Mention Russia and the clichés start to roll. Its eleven timezones tend to get a fairly early look-in (as indeed, they do, in the first line of Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars); montages of the Kremlin, people in furry hats, or the monotonous view from a train window roll past on the reel of one’s mind, set to Prokofiev or Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’. Babushkas with floral headscarves, and vodka, high-kneed dancing, men in greatcoats crunching across the snow, onion domes, naked women whacking each other with twigs in a steam-filled banya: travel writing depends on our expectations of these things for its own currency.
Sara Wheeler’s writing has taken her to Antarctica, Greenland, Greece and many other destinations. In this book, her tenth, she sets off across Russia, searching for the country ‘not in the news – a Russia of common humanity and daily struggles – and my guides were writers of the Golden Age’, and announces herself to be seeking to show how they ‘represent their country, then and now’. To define the Golden Age, she uses the delineation of writers active in the period 1800-1910. Beginning with Pushkin, she rolls through Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol, Chekhov, Leskov, Goncharov, and finally the titan, Tolstoy. As she is the first to admit, they are not a homogeneous group: “Tolstoy tells us to give away our money; Dostoyevsky tells us to go to church; Chekhov says ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do’; Gogol says ‘To hell with it’”. Tolstoy wrote huge novels, while Goncharov was much less prolific. Pushkin was most famous as a poet, while Chekhov wrote plays and short stories (or, as Wheeler comments, ‘In Russia he is best known as short-story writer, in the West as a playwright. That must tell us something, but I don’t know what it is’.)
In her introduction, she eschews the misty-eyed myth of the Russian monolith: ‘There is no such thing as the Russian soul, or perhaps even Russian culture – it’s too big a country: one-sixth of the earth’s landmass, and it’s too diverse, and too socially divided’. Given this enormousness, it is all the more surprising that the cliches are so tenacious – evidence of highly successful nation-branding, even over the course of the past two centuries and a series of wildly different regimes. If, for example, it comes as a surprise that there was a thriving network of Buddhist lamaseries along the Russian-Mongolian border, and that they were almost completely liquidated, their monks killed or sent to camps under Stalin in the 1930s, then the campaign worked; similarly, if it’s a surprise to learn that there are Muslim-majority republics in the heartland of European Russia, like Tatartstan and Bashkortostan.
Wheeler’s use of these ‘Golden Age’ writers must then come under closer examination, if she professes to avoid other stereotypes of Russianness. What is the logic which corrals them into a ‘Golden Age’, and how does this logic stand up, a hundred years since? Bracketed within and towards the end of the imperial period of Russia’s history, it is an antiquated and blunt designation, with disputed parameters (much like the country itself). Is there any other group of writers referred to with such insistent homogeneity and emphasis on national origin? If we look to Western European literature of the same period, we’re more likely to see these literatures as cross-pollinating, with Romanticism or Realism as movements that constantly crossed borders.
This is not to say that the Russians worked in a vacuum – Flaubert idolised Turgenev and sent him cheese from France – but our grouping of the ‘Russians’ is both a hangover from less sophisticated understanding of cultural history, and a highly successful feat of nation-branding. The writers of this period (and notable figures that Wheeler does not feature include Griboyedov or Karamzin) have an outsize presence in Russian literature as a whole, given that Russia was late to foster a literary culture in its vernacular. In the words of Benjamin Moser, writing in the New York Times, Russia was ‘a land that knew no Renaissance’, but had instead a sharp historical break from the long Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, with the rule of Peter the Great. It was he who introduced French as the language of culture and the cultivated, and he who opened Russia to Western Europe. Over the course of barely a single century, French became the dominant language of the elite, creating a yawning gap between the peasantry and the elite. Indeed, as Wheeler notes, during Pushkin’s time at the top girls’ school in Moscow, students caught speaking Russian had to wear a red bell and stand in a corner all day.
This disjunct caused anxieties among the intelligentsia, who agonised over Russia’s relationship with the West, and how it could be a truly great power if it spoke the language of another. All the writers Wheeler covers write around this pretension, while reaching back to pre-Petrine notion of Russianness, leaving the ‘inkpot vendettas’ of St Petersburg, with is cupcake colours and delicate cornices, and returning to the hinterland in an attempt to uncover, or create, the elusive ‘Russian soul’. In Wheeler’s account it all begins with Pushkin, a ‘heroic shagger’ who ‘only had time to write when he had a sexually transmitted disease’. From his Mikhaylovskoye estate near the border with Latvia, which she finds well-preserved, she goes to visit Dostoyevsky’s house on the outskirts of Moscow, where she sees ‘light gilling through shutter slats’. Trains whizz her past ‘the pinstriped darkness of birch forest’, further east, following in Chekhov’s footsteps through Siberia. The doctor (son of a ‘tyrannical grocer’), who mostly treated serfs for free, took a liking to Pacific Russia, especially its brothels, where he thought ‘you feel you are taking part in an exhibition of high-level riding skill’. Gogol, who prepared ‘almost-raw macaroni and cheese with a fervour bordering on mania’ infused his early stories with the ‘smell of black Russian earth and the pungency of sheaves of corn on a blazing afternoon’, with the same vivid intensity found in Tolstoy’s Levin, sweating in the heat for fifty pages as he runs his hands through his heavy-headed rows of grass in Anna Karenina.
As befits all forays into the country, Wheeler travels most often by train. On one, the wagon attendant uses the curtain rail to plunge the toilet. On another, an indented plastic lunch tray features thirteen peas. ‘Trains regularly chug onto the pages of nineteenth-century Russian literature’, she writes; Tolstoy’s fiction ‘associates the railway with death, not progress. Anna Karenina perishes under a train and throughout the eponymous novel the railway represents the ugly threat of modernity, adultery, nightmare.’ In the 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago, set in the time of war and revolution, trains contribute to the general sense of historical grandeur and fate. Of course, Pasternak was also writing after Lenin’s return to the motherland, in a sealed train from Switzerland, had taken on the aura of myth.
John Berger remarked that railway infrastructure re-inserted ‘the ancient sense of destiny’ into nineteenth century modernity. Wheeler briefly compares the Trans-Siberian railway to the First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, the tracks of which were finally joined with much pomp and circumstance in 1869. With it, the federal government could assert its dominion over the sprawling continent and the vast wilds between its shores. The Trans-Siberian runs a much longer distance (9,258km to the American 2,286) and achieved similar, magnified things in the Russian imagination. ‘Siberia had become a refuge for the preservation of ideals and values,’ Wheeler writes, ‘and the myth persists. There were never any serfs.’ The Trans-Siberian stretches across eight time zones (!) and the sun never sets there. Lying across the top of the Russian federation east of the Urals, it too serves as an important bracket for a Russian sense of self which exists without the West.
At times, rail travel and the titanic figure of the nationally beloved writer collided in moments of national portent. When Chekhov died abroad, his friend Gorky fretted about the optics of his body drawing in to Moscow in a freight carriage marked FRESH OYSTERS. By comparison, Tolstoy, who died in the stationmaster’s house in Astapovo (a tiny provincial stop which has since been named after him), was greeted by thousands of mourners as his coffin was transported back to his ancestral estate. They walked behind the cortège singing hymns, or knelt as it passed.
So as to find the ‘ordinary Russians’ she is looking for, Wheeler makes use of homestays. In one, she watches Russian Strictly. Another host, stuck in Moscow traffic, laments the demise of Soviet life, wailing: ‘We had no cars!’. Wheeler is routinely surprised at how well-preserved writers’ homes are. She marvels that the writers of the Golden Age’s homes have apparently been saved, turned into cottage museums. Given Tolstoy’s pacifism, or Dostoyevsky’s mysticism, and how much their stars rose and fell with successive regimes, what could possibly explain this clemency?
The answer is that the Soviets truly understood literature’s power to arouse, as Sheila Fitzpatrick recently put it, ‘strong collective emotions’. This would also explain why literature was such a tightly controlled resource during the life of the USSR. These writers’ careers spanned a time of enormous technological and social change – Tolstoy, who was born ‘under a tsar who was essentially a medieval ruler … rode in a car, used a typewriter, and talked to Chekhov on the telephone.’ Both he and his contemporaries created a notion of Russianness when Russians were uncertain about their place in Europe. Today, Russians are on the verge of thinking they can do without Europe altogether, but the government and the education system continue to valorise these cranky, odd, ill, macaroni-munching, syphilitic men, as part of a bullish strategy of restorative nostalgia. The writers of the Golden Age make life easier for Russians and non-Russians alike; they are something to wrap one’s head round: that Russia had a Gilded Age, and that it was truly great, that the writers it whelped (and who whelped it) give the country an enduring cultural cachet on the global stage. Tolstoy and his ilk are the greatest asset in the federation’s soft power arsenal, and serve to lend cohesion to an otherwise fractious and sprawling superpower, both at home and abroad.