Russians have always discussed the state of their souls as earnestly as the state of the economy of the vagaries of Russian politics. Always a strange blend of grandiose schemes, despair and optimism, futility and petty bickerings. The luxury of discussions about the misery of the soul. Perhaps it is a certain Oriental fatalism, enhanced by a futility of purpose and an unwillingness to sublimate the emotions.
The Empress Petrovna, Peter The Great’s daughter, considered herself the most beautiful woman in the world, changed her clothes six times a day, and once had a lady of the court whipped, and the end of her tongue cut off, for imprudently wearing pink, a color reserved for the Empress:
Modern Russia, in all it contradictions, enigmas and mysteries, still contains the glow of purely personal sufferings, the echo of flamboyance and the spectacular, extravagant in life and in death, the seething emotionalism seeking to canalize itself, first into the collective whole and now partly returned to the wild, the natural habitat of excess. Excess is the core of Russian peoples, their strength and weakness, at once their comic relief, at least to outside observers, – and their glory. It is the key to both their past and their present, and it molds the future, this Putin3 Russia as well.
It is often incomprehensible to the West, puzzling and frightening, like the force of nature which, at heart, it is. Anyone who is steeped in their literature, or studied their history, becomes aware of this quality, or elemental force, which is excess. Thus we see, in the history of Russia, that it sweeps on its way, like the symbolic troika of which Gogol wrote, thundering forward, once centuries behind the West, but suddenly outpacing the rest of the world in its furious forward dash, over and across every obstacle, over lives and ideologies, but ever onward towards its own goal.
When a 17th-century Turkish sultan threatened the Zaporoz Cossacks, they replied with typical Russian violence by composing a letter calling him, among other things, a “son of a dog” . Repin’s painting recreates the scene:
Madame de Stael:What characterizes this people, is something gigantic of all kinds: ordinary dimensions are not at all applicable to it. I do not by that mean to say that neither real grandeur nor stability are to be met with in it: but the boldness and the imagination of the Russians know no bounds: with them every thing is colossal rather than well proportioned, audacious rather than reflective, and if they do not hit the mark, it is because they overshoot it. Read More:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16245/16245.txt
…This Kalmuck prince, to whom wooden houses appeared a residence too delicate in the middle of winter, gave diamonds to the ladies who pleased him at a ball; and as he could not make himself understood by them, he substituted presents for compliments, in the manner practised in India and other silent countries of the East, where speech has less influence than with us. General Miloradowitsch invited me the very evening of my departure, to a ball at the house of a Moldavian princess, to which I regretted very much being unable to go. All these names of foreign countries and of nations which are scarcely any longer European, singularly awaken the imagination. You feel yourself in Russia at the gate of another earth, near to that East from which have proceeded so many religious creeds, and which still contains in its bosom incredible treasures of perseverance and reflection. Read More:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16245/16245.txt
… This indolence and vivacity are indicative of reverie and passion, two elements of character which civilization has yet neither formed nor subdued. I was struck with the mild gaiety of these female peasants, as I had been, in different degrees, with that of the greater part of the common people with whom I had come in contact in Russia. I can readily believe
they are terrible when their passions are provoked; and as they have no; education, they know not how to curb their violence. As another result of this ignorance, they have few principles of morality, and theft is very frequent in Russia as well as hospitality; they give as they take, according as their imagination is acted upon by cunning or generosity, both of which excite the admiration of this people.
In this mode of life there is a little resemblance to savages; but it strikes me that at present there are no European nations who have much vigor but those who are what is called barbarous, in other words, unenlightened, or those who are free: but the nations which have only acquired from civilization an indifference for this or that yoke, provided their own fire-side is not disturbed: those nations, which have only learned from civilization the art of explaining power and of reasoning servitude, are made to be vanquished. I frequently imagine to myself what may now be the situation of the places which I have seen so tranquil, of those amiable young girls, of those long bearded peasants, who followed so peaceably the lot which providence had traced for them; they have perished or fled, for not one of them entered into the service of the victor. ( ibid.)