant rebellions of Catherine the Great’s reign, the Russian peasants set fire not only to manor houses but also to the dwellings and outbuildings of their better-off neighbors, the latter-day “kulaks.” Where they could, they destroyed the cadastral registers and gleefully drubbed landlords and bureaucrats— usually stopping, however, short of murder.

The government responded with the “Stolypin necktie,” the noose, named after Minister-President Peter Stolypin. First pacification, he insisted, then reform. Most scholars now agree that his program, carried out to its intended conclusion, might have saved a modified monarchy. But it stopped short. In the end it angered the extreme Right, which rightly saw it as paving the way for revolution. A tsarist secret police agent assassinated Stolypin in 1911.

(At the scene of another political assassination in that era, a citizen asked a policeman, “Who got killed?” The officer’s quintessentially Slavic answer, “He whose destiny it was to be killed.” You could base a cultural history on that exchange.)

Few of the 1862—1904 fires, Frierson maintains, involved the class struggle, and as always, many had natural causes. Just outside this period, the gigantic June 1908 Tunguska meteor set flames racing all over Central Siberia, superstitious hearts to fluttering around the world; the biblical “next time,” it seemed, had come.

What we might call “traditional” accidents probably occurred with about the same frequency as always, but a new factor emerged: peasants who could afford them began using kerosene lamps, cigarettes, and matches. (Frierson adds samovars, but they had been around for centuries.) These novelties multiplied opportunities for mishaps, and along with excessive alcohol consumption, children’s fascination with matches, and the traditional indifference to safety, they made a recipe for catastrophe.

Everyone used fire for cooking and heating. Many relied on it to clear a piece of land, forge metal, dispose of unwanted goods, fumigate dwellings (Frierson would have been happy so to combat the roaches in her Moscow University dormitory), cauterize wounds—the list is endless. A tiny but measurable minority resorted to fire for settling accounts with their neighbors, or just for the hell of it, and those people figure prominently in All Russia Is Burning.

Arson occupied a peculiar slot in the life of the Russian village. Unambiguously a crime in the eyes of the law, to the peasants themselves it only became a “punishable wrongdoing when . . . simultaneously sinful. To be sinful, it had to cause debilitating hardship and suffering or take the life of some of God’s creatures.” Mere property damage was of no great consequence and “did not constitute a violation of community morality.” On the contrary, the peasants regarded arson as an “effective form of dispute resolution and social control in the village.” Incomprehensible in the West, such an attitude was rooted in Russian Orthodoxy, which, unlike Western Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular, does not exalt the material world. Not only can you not take it with you, you live in constant fear that God, or some wretch here on earth, will take it away before you go.

Alarmed by developments in the countryside, the government started sending in firefighting personnel and equipment, but in a country two and a half times the size of the United States it was impossible to reach more than a tiny fraction of the villages. Taking the long-term view that fires constituted an epidemic, educated urban dwellers “moved to explore its etiology. in order to prevent its harm.” That meant despatching ethnographers, who were to produce an abundance of priceless data on village life.

It has been clear at least since publication of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough that folk attitudes and practices and superstitions regarding fire stem from the psychological DNA that links us all. We are hard-wired to peer into the flames and ponder an enigma or two. Like every other people, the pagan East Slavs understood fire to be associated with sexuality and fertility, life and death, at once a gift and a curse bestowed by the gods. In this area a major oriental mystery cult—Christianity—required only modest adjustments at the margins. Hell never really caught on with the Slavs the way it did with the Western Christians, who turned it into a grotesque art form, but sometimes the Slavs did see fire itself as the “Lord’s vengeance.”

Frierson declares that “one of Orthodox Russia’s first saints was a female arsonist.” That catchy but misleading throwaway line does not scratch the surface. Olga was after all emulating Samson (Shimshon, “sun man”), who tied firebrands to foxes’ tails and sent the terrified creatures among the Philistines. In the tenth century, Olga attached smoldering twigs to birds’ legs and dispatched them to work mischief among some barbarians who had seized Kiev.

The monks who composed that legend long after the alleged event knew what they were doing. Building Christianity among the pagan East Slavs was a painstaking, step-by-step process.

Fire plays a central role in many religions, certainly including Christianity, and at one point in her discussion Frierson registers agreement with an author who maintains that Northern Europe is inhospitable territory for linking fire to suffering and eternal damnation. On the contrary, a whole host of theologians—Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley—and the artists—Bosch, Breughel, Durer— from that part of the world have portrayed the fiery divine judgment awaiting sinners in exquisite detail. Since the 17th century, which embraced the most ominous year in a millennium, 1666, hellfire-and-damnation preachers have done a far bigger and certainly more profitable business among North Europeans and their descendants in the United States than among Latin peoples.

Intended for “fire historians” and specialists in 19th-century Russian history, Frierson’s fine study is the product of an enormous amount of research, much of it in primary sources. There will surely be no need for anyone else ever to tackle this particular subject again. We can hope that, in the future, such a gifted historian will display her talents on a broader, and more broadly interesting, canvas.


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