RUSSIANS EXPRESS a certain timeless human feeling in one cruel word, poshlost. The English terms vulgar, smug, sentimental and mediocre cover only its most obvious forms -- television, commercials, greeting cards, and the sort of prose available in supermarkets. But poshlost frequently assumes protective coloration, parading as high art or scholarship. When the sham is not obvious, poshlost is at its most attractive and insidious.
Suzanne Massie has set herself an ambitious project, nothing less than a history of the whole prerevolutionary Russian civilization. She struggles valiantly with our standard misconceptions of Russia the enigmatic, half-Asiatic land of quaint Western myth, the gloomy realm of morbid and hysterical realist writers. She has gleaned telling details from literature, comtemporary memoirs and travelers' accounts, guidebooks and encyclopedias. Hers is an honest and sincere attempt to write something she feels strongly about. Unfortunately, honesty, sincerity, and even enthusiasm and tireless research are not antidotes for poshlost. The book by its style, its inept flirtation of what authentic history or criticism should be, contains and distills the very essence of poshlost.
Instead of a Russia shrouded in mystery, Suzanne Massie offers one swathed in nostalgia, a less familiar, but equally inaccurate and more purely Russian view of the nation's past. Massie's pre-Russia is an art nouveau fantasy still current in the Russian popular imagination -- a hopeless muddle of fairy tales and folk songs, palekh boxes and Mussorgsky operas. It is no accident that paintings by Repin, Ryabushkin, and Serov illustrate the period, though they make as much sense as works by Arthur Rackham in a history of medieval Britian. Massie shares with the 18th- and 19th-century monarchs she describes a tiresome enthusiasm for jewels and precious stones, displayed ostentatiously and in bulk. Her impressions of Pushkin and Gogol seem to have been formed in childhood bouts of memorization, a characteristic of Russian education for two hundred years, and she repeats the sterilized biographies of Ivan the Terrible, Peter and Catherine that Russians learn in school.
Less forgivable than lapses perhaps bred of over-familiarity are Massie's obvious attempts to clean up her material, to put Russia in its best light when exposed to foreigh gaze, in a typically Russian attack of national inferiority. Massie speaks in idyllic terms of the life of Russia's landed gentry without mentioning the almost frantic boredom that afflicted them, sparsely scattered in a countryside adrift in mud for two seasons out of four. She discusses serfdom in sentimental retrospect as an ideally patriarchal system and ignores the military recruting system under which young serfs could be inducted into the army for a period of 25 years.
Massie's St. Petersburg is the elegant "Northern Palmyra" its 18th-century creators envisioned -- pastel neoclassical facades reflected in miles of canals, graceful bridges spanning the wide Neva. We visit Hay Market, Dostoevsky's old haunt, but somehow overlook the filth and grinding poverty he saw there. On Nevesky Prospekt we see the throngs of gorgeously uniformed men, but fail to note that they are functionaries in an oppressive and almost omnipotent bureaucracy that induced pathological depression and persecution mania in generations of the city's downtrodden inhabitants, a frequent theme of St. Petersburg writers from Gogol to Bely.
Massie all but ignores major historical events that do not fit into her prettifcation scheme. In a single paragraph she dismisses the great 17th-century schism within the Russian Orthodox Church, a bloody popular revolt which produced the most significant literary work of the century (the autobiography of the rebel priest Avvakum), and religious tradition that was to keep the merchant class out of the mainstream of Russian life until the Revolution. Massie overlooks the retrieval from Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries of large areas of East Slavic land, an annexation that incorporated into the Russian Empire not only the Ukraine, but the largest Jewish population in the world. Massie can even speak of the great musicians of the beginning of this century with out mentioning that most of them were Jews, and with a chauvinism typical of a Great Russian, she introduces the Turkic, Mongol and Caucasian peoples of Russia's colonial empire largley for local color.
A bitter advocate for the ancien regime, Massie disdains to mention the Soviet Union even when detailing its enormous restoration projects. Her parting shot at the system that did away with the "beauties of old Russia" and all that, is her selection of a distinctly mediocre Serov portrait of Nicholas II as her final illustration. The last tsar was no friend of the arts, and he had, in Mandelstam's phrase, "all the sensitivity of a dentist," but he stares out at us from the end of the book, looking particularily autumnal and doomed.
Massie hits her stride in a few chapters that deal with the details of late 19th-century Russian life. Here Massie is in her element. On St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt, we browse with her through elegant shops offering Paris fashions, newspapers in a dozen languages, and plums in mid-winter, while in the Summer Gardens, merchant's daughters are demurely displayed at a bride show. Massie takes us behind the walls of the austere Smolny Institute, where upper-class girls studied in conventlike security for six years, and to the Imperial Ballet School, where the stay was longer and the regimen more strict. We learn beauty secrets and tricks of haberdashery. (Two soliders are required to pummel a hussar officer's frame into the tight elkskin breeches of his dress uniform.) We learn street vendors cries, the type of carriages and sleighs for hire, and the time St. Petersburg's bridges are to be raised to let ships pass, cutting the mailand off from the islands. We're told the folk tales that generatons of Russians heard from their nannies; and from Elena Molokohovets, the Fannie Farmer of Russia's gentry, we pick up tips on Easter-Egg dyes, 52 varieties of baba and how to handle a dinner for 26 unexpected guests.
In these last chapters Massie is clearly at homee with her sources, and her synthesis is marvelous. She provides for a 50-year period in Russian culture the clear-eyed and comprehensive vision she attempted of a millennium. A turn-of-the-century Western traveler journeying from St. Petersburg to Moscow could safely leave his Baedeker at home.