The Austian myth about Russia

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Cultural ties with Russia and the Austrian myth about Russia in the 19th century

Cultural ties between Russian and Austrian empires develop intensively starting from the early 19th century. It is especially true for music and opera. In the 19th century Austrian classics (works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Strausses) becomes an integral part of people’s lives in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and provinces. As for Russian music, it only enters Austrian culture in the late 19th century through the masterpieces of P.I. Tchaikovsky and N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov. Later, in the 20th century, Russian music will be associated with Diaghilev’s Russian seasons, with pieces by I. Stravinsky, S. Rachmaninoff, A.K. Glazunov, and, of course, with F. Chaliapin’s performances in front of Austrian audience.

The perception of Russia by Austrian people goes hand in hand with Russian literature. The first prominent figure in this influence was I.S. Turgenev. He was believed to be both a great writer, who you could learn from, and an artist, who truly portrayed Russian lifestyle as it is – Russian villages, nature, manors, and Russian soul. At the same time, their perception of Turgenev’s works can be characterized as contemptuous: critics talk about his “Eastern”, “uncivilized” manner, noting, alongside all his virtues, the allogeneity of his “Slavic” aesthetics, his “innate” crudity – the European national tradition.[1] Their idea of the “Eastern” manner of Turgenev’s works made them look for some kind of analogue in  modern Austrian literature, where these alien traits, so typical for Turgenev’s works, would be replaced by their “own” ones.[2] Among these analogues, in particular, were works by Sacher-Masoch.

Turgenev entered Austrian culture through a mediator culture: Turgenev became extremely famous in France, where his numerous translations were published and where he took an active part in the literary and political life (it is sufficient to mention the infamous Dreyfus Affair). He first came to France in 1847 and immediately got acquainted with the local beau monde – V. Hugo and G. Sand, and in 1860-1870ss befriended with G. Flaubert, E. Zola, E. de Goncourt, A. Daudet, and Guy de Maupassant. The latter even called himself Turgenev’s apprentice.

French people first got acquainted with Turgenev’s works in the mid-1850s. His first piece translated into French was A Sportsman’s Sketches (although Turgenev himself was outraged by Charrière’s loose interpretation: The memoirs of a Russian squire). Turgenev’s most famous translator was P. Mérimée (in 1863 the novel Fathers and Sons edited by Turgenev was published). Some of his texts Turgenev translated into French himself. Through the French culture his novels reached Austrian audience.

This is not the first time it happened: for instance, Pushkin’s name became famous all over Europe by virtue of Mérimée’s translations. Songs of Western Slavics could not but attract, among others, people from Austro-Hungarian Empire, the third part of population being Slavic peoples. Moreover, the French language was the international language of culture and allowed the Austrians to perceive numerous literary works in French translations.

Especially important for the Russian-Austrian dialogue was a meeting between I.S. Turgenev and the Austrian writer of Jewish origin Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1838 (Lemberg/Lviv) – 1895 (Frankfurt am Main)), the author of a famous novella Venus in Furs, Galician Stories, New Jewish Stories. At his parents’ house Leopold was brought up in the atmosphere of educational liberalism, typical during the reign of  Franz Joseph I. Already when he was a child some propensities could be seen that later made him famous: “Sacher-Masoch found cruelty appealing; he liked to look at pictures, portraying executions, and for reading he preferred “martyr ology”. Turgenev’s short story Mumu, which describes the whims and despotism of a landlady from Orlov, emphasizes the problem of a person’s cruelty fueled by social inequality. Austrian artists took this problem very close to heart, as if in anticipation of “discovering” the irrational, even evil inclination in people in the early 20th century (note in this regard that psychoanalysis – the notion that is so important for European culture – originated from Vienna).

His novella First Love can be called an illustration for Masoch’s Venus in Furs.  The latter tells a story about an arrangement between two lovers, which enables countess von Dunajew to have a total control over her beloved, treating him like a lackey or even a slave. The main character in Turgenev’s novella witnesses his father whipping his young mistress after she had asked him to leave his family for her. Masoch’s novellas portray in a hyperbolic manner the same kind of relationships somewhere in between game and violence.

At the same time, social and psychological motifs of the two artists are clearly different. Whereas for Turgenev the main source of such motifs was the ugly, distorted system of Russian servitude, rigid boundaries between social classes and all-permissiveness among the aristocrats, for Masoch it was, on the one hand, due to his personal, biographical backgrounds and, on the other hand, due to his attitudinal backgrounds, driven by the spirit of the age. A very important figure in his childhood was countess Xenobia, a relative on his father’s side, who was an incredibly beautiful and at the same cruel and lecherous woman. This can be proven by the following records: “Once, when playing with his sisters, Masoch hid in the countess’s bedroom and saw how she brought her lover into the room, and then, in a few minutes her husband came busting into the room with a couple of friends. Countess beat and kicked the three intruders out, her lover fled, and Leopold carelessly betrayed his presence, for what was also beaten by Countess. Yet the boy found it inexplicably pleasant. Soon her husband came back, and Leopold, who was hiding behind the door, heard the whips and the count’s moans”.  Resentment, whip and furs, which Countess adored, became intrinsic motifs in Sacher-Masoch’s works.

[1] Kurnberger F. Turgenjew und die slawische Welt // Kurnberger F. Literarische Herzenssahen: Reflexionen und Kritiken. Wien: Karl Proschaske, 1877. P. 106 – 121.

[2] Poluboyarinova L.N. “And now Turgenev!…” On some peculiarities of the Austrian reception of I.S. Turgenev’s prose. Vestnik SPbGU. Yazyk i literatura [Bulletin of Saint-Petersburg State University. Language and literature]. 2017, Vol. 14, I. 4, pp. 554 – 562. (in Russian)

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