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Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History.

The cult of rural life, an integral part of European noble culture since antiquity, did not take hold in Russia until the late eighteenth century. When, however, it finally emerged, as part of the late harvest of European cultural values sown by Peter the Great, its artistic and literary achievements were gigantic. Indeed, the golden age of the noble country estate (1750-1860) overlapped with the great age of Russian literature, and country estates provided the setting for many, perhaps most, of the works of Russia's literary giants, from Pushkin through Chekhov. In fact, Chekhov is the only member of this pantheon who was not himself of the landed nobility, although he bought a country estate, where he played an active role in local affairs. Fortunately, Priscilla Roosevelt has now rescued this vanished world from the odd neglect of western scholars with a book that combines serious scholarship and striking photographs, some taken by the author herself, and some by William Brumfield. She begins in the late eighteenth century, when Russian aristocrats, as well as their imitators among the lesser nobility, replaced their rustic country houses with Palladian mansions and formal gardens. Some employed prominent architects from Italy, France, and England, but the grandest and best preserved estates, like the Sheremetev seats at Kuskovo and Ostankino, were the work of Russian architects.

Not all Russian country houses were built in the neoclassical style, and by the early nineteenth century, many estate owners had followed their European counterparts by replacing their formal French gardens with English parks. After the French invasion in 1812, some nobles rebuilt their ruined estates in more fanciful neo-Gothic or neo-Tudor styles.

But Roosevelt, while devoting ample space to architectural style, is much more interested in the social and cultural history of noble country life. Drawing on the work of literary scholars like Iurii Lotman, she uses the estate as a framework for describing and analyzing noble culture in late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Russia. Here she makes an important contribution by placing Lotman's literary analysis in its visual context, showing how the nobleman used his country house, its park, and its grounds as numerous stage settings on which he could act out stylized European models of noble behavior: the English country gentlemen with his horses and dogs, the enlightened ruler of his small kingdom, or the Byronic exile from court life. When they could afford it, some aristocrats went even further, building real theaters on their estates, where they and their guests enjoyed concerts and plays performed by serf musicians and actors.

We also learn that a number of estate owners had their talented serfs trained as craftsmen and artists, some of whom, like the painter G.V. Soroka, became major figures. Soroka (a pupil of Venetsianov, the greatest Russian painter of the first half of the nineteenth century) was a portrait and landscape painter whose luminous talents were tragically cut short by his suicide in 1864.

Roosevelt devotes one of her most interesting chapters to the estate as "the idyll of the Russian intelligentsia," arguing that "by the late nineteenth century, the country estate rivaled the urban salon as a gathering place for writers, intellectuals, and artists." (p. 291) One of the most interesting of these rural gathering places was Alexander Bakunin's Tver estate, Prymukhino, a neo-classical country house modestly furnished but with a large English park. In 1797, at the age of twenty-nine, Bakunin, a liberal who had studied philosophy at the University of Padua, retired to Prymukhino. There, in company with his numerous children, their French and German governesses, and distinguished writers and artists, Alexander created his own rural idyll. His son, Mikhail, continued this idyll in the 1830's, bringing friends like Stankevich, Belinsky, and Ivan Turgenev to Prymukhino, where they endlessly debated German idealist philosophy while falling in love with Bakunin's sisters. In 1840, the idyll was interrupted by Mikhail's departure for Europe, where he began his famous career as a revolutionary anarchist.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 did not spell the end of noble country life in Russia, but Roosevelt, relying on the conventional interpretation of Chekhov as the "prophet of doom," writes that it took on an increasingly elegiac tone before its destruction in the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath. Here, her argument becomes more romantic and less persuasive, but she has written the only serious book in English on an important subject, and hopefully she, and others, will go on to explore in more detail many of the questions her book implicitly raises. How, for example, did Russian estate owners finance their building projects? What was their mental and intellectual world? Was this stylized aristocratic world fundamentally different from that of agrarian elites elsewhere in east central Europe? Was this world really in decline in the last decades before the Russian revolution? Meanwhile, readers interested in the cultural and social history of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Russia will find this book intellectually and visually satisfying.

Edgar Melton Wright State University
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Melton, Edgar
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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