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The Russia That Was

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

A History of Russia,
By S. F. Platonov. New York: Macmillan. $5.00.

Modern Russian History. By Alexander Kornilov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.25.

A History of Russia. By Sir Bernard Pares. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

An Economic History of Russia. By James Mavor. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 2 vols. $15.00.

Catherine the Great. By Katherine Anthony. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00.

The idealist definition that history is mankind thinking about itself becomes increasingly difficult of application as the historian wanders further afield from his own personal experience. If the Anglo-Saxon sits down to write, or even to read, the history—which is more than a mere chronicle—of a racial group like the Slavs, will he arrive anywhere? When Halevy wrote his superb “History of the English People in 1815”, he advanced timidly the defense that though not an Englishman, he had yet dared, because there was such a thing as a European culture which both French and English partook of. But the writer of a college text feels no such false modesty: he will commonly descant on Ghenghis Khan himself with no sense of futility. For the matter of that, why be a historian if one cannot assume omniscience? What is there in it? It is an ill-paid profession as this world’s goods go.

Yet the historian who seeks to realize himself in the comprehension of some distant place or period runs a glorious risk for a glorious prize. He who reaches the steppes of Russia, drawn thither not by the necessity to write a guidebook, but by the irresistible fascination of his subject, may vet be able to mirror Russians even to themselves. And though losing sight of landmarks is dangerous, discovery is exhilarating.

Professors Platonov and Kornilov are, of course, not cases in point. They are Russians, which makes their work both more defensible and less the glorious adventure history can occasionally become. Besides, their books are strictly “texts”, and have thereby in a sense lost their amateur standing. Professor Platonov reviews the development of the Russian people from the ninth century to 1925 in only four hundred and eight pages. The period 1914-1925 gets three and one-half pages. But the thing, given its limitations, is admirably done; and combines great clearness with genuine readableness.

Kornilov’s “Modern Russian History” confines itself to the nineteenth century, and by thus limiting its scope, gains in detail. It is hence able to give a pretty good picture of the break-up of serfdom and the relaxation of the autocratic system. One criticism of the book may profitably be made. The present volume is a reprint of an edition of 1917, and concludes with a series of chapters then written by the translator, Mr. Alexander S. Kaun, dealing with the period of 1894-1916. The last pages of the book therefore have that peculiar staleness that surrounds war-time pronouncements: “The war is still on. Russia is being purged in a terrible crucible. Public consciousness is continually growing”, etc. No wonder the publishers included an introduction by Professor Ceroid Tanquary Robinson assuring us that the history of Russia in the nineteenth century can be best approached through a direct interest in that period rather than by considering it as a preamble to the Revolution. This may be; yet it might reasonably be objected that an outline of the Revolution would form a more logical conclusion to the nineteenth century than the kind of thing just quoted.

Sir Bernard Pares’ book is the pick of these three general histories. Not because it-is less Slavic. If that adjective means anything, Sir Bernard’s work is probably more Slavic than that of the two Russians. Platonov, and even more Kornilov, are much more in the West-European tradition of historiography. The astonishing thing about Sir Bernard’s book is its almost loving sympathy of treatment. He makes quite clear that Ivan the Terrible—or John the Dread, as he prefers to call him—depended for his power on the middle class, like his brother monarchs in Western Europe. But he does not allow that fact to shoulder out a dramatic account of Ivan, whose reign reads like a novel of Dostoevsky. His insane cruelty, his profound humility, his alternate debauches and religious frenzies : think of a centralizing monarch that foreshadows Louis XIV and who yet lacks gloriously the reasonableness and common sense that were the pride of Louis’ epoch. Now that we judge all kings—at a safe distance, of course—by their services to the People; it is instructive to find a King whose relation to his people was a passionate affair of the heart.

“Suddenly the news spread that the Tsar had abandoned Moscow. Sledges had been seen drawn up in the Kremlin, and they had carried him away, with his family and all his belongings, his icons and his treasures. . . .”A month later this same Tsar—Ivan the Terrible—wrote two letters to the Moscow Metropolitan, one of which he ordered read aloud to the people. In it he assured them that he only wished to protect them from the oppressive nobility. Whereupon, “Shops were closed, no songs were heard, the capital was as if in mourning. The people of Moscow entreated the Metropolitan with tears to ask the Tsar to return, to assure him that the people were faithful to him . . . and to beg that he should rule however he pleased’.” This is the sort of thing Elie Faure is talking about in his “Napoleon”; but Napoleon was civilized and his sweetheart, France, more so.

Probably the thing that makes this history of Russia such superlatively good reading is that the fear of “episodical and anecdotal” writing, a fear which has converted much contemporary history writing into second-rate and envious sociology, has not touched Sir Bernard. Like most people of broad culture and deep sympathies he knows there is more wisdom in a good anecdote, and more knowledge of life too—when the anecdote is really understood, not merely repeated—than in the price levels and geographical influences and behavioristic pull-strings of three decades, four continents, and five mannikins. Real anecdotes—including Washington’s cherry-tree, whether or not it ever existed— will always remain a more important expression of man’s experience—of his spiritual and subjective experience—than all the studies of environment that will ever fill our libraries. We need not share the opinion of the Muscovite bishop who cried “Abhorred of God is anyone who loves geometry: it is a spiritual sin.” But, for all we know, that bishop may have foreseen difficulties that have overtaken us, in our secularized thought. Sir Bernard has doubtless studied geometry; but he has not allowed it to turn his head. As a result, a British historian has entered into the Slavic spirit.

The important work of this group is, of course, Professor Mavor’s already well-known account of the rise and fall of Russian serfdom, or “bondage right” as he terms it. This book is not for the layman. It is the sort of book to which one may rightly apply the much-amused adjective “monumental”. But its exhaustiveness is by no means exhausting. Professor Mavor never once forgets that though he has set himself the task of analyzing what are called the economic relations between human beings, these relations are nevertheless between human beings, not puppets. As a result he is on the look-out for traditions, superstitions, odd customs; and these he records, with the humility of wide knowledge; and from these, with like humility, he draws his deductions. He adduces details to illustrate the peasants’ attitude towards private property:

“The following details . . . were obtained for the writer by a very astute observer, himself a peasant. . . . The Jews steal by cheating in money and in weight. Orthodox (i. e. Greek Orthodox) peasants steal timber only, but raskolneke [or dissenters] steal anything. . . . Up till the age of thirty the ‘Old Believer’ (starovyer) is known as mirskoy, or ‘of the world’—a worldly man; afterwards he becomes a rabskoy, or ‘of service’—i. e. a servant of God. The peasants say that he devotes himself to the service of God when he has been beaten so soundly by those whom he has robbed that he can serve Mammon no more.”

The economic historians, as a group, claim to impose on themselves a discipline hitherto unknown. As a matter of fact, the bulk of them use “economic laws” as skeleton keys to unlock the mysteries of human nature. A strange discipline this, that increases not only our self-confidence hut our cocksureness. Professor Mavor, being a master of his craft, knows its limitations; and in not knowing everything, he has come to know much. Economic theory is to him just another tool, and he gratefully uses it. But his modesty and skill alike entitle him to be ranked as that vara avis, the humanistic economist. As for an assessment of his book, that would be out of place here as well as bumptious. There are few persons on this continent capable of “assessing” this work; and if one be not of their number, he can at least refrain from patting it on the head. He may even refrain from the remark—a favorite sort, with the bewildered but generous critic—that nobody henceforth can speak authoritatively about the Russian Revolution without studying its origins, in this book. Nobody can speak “authoritatively” in that sense, anyhow; this book casts much valuable light on the Revolution; and there’s an end on’t. But, the work is a good joke on those who, without Professor Mavor’s capacity for painstaking labor and through the sheer force of their own genius and a rapid perusal of the daily press, can tell you anything you want to know about the rather considerable developments that have recently taken place in Russia.

As for this last book, “Catherine the Great”, it is high time somebody pointed out that it is not the masterpiece a good press has almost made of it. Nor has its author earned even an important place among contemporary biographers. A public that has hardly finished reading Strachey’s “Queen Victoria” must have understood little of its consummate art if it can find this life of Catherine great biography. To put it baldly, the book is obvious. It lacks both subtlety and strength. One of its most marked stylistic tricks is to conclude a quotation with a playful remark intended to help the reader form his opinions. This is not only driving nails home; it is scarring the wood. And it reminds one of nothing so much as seeing Russia through the eyes of a Cook’s guide. Many people like this, of course, as witness Cook’s; as witness, indeed, the success of this book.

After quoting an “old German Baroness” who thought the child Catherine “just an ordinary person”, the author finishes off:

“If the Princess of Zerbst did not make much of her daughter, it is not likely that one of her women would have held a different opinion.” (Then why quote the woman?) “Probably the young girl was sufficiently commonplace. It remained for circumstances to make her into the unique and powerful personality that she came to be. For the rest, it is true that at all stages of her life she was more cool and calculating than she was eccentric and frivolous. To this extent the Baroness was right.” The second great vice in this work springs from the first. To be personally conducted is not only to have one’s thinking done for one; it is also to purchase a very considerable amount of hotelier’s courtesy, and exemption from the disagreeable impingements of a foreign environment. When we Americans travel, ice-water is miraculously distilled from our dollar-bills; and “bars americains” spring up for the extra-thirsty. And apparently, when we voyage in the eighteenth century, lo there also our path is made smooth. This, to the true traveler, the true reader, the true adventurer, is both deplorable and detestable. In this book Catherine has been, as it were, brought to the Public; and the result is what one would predict: a faithful portrait of the Public. But where has Great Catherine gone?

To recur to Strachey, who after all is not the only great biographer that ever lived, his sense of artistry and of mystery too would never have permitted him either these intrusively recurrent comments, or this objectionable and easy familiarity with this subject. He told his story, and let each reader draw his own moral. And what different morals were drawn!

An elderly lady from Connecticut read “Queen Victoria”. Was she horrified or annoyed by that satire of an expansive age? Did she dislike this Good Queen, whom Strachey had taught a generation to smile at? “She said when she was a little girl, that she prayed she might always be good, and”—almost overcome by the—by the touching pathos of it—”she always was!” Oh most subtle compliment to an artist who respected his subject and stood aside that the world might see!


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