The Provinces and How They Got That Way.

A year ago I quoted from an article by Anne Lounsbery about the odd uniformity of “the provinces” (provintsiia) in Russian literature; now that I am enthusiastically reading her book Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917 I want to quote the start of chapter 3, “Inventing Provincial Backwardness, or ‘Everything is Barbarous and Horrid’ (Herzen, Sollogub, and Others)” (pp. 54ff.), which explains the origin of that view:

“The provincial ball has been described a thousand times”: by 1840, when Alexander Herzen writes “Notes of a Young Man” (sketches based on his experience in exile in the Russian provinces), he feels obliged to assume that his reader already knows what to expect from any description of “provincial” mores. The same assumption will be implicit in his 1846 novel Who Is to Blame?, which has its origins in the sketches. Here Herzen claims there is no need to specify the location of the town where the action takes place (it “resembles all the others”), though he nonetheless enters into a fairly detailed account of daily life in the unnamed gubernskii gorod. From the 1830s through the 1850s, many writers followed this pattern: they rehearsed what they themselves repeatedly acknowledged to be clichés of provincial life, trotting out the same topoi even as they insisted that everybody already knew all about what they were describing, even to the point that insisting on the banality of the trope became part of the trope itself—and they did this despite the fact that this way of conceiving provintsiia was in fact quite new.

The current chapter considers not only how a new image of the Russian provinces took shape in literary texts, but also how these texts insisted that the image was old: by the 1830s, not only is it assumed that the provinces epitomize all that is grimly familiar; it is further assumed that such has always been the case, and that everyone has always known it. In the texts analyzed here, the supposedly timeless, ahistorical nature of provintsiia becomes both a stereotype and a preoccupation. And in a slightly later period, this is the image of provintsiia that will come to serve as a static non-modernity against which other forms of time and historicalness take on value.

In order to understand the novelty of the conception, consider what came before: before the idea of provincial stasis and anonymity took hold, Russian writings about places outside Petersburg and Moscow assumed neither temporal stasis nor an undifferentiated wasteland characterized by repetition, imitation, and distortion. It was once possible to see provintsiia as a series of diverse and particular places, and to do so in a variety of ways. A 1769 poem by Mikhail Chulkov, for example, lists Russian cities according to the products for which each was famous. […] Chulkov might well have been baffled by Vladimir Sollogub’s assertion that in the provinces “everything’s the same, the same, the same,” or by Anton Chekhov’s later claim that a traveler might easily mistake “Sumy for Gadyach, or Ekaterinburg for Tula.”

By the second third of the nineteenth century, thanks to a shift traceable in part to the Catherine-era policies discussed in the introduction (e.g., legislation aimed at standardizing provincial architecture and urban planning), even an ancient city with a distinctive and well-documented past—a clear identity based in history—could be reduced to just another gubernskii gorod. Take Vladimir: once a capital in its own right, undeniably “a center of political and symbolic power,” under Catherine it became merely one of the empire’s many administrative towns. After being designated a provincial capital (gubernskii gorod) in the autocracy’s reformed administrative structure, the town was rebuilt to reflect its new status: streets were laid out on a grid that replaced the crooked medieval pattern, for instance, and only those merchants who could afford to build houses conforming to new architectural guidelines were permitted to reside on the main avenue. Vladimir was on its way to becoming not a place that was famous for its cherries (as it had been) or its glorious medieval past (which the current autocracy preferred to ignore), but rather what Turgenev’s Bazarov would later call “a town like any other,” gorod kak gorod. By 1836 a visiting Moscow nobleman would direct his attention mostly toward the town’s unfashionable ways (“they still wear wide sleeves … retired men parade in their old uniforms … few speak French”).

A few years later in Sollogub’s Tarantas (1840–45), a tourist seeking information about local history is told that there are no books about Vladimir: the Vladimir bookseller offers him a book about Tsargrad instead […]. Finally, in his memoirs Herzen takes Sollogub’s non-description of not-Vladimir as a way of explaining why Vladimir requires no description: in recounting his experience there as an internal exile, Herzen assumes that readers already know exactly what this provincial town looks like, since the inn has already been “faithfully described in Sollogub’s Tarantas.”

She goes on to describe Prince Ivan Dolgorukov’s posthumously published travel memoirs, like «Славны бубны за горами, или Путешествие мое кое-куда 1810 года» [The grass is always greener, or My journey hither and thither in 1810], as “the road not taken”; Dolgorukov (who said “I would have gone to Paris, since I like sensation, uproar, theater, luxury, et cetera, et cetera, and where is there more of all that than in France? But he who has neither estate nor money lives as God decrees,” so he headed for Odessa instead) described each town he visited and judged them on their merits. But by the time it was published in 1869, that kind of approach was long forgotten. (Incidentally, I made an attempt to read Herzen’s famous Who Is to Blame?, but it was so boring I gave up.)


  1. It just occured to me that “Life Is Elsewhere” may be a riff on the Life is Everywhere painting title.

  2. There’s also the Kundera novel.

  3. January First-of-May says

    …OK, did anyone else expect a neat geography article about Killiniq, Parker’s Notch, and Flin Flon?

    (Someone should totally write that. I would have done it myself if I thought I had the right kind of expertise.)

  4. Stu Clayton says

    the Life is Everywhere painting

    Pleasant painting. I suppose the window has wires across it to prevent bird life getting in everywhere.

    At the back is an old coot gazing out another window, perhaps at the life to come, which is nowhere.

  5. Yes, this is one of those songs that explain everything. I liked “Nol” a lot in the 90s. A man and a cat is even better and even more explanatory.

  6. David Marjanović says

    insisting on the banality of the trope became part of the trope itself

    The comicbook series Mort & Phil is about two extremely stupid intelligence agents. Why are they never, like, fired? At one point the boss simply says: “Even though it’s actually pointless, I’ll call Mort & Phil to”…

    There are other cases, too, of the great Ibáñez the Greatest having a deeply stupid idea, making fun of it, and then using it anyway. “Extraterrestrial shrink viruses! Have you ever heard such baloney?” says Mort or Phil on a title page, falling over the other laughing. Then you turn the page and find that’s what the story is about.

  7. John Cowan says
  8. @D.O.: “Yes, this [Lenin Street] is one of those songs that explain everything.”

    Exactly. The other one, The Man and the Cat, also explains everything but in a different way. “The poor man’s ailing brain is cramping” encapsulates half of Dostoevsky.

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