THE BOLSHEVIST REVOLUTION of October, 1917 , did not overthrow the Kerensky government alone, it overthrew the whole social system that was based on private property. This system had its own culture and its own official literature, and its collapse could not but be the collapse of pre-Revolutionary literature.
The nightingale of poetry, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set. The day is a time for action, but at twilight feeling and reason come to take account of what has been accomplished. The idealists and their almost deaf and blind disciples, the Russian subjectivists, thought that mind and critical reason moved the world, or, in other words, that the intelligentsia directed progress. As a matter of fact, all through history, mind limps after reality. Nor does the reactionary stupidity of the professional intelligentsia need to be proven now after our experience of the Russian Revolution. The working of this law can also be seen clearly in the field of art. The traditional identification of poet and prophet is acceptable only in the sense that the poet is about as slow in reflecting his epoch as the prophet. If there are prophets and poets who can be said to have been “ahead of their time”, it is because they have expressed certain demands of social evolution not quite as slowly as the rest of their kind.
Before even a tremor of revolutionary presentiment could pass through Russian literature at the end of the last century and the beginning of this, history had to produce the deepest changes in the basis of economics, in land tenure, in social relations, and in the feelings of the masses. There had to be the collapse of the Revolution of 1905 through its own inner contradictions, there had to be the crushing of the workers in December of that year by the Minister of the Interior, Durnovo, two Dumas  had to be dispersed, and a third formed by the Prime Minister, Stolypin, before the so-called individualists, mystics and epileptics could occupy the literary arena. A whole generation of Russian intelligentsia was formed (or rather deformed) by the efforts to conciliate monarchy, nobility and bourgeoisie, which filled the inter-revolutionary period [between the first Revolution of 1905 and that of 1917]. Social determinism does not necessarily mean conscious self-interest, but the intelligentsia and the ruling class that keeps it are like connecting vessels, and the law of levels is equally applicable here. The old radicalism and iconoclasm of the intelligentsia which during the Russo-Japanese War found expression in a defeatist state of mind, vanished quickly under the star of June 3, 1907 [when Stolypin introduced the so-called “organic reforms”]. With the metaphysical and poetical props of nearly all centuries and all peoples, and with the aid of the Fathers of the Church, the intelligentsia “self-determined” itself and proclaimed that it had its own value, regardless of its relation to the “people”. The crudeness with which it turned bourgeois was its revenge on the people for the anguish which they had inflicted on it in 1905 by their stubbornness and their lack of respect towards it. The fact, for instance, that Leonid Andreyev, the most popular, if not the most profound, artistic figure of the inter-revolutionary period, finished his career as a writer on a reactionary journal belonging to Protopopov and Amphiteatrov, is in its way a symbolic indication of the social sources of Andreyev’s symbolism. In this case, social self-determinism obviously shades off into self-interest. Under the skin of the subtlest individualism, of the unhurried mystic searchings of a well-bred weltschmerz, the fat of bourgeois reconciliation to reactionary forces was being deposited. This became manifest in the common patriotic doggerel which our writers began to turn out at once, when the “organic” development of the “reform” regime of June 3rd was upset by the catastrophe of the World War.
The strain of the War, however, proved to be too great, not only for the poetry of the regime of June 3rd, but for its social foundations as well; the military collapse of that regime broke the spine of the inter-revolutionary intelligentsia. Leonid Andreyev, feeling that his plot of ground, which had been so solid and on which had been planted his tower of glory, was disappearing under his feet, tried, by shouting and heaving and foaming at the mouth and waving of hands, to save this and to defend that.
Regardless of the lesson of 1905, the intelligentsia still cherished the hope of reestablishing its spiritual and political hegemony over the masses. The War strengthened it in this illusion. Patriotic ideology was the psychological cement for this, the cement which the new religious consciousness, scrofulous from the day of its birth, could not produce and which the vague symbolism did not attempt to produce. The democratic Revolution of March, 1917, which grew out of the War, and which ended the War, gave the greatest impetus, though only for a short time, to a revival on the part of the intelligentsia of the idea of Messianism. But the March Revolution was its last historic flare. The smoldering wick began to smell of Kerenskyism.
Then came the October Revolution – a landmark that is more significant than the history of the intelligentsia, and which at the same time marks its unqualified defeat. Yet despite its defeat, and its being crushed to earth by the sins of its past, it raved loudly of its glory. In its mind, the world was completely turned upside down. It was the born representative of the people. In its hands lay the pharmacopoeia of history. The Bolsheviks operated with Chinese and Letts. They could not last long against the people.
The New Year’s toasts of the émigré intelligentsia were on this theme: “In Moscow, within a year!” What vicious foolishness – what floundering! It soon became evident that it was really impossible to rule against the will of the people, but that it was not impossible to rule against émigré intellectuals, and even to rule successfully, quite independently of which émigreé one meant, the external or the internal.
The pre-Revolutionary ripple at the beginning of the century, the unsuccessful first revolution in 1905, the tense but unstable equilibrium of the counter-revolution, the eruption of the War, the prologue of March, 1917, the October drama – all these struck the intelligentsia heavily and continuously, as with a battering-ram. Where was there time to assimilate facts, to recreate them into images, and to find for these images expression in words? True, there is The Twelve by Blok, and there are several works of Mayakovsky. They are something – a hint – a modest deposit, but not a payment on the account of history – not even the beginning of a payment. Art showed a terrifying helplessness, as always in the beginning of a great epoch. The poets, uncalled to the holy sacrifice, proved themselves, as was to be expected, the most insignificant of all insignificant children of the earth. Symbolists, Parnassians, Acméists, who had flown above social interests and passions, as if in the clouds, found themselves in Ekaterinodar with the Whites, or on the Defense Staff of Marshal Pilsudski. Inspired by a mighty Wrangell passion, they anathematized us in verse and in prose.
The more sensitive ones, and, to some extent, the more cautious ones, were silent. Marietta Shaginyan tells an interesting story how, in the first months of the Revolution, she became active on the Don, in the rôle of a teacher of weaving. She had not only to go away from the writing table to the loom, but to go away from herself too, in order to lose herself entirely. Others plunged into the Proletkult [the organization for proletarian culture], into the Politprosviet [the Department of Political Education], or did museum work, and so sat through the most tragic and terrible events that the world had ever lived through. The years of revolution became the years of almost utter poetic silence. Nor was this entirely because of the lack of paper. If poetry could not have been printed then, it could be printed now. Nor was it necessary for such poetry to have been for the Revolution; it could have been against. We know the émigré literature, – it is a complete zero. But even our own literature has not given us anything that could measure up to the times.
Literature after October, 1917, wished to pretend that nothing especial had happened and that this period in general did not concern it. But it came to pass that somehow October began to assert itself in literature, to order and manage it, and not only administratively, but in a deeper sense, too. A significant portion of the old literature found itself, and not accidentally so, across the border, and thus it happened that, in a literary sense, it became nonexistent. Does Bunin exist? One cannot say that Merezhkovsky has ceased to exist since he had never been. Or Kuprin, or Balmont, or even Chirikov? Or the magazine Zhar Ptitza or the Spolokhi almanacs or the other editions, whose most significant literary feature consists in retaining the old orthography. They are all, without exception, as in Chekov’s story, scribblings in the complaint-book of the Berlin Railway Station. It will take a long time before the horses will be got ready for Moscow, and the passengers express their emotions in the meantime. In the provincial Spolokhi almanacs, belles-lettres is represented by Nemirovich-Danchenko, Amphiteatrov, Chirikov, Pervukhin, and other stately dead – supposing they have ever been born. Alexey Tolstoi shows some signs of life, though not very strong ones, but for this he is excluded from the magic circle of the preservers of the old orthography, and from all the rest of that retired clique of drum-bangers.
Here is a little lesson in practical sociology on the theme that it is impossible to cheat history. Well then – let us take up the subject of violence. The land was taken, the factories were taken, the bank deposits were taken, safes were opened; but what about talents, ideas? Were not these imponderable values exported abroad and in quantities terrifying to Russian culture, and especially to its amiable psalm-singer, Gorky? Why didn’t something come of all this? Why can’t the émigré name one name or one book worth lingering on? Because one cannot cheat history or true culture (not the psalm-singer’s). October entered into the destinies of the Russian people, as a decisive event, and gave to everything its own meaning and its own value. The past receded at once, faded and drooped, and art can be revived only from the point of view of October. He who is outside of the October perspective is utterly and hopelessly reduced to nothing, and it is therefore that the wiseacres and poets, who do not “agree with this” or whom “this does not concern”, are nobodies. They simply have nothing to say. For this, and for no other reason, émigré literature does not exist. And what is not, cannot be judged.
In the death-like distintegration of the émigré there was evolved a certain polished type of mocking cynic. All currents and tendencies entered into his blood, like a bad disease which immunized him against further infection from ideas. A perfect example of this type is the unembarrassed Vetlugin. Perhaps someone knows how he began. But that is unessential. His little books The Third Russia, Heroes are evidence that the author read, saw and heard various and sundry things, and can push a pen (manier la plume). He starts his little book almost with an elegy over the lost and most subtle souls of the intelligentsia, and ends it with an ode to the speculating bagman [those who went to the villages with bags to trade for food and speculated illegally]. This bagman, it seems, is going to be the master of the coming Third Russia. And that is going to be the real Russia, sincere, on the defense for private property, and growing rich and merciless in its greed. Vetlugin, who was with the Whites, and who rejected them when they lost out, advances his candidacy with foresight as the ideologist of this bagman’s Russia. In the sense of determining his avocation, this is clever. But what about the Third Russia? Whichever way you take it, the knave of clubs, alas! creeps out unmistakably from his clear-cut style. His first book was written approximately at the time of the Kronstadt uprising against the Soviets (1921), and Vetlugin thought that Soviet Russia was done for. But after a short number of months, the expected did not happen, and Vetlugin, if ‘we are not mistaken, finds himself now with the “Changing Landmarks” group [with those who have accepted the Bolshevist Revolution as a landmark in the national development of Russia, and have made peace with it]. But this is all the same. He is fundamentally protected by cynicism from any conceptual waverings, even from backsliding. Let us add that Vetlugin is also writing a cheap novel with the suggestive title, Memoirs of a Scoundrel – and of such there are not a few, only Vetlugin is the most brilliant of them. They even lie disinterestedly, because they have lost interest in distinguishing truth from lies. Perhaps they are the real dregs of the “second” Russia, which is awaiting the “third”.
On a higher plane, but weaker, stands Aldanov. He is more of a Constitutional Democrat, and therefore more of a Pharisee. Aldanov belongs to those wise ones who have assumed a tone of higher skepticism (not cynicism, oh no!). Rejecting progress, these people are ready to accept Viko’s childish theory of historic cycles. In general, no people are more superstitious than skeptics. The Aldanovs are not mystics in the full sense of the word. That is, they do not have their own positive mythology, but their political skepticism gives them an excuse to regard all political manifestation from the point of view of eternity. This is conducive to a special style, with a very aristocratic lisp.
The Aldanovs take almost seriously their great superiority over revolutionists in general, and over communists in particular. It seems to them that we do not understand what they understand. Revolution is to them the result of the fact that not all of the intelligentsia has passed through that school of political skepticism and literary style which forms the spiritual capital of the Aldanovs.
In their leisure they counted the formal and real contradictions in the speeches and statements of the Soviet leaders (and can they be imagined without contradictions?); the wrongly constructed sentences and editorials of Pravda (and of such sentences it must be admitted there are many enough), and as a result the word stupidity (ours) in contrast to sense (theirs) colors their written pages. It is true they were blind to history, foresaw nothing, lost their power and with it their capital, but all this is explained by other reasons, and chiefly, entre nous, by the vulgar character of the Russian people. But above all, the Aldanova consider themselves stylists, because they overcame the mushy sentences of Miliukov and the arrogant and legalistic phraseology of Hessen, his associate. Their style, simply coy, without accent or character, is suited most admirably for the literary use of people who have nothing to say. Their self-sufficient manner of speech, void of content, their worldliness of mind and style, which was unknown to our old intelligentsia, was already being developed in the inter-revolutionary period (1907-1917). And now, in addition, they have noticed something in Europe, and they are writing booklets. They are ironical, they reminisce, they pretend to yawn somewhat; but, out of politeness, suppress the yawn. They quote in various tongues, make skeptical predictions and immediately deny them. At first this appears amusing, then boring, and in the end disgusting. What charlatanism of impudent phrases, what bookish philandering, what spiritual flunkeyism!
But all the moods of the Vetlugins, Aldanovs and others are expressed best of all in the form of an amiable poem by a certain Don Aminado, who is living in Paris:
And who can guarantee that the ideal is true?
As we see, the Spaniard is not proud. Forward, General! The generals (and even the admirals) went forward. The trouble was, they never arrived.
But on our side of the frontier there remained a goodly number of pre-October writers akin to those on the other side, internal émigréof the Revolution. Pre-October will sound to the future historian of culture just as ponderous as is to us the word medieval when contrasted with modern history. October appeared very sincerely to the majority of those who adhered to pre-October culture on principle, as an invasion of the Hun from whom they had to flee to the catacombs with the so-called “torches of knowledge and faith”. However, those who hid themselves and those who, having fenced themselves off, stand aloof, have not said a new word. It is true that pre-October or non-October literature in Russia is more significant than that of the émigré. But it is only a survival, struck with impotence.
So many books of poetry have appeared, many bearing well-sounding names. They have small pages and short lines, none of which are bad. They are connected into poems where there is quite a little art, and even an echo of a once-existent feeling, – yet taken altogether these books are completely and entirely superfluous to a modern post-October man, like a glass bead to a soldier on the battlefield. The gem of this literature of renunciation, of this literature of discarded thoughts and feelings, is the fat, well-meaning almanac Streletz, where poems, articles and letters by Sologub, Rozanov, Belenson, Kuzmin, Hollerbakh and others, are printed and to the quantity of three hundred numbered copies. A novel of Roman life, letters about the erotic cult of the bull Apis, an article about St. Sophia, the Earthly and the Heavenly; three hundred numbered copies – what hopelessness, what desolation! It were better to curse and rage! That, at least, would resemble life.
“And swiftly you will be driven to the old stable with a club, 0 people, disrespectful of holy things.” (Hippius, Last Poems, 1914-1918.) This, of course, is not poetry, but nevertheless, what natural journalism! What an inimitable slice of life is this effort of the decadent mystic poetess to wield a club (in iambics!). When Hippius threatens the people with her whips “for eternity”, she is, of course, exaggerating, if she wants it to be understood that her curses will shatter hearts in the course of the ages. But through this exaggeration, fully excusable under the circumstances, one can see her nature quite clearly. Only yesterday she was a Petrograd lady, languid, decorated with talents, liberal, modern. Suddenly today, this lady, so full of her own subtleties, sees the black outrageous ingratitude on the part of the mob “in nailed boots”, and, offended in her holy of holies, transforms her impotent rage into a shrill womanish squeak (in iambics). And indeed, if her squeak will not shatter hearts, it will arouse interest. A hundred years hence the historian of the Russian Revolution will perhaps point out how a nailed boot stepped on the lyrical little toe of a Petrograd lady, who immediately showed the real property-owning witch under her decadent-mystic-erotic Christian covering. Because of the real witch in Zinaida Hippius, her poems tower above the others and are more perfect, though they are more “neutral” and therefore dead.
When you find among so many “neutral” booklets and pamphlets The House of Miracles by Irene Odoevtzeva, then you can almost make peace with the falsity of the modernized romanticism of salamanders, of knights, of bats, of the dying moon, for the sake of the two or three stories reflecting the cruel life of the Soviet. Here is a ballad about an isvostckik whom the Commissar Zen drove to death, together with his horse; a story about a soldier who sold salt mixed with ground glass, and finally a ballad on how the water mains were polluted in Petrograd. Their patterns are on a small scale, and ought to please Cousin George and Aunt Nan very much. But for all that, they show a tiny reflection of life, and are not merely belated echoes of melodies sung long ago and recorded in encyclop~dias. And for a moment we are ready to join with Cousin George. They are very, very nice poems; go on, Mademoiselle!
We are not talking only about those “old ones” who have survived October. There is a group of young litterateurs and poets who are non-October. I am not very sure how young these young ones are. But, at any rate, in the pre-Revolutionary and pre-war period they were either beginners, or had not yet begun. They write stories, novels, poems, with the unindividualized art which was customary not so very long ago, in order to receive the recognition which was customary. The Revolution crushed their hopes, (“the nailed boot”). They make believe, as much as they can, that nothing, in fact, has happened, and voice their wounded arrogance in their unindividualized verses and prose. But from time to time they relieve their souls by secretly thumbing their noses.
The master of this whole group is Zamyatin, the author of The Islanders. Properly speaking, his theme is about the English. Zamyatin knows them and paints them not badly, in a series of sketches, but very externally, like an observant and gifted, but not very exacting, foreigner. But between the same covers, he has sketches about Russian “islanders”, about the intelligentsia who live on an island in the strange and hostile ocean of Soviet reality. Zamyatin is more subtle in these sketches, but not deeper. After all, the author is an “islander” himself, and lives on a very small island at that, to which he migrated from the present Russia. And whether Zamyatin writes about the Russians in London, or about the English in Leningrad, he himself undoubtedly remains an internal émigré. By his somewhat strained style, in which he expresses his particular literary gentlemanliness (bordering on snobbism), Zamyatin is as if cut out to be a teacher to groups of young, enlightened and sterile “islanders”. 
The most indisputable “islanders” are the members of the Moscow Art Theater group. They do not know what to do with their high technique, nor with themselves. They consider all that is happening around them as hostile, or, at any rate, strange. Just imagine: these people are living, to this day, in the mood of the Chekhov Theater. The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya today! In order to wait for the bad weather to pass – bad weather does not last long – they played The Daughter of Madame Angot, which, apart from everything else, gave them a little chance to show off their opposition to the Revolutionary authorities. Now they disclose to the blase European and to the all-paying American how beautiful was the cherry orchard of old feudal Russia, and how subtle and languid were its theaters. What a noble moribund cast from a jewel theater! Does not also the very gifted Akhmatova belong here?
The “Poets’ Guild” is made up of the most enlightened composers of poetry; they know geography, they can distinguish the rococo from the Gothic, they express themselves in the French tongue, and they are to the highest degree adepts of culture. They think, and rightly so, that “our culture has still a weak childish lisp” (George Adamovich). Superficial veneer does not buy them. “Polish cannot take the place of real culture.” (George Ivanov.) Their taste is sufficiently exact to feel that Oscar Wilde is, after all, a snob and not a poet, in which it is impossible not to agree with them. They have contempt for those who do not value “a school”, that is, a discipline, a knowledge, a struggling forward, and to such a sin we are no strangers. They revise their poems very carefully. Several of them, for example Otsup, have talent. Otsup is a poet of reminiscences, of dreams and of fears. At every step he falls through into the past. The only thing that opens up the “happiness of life” for him is memory. “I have even found a place for myself; a poet observer and a bourgeois saving my life from death,” he says, with tender irony about himself. But his fear is in no way hysterical, it is almost a balanced fear, that of a self-possessed European, and, what is really comforting, it is an entirely cultivated fear, without any mystic twitches. But why does their poetry never flower? Because they are not the creators of life, they do not participate in the creation of its sentiments and moods, they are only tardy skimmers, left-overs of a culture created by the blood of others. They are imitators, educated and even exquisite; they’re imitators of sound, well read and even gifted; but nothing more.
Under the mask of being a citizen of the civilized world, the nobleman Versilov was, in his time, the most enlightened sponger on foreign culture. He had a taste that had been cultivated by several generations of the nobility. He felt almost at home in Europe. He looked down with condescension or malicious contempt on the radical seminarist, who quoted Pisarev or who pronounced French with the accents of a pastry-cook, and whose manners – well, we had better not speak of manners. And none the less, this seminarist of the ’sixties and his successor of the ’seventies were the builders of Russian culture at the time when Versilov had already definitely revealed himself as a most futile culture-skimmer.
The Russian Constitutional Democrats, who are the belated bourgeois liberals of the beginning of the Twentieth Century, are thoroughly imbued with respect and even “awe” for culture, for its stable foundations, for its style, and for its aroma, but in themselves are nothing more than empty zeros. Look back and measure the sincere contempt with which these Constitutional Democrats regarded Bolshevism from the height of their professional-lawyer-writer’s culture, and compare it with the contempt which history has shown for these very same Constitutional Democrats. What is the matter? Because, as in the case of Versilov, only translated into a bourgeois professorial tongue, the culture of the Constitutional Democrats proved to be wholly a belated reflection of foreign cultures on the superficial soil of Russian social life. Liberalism meant, in the history of the West, a mighty movement against heavenly and earthly authorities, and in the heat of its revolutionary struggle it heightened both material and spiritual culture. France, such as we know her, with her cultivated folk, with perfected forms, and with the politeness which has become absorbed in the blood of the masses, came out as she is, molded in the furnace of several revolutions. The “barbaric” process of dislocations, of upheavals, of catastrophes, has left its deposits in the present-day French language, with its strength and weaknesses, its exactness and its inflexibility, – and in the styles of French art also. In order to again give flexibility and malleability to the French tongue, another great revolution, let us say in passing, is needed (not in the language, but in the social life of France). Such a revolution is also needed to elevate French art, so conservative in all its innovations, to another higher plane.
But our own Constitutional Democrats, those belated imitators of liberalism, tried to skim from history, free of charge, the cream of parliamentarism, of cultured courtesy, of balanced art (on the solid basis of profits and rents). To examine the individual or group styles of Europe, to think them over or even to absorb them, in order afterwards to show in all of these styles that they have really nothing to say, is what Adamovich, Iretzky, and many of the others, are good for. But this is not creating culture, it is merely skimming its cream.
When some Constitutional Democratic asthete makes a long journey in a cattle car, and then tells about it, muttering through his teeth, how he, a most educated European, with the very best false teeth and the most exact knowledge of the technique of the Egyptian ballet, was reduced by the vulgar Revolution to the necessity of traveling with lousy bagmen, a feeling of physical disgust rises in your throat against the false teeth, the aesthetics of the ballet, and against all this culture stolen from the shelves of Europe in general. A conviction begins to grow that the very least louse of the ragged bagman is more significant in the mechanism of history, that is, is more needed, than this thoroughly cultivated and utterly futile egoist.
In the period before the War, before these culture-skimmers had risen on all fours to howl patriotically, a journalistic style had begun to develop in our midst. True, Miliukov still continued long-windedly to mumble and scribble professorial-parliamentary editorials and his associate-editor Hessen served up the best Samples of divorce proceedings. But, in general, we were beginning to unlearn our traditional and domestic slipshod ways through the respectable lean and Lenten fat of the Russkiya Viedomosti. This tiny stylistic progress in journalism in the manner of Europe (which was paid for, by the way, with the blood of the Revolution of 1905, from which came the parties and the Duma), was drowned leaving hardly a trace of itself in the waves of the Revolution of 1905. The Constitutional Democrats who are living abroad today, divorced or otherwise, point most maliciously to the literary weakness of the Soviet press. And truly, we write badly, stylelessly, imitatively, even after the manner of the Russkiya Viedomosti. Does that mean that we have regressed? No, it means a transition period between the skimming imitation of progress, between the hired lawyer’s claptrap, and the great cultural movement forward of a whole people which, given but a little time, will create for itself its own style, in journalism as well as in everything else.
Then there is still another category, the Ralliés. This is a term from French politics, and means “they who have joined”. The former Royalists who made peace with the Republic were thus called. They gave up the struggle for the King, and even their hope in him, and loyally translated their royalism into Republican language. There was hardly one among them who could have written the Marseillaise, even if it had never been written before. It is to be doubted whether they sang the strophes against tyrants with enthusiasm. But these Ralliés live and let live. There are a number of such Ralliés among the present-day poets, artists and actors. They do not libel and they do not curse; on the contrary, they accept the state of affairs, but in general terms and “without assuming any responsibility”. Where it is seemly, they are diplomatically silent, or loyally pass things by, and in general they are patient, and take part, as much as they are able. I am not referring to the “Changing Landmarks” group – the latter have their own ideology. I am speaking merely of the pacified Philistines of art, its ordinary civil servants, often not ungifted. Such Ralliés we find everywhere, even among portrait painters; they paint “Soviet” portraits and sometimes great artists do the painting. They have experience, technique, everything. Yet somehow the portraits are not good likenesses. Why? Because the artist has no inner interest in his subjects, no spiritual kinship, and he paints a Russian or a German Bolshevik as he used to paint a carafe or a turnip for the Academy, and even more neutrally, perhaps.
I do not name names, because they form a whole class. These Ralliés will not snatch the Polar Star from the heavens, nor invent smokeless powder; but they are useful and necessary, and will be the manure for the new culture. And this is not so little.
The castrated state of non-October art is evident in the fate of the intellectualist and religious searchings and findings which have “fertilized” the main currents of pre-revolutionary literature, that is, Symbolism. A few words about this are in place here.
The intelligentsia moved at the beginning of the century from materialism and “positivism”, and even to some extent from Marxism, through critical philosophy (Kantism), to mysticism. In the inter-revolutionary years, this new religious consciousness flickered and smoldered with many dull fires. At present, however, when the rock of official orthodoxy has been seriously moved from its place, these parlor-mystics, each one queer in his own way, are depressed and hang their tails, for the new scale of things is too big for them. Without the help of parlor prophets and journalistic saints, who were formerly Marxists, even against all the opposition that was in them, the waves of the revolutionary tide rolled up to the very walls of the Russian church which knew no reformation. She defended herself against history by a hard immobility of form, by automatic ritual, and by governmental support. She had bowed very low before Tsarism, and she held her own almost unchanged several years longer than her autocratic ally and protector. But her turn came, too. The “Changing Landmark” tendency in the church, renovating as it is, is a belated attempt at a bourgeois reformation, under the guise of adaptation to the Soviet state. Our political revolution was completed – and this even against the wish of the bourgeoisie – only a few months before the Revolution of the working-classes. The reformation of the church began almost four years after the proletarian upheaval. If the “Living Church” sanctions a social revolution, it is only because it seeks protective coloring. A proletarian church is impossible. The church reformation is pursuing essentially bourgeois aims, such as the liberation of the church from the medieval unwieldiness of caste, the substitution of a more individualized relation to the heavenly hierarchy for the mimicry of ritual and Shamanism; in a word, the general aim of giving to religion and to the church a greater flexibility and adaptability. In the first four years the church fenced herself off from the proletarian Revolution by a somber defensive conservatism. Now she is going over to the NEP [the New Economic Policy]. If the Soviet NEP is a mating of socialist economy with capitalism, then the church NEP is a bourgeois grafting on to the feudal stem. The recognition of the workers’ rule is dictated, as was said before, by the law of imitation.
But the tottering of the age-old structure of the church has begun. To the left – the “Living Church” also has its left wing – more radical voices are being raised. Still more to the left are the radical sects. A naive rationalism which is only just awakening is breaking up the soil for atheistic and materialistic seeds. An era of great upheavals and downfalls has arrived in this kingdom, that had announced itself not of this world. Where now is the “new religious consciousness”? Where are the prophets and reformers from the Leningrad and Moscow literary parlors and circles? Where is anthroposophy? There is no sound or breath of them. The poor mystic homeopaths feel like petted house-cats thrown at high flood on the breaking ice. The heavy-headed aftermath of the first Revolution brought forth their “new religious consciousness”, and the second Revolution crushed it.
Berdayev, for instance, still accuses those who do not believe in God, and who do not bother themselves about a future life, of being bourgeois. This is really amusing. This writer’s brief connection with the Socialists left him with the word “bourgeoisdom” with which he is now beating off the Soviet anti-Christ. The trouble is that the Russian workers are not religious at all, but the bourgeoisie have become believers in toto – after losing their estates. Here lies one of the many inconveniences of revolution, that it bares to the very bottom the social sources of ideology.
In this way, the “new religious consciousness” vanished, leaving, however, quite a few traces of itself in literature. A whole generation of poets who had accepted the Revolution of 1905 as a Saint John’s Night, and who had singed their delicate wings in its bonfires, began to introduce the heavenly hierarchy into their rhythms. They were joined by the inter-revolutionary youth. But, just as the poets, following a bad tradition, used to turn formerly at difficult moments to nymphs, Pan, Mars, and Venus, so here Olympus was nationalized under the aegis of poetic form. After all, whether it was to be a Mars or a Saint George, depended upon whether they had to fit a trochee or an iambus. Undoubtedly many, or at least some, hid their experiences, which were mostly fear, under this. Then came the War, which dissolved the intelligentsia’s fear into a general feverish anxiety. Later came the Revolution, which thickened this fear into panic. What was to be expected? To whom could it turn? To what could it cling? Nothing but the Church Calendar, nothing else remained. Very few are eager now to stir the new religious liquid which had been distilled before the War in the Berdayev and other pharmacies, for they who have the mystic urge simply cross themselves with the cross of their forefathers. The Revolution scrubbed and washed off the personal tattooing, disclosing the traditional, the tribal, that thing which had been received with the mother’s milk, and which had not been dissolved by critical reason becauser of its weakness and cowardice. In poetry, Jesus is never absent. And the robe of the Virgin is the most popular poetic texture in an age of a textile machinery industry.
One reads with dismay most of the poetic collections, especially those of the women. Here, indeed, one cannot take a step without God. The lyric circle of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Radlova, and other real and near-poetesses, is very small. It embraces the poetess herself, an unknown one in a derby or in spurs, and inevitably God, without any special marks. He is a very convenient and portable third person, quite domestic, a friend of the family who fulfills from time to time the duties of a doctor of female ailments. How this individual, no longer young, and burdened with the personal and too often bothersome errands of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and others, can manage in his spare time to direct the destinies of the universe, is simply incomprehensible. For Schkapskaya, who is so organic, so biologic, so gynecologic (Schkapskaya’s talent is real), God is something in the nature of a go-between and a midwife; that is, he has the attributes of an all-powerful scandal-monger. And if a subjective note may be permitted here, we willingly concede that if this feminine wide-hipped God is not very imposing, he is far more sympathetic than the incubated chick of mystic philosophy beyond the stars.
How can one not come, finally, to the conclusion that the normal head of an educated Philistine is a dustbin in which history in passing throws the shell and the husk of its various achievements? Here is the apocalypse – Voltaire and Darwin, and the psalm-book, and comparative philology, and two times two, and the waxed candle. A shameful hash much lower than the ignorance of the cave. Man, “the king of nature” who infallibly wants to “serve”, wags his tail and sees in this the voice of his “immortal soul”! But on examination, the so-called soul represents an “organ”, far less perfect and harmonious than the stomach or the kidney, because the “immortal” has many rudimentary appendices and blind sacs which are clogged up by every kind of putrid dreg, continually causing itch and spiritual ulcer. Sometimes they erupt into rhythmic lines; the latter are then handed out as individualistic and mystic poetry and printed in neat booklets.
But nothing, perhaps, has revealed so intimately and so convincingly the desolation and decay of the individualism of the intelligentsia as the present-day wholesale canonizing of Rozanov – a “genius” philosopher, a seer, a poet and a knight of the spirit as well. Yet Rozanov was a notorious rascal, a coward, a sponger, and a lick-spittle. And this was his very essence. His talent lay within the boundaries of this essence.
When the “genius” of Rozanov is spoken of, it is chiefly his revelations in the field of sex that are emphasized. But if some one of his admirers would try to bring together and to systematize what Rozanov said in his peculiar language, adapted to omissions and ambiguities, about the influence of sex on poetry, on religion, on government, he would get something very meager and very little that is new. The Austrian psycho-analytic school (Freud, Jung, Albert Adler and others) made an immeasurably greater contribution to the question of the role of the sex-element in the forming of individual character and of social consciousness. In fact, there can be no comparsion here. Even the most paradoxical exaggerations of Freud are much more significant and fertile than the broad surmises of Rozanov who constantly falls into intentional half-wittedness, or simple babble, repeats himself, and lies for two.
However, one has to admit that those external and internal émigrés who are not ashamed to praise Rozanov and to bow before him, have hit the nail on the head; in his spiritual sponging, in his flunkeyism, in his cowardice, Rozanov only carried to the logical conclusion their fundamental spiritual traits – cowardice before life, and cowardice before death.
A certain Victor Khovin – the theorist of Futurism, or whatever he is, assures us that Rozanov’s vulgar changeability was the result of the most complex and subtle causes; that if Rozanov ran to the Revolution (1905) without leaving, by the way, the reactionary newspaper Novoe Vremya, and then turned to the right, it was only because he was frightened for the manifested superman stuff and nonsense in him, and if he went as far as carrying out the Minister of Justice’s orders (in the Beiliss ritual case], and if he wrote at the same time in the Novoe Vremya in a reactionary way and in the Russkoe Slovo under a pseudonym in a liberal, and if he served as a go-between to entice young writers to Suvorin, this was all only because of the complexity and the depth of his spiritual nature. These silly and driveling apologetics would at least have been a little more convincing if Rozanov had come nearer to the Revolution at the time of its persecution, in order afterwards to withdraw from it at the time of its victory. But this is the very thing that Rozanov did not do and could not have done. lie sang of the catastrophe at the Khodynka field (at the coronation of Nicholas II] as a purifying sacrifice in an era when the reactionary Pobedonostzev was triumphant. The Constituent Assembly and the Terror, all that which was most revolutionary, he accepted in the October period of 1905 when the young Revolution seemed to have thrown to the ground the powers that were. After the 3rd of June, 1907, he sang of the men of June 3rd. At the time of the Beiliss trial he tried to prove the use of Christian blood by Jews for religious purposes. Not long before his death he wrote with his habitual grimace of the simpleton that the Jews were the “first people on earth”, which naturally was not much better than what he had done at the Beiliss trial, though from the opposite direction. The truest and most consistent thing in Rozanov is his worm-like wriggling before power. A wormish man and a writer; a wriggling, slippery, sticky worm, contracting and stretching according to need, and like a worm, disgusting. Rozanov called the orthodox church unceremoniously – in his own circle, of course – a dung heap. But he kept to the ritual (out of cowardice and for any eventuality) and when he came to die he took communion five times – also for any eventuality. He was under-handed with heaven as with his publisher and his reader.
Rozanov sold himself publicly for pieces of silver. His philosophy was in accordance with this and was so adapted. And so was his style. He was the poet of the cozy corner, of a lodging with all comforts. Making fun of teachers and prophets, he invariably taught that the most important thing in life is the soft, the warm, the fat, the sweet. The intelligentsia in the last few decades was rapidly becoming bourgeois and was leaning very much to the soft and the sweet, but at the same time it was embarrassed by Rozanov as a young bourgeois is embarrassed by a loose cocotte who imparts her knowledge publicly. But in essence, Rozanov always belonged to it, and now when the old partitions within “educated” society have lost all meaning as well as decency, the figure of Rozanov assumes titanic proportions in their eyes. And today they are united in a cult of Rozanov; among them are the theorists of Futurism (Shklovsky, Khovin) and Remizov, and the Dreamers-Anthroposophists, and the unimaginative Joseph Hessen, the former rights and the former lefts! “Hosanna to the hanger-on! He taught us how to like sweets, and we dreamed of the albatross and lost all. And here we have been left behind by history – and without sweets.”
A catastrophe, whether it be personal or social, is always a great touchstone, because it infallibly reveals the true personal or social connections, not the showy ones. And so owing to October, pre-October art, which became almost entirely anti-October, showed its indissoluble connection with the governing classes of old Russia. This is so clear now that one does not even have to touch it with one’s hands. The landlord, the capitalist, the military and civil general, went into the emigration together with their lawyer and their poet. And they all decided that culture had perished. Certainly the poet had considered himself independent of the bourgeois, and had even quarreled with him, But when the problem was put with revolutionary earnestness, then the poet immediately revealed himself a hanger-on to the marrow of his bones. This history lesson in the “free” art developed parallel with the lesson concerning the other “freedoms” of democracy – that same democracy which swept and mopped after Yudenich. In modern history art, both individual and professional, in contrast to the old, collective folk art, flourished in the abundance and in the leisure of the governing classes, and remained in their keeping. The element of keeping which was almost intangible when social relations were undisturbed, was bared in all its crudity when the ax of the Revolution cut down the old props.
The psychology of hanging-on and of being kept is not at all equivalent to that of submission, politeness or respectfulness. On the contrary, it implies very severe scenes, outbursts, differences, threats of a full break – but only threats. Foma Fomich Opiskin, the classic type of old noble hanger-on, found himself almost always “with psychology” in a state of domestic insurrection. But if I remember rightly, he never got farther than the barn. This is very crude, of course, and in any case, it is impolite to compare Opiskin with the Academicians and the near classics: Bunin, Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Hippius, Kotlyarevsky, Zaitzev, Zamyatin, and others. But you have to sing the song of history as it is. They have revealed themselves kept ones and hangers-on. And though some of them manifest this trait in violent ways, the majority of the internal émigré, partly because of circumstances over which they have no control, and mainly, one must think, because of their temperament, are merely sad that their state of being kept has been cut at the root, and their melancholy peters out into reminiscences and into retold experiences.
The inter-revolutionary (1905-1917) literature, which is decadent in its mood and reach and over-refined in its technique, which is a literature of individualism, of symbolism and of mysticism, finds in Biely its most condensed expression, and through Biely was most loudly destroyed by October. Biely believes in the magic of words. It is permitted to say about him, therefore, that his very pen-name testifies to his antithesis to the Revolution, for the greatest fighting period of the Revolution passed in the struggle between Red and White. 
Biely’s memoirs of Blok, which are amazing in their meaningless detail and in their arbitrary mosaic of psychology, make one feel ten-fold to what an extent they are people of another epoch, of another world, of a past epoch, of an unreturnable world. This is not a question of the difference in generations, for they are people of our own generation, but of the difference in social make-up, in spiritual type, in historic roots. For Biely, “Russia is a large meadow, green, like [Tolstoi’s] Yasnaya-Polyana or [Blok’s] Shakhmatov estate”. In this image of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia, as a green meadow, as a Yasnaya-Polyana and Shakhmatov meadow at that, one feels how deep is buried the old Russia, the landlord and official Russia, or at best a Russia of Turgenev and of Goncharov. How astronomically remote this is from us, how good it is that it is remote, and what a jump through the ages from this to October!
Whether it be the Bezhin meadow of Turgenev, or the Shakhmatov one of Blok, or Tolstoi’s Yasnaya-Polyana, or the Oblomov one of Goncharov, it is an image of peace and vegetating harmony. Biely’s roots are in the past. But where is the old harmony now? On the contrary, everything seems shaken up to Biely, everything is aslant, everything is thrown out of equilibrium. To him, the peace of a Yasnaya-Polyana has not been changed into dynamics, but into excitements and a jumping up and down in one spot. Biely’s apparent dynamics mean only a running around and a struggling on the mounds of a disappearing and disintegrating old regime. His verbal twists lead nowhere. He has no hint of ideal revolutionism. In his core he is a realistic and spiritual conservative who has lost the ground under his feet and is in despair. The Memoirs of a Dreamer, a journal inspired by Blok, is a union of a despairing realist whose chimney smokes, and of an intellectual who is used to spiritual comforts, and who, without a Shakhmatov meadow, cannot even bring himself to dream of a life beyond. This “dreamer” Biely, whose feet are on the ground and whose underpinnings are those of a landlord and of a bureaucrat, is only puffing rings of smoke around himself.
Torn from the pivot of custom and individualism, Biely wishes to replace the whole world with himself, to build everything from himself and through himself, to discover everything anew in himself – but his works, with all their different artistic values, invariably represent a poetic or spiritualist sublimation of the old customs. And that is why, in the final analysis, this servile preoccupation with oneself, this apotheosis of the ordinary facts of one’s personal and spiritual routine, become so unbearable in our age where mass and speed are really making a new world. If one is to write with so much ritual of the meeting with Blok, how is one to write about great events which affect the destinies of nations?
In Biely’s recollections of his infancy (Kotik Lotaev) there are interesting moments of lucid psychology, not always artistically correct, but frequently internally convincing, yet his connecting them together with occult discussions, his make-belief profundities, his piling up of images and words, make them futile and utterly tiresome. With his knees and elbows, Biely tries to squeeze his childish soul through into the world beyond. The traces of his elbows are seen on all the pages, but the world beyond – isn’t there! And, in fact, 'where is it to come from?
Not long ago Biely had written about himself – he is always occupied with himself, narrating about himself, walking around himself, sniffing himself and licking himself – several very true thoughts – “Under my theoretic abstractions of the 'Maximum’ perhaps was hidden the minimalist, carefully feeling his ground. I approached everything in a roundabout way. Feeling the ground from afar with a hypothesis, with a hint, with methodologic proof, remaining in watchful indecision.” (Memoirs of Alexander Blok) In calling Blok a maximalist, Biely speaks of himself straight out as a Menshevik (in the holy spirit, of course, not in politics). These words may appear unexpected from the pen of a Dreamer and a Crank (with capital letters), but after all, in talking so much about himself, one sometimes tells the truth. Biely is not a maximalist, not in the very least, but an unquestioned minimalist, a chip of the old regime and of its point of view, yearning and sighing in a new environment. And it is absolutely true that he approaches everything in a roundabout way. His whole St. Petersburg is built by a roundabout method. And that is why it feels like an act of labor. Even in those places where he has attained artistic results, that is, where an - image arises in the consciousness of the reader, it is paid for too dearly, so that after all these roundabout ways, after the straining and the labor, the reader does not experience aesthetic satisfaction. It is just as if you were led into a house through the chimney, and on entering you saw that there was a door, and that it was much easier to enter that way.
His rhythmic prose is terrible. His sentences do not obey the inner movement of the image, but an external meter, which at first seems only superfluous, and later begins to tire you with its obtrusiveness, and finally poisons your very existence. The premonition that a sentence will end rhythmically makes one extremely irritated, just as when one waits for the shutter to squeak again when one is sleepless. Side by side with Biely’s march of the rhythm goes his fetish of the word. It is absolutely irrefutable that the human word expresses not only meaning, but has a sound value, and that without this attitude to the word there would be no mastery in poetry or in prose. We are not going to deny Biely the merits attributed to him in this field. However, the most weighty and high-sounding word cannot give more than is put into it. Biely seeks in the word, just as the Pythagoreans in numbers, a second, special and hidden meaning. And that is why he finds himself so often in a blind alley of words. If you cross your middle finger over your index finger, and touch an object, you will feel two objects, and if you repeat this experiment it will make you feel queer; instead of the correct use of your sense of touch, you are abusing it to deceive yourself. Biely’s artistic methods give exactly this impression. They are invariably falsely complex.
Instead of logical and psychological analysis, he characterizes his stagnant thinking, which is essentially medieval, by the play of alliteration and by the substituting of verbal twists and acoustic ties. The more convulsively Biely holds on to words, and the more mercilessly he violates them, the harder it is for his inert opinions in a world which has overcome inertia. Biely is strongest when he describes the solid old life. His manner, even there, is tiresome, but not futile. You can see clearly that Biely himself is flesh of the flesh and bone of the bone of the old state, that he is thoroughly conservative, passive and moderate, and that his rhythm and his verbal twists are only a means of vainly struggling with his inner passivity and sobriety when torn from his life’s pivot.
At the time of the World War, Biely became a follower of the German mystic, Rudolph Steiner, of course a “Doctor of Philosophy”, and kept watch in Switzerland during the nights under the dome of the Anthroposophist temple. What is Anthroposophy? It is a spiritual-intellectualist turning inside out of Christianity, squeezed out of philosophic and poetic quotations. I cannot give more accurate details, because I have never read Steiner and don’t intend to. I consider that I have the right not to be interested in “philosophic” systems which explain the difference in the tales of the Weimar and Kiev witches (in as much as I do not believe in witches in general, not counting the above-mentioned Zinaida Hippius, in whose reality I believe absolutely, though about the length of her tail I can say nothing definite). It is different with Andrey Biely. If heavenly things are for him the most important, then he ought to expound them. Nevertheless, Biely, who is so much given to detail and who tells us about his crossing of a canal as if he had observed with his own eyes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, or at least the Sixth Day of Creation, that same Biely, as soon as he touches on his Anthroposophy, becomes brief and cursory, and prefers the figure of silence. The only thing that he informs us is that “not I, but Christ in me, is I.” And again, “We are born in God, we die in Christ, and in the Holy Ghost we resurrect.” This is comforting, but really – not very clear. Biely does not express himself more popularly, apparently from a basic fear of falling into theologic concreteness, which would be too dangerous, because materialism invariably tramples on every positive ontological belief which is always formed in the image of matter, however fantastically twisted the latter may become in the process. If you are a believer, then explain what kind of feathers angel wings have, and of what substance are witches’ tails. Out of fear for these legitimate questions, these gentlemen spiritualists have so refined their mysticism that, in the end, their astral existence becomes an ingenious pseudonym for non-existence. Then, frightened anew (and, indeed, there was no need at all of starting all this) they fall back on the catechism. And so in this wavering between a disconsolate astral vacuity and a theologic price list, the spiritual vegetation of the mystics of anthroposophy and of philosophic faith in general goes on. Biely stubbornly but vainly tries to mask his vacuity by an acoustic orchestration, and by forced meters. He tries to rise mystically above the October Revolution, and tries even to adopt it in passing, giving it a place among the other things of the earth, all of which, however, are to him, in his own words, “stupidities”. Failing in this attempt – and how could he not but fail? – Biely becomes wrathful. The psychological mechanism of this process is as simple as the anatomy of a jumping jack: a few holes and a few strings. But from Biely’s holes and strings there comes out the apocalypse, not the general one, but his own special one, Andrey Biely’s – “The spirit of truth makes me state my attitude to the social problem. Yes, you know – thus and so ... Would you like some tea? What – there is no common man today? Here is one – I am the common man.” Lack of taste? Yes, a forced grimacing, a sober half-wittedness. And this before a people who have lived through a Revolution! In his most arrogant introduction to his non-epic Epic, Andrey Biely accuses our Soviet epoch of being “terrible for writers who feel the call to large monumental canvases”. He, the monumentalist is dragged, don’t you see, “to the arena of everydaydom”, to the painting of “bon-bon boxes”! Can one, may I ask, turn reality and logic more roughly on their heads? It is he, Biely, who is dragged by the Revolution from canvases to bon-bon boxes! With the most unusual detail, choking not so much with detail as with a foam of words, Biely narrates how, “under the dome of the Joannite Temple”, – “he was wet with a verbal rain" (literally!), how he learned of the “land of Living Thought”, how the Joannite Temple became for him “an image of theoretic pilgrimage”. A chaste and holy jumble! When you read it, each consecutive page seems more intolerable than the one that went before. This self-satisfied seeking for psychological nits, this mystic execution of them on the finger-nail – and done not otherwise but under the dome of the Joannite Temple – this snobbish, puffed-up, cowardly and superstitious scribbling written with a cool yawn, this is represented as “a monumental canvas”, and the call to turn your face to that which the greatest Revolution is doing within the geologic strata of national psychology, is regarded as an invitation to paint “bon-bon boxes”! And it is with us in Soviet Russia that the “bon-bon boxes” are! What bad taste, and what verbal profligacy! And it is just the “Joannite Temple” built in Switzerland by the spiritual loungers and tourists, which is the tasteless, German doctor-of-philosophy kind of bon-bon box, stuffed with “cats’ tongues” and all kinds of sugared flies.
But it is our Russia that is at present a gigantic canvas which it would take centuries to paint in. From here, from the summits of our revolutionary ranges, begin the sources of a new art, of a new point of view, of a new union of feelings, of a new rhythm of thoughts, of a new striving for the word. In one hundred or two hundred or three hundred years, they will uncover and bare with great aesthetic emotion these sources of the freed human spirit and will stumble over the “dreamer”, who waved off the “bon-bon box” (bon-bon box!) of the Revolution, and demanded (from it!) that he be provided with the material means to depict how he saved himself from the Great War in Switzerland, and how he day in and day out caught in his immortal soul certain little insects and spread them out on his finger-nail – “under the dome of the Joannite Temple”.
In this same epic Biely declares that “the foundations of everyday life for me are stupidities”. And this in the face of a nation which is bleeding to change the foundations of everyday life. Well, certainly, neither more nor less than stupidities! But he asks for the payok [the Soviet ration], and not the ordinary one, but one in proportion to great canvases. And he is indignant that they do not hasten to give it to him. Would it seem that it really paid to darken the Christian state of the soul over “stupidities”? Still, he is not he, but the Christ in him. And he will resurrect in the Holy Ghost. Then why here, among our earthly stupidities, spread gall on a printed page over an insufficient payok? Anthroposophic piety frees one not only from artistic taste, but from social shame.
Biely is a corpse, and will not be resurrected in any spirit.
1. Old Style: 25 October – New Style: 7. November. The term “October” in this book is used synonymously for the Bolshgevik Revolution.
2. Duma: The old Russian parliament.
3. After this was written, I became acquainted with a group of poets who, for some reason, call themselves “Islanders” (Tikohnov and others). But live notes are heard among them, at least from Tikhonov, young, fresh and promising. Whence this exotic nomenclature? – L.T.
4. Biely means white in Russian.
Last updated on: 6.1.2007