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This Meager Landscape: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia.

By Christopher Ely. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 278. $42.00.

Today, when any frequent visitor to Russia will eventually find themselves mushroom-picking in some dense forest and engaging in long and emotive conversations about the incomparable beauties of the motherland, it is difficult to imagine a time when Russians were not attached to the peculiarities of their native landscape. But, as Christopher Ely argues in this remarkable book, the Russian response to landscape has a long and complicated history, reflecting the complexity of the cultural construction of nature, and that most pressing of Russian preoccupations--the desire to identify and account for Russia's distinction from the West.

The first four chapters of This Meager Landscape focus on literary expressions of landscape, mapping the gradual transition from the deference to European modes of visualization in the eighteenth century, to the growth of national awareness in the nineteenth century which both shaped, and was shaped by, new and identifiably Russian responses to the local terrain. Ely begins by examining the appropriation of the pastoral aesthetic to frame Russian landscape, and the resulting denial of the specific features of Russian topography. The practice of describing landscape in borrowed terminology continued with the adoption of the sublime. Nevertheless, as Ely demonstrates, the sublime also encouraged interest in a mythic Russian past and in the rugged beauty of areas such as the Caucasus, and in the process became an effective tool in the displacement of the pastoral. This precipitated a prolonged period of uncertainty in Russian nature aesthetics, during which writers pursued the quest for a native landscape imagery in different ways. Ely traces these developments in his next three chapters, which focus on the rise of picturesque landscape in the work of figures such as Pushkin; on the promotion of a new, affirmative sense of place as a symbol of Russian nationality in the writing of Gogol and his peers; and on the construction of Russian landscape as unattractive and inhospitable--'Flat on the left ... flat on the right', as Vasilii Ivanovich comments in Vladimir Sollogub's novel The Tarantas (quoted on p. 142)--but containing the hope of resurrection in the form of the downtrodden but morally superior narod.

On occasion Ely makes a sweeping statement which undermines the sophistication of his argument, as when he declares that 'Nationhood is one of the most widely accepted and least contested of modern ideologies' (p. 21) in a book which does much to expose the complexity and instability of nationalist debates. On the whole, though, he approaches the myriad texts and discourses that underpin his thesis with great intelligence, leading to a carefully nuanced account which takes pains not to overstate the results of his meticulous research. His range of reference is admirable, stretching from the subtle shifts in travel literature to the rise of ethnographic research, and he not only offers an important new perspective on some of Russia's great writers, but also produces some seductive prose of his own. A case in point is the musical metaphor with which Ely describes Nekrasov's evocation of landscape as 'an entire symphony to rural Russia ... which ranged across both major and minor tonalities' (p. 159). As a summation of Nekrasov's resigned tolerance of rural deprivation coupled with the promise of regeneration held within the peasantry, this makes for a compelling read.

In the last two chapters of the book Ely turns his attention to painting, focusing on the way in which Russian painters gradually rejected the attractions of southern, namely Italian, landscapes in favour of the geographical specificities of their own country. The argument focuses on the realist school of landscape painting, and fuller consideration of some academic artists might have led to a more balanced account. There is, for example, no mention of Aleksei Bogoliubov, who as both professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts and mentor to young Russian artists studying in Paris was one of the most prominent landscape painters at the time. One would also like Ely to have looked in more detail beyond the expected triumvirate of Vasil'ev, Shishkin and Savrasov. A. A. Popov's superb depiction of a peasant woman watching a man fishing in Morning in the Village (1861, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg), for example, challenges Ely's view that, with the breakdown of serfdom, 'the idealized peasant could no longer be counted on as the symbolic figure and uncorrupted carrier of Russian identity' (p. 215). Most debatable of all is Ely's assertion that, in contrast to developments in literature, 'new aesthetic approaches to the depiction of Russian landscape scarcely registered until the 1850s' (p. 165). This ignores the vital contribution to landscape imagery made by Venetsianov's pupils, such as the serf artist Grigorii Soroka's Fishermen (1840s, State Russian Museum), or a work as iconic as Winter Landscape (1827, State Russian Museum) by Nikifor Krylov. But Ely's is nevertheless an invaluable account of great intellectual ambition, and his skilled analysis of key trends - the revival of the pastoral with the advent of populism, for example, or the role of landscape imagery as a unifier between rural and urban spheres--offers a vital corrective to the Soviet interpretation of nineteenth-century landscape painting as primarily representative of progressive ideas.

The book suffers from a few factual errors--the Academy of Arts was not established by Catherine the Great in 1764 (p. 165) but by Empress Elizabeth in 1757--and on occasion the author is repetitive, as when he talks of the 'rare space of potentially mutual experience between the urban and rural segments' and the 'rare point of mutual experience between urban and rural Russia' on the same page (p. 181). In places Ely also falls into the common trap of oversimplifying the aims of the Peredvizhniki, and the 20 black and white reproductions are of such poor quality that in places they are barely legible and contribute little to the reader's understanding of these key works. But these criticisms do not detract from the significance of Ely's achievement. Here at last is a book which not only makes an original and important contribution to our understanding of Russian literature, painting and issues of national identity, but also addresses with scholarship and intelligence the question which has intrigued so many mushroom-gatherers: why it is that Russians have such a deep and idiosyncratic attachment to the beauty of their native land.
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Author:Blakesley, Rosalind P.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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