Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars

Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars

by Solomon Volkov

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In a sweeping cultural history of Russia from the rise of the house of Romanov in 1613 to its downfall at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1917, Solomon Volkov effortlessly unwinds the twisted relationship between art and the royal family.

Throughout the Romanov dynasty, Russia’s greatest artists and thinkers, painters and poets, composers and dancers,


In a sweeping cultural history of Russia from the rise of the house of Romanov in 1613 to its downfall at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1917, Solomon Volkov effortlessly unwinds the twisted relationship between art and the royal family.

Throughout the Romanov dynasty, Russia’s greatest artists and thinkers, painters and poets, composers and dancers, served two masters. Devotion to craft—or principle—could never wholly eclipse dependence on the tsars. Similarly, consumers of Russian culture could never respond without political consideration: Volkov recounts how, at the 1836 premiere of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, fashionable audiences watched Nicholas I in his private box to see how they ought to react. He wept, and they wept accordingly.

In this spellbinding story, we watch the great figures of Russian history clash. Alexei, father of Peter the Great, befriended the writer Avvakum only to banish him; the next tsar, Fedor, had Avvakum burned alive. Using her notorious charms, Catherine the Great masterfully wielded political control over her culture industry. For his part, Pushkin became the first favored artist to resist the tsar’s influence. His poem “To Liberty” is cherished as a revolutionary work of dissent. But even Pushkin’s genius went unspared: Alexander tired of the poet’s literary and amorous freethinking and banished him from St. Petersburg.

Romanov Riches is a work of epic scale that never sacrifices individual characters for broader themes. Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are presented in a devilishly intricate dance with their royal patrons. A truly essential work for anyone who wants to understand Russia’s passionate devotion to its most important artists, it is the prequel to Volkov’s acclaimed work The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Romanov rule of Russia extended to culture, to art in all its manifest expressions. Volkov (cultural commentator, Radio Free Europe) explores the effect, both contributory and in opposition, of tsarist oversight from the early 17th century through 1917. The interaction between the Romanovs and Russian artists was complementary, contentious, and turbulent. Nonetheless, the achievements are evident in Volkov's well-researched history. The poet Aleksandr Pushkin insisted in his poem "The Village" that serfdom was slavery, indicating freedom should be gained by the tsar's command. Pushkin's complex connections with the Romanovs led to his banishment and later a reprieve as the poet raised the question of the authority of the state vs. the rights of the people. Many such episodes and examples populate this work, a kind of prequel to the author's The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. VERDICT Apart from the welter of names that U.S. readers may find difficult to track, the translated text reads accessibly. While not a revelatory history of tsarist Russia's poetical and cultural machinations, it will help readers understand and appreciate what constituted a working relationship between a ruling class and an untamed group of writers and artists. Recommended for students and readers of Russian history.—Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN
Kirkus Reviews

The author of numerous works on Russian cultural history races through the 300-year rule of the Romanovs (1613–1917), examining the rulers' complicated relationships with creative artists.

Volkov (The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, 2008, etc.) is not so much interested in specific works, but rather the choreography of artists and emperors. Although he occasionally devotes a few paragraphs to a major work (e.g., Pushkin'sEugene Onegin), the author maintains focus on the personalities and political atmosphere. He begins at the premiere of Mikhail Glinka's operaA Life for the Tsar in 1836; both Pushkin and Turgenev were in the audience awaiting the arrival of Nicholas I. Volkov then moves back to the beginning of the dynasty, to Peter I, whose view of the arts "was utilitarian"—a view shared by a number of his successors. The next major figure is Catherine the Great (the author dispels some of the more bizarre stories about her sexual appetites), who was a writer, a passionate art collector and a patron of the poet Gavrila Derzhavin. Volkov points out a tsarist pattern: Each new one endeavored to ignore the accomplishments of his/her predecessor and to forge a new sort of leadership. Nicholas I, a voracious reader, pulled Pushkin back from exile; other artists danced in and out of favor, as well. The author also tells stories of painters and musicians—sometimes expending pages on sexual speculations (why did the homosexual Tchaikovsky marry?) and with wicked asides about some notables (Tolstoy was "clumsy, ugly, and passive-aggressive"). Volkov often declares the obvious—Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky's most popular work, and to be fully appreciated, the novel should be read in Russian.

Occasionally cantankerous, but swift, erudite and easy to follow.

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The First Romanovs: From Tsar Mikhail to Peter I

On Friday, November 27, 1836, “everything that is the best in St. Petersburg" (as a high courtier noted in his diary) gathered for the first performance of the long-awaited new Russian opera, Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. The premiere occasioned the opening of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater, one of the capital’s most majestic buildings in those days. After the reconstruction, it held two thousand people, and it was packed; the tickets, despite the gala prices, had been sold out a month in advance.

Intriguing rumors about Glinka’s piquant (and, most importantly, “national”) music had been circulating in elite St. Petersburg circles for quite a while, and the seats in the orchestra and boxes held the cream of Russian culture—the poets Vassily Zhukovsky and Prince Peter Vyazemsky, the writer and musician Prince Vladimir Odoevsky, and the famous fabulist Ivan Krylov.

Some paid special respects to the man on the aisle seat in the eleventh row: thirty-seven-year-old Alexander Pushkin, the nation’s literary lion and trendsetter. An avid theatergoer, music lover, and ballet aficionado (particularly of pretty ballerinas), the usually lively and witty Pushkin seemed to be preoccupied “by a family affair.” No one suspected that two months later the poet would be felled in a duel over that family affair. Also in the audience was the as-yet-unknown eighteen-year-old Ivan Turgenev, then a student at St. Petersburg University, a young snob who would find Glinka’s music “boring.”

The boxes held the important courtiers in splendid uniforms with gold braid and all kinds of orders on the chest and their dressed-up wives wearing diamonds (the same diary entry read: “aristocrats, stars, brilliance and beauty”). But all lorgnettes were fixed on the emperor’s box: Nicholas I was expected with his family. It was known that the emperor had approved the opera, attended rehearsals, and accepted the composer’s dedication—“To His Imperial Majesty.”

When Nicholas I, Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, and the grand dukes and duchesses took their seats, the conductor raised his baton, and the light blue and gold curtain rose after the overture revealing a country landscape in the fashionable “Slavic” style, depicting the village of Domnino, near Kostroma.

It was a performance set in the Time of Troubles, a horrible period for Russia in the early seventeenth century: after the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1584, his sons died one after the other, ending the Riurikovich dynasty. This dynastic crisis led to Russia’s first civil war, peasant rebellions, foreign invasions, famine, and epidemics.

The country lay in ruins, empty, humiliated, and looted. The capital, Moscow, was in the hands of Polish usurpers for two years, from September 1610 to October 1612. Foreign observers were sure that Russia would never rise up from its knees and would simply die off and vanish.

Prerevolutionary Russian historians always attributed the miraculous deliverance from that national catastrophe to the rise of a new ruling dynasty, the Romanovs. It happened in February 1613, when the national Assembly of the Land was convened in Moscow, which had been liberated from the Poles, and after excruciatingly long negotiations elected Mikhail Romanov, sixteen years old, as the new tsar. Young Romanov with his mother and entourage were at the Ipatiev Monastery, near Kostroma, and the delegation of the assembly traveled there in March to anoint him tsar.

The new tsar set off for Moscow a few days later. It was then that the legendary exploit that became the basis of Glinka’s opera occurred.

Ivan Susanin, the peasant elder of the Romanovs’ ancestral lands, allegedly led Polish troops planning to kidnap the new tsar into impenetrable swamps. Susanin was killed by the enemy, giving his own life to save the young tsar—and, with him, the future of Russia.

That was the official legend, based on Tsar Mikhail’s decree, which in 1619 granted tax and other privileges to the relatives of the late Ivan Susanin, who, “suffering intolerable torture from those Polish and Lithuanian people, did not tell said Polish and Lithuanian people about us, Great Tsar, did not tell them where we were at that time, and the Polish and Lithuanian people did torture him to death.”

This legend crystallized by the early nineteenth century, when the war with Napoleon aroused patriotic and monarchist feelings in Russian society. When Emperor Nicholas I, an unsurpassed master of ideological manipulation, ascended the throne in 1825, he supported and embellished the legend.

In October 1834, Nicholas I even made a special pilgrimage to the Ipatiev Monastery and Domnino village, where he reconfirmed all the privileges granted by his ancestor to the peasant hero’s offspring. Nicholas ordered a statue to be raised to Mikhail Romanov and Susanin in Kostroma, as his imperial ukase put it, for “our descendants to see that in Susanin’s immortal exploit . . . in sacrificing his life he did rescue the Orthodox Faith and the Russian Realm from foreign slavery.”

At the same time Nicholas I also came up with the idea of creating a patriotic Russian opera in the “folk spirit.” That idea was obviously in the air, and it consumed the aspiring young composer Mikhail Glinka. When Glinka approached his friend Zhukovsky, a poet with excellent ties at court, he recommended the Susanin story to the composer as the subject for a “national” opera.

Zhukovsky discussed Glinka’s initiative with Nicholas I, who became so interested in the project that he recommended a good librettist, the thirty-four-year-old Baron Georgy Rozen, personal secretary to the heir to the throne, the future Alexander II. “Even though he is a German,” added Nicholas, “his Russian is excellent and can be trusted.”

This was a unique example of direct personal involvement of a Romanov ruler in the creation of one of the milestones of Russian culture, an amazing event. But then everything connected to A Life for the Tsar was amazing and even mysterious, starting with its author, Mikhail Glinka.

You could rarely find another case of sheer genius contained in a totally inappropriate vessel. There was nothing to indicate that Glinka, a thirty-year-old musical dilettante from a poor provincial noble family, who was short, ugly, sickly, hypochondriacal, and led a raucous and bohemian life, could become the undisputed father of Russia’s music as much as Pushkin was the progenitor of Russian literature.

Moreover, the geniuses of Pushkin and Glinka were equal, with the only difference being that in logocentric Russia the poet stood in the center of cultural discourse while the composer inevitably ended up in the background. And of course, Pushkin’s biography was much more dramatic and paradigmatic. (In the West, the esteem for Pushkin and Glinka is still based primarily on respect for their preeminence in Russia.)

Even in his youth Glinka dreamed of writing a “Russian” opera. But how did he move from fantasy to reality? That happened in 1833 in Berlin, where Glinka studied composition for six months. The love-prone Glinka met seventeen-year-old Maria: “She had rather Israelite origins: tall, but not yet formed figure, with a very beautiful face, and she resembled a Madonna” (from Glinka’s Notes). The easily inflamed Glinka started sketching musical themes (in the Russian national style) that later were used in A Life for the Tsar.

When Glinka, prompted by news of his father’s death, had to return to Russia, he first longed to return to Berlin and Maria, with whom he was “in constant correspondence,” but in St. Petersburg he met Maria Ivanova, “a kind, naïve half-German.” Pushkin’s sister fumed, “Michel Glinka has married a certain Miss Ivanova, a young thing without money or education, quite homely, and who to top it off hates music.”

But it was this marriage (which ended in scandalous divorce) that encouraged Glinka to finish his opera as if on a single breath: “The weather was beautiful and I often worked with the door opened into the garden, drinking in the pure, balsamic air.” As Anna Akhmatova noted in a poem a century later, “If you only knew the rubbish / from which poetry grows, knowing no shame.”

As it sometimes happens (but very, very rarely) in these situations, everything around A Life for the Tsar moved smoothly. Glinka was immediately accepted into Zhukovsky’s circle, which met in the Winter Palace, where the poet lived as Tsarevich Alexander’s tutor, “a select company, consisting,” as the composer put it, “of poets, literary men and in general refined people.”8 Among the guests were Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol (who read his new comedy, The Marriage, when Glinka was there), Prince Vyazemsky, and Prince Odoevsky.

Pushkin and Zhukovsky took a lively interest in the libretto of A Life for the Tsar, and the latter wrote verses for the opera’s final pro-monarchistic apotheosis and in particular for the concluding march-like chorus, “Glory!,” which for many years was considered the unofficial anthem of Russia: “Glory, glory, our Russian Tsar! Our God-given Sovereign Tsar!” In the opera, the people gathered on Red Square in Moscow greet the triumphant entrance of the new monarch, Mikhail Romanov, with this vivid, majestic (but not pompous—it was Glinka at his best) music accompanied by two brass bands.

As Glinka reminisced, “As if by magic I suddenly had the plan for the entire opera and the idea of juxtaposing Russian music to Polish music; and then, many themes and even details of their development—all lit up in my head at once.”

The music for A Life for the Tsar was composed at a feverish pitch, ahead of the libretto. Baron Rozen often had to submit texts to fit quite complex melodic lines and ornate rhythmical figures. Glinka was satisfied: “Zhukovsky and the others used to joke that Rozen had tucked away already prepared verses into his pockets, and all I had to do was say what sort I needed, that is, the rhythm, and how many lines, and each time he would pull out just as much as was needed of each sort, out of different pockets.” It sometimes seemed that Glinka didn’t care at all about the words in his opera, as long as they were easy for the vocalists to sing: “Write whatever you want as long as you remember to always go to an ‘a’ or ‘ee’ for the high notes.”

Assured of his own genius, overly ambitious, and often quite capricious, Glinka was inexplicably offered friendly collaboration at every turn. As a result, Zhukovsky, Pushkin, Prince Odoevsky, Count Vladimir Sollogub, and Nicholas I himself were all involved in the opera’s creation. Everyone, it seems, understood the cultural and historical significance of what was happening before their very eyes.

Only stupid and greedy theatrical officials tried to sabotage the work during rehearsals. The director of the theater wrote rude letters to Glinka alleging, as the composer later recalled, “that I was forcing the artists to sing in a room filled with tobacco smoke, which was bad for their voices.” But the patronage of Nicholas I protected the inexperienced author, who under other circumstances would have been brought to his knees.

The opera was first called Ivan Susanin, then A Death for the Tsar, and got its final name, A Life for the Tsar, at the wish of Nicholas I: “He who gives his life for the Sovereign does not die.” For that phrase alone, Nicholas I deserves to be listed among the collaborators of Glinka’s opera.

At the premiere, connoisseurs were astounded by the opera’s innovative style and originality. Prince Odoevsky best expressed that feeling of an avant-garde breakthrough: Glinka was able “to elevate folk song to tragedy.” It was done without sentimentality or melodrama, in the Glinka style—lyrical, but pure and restrained.

Gogol, in his celebrated “Petersburg Notes of 1836,” captured the delight of Glinka’s fans: “He happily melded in his creation two Slavic musics; you can hear where the Russian speaks and where the Pole: one brings the broad melody of Russian song, the other the rash motif of the Polish mazurka.”

The first audience was particularly moved by the scene in which Susanin bids farewell to life and then dies at the hands of the Poles. The choristers depicting Poles attacked the singer “with such frenzy that they tore his shirt, and he had to defend himself for real” (from Glinka’s Notes). Susanin died with the words “Our Tsar is saved.” At the moment even the severe Nicholas I shed a tear, but after the performance he told Glinka, “It is not good that Susanin is killed on stage.” Naturally, the necessary changes were made.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Solomon Volkov is the award-winning author of Shostakovich and Stalin, among other books about Russian culture. He is a cultural commentator for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He lives in New York City with his wife, Marianna.

From the Hardcover edition.

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