The Austian myth about Russia

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During his first visit to Russia Rilke spent several weeks in Moscow. Leonid Pasternak reminisces: “The Moscow of that time with its countless monasteries, steeples and golden-domed cathedrals, with its gold-and-white Kremlin glittering in the sun and towering over the city was a view of an unearthly beauty even from afar. Thus, it is easy to imagine the extent to which such a tender artist as Rilke was affected by a unique and picturesque image of Moscow…»[1]. Here is what Rilke himself wrote to E.M. Voronina: “Dear Elena, my voice was drowned in the Kremlin bells tolling and my eyes went blind from the shining golden domes… I have found so many intimately close things in a foreign country: dear friends and the Virgin, and in addition – a sunny spring!..»[2] Notably, the aforementioned Rilke’s remarks are close to the emigrants’ memories of the lost motherland, for instance, I. Bunin’s, I. Shmelyov’s.

Then, after a short visit to L. Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, Rilke set off to Kiev. Having visited several Ukrainian cities, Lou and Rainer Maria Rilke transited through Kharkiv and Voronezh to reach Saratov where they took a steamship up the Volga. Rilke had yet another revelation while visiting the Russian outback: not just some provincial town or manor house, but a real remote village near Yaroslavl, and then Nizovka village (Tver Governorate) where he met a peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin. Rilke almost reached a religious ecstasy which is illustrated in his letters of this and later periods. In 1904 he wrote from Rome: “I have had a real Easter only once. It happened during that long, unusual, special, and moving night when there were crowds of people and Ivan the Great Bell Tower tolled and tolled drawing near in the darkness… Yesterday there was singing to the music of Palestrina in St. Peter’s Basilica. But this is nothing. Everything spreads out in this terribly huge, deserted building which reminds of a hollow pupa from which a gigantic dark moth has just emerged. Today, on the other hand, I spent several hours in a small Greek church; there was a patriarch in a canonical dress and through the royal doors of the iconostasis a procession was passing… And at this point I told you, dear Lou: Christ is risen!..»[3].

A few more months Rilke and his companion spent in St. Petersburg: there he got to know Russian art even better, starting from icon painting and ending with fashionable trends in painting and literature. This became the impetus for the popularization of Russian culture in the West.[4] Rilke was planning to translate everything by Gogol into French, he was crying when Lou was reading Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka to him. He read Tyutchev and Fet in the original, translated Lermontov and Lou’s friends Gippius and Sologub. His fascination with Russia found its distinctive reflection in the texts of 1904 – 1905: in Stories of God[5] and a book of symbolist poems The Book of Hours. He himself started writing poems in Russian and even thought of emigration. However, it never happened, even though the cosmopolitan poet who traveled all around the world and saw all sorts of countries never stopped loving Russia with all his heart.

[1] Slepynin O. Tol’ko Rossiya granichit s Bogom… [Only Russia borders with God]. Available at:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rilke R.M.  Sobranie sochinenii: v 3 t. [Collected works in three volumes]. Moscow, Prestizhbuk Publ., 2012. Vol. 3. P. 94

[4] Brutzer S. Rilkes russische Reisen. Königsberg in Preussen, 1934 (reprint: Darmstadt, 1969); Chertkov L. Rilke in Russland. Aufgrund neuer Materilaien. Wien, 1975 (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse. Sitzungsberichte. 301. Band. 2. Abhandlung. Veröffentlichungen der Komission für Literaturwissenschaft № 2); Brodsky P. P. Russia in the Works of Rainer Maria Rilke. Detroit, 1984; Epp G.K. Rilke und Russland. Frankfurt a.M., 1984 (Europäische Hochschulschriften 1. Reihe 726); Kopelew L. Rilkes Märchen-Russland // Russen und Russland aus deutscher Sicht. 19./20. Jahrhundert: Von der Bismarckzeit bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg / Hrsg. von Mechthild Keller unter Mitarbeit von Karl-Heinz Korn. München, 2000. S. 904–937 и др.

[5] Here is an example of a short story from this book called How Treachery Came to Russia:
“Where did you go?” he asked with impatience in his eyes.
“To Russia.”
“Oh, as far as that.” He leaned back and then said, “What sort of a country is it, Russia? A very large one, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s big, and not only that—”
“Was that a stupid question?” Kwald smiled, turning red.
“No, Ewald. Quite the contrary. Your asking what sort of a country it is makes a number of things clear to me. For example, what Russia is bounded by.”
“On the east?” my friend interjected.
I thought for a minute. “No.”
“On the north?” the handicapped man pressed me.
Then I realized something. “Don’t you see,” I said, “looking at maps has spoiled people. There everything is level and flat, and when they’ve located things in terms of directions, they think that’s all there is to it. But a country is not an atlas. It has mountains and gorges. So of course it must touch on something both above and below.”
“Hmm,” my friend reflected. “You’re right. What could Russia border on, on those two sides?” Suddenly the ailing man looked like a little boy.
“You know!” I cried.
“On God, maybe?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “on God.”
Ref.: Rilke R.M.  Sobranie sochinenii: v 3 t. [Collected works in three volumes]. Moscow, Prestizhbuk Publ., 2012.Vol. 1. P. 364.

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