'Literary Midwives of New Russia' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 22 February 1918, page 2

Fitzgerald wrote:

Vigilant, writing only three months after the second (Bolshevik) Russian revolution, sees the great Russian authors as “midwives” of the revolution because they expressed a striving for liberty in Czarist times. “The soul of a people is its literature.”…

This seems a rather late example of Vigilant’s well prepared pieces. Prompted by “the current journalistic piffle about Russia and the Russians”. [1]


Our Bookshelf graphic
Literary Midwives of New Russia by Vigilant

In the midst of the current journalistic piffle about Russia and the Russians, it is refreshing to pick up a volume like Maurice Baring’s “Outline of Russian Literature” – a work from the pen of a man who not only knows, but also loves, Russia.

The soul of a people is its literature. Without an understanding of that its history, its race-genius, its current politics are utterly unintelligible. Imagine the English tongue without Shakespeare, or the English Bible! Half the phrases of the language would be meaningless, for their significance depends entirely upon the associations of ideas they evoke. And this is rendered no less true by the fact that the majority of Englishmen read neither Shakespeare nor the Bible. To take a more homely example: Everyone knows what “Sour grapes” means. But if those words were translated literally into the tongue of a race that had never heard the story of “The Fox and the Grapes,” they would become entirely meaningless.

Now let us glance at the reverse of the medal. In Easter, 1916, some floating mines picked up in the Black Sea were found to be labelled, “Christ has risen.” The kernel of the gibe lies in the old Russian custom of the “Easter kiss.” After leaving Church on Easter Sunday, the members of the congregation salute one another by kissing, and at the same time remarking, “Christ has risen.” The cable-man referred to the incident as “German blasphemy,” but, in ignorance of the allusion, the blasphemy must have appeared quite meaningless.

The same unimaginative people read reports of speeches by a Russian like, say, Lenin, and fail to grasp the fact that the true significance of his utterance resides in the allusions he makes to literary classics, historical events, myths and fables, etc., which every Russian understands, but which are unknown to the average Englishman. How dense our ignorance of Russia is may be gathered from the following excerpt from Mr Baring’s work:- “There is in England no complete translation of Pushkin. This is much the same as though there were in Russia no complete translation of Shakespeare or Milton ... Russian criticism and philosophy, as well as almost the whole of Russian poetry, is completely beyond the ken of England. The knowledge of what Russian civilisation, with its glorious fruit of literature, consists in, is still a sealed book as far as England is concerned.

Russia’s literary history is as bloody and tear-smirched as her political chronicles. In 1790 the publication of a simple and unexaggerated account of the condition of the serfs, entitled “A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow,” sent its author, Radischev, on an enforced journey to Eastern Siberia, from which he returned only to commit suicide at the prospect of a renewal of his exile. The Decembrist rising in 1825 had for object the establishment of a limited monarchy on the English model. Its downfall cost Russia the life of Ryleev, author of the magnificent “Vision of Enslaved Russia”; and Pushkin, the greatest of Russian poets, only escaped by accident. Exile, voluntary or compulsory, was the fate of scores; and the terrible ordeal of Fedor Dostoyevsky in itself was sufficient to tinge the literature of a whole generation. He and a number of others, for no greater offence than membership of what we would call an economic class, were sentenced to death, and were actually upon the scaffold when an order arrived reducing the sentence to eight years’ penal servitude in Siberia. Dostoyevsky served his time; and later became one of the world’s greatest novelists. “Crime and Punishment,” his greatest work, was published in 1866, and met with prodigious success, but the author spent the greater part of his life on the verge of starvation. Upon his death in 1881 he was followed to the grave by 40,000 of his countrymen.

This sketch, brief though it must be, of Dostoyevsky’s life, is typical of the lot of the Russian author. Not all were equally poor – some were affluent – but the tyranny of the Tsars – the great sadness of Russia – pursued all relentlessly.

One personality, and one only, overbore all opposition. It was that of Count Leo Tolstoy.

  None dared touch him. His influence over men’s minds was so mighty that, had he chosen, the power lay in him alone to create Free Russia. But he chose otherwise, and died – as the world knows – on the road to a monastery.

Tyranny has uncalculated results. Mr Baring ascribes the essential democracy of the real heart of Russia to the reaction against autocracy. Whether we turn to the work of Conservative or Liberal. Orthodox of Materialist, we find that the literature of Russia breathes a spirit of democracy, a breath of revolt, a promise of revolution, unique in the world of letters.

Under whatever guise the writer appears, he cannot escape it, even when he would. It moans in agony in Radischev’s “Journey.” It gleams prophetic in Ryleev’s vision of “Enslaved Russia,” in Chekhov’s “Seagull.” In Dostoyevsky’s psychological novels it wears the sackcloth of patient humility, in Tolstoy’s essays the gown of philosophy. But in all alike it lives, it moves. Even the enervating, rosewater atmosphere of Pushkin and Turgenev cannot drug it to sleep, nor can the fire and sword of the Cossack destroy it.

The same Sprit moves triumphant in the Revolution today. A people suckled at the breasts of so mighty a mother cannot be prevailed against for ever. Now that the hour has struck, and Russia at last has raised the cup of Freedom to her lips, ‘twere vain hope that she will fail to drain it to the dregs.

We need be little concerned by obviously inspired articles on Russia, which proceed from quarters where the Social Revolution of the Bolsheviks inspires far more, and more real dread than the military menace of Germany. In fact, our precious papers go so far as to barrack for the Ukraine despite their treasonable betrayal of the democratic peace demand of the North. People like that remind us of a certain Swiss conference of Allied and enemy capitalists that wasn’t banned by the Allied Governments.

No, Russia is at heart enlivened with a democracy more true, more human, then her Western sisters can even understand. Kropotkin, speaking shortly after the 1905 Revolution, declared to an English Trade Union Conference, the Free Russia would astound the world. Kropotkin is a scholarly Russian – not a week-end tourist of the Fraser type.

Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” affords us an excellent example of this democracy of the soul. The novel is a study of the tortured conscience of a murdered, Raskolnikov. The scene may be said to be laid inside the murderer’s mind. We wander through the haunted corridors, seeking ever a way out, and ever we come suddenly upon – the corpse of the victim. Then Sonia, an unfortunate child who is supporting a consumptive mother and drunken father upon the proceeds of prostitution, meets Raskolnikov, and persuades him to confess. He kneels before her, and makes the confession, declaring: “it is not before you I kneel, but before all the suffering of mankind.” “That,” says Mr Baring, “is what Dostoyevsky does himself in all his books.” More, it is the attitude of all the literature of Russia. Maxim Gorky makes one of his characters reply to the question “What are you?” with the words “A man.” “Only in Russia,” says a reviewer, “would such a reply be possible.” Therein lies the key to the democracy of Russia.

Mr Baring’s look is not written for all and sundry. It is for the advanced student, and has a bad habit of talking pages of French. Besides, the Perth booksellers make a practice of limiting their stock in such volumes to a single copy – a shrewd commentary upon Senator Pearce’s talk about the superior intelligence of Western Australia! But Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is published by the “Everyman” Library (1/9 in Perth), and Tolstoy’s and Turgenev’s works are generally available in cheap editions. Andreev’s “Red Laugh” (on war), and “Sabine Women” (a satire), and Garshin’s Crimean stories, are well worth picking up, should a copy come the reader’s way.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36