LAND OF THE FIRE-BIRD: The Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie

LAND OF THE FIRE-BIRD: The Beauty of Old Russia

Email this review


An old-fashoned paean to the splendors--in cottage and palace alike--of pre-Revolutionary Russia. It's not as innocuous as it may appear, however, though it is altogether trivial. Russian history (from the adoption of Eastern Christianity in 988) is represented by accounts of the personalities and proclivities of successive rulers--primarily, their taste in decor; secondarily, their amours. Russian art and architecture are described in rhapsodic generalities--while even so distinctive a trait as faithfulness to old models goes unnoted in the zeal to prove the Russians not in thrall to foreign models. Russian literature is presented, like Russian history, in terms of personalities--and the personal relations among them (thus, Turgenev, Dostoievsky, Chekhov, and Gorki are subsumed under Tolstoy); and, like Russian art, in conventional generalities. On Russian music--as distinct from composers, who get the usual personality-treatment--Maasie is simply lost. Ballet, being more tangible, fares slightly better: if there are no sound differentiations, there is at least a record of activity (and the always-striking presence of Diaghilev). What Massie does have some feeling for is the pageantry of everyday life--in ""glamorous St. Petersburg"" at various stages, among the rural peasantry, in turn-of-the-century mercantile Moscow. So you'll find, in the first instance, an amusing comparison between German, Finnish, Polish, and Russian coachmen; and, in the last, a nice dossier on restaurants. (Elsewhere, due attention is paid to such institutions as the Easter egg.) What you won't find is poverty or repression or the revolutionary tradition--or their clear reflection in the arts. Indeed, the commonly-recognized abyss between a small elite and the mass of the population is denied--on the basis of the provision made by Peter the Great for exceptional persons to rise by their own merit. It's an insidiously romantic view of ""Old Russia""--at its best, all detail and no understanding. But, given the authorship, it may well pass (briefly) as cultural history with persons who take FabergÉ ornaments as art.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1980
Publisher: Simon & Schuster