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Heart-Pine Russia: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth-Century Forest
by Jane T. Costlow

Reviewed by Killian Quigley


Published:

Published by Cornell University Press, 2013   |   270 pages

Land sustains no parochialism, whether ecological, managerial, or aesthetic. Nor is it comprehensible in the absence of these intelligences. It is always all. It is, Jane T. Costlow claims, “bound up both with…particular light, water, and soil…and with those authors who have written about [it].” In something like this spirit, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (1972) lays forth the possibility of protection for “natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.” At its yearly sessions, the World Heritage Committee considers applications for its imprimatur, which may help guard threatened areas from destructive change, as well as invigorate eco-tourism. But the Convention can appear a marvel of ambiguous phraseology: to say nothing of “natural beauty,” how can one define “outstanding universal value”? A partial response comes from Conservation International, which designates as “biodiversity hotspots” regions deemed highly vulnerable and irreplaceably unique. Paradoxically, then, universal value accrues to extreme peculiarity: the ecosystems of greatest global significance reside at the ne plus ultra of the local. Thinking analogically, one might claim that cultural responses to environment – expressed through literature, art, mythology, and history – are as precious as they are unexampled.

In Heart-Pine Russia, Costlow narrows our perspective to nineteenth-century Russian literature and art, and trains our eyes on the trees. There’s something refreshingly sensible about this undertaking: in 2010, the World Bank designated just under fifty percent of Russia’s 6.6 million square miles as “forest area.” (En masse, Russia’s forests amount to a region only slightly smaller than the United States.) So it doesn’t surprise that Russians have created important forest literature and forest art, and that an attentive scholar might have some interesting things to say about the way they’ve done so. Costlow contends that between the mid-nineteenth century and the October Revolution, a coherent “Russian style” of writing about and painting nature distinguished itself. This tradition, in her rendering, often shows greater philosophical sophistication than its Western European or American counterparts. It offers Costlow a distinctive critical lens through which to understand place, one neither wholly material nor altogether abstract. Thus observed, forest, landscape, nation, and globe become refracted through some “suspended matter,” produced at the interface of land and culture, which comprises “the nature of the normally invisible medium in which we live.”

Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), known widely beyond Russia’s borders even in his day, is seen here as the inaugurator of that distinctive “Russian style.” (Henry James once observed that Turgenev’s was “the voice” of Russia, “of those vaguely-imagined multitudes whom we think of more and more…as waiting their turn, in the arena of civilisation, in the grey expanses of the North.”) Costlow finds in “Journey into Polesye” (1857) the characteristic features of the tradition she explores, most particularly opushka, the edge of the forest, a unique space that can produce excitement, discovery, and, sometimes, overwhelming dread. Turgenev doesn’t really identify with the woods, or with the rituals and beliefs he encounters there, but he nonetheless models an attentive, catholic, and occasionally disorienting regard for the forest as obshchezhitie, “a common dwelling – a topography of memory, perception, and physical reality, both literal places and shared languages of meaning.”

If Turgenev raises a number of pivotal questions, Pavel Mel’nikov-Pechersky (1818-83) delivers a series of responses that typify one tributary of Costlow’s “Russian style.” His In the Forests (1871-5), composed on a scale befitting the trans-Volga woodland it takes for its subject, celebrates precisely the premodern aspects of the forest that had given Turgenev pause. Mel’nikov-Pechersky’s novel is an exercise in creative Slavophilic nostalgia, imagining a sort of surrogate Russia in the woods, one where time stands still and antiquated religious practices, Christian and pagan, interfuse. The action centers upon the lives of Old Believers, members of a schismatical sect of the Russian Orthodox Church who dissented from seventeenth-century reforms and were subsequently excommunicated and persecuted. Here, then, another of Heart-Pine Russia’s key themes: in the forest, one might enter – or at least observe – alternative Russias, parallel or gone past, like the kondovaia Rus (“Heart-Pine Rus’”) of Mel’nikov-Pechersky’s novel. These readings are sharp and inventive: in one of her most memorable analyses, Costlow describes the central place occupied by strolling (gulianie) in the novel, as narrative device and even as a kind of linguistic tense or mode. Provocatively, the context of the story’s conception shadows In the Forests in profound irony: Mel’nikov-Pechersky encountered the Old Believer communities of his fiction while working as a bureaucrat, to record their gradual diminution and encourage their assimilation.

These visions could easily be interpreted as fantasies of pure national identity. Unsurprisingly, In the Forests has found admirers among the architects of certain varieties of Russian jingoism. So too Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942), widely known as a painter of popular, patriotic scenes, but revaluated by Costlow for his eye for nature. Nesterov, like Mel’nikov-Pechersky, depicts the opushka as a place without terror, a boundary one might cross in search of “moral and political rebirth.” The artist’s primary study is Saint Sergius of Radonezh, the fourteenth-century ascetic, reformer and statesman who vitalized Russia’s monastic tradition. In his stunning The Boy Bartholomew’s Vision (1889-90) and elsewhere, Nesterov imagines Sergius as a saint of the forest, living in and working with the woodland that fostered a practice of interfused mysticism and pragmatism. When Nesterov’s paintings work well, Costlow argues, they represent a contemplative, immersive, and sustainable relationship between humans and the natural world; when they fail, they do so because they are, like In Rus (1915-16) “programmatic,” incompatible with obshchezhitie and the arboreal ethos of multiplicity.

When Costlow admonishes Nesterov for occasionally slipping into clumsy pedantry, her judgment is something other than purely aesthetic. It is ethical, not to say explicitly political, and is informed by a vision of organic interconnectedness akin to what Timothy Morton has elsewhere termed the “ecological thought.” Costlow perceives this virtue in Nesterov’s better Sergius paintings, but identifies its preeminent emblem in the activist and author Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921). A sort of ethically conscious flaneur of the forest, Korolenko is Heart-Pine Russia’s great hero, lyrical but mature, ecstatic but aware. In the Wild and Empty Places (1890) retreads the trans-Volga forests of Mel’nikov-Pechersky’s epic, but does so with a due degree of skepticism, discovering “ambivalence and paradox” where In the Forests conjured a nostalgic premodern utopia. Costlow makes a convincing case for the acuity – and contemporary relevance – of Korolenko’s In the Famine Year (1891-2), which attempted to galvanize public awareness of the devastating and politically controversial crop shortages of the early 1890s. In a brilliant reading, she claims the text “suggests a growing understanding on the writer’s part of the challenges of getting people to see; and it suggests a shrewd understanding, both psychological and political, of what is at stake in an image of the world.” In this account, Korolenko seems a late-nineteenth century harbinger of present-day struggles to effectively represent and publicize worsening environmental crises.

Costlow wonders openly whether, faced with such struggles, one better inspires change by emphasizing the “divine potential” of nature (à la Nesterov), or by developing an “aesthetic…of violent loss.” In the latter instance, she is thinking particularly of the painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930), who was a central member of the Peredvizhniki, a group of politically engaged realist artists (popularly known as “the Itinerants”) who formed Russia’s first independent artistic association in 1870. Costlow’s analysis of Repin’s Procession of the Cross in the Kursk District (1883) exemplifies her approach to – and insistence upon – reading (and viewing) for the trees. She does not exactly denounce interpretations of the painting that focus exclusively on its depiction of the social inequalities rampant in Russia in the aftermath of the Emancipation of 1861. But because they are not sensitive to the image’s environmental contexts, she claims that such studies are blind to Repin’s primary preoccupation, the alarming deforestation of the Russian countryside. Having alerted us to Procession’s concern for “the Forest Question,” she uncovers it in two inestimably consequential novels. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) is heard, in Costlow’s terms, as a lamentation for ruined woodland. Anna Karenina (1875-7) is seen to reflect Leo Tolstoy’s “environmental ethic.” For each writer, Costlow argues, the “possibility of some deep converse between humans and trees is never far from [their] creative consciousness.”

This dichotomy, between natures divine and destroyed, seems limiting, and Costlow understands it as such. Heart-Pine Russia repeatedly identifies and lauds contingency and complexity in its subjects, and disavows simplistic thinking. A discussion of the phenologist, educator, and writer Dmitrii Kaigorodov (1866-1924) seems to propose his popular natural histories – in which poetry, science, prose, and image intermingle – as models of sophistication. Costlow aims not only to introduce the Russian style to Western canons of nature writing, but to emphasize her sources’ particular – and, she suggests, often superior – value. These paragons of “ambivalence and paradox” are understood to contrast sharply with the “triumphalism” of European Romanticists such as Caspar David Friedrich. There’s a fascinating distinction between Russia and the West at work here, and it has something to do Costlow’s “suspended matter”: unlike the Alpine sublimity of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” (1817) or Sanford Robinson Gifford’s picturesque America, the landscape of European Russia is aesthetically “unremarkable.” Its literature and art, sprung from experience and practical knowledge of the landscape, are thus significantly different. All the same, readers familiar with nineteenth-century Anglophone nature writers will be forgiven for bridling at some of Costlow’s comparisons between Russia and the West, which are often fleeting and at times lopsided.

But this brevity points up one of Heart-Pine Russia’s central theses: the Russian style is significant not insofar as it provides a point of contrast with Western art and literature, but as it exists as a vibrant tradition in its own right. This entails risks, of course, as non-specialist readers may find themselves lost in Costlow’s cultural landscape and powerless to read the signs. More challenging still, Heart-Pine Russia has the potential to further defamiliarize a nation and cultural tradition that, as going geopolitical tensions have illuminated, already seem hopelessly alien to many consumers of Western art and literature. However, it would be unfair to turn this last point too far in the direction of critique, for the disorientation we may experience as Costlow walks us deep into the forests of nineteenth-century Russia is a salubrious confusion. Strolling for the first time in unknown woodlands – seeing, smelling, and hearing the curious and obscure – our experience is happiest and truest when we resist the temptation to interpret our sensations in terms we understand, and allow ourselves to acknowledge and appreciate difference. In its best moments, Heart-Pine Russia produces just this kind of unexpected epiphany. If outstanding universal values exist, this, I’m sure, is one.


Killian Quigley is an outsized Irish person and hummus cuisinier ordinarily resident in Nashville, Tennessee, but temporarily disoriented at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, in Paris, France. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University, where he reads 18th century British and Irish literature.

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