A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky

Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.

Banned to the Caucasus

As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.

Pushkin

We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.

The prisoner of the Caucasus

The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.

The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.

They recall the former days

Of raids that could not be repulsed,

Of the treachery of sly leaders,

Of the blows of their cruel sabers,

And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,

And of the ash of destroyed villages,

And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”

Violent people

If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.

Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.

*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.

Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus


Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.

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The Artist Fyodor Tolstoy

Actually I intended not to write about the illustrious Tolstoy clan for a while, but a recent visit to the Hermitage in Amsterdam changed my mind. On the Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine exhibition there I discovered to my delight seven beautiful medallions by Fyodor Tolstoy.

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy was a first cousin of Fyodor, the 'American' Tolstoy and great uncle of our well known Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His great-great-grandfather was Peter Tolstoy, the trustee of Peter the Great. He was born in 1753 and had, like apparently most Tolstoys, an idyllic childhood, even though his family was not wealthy. His artistic talents were discovered early, but according to tradition he was given a military upbringing.

Artistic

In 1802 he went to study at the the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and there he was much happier than at the Naval Academy. It may not have been entirely appropriate for a Count Tolstoy, but his parents let him go. Fyodor dedicated the rest of his life to art. As a result he spent his life in relative poverty, even though he was quite successful as an artist.

Fyodor was an extremely talented painter, illustrator (of among others Dushenka by Bogdanovich), sculptor, and, if unemployed for a few moments, he cut out clever silhouettes. Later he also designed costumes and background scenery for the ballet.

Magnus Opus

His Magnus Opus is a series of 24 medallions depicting the war against Napoleon. After extensive research he decided to make them in the neoclassical style. In 1814, just after the Russians took Paris, he made the first one. It shows a bust of Alexander I. Making the medallions was an extremely laborious precision job, that required great craftsmanship. With this first one he managed to secure a grant that would allow him to finish the other 23. That was necessary because he made them to express his patriotic feelings and not on an assignment. In 1836 he made the last one.

Tolstoy gained international fame with these medallions. In Vienna they wrote that nothing finer had been made in the past centuries and Goethe was so impressed that he wanted to meet him. The British government asked if he could also make a series about British victories. An offer he declined on patriotic grounds.

Hermitage Amsterdam

And now seven of the twenty four medals are on display in the Hermitage in Amsterdam, where they can be admired until the 8th of November 2015.

http://www.hermitage.nl/en/tentoonstellingen/alexander_napoleon_josephine/index.htm

 

 

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy

 

 

The Tolstoy Family History (2)

We continue our story with two other (in)famous Tolstoys; Count Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy (1770-1857) and Count Fyodor Tolstoy (1782-1846), also known as “the American”. Alexander played an important role in the war against Napoleon, while Fyodor is famous for the large number (even according to Russian standards) of duels that he took part in.

Ostermann-Tolstoy

Alexander descends from a branch of the family that does not have the count title. He receives a military upbringing (as is the custom at the time) and joins the army at the tender age of thirteen. His courage makes him stand out and he quickly makes a dazzling career. When in 1792 his two childless uncles, Fyodor and Ivan Ostermann, have died, they leave him their entire fortune and the count title, with the name Ostermann. As if that isn’t enough he marries one of the richest heiresses of the time, Elizabeth Galitzine.

War against Napoleon

In 1805 Tsar Alexander I starts his campaign against Napoleon. The wealthy and handsome Count Ostermann-Tolstoy eagerly joins his brother-in-law and distant relation General Peter Tolstoy in the Imperial Guard*. Between 1805 and 1813 he fights like a lion and is rewarded order after order. In 1813, by now he is a general, he loses his arm in the deciding Battle of Kulm. His first reaction was “This is my payment for the honour of commanding the Guard, I am quite content!”. The Tsar said “by sacrificing his hand he bought us victory”.

Bears and Eagles

Ostermann-Tolstoy keeps three bears and two eagles as pets. They form a curious part of his entourage when he goes on campaign. Later they are also present at the splendid dinners at his luxurious house in Saint Petersburg. His amputated arm he buries ceremoniously on the estate that he inherited from his uncles. After the death of his beloved Tsar he travels through Europe and settles in Geneva, where he eventually dies and where the rest of his body is buried.

The American

The life of the American is even more impressive. Fyodor also receives a military education. When he is sixteen he enters the Imperial Guard straight from school. Not six months later he is punished for the first time for his behaviour. He drinks, gambles, fights, and womanises. When he is seventeen he fights his first duel with an officer. Probably that would have resulted in Fyodor getting fired from his regiment, but supposedly he escapes his punishment by getting himself onto the Nadezhda, a ship that is about to sail around the world.

Around the world

For more than a year Tolstoy sails around the world, still dressed in his regiment’s uniform. At Nuku Hiva he has his body tattooed from top to toe. On board he is constant trouble. At one time he lets his pet orangutan loose in the captain’s quarters. The captain has had enough of him and leaves him and his ape behind on land in Alaska (hence his nickname).

Saint Spyridon

For a couple of months he stays there with the natives. Later he claims that they wanted to make him tsar. One night he gets lost in the wilderness. Suddenly he sees a clear vision that shows him the way. When he later realises that it was the 12th of December, he is convinced that it must have been Saint Spyridon who saved his life (back in Moscow he has an image of the Saint made, that he always wears on his tattooed chest). But he wants to get back to civilisation and travels back through Kamchatka and Siberia, by boat, on horseback and by foot. Still wearing his uniform.

War and duels

Once back he can’t escape his punishment any more. He is sent to Savonlinna to fight in the Finnish war for the next three years. In Turku he also fought two duels, but as a reward for shown courage he is allowed back with the Guard, and not much later fired again for taking part in another two duels. Later he fights in the Battle of Borodino as a volunteer and is rewarded the cross of St George. After the war he moves to Moscow. By now is regarded as Russia’s most feared duellist. He almost fought a duel once with Pushkin, who knowing his opponent practiced shooting for months. Luckily the duel was called off and the two even became friends. Pushkin made him a character in Eugene Onegin, the daredevil Zaretski. His cousin Lev uses him as inspiration for Dolochov in War and Peace.

Married to a gypsy

In 1821 Fyodor almost kills himself. In spite of his cheating he lost a large sum of money playing cards. At the time he was living for some years with a young gypsy singer, Avdotya. She asked him for the cause of his depressed state and promptly produced the necessary sum. When he asked her where she got the money, she simply replied that it was money he had given her over the years. Fyodor was so touched by her loyalty that he married her. Together they had twelve children, only one makes it to adulthood. Fyodor had written the names of the eleven men he had killed in duels in a notebook and each time one of his children dies he crosses out a name. After the eleventh name is crossed out he writes “Well, thank God, at least my curly-haired gypsy girl (see illustration) will live”. And so it was.

*The Russian Imperial Guard was the pride of the Russian army, only the best of the best were admitted. Their uniforms and equipment were magnificent.

 

Until the 8th of November 2015 in the Hermitage in Amsterdam: Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine. http://www.hermitage.nl/en/

 

The books to read:

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy

Tolstoy, a Russian Life – Rosamund Bartlett

Russia Against Napoleon – Dominic Lieven
Wondering what the Tolsoys are up to nowadays?

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/13/alexandra-tolstoy-interview-sergei-pugachev-planned-his-escape

 

The Tolstoy Family History (1)

Earlier I wrote that Tolstoy’s aristocratic background is better than that of the Romanovs. This is through his mother, Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya. The Volkonskys supposedly descend from Prince Rurik (830-879), a Viking chieftain who founded the Rurik dynasty that ruled over Russia until 1598.

Saint Spyridon

The Tolstoy family history, however, is also remarkable! In 1686 Andrey Kharitonovich received the nickname Tolstoy (fat) from Vasily, Great Prince of Moscow. He also received a silver or golden cross that is still in possession of the Tolstoy family today. This cross, according to legend, contains relics of Saint Spyridon, who since then has been the patron saint not just of the island of Corfu, but also of the Tolstoy family . Apparently Saint Spyridon has had to rescue more than one Tolstoy from a perilous situation. And last but not least there is a curse that rests upon the family…

The old Russia

Let’s go back to 1353. A certain Indris came to Russia with his three sons. He is believed to be a man of aristocratic background, most likely from the Holy Roman Empire. At that time Russia is much smaller than it is now. It suffers attacks from all sides by the Tatars, Mongols and Lithuanians. In the long, dark winters the temperature drops well below zero and the forests are full of wolves and bears. It is unclear why Indris chose to move to Russia, but the Tolstoy’s claim to descend from him.

Pyotr and Ivan

In 1682 the Tolstoy’s really begin to make Russian history. The sons of ‘fat’ Andrey, great-grandson of Indris, Ivan and Pyotr, work their way into the highest, imperial circles. Both brothers are extremely cunning and ambitious. Especially Pyotr becomes very influential.

Ambassador in Constantinople

Under Ivan The Terrible Russia has grown considerably, and now the Romanovs are the ruling dynasty. Peter the Great is tsar. Both brothers hold a high position close to the tsar. In 1702 Peter sends Pyotr to Constantinople to become ambassador, and there he manages successfully for years to hold of a threatening war with the Turks. In 1711 it does come to a war and Pyotr, who is by now 66, is thrown into jail. He is kept there for 17 months and is ill most of the time. Thanks to either to his extraordinary Tolstoy genes, or to Saint Spyridon, he survives. In 1714 he can finally return to Russia.

The flight of the Tsarevich

But tsar Peter won’t let him retire yet. Tsarevich Aleksey, Peter’s eldest son, refuses to follow into his father’s footsteps. Since his wife Charlotte died in childbirth, Aleksey has been living openly with his mistress, Afrosinya, a Finnish peasant girl, with whom he is obsessed. Scared to death for his father’s wrath he flees with Afrosinya, disguised as a boy, to Naples. Pyotr is sent to Italy to retrieve him. Through Afrosinya Tolstoy eventually manages to convince the Tsarevich to go back. He swears he and Afrosinya will not be harmed.

The curse of the Tsarevich

Once back in Saint Petersburg it soon becomes clear that Peter I cannot cope with the disgrace. He lets everyone suspected of being involved with the flight of the Tsarevich be questioned in a barbaric manner. Afrosinya is also questioned, albeit without torture. The ignorant girl says that her lover often complains about his tyrannical father and wishes him dead. The distrustful tsar suspects a plot against him and wants Pyotr to question the Tsarevich. Aleksey is beaten with the ‘knout’ until he admits. Two days later he dies, but not before cursing the Tolstoy family unto the 25th generation.

 

 

 

Next time we’ll talk about a Tolstoy who fought against Napoleon and kept bears and Eagles as pets…

 

The Tolstoys by Nicolai Tolstoy

Tolstoy, a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A. N. Wilson

 

A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

As I said in my previous post, I would love to tell you a bit more about Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches. It’s a series of short, separate stories, not about sports (hunting, in this case) but about the narrator’s encounters while out hunting. I read these stories for the first time at university and was immediately sold. They’re such beautiful, humble stories. They have been of literary influence on writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Hemingway. Socially they have contributed to the abolition of serfdom* in Russia.

The serfs

The narrator is a landowner with a passion for hunting. During his roams around the countryside he meets all kinds of people, usually serfs belonging to other landowners. He likes to listen to their stories and encourages them to talk. This is how we hear, almost imperceptibly, about their often deplorable circumstances. The serfs don’t purposely tell the narrator this, it is said between the lines, without them realising it. They don’t want to speak badly of their masters. They have reconciled with their fates and simply remark that that is how things were or should be. The sympathy of the narrator is also merely subtly shown, you can feel it for instance when he calls one of the peasants ‘our poor friend’.

Childhood memories

Turgenev wrote the sketches after his childhood experiences at his mother’s estate Spasskoye. His mother was an evil woman. She owned 5000 souls and didn’t leave those 5000 souls any doubt about who was in charge. She abused them, had them deported to Siberia, controlled their private lives, in short, ruled with an iron fist.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In 1852 the stories are published together. In the same year another book appears that has had an enormous social impact: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both books may not have been the direct cause of the abolition of serfdom / slavery, but they made the public sympathy for the respective causes much bigger. Both books give the slaves a personality, emotions and a face, perhaps for the first time in literary history.

Alexander II

At first the sketches were considered politically dangerous in Russia and Nicholas I banished Turgenev to (by now) his estate Spasskoye. His son Alexander II (tsar from 1855 until 1881) however, appeared to be less narrow minded and lifted the sentence. He liked the stories a lot. In his youth he had made a tour around Russia and saw with his own eyes the sad circumstances under which the serfs often lived. Ever since he was determined to address the issue once he was tsar himself. He understood that it would be better to force it from above than to risk a revolution. In 1861 Alexander II signs the Emancipation Manifest; in 1862 Lincoln signs his Emancipation Proclamation.

Tomb

Turgenev never wanted to be too outspoken politically, a fact that was often held against him by his contemporaries. But he did call the sketches a political manifest later. In any case he was pleased with the result. In 1862 he writes at Goncourt (the Viardot’s country house close to Paris): My only desire for my tomb is that they should engrave upon it what my books accomplished for the emancipation of the serfs. Yes, that’s all I ask.

Alexander II is supposed to have thanked him personally.

*Serfs are usually peasant families that come with a piece of land. Unlike slaves they cannot normally be traded. These Russian peasants belonged to the same families for generations.

If you do only one thing this week… read Raspberry Spring. You can read it online in English or Russian:

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/hunt.htm

http://ilibrary.ru/text/1204/p.3/index.html

My booklist:

Empathy and Morality by Heidi L. Maibom

A Sportman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

War and Peace with Turgenev and Tolstoy

Tolstoy and Turgenev. Two giants in the history of Russian literature. Thanks to his outspoken opinion and controversial nature Tolstoy is the best known of the two. But in a purely literary sense Turgenev may well be the better writer. I love Tolstoy, but he did write a lot of grumbling too, and Turgenev never did.

They had a love/hate relationship, that started with more or less the same touching letter from Turgenev. In 1855 he wrote to Tolstoy, who was at the time fighting at the front in the Crimean War (nothing new under the sun) and who had already published Childhood and Boyhood, the following lines:

Enough! There’s a limit to everything! You have proved that you are no coward, but your instrument is the pen and not the sabre!

Tolstoy took those words to his heart. He admired Turgenev immensely and not much later stood on his doorstep in Saint Petersburg. The writers embraced each other in Russian style and Tolstoy stayed for a month. When the poet Fet came to visit Turgenev late one morning he asked who’s gleaming sabre it was that he saw in the hall and was told it belonged to Count Tolstoy. Count Tolstoy had been up all night with the gipsies (gipsy singers were quite popular at the time in Russia) and was still asleep in the next room. Fet and Turgenev spent the first hour whispering to each other.

Soon, however, it became clear that they didn’t have much in common. Turgenev thought Tolstoy was wildly jealous and extremely stubborn. Tolstoy called Turgenev a bore and could not understand that he, who was much wealthier, was an advocate of the emancipation of the serfs*.

Nonetheless both writers expressed their love for each other:

Tolstoy: Turgenev has left. I am sad. I feel that I have grown to love him dearly. Even though we argued all the time, I am terribly bored without him.

Turgenev: Friends in the sense of Rousseau we will never be. But we can still love each other and be happy for each other’s successes (…).

In May 1861 Tolstoy stayed with Turgenev at Spasskoye. There a fight about Turgenev’s daughter Paulette (see Turgenev’s Eternal Love) got so out of hand that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel. In the heat of the moment letters with apologies were sent to the wrong address, but it was eventually called off (luckily, just imagine them killing each other!). They did make peace, but there was no contact for seventeen years.

In 1883 Turgenev writes Tolstoy, who is at that moment fanatically religious, from his deathbed in France:

(…) My friend, return to literary activity! (…) Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! (…) I can’t walk, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, but so what! (…) My friend, great writer of the Russian land – heed my request!

 

 

* In 1852 Turgenev published his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, a series of short stories in which the narrator meets all kinds of characters, most of them serfs. This was the first time in Russian literary history that serfs were described as people with individual feelings and talents. These stories contributed to the actual emancipation of the serfs and would almost certainly have helped Tolstoy change his mind about the issue later in life. I’d love to write a separate blog on this subject in the near future.

 

Peace on the Rue de Rivoli; Turgenev lives on 208 and Tolstoy on 206 (Tolstoy lived there for only six weeks, but he got a plague and Turgenev didn’t! If you wish to see Turgenev’s plague in Paris you’ll find it at 50 Rue de Douai).

Photos are mine. 
 

My inspirational sources:

Tolstoy, a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

 

 

Tolstoy’s enormous influence

Nowadays Tolstoy is best known for writing Anna Karenia and War and Peace. It seems strange therefore that the vast majority of the thousands who attended his funeral, had never read one of his books. They came for Tolstoy the anarchist, Tolstoy the advocate of rights for peasants, Tolstoy the campaigner for peaceful resistance.

Tolstoy’s aristocratic youth

Count Tolstoy was born on his family’s estate Yasnaya Polyana in 1828. His aristocratic heritage was even better than the tsar’s. After a rather wild youth filled with women, alcohol and a gambling addiction that nearly cost him his considerable inheritance, he decided to better his life. In 1858 he moved to Yasnaya Polyana. There he founded a school for the local peasants’ children. The aristocracy in Russia at the time did not just own their houses and estates; they also owned the souls who lived there, the peasants were actually slaves.

Tolstoy’s reformation

After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy began to question his lifestyle more and more. He initially sought the solution in a strict religious life, he became a vegetarian, and quit smoking and drinking. He felt he could no longer take advantage of his privileged position and started to wear peasants’ clothes and work on his land. In 1873 he and his wife Sophia set up an enormous charity for the famine in Samara. They raised 1,867,000 roubles and 344,000 kilograms of grain. The whole Tolstoy family traveled to the affected area to offer practical help.

Typically for Tolstoy he showed his outrage in letters to the tsar and newspapers. He blamed the government’s mismanagement for the famine and reproached the government for leaving the victims without any help. Time after time Tolstoy used his fame and background to raise attention to social issues. His theories about non violent resistance caught the attention of Ghandi, and later influenced other great political figures like Martin Luther King JR, Václav Havel and Lech Walesa. Yasnaya Polyana became an international pilgrimage, where people in mental or financial need always found the door open. Tolstoy’s influence grew to such proportions, that people said that Russia had two tsars, Nicholas II and Tolstoy. The tsars during Tolstoy’s life were certainly not always happy with his opinions, but his status made him more or less untouchable.

Tolstoy’s death in Astapovo

After yet another fight with his wife (Sophia didn’t always agree with her husband), Tolstoy left Yasnaya Polyana in 1910. A few days later he fell ill during a train journey. He was laid to bed in a station master’s house. There he died a week later, while the whole world press gathered in the small station of Astapovo.

It takes a great deal of greatness to write a masterpiece like War and Peace, but a great deal more to stand up for your beliefs.

I have read with great pleasure the following books:

Tolstoy, a Russian Life from Rosamund Bertlett

Tolstoy from A. N. Wilson

I also enjoyed the film The Last Station with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.