If you think the bane of Russian intellectuals is the thickness of Leo Tolstoy novels (the full collection of Tolstoy’s work is 90 volumes) that they have to read to become intellectuals you are getting close, but not exactly there.
It is their infatuation with the common man. The Worker. The Peasant. The God-Fearing Redneck. The salt of the earth kind of people who grow potatoes, raise cattle, assemble cars, and, generally, apply their physical force to make tangible things that can be used in a practical way.
This love is twisted, but it has its own logic, and that logic begins with fatalism.
The vast multi-national territory of Russia can only exist as one country if held together by the physical coercion and the force of a Grand National Idea, which is meant to justify the co-existence of culturally, economically, religiously and socially polar nations, especially when the physical coercion is not readily available. This National Idea is usually a promise of some sort of Paradise for descendants of Russians who live here and now.
The Russian Idea changes with time. It used to be a promise of Russia becoming the centre of Christian Universe, then the centre of Orthodox and/or Slavic World, and then the Just Kingdom of Communism.
If the best a Russian can do is to sacrifice his or her life on the altar of the Big Idea, then people start seeing themselves as passive pawns in the hands of destiny, which is the prime symptom of fatalism.
Imagine yourself a fatalist now. Nothing really depends on you. Your clean shirt, your shiny boots, banknotes in your pocket become all consequences of a lucky sequence of events. What do you feel about people who are less lucky, despite they’ve done nothing to deserve their destiny, and who may have to work more than you to get even less?
Yeah. You start feeling a bit guilty that you’ve got your chance and they haven’t. It gets further aggravated in case you are an intellectual, who produces nothing but ideas (unlike workers who make material things!)
You want to stop feeling this guilt each time you look at them. And you decide you can channel your ideas to other people like you to create a chance for “the working classes” to get out of their unfortunate circumstances. Give them education, you say. And then you give money to a charity that sends teachers to their remote villages. Give them culture, you say. And then you start opening galleries, which no one goes to and which exist solely because they are funded by “lucky” guys like you.
In the 19th century, to have more intellectuals hop on the “help-the-man-of-labour” train, artists were dramatising miseries of the deprived. The Triplet by Vassily Perov (1866), in which he was showing three kids hauling a barrel of water through a wintry street, is a heart-breaking example:
The problem is that you can’t admit you are doing it out of guilt (which in some twisted superstitious way is also a means to protect your own good luck). You say you simply love those salt of the earth types. You love people of labour.
This love is best experienced at a distance though. You still prefer to live in those parts of the city that don’t have the types you say you love. It is not a purely Russian paradox. You can find it in London or New York. Offer an uber-liberal white guy to relocate from London’s West Hampstead to Bayswater, and watch the guy explaining why he is all for tolerance and co-existence, but never for living in that neighbourhood.
This love is 1/2 Othellian:
“She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.” (Othello)
Unlike in Othello though, the common man did not love back Russian intellectuals for the latter’s compassion to the suffering of the former. Lenin summed it up in a phrase easier to understand, branding all the intellectuals of the past as a pile of crap, towards which the working classes’ only responsibility was cleaning it away. The working classes were happy to oblige, completing the circle of HIGHER PURPOSE – FATALISM – GUILT – LOVE – GRAVEYARD.
Ilya Repin, the pinnacle of the very top of what Russian art had managed to achieve before the October Revolution of 1917 was not immune to this disease of guilt painted over by love. Think of Dostoyevsky. Think of Leo Tolstoy. Repin was an artist of the same caliber, but in the visual arts.
His first major painting was dedicated to dispossessed men earning their living by hauling barges upstream the Volga River, the longest one in Europe. It created a storm when it was first exhibited in 1873, and stayed an icon of the common man misery for the next 40 years, fueling guilt-inspired intellectual debates about the future of the Russian people.
The Barge Haulers on the Volga.
Click on it to get a large version.
Repin was telling his students that each brush-stroke must be calculated. There must be nothing “accidental” in a painting. Just like in a Nobel prize-quality novel, there would be no unnecessary scenes, characters, turns; no words that could be replaced by shorter synonyms, no metaphors meant to flaunt language mastery only.
Repin spent four years working on this painting. Not actually painting it, but working out the composition, sketching portraits, reshuffling the team of haulers again and again. There is nothing in this painting that can be left out. Everything is significant. The story of Repin working on it is a fascinating tale in itself, but we’ll skip it and go directly to the end of it, the painting itself.
So, stay tuned for Part II, which will focus on the Barge Haulers’ cleverly calculated details. These details will help us to understand Repin, who was the most important tutor of Isaac Brodsky, who will be my focus in Part III.