Is it the anticipation of winter that made me want to open a Russian novel? I’ve been reading Anna Karenina, and enjoying it immensely. Almost as much as War and Peace. Russian novels fascinate me just like Russian music, because they seem so familiar, but not. I could almost be reading Jane Austen, or Victor Hugo, or some other European author. The characters, after all, even keep lapsing into English and French. And with their balls and their high society and their country estates, it really could all be happening in some Western European country during the long 19th century. Except that it couldn’t. There is something foreign, something strange, something difficult to put my finger on, that makes it all just a bit remote, even as Tolstoy holds up his intimate, unerring looking glass into universal human feelings and thoughts.
I have never been to Russia. As a child, I used to listen to my father play the riveting original piano score of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was composed by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky during the same year that Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina. It is a suite in ten short movements, about a walk through an art gallery, with each movement representing a different picture or sketch. The ones I liked most when I was young were the grand and dramatic march through the great gates of Kiev, and the twittering, hopping depiction of the little unhatched canary chicks. Thinking about Baba Yaga with her grotesque hut on fowl’s legs just made me shiver. Most of the pictures Mussorgsky used as his inspiration, though, had distinctly un-Russian themes. They are pictures of a French market, an Italian castle, a Polish ox-cart, even the Paris catacombs, all drawn from the European travels of the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Somehow, filtered through first the Russian artist, and then the Russian composer, they take on a vague, unearthly quality, setting them strangely adrift from their European origins. As one marches up with the composer to the great gate of Kiev, it seems as if all the vast steppes of Russia stretch out in the background, cold and incomprehensible.
Is it the very vastness of Russia that captivates me? I come from a large country too. Part of the charm for me of living in Northern Italy is that a few hours drive in most directions will land me in another country. In the time it would take me to drive from one end of California to the other, I could cross a whole continent, and see a dozen different worlds. These Russian artists also seemed fascinated with Europe. Almost, almost, they were Europeans themselves, or thought they might be. Tolstoy portrays them idolizing Napoleon when he was on the march toward Russia at least as much as certain Italians I’ve encountered do nowadays.
Russia is a riddle. Culturally, they do seem so much more allied to Europe than to, say, China, or Japan. And yet, it’s impossible to tell if the European-ness is more than skin deep. In fact, I saw a most fascinating movie a few years ago, called Russian Ark, exploring this very question, very artistically, and mostly indirectly. It was filmed in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and is a daydreamish, disconcertingly unchronological window into various moments in Russian history, which took place in the Palace. It’s almost as if, in fact, the Palace itself were dreaming its own history, and in wandering through its rooms one could stumble upon those dreams and relive them. And throughout it all, the viewer is accompanied by a cryptic and rather cynical 19th European who while providing oblique commentary on everything, seems uncertain of what to make of it all.
Anyway, the whole idea of Europe seems to be expanding nowadays. Bizarrely enough, our very own Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has even invited the State of Israel to join. It’s hard to picture Berlusconi’s idea being taken seriously. But who knows? The European Union is presently considering Turkey’s application for inclusion (although Morocco has been rejected). Although I can certainly comprehend the benefits of membership, I never imagined that Turkey considered itself a “European State” until I was firmly informed of it by a Turkish friend. If Turkey is European, then I guess Russia can probably be European if it wants to be. Does it want to be? Anyone Russian out there? Or anyone who’s been to Russia and might be able to shed some light on this for me?