Tuesday, November 27, 2018

I love the masses

‘Evening. Soul-rending melancholy . . . Glory, death, and a prostitute. I left the house exhausted, weakened by unsuccessful work. Nevsky Prospect glowed, moving, rang out, rustling with black skirts, and stirring with the feathers of hats. The sidewalks jumped under my feet, glimmering with the light of lamps in the windows, swinging streetlights, moving, trodden for a thousand nights.’ This is from the early diaries of Nikolay Nikolayevich Punin, a prominent Russian art scholar and writer little known in the West, who was born 130 years ago today.

Punin was born on 28 November 1888 in Helsingfors (now Helsinki), Grand Duchy of Finland, to a Russian army doctor and his wife stationed there. He was schooled in St Petersburg, and studied the history of art at the city’s university from 1907 to 1914. He then worked as an art critic and editor. In 1917, he married Anna Arens and they had one daughter. The following year, he was appointed by Anatoly Lunacharsky (the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar responsible for Ministry and Education) to head the Petrograd Committee for Education (i.e. Narkompros), and to be the People’s Commissar of the Russian and Hermitage Museums.

At the Russian Museum, Punin co-founded the department of iconography and organised major exhibitions for the next 20 or so years. He believed that modern art criticism should be scientific (even trying to reduce the creative process to a mathematical formula), and was among the most widely read Russian writers on the arts in the 1920s.

During the 1920s, and into the 1930s, Punin lived with the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova - they had known each other since before the Revolution. Their home in St Petersburg became a focus of the city’s cultural life; much later the house was turned into a museum dedicated to Akhmatova. When Punin was arrested in the mid-1930s, Akhmatova helped ensure his release by writing to Stalin. Their common-law marriage - but not their friendship - had broken down, for Punin had already begun an affair with a young assistant at the Hermitage, Martha Golubeva, whom he would soon marry.

In 1949, Punin was arrested for the third time (he had also been arrested in 1921) on accusations of ‘anti-Soviet’ activity - having described many of Lenin’s portraits as tasteless. He was sent to the Gulag camp in Vorkuta, northern Russia; and there he died in 1953. There is very little information in English about Punin online, and even his Wikipedia entry is short. However, in 2012 the Dutch publisher Brill brought out an English biography by Natalia Murray, The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde: The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin, which can be previewed at Googlebooks. See also a review of the book at Russian Art + Culture.

Murray opens her introduction with this assessment: ‘Nikolay Punin is not a name widely known in the West. His file has languished in the KGB archives since his death in 1953, and his grave in the Gulag where he died is marked only by a number. Furthermore, his own reputation became submerged under that of his lover, the poet Anna Akhmatova. Proof of this is that the Anna Akhmatova Museum in the House on the Fontanka in St. Petersburg, is in fact in Punin’s old apartment. Yet, during his life, this remarkable individual was one of the most influential figures in the turbulent but exciting arena of post-revolutionary Russian art. The story of modern art in Russia became Punin’s personal fate.’

Punin kept diaries throughout his life, not always religiously but often enough to fill a dozen or so notebooks. Most of these diaries were purchased in the 1970s from Punin’s daughter by the University of Texas (UT) when Sidney Monas, then UT professor of history and Slavic languages was living in Leningrad. In 1999, University of Texas Press published The Diaries of Nikolay Punin 1904-1953 as edited by Monas and the translator Jennifer Greene Krupala. Monas provides a full explanation of how he came to be offered the diaries in his introduction. There is one chapter for each of ten notebooks 1915-1936, as well as a first chapter on ‘Early Materials from the Punin Diaries, 1904-1910’ and a last chapter on ‘Late Materials from the Punin Diaries, 1941-1952’. Some pages can be sampled at Googlebooks and at Amazon. Here are several extracts.

7 September 1916
‘My brother [Leonid] has been killed (1st of Sept.). At dawn on the first he went out with a rear guard of partisans on reconnaissance. Having sent part of the men on a wide sweeping movement behind the German position, he attacked with the rest. They say that a company of Germans suddenly appeared before them, charging at them with bayonets. He quickly ordered a counterattack, but immediately fell, wounded by two bullets. One through the leg, the other through the hip. A machine gunner with his wits about him opened fire on the advancing Germans; he killed them by the dozens and turned the others back. My brother was carried away, but because there was no dressing station or ambulance nearby, and because he did not present himself to have his wounds dressed, he died from loss of blood at 1:30 p.m.’

16 September 1916
‘Germany! - confusion in every heart, memories, alarm, hatred. Germany is damnation, Germany is barbarism, Germany is the enemy. In the chaos, vanity, vaingloriousness of nationalistic sentiments: self-esteem, pride, greed, indeed it is difficult to find peace of soul and clarity, and firmness of thought. Only a madman or a saint can lift his gaze beyond your cruel eyes, oh, masses. When you turn vulgar, it takes great efforts not to rejoice with you, but when you become agitated, only an inhuman force of will or depth of intuition can save one from your nasty eyes. You are agitated and who is safe from you? I am neither madman nor saint, and I am not safe. In the seclusion of my notebook, however, in the cowardice of my silence, pathetic, mute, completely inaudible, I whisper a word in protest against you. I say: Germany is our future, Germany is the only country worthy to exist, Germany has won already or she will win. Germany is the sun of Europe, the golden band on the surface of the ocean, the way of the future. In what political and economic conditions would war not have arisen two years ago? Historically Germany has had only one role in this conflict, the leader of Europe and the revolutionary of Europe’s spiritual order. Germany had matured and realized her maturity, Germany had found a way out of the individualistic morass, of religious weakheartedness, of moral blight. Germany understood before any other country the triumph of the technical world, showed it to Europe, led humanity out of the era of realistic humanism, and opened the era of spiritual technology. Machines and masses, stormy energy, directness and solidity of achievement, an immensity of the expanses of thought, the purity and practicality of this thought, cruelty, anger, temperament, pride, arrogance, organization, socialism (only the socialist leaders are blind: Germany realized socialist ideals before all others, having made them, moreover, viable; people are unequal, and for this very reason there can be a viable form of socialism even under monarchy), and finally, their full justification of animal egoism - these are the qualities in which Germany surpasses Europe, and which Europe will have to study for a long time to come, with varying success. The flight of the German mind is winged, the ideas with which Germany so suddenly provided Europe were so vital that they were immediately recognized by those who weren’t hypocritical, those who knew desire, those who loved life, and who did live. England herself recognized them and realized them with her own extraordinary aplomb, France follows them, Russia strives toward them. To cleanse the world of everything virtuous, soft-hearted, of everything past-oriented and burdensome, to make the world new, to give birth to it again, to save it - Germany was called to this, and Germany accomplished this with exceptional heroism and self-sacrifice. Worthy of immortality, she revealed her soul and bared her heart, and humanity rose up against her will and strength with the hatred and surprise of pitiful mediocrity, not understanding the significance of German organized militarism, or the monarchical socialism of her governing system, or the futurism of her cultural, her spiritual, her moral ideas.’

26 November 1916
‘Evening. Soul-rending melancholy . . . Glory, death, and a prostitute. I left the house exhausted, weakened by unsuccessful work. Nevsky Prospect glowed, moving, rang out, rustling with black skirts, and stirring with the feathers of hats. The sidewalks jumped under my feet, glimmering with the light of lamps in the windows, swinging streetlights, moving, trodden for a thousand nights. Speech, whispers, the touch of hands meeting, the crowd and loneliness. Women in dark coats, beautiful in their exhaustion; women of perfection, adored streetwalkers, stylish libertines, dull, stupid, and shameless; carried along madly, slowly ambling, shuffling in galoshes; and in these faces, the majority of which were hideous, there was, in essence, the single thought of this sex: I am selling myself. The only women brave enough to be sincere!. . . It is precisely for you that I would give my life, my death, my glory . . .’

24 February 1917
‘The mood is extremely tense. It is difficult to do my own work. On Nevsky from time to time crowds gather, Cossacks are riding. The Duma is procrastinating. The failure of the Ministry of Health doesn’t correspond to the tension of the day. By evening rumors of strikes spread through the whole city; the running of the trams was disrupted. People are stocking up on kerosene, candles, water. There really is very little bread; there are lines at the stores; some women cry out from the pain of not receiving any bread.’

13 August 1917
‘How I hate England. I hate it with an animal hatred.’

15 August 1917
‘If I lived out my life, without having aroused a feeling of compassion in any of the people around me, I would think I had lived it worthily.

I love the masses because they don’t evoke in me a feeling of compassion, even when they perish.

To hell with individualistic and personal feelings, I want to live only as a collective.’

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