The Culture of the Ordinary in Imperial Russia

Ewa M. Thompson, Professor of Slavic Studies, Rice University

This document is excerpted from chapter three of the author's Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, which the author and her publisher, Greenwood Press, have graciously shared with the readers of the PoCo Web.

Each well-developed national mythology has produced what can be called the culture of the ordinary. It has to do with everyday life of men and women over a period of time. The Western novel contributed to that culture by focusing on the lives of the new social classes rather than on those of the aristocracy. The nineteenth-century English novel repeatedly inscribed on the reader's memory the acceptability and desirability of a bourgeois lifestyle and the plethora of customs and ceremonies this lifestyle produced. Everyone could partake of these ceremonies, as witnessed by the trickling down of bourgeois manners to the lowest circles of British society within a few generations.

The seventeenth-century Dutch paintings went even farther: they inculcated in their audiences an acceptance of such prosaic activities as cleaning, cooking, eating, and enjoying domesticity in the family circle. Through Jan Vermeer's painting "The Kitchen-maid" (c. 1660) we not only learn what the inside of a Dutch kitchen was like but also acquire a new appreciation of the simple tasks performed in it. The painting bestows a certain dignity on kitchen work, lifting it up from anonymity and invisibility to the dignity of an artistic representation. It democratizes culture by suggesting that even the lowliest occupations in society are worthy of a respectful second look.

A version of such ordinary domesticity was also portrayed in Russia, in War and Peace. It was, however, profoundly different from depictions of bourgeois acceptance of kitchen drudgery. In some ways, it was a Potemkinized version of daily culture. The name of Catherine's lover is invoked here because the wonderful domesticity of the Rostovs, in which the readers of War and Peace naturally rejoice, was paper-thin. The washing of dishes and the scrubbing of floors is miraculously absent in it, and the percentage of Russians who partook of that domesticity was exceedingly small. War and Peace depicts the upper few hundred families, not the Russian city dwellers or small landowners. The spontaneity of Natasha Rostova conceals the labor of the countless servants who made such spontaneity possible.

In contrast, Western European novels were peopled by the ever more numerous representatives of the middle and lower classes in the cities and in the countryside. This was particularly true of the English novel. The king and queen and their courtiers do not appear as characters in the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, or Austen. The tiny and elusive world of royalty and aristocracy was a closed book to most Western novelists, whose personal lives likewise unfolded within the squierarchy or the urban middle class. Not so in Russia, where the middle class was virtually nonexistent. The families that appear in War and Peace belong to a tiny fraction of 1 percent of Russian society. They are so close to the autocrat that he inevitably appears in the novel on several occasions, talking to them and participating in their lives. In real life too, Tolstoi's wife paid a visit to the emperor pleading for permission to publish her husband's novels. Yet Western readers of War and Peace perceive these extraordinary relationships as typical Russian realities, in the same way in which the heroes of Dickens or Austen are typical of nineteenth-century London or the British countryside.

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Ewa M. Thompson. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

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Last modified: 15 June 2000