Russia (continued)

Konstantin Pobedonostsev January 1902

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, January 1902

Chapter four of my biography, ‘Who Had He Been?’, relates amongst other things what George did in Russia between 12 October 1895 and the summer of 1897. I think it will be a revelation to a lot of people. It was always going to be difficult to piece the narrative together here (he wrote home regularly, but no letters have survived after 1895, he hardly ever talked about what he had experienced in Russia, and Percy Lubbock picked up very little about it for his 1921 memoir). There are still long stretches of time when we don’t know what he was doing in Russia. Having done my forensic best for this chapter, I moved on as biographers must. It is really only now, when the book is finished, that I feel I see the whole of George’s engagement with Russia — i.e. from 1895 to 1915 — in perspective.

Basically, it seems to me a paradigm of certain Britishers’ cultural and psychological response to Russia both in the Communist period and today. I don’t know of any other Victorian/Edwardian examples of this paradigm. It’s profoundly instructive and salutary.

When George arrived in St Petersburg, he wrote wonderful illustrated letters to his mother and father enthusing about the street scenes, the unique palette of Russian life, Russian steam baths and billiards; he wrote vibrant features for Pall Mall Gazette on the same subjects, as well as about the Winter Gardens, skating and sledging, gipsy singers and Russian women. True, he found it difficult moving about and ‘getting things done’. The internal passport police were rather concerned about what he was doing in Russia (as well as teaching at this point, he was culling information about the Russian navy from public libraries and sending it home to a journalist friend!), and they seem to have insinuated an informer into his digs every so often to chat to him. True, he found it irksome having to spend most of a day at the Custom House collecting a parcel from Britain. The insolence and indolence of the numerous petty officials drove another petitioner to a hysterical fit and reduced a peasant literally to tears. But George was able to turn all this to humour:

At last they brought me a number of papers to sign, demanded money under various headings — customs, censor, outdoor porterage, indoor porterage, lighterage, demurrage, insurance, bottomry, &c., and then gave me my package. It proved to be a small pamphlet (privately printed) by my dear old tutor, on the ‘Ontological Value of Consciousness’. I have lent it to a friend out here who goes in for that sort of thing, and am sending my tutor a box of caviare and some cucumbers in return.

For a man of reflexive disposition there are few pleasanter ways of passing a couple of hours than at the Petersburg Custom House.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 20 February 1896)

By the time George arrived in Moscow in May 1896 to cover the coronation of Nicholas II for the Standard and Pall Mall Gazette, he was getting exasperated. In both papers he criticised the ‘attitude to the common people’ of the ‘Russian system of government’, the degeneracy of the upper classes, the potholes in the streets, the drunks, the police, and especially Russian priests, ‘than whom it would be impossible to find a more untidy, unkempt, and uncouth-looking body of men […] illiterate in the highest degree’. He criticised Tsarism itself:

It is amazing that with so many particular sources of well-doing at its command, the Russian system of government should produce so dismal a result. What is the use of an autocracy if it fails in those very respects out of which it expects, or expects others, to justify its existence? […] Everyone that comes to Russia complains of ineffectiveness of the system.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 12 May 1896)

We can only speculate about the impact on him of seeing hundreds of corpses being carted through the streets of Moscow after the stampede disaster on Khodynka Field in the early hours of 30 May 1896, then joining the crowd of about 100,000 who gathered at Vagan’kovskoe cemetery to look for missing friends and view the mass grave. In a despatch he stated that the coronation ‘festivities’ were continuing and ‘not a flag had been lowered or a shutter closed’:

Almost universally, the disaster is attributed to the total want of precautions, usually so conspicuous in Russia when they are wanted least, and to the lack of foresight, and even of elementary common sense, shown in the arrangements for the distribution of the [Tsar’s] gifts [on Khodynka Field]. […] The exasperation of the people is intense.

(Standard, 2 June 1896)

Although, George noted in the Pall Mall Gazette of 6 July 1896, the callousness of the Russian system would ‘drive other countries to a revolution in less than a fortnight’, he had to recognise that ‘Russia does not want a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it. Russia is Russia, and constitutionalism cannot be manufactured out of a peasantry’. He controlled his anger and stress by telling himself it was Russia’s and Russians’ affair, not his or the West’s. He concentrated on his teaching, his friendships and his research into Russian folklore. Nevertheless, he told Pall Mall readers, there was a ‘hopeless tedium’ about ‘everything civil, political, or commercial in Russia’.

I am sure that the curve of George’s response to Russia whilst he was living there matches that of thousands of other young British people who lived for a year or so in the Soviet Union as students. Certainly, after one visit many never wanted to go back. George himself never returned to Russia after 1897. But the ‘paradigm’ I have referred to is not that, it lies in what happened after George got back to England.

Naturally, he wanted to earn his living using his knowledge of Russian and Russia. He could make some money as a translator of quasi-technical texts (‘difficult’ ones, Flowerdew’s translation agency emphasised in their testimonial), he could review works of Russian literature, but to write about Russia itself was a minefield because the subject was so politicised. On the Pall Mall Gazette, for instance, it had been a delicate subject ever since the editorship of W.T. Stead, who was hopelessly entangled with the Russian agent Olga Novikoff. Either you supported the establishment in Russia, i.e. the Tsarist status quo, or you supported the emigrant opposition, headed by such figures as the terrorist Stepniak-Kravchinskii and the anarcho-communist Kropotkin. The Garnett family and many other London intellectuals threw their weight behind these extremists, but George rejected them and decided to engage with the Russian ‘establishment’ in London.

He became a member of the Anglo-Russian Literary Society (ARLS), which was packed with Tsarist patriots like his friend Manya Ross, and on 4 December 1900 he gave a brilliant paper to them entitled ‘Russian Ideals of Peace’. In it, he talked extremely knowledgeably about Slavophilism, Hegelianism, and their impact on the last tsar, Alexander III, and his son Nicholas II. Actually he was wrong about this: the Tsarist regime was as suspicious of Slavophilism and Hegelianism as of any political philosophy other than its own nationalism. But in conveying to his audience that he understood very well what they themselves believed in, and that he accepted it was what ‘Russians’ wanted, he gave them the idea that he approved of it all himself and was on their side. They duly cast him as a sympathiser with Tsarism.

Olga Novikoff kept a close eye on the press and Anglo-Russian activities in the whole country (this is how she had spotted W.T. Stead when he was still a journalist on the Northern Echo). The next thing George knew, she had alerted her old friend Konstantin Pobedonostsev, chief ideologist and propagandist of the Tsarist regime back in St Petersburg, to George’s article in the Monthly Review of May 1901, ‘The Wrong Tolstoi’. Pobedonostsev, who had recently achieved his great ambition of having Tolstoi excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, published his own Russian version of it as a pamphlet. George’s article — probably the best thing written about Tolstoyanism before Orwell’s 1947 essay ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ — had focussed on the cognitive dissonance of Tolstoy’s ‘philosophy’, whilst expressing his admiration of Tolstoi as a man and writer. Pobedonostsev mistranslated, deliberately distorted, rewrote and mangled George’s article in ways that a modern propaganda machine would be proud of. The article became a diatribe against Tolstoi, one that Pobedonostsev hoped would gain all the more credence amongst Russians for having been produced in an ‘open society’ with a ‘free press’. (The necrotic Pobednostsev himself was a fanatical enemy of democracy: one of his most famous sayings is ‘parliaments are the great lie of our time’.)

George had been compromised. His name must have been mud amongst liberal Russians everywhere, because Pobednostsev had made him appear to attack Tolstoi like Pobedonostsev, one of the most hated figures in Russia. But what I mean by the ‘paradigm’ is this: George had only himself to blame, because he had given the Tsarist establishment in London to believe that he was their friend and they had repaid the compliment by making him a ‘fellow-traveller’. The phenomenon has been repeated thousands of times with ‘well-meaning’ Britishers in Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s, Brezhnev’s and Putin’s Russia. These people, including George, give the impression of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot.

What could George do to set the record straight? Britain had no copyright agreement with Russia. In any case, perhaps Olga Novikoff had sounded George out about publishing the article in Russian, he had made encouraging noises, and been too naive to foresee what would happen to it. It was too late to undo; too late to attack his Tsarist ‘friends’, even though he cooled off towards them and left ARLS by 1905. Conversely, he could hardly re-invent himself as a Russian oppositionist and throw in his lot with Kropotkin, the Garnetts and Co. He could have attacked what Pobedonostsev had done in an article in the Monthly Review, or even The Times, but would there be enough interest for their editors to publish it? It would certainly never be published in Russia, where the damage had been done. I think George found himself in a quandary. He had been put on the spot by Russia’s disinformationists. Surely he felt he had been made a fool of. He seems to have been lost for words. As far as one can tell, he said nothing.

And he was confused, in both his political thinking and his thinking about Russia. His last article for the Monthly Review, ‘The Obstinacy of the Romanoffs’ (April 1903), urged readers to accept that Russia was ‘different’, that it had a political culture of its own:

It is natural enough to thank heaven that we are Britishers; but it is wholesome at times to try and realise that there are other civilisations in the world, and that in their poor way, and for the poor folk that are born into them, they have a raison d’être. It is unjust to picture the Tsar as a benighted Oriental potentate, scion of a house of tyrants, waking at last from Asiatic sloth, as he listens to his German Sheherazade [Alexandra] telling him what is being done in the Western world. The Romanoffs have seen and rejected our civilisation since Romanoffs were. They have borrowed our mechanical arts, but never our social order.

With justification, George claimed that ‘English opinion of Russia’ was ‘educated chiefly by exiled revolutionaries, yet it might be surmised that many Russians actually approve of the system under which they live’. So far so good; this was a mere constatation of fact. But George continued that even though we in Britain lived under a form of democracy, ‘if we never tire of abusing the faults of our civilisation’, from the ‘evils of our political system’ to slums and the ‘licence of the press’, what was so superior about it? Our parliamentary system was not even representative, since ‘in each constituency there is a large minority, the unsuccessful party, which has no representative in Parliament at all’. This notion, he claimed, is ‘abhorrent to the Russian creed of justice’. The Tsar, according to George, ‘sits for minority as well as majority, and for the Country as well’; consequently ‘theoretically there is much to be said for the autocratic system’.

It was admirable that George should be stressing the ‘differentness’, the ‘autonomy’ of Russian political culture, but what from his cultural point of view was the ‘much’ that could be said for autocracy? What reservations lay behind that word ‘theoretically’? He seems to have found the Russian system disastrous enough when he was living there. What of the many Russians who wanted western-style democracy? Were they wrong? If the British ‘never tired’ of criticising aspects of their own political life and society, was that not precisely what democracy was for? George’s determination to pursue acculturation to Russia again made him look like a fellow-traveller or apologist of Tsarism.

Sadly, I think this reflects George’s own doubts about democracy, which were sown by the fissiparousness of British politics in the Edwardian era and are most fully expressed in Dwala. In the article I have just discussed, he regrets the absence of Proportional Representation in the British democratic system; but his only solution seems to be autocracy! Similarly, he saw no reason for extending the franchise to women or working-men. It is not surprising that in the 1910s he proposed forming a centre-right party in Britain that would operate outside Parliament

Personally, I think George Calderon learnt his lesson about Russian power politics. He certainly appears never to have expressed himself in print about the ‘advantages’ of the Tsarist autocracy again. The events of 1905 in Russia changed the attitude of many people to the regime, including members of ARLS. An encounter between the Calderons and Olga Novikoff in 1904 suggests that George kept her at arm’s length. After returning from Tahiti in 1906, he concentrated on Russian literature, particularly, of course, translating and staging Chekhov.

The only other major pronouncement on Russia that I have come upon in George’s writing dates from 1914. On 5 October, waiting on Salisbury Plain to leave for Flanders with the Blues as an interpreter, George had time to write to Kittie and his mother, but also to draft a letter to the press headed ‘Philosophy and the War’. Its gist was that Nietzsche had had less influence on the Germans’ ‘outlook on their historic purpose’ than Hegel. Both the Kaiser and the Tsar, according to George, were professed Hegelians who believed in ‘the imposition of the newest and highest [national civilisation] on the world at large’. In the Russians’ case this ‘civilisation’ was a blend of Slavophilism, Orthodoxy, and Russian nationalism. ‘It would be a poor office for the Belgians, French and British’, George wrote, ‘if we were fighting merely to set up a Slav world-domination instead of a Teutonic.’ Few people at the time, I think, would have believed that Russia had imperial designs on the West. However, after I read out this letter in a lecture I gave on George at the Armistice Festival in London in November 1988, a Russian came up to me and said: ‘What a prescient view of Soviet intentions after the Second World War!’

Although Pobedonostsev had destroyed George’s credit in Russia for some time, and George’s views about Russia certainly alienated from him left-wing opinion in this country, I think we should show understanding towards him; towards the fact that he had fallen into a paradigmatic elephant trap. After all, in the early twentieth century neither he nor anyone else had yet had experience of the Bolsheviks’ and Nazis’ exploitation of what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’. We, in 2017, have no such excuse.

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2 Responses to Russia (continued)

  1. John Dewey says:

    Fascinating! I’m really looking forward to reading the book, Patrick. If Russia had been more successful militarily in WW1, is it not possible that the outcome feared by George in his letter of 1914 would have come about much earlier than it did? I seem to recall for instance reading somewhere that the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign was launched at least in part to help our ally achieve the Panslavist dream of recapturing Constantinople. And what an irony of history that – as indicated by that Russian in 1989 – the dream of a vast empire in the east of mainly ‘brother Slav’ nations was finally realised by none other than Stalin!

  2. Patrick Miles says:

    Great to hear from you again, John! Thank you. It’s really encouraging that you are looking forward to reading the book; I’m intending to discuss your, G. Orwell’s, and my views on the orthodoxy of British publishers after December 15th, when the final decision’s been taken about how to get the book out in 2018. Of course, you are absolutely right about the Russian dream of ‘recapturing’ Constantinople as a result of the Gallipoli campaign. Alas, as we know the chances were thrown away long before the landings. But George, for instance, on his way to Gallipoli in May 1915, still believed that the British-French expeditionary force would join up with the Russians in Constantinople. That is one reason why he took with him a copy of Tolstoi’s Sebastopol Stories — ‘to brush up the lingo’, as he wrote Kittie…

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