Yet any of us who have lived in Russia for any length of time and seriously concerned themselves with Russian realities know that there have been phenomena in Russian life that speak with enormous power and significance to American perception. : efforts that every American instinctively understands, manifestations of human feeling that are not only entirely comprehensible to our world of thought, but leave us with a sense of wonder and excitement at their scale, boldness, and emotional intensity. . Most of them seem to me to be related to what we could call the Petersburg era in Russian history, and mainly in the 19th century, which was of course the period of maximum exposure of Russian society to the influence western. Western influence at that time meant European influence; but European influence, you think, at a time when the artistic and intellectual currents of old Europe have themselves never been more alive, never more interesting, never more subject to astonishing and contagious change.
In this sense, one could almost say that what Americans find significant and moving in Russian history is the reaction of the Russian people to external impulses. It is not isolated Russia – nor the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, vegetating through decades and centuries in its archaic darkness and intolerance, its fanaticism and cruelty, its fear and hatred of the foreigner – nor Soviet despotism, living in a world of thought based on a desperate distortion of the image of the world around it, and reminiscent of the old Muscovy in many ways, besides simply returning the capital to Moscow – this is not is not that isolated Russia which produced the things which seize and hold us; it was Russia touched by the current of Western civilization, reacting to this current with the incredible freshness, sincerity and clarity of perception which placed the Russian intellectuals of the 19th century among the greatest of all critics of the contemporary Western civilization – not only in reaction to this current, but, what is simply important, striving with immense intellectual and moral courage to extract from it what was useful and hopeful and to apply it to Russia itself, that there might be light where there had been darkness, that the immense backwardness and misfortune might be overcome, and new vistas might be opened up for the expenditure of the human energy and the realization of human dreams.
Please don’t think I’m talking about idealization or slavish imitation of the West by Russian intellectuals. Their attitude towards Western culture has always been twofold and tortured, mixing both love and hate. I am only saying that Russia was at its height when it was stimulated, or stung in reaction, if you will, by contact with the West, and that, consequently, the unfolding of the Russian spirit in the nineteenth century was one of the great chapters of history. history of civilization. Never have more inspiring blows been struck for things that commend themselves to us as hopeful and progressive.
You won’t find literature more promising in the possibilities it indicated than Pushkin’s poetry. You won’t find a more graceful and yet revealing caricature of a society’s flaws than Griboedov’s immortal comedy. You will not find a clearer and brighter flame of liberal convictions than in the writings of Chernyshevski and Alexander Herzen; no deeper re-examination and testing of Christian ethics than in Dostoyevsky; no more brilliant and masterful fictional portrait of a society than in Tolstoy; no purer example of liberal humanism and honest literary work than Anton Chekhov, and no brighter page in the history of dramatic art than those first performances of the Moscow Art Theater at the end of the century, touching new springs in human consciousness, opening up new possibilities in the communication of emotional experience.