The Foundations of Eurasianism in Russian Fin De Siecle Literature
As the turn of the twentieth century was approaching, the nations of Europe were looking at themselves and what they had become in the century of rapid change that was the nineteenth century. Nations that had existed in their place for milennia but had had no country became nationstates. Russia, too, was doing this. In fact, Russia had been doing it for 70 years before 1900. Some said that Russia was just a backwards and weak version of Western Europe, that Russia had to move quick to emulate Germany and France. Others, however, were trying to understand Russia’s identity on it’s own terms, as a mixture between Europe and Asia, but truly part of neither. This idea evolved into a cultural movement, Eurasianism, in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The foundations of the Eurasian philosophy as an evolution from Pan-Slavism may have had its roots in the fin de Siecle literature of Russia, and those foundations are what I hope to address here.
One of the basic foundations of what we may call Eurasianism is the idea that Russia is not by nature a European country. This is actually an idea that was first developed in the 1830’s, and had been discussed by Russian scholars widely for fifty years before the time period that I am concerned with in this essay (1880-1919). So, first I would like to look at the questions “what does it mean to be a non-European people?,” and “in what ways is Russia not a European nation?”
In 1834, in the guise of a letter to a female friend, Petr Chaadaev wrote the first of his so-called “philosophical letters,” entiteld “Philosophical Letter Written To A Lady.” It was first published in 1836, in one of the few journals in print at the time in Moscow. Alexander Herzen later said of it “it had the effect of a gun shot in the dead of night (Hohn 36).” The letter simultaneously introduced and established the idea that there was infact an opposition between Russia and the rest of Europe, or at least Western Europe (Raeff 159). The letter was so incendiary that as a result, the editor of the publication in which it was published was immediately punished with exhile and had his journal abolished, and Chaadaev was declared insane and put under house arrest. He would live out his life uncommfortably in this manner, and though he wrote seven follow up letters, they were not published in his life time (Raeff 174).
Chaadaev’s letter had awoken Russia to the idea that the slow, piece-meal adoption of some Western innovation was not working (Hohn 34). Whereas some were inspired to fight many Westernizing trends, the Slavophiles and Pan-Slavs, others took the side of Chaadaev, who had called for Russia to quicken the pace of Westernizing reform. Chaadaev claimed that Russia had merely “vegetated” on Europe’s periphery, and had absolutely no “history” or sense of civil rights, civil duties, or individual freedom (35). Debates over what Russia was and what Russia should become split Russia’s scholarly world along the Westernizing-Slavophile line, and the same debate would continue on, into the fin de Siecle.
One of the representatives of Slavophile scholarship who opposed the Westernizing trend of Chaadaev was Nikolai Danilievsky. His writing in 1869 of “Russia and Europe” defined Slavophilism to many, but it also was the foundation for the concepts of later generations of Russians of Russia’s non-European nature. He wrote “Only (the confusion of universal culture with Germano-Roman culture) could produce the pernicious delusion of Westernism, which fails to admit the close affinity between Russia and the Slav world, or the historical meaning of the latter, and assigns to us and our brothers the pitiful, insignificant role of imitators of the West. Such a delusion deprives us of the hope for any cultural significance, i.e., for a great historical purpose (Kohn 195). We can see not only the anti-Westernizing sentiment that Blok and Bely would later embrace here, but also the introduction of the idea of a great historical mission for Russia, which Blok and Bely would later develop into ideas of imminent apocalypse for Europe originating in Russia. Vladimir Solov’ev, the philosopher and writer from whom the young Symbolists Blok and Bely took so many of their ideas, is curiously quiet on the question of Russia as a non-European nation. He, like Danilievsky, was a pan-humanist. To Solov’ev, this was exclusive, meaning that he could never truly be a Pan-Slav, like Danilievsky. He was neither a Westernizer, however. That he was has been suggested before, primarily because of his advocacy for a grand rapprochement with the Catholic Church in Rome, but that was, again, an expression of his religious pan-humanism.
Whereas Solov’ev was fairly silent about Russia being or not being a non-European nation, the second generation Russian Symbolists were definetly not so. The West and the Westernizers became frequent targets for Blok and Bely (Raeff 361). While mentions of Westernizers were usualy made in the form of jokes in their works, this doesn’t indicate that they took the Westernizing opposition lightly. The city, that symbol to the Symbolists of the West, became a hated and accursed places (Malstad 312). Blok, in one of his most famous poems, “Night. Streetlamp…,” expressed his hatred for the city:
The night. The street. Streetlamp. Drugstore.
A meaningless dull light about.
You may live twenty-five years more;
All will still be there. No way out.
You die. You start again and all
Will be repeated as before:
The cold rippling of a canal.
The night. The street. Streetlamp. Drugstore.
Saint Petersburg is clearly indicated here, as is evidenced by the mention of the canals. Canals became another symbol for Symbolists of the cursed city. That all there is to a city is eerie lights, strange modern buildings, and meaninglessness was an idea the Symbolists developed and frequently evoked in their poetry and writing, but it had also been done by Anton Chekhov and Gogol (Malmstad 314). Blok used the idea again in such poems as “The Stranger,” “Humiliation,” and “Factory.”
In Andrei Bely’s novel “Petersburg,” the idea of city as cursed was taken to entirely new levels. The over-all color of the city was gray or sickly yellow, the worst colors possible for the Symbolists (Cioran 106). Again, Bely was not the first to characterize the city so- it was done first by Gogol. Nonetheless, the persistent mention of the miserable gray and the oppressive pale yellow of the city’s countenance is a clear message to the reader that the city truly is a place to be avoided if possible.
The most powerful statement about the city’s accursed nature is the theme of the Dutch sailor. The Dutch sailor is clearly meant to be taken as both Peter the Great and captain Van Valkenburg, the flying Dutchman. Peter the Great appears in many forms in the novel, including a stone man (a symbol of guilt, from a famous work of Pushkin’s) and the famous bronze statue of him which inspired Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman.” Not the most frequent version of Peter to make symbolic appearances in the novel, the image of Peter as the Dutch captain is one of the more powerful symbolically.
The Sailor is introduced to us at the very beginning of the novel, as Apollon Apollonovich contemplates how grand Petersburg’s rectillinear prospects are: “On his shadowy sails the Flying Dutchman winged his way toward Petersburg from there, from the leaden expanses of the Baltic and German Seas, in order here to erect, by delusion, histy lands and to give the name of islands to the wave of onrughing clouds (10).” Besides the periodic apparition of the sailor, the connection between Holland and it’s accursed sailor and Petersburg is further emphasized by the constant mention of the canals of Petersburg. The mention thereof is one of the many repeating motifs evoking the city’s curse.
Bely was influenced a great deal by the composer Richard Wagner, the composer of the famous opera “The Flying Dutchman.” The main idea of the story of the Flying Dutchman is that captain, Van Valkenburg, is cursed until Judgement Day to wander the seas (recall the eternal twilight suffering of the citizen in Blok’s ‘Night. Streetlamp…’). Considering Peter’s relation to St. Petersburg as founder thereof, for Peter to be the Flying Dutchman would be for him to transfer his curse to the city. Consequently, seeing as Petersburg was the symbol to the Symbolists of the city itself, this would indicate that to Bely, the city is inherently an accursed place.
The instances of the West being demonized in the works of Bely and Blok are so many as to make the mention of each a lengthy task, but a bigger picture begins to become clear, even when looking at only a few: The West is not something Russia should be imitating, as it is full of evils and will result in inevitable implosion. The curse of the city is an echo of Danilievsky’s assessment of Russo-European relations, that Russia needs to be itself because those problems with the civilization of the West.
Whereas Slavophiles of the day were content to attack the West and understand Russia as the dominant force of the separate Slav civilization, as Danilievsky’s followers were, the Symbolists were interested in the Russia’s eternal entanglement with the East as an alternative to Europe. A picture of Russia as a synthesis of Asia and Europe, with European culture being the thin veneer covering the vast Asian expanses beneath,‘ began to evolve out of the works of Blok and Bely.
The poetry of Aleksandr Blok is perhaps the best place to search for Eurasian ideas and beliefs in Russian literature. His lyrics were widely read by the intelligentsia from his early period as a disciple of Vladimir Solov’ev up through the Bolshevik revolution. While the incendiary quality of Blok’s works have long been acknowledged, his bold statements of Eurasian ideals have rarely been examined, inspite of the clear message the poet was sending.
In his early work, Blok favored mystical subjects, which further connected him to the legacy of Vladimir Solov’ev. The focus of his early poems is what he called “the Beautiful Lady,” Vladimir Solov’ev’s “Sophia,” the eternal divine feminine, the embodiment of whom he believed to be his wife Liubov Mendeleeva (Matich 95). Mystical subjects and imagery were always to be a large feature of Blok’s poetry, and in some places the mystic quality of his verse only intensified over the years (i.e., “The 12,” “On Kulikovo Field,” “Venitsiyah,” etc.). As Blok’s verse developed, however, and he became estranged from Mendeleeva, its focus shifted to Russia and to history.
The shift in Blok’s subject matter seems to have begun to occur around the time of Blok’s “Italian Journey.” The trip to Italy he made with his estranged wife was originally meant as a kind of second honey moon for the couple (Matich 129). In fact, Russian intellectuals had been making journeys to Italy in the European Romantic “Gran Toure” tradition for some time before Blok and Mendeleeva (i.e., Zinaida Gippius and husband, etc.), and thus, the trip itself could have been an exercise in engagement with history, a theme that would pervade his poetry written while there. On this trip, Blok had meant to keep extensive travel logues of the art he viewed there. This never really materialized, but while in Italy, he did write some of his most powerful and famous poetry, compiled in “Italian Verses (1909),” in which is evident the beginning changes in Blok’s self evaluation as a Russian poet in the fin de Siecle.
Whereas the Beautiful Lady had been the center of Blok’s poetic world in his early poetic career, the verses penned by Blok in his “Italian Verses” made little to no mention of the Beautiful Lady (Matich 129). She had been replaced by the Dark Muse, sometimes represented as the Oriental Lady. Blok’s oriental femme fatale was not simply the fetishist, decadent trope being employed all over Europe in the Modernist literature camps, representing destructive beauty without scruples (Matich 155). She was the other side of the Beautiful Lady, and, importantly to Eurasianism, she was Russia.
The Dark Oriental Muse makes many appearances in Blok’s Italian poems. In her book “Erotic Utopia,” Olga Matich notices the fact that Blok should associate Italy with these Oriental Femme Fatales is strange: “As with Cleopatra, one rightfully asks why Blok linked Salome to Italy, especially Venice. Searching for an answer, one is again struck by his representation of Italy as a mythological Oriental woman immortalized in Western art (143).” Matich’s analysis brings things back to the primary topic of her book, the erotic. Considering the fact that this period in Blok’s writing was when he was beginning to recast himself as not only the mystic poet follower of Sophia and the apocalypse, but as Russia’s vox populi, another interpretation of the Oriental woman theme is possible.
In part II of Blok’s poem “Venitsiyah” is where Salome makes her first appearance in the work of Blok. Her association with the dead city of Europe, Venice, is important to Blok’s new position as prophet for Russia. Salome, in the Biblical story, is the killer of the prophet. In Blok’s poem, however, she becomes the purifier of the prophet: she takes the poet/prophet (i.e. Blok himself) and separates the source of his prophecy, his head, from his body, which is inherently flawed and sinful (Matich 146-47).
Poets and prophets have long been closely related in Russian literature since Russia’s Romantic era. Mikhail Lermontov wrote a series of poems about the poet being a prophet, and one might recall his prediction of his own death in “The Dream.” Pushkin, perhaps in a way more relevant to Blok’s poet’s transfiguration, also wrote poems about the poet as a prophet, and even wrote one specifically about the gruesome transfiguration moment: “Tormented by spiritual thirst I dragged myself through a sombre desert. And a six winged Seraph appeared to me at the crossing of ways.” The poem continues, “He bent down to my mouth and tore out my tongue, sinful, deceitful, and given to idle talk; and with his right hand steeped in blood he inserted the forked tongue of a wise serpent into my benumbed mouth (Pushkin 93).”
Besides being the medium of the poet’s transfiguration into the prophet of Russia, Salome is further a symbol of Russia itself. The dead European city, in this case Venice, is the scene in which purification by the Oriental Lady occurs. The European city could represent any of Russia’s “thin European veneer” (Matich 158). This scenario, repeated later in “On Kulikovo Field,” where the Oriental woman comes to the decayed and collapsing Europe and brings apocalypse and subsequent victory in purification in the mass shedding of blood, is one possible interpretation of Blok’s second part to “Venitsiyah.”
Destruction, irrationality, and spirituality all became wrapped up in a dark feminine form in Blok’s work, something we can call Mongolism (Matich 159). Blok himself did not typically describe †the early Eurasianist element of his work as Mongolism, unlike Bely. He did, however, have a set of ideas which were highly formulated, and were very prevalent in his work, especially after his Italian journey. Because of the nature of Symbolist art, the fact that Blok never named his Eurasianist ideas one way or the other shouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t call this theme by the Solov’evian name for it when talking about it. Symbolism encouraged the development of a highly personalized set of symbols for ideas. Also, the fact that Bely was so ready to describe this Mongolism theme as he did should indicate that speaking of Blok’s Eurasianism is fairly safe, considering their relationship.
For Blok, as for the later formal Eurasianists, Mongolism came to represent purification. This idea could have its roots in Vladimir Solov’ev’s piece “A Brief Tale of the Antichrist.” In the story, China builds an enormous army andÂ takes over Europe. Europe is subjected to fifty years of Chinese domination, from which it eventually arises, in unity and harmony, and overthrows its Eastern overlords. The story can be called artistic writing, as it is not written in Solov’ev’s typical philosophical style, and it deals with fictional events. It is not, however, meant to be taken as purely fictional (Wozniuk xxviii). It is meant to be taken as a sort of warning to Russia of the apocalypse which, to him, necessarily originates in the East.
Blok’s poem “On the Field of Kulikovo (1908),” sometimes called “On Kulikovo Field,” is just such a scene of purification. The setting of the poem is the famous battle in which Russia achieved its first military victory over the Mongols, a scene which Blok revisited a number of times, perhaps most notably in his essay “The people and the Intelligentsia.” The poem describes the struggle and eventual victory of Dmitrii Donskoia and his troops:
The river spreads out wide… Sad, lazy, it is flowing.
Washing its bare banks, and
Above those yellow clay slopes- haystacks, growing
Sad, stand on the steppeland.
O Russia! O my wife! Our long and narrow
Road lies clear though distressed.
Our road with an old Tatar freedom’s arrow
has deeply pierced our breast.
And always war! We only dream of peace through ample
Blood, dust… alas…
The steppeland mare flies on and on and tramples
And there’s no end. The slopes and miles flash clearer
Past. Stop! The flood
Of frightened clouds is moving nearer, nearer…
The sunset’s blood.
The very earth of the steppe in this poem is characterized as yellow by Blok. Yellow, especially when not associated with a city scenario, is the Russian Symbolists’ symbol of Asia (Cioran 106). The river Niepravda, which washes over this Asian terrain in the poem, is described in the same way, it’s action characterized with the same verb (ona raskinulsyah) as Cleopatra was in her glass encasement in Blok’s Italian journey poem “Cleopatra.” Olga matich, in “Erotic Utopia,” takes this repetition to mean that Blok is characterizing this Russian landscape as an Oriental woman (139).
The arrow which pierces the breast is important, for one thing, because it is perhaps the first time that Blok uses “we” in his poetry, expanding his typical “I” to incorporate all of Russia (Matich 154). Also, it represents that purification through violence that later would become a feature of the philosophies of George Vernadsky, Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii, and, more recently, Gumil’ev (Paradowskii 4). The piercing and long suffering does not result in death, as the decapitation of John the Baptist does not result in death in the poem “Venitsiyah.” It allows Russia to become even more powerful than the great horde, and on Kulikovo field, inherits the glorious Mongol tradition.
The poem is actually quite long, and many events of the longer poem are only introduced briefly in part I of the poem. One of these themes is the woman on a horse, leading Russia into battle, rushing past Russia’s fallen, as in the first part’s last stanza:
The sunset’s blood! From my heart blood is streaming.
Cry, my heart, cry…
There is no peace! The steppeland mare flies gleaming,
The woman who leads Russia into battle, along with the rest of the Asian symbols, brings to mind the scene in “Venitsiyah,” which was actually written a year after the Kulikovo poem: A woman appears on the dead European veneer, leading the poet into the scene of terrible violence, which actually represents purification. In Venitsiyah, however, the Oriental woman has an active role in the transfiguration, whereas here, she leads the poet on his own “distressed” road.
Much later in his poetic career, Blok wrote the poem which has become most widely acknowledged for its Eurasian theme- “The Scythians.” This poem has gained much attention for its incendiary language against Europe, as well as its characterization of Russia as an Asian horde:
You are millions, we are multitude
and multitude, and multitude.
Come, fight! Yea, we are Scythians,
Yea, Asians, a lant eyed, greedy brood.
For you- centuries, for us- one hour.
Like slaves, obeying and abhorred,
we were the shield between the breeds
of Europe and the raging Mongol horde.
For centuries you eyes were towards the East.
Our pearls you hoarded in your chests
and mockingly you bode the day
when you could aim your cannons at our chests.
The time has come. Disaster beats its wings.
Each day the insults grow apace.
The hour will strike, and it may chance
your Paestums will go down and leave no trace.
In this poem, any European facade has been destroyed or abandoned. Blok identifies Russia with Asia fully. Chaadaev’s perceived gap has become a chasm which the poet challenges Europe to cross. An interesting feature of this Asian characterization of Russia is that while the poet identifies Russia in the present with the great Asian hordes, there is also a remembrance of a time when Russia was not so, in the second stanza. As a shield against the Mongols, Russia was not Mongol itself, it would seem. If so, this seems to echo the purification and transfiguration of Russia in the Kulikovo poem, which results in Russia’s inheritance of the Mongol legacy.
“The Scythians” is also important for its clear association of the Asian Russia with apocalypse. Apocalypse is one of the main pieces to the Eurasianism of the Symbolists Blok and Bely, as it was to Valdimir Solov’ev. It is the historical mission which the Symbolists saw the Westernizers trying to deprive Russia of. The ruins of Paestum being erased is the poet telling Europe that no trace will be left of Europe. Later on in the poem, the poet makes a final threat: Should Europe not “Come to (Russia’s) arms and rest,” Russia will “clear the grounds for the appalling scenes of war between the savage Mongol hordes and pitiless science with its mass machines.”
Another interesting association between Russia and feminized Oriental apocalypse occurs in “Scythians,” reminiscentt of the Italian poems. The sixth and seventh stanzas repeat a feature of the poem “Cleopatra:”
Oh, pause, old world, while life still beats in you.
Oh, weary one, oh, worn, oh, wise!
Halt here, as once did Oedipus
Before the Sphix’s enigmatic eyes.
Yes, Russia is a Sphinx. Exulting, grieving,
And sweating blood, she cannot sate
Her eyes that gaze and gaze and gaze
At you with stone-lipped love for you, and hate.
The Sphinx image was also used by Blok to describe Cleopatra. Once again, the Dark Muse is associated with Russia, as she was in the Kulikovo poem. There were elements of Solov’evian philosophy which were forever a feature of Blok’s works, and this feminine apocalypse was one of the most prevalent (Matich 160). In terms of seeking Blok’s Eurasianism, we start to see that to Blok, Russia was the fallen and trampled nation that was to inherit the Mongol legacy and be the driving force behind European apocalypse.
This idea, of Russia as the abused and forgotten nation, was also occasionally echoed by Andrei Bely, as in the poem “Enough!”:
Enough! Don’t wait or hope,
be scattered, my unhappy people.
Agonizing succession of years-
Be shattered and vanish into space!
Ages of poverty and bondage,
Oh, my Motherland,
Let me sob my heart out
In your damp, empty expanses.
Although Bely rarely spoke of Russia in this mode in his later years, this idea of Russia as downtrodden was something that even Chaadaev and the Westernizers held in common with the Pan-Slavs. Bely chose to emphasize the glorious, though terrifying and awful historical mission that was Russia’s- the apocalypse. This is perhaps one of the best examples of the differing directions the works of Blok and Bely took, Blok coming to describe Russia in increasingly darker terms, for example, the sinister smile of the Sphinx.
The smile of the Sphinx of Blok’s “Scythians” is also notable in its use of one of Blok’s descriptions of the people- enigmatic and strange smiles, disguising violent intent. In “The People And The Intellingentsia,” Blok describes the people in such a manner: “From the other side- ever the same faintly ironical smile, knowing silence… a dreadful laziness it always seemed to us; or else the slow awakening of a giant, as it seems to us more and more. A giant waking with a singular smile on his lips. No intellinegt smiles like that (Blok 359).” We can interpret this as being the smile of the nation that knows that it will rise and fulfill a great historical destiny, as Solov’ev described Russia (Matich 156). To Blok and to Bely, this was indeed something to fear, as Blok concludes in his essay. The warranted self-interested concern of the intellingents, however, did not change the inevitability, for good or for bad, of revolution of the people.
Concluding these examinations of Blok’s works, it is safe to say that there was a Eurasianist philosophy emerging in those works. Russia was darkened, but it was really another face of Solov’ev’s Sophia; it still had a grand historical mission to fulfill. Russia was not European, as he expressed in “Scythians.” Whatever European element that can be said to exist in Russia is shallow at best (as in “On Kulikovo Field”) and it is both cursed (as in “” and countless other Blok poems) and will be erased in the fulfillment of Russia’s historical mission (as in “Scythians”).
Aleksandr Blok may have been the favorite poet of Russia’s fin de Siecle Silver Age, but Andrei Bely is equally important in the foundation of Eurasian ideals. Indeed, Bely’s poetry is regarded by few to be on par with that of Blok, but his novels and theoretical essays are considered by some to be amongst the best ever written (i.e. Vladimir Nabokov [Janecek 3]). Indeed, people were reading novels like “Silver Dove” and “Petersburg” about the time that people were reading the Italian Verses of Blok.
Like Blok, Bely was an admirer of Vladimir Solov’ev, and a friend of the Solov’ev family through Sergey, the philosopher’s younger brother (Janecek 5). While some have argued that Bely’s admiration for Solov’ev’s work was on the level of Blok’s (Matich 119), Elsworth states that Solov’ev’s influence on Bely is hard to gauge (9). Perhaps the most likely relationship of Bely to Solov’ev’s work is that explained by Bernice Rosenthal: that Bely was always drawn to apocalyptic thought, and Solov’ev, though not the only apocalyptic thinker to influence Bely, gave Bely a lot of fuel for his apocalyptic views (Rosenthal 182).
The apocalypticism of Bely was similar to that of Blok: There would be a second coming of the messiah, it would come from the east, and Russia’s involvement therein would be integral. This idea they both borrowed from Solov’ev (Rosenthal 182). Therefor, when we look at “the East” in the works of Bely, as is the case with Solov’ev and Blok, we need to keep in mind the inherent symbolism of the apocalypse that it was intended to carry.
Bely’s symphonic novel “Petersburg” is where we find many of his ideas of Russia’s nature and historical mission. “Petersburg” is the work in which Bely brought many of his strands of thought together in one incredibly complex novel: music in prose, metrical verse, Mongolism, etc. It is also his most famous and widely read novel. It is here that every central belief of Bely was expressed, as difficult to find as it may be.
The novel is widely known to have been founded on Wagnerian principles of so-called Gesammtkunstwerk, frequently rendered in English as “synthesis of the arts.” Those familiar with Wagner might recall the descending chromatic scale recurrent in “Tristan und Isolde,” used to remind us and give us a feeling of Tristan’s suffering. Bely uses many such motifs, the most prevalent of which are the following: Mongolism, the apocalypse, the color yellow, the darkness of the workers, and the circle. All of these are symbols of the Eurasianism of the symbolists, and considering their frequency in recurrence (my estimate would be about one mention of one, if not many mentions of all themes, on every of Petersburg’s 300 pages), “Petersburg” can easily be seen as being intended to be a discussion of Eurasianism.
Mongolism, though it has not been proven so, may have had it’s roots as an idea in the work of Vladimir Solov’ev. His poem “Pan-Mongolism” is perhaps his best known statement on the matter:
Pan-mongolism! Though the name is savage
It carresses my ear
As if it is full with portent
of a great Divine Fate…
The poem continues to an apocalyptic conclusion for Russia: “O Rus, forget your bygone glory… scraps of your banners are given/ for amusement to yellow children.” In the last line of the poem, reference to Russia as the third Rome is made as Solov’ev claims “there will not be another (Rome).”
The name “Pan-Mongolism” may sound comical. Indeed, the first line of the poem indicates to the reader that Solov’ev finds the idea of Pan-Mongolism to be bizarre. Nonetheless, I’ve yet to find any critique of the poem that accounts for that as an intended element. Instead, I think that it expresses the true level of angst Solov’ev was experiencing surrounding the so-called “yellow terror,” a term which Bely is know to have frequently employed when discussing the “East (Berberova 117).”
Solov’ev’s vision of conflagration in the East came to life in the times that the novel “Petersburg” was set. The novel was in fact written in 1913, but I don’t think that we necessarily need to view the prevalence of the fear of yellow terror in the novel as mere recounting of the attitudes of the times in which the novel was set, 1905. The theme of yellow terror, which Bely himself described interchangeably as “Mongolism” when discussing the book, is part of the nature of Russia to Blok and Bely. It represents the historical mission of Russia: apocalypse.
The novel has a few characters that can be said to be protagonists, besides the true protagonist, which is the city of Petersburg itself, in the tradition of Pushkin (Malmstad xiii). One of them, Apollon Ableukhov, is an interesting case of Mongolism in the novel. He is, in fact, of Mongol blood himself: “(His ancestors’) place of residence was the Kirghiz-Kaisak-Horde… for brevity’s sake, Ab-Lai-Ukhov was later changed to Ableukhov, plain and simple (2).” Even so, Apollon Apollonovitch has a certain anti-oriental attitude, represented by many frequently reappearing Leitmotifs, including the symbolic motif of the square and the line: “Proportionality and symmetry soothed the senator’s nerves… most of all he loved the rectilinear prospect; this prospect reminded him of the flow of time between to points (Bely 10),” and later in the passage “After the line, the figure which soothed him more than all other symmetries was the square (11).”
The square in the novel becomes the contradiction to the circle, the figure Bely fondly associated his novel with. The circle which Bely used to describe his novel incorporated Mongolism as one of the primary elements (Berberova 118). If Mongolism was represented by the circle, than the West was represented by the square. Indeed, in the very prologue of the novel, Bely introduces us to this idea “Nevsky Prospect is rectilineal (just between us), because it is a European prospect… Nevsky Prospect is a prospect of no little importance in this un-Russian-but nonetheless-capital city (Bely 2).”
Apollon’s love for the square and the line and it’s application to the earth which creates the grid of the city in the form of Petersburg’s grand prospects is only marred by his fear of the people. “Apollon Apollonovitch did not like the islands: the population there was industrial and coarse,” Bely writes (11). ,The people are generally represented as Eastern in Russian Symbolism. Compare this to Ableukhov’s fear of the “grey human stream” coming in from Vasilievskii Island. The association of grey with the workers who inhabit Vasilievskii Island is, of course, Apollon Ableukhov’s own, and not Bely’s. The color grey in the works of Bely represented the manifestation of actual evil in the physical realm (Cioran 107).
The hatred of Apollon Apollonovitch for the workers is further conceptualized in the line vs. circle relationship: “Apollon Apollonovtich did not wish to think further. The islands must be crushed! Riveted with the iron of the enormous bridge, skewered by the arrows of the prospects… (11)” The islands are constantly contrasted with the main land, and specifically the English Bank, where Apollony Apollonovitch lives, of Petersburg.
Apollon Ableukhov has a son, Nikolai Apollonovich, who lives with him. His attitude towards his son is another curious incident of his apparent hatred of mongolism. He frequently refers to his son as a “scoundrel,” and in some instances seems to use that term as synonymous with “Mongol” or “Mongoloid.” Apollon Ableukhov can be said to be “Mongoloid” himself, and this is just one of the curiosities of the book. Without making any great logical leaps, perhaps we could interpret Apollon’s hatred of mongolism as the denial by those Russians ruling over Russia who denied Russia’s Eastern nature, i.e. Westernizers. Blok, in-fact, expressed his own dislike for Westernizers, as in his essay “The People And The Intelligentsia” (“The Slavophile principles, deeply grounded in the people, have always been in fatal obstacle to the ‘intelligentist principles [Blok 361].’”), and it is quite normal to find Blok and Bely expressing the same ideas. At the same time, the Russian Symbolists were also prone to complex and practically nonsensical verses.
The son of Aplollon, Nikolai, is somewhat more of a true representation of the Mongolism of the early Eurasianists. He frequently casts himself in the role of Mongol or Tatar, as in the following “Nikolai Apollonovich remembered that he was an old Turanian who had been incarnated in the blood, in the flesh of the hereditary nobility, in order to carry out a secret mission: to shake everything to it s very foundation (166).” This shaking everything to the foundation mirrors Blok and Solov’ev’s apocalypticism, and, more closely, Blok’s Mongolism. He also is identified by Apollon as Tatar or Mongol frequently.
The story line itself identifies Nikolai Apollonovich with Mongolism. Nikolai becomes involved with “The Party,” presumably an Anarchist or Socialist group that employs terrorist tactics for political gain (Elsworth 94). He, in despair over his rejected advances on Sophia Likhutina, promises the party that he will assassinate some one. The person that he has been assigned by the party to kill ends up being Nikolai Apollonovich’s own father, the conservative politician Apollon Ableukhov. The man who is in charge of Nikolai Apollonovich’s involvement in the assassination scheme is another “Mongol” character, Lippanchenko, who I will discuss separately shortly. Nikolai Apollonovich is given a time bomb with which he is to blow up his father, which eventually ends up exploding, but killing or injuring no one.
The association of Nikolai with destruction, even though he doesn’t end up destroying anything of consequence, is supposed to be an expression of his Mongol nature. Bely did not ever define what “Mongolism” meant to him, though he did use it in discussing his writing (Berberova 118). This makes it difficult to discuss in what ways various characters are Mongol, Westernizers, etc., which means that it is equally difficult to discuss potential Eurasianism in his work. We must then define Mongolism for Bely alone by what we can find in his writing which we can say defines Mongolism, as has been done with Blok before (i.e. by Olga Matich, etc.).
For Bely, I tentatively propose the following principles of so-called Mongolism, conscious of the potential academic dangers of doing so, derived primarily from “Petersburg:” Destruction, irrationality, feeling rather than thinking, rural rather than urban centered. All of these things are known to be mirrored in Blok’s work, the “Eurasianism” of whom has been documented by scholars like Olga Matich (see “Erotic Utopia,” chapters four and five). I believe that we can safely assume that these are the concepts that Bely means to wrap up in the term “Mongolism,” wrapping of many concepts in one symbolic phrase being one of the defining features of the Symbolist movement with which Bely associated himself.
Further evidence of what Mongolism could have meant to Bely can be found in the works of Solov’ev, Bely’s admiration of whom has been widely demonstrated by Russian Symbolist scholars like Gerald Janecek, Bernice Rosenthal, Olga Matich, andJ. Elsworth, just to name a few. The Mongolism of Solov’ev’s writing is primarily: destruction, irrationality, and feeling (Wozniuk xxviii). The ways in which Mongolism might have been conceptualized by Bely and by Solov’ev are really quite difficult to sort through, but the difference is primarily this: Bely and Solov’ev both feared the “yellow terror,” but Bely, in his way, embraced so-called Mongolism with hopes for apocalypse.
Though it may be dangerous to put words in the mouth of Bely, it is something that must be attempted, and has indeed been attempted by scholars before. The works on Bely’s writing of Elsworth and the compilation of essays by scholars on the work of Bely put together by Gerald Janecek are primarily exercises in this. Considering how often “Mongol” themes appear in Bely’s work, I believe the exploration of what Bely meant is most necessary.
Besides the Ableukhovs, there are many characters associated with Eastern symbols. Sofia Petrovna, the woman with whom Nikolai Apollonovich is infatuated, is frequently described in the book by her fashionable oriental tastes. She decorates her house with fashionable Japanese prints. Her tastes, of course, are mocked by Bely as disingenuous and contrived. One of the only notes from Bely himself in the 1916 edition was attached to this quote from her; “He would praise her Japanese landscapes… And (Sophia Petrovna) would blurt out: ‘it’s from the brush of Hadusai (Bely 40).’” Bely’s note drew attention to the fact that she had mixed up the Japanese names, as she had intended to tell the visitor that it was Hokusai who had created it (Malmstad 317).
One of the Mongol characters of the novel who truly embodies Bely’s “Mongolism” is the character Lippanchenko. Lippanchenko may have been based by Bely on an infamous terrorist Evno Azef. The meaning of the name and it’s derivation is a source of some debate, as some maintain that Bely, who made no secret of the Lippanchenko-Azef connection, must have known that Evno Azef used the pseudonym Lipchenko while he was abroad. Bely denied this, saying that it was the sounds of the name that inspired him, some of which are also featured in Ableukhov. The addition of the “oo” sound, which was associated by Russian symbolists with the word “revolution,” among other things, to the l-p sound, which Bely personally associated with chaos, creates quite an evocative name for the central, “Mongoloid” characters of the tale (Malmstad 311).
Lippanchenko’s name itself implies Mongolism, and it is quite readily apparent that Bely wants the reader to make the connection, as his introduction to this “Party” agent is laden with references to Lippanchenko’s actual heritage: “(A fat man’s) yellowish, clean-shaven face, inclined slightly to the side, smoothly floated on its own double chin. And besides, the face glistened (24).” The glistening of Lippanchenko’s face in his introduction to the reader is notable, as stickiness and sliminess become Leitmotifs of Lippanchenko throughout the book: “His lips still quivered, resembling pieces of sliced salmon, not yellowish-red, but oily and yellow.” Later on in the book, the tin can in which the time bomb is encased is referred to as slimy, both as it used to contain oiled fish, and because the tin can is passed on from Lippanchenko to Nikolai Apollonovich. Thus, whenever the oiliness or stickiness of the can is being mentioned, with out explicit mention of him, Lippanchenko, and his Mongolism, are being evoked.
Towards the end of chapter one, we discover that Lippanchenko is of Mongol descent: “’Excuse me Lippanchenko, are you of Mongol descent?’ ‘Why such a strange question?’ ‘Every Russian has some Mongol blood (27).’” Besides the very significant line about all Russians being part Mongol, something echoed again later by the formal Eurasianists, it is significant that the character who is responsible for handing down orders of destruction and chaos to Nikolai Apollonovich should literally be a Mongol. This is further proof of what Bely tried to create with his symbolic “Mongolism-” destruction and apocalypse. Lippanchenko is further associated with apocalypse when Dudkin, an underling of his, has an apocalyptic revelation that he needs to murder Lippanchenko- “Destroy it all-” which echoes Nikolai Apollonovich’s brief entertaining of the idea that he should kill his father after another such apocalyptic revelation scene from earlier in the novel.
In conclusion of these examinations of the foundations of Eurasianism in the work of the Symbolists, though somewhat difficult to formalize, we can see that there definitely was a Eurasian philosophy that was being constructed there. In the minds of Bely and Blok things were perhaps more systematized than they chose to express- something likely considering Symbolism’s emphasis on obscurration (one of Bely’s most ubiquitous motifs in “Petersburg”) and personalized anesthesia. The themes that do emerge- Russia-centered apocalypse, revolution, the non-European nature of Russia, and the inheritance of “Mongolism” from Russia’s historical involvement with Asia- are nonetheless deniable.
The last element of Eurasianism which requires separate attention leads into a discussion of the formal Eurasianists, and that is the realization of the Russian Symbolist apocalypse that was the Bolshevik revolution. The Solov’evian Second Coming of Man was adapted into theories of actualization thereof by Blok and Bely. The way they saw the apocalypse so often alluded to in their works actually happening, an occurrence they saw as inevitable, was revolution of the people.
The actual politics of the Bolsheviks were only tacitly endorsed by Bely and Blok (Rosenthal 186). This is because they saw the revolution as an unpleasant necessity to a greater, inevitable second revolution which would be the coming of God. Bely frequently alludes to this in “Petersburg” (i.e., the apocalyptic visions of Dudkin leading to the murder of Lippanchenko). The seeming contradiction and complexities of this idea were expressed best though in Blok’s poem “The 12”:
…They march far on with sovereign tread…
“Who else goes there? Come out, I said
come out!” It is the wind and the red
Flat plunging gaily at their head.
The frozen snowdrift looms in front.
“Who’s in the drift? Come out! Come here!”
there’s only the homeless mongrel runt
Limping wretchedly in the rear…
“You mangy beast, out of the way
Before you taste my bayonet.
Old Mongrel World, clear off, I say!
I’ll have my sole to my boot!”
“Who’s that waving the red flag?”
“Try and see! It’s dark as the tomb!”
“Who’s that moving at a jog
Trot, keeping to the back-street gloom?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll catch you yet,
Better surrender to me alive!”
“Come out, comrade, or you’ll regret
It- We’ll fire when I’ve counted to five!”
… So on they go with sovereign tread-
Behind them limps the hungry mongrel,
And wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying the flag blood red-
Soft footed in the blizzard’s swirl,
Invulnerable where the bullets sliced-
Crowned with a crown of snowflake pearl,
In a wreath of white rose,
Ahead of them Jesus Christ goes.
The association of Christ with the violent revolutionaries signifies the blessing of God on the revolution. Though the twelve soldiers in the poem act quite badly, their bullets (the symbol of their rash and unwarranted violence) do no harm to Jesus. Jesus leads them on, even through threats against him, because the revolution is absolutely essential and right in Blok’s view. The fact that it is not the soldiers of the true apocalyptic revolution, which to Blok was inevitable, does not decrease the power of the storm (which signifies the inevitability of the “elemental storm” of the revolution of the people).
The mangy dog represents the Old World, as does the dog’s hapless owner who appears earlier on in the poem. The casual passing by of the dog, and the threats made to it by the Red Army soldiers represents how truly decrepit the European facade of Russia was to Blok, and how much more powerful the Mongolism of the murderous twelve was than the pitiful limping of the Old World’s representatives were in the face of the Red Army. One of the most controversial elements of the Eurasianist movement, begun by Nikolai Trubetskoi, Petr Suvchinskii, George Florovsky, and Petr Savitskii, was its peculiar embracing of the Bolshevik revolution.
Precisely as Blok and Bely embraced the revolution, so did the Eurasianists. The argument of the majority of the Eurasianists was that the Bolshevik was good because it was an inevitable revolution of the Eurasian populace (i.e., Russia) against the “Germano-Roman” imperialist forces at work in Russia (MERSH 7). They concluded through their studies of history that the Bolshevik revolution was a necessary stage in the revolution of Eurasians against the alien European culture forced on it, but that it was inherently contradictory, and would ultimately fall apart.
This imitates very closely the theories of Blok and Bely. Considering that Blok died in 1921, the very year of the publication outside of Russia of the first Eurasianist collection of works, “Way Out To The East,” it’s hard to say whether or not he would have endorsed Eurasianism. Likewise, it is difficult to say what Bely might have thought, as most of his time outside of Russia, until his death, were spent visiting centers of the Anthroposophical movement. There were incredible similarities between the Eurasianism of Blok and Bely and the formal Eurasianist movement, nonetheless.
In the preface to “Way-Out To The East,” Trubetskoi made a brief introduction to Eurasianism: “The Russian people and the peoples of the ‘Russian World’ are neither European nor Asiatic. Merging with the native cultures and life that surrounds us, we are not ashamed to call ourselves Eurasians (MERSH 6).” These native cultures, Trubetskoi et al. reasoned, were combinations of Finno-Ugric, Slavic, and Turanian (Turko-Mongol, essentially) cultures and ethnicities. It’s interesting to note that Bely in “Petersburg” makes extensive reference to all of these groups and their impact on Petersburg (and, naturally, the entire Russian World)- even, surprisingly, the Finns. The “Finnish” theme of the book is well noted by scholars- for example Malmstad and Elsworth- drawing on the examples of the revolutionary Dudkin’s constant refference to his homeland (Helsinki), the origin of the rock of which much of the city was built (Finland), and various other small things (Styopka’s ‘Finnish’ knife, etc.).
The Eurasianists also believed that the defining moment of the history of Russia was the Mongolian invasion (Paradowskii 1). They believed that Russia had “inherited the Mongol legacy (4),” much as Blok described in the poem “On Kulikovo Field.” The de-emphasis of Kievan Rus in favor of the rise of Russia from Mongol dominance is, in fact, one of the defining elements of the Eurasian movement of Trubetskoi and Florovsky. Ryzsard Paradowski, a scholar of Leo Gumil’ev, the father of the Eurasianist revival currently going on in Russia, even acknowledges the fact that some of Eurasianism’s ideas are much older than the movement itself: “the fact that the Russian state is spread over two continents could not have been without influence on Russian ideology (2).”
In conclusion, Blok and Bely can be said to have derived, to a certain degree, their ideology from Vladimir Solov’ev. They created Symbolist art, based largely on Wagnerian principles, which undeniably expressed beliefs about the Asian orientation of Russia. The formal Eurasianist movement arose the year of Blok’s death, expressing the same ideas about the Bolshevik revolution, Russia’s non-European nature, Russia’s undeniable Asiatic roots, Russia’s deep and different spiritual nature as compared to Europe, and even believed that Russia had inherited the Mongol legacy in its victory over them. In any case, we can see that in the debate about Russiaà’s national character, these two groups from successive eras came to the same conclusions, and the ancient legacy of the Mongols and Tatars is something that part of Russia wanted to embrace.
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