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By Christopher Ely


The Montréal Review, March 2022


Isaak Levitan. ''Vladimirka Road'' (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.



By Christopher Ely

Bloomsbury Academic (2022)


History is not just the facts about the past. It is, as E.H. Carr put it, “an unending dialogue between the past and the present.”  I was reminded of this phrase recently when the publication of my book on Russian populism coincided almost exactly with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  All of a sudden this book, which had been written during the luxury of a time when calm reassessment of the past was possible, began to look like a rather different creature.  Before February 2022 Putin’s Russia was hardly a free or peaceful place, but it did not yet imperil the world, threaten to bring about a renewal of the Cold War, nor forcibly remove Russia from communication with outsiders.  All of that changed, seemingly in an instant, and now the book seemed, strangely enough, to tell a somewhat different story.  Before it had been a story of creativity, resilience, and failed dreams. It still tells that story, but now the creativity and resilience seem more regrettable and the failed dreams seem more disturbing and ominous. 

            Russia’s populist movement (not the kind attributed to Putin’s demagogic politics) played out over the course of the nineteenth century and sang its swan song in its failure to stand up to the Bolshevik regime in 1917-18.  But as a factor that shaped Russian history and national identity it persists in many ways right up to the present, and even if Russian history just took a turn for the darker it is a story that still needs to be told to those who aren’t familiar with it.    

            Most of us aren’t.  The West has long asserted that Russia is inscrutable, and of course we are now living through a time that will only reinforce our longstanding bewilderment.  Today, few will need much coaxing to agree with Winston Churchill’s quip that Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  How, for example, can Vladimir Putin make a speech that claims Ukraine “is an inalienable part of our own historical, cultural, and spiritual space” and then proceed the very next day to hammer that space with guns, tanks and missiles?  Or take a look at the image above.  Titled, “Vladimirka Road” and painted by Isaak Levitan in 1892, it is one of Russia’s best known and most admired landscape paintings.  Scrutinize it as long as you like, but you may find it difficult to see what anyone would admire in this flat stretch of dirt road, this empty expanse beneath a gray sky. 

            Is love for a landscape like this one just another piece of evidence that Russia is impossible to understand?  I would like to suggest otherwise.  It may well be that the problem lies less with Russia’s impenetrable national character and more with our unwillingness to do the work needed to understand what makes Russia so often think and behave in ways contrary to western expectations.  Let’s return to this landscape after a short excursion into the ideals of Russian populism.  Russian populism took shape in the nineteenth century and informed the thought of such revolutionary intellectuals as Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, as well as writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky; it even inspired composers such as Modest Musorgsky, or painters like Levitan.  A better understanding of Russian populism won’t help us understand Putin’s murderous attacks.  Those are rooted elsewhere.  But with a clearer sense of Russian populism we can return to the painting and look at it with eyes that see a bit more in the Russian way.  In this time of “civilizational clash,” it can’t hurt any of us to understand the “Russian other” a bit more clearly.  And once we understand something more about the Russian people, the contrast to Putin’s manipulations will stand out in sharper relief.

            Since the time of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, Russia’s road to modernity has been fraught with anxiety.  Peter’s forcible westernization of Russian aristocrats was accompanied by deracination from established customs and a sense of moral shock.  Compelled to look and behave like foreigners, the Russian nobility developed a split personality, a façade of European manners built atop a foundation of Russian values.  The nobility, however, gradually grew accustomed to its dual nature as the Tsarist state bought off its noble servitors with grants of land accompanied by those “souls,” or serfs, who lived on and worked the nobles’ estates.  Numerous members of the nobility grew fabulously wealthy from the rent paid them by their impoverished serfs.  Many had several estates scattered across the Russian Empire.  Within half a century after Peter’s death the late-enlightenment era under Catherine the Great is often described as the Russian nobility’s “golden age.”  By this point Russian society had been well cloven in two:  a small class of wealthy, educated nobles, capable of speaking foreign languages, and a large majority of mostly illiterate peasants, the majority of them unfree serfs.  The merchantry, clergy, townspeople and other social groups were relatively small and ineffectual, while the nobility was tied closely to the powerful tsarist state. 

            But somewhere around the end of the eighteenth century, under the twin influences of the French and Industrial Revolutions, the Europeanization of Russia began to grow more complicated.  Across the nineteenth century, while Western Europe rapidly advanced in technology, grew much wealthier, and gradually democratized its public culture, Russia recognized it had to keep pace in some fashion to maintain its seat at the table of the European great powers.  To do so, however, would require fundamental changes and the threat of serious destabilization.  The Russian Empire had evolved to maintain a hold on its enormous, multi-ethnic terrain by reinforcing two features that distinguished it from most of the rest of Europe.  First, it had strengthened the power and authority of autocratic rule, creating the sort of hierarchical decision-making that ultimately rested on the choices of one individual, the Tsar himself.  Second, it reinforced serfdom in which an agriculture-based economy rested on the labor, and mostly subsistence living conditions, of the serfs, whose potential profits went not to themselves but to their noble lords, enabling the nobles to live comfortably and to carry out their own business of serving the state.  In other words, the system functioned by binding much of society together in various forms of mutual dependence.

            The problem was that to join the newly enriched industrial powers of the west it appeared that Russia needed to unbind its society: to enable enserfed peasants to move off the land and join the workforce, to encourage capital to expand through the development of private enterprise, and to give the population latitude for independent activity.  By the first half of the nineteenth century most educated Russians recognized the need to modernize by, one way or another, loosening the chains of their relatively rigid social and political systems.  But how could that be done without threatening social, economic or political collapse?  Russia had either to follow the path pioneered in the west or to find some alternate method for unleashing economic expansion and popular productivity if it wanted to keep up with Europe’s unprecedented expansion. 

            Three options began to emerge.  The first was revolution to overthrow the Tsarist system and put a constitutional monarchy in its place.  This solution was first espoused by a group of army officers who rebelled against the government in 1825 in the wake of the death of Tsar Alexander I.  These Decembrists, named after the month of their uprising, utterly failed to rouse popular support and were easily put down by a small military force.  The push for a constitutional monarchy would not return again until the final decades of the nineteenth century.

            A second solution was to reform from the top down.  Prior to the Decembrist uprising, Alexander I had bandied about some ideas for reform but was sidetracked by the Napoleonic Wars and ultimately rejected his reform plans.  His successor, Nicholas I, had a greater interest in law and order than he did in reform.  But Nicholas died at the end of the Crimean War, and Russia’s loss in that war seemed to offer proof that Russia had to turn in a new direction.  When Alexander II took the throne in 1855 he and the country were ready to make changes.  Alexander began with the most pressing and difficult change: the abolition of serfdom.  Several new reforms in the areas of law, education, local governance, censorship, and the military brought significant change to Russia in what would be called the era of the Great Reforms.  Alexander, however, proceeded with equal measures of boldness and caution, and his reforms moved slowly, or in any event too slowly for Russia’s impatient intelligentsia that hoped for sweeping and immediate improvements. 

            It was among this intelligentsia (a Russian term invented at this time to refer to the educated and politicized members of the public, irrespective of social class) that a third solution would emerge.  Petr Chaadaev, an intellectual and close friend of the poet Alexander Pushkin, published a letter in 1836 brutally criticizing Russia as a lost land, in every possible way dwarfed by the superior cultural inheritance of Western Europe.  Publication of the letter got his publisher sent to Siberia, while Chaadaev found himself placed under house arrest with an alleged case of acute insanity.  The next year he wrote in response to his first letter his “Apology of a Madman” in which he made the case that perhaps he had been wrong.  Here Chaadaev advanced the notion that Russia might actually be in a position of strength because of the special advantage conferred by her relative backwardness.  Russia was positioned to study the historical trajectory of the west, become familiar with the mistakes it had made, and reinvent itself to such a degree that it could leap past Europe to establish a modern Russia all the more developed than the innovative lands to the west.  This essential goal would become the foundation for any number of different intelligentsia schemes for launching Russia into one or another desired destiny.

            A few years after Chaadaev wrote his “Apology” one such project began to take shape that sought to bathe Russia in a more positive light.  This view—it came to be called Slavophilism—rested first on a belief that the west was riddled with intractable problems of its own.  To the Slavophiles, Western Europeans were hyper rational, extreme individualists, competitive rather than cooperative, and lacked a common spirit of social unity.  By contrast, the Slavophiles found in Russian culture a serene communal spirituality and sense of cooperation, visible most prominently in the Orthodox Church and the peasant village.  The Orthodox Church had retained a more Christ-like practice of Christianity than either Catholicism or Protestantism.  The peasants, for their part, manifested this special Russian tendency toward cooperation in the institution of the village commune, a body common among Russian serfs and free peasants which met periodically to divide village land fairly among village households as they underwent gradual change due to factors like death, marriage, and military service.  For the Slavophiles the peasantry’s Christian spirit of cooperation and unity was a reflection of the true nature of the Russian people.  It was a character trait Russia should cherish and take pride in.

            The Slavophiles were religious conservatives who celebrated the supposed non-conflictive docility of the peasants as the expression of a meek, Christian Russian spirit that preserved Russia from the defects of the west.  By the early 1850s Alexander Herzen, a thinker more favorable to western views, had come under the influence of the Slavophiles in similarly admiring the peasant commune, but he took Slavophile thinking in an entirely different direction.  Influenced by socialists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Herzen began to recognize that Russian peasants were not practicing Christian meekness so much as they were engaged in a rudimentary form of socialism.  More than that, since the vast majority of Russians were classified as peasants, Herzen concluded that, in essence, Russia itself was socialist.  Herzen labeled peasant practices “Russian Socialism.”  He believed that by its very nature Russia would be able to lead all of Europe forward into that socialist future so many Europeans had dreamed of.  Herzen had discovered a mechanism whereby backwardness would enable Russia to go in advance of Western Europe, eventually leading both Russia and the west into vastly improved conditions of economic equality and social justice.  All Russia had to do was throw off autocratic dominance and tap into its inner socialist spirit to begin to transform itself into the communal and cooperative land Herzen believed it could become.

            With this vision of Russia’s future Herzen became the originator of the socialist form of Russian populism, but before we discuss the unique form of populism that arose in the Russian Empire one thing needs to be clarified.  Most forms of populism involve, to one degree or another, the animating force of the people themselves.  Russian society, however, had been so deeply severed between the small group of educated classes and the impoverished, uneducated, laboring majority that only the educated were in a position to envision the future of the people as a whole.  Russian populism, then, was in no way a popular movement.  It was almost entirely the brainchild of that thin sliver of educated Russians who hoped, in one way or another, to unify and revitalize the whole of Russian society.

            Once Alexander II had abolished serfdom, Russian society began to cast about for ways to incorporate the peasant majority into the rest of society.  The populist view that the peasant majority would, in some way not yet fully understood, become the centerpiece of Russian society and enlighteners of the rest of the population inspired them to avidly study, and attempt to learn from, the peasantry, which they called simply “the people.”  They eventually acquired the name “populist,” as a result of their deep reverence for what they saw as the talents, endurance, and inner spirit of the Russian peasant.  Populist visions of the character and future role of the people varied a great deal, but they were all the expression of what the educated classes wanted for Russia, not necessarily the aims the people themselves might have had. 

            The Russian social context was different, but populism did contain elements perfectly familiar from a western point of view.  It envisioned, and tried to bring about, a world in which a Russian version of liberty, equality and fraternity would be realized.  Fraternity was embodied in their vision of a future Russia in which all social classes would be united together as one.  Populists insisted on the necessity of equality, of rebuilding a world in which social class would be minimized or entirely erased.  And in all of this they sought liberty, freedom for all inhabitants of the (perhaps soon to be former) Russian Empire to live as they chose.   

            But before any of these goals could be met the stumbling block of an autocratic state with very different intentions had to be overcome.  Some populists believed the peasants were inherently revolutionary and would rebel if properly nudged.  Others believed they needed first to be brought into modern life with the help of sympathetic intelligentsia guides.  Still others felt that once the peasantry had shown them the proper path, educated society would simply return to the village and take up the communal, agricultural way of life.  As one populist proclamation put it, the peasants would take over the property that rightfully belonged to them and respectfully inform the noble landowner it was time to join them or leave.

            Socialist revolutionaries were not, however, the only members of the intelligentsia who considered the peasant the new hero of Russian life.  Whether in its Slavophile or its populist guise, as meek Orthodox Christians or as rebels in waiting—and in several other interpretations too—the peasantry would be studied, discussed, scrutinized, interpreted, contacted, celebrated and criticized by the intelligentsia right up to the Bolshevik Revolution.  From where did this enormous fascination with the peasantry emerge?  To most educated Russians, the peasantry seemed to have retained a native inner spirit they themselves had lost in their western upbringing.  Where they had been distorted and spoiled by their educated, westernized, comfortable lives, the peasants had never lost that genuinely Slavic nature so many members of the intelligentsia wished to recapture for themselves. 

            The great fascination with the peasantry catalyzed the “mad summer of 1874” when thousands of educated young people trekked into the countryside to live and work among the peasantry, often dressed like peasants in order to blend in with village life.  From that same fascination also arose the movement to ignite a revolution by killing government officials and eventually the Tsar himself in 1881, the very same Alexander II who had emancipated the serfs twenty years earlier.  Some of these revolutionary populists proudly referred to themselves as terrorists, thus bestowing upon the world a new and deadly form of political activism.  A modified form of populism, the neo-populism of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, actually won the national Russian elections held in November of 1917, soundly defeating the Bolsheviks, but the Bolshevik Party, having taken over the government by that point, shut down the new parliament that had formed under the leadership of neo-populists in January 1918.  The populist led government of Russia managed to remain in existence for only a single day.

            Less revolutionary figures, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, also drew much of their outlook from idealizations of the muzhik (another word for peasant literally meaning “small man”).  Dostoevsky believed that a spiritual unity between the peasantry and the cosmopolitan Russian intelligentsia would eventually occur.  When it did take place it would, to use Dostoevsky’s phrase, utter its inspirational and transformative “new word” to the rest of the world.  Count Tolstoy, for his part, went on to emulate the people insofar as he could in the activities of his own life, adopting what he felt was their spiritual worldview, not to mention, at times, their attire and work habits.  Tolstoy came to believe that agricultural labor was “the only basis for an honorable and reasonable life,” and affirmed that true faith in Russia could not be found in educated society, not even in the Orthodox Church, but among “the poor, simple, unlettered folk.”

            Admiration for the Russian peasant, which in today’s terms equally meant the Belorussian peasant and the Ukrainian peasant, and to an extent even the non-Slavic peasantry, informed the worldview of pre-Soviet intellectuals to such a degree that it lives on in many ways even today.  Russians (and Ukrainians) retain a great fondness for rural simplicity, for the capacity to suffer hardship, and even for agricultural labor as evidenced by the country houses (dachas) in which many Russians and Ukrainians still spend the summer months.  The dacha typically has a garden plot in which urban Russians can grow their own vegetables. 

            Already in the nineteenth century, there had developed a new and more general appreciation for the spaces the peasants occupied: the small village and the countryside itself.  A school of landscape painting began to emerge around the 1860s based on a unique landscape aesthetic that sought to celebrate, at one and the same time, Russia’s unparalleled vastness and its humble country character, an image of the motherland that reflected the meekness and endurance of the peasantry alongside and in tandem with admiration for the vast extent of the Empire’s terrain.  Russian even has an untranslatable term that expresses love for wide open space: the word prostor can be translated as “the freedom of wide open space” or even perhaps “satisfying vastness.”        

            With that we can return to Levitan’s 1892 canvas, Vladimirka.  Vladimirka was the name of the road along which prisoners were taken from European Russia to Siberian prison and exile.  Well known to the Russian public, just calling this road to mind in a painting made a subtle political statement, but the painting has much more to say to  hearts and souls shaped by the values of Russian populism.  The populists celebrated the Russian people for their ability to suffer and endure, and that tolerance for suffering has long been held up as a hallmark of the Russian national character.  The gray sky and the tedious, non-descript scenery that offers almost nothing distinct to look at recalls the misery of shackled prisoners beginning a thousand mile journey to an even less hospitable destination.  It also calls to mind the backbreaking agricultural labor in far flung fields through which the peasants sustained their meager lives.

            But that is not all a Russian (or Ukrainian) viewer will find in this painting.  It is also full of the prostor that pleasantly beckons the viewer into its vastness.  The lone figure in the painting, a traveler presumably in church robes, stands by a shrine, which would typically hold a painted icon.  And far in the distance, in a sun dappled patch on the left, stands an onion-domed church on a small slope.  Thus in ways that would not be visible to outsiders, Levitan’s painting unites numerous features of the sense of national identity that arose among the populists.  It reminds us of those who have gone to Siberia for their rebelliousness; it evokes great suffering and perseverance; it celebrates Russia’s vastness and satisfying prostor; it nods to the Orthodox Christian spirit which the Slavophiles found in the popular character; it represents the open countryside as a holy place; and it suggests the unostentatious authenticity of the Russian people in the unostentatious beauty of the land it depicts.          

            In the hundred and thirty years since this painting was completed, the Russian Empire came to an end and the Soviet Union went through several seismic shifts and  eventual collapse, but the painting itself, hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery, is still loved and admired for the same reasons it was welcomed in the 1890s.  The Russian Empire and Soviet Union were complex multi-ethnic places that cannot be pinned down to any one set of values.  What is today called Russian populism was only one shaping factor.  Imagine a Ukrainian in the nineteenth century.  At that time it was not only possible but common for an intellectual to support Ukrainian national independence as well as some version of Russian populism.  The two values were not mutually exclusive, as it might appear they would be today.  The “Russian” of Russian populism at the time referred to all the Empire’s inhabitants.   

            Vladimir Putin is right about one thing.  In many ways Russians and Ukrainians do share a common cultural inheritance.  But he is entirely wrong to present this inheritance as identical.  This is not the place to elaborate on all the differences between Ukrainian and Russian culture and history going back a thousand years.  Suffice it to say that Ukraine and Russia share as many differences as they do similarities.  The Russian and Ukrainian people are not absolutely different, but Putin and the Ukrainian people are.  In saying that Ukraine is “an inalienable part of our own historical, cultural and spiritual space,” Putin draws on many of the same tropes of national identity Levitan had worked with: the vast scope of the Empire, its unity in Orthodox Christianity, and the similar cultural inheritance of Russia and Ukraine.  And he does so for the precise purpose of eliciting support from the Russian people for his merciless attack on Ukraine.

            For Putin does not represent anything having to do with Russian populism.  He stands for a different set of principles that were precisely those so many Russian populists fought against: the self-justifying power and control of the autocratic state.  From the populist point of view there were two essential entities in the whole, intertwined history of the Russian Empire destined to be at odds with one another.  They were not different ethnicities, nationalities, or regions.  They were the people and the state.  Like his predecessors the Tsars, Putin has chosen to minimize the value of the people and stand for the power of the state above all else.  He justifies his vicious attack on the people of Ukraine as a matter of expanding the rightful purview of the Russian state.  Ultimately, his justifications are Muscovite in origin.  In Moscow going back some six or seven centuries, the Grand Princes and later Tsars developed their own ideology based on the assumption that what could be taken was rightfully theirs.  This view rested, at least in part, on the need for protection in that wide open and difficult-to-defend expanse that became the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.  Expansion meant protection.  Unfortunately, there still exists a part of the Russian population that finds great appeal in a national pride based on the power of the state.  Putin has made his choice to appeal to that part of the Russian population while ignoring and deceiving those Russians who don’t see nation and power as synonymous and who detest the carnage he has unleashed.    

            In this respect Putin’s attack resembles that of Stalin in post-war Eastern Europe, widening Soviet Russia’s sphere of control.  Even more pointedly it resembles Ivan the Terrible’s attack on the city of Novgorod in 1570.  The city of Novgorod, culturally and politically more connected to the former Rus’ state centered in Kyiv than to Moscow, had been, relative to Moscow, a bastion of freedom.  As a trading partner in the Hanseatic League, it was also more closely connected to Europe.  Unlike present-day Ukraine, Novgorod at the time was already under the political control of Moscow, but the paranoid Tsar Ivan wanted to curtail its independence entirely and claimed the city had acted treasonously.  Ivan sacked Novgorod, burned the surrounding fields, committed atrocities against the people, and decimated its population.  Novgorod has been a relatively small and unobtrusive city ever since.  Today Putin attacks the whole of Ukraine in a very different way but with similar cruelty.  For reasons of state he feels the right to destroy Ukraine, thinking nothing of the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  But the world is different now.  Putin’s state-centered choices appear to have done nothing so much as unite Ukraine around the principle of its absolute right to autonomy. 

          The goals of many Russian populists were too often utopian and therefore self-defeating, but they were not militaristic and they were antithetical to the principle that might makes right.  Somewhere beyond Putin there lies a Russia where respect for human life, especially that of the little guy (the muzhik), as well as values like liberty, equality and fraternity, still exist.  Somewhere beyond Putin there lies a Ukraine, rebuilt and restored, where people have the leisure to go to their dachas in the summertime and look out over the prostor of the wide open and unassumingly beautiful spaces they have every right to enjoy.  Somewhere beyond Putin these two distinct countries that still share much in common deserve the right to peacefully coexist.


Christopher Ely is Professor of History at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, USA. He is the author of This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (2002) and Underground Petersburg: Radical Populism, Urban Space and the Tactics of Subversion in Reform-Era Russia (2016). He is also the co-editor, along with Mark Bassin, of Space, Place and Power in Modern Russia: Essays in the New Spatial History (2010).


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