Monday, 17 September 2012

The Russian 'Dusha' in The Window to Europe

Surprisingly microcosmic
The cultural and political capital of Russia has been called both the 'most artificial city in the world' by Dostoevsky and a 'window to Europe' by Pushkin, two fundamental figures in the adoption of the idea of the Russian 'dusha'. 

Most accurately translated as 'soul', the concept of an innate Russian identity originated in Gogol's publication of 'Dead Souls', a reference to landlords' accounting term for 'serfs' as 'souls' - which seems exaggeratedly cold. It's remarkable then, that this variety of Russian nationalism was equally influenced by German Romanticism and serfdom. 
Portrait of A.S. Pushkin by the Romantic artist and former serf, Vasilii Alexandrovich Tropinin
 Slavophilism gained in popularity in the 19th century, in the wake of a society split between those pro-Westernisation and the traditionalists. 

After such progressive leaders as Peter the Great, Alexander I and the famous Francophile Catherine II, who made French the aristocratic language, a revival of Russian nationalism was needed beyond the 'Official Nationality' of Emperor Nicholas I.
Ekaterina II, with various male officials under her feet
Rather than strict adherence to 'orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality', the quest to find the Russian 'dusha', the integral spirit common and unique to all Russians, was a more sensitive nationalism, an attempt to pinpoint what was already tangible.

The very infrastructure of the city is undeniably European (while sadly Russian in its lack of maintenance). You could be forgiven for forgetting that you're not in Paris or Prague among the ornate, pastel-coloured terraced buildings and occasional accordion player.
Due to the many canals, Peter originally intended the main form of transport to be by boat, as in Amsterdam and Venice. This is not the case - Russian marshrutki, tramvai and trolleybusi are the main transports aside from the ornate metro (very deep underground to avoid the layers of swamp - nice one Peter).

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of literature from around the 1840s onwards in the formation of the Russian 'dusha', regarding both the circulation of the concept and its firm establishment in Russian culture. While the city itself looks European, there are widespread homages to both writers and fictional characters throughout the city.

Mikhail Yureevich Lermontov
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
Mayor Kovalev's nose - a character from Gogol's famous short story, 'Nose'
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, head of the Russian dusha (and he knows it)
The arts in general are at the forefront of modern Russian life. At the moment, an operatic interpretation of Evgeniy Onegin is being performed at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, a poema of Pushkin linked to the protagonist in Medniy Vsadnik, the epic poem about Peter the Great and St Petersburg. 

Additionally; ballet, opera, classical music performances are all frequented not just by the highly educated elite but beloved by a significant proportion of Russians (in an already large population). Unlike Westerners, Russians are well-versed in the creative fruits of their country, particularly literature, by the time they leave school. 

It is hardly a secret that under the Soviet Union, which emphasised a delineated Russian identity, there was an absolute rejection of the 'bourgeois' adoption of European customs/languages - and obviously travel was almost impossible. The city's saintly namesake, who held the key to (European) heaven makes the political changes even more pertinent.

I find modern Russia a pastiche of strong traditions of orthodoxy, palaces, Soviet architecture and memorials, alongside a new influx of European brands, chains and cuisine; hence the multitude of dill-coated sushi in all Russian cities. 

Kazan' Cathedral
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood: so no one can walk on the assassination site. Look familiar?
At the moment, there seems to be an attempt to Russify certain English things that have been adopted. For example, Russians seem to be keen to distinguish between 'Inostrannie slova' (parlament, restoran, taksi) and their Russian equivalents. 

Although us English have no problem adopting foreign terms as our own, I think this is linked to a)the many different invaders who have colonised us and bastardised our language and b)the lingering imperial sense of linguistic superiority - ie, "I will say 'café' on a regular basis, but refuse to learn French."

Mikhailovsky gardens. Russian: 'Urgent request - don't walk on the grass!' 
There are also some commercial examples of this: as any Westerner in Russia will tell you, the closest you can get to a normal flavour of crisp is 'green onion'. Others include 'sour cream and dill', 'dill and cucumber', 'sour cream and mushrooms' and 'crab' (the living worst: tastes like moist, mushy crab).
An example more of rather nouveau riche taste than russification (classic English snobbery from me) is the decoration in the nice part of town. One particular street off Nevsky Prospekt, 'Malaya Sadovaya' is a wonderful mix of ostentatiously proud architecture and fake grass. 

I definitely thought these were real
They also have some statues in line with the quaint Petersburg interactive traditions - my favourites commemorate the role of cats post-World War II in fighting the rodents.
Pretty proud kitty
People throw kopecks at their sitting for good luck
Cannot remember who this is - but rubbed his nose and sat down for luck
I would argue that modern St Petersburg has elements of Petrine Euro-focused policy about it. With Russia righting itself after years of Communist dictatorship, it is natural to look to previously outlawed Western commerce. Still, a lot of people work 7 days a week and there is a flat 13% tax rate for everyone, regardless of income. 

Although St Petersburg is known for being not exactly welcoming to minorities, it is certainly an international city. This lovely artist above was chatting to some tourists who were admiring his work in a mix of Chinese and English, telling them that it was cloudy when he started painting the church so his rendition was slightly different from the reality.

Nowadays rather than providing a window onto European 'heaven', St Petersburg seems to me to be a gentle introduction to the previously alien and totally mysterious expanse that is Russia. 
Attempt to provide a more thematic post turns me into a pretentious dryballs. Pity the fool who has to read my essays...


  1. >> Cannot remember who this is - but rubbed his nose and sat down for luck.

    He is Ostap Bender

    1. Thank you! Googling 'statue italianskaya nose' was fruitless.