Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Family Chronicle: a review

Autumn trees at Aksakovo, Orenburg Oblast
Farewell, my figures, bright or dark, my people, good or bad—I should rather say, figures that have their bright and dark sides, and people who have both virtues and vices. You were not great heroes, not imposing personalities; you trod your path on earth in silence and obscurity, and it is long, very long, since you left it. But you were men and women, and your inward and outward life was not mere dull prose, but as interesting and instructive to us as we and our life in turn will be interesting and instructive to our descendants. You were actors in that mighty drama which mankind has played on this earth since time immemorial; you played your parts as conscientiously as others, and you deserve as well to be remembered.
- Sergei Aksakov, Epilogue to The Family Chronicle
Russian hunter, fisher, literary patron, folklorist, novelist, nature writer and biographer Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov is unfortunately a bit overlooked in the great literary canon of that nation, despite having been a close friend and enthusiastic supporter of a certain young Nikolai Gogol (celebrated author of Dead Souls and The Inspector-General). He appears to be overlooked for several reasons: for one thing, he belongs to an ‘in-between’ generation in Russian literature, being the senior by several years not only of Gogol but also of Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev. For another thing: his creative period seems to have come in his waning years, by which times the tastes of the Russian reading public had decisively shifted. Aksakov’s scrupulous realism and focussed miniatures of Russian backcountry life were overshadowed by Dostoevsky’s psychological flourish and Tolstoy’s grand historical epic style. And yet: Aksakov was deeply appreciated by both Gogol and Turgenev, who saw in his work a depth of truth, closeness to nature, and a gift for exploring the subtler dynamics of psychology.

Aksakov’s first quasi-biographical novel in what was to become a trilogy, The Family Chronicle (also titled in translation A Russian Gentleman), was published in 1856. The events it narrates, however, take place in the late 1700s under the reign of Catherine the Great. The Family Chronicle is, at its core, Sergei Timofeevich’s story of his mother, and her relationship with her father-in-law, the head of the family, whose surname in the novel is changed to Bagrov. But despite its short length, it is a sprawling, ambitious work of fiction which deftly weaves together a number of disparate strands. There is the naturalism and ethnography of the Tea Road frontier, where the author grew up – what is now the Oblast of Orenburg and the Republic of Bashkortostan. There is also the main story itself: the interactions between the author’s mother and father and their various relations. There is a depiction of the drawing-room habits of the Russian nobility in general, something which might not appear out-of-place in an Austen novel. And then through it all there are subtle social commentaries, embedded within keen observations, on ethnic relations and the class conflicts between serf and master, something which certainly echoes the Slavophile critique of the institution of serfdom.

What is noteworthy about these characters, as is hinted from the postscript from which I quoted a piece above, is that these characters are quite human. Indeed, the frank depictions of frontier life in The Family Chronicle occasionally met with the disapproval of the censors, and the version I have is peppered lightly with footnotes to this effect. The primary conflicts of the story arise between characters who genuinely mean well and genuinely care for each other. And yet their temperaments, life situations, loves and other priorities place them at odds, without malice – and yet not without hurt. True, some of these characters do exhibit malice and even cruelty: however, even in these cases, Sergei Aksakov is quick to point out the underlying logic of it, so that even if we do not condone, we may nonetheless understand what he is showing us.

The main character in the book is the author’s grandfather, Stepan Mikhailovich. A proud nobleman from an ancient Kievan line, descended from a distant Varangian ancestor named Shimon, Stepan Mikhailovich Bagrov is a short, wiry, fair and formidable lordling. Although he is all but illiterate, his general inclination is toward a ferociously-scrupulous generosity. He is willing to forgive slights, pranks, laziness and the common run of knavery and disobedience. But the one thing that gets under his skin are deliberate lies. He is brutally honest and demands the same honesty of others. And when he is angry, he has a tendency to fly into violent rages against his serfs and even his wife and children. The author neither overlooks nor excuses this, though we are meant to see it as preferable – in the case of his serfs – to locking them up or to involving the police.

With the ancient Bagrov estate at Simbirsk dwindling generation by generation after being parcelled away amidst an ever-expanding brood of cadets, Stepan Mikhailovich hears of the land rush in Bashkortostan and goes out there to try his luck. Though, being honest, he views the exploitation of the Bashkirs with extreme distaste, he nonetheless has no objection to buying such land on the cheap from a fellow Russian, and he purchases 12,000 acres on which to settle himself, his family and most of his serfs, 200 miles east of the city of Ufa. This settlement of ‘New Bagrovo’ soon becomes home to him and his family: his wife Arina Vasileevna; his cousin Praskovya Ivanovna; his four daughters Aksinya, Elizaveta, Aleksandra and Tatyana; and his son Aleksei.

What follows is a detailed gæographical and ethnographical description of the land and its people. Aksakov dwells at length on the beauties of the Bashkortostani woods and steppes and hills; the variety of its wild flora; the bounty of its fish and fowl; the abundance of its mineral wealth – and in this there is a tone of sadness as well, for he knows that much of that wild and natural beauty has been despoiled by the settlement of which his own family was a part. And he also describes with no small amount of Romantic admiration the free life of the semi-nomadic and loosely-Muslim Bashkir people, who in his telling tend flocks as well as keep bees.

An episode follows in which his pretty, orphaned young cousin Praskovya is seduced by a scheming suitor named Mikhail Maksimovich Kurolesov. Stepan Mikhailovich at once takes a fervent dislike to Kurolesov, but the young man has an uncanny knack for insinuating himself in the company of the women of the house. Attracted by Praskovya’s large fortune though deterred from expressing his intentions openly by Stepan Mikhailovich, he manages to convince Praskovya – then only fifteen years old – to elope with him by means of several intermediaries. Stepan Mikhailovich is incensed when he finds out, and forbids Kurolesov from visiting the house. His character is gradually revealed as a cruel, debauched tyrant, who takes pleasure in tormenting his serfs and taking the pretty ones to his bed. He hides this side of his nature from his wife as long as possible – though she does find out, after he beats one of her favourite serfs, Ivan, to within an inch of his life. After Praskovya lets him know he’s found out, he also beats her, and locks her in the cellar on her own estate. Stepan Mikhailovich hears of this and mounts a rescue at the head of an armed band of his own men, and carries her off without resistance from a drunken and incapacitated Kurolesov. Not long after this, Kurolesov dies suddenly, and despite having been deceived in his character so long, Praskovya bitterly mourns his death.

The bulk of the story, however, concerns Stepan Mikhailovich’s young son Aleksei – the author’s father under another name – and his courtship of and marriage to the author’s mother, under the pseudonym Sofya Nikolaevna. Aksakov details the sad childhood of his mother, condemned to a menial Cinderella existence in her own house under the harsh tyranny of her father Nikolai Zubin’s young but envious second wife. The wife takes deathly ill and begs the forgiveness of Sofya on her deathbed, which Sofya is all too happy to offer. Sofya Nikolaevna is true to that forgiveness, and cares for her younger stepsiblings as though they were her own flesh and blood. But her harsh upbringing has some startling effects on her character. For one thing, although she is proud, she cannot tolerate pride and tyranny in others. She cannot stand duplicity or pretension. But, a bit less attractively, after her experience with her stepmother she begins to have a fascination with exercising power, and entertains fantasies of control and mastery over her husband. This causes a great deal of friction in their marriage.

The language that Aksakov uses to describe his parents’ courtship wanders between the tolerantly-affectionate and the tragic. He spares no effort to describe the ill-suited nature of the match. Aleksei, though handsome, is a simple and forthright soul, very much a man of ‘the country’. He enjoys hunting and fishing – two pursuits which Sofya Nikolaevna views with disdain. Sofya, on the other hand, though far from Saint Petersburg society, is very much a city girl: sophisticated, clever, sensitive, learned in French and German, attentive to manners and the fine details of decorum. Aleksei meets her several times and is instantly smitten with her; for her part, Sofya is attracted by Aleksei’s humility and stoic quietude, and encourages him where she scorns the flattery of her prouder suitors. And she also begins to think of herself as Aleksei’s saviour, or a sort of Pygmalion: in Aleksei, she saw a man she could guide, tutor and raise in whatever image she saw fit.

And so, problems crop up from the start. Aleksei’s sisters, particularly Elizaveta and Aleksandra, take an instant dislike to Sofya and do their level best to blacken her name for Stepan Mikhailovich’s benefit, and the once-burned patriarch of the family puts his foot down hard. Aleksei threatens to commit suicide, however, and rather extorts his father’s acceptance of Sofya. This does not impress her. Sofya and Aleksei have further disagreements and miscommunications. Sofya starts to think of Aleksei as shallow and unfeeling, and Aleksei begins to tread on eggshells around a fiancée he sees as overly-sensitive. Even so, the wedding goes ahead: Sofya overcomes all her doubts through prayer to an icon of the Theotokos, and doubles down on her efforts to groom Aleksei into her image of the ideal husband.

Aksakov details many of these trials in his parents’ marriage. Sofya finds that she detests life in Bagrovo. She views the living conditions there as dirty and crude. The social circles there she finds to be limiting and low. She is repeatedly slighted, annoyed and attacked by two of her sisters-in-law particularly, who see her as a threat to their position in their father’s house. She starts to think her husband won’t stand up for her when they do so – though in truth Aleksei tries to smooth over conflicts without hurting anyone’s feelings. And she develops a keen jealousy of Aleksei’s attachment to the Bashkortostani outdoors, his hunts and his fishing trips.

The one factor that saves their marriage – and indeed the central relationship in the book – is Sofya Nikolaevna’s father-in-law Stepan Mikhailovich. Though Sofya is occasionally shocked by her father-in-law’s violent temper, she soon comes to treasure his fundamental honesty, openness and fair dealing. And the now-elderly patriarch of the family, for all that he had opposed the marriage, at once sees in his daughter-in-law a woman of deep piety, sound sense and formidable intellect. Stepan’s advice and guidance help the mismatched newlyweds to come to a modus vivendi, that helps them weather several crises that crop up in their early years.

The Family Chronicle does not carry any grand philosophical themes – it is truly a work of biographical fiction rather than memoir. There is very little exploration of the ‘great Russian soul’ or the promulgation of the great Russian truth in his work: though there is plenty of space, as can be seen, for the treatment of Russian souls in plural and in variety; and his patient love for all of them – even the ones who misbehave or who misunderstand each other – has the ring of its very own truth.

But certain strands of the author’s romantic high-Tory Slavophilia are there to be noticed. Aksakov is more observational than didactic when it comes to treating his surroundings, but his contempt for the institution of serfdom – as noted through its ill spiritual effects on even obedient serfs and well-meaning masters – comes through with remarkable clarity. His romanticist love of nature – probably better explored in his tracts on fishing and hunting elsewhere – also comes through quite notably, given his lavish and affectionate descriptions of the countryside around Orenburg. Some environmentalist themes crop up as well, as he does not spare his own family from criticism for despoiling the landscape with building projects, overhunting and overfishing.

But even here he evinces a certain preference even if he does not say so explicitly. He does his best to be fair to the town life in Ufa. But his great love is the wild countryside of the Tea Road; and despite the ill behaviour of his aunts to his mother, Aksakov nonetheless takes a high view of the closeness and affection that tied his rural spear-side of the family together. He admires the frankness and fair-mindedness of his grandfather even if he can never quite excuse or condone his rages. He also shows a high opinion of his father’s profound simplicity – mistaken by Sofya Nikolaevna for dullness or inattentiveness in good times, but showing his true and noble colours in times of difficulty.

Aksakov writes from the heart about people and places he knows intimately, and that sincerity shows in the result. The Family Chronicle is not what I would call a deep book, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read and an excellent local treatment of life – among a certain class, anyway – on the Tea Road during the Russian expansion eastward.

Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov

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