The Russian Character

PAUL T—— was a Tolstoyan. Not, however, if one believed his family, a Tolstoyan at second-hand. From childhood he had demonstrated tendencies which Tolstoy developed later in life. To a succession of bewildered tutors and governesses he had presented a series of insoluble problems, and, promptly upon attàinment of his majority, he had made partition of the woods and fields constituting his share of the family estates among the peasants on the land. He had never married. He had kept for his own use a small house with a strip of garden in front; otherwise similar to other peasant houses on the wide sandy thoroughfare of the village street.

An elderly housekeeper looked after his wants when he was there. But he was not often there. Where was he? Mother and sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews and nieces, had long since ceased speculating. Paul T——lived among the peasants, a peasant himself; helping them in their work, gathering in the crops, moving about from one village to another, but not for years having stepped beyond the confines of his province. When his relations were in St. Petersburg or Moscow they never saw him. He abhorred the towns, and the way of life of his relations, and of every one of his class, in the towns.

But into the country-house life among the wheat fields of Orel, — the late breakfasts, the large lunches of many courses, the afternoon drives, the afternoon teas, when the English governess cut bread-and-butter, with jam, and the French tutor read aloud from the classics, and the châtelaine held on her lap Peter, the fat guineapig, — he made, at uncertain intervals, a tangential descent. Always unannounced, he came riding on a peasant’s cart or sledge. Formal greetings — any other ritual of approach, devised by human beings for the purposes of social intercourse — were gestures apparently cimian to him, and ignored. His presence was first proclaimed by the crashing of lively tunes on the drawing-room piano, to which every youthful soul in the house promptly responded. Every child hung upon him. He spoke a language children understood; but he was mystery, also; he was different from every one else; colored lights, as of fairy tales, hung about him. A big man, in shabby, baggy clothes, with a large black-and-gray beard, he had all the peasant uncouthness, until he spoke. Then the man of the world emerged, together with something radiant in his whole personality, at once subtle, triumphant, and caustic.

‘Paul was such a charming man!’ his sisters would sigh.

‘He is a charming man now.’

‘Ah, but how can you say it? But is it not terrible? With all his talent! He used to play so well. Now he never plays. He never reads. He is losing his intelligence. If a man spends his whole time with ignorant peasants, it can’t be otherwise. You use your intelligence, or you lose it. What use have you of your brains if you talk, live, work, eat, sleep, with ignorance, and those who have no brains?’

And ’Uncle Paul’ rarely left without turning round and round the point of the barb in the flesh. If he stayed for dinner, he spoke fraternally to the servants as they went about the table; and, eating sparingly himself of one or two plain articles of food, he attacked the useless luxury of cookery and service.

The care-free happiness of the man, and his underlying charm, disarmed, even while he stirred up every inherited antagonism. Presently he vanished without good-byes; leaving behind him a smouldering resentment, oddly complicated by a thwarted family adoration.

By any outward test possible to apply, Paul T—— was an absolutely happy man. He was happy because he was free to live his life according to his instincts; and that, for a Russian, is always the first condition of happiness. He was happy because he had given his sense of community between the peasant and himself a concrete demonstration. With all Russians of a certain type the word compassion has a very full conceptual meaning. It is literally compassion. The feeling that the peasant belonged to the land, that he had human rights to it of which he was deprived, was a genuine passion with Paul T——. It was a passion with him to secure, so far as might be, equal title to comfort and happiness for the under-dog. Having satisfied itself, the passion had perfectly healthy reactions.

Paul T——seems in retrospect a more normal and vigorous personality than Tolstoy; and, by that much, the question of genius aside, a more representative example of a class of Russian without understanding whom it is impossible to understand Russia to-day.

The T——s were, generally speaking, an average Russian family of the large landowning, small-noble class. They were cultivated, they knew all the European capitals, they spoke three or four languages, they lived in St. Petersburg when they were not on their estates; their sons went into the Emperor’s body-guard; but they were homeloving, rather simple-minded people, neither averse to the gayeties of the world nor dependent on them; people of dignity, charm, and poise, on the whole, yet on the whole, and in the best sense, commonplace.

In spite of all this, it was clear that the vein which had shown itself in the brother who had turned muzhik did not begin and end with him. He had his explanation in an extraordinary old grandmother, whose husband had at one time been court chamberlain, who had lived always in an atmosphere of semi-barbaric show and wastage, but whose inner life apparently had been one of unceasing religious tension, and other-worldly quest. There was outwardly nothing to suggest the mystic, nothing of the Madame Swetchine, in this little old bent imperious lady, with her piercing eyes, and the stick she leaned on, that went pounding fiercely over the wooden floors. But in her own apartments, where the sacred images stood in every corner, prayers were being said, and services held, for hours at a time, the pope coming from the village and staying long into the evening. And here also, in this religious devotion, there was passion — the same intensity, not satisfied with the lukewarm and the tame, which had led the other member of the family to leave outright the life of his class.

‘Elle est morte,’ wrote her daughter when the end had come, ‘après avoir prié toute la nuit. Tout en Dieu, comme elle a vécu.’

Those were days when the blackearth belt still had its agricultural richness, impaired in latter years — days when the life of the landholders still had the full Turgeniev flavor. And how photographic had been Turgeniev’s pictures of his native Orel! It was all there. Broad-faced peasantwomen in the fields; and booted men still, on backward estates, treading in circles on the primitive threshingfloors. Manor-houses, at long intervals: some well kept-up, many neglected. Formal gardens surrounding the manorhouses, lengthening off into a park, after the manner of Versailles. Back of the park, woods — the interminable Russian woods, but here less sombre and dense, lightened by clearings and populated by oak and birch.

The woods were recklessly cut into by the landholders. At the approach of winter, it was not difficult to realize that forests would have to be felled to feed the porcelain stoves and ovens of the big houses through the coming months. There were warmth, and comfort, and a pleasant cheer inside, even in the central drawing-rooms, often of magnificent proportions. But the real Russia was outside. The feel of it was in the long flat vastness, absorbing the human beings who lived upon it; melting them into itself; explaining all sociological and religious fanaticisms.

Mystic and communistic tendencies are everywhere in Russia. It is, however, a mistake to conceive of the communism in the precise meaning that the Western nations give the word. With us, all theories tending toward the socializing of wealth presuppose some species of regulation. With Russians such matters never mean a plan, to be thought out with the head, so much as they mean a vague — one might say organic — propulsion.

The typical Russian does not crave order, system, constructiveness. He has a natural dislike of these. Not an active suspicion of them so much as a passive disinclination for them. Know a Russian well, whether in his own country or abroad, and you will find this to be true. The men and women are alike subjective; the men even more so than the women. They apprehend things with great intellectual clearness; they feel deeply multisidedly. But they seem instinctively to evade the objective precipitation of knowing and feeling into a formula. It is like condensing a nebula.

The usual Anglo-Saxon way of expressing all this is to say that Russians are not conventional. It is certainly true that they do not react to objective interests in our own fashion. The director of a great artistic enterprise which visited the United States a few years ago met attempts to interest him in many of our representative activities with thinly veiled indifference and ennui; but he sat, night after night, listening with unflagging and delighted attention to the exotic improvisations of a negro restaurant-player, beating a drum.

‘That man is a great artist,’ he said.

There was something more than the professional absorption in one’s specialty, in this selection of something to be enthusiastic about, where the whole structure of the surrounding national life obviously appeared so lacking in interest.

Again and again an educated Russian will respond in such fashion to an unexpected flash, an impression, an intuition. Most often, too, the spark strikes out of a background of inertia. An all-around and sustained interest in things at large is not characteristic of him as it is of an American.

This applies to the communistic bent of Russians as well as to everything else. While Paul T——was extreme in his methods, he was certainly not alone in his views. There have been potential Tolstoys in the Russian nobility, for decades. It is of common knowledge that the land-owning class paved the way for the Revolution. It did not pave the way in exactly the same manner that the philosophers, and the followers of Rousseau, paved it for the French Revolution. Rousseau had theories. The desire for reforms among educated Russians has always been, though they may scarcely have been conscious of the fact themselves, less a logical intellectual conviction than an état d’âme. Primarily the communism of a Tolstoy, a Paul T——, is not the development of a sense of the oneness of all men. It is rather the development of a sense of the oneness, not merely of humanity, but of Life itself.

Back of the Revolution there is a movement in the universities: the constructive element of which Miliukov is a type; and class-conscious forces that have grown up in the workshops of the cities, in the last decades. But further back than these groups are the masses of the nation. And they, whether illiterate peasants, or bourgeois, or nobility, represent Russian character. Of this character the greatest power, and also the greatest weakness, is the unwillingness to limit or restrain personality for any end whatsoever. This unwillingness, in its turn, springs from the deep, to Western nations incomprehensible, Russian sense of primordial Life.

Of course this is the secret of the spell of their literature, their music, their theatre, their dance. The Western nations have succumbed, practically without criticism, to the sincerity, the freshness, the spontaneity, of the Russian as an artist. He is richer in this field than we are; and we know it. He is more authentic. He dares so much, on that account, that we would not dare. His novels reveal the stupidities and the meannesses of his nature and ours, along with the exalted beauties, and all recorded with an equal devotion. Since it is all life, one sometimes suspects that the Russian writer finds the one, in its way, as attractive as the other. That is an Asiatic inclination; and it makes naturally for incoherence and cloudiness.

‘Man is reducing himself to his minimum in order to make amplest room for his organizations,’ says Rabindranath Tagore. That, indeed, is the keynote to the Western world; but not to Russia. That country is not interested in institutions as institutions; and it has no aptitude for building up institutions; because any sort of machinery must perforce curb the course, and trim the sail, of Life. Here again is a suggestion of the mysticism of the East.

There was an intelligent, cultivated Russian woman who pleaded for hours with her fourteen-year-old daughter to promise solemnly that she would never marry. The mother was earnest to the point of vehemence. Her own marriage appeared to be happy enough; her objection to the possible marriage of the daughter — idolized, as most Russian children of that class are — was that she would not be always and perfectly free to do as she pleased. The fear of restraint was greater than the natural conservativeness of woman where social ties are concerned. It is not at all infrequent with Russian women. But still more frequent, and not devoid of an element of the comic, is the species of terror which the men will show at the thought of feminine domination in marriage.

‘I could never think of marrying,’ said old Prince G——, ‘for I knew what my fate would be. Every Russian lives under his wife’s slipper.’

Barring an occasional outburst of terrible Asiatic temper on the part of paterfamilias, —usually soon, and contritely, repented of, — this is a fact. The Russian woman is always the stronger. She has a vitality and energy which the men seem unable to cope with. The stories of Tschaikovsky’s erratic marriage and terrified flight, like the aversion, founded on something very like fear, of Strindberg for women (Strindberg being a type of Swede that shows many Russian proclivities, even as much Russian blood has percolated into certain parts of Sweden), receive many explanatory commentaries, if one has known something of the more intimate aspects of Russian existence.

Overdeveloped individualism, and defective coördination reach through all the strata of national life. An abundance of delightful, picturesque, brilliant, and very lovable personalities — but not an organized society.

The lack of order infects the households, the domestic arrangements, where there is frequently the greatest comfort, and even opulence, mixed with the queerest makeshifts. One thinks of Madame C——, who had some beautiful unmounted pearls which she kept in a pill-box. She remains in the memory as a symbol of one of the Asiatic strains that run through this land. After all, the pearls were the important things, were they not?

If they were not so normally amiable and easy-going, one suspects that the Russians would often be very impatient with our precise Western ways: our ‘proper thing in the proper place’; our paraphernalia generally. They are more casual — without excluding a barbaric love of luxury, in certain contingencies.

Amiable they almost always are. And if they are not, it will usually be found that the deficiency is in some way connected with what they feel to be the imperious and legitimate demands of their nature, clamoring for expression. It cannot be denied that so much self-introspection and self-pity become rather disillusioning at times. Especially with Russians who do not stand at the top of the ladder, there is an almost childish insistence on fate’s unkind discriminations. The course of friendship with Russians of either sex may have some difficulties, some unexpected misunderstandings, for analogous reasons. ‘Very attractive for a time, but one grows very tired of it all,’ was the way in which one American diplomat, several years in Petrograd, summed it up.

That is one view. And there is a background for it, in the eyes of people who are of more temperate stock, and who, in the Anglo-Saxon manner, consider the ‘cheerful acceptance of the commonplace,’ which has been called the Englishman’s distinctive contribution to human ethics, the better way.

And yet there is the other view. And it is epitomized for one in an unforgettable picture of a strange funeral procession, wending its way along the roads of Central Russia toward a small white church with green cupolas. As far as the eye could reach waved the fields of yellow wheat, to a far-away horizon, level as the sea. A very young girl, scarcely more than a child, clad in white, and with unbound hair, was being borne on an open white bier, by peasants. Followed parents and friends of the child, also in white, and more peasants. Not an habitual funeral procession. But the mother of the child, whose stony face stared straight ahead, had willed it so. From the big house, built in the days of Nicholas I, after the model of the Grand Trianon, they had come; from the place where the child had been born to her final restingplace, the mother to the last refusing one concession to usage, keeping her eyes on the child’s face up to the end. And in the countenances of those following peasants there was something that understood.