Where the Russian has the advantage over us is that he is much less than we the slave of convention. It never occurs to him that he should do anything he does not want to because it is expected of him. See more
Why he bore with a certain equanimity the oppression of centuries (and he surely bore it with equanimity,for it is inconceivable that a whole people could long endure a tyranny which they found intolerable) is that though politically coerced he was personally free.
The Russian's personal freedom is much greater than the Englishman's. He is bound by no rules. He eats what he likes at the hours that suit him, he dresses as he chooses without regard to common usage (the artist will wear a bowler hat and a stiff collar as unconcernedly as the lawyer a sombrero) ; his habits seem to him so natural that everyone else accepts them as natural too; though often he talks for effect he never seeks to appear other than he is, he is only inclined to exaggerate himself a little; he is not shocked by a position he does not share; he can accept anything and he is perfectly tolerant of other people's eccentricities in thought or behaviour. There is a deep streak of masochism in Russians. Sacher Masoch was himself a Slav and first drew notice to the malady in a volume of short stories which are not otherwise remarkable. According to the reminiscences of his wife he was himself a victim of the state he described. Briefly, it is a sexual desire in a man to be subjected to ill treatment, physical and mental, by the woman he loves. For example, Sacher Masoch himself insisted on his wife going for a trip with a lover while he, disguised as a footman, suffering agonies of jealousy, performed for the couple a variety of menial services. In Sacher Masoch's stories the women are described as large and strong, energetic, audacious and cruel. They use men with every sort of indignity. Russian fiction is full of characters of this sort. Dostoievsky's heroines are of this overbearing type; tenderness, sweetness, gentleness, charm do not appeal to the men who love them; on the contrary they find a horrible delight in the outrages to which they are exposed. They want to abase themselves. Turgenev's heroines are intelligent, alert, active and enterprising, while the men are weak of will, dreamers incapable of action. It is a characteristic of Russian fiction, and I imagine it corresponds to a deep-rooted instinct in the Russian character. No one can have lived among Russians without being struck by the aggressive way in which women treat men. They seem to take a sensual pleasure in humiliating them before others; they are contentious and brutal in their conversation; the men will endure things said to them that few Englishmen would tolerate; you will see them flush at a gibe, but make no attempt to retaliate; they are femininely passive, they cry easily.
The Russian sets store on self-abasement because it comes easily to him; he can accept humiliation because to humiliate himself gives him a singular sensual gratification.
The poverty of types in Russian fiction is rather surprising. You meet the same people, under a variety of names, not only in the works of the same author but in the works of others. Alyosha and Stavrogin are the two prominent and marked types. They seem to haunt the imagination of Russian writers, and it may be supposed that they represent the two sides of Russian character, the two persons whom every Russian feels more or less in himself. And it may be that it is the presence in him of these two irreconcilable selves which makes the Russian so unbalanced and so contradictory.
It is humour which discerns the infinite diversity of human beings, and if Russian novels offer only a restricted variety of types it is perhaps because they are singularly lacking in humour. In Russian fiction you will look in vain for wit and repartee, badinage, the rapier thrust of sarcasm, the intellectual refreshment of the epigram, or the lighthearted jest. Its irony is coarse and obvious. When a Russian laughs he laughs at people and not with them; and so the objects of his humour are the vapours of hysterical women, the outrageous clothes of the provincial, the antics of the inebriated. You cannot laugh with him for his laughter is a little ill-mannered. The humour of Dostoievsky is the humour of a bar loafer who ties a kettle to a dog's tail.
Few persons can have gone to a convivial gathering of Russians without noticing that they take their liquor sadly. They weep when they are drunk. They are very often drunk. The nation suffers from Katzenjammer. See more
It would be an amusing thing if the prohibition of vodka took away from Russia the trait which sentimentalists in Western Europe have found such an engaging subject for their meditation.
The patriotism of the Russians is a singular thing; there is a great deal of conceit in it; they feel themselves different from other people and flatter themselves on their difference; they speak with self-satisfaction of the ignorance of their peasants; they vaunt their mysteriousness and complexity. See more
They repeat that with one face they look to the west and with the other to the east; they are proud of their faults - like a boorish man who tells you he is as God made him - and will admit with complacency that they are besotted and ignorant, incoherent of purpose and vacillating in action; but in that complex feeling which is the patriotism one knows in other countries, they seem deficient. I have tried to analyze what this particular emotion is myself consist of. To me the very shape of England on the map is significant, and it brings to my mind pellmell a hundred impressions, the white cliffs of Dover and the tawny sea, the pleasant winding roads of Kent and the Sussex downs, St. Paul’s and the Pool of London; scraps of poetry, the noble ode of Collins and Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gipsy and Keats’ Nightingale, stray lines of Shakespeare’s and the pages out of English history, Drake with his ships, and Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth; Tom Jones and Dr. Johnson; and all my friends and the posters at Victoria Station; then some vague feeling of majesty and power and continuity; and then, heaven knows why, the thought of a barque in full sail going down the Channel—Whither, O splendid ship, thy white sails crowding—while the setting sun hangs redly on the edge of the horizon. These feelings and a hundred others make up an emotion which makes sacrifice easy, it is an emotion compact of pride and longing and love, but it is humble rather than conceited, and it does not preclude a sense of humour. Perhaps Russia is too large for sentiments so intimate, its past too barren of chivalry and high romance, its character too indefinite, its literature too poor, for the imagination to embrace the country, its history and culture, in a single emotion. Russians will tell you that the peasant loves his village. His outlook goes no further. And when you read histories of Russia you are amazed to find how little the feeling of nationality has meant to one age after another. It is a startling incident when a wave of patriotism has arisen to drive out an invader. The general attitude has been one of indifference to his presence on the part of those not actually afflicted by it. It is not by chance that Holy Russia bore so long and so submissively the yoke of the Tartar. Now it causes no indignation that the Central Powers may seize portions of Russian soil: the possibility is dismissed with a shrug and the words: "Russia is large enough anyway."
I can't think of a single Russian novel in which one of the characters goes to a picture gallery.
I often see brooding over the crowd on the Nevsky an extraordinary, a horrifying figure. It seems hardly human. It is a little misshapen dwarf, perched strangely on a tiny seat at the top of a stout pole high enough to bring him above the heads of the passers-by; and the pole is upheld by a sturdy peasant who collects the alms of the charitable. The dwarf sits on his perch like a monstrous bird and the effect is increased by some thing birdlike in his head, but the strange thing is that the head is finely shaped, the head of a young man, with a great hooked nose and a bold mouth. See more
The eyes are large, rather close together, and they stare with an unwinking fixity. The temples are hollow, the cheeks wan and sunk. The strange beauty of the features is more than commonly striking because in Russia as a rule features are indistinct and flat. It is the head of a Roman of the Empire in a sculpture gallery. There is some thing sinister in the immobility of the creature, watching the crowd with the intentness of a bird of prey and yet seeing nothing, and that fierce bold mouth is curved into the shadow of a sardonic smile. There is something terrifying in the aloof ness of the creature, contemptuous and yet indifferent, malicious and yet tolerant. It is like the spirit of irony watching the human race. The people pass to and fro and they put into the peasant’s box kopecks and stamps and notes.