Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia: The Pleasure and the Power

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Serf-era and provincial Russia heralded the spectacular turn in cultural history that began in the 1860s. Examining the role of arts and artists in society’s value system, Richard Stites explores this shift in a groundbreaking history of visual and performing arts in the last decades of serfdom. Provincial town and manor house engaged the culture of Moscow and St. Petersburg while thousands of serfs and ex-serfs created or performed. Mikhail Glinka raised Russian music to new levels and Anton Rubinstein struggled to found a conservatory. Long before the itinerants, painters explored town and country in genre scenes of everyday life. Serf actors on loan from their masters brought naturalistic acting from provincial theaters to the imperial stages. Stites’s richly detailed book offers new perspectives on the origins of Russia’s nineteenth-century artistic prowess.

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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
In this magisterial account of music, theater, and art during the last century of serfdom, Stites transports the reader from the glittering private salons of the St. Petersburg and Moscow gentry, where Schumann conducted, Liszt played, and Glinka rehearsed, to the provincial town playhouses and country manor art collections. Serf orchestras, the playwright offspring of minor officials, local merchant patrons, the artist son of a stable boy — all populate a surprisingly fecund and active set of interlocking circles stretching from estate to town to the great cultural centers of the capital cities. Traveling with Stites, one begins to see the depth and range of creativity that prepared the way for the giants who strode onto the scene in the last third of the nineteenth century, not least by moving the arts from private to public view and by enriching and broadening their subject matter.
Boris Gasparov
"This is a great (genuinely great) book. It is an intellectual event of primary importance, whose significance is by no means confined to Russian studies. I am confident that the book will find a broad and diverse readership, it is enormously important as a historical study; it is truly innovative in its methodology; it offers an incredible wealth of exciting material; and, last but not least, it is written in a vivid language, with remarkable insight, level-headedness, and compassion."—Boris Gasparov, Columbia University, author of Five Operas and a Symphony: Words of Music in Russian Culture
Julie Buckler
"This book is the latest of Stites's panoramic yet densely detailed studies of Russian culture, and it will undoubtedly prove as invaluable to scholars, students, and general-interest readers as his previous books have done. Russian Studies is blessed to have in Stites an energetic and rigorous cultural historian of both the imperial and Soviet periods. Stites possesses an extraordinary capacity to decipher complex social and institutional formations and thereby to underscore key issues in cultural politics by creating a picture of satisfying specificity. Nobody does it better."—Julie Buckler, Harvard University
Murray Frame
"In Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia, Richard Stites explores the vast panorama of Russian cultural life before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The artistic worlds of metropolitan and provincial Russia are vividly portrayed, and the manifold dimensions of cultural production and consumption are placed within their social and political contexts with consummate skill. Immensely readable and based on complete command of the published and unpublished sources, this book is quite simply a work of breathtaking scholarship which sparkles on every page with insight and erudition. Readers will stand in awe at its formidable scope and compelling narrative, and it will quickly establish itself as the definitive study of pre-emancipation Russian culture. It is yet another monumental achievement from a master historian of Russia."—Murray Frame, University of Dundee
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300137576
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 640
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Stites is Distinguished Professor of International Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Richard Stites
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10889-7

Chapter One

Town and Country

Every manifestation, every kind of utterance in social life, belongs to the boundless historical domain. -Adam de Gurowski, Russia as It Is (1854)

Cultural tours of cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow, valuable and necessary though they be, all too often resemble a museum visit. The galleries themselves are hung with paintings by periods, genres, or themes constructed out of modern museum ideologies. The opulent palaces no longer house residents but are the haunt of curators and visitors. City tours focus precisely on the edifices where organic life has ceased to exist, buildings with no function other than visual instruction. The places that still work in many ways as they did in 1830 or in 1860 are theaters, concert halls, and art academies. The first two are accessible to the modern public but only as audience in the front of the house. The "innards" of the performance centers are never the topic of a historical-cultural lecture. The former Imperial Academy of Arts, standing resplendent on the banks of the Neva, is still an art school but not a part of any city tour itinerary. Those seeking to get thefeel of how people lived amid the surviving cultural artifacts usually consult guidebooks, though these also reflect a modern sense of what is historically and aesthetically important. Almost all Russian-produced evocations of past urban life - particularly of St. Petersburg - draw upon the words of contemporary writers to summon up for us the ambiance, the life force, the details, and the mystique that have long ago passed from the scene but live on in the minds of the intelligentsia. Dozens of works on such themes as Pushkin's Petersburg and Griboedov's Moscow are built around these and other central figures in Russia's glorious literary canon. But the literary-biographical allusions all too often obscure or ignore the experience of others who lived at the time and the place.

Two Dots on a Map

The coming chapters will, I hope, bring to the reader some sense of what private and public cultural places meant to the people who lived, worked, studied, painted, and performed in them in those decades between the reign of Catherine II and the end of serfdom. St. Petersburg, with a population of a half-million in 1858, ranked after London, Paris, and Istanbul. Every capital has another capital somewhere inside it. Petersburg's capital-within-a-capital, not wholly defined by geography, formed an archipelago of power, cosmopolitanism, an interacting social elite, and the headquarters, so to speak, of high cultural production in the Russian Empire. Petersburg consisted of two concentric circles. The inner one formed the core of production and consumption; the larger, embracing most of the city, served as one of the great objects of early nineteenth-century visual art. The size of the inner circle is surprisingly small: a strip of Vasilevsky Island across the Neva River from the main part of town; and a rough triangle formed by the northern bend of the Neva; the Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare; and the Fontanka Canal, with an outlier at Theater Square. The island's embankment held the Academy of Arts, founded in the eighteenth century; and the university, slightly to the north, founded in 1819 and home of a well-known concert series in the 1840s. Across lay the Winter Palace, home of the royal family, of a private theater, and of a picture gallery - nucleus of the world-famed Hermitage (fig. 1). The residential rooms of the palace also played host to musical performance by the dynasts themselves and their courtiers. A few yards away, in a courtyard off the Moika River, stood the elegant Capella, the court choir.

St. Petersburg's major cultural zone lay along and near the Nevsky, with its center on Mikhailovsky Square. The Soviets renamed it Ferdinand Lassalle Square after the nineteenth-century German socialist and renamed it again in 1940 Square of the Arts. The land was planted in the eighteenth century with thousands of maples in rows, but used as a dump heap until 1823 when it was chosen for Grand Duke Michael's new palace and gardens, designed by Carlo Rossi. The Mikhailovsky Palace, now the Russian Museum, served as a musical venue under Maria Fëdorovna in the reign of Tsar Alexander I and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna under Nicholas I. Elena Pavlovna engaged Anton Rubinstein as her house pianist in the 1850s; together they helped launch Russia's first conservatory of music in 1862. Across the street, on the western edge of the square appeared in 1833 the then least Russian of the capital's theaters: the Mikhailovsky, later Maly, now the Musorgsky Opera Theater. Opposite, in a two-story flat (it is now a school), lived a key figure of art music in the first half of the century, Mikhail Vielgorsky, who held there a grand musical salon. A few steps away, across Italyanskaya Street, stood the Gentry Club or Noble Assembly, completed in 1839, which now houses the St. Petersburg Philharmonia. Three blocks to the east, on Karavannaya Street, General Alexei Lvov, a major mover in the musical world under Nicholas I, ran his own salon and private concert venue. In the other direction from the Gentry Club, around the corner on the Nevsky as it crosses the Catherine (Griboedov) Canal, is located the Glinka Small Hall which, as the Engelhardt House, played host to the most prestigious concert music of the first third of the nineteenth century.

Of the two remaining zones, one lay nearby, off the Nevsky a block east of Sadovaya Street on the corner of which stood the Imperial (now Russian National) Library. Looming over a square that separates it from the Nevsky, the Alexandrinsky (later Pushkin) Theater still proudly stands, a monument to the mastery of its architect, Carlo Rossi. Behind the theater, southward toward another square and the Fontanka Canal, stretched Theater Street, also designed by Rossi, with matching edifices on either side. Inside the buildings on the east side were nested the illustrious Theater School and the management of the entire Imperial Theater system, the Directorate. The school remains and the main theater library has been added on the corner. Gostiny Dvor (Merchants' Arcade), then and now the city's largest shopping center, and Apraxin Dvor along the Sadovaya stood one and two blocks respectively from the Alexandrinsky Theater, a fact that accounted for the large number of merchants in that theater's audience. Theater Square, hardly a zone at all, emerged near the intersection of the Moika River and the Kryukov Canal, a few kilometers below the Nevsky. It included only the Bolshoi Kamenny or Great Stone Theater, the imperial system's oldest and its major opera and ballet theater until replaced by the Marinsky in 1860. St. Petersburg's three imperial theaters, together with the two in Moscow, constituted a state theater monopoly in the capitals; no other public theater could function in these two cities until the 1880s.

Intermixed among these zones, lay a multitude of private cultural sites. A few blocks from the Great Stone, the apartment of the Kukolnik brothers hosted the Brotherhood - composer Mikhail Glinka, playwright Nestor Kukolnik, and painter Karl Bryullov. Like the flats of Vielgorsky and Lvov, it served as an important private music-making center. Many schools offered music training, including the newly founded Law School on the Fontanka Canal which fostered the talents of Alexander Serov, Vladimir Stasov, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. But classical music performance, unlike art and theater, lacked not only a professional conservatory but even a permanent concert venue. Space had to be rented; musical leaders had no state-sponsored institution (except the Capella and the theaters). They met at salons; and later on - as in the case of the Balakirev circle - at the university or through word of mouth. Interlacing all these special sites, a tangled archipelago of aristocratic homes served as music salons, gathering places for theater enthusiasts, and privately owned art collections. Carriages manned by liveried servants, usually serfs, linked the entire system together day and night.

Beyond the central core lay the palatial suburban houses on the islands in the northwestern part of the city, and seasonal festive sites like Ekaterinhof, a few miles west of Petersburg proper. The most famous suburban entertainment center, Pavlovsk, possessed a resort-like park with a "Vauxhall" or entertainment center and a ballroom. About thirty kilometers from the capital, it was connected to it by Russia's first railroad line in the reign of Nicholas I. Johann Strauss, among others, offered the city's commuters the light music entertainment for which he was famous.

Social life at the top in this glorious capital - where smoking; an unbuttoned uniform; or wearing a flower, glasses, or beard in public (by one in government or military service) could be fined - revolved around highly ritualized receptions at court, private balls, theatergoing, and the fashionable round of visits and soirées. In the aristocratic weekly "at homes," wits were expected to hold forth in nimble conversation - usually in French. The related soirée (and its larger cousin, the "rout") was more kinetic than the salon. As the size of a gathering increased, serious talk tended to give way to lighter conversation. The grandest upper-class social occasion, the ball, emulated the court in formality and order of the dance. Women here displayed not only their physical charms and sense of fashion, but also the bon mot and the correct social skills. The sociability of the ball included status striving, flirtation, and matchmaking. The novelist Ivan Goncharov in the 1840s wrote of social lions who prided themselves on savoir faire and savoir vivre in matters of table, wines, and effortless drawing-room behavior - all without excessive enthusiasm; and dandies, so obsessed with outward appearance that some were known to starve themselves in order to purchase finery. Russian dandies, whose hour peaked in the 1820s, emulated London beaux and Parisian flâneurs whose costume, lisping speech, and balletic movements underlined their devotion to leisure and pleasure. Such attitudes among the highest ranks of society tended to inhibit the ardent pursuit of a creative life or career.

Since aristocratic sociability put so much stress on form, contemporaries took note of its desiccating effect. "It is at social gatherings," wrote Nikolai Karamzin in 1790, "that one enjoys friends least. Such occasions are not designed for discussion, conversation, or display of sentiment. Each person must say only a word in passing, and then move aside so as to yield the stage to others. Everyone is uneasy lest he say something indiscreet and thus reveal his ignorance of good form. In short, this is a perpetual vicious comedy that goes by the name of social necessity, a comedy without meaning and above all without interest." A lady-in-waiting at the Russian court, Anna Tyutcheva, declared that "inflated ritualism is a vast emptiness, a profound boredom, and complete lack of serious interests and intellectual life." Even body language and facial expression felt the bonds of politesse. Sofiya Khvoshchinskaya (1828-65) who spent a half-dozen years in an aristocratic boarding school, told of her classmates' "restrained grimaces" reflecting the institute's "manière d'être" and the mechanical perfection of "good breeding." In polite society, the effete mannerisms and the "languid gaze and drawling tone" of dandies could drain social contact of natural expression and sympathy.

The segment of the capital's population living in the triangle and on the islands essentially dominated its cultural output, but only indirectly - as managers, patrons, and audiences. Gentry folks, lofty aristocrats, or simple landowners could perform for whomever they wanted at home. But a mantle of taboo covered public performance, contaminated as it was by its association with money, professionalism, deference, and exposure to public opinion. The powerful social prejudice - shared by other European upper classes well into the twentieth century - curtailed for a long time the potential pool of creative talent that could appear in Russian public life. None the less, the aristocracy basked in the reflected light of St. Petersburg's cultural offerings. Pierre Bourdieu speaks of space in terms of cultural capital: prestige accrues to those who live in the capital and at its center with access to power and culture: theaters, university, museums, and each others' homes and salons. This capital is cumulative since the pleasure and privilege and the psychic benefits of the space are multiplied by the additional access to knowledge. The capital as cultural and intellectual magnet and the brain drain from the provinces are hardly an earth-shattering discovery. After all, in Balzac's novel, when Rastignac climbed the heights of Paris, he vowed someday to conquer it and not Dijon. The magnetic power was not the exclusive possession of St. Petersburg but of its sister Moscow as well. Provincials were constantly coming into the capitals through will and wealth, promotion or reassignment, peasant temporary work, or a chance relative. A surprising level of economic mobility combined with relative social immobility meant that poor folks often had rich relatives in the capitals. The confrontation of the provincial with the big city has rightly been called the "great central myth of the nineteenth-century realistic novel: the solitary ambitious or underprivileged hero face to face with the corrupt and impersonal metropolis." The theme was played with several variations in the Russian theater as well as in real life by artistic Rastignacs.

Around the enchanted circle of St. Petersburg, sometimes living among it, another population toiled and served - a universe of merchants, lower officials, free and unfree servants, ordinary townspeople, and the denizens of the lowest depths of crime, beggary, and prostitution. The terms raznochintsy and meshchane have spurred thousands of pages of analysis and contention and have often been used interchangeably. Raznochintsy ("people of various ranks"), a huge, porous, and ill-defined population and the core of Russia's middle social layers, could include the "clerkish legions" who toiled in government offices, educated commoners, and some members of the urban lower class (meshchane), depending on who was using the word. The taxable meshchane or townspeople belonged neither to the merchant, peasant, nor gentry estates. The vague term included porters, dredgers, coachmen, sales clerks, shop assistants, hawkers and vendors, and all kinds of humble laborers; as well as children of priests, déclassé gentry, the offspring of army doctors or estate stewards, and those who fit nowhere else in the order of social estates. Together they far outnumbered all other town residents and yet remain the least studied of all Russian social categories. In practice, raznochintsy and meshchane often overlapped. Much has been made of the plight of the victimized urban lower middle class, Dostoevsky's poor town folk, including a motley assortment of penniless students and various educated but impoverished types who lived in dingy flats or rooms without running water. Some writers pitied them and others assaulted their alleged meshchanstvo: crudeness and vulgarity of taste and behavior, a philistinism lower than that of merchants. Yet these sectors of the city population played their own role both as subjects and audiences of urban drama on the Russian stage and of graphic caricature.

At the bottom of the social heap lay a world far removed from the showy homes of the elite, a dark-hued underground of pungent smells and bustling humanity; of taverns, brothels, tenements, lodges, and flophouses. Here and in other Russian cities, crime, alcohol, and prostitution raged long before statisticians began to lament their "emergence." Artists and feuilletonists began exploring the "back alleys" of St. Petersburg in the 1830s and 1840s. Vsevolod Krestovsky entered this dank world with Petersburg Slums: A Book About the Well-Fed and the Hungry (1864), set in 1858, a close imitation of Eugène Sue's Mystères de Paris of the 1840s, but with a Russian setting. Dostoevsky followed in 1866 with Crime and Punishment. Both novels were set in the squalid Haymarket Square. The denizens of the lowest depths never became characters on stage in this era and few ever gained entry even to the gallery of the Imperial Theaters. Yet some of the poorest and weakest urban dwellers - orphans and abandoned children, sons and daughters of serfs - made it into the theater school and the Academy of Arts as students who were set on a path of potential professional success.


Excerpted from Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia by RICHARD STITES Copyright © 2005 by Richard Stites. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: What's in a Title? 1
Part I Cultural and Social Terrains
1 Town and Country 13
Two Dots on a Map 14
The Seigniorial Abode 25
Slaves of Art 30
Provincial Space 40
Part II Music of the Spheres
2 The Domestic Muse 53
The Russian Ear 54
Keys to Intimacy 57
Orpheus in the Salon 63
Serf as Musician 71
Out of the Forest: Glinka 84
3 In Search of a Concert Hall 88
Philharmonia and Capella 90
Evenings with the Orchestra 98
Listening Around the Empire 105
The Vanquishing Virtuoso 111
Out of the Pale: Rubinstein 121
Part III Empire of Performance
4 Inside the Capital Stages 129
Imperial Playhouses 132
Front Office 135
Backstage Stories 141
Audience as Cast 152
A Crooked Mirror? 162
Theater in the Round 167
5 An Unfolding Drama 173
Actors at Work 174
The Terror and the Pathos 181
Theater of War 189
Innocence and Evil in Faraway Places 199
The Human Comedy 203
6 Playing the Provinces 221
Manorial Stagecraft 222
Serf as Actor 238
The Theatrical Circuit 243
Lives on the Road 257
Theater-Land 270
Part IV Pictures at an Exhibition
7 Academic Vistas 283
House on the Embankment 284
Classes in Art 288
Of Gods and Heroes 296
The Art of Elevation 303
Seeing Art, Talking Art 315
8 Exploring the Interior 320
Counter-Academy? 321
Serf as Artist 332
Peasants on Canvas 343
A Provincial Gallery 358
Petersburg: Cityscape, City Folk 366
Photo Finish 372
Part V Finale and Overture
9 When Did the Real Day Dawn? 383
Narratives of Awakening 384
Nationhood in Counterpoint 389
The Volga Generation 398
Mutiny on the Embankment 413
Arrivals, Departures 421
List of Abbreviations 427
Notes 431
Bibliography 501
Index 549
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