Mir Iskisstva cover 1899 by Maria Yakunchikova.

Mir Iskisstva cover 1899 by Maria Yakunchikova.

Peer-reviewed articles Losing the Past Social Melancholy and Modernizing Discourse of Cultural Heritage Preservation

How can the loss of connection with history be experienced and expressed? The relationship with the past is difficult to capture and describe, although at some historic moments the emotional connection with the past becomes pivotal. This article introduces the debates on loss and cultivating the sense of losing the past in modernizing Russia in the late 19th – early 20th century. It contributes to the history of emotions, analyzing the discourse on the disappearance of Russian cultural history cultivated by intellectual and artistic circles around the journals Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo in the late Russian Empire, and tracing distinct voices that problematized the relation to earlier times in Russia and promoted the preservation of Russian cultural and historical monuments. The article concludes that the discourse of losing the connection with Russia’s own past played an important role in forming the discourse and practices of Russian heritage preservation.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 46-56
Published on balticworlds.com on October 8, 2020

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How can the loss of connection with history be experienced and expressed? The relationship with the past is difficult to capture and describe, although at some historic moments the emotional connection with the past becomes pivotal. This article introduces the debates on loss and cultivating the sense of losing the past in modernizing Russia in the late 19th – early 20th century. It contributes to the history of emotions, analyzing the discourse on the disappearance of Russian cultural history cultivated by intellectual and artistic circles around the journals Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo in the late Russian Empire, and tracing distinct voices that problematized the relation to earlier times in Russia and promoted the preservation of Russian cultural and historical monuments. The article concludes that the discourse of losing the connection with Russia’s own past played an important role in forming the discourse and practices of Russian heritage preservation.
Keywords: Cultural heritage, the late Russian Empire, vandalism, monuments, melancholy.

Nowadays the cultural heritage preservation discourse is significantly institutionalized. There are multiple national and international organizations that work with the question of preservation on routine basis following well-developed legal foundations. However, in a historical perspective the institutionalization of the cultural heritage preservation discourse is a relatively new phenomenon. Just a hundred years ago, private initiatives played a more active role than government policies in the practice of cultural heritage preservation.
This article makes connection between cultural policies studies and the study of that historical epoch which developed a special taste for publicly expressed feelings such as boredom, gloom, yearning, and melancholy as well as emotional engagement with the question of cultural heritage preservation. It claims that the discussions on the preservation of cultural heritage were fueled by social melancholy, a publicly expressed yearning in relation to the loss of Russian cultural tradition. It was not only pure scientific interest that inspired Russian cultural studies in the late Russian Empire, but also personal passion to save existing old cultural objects from disappearing.
It was the time when the sense of a premonition of a civil catastrophe was common. Pessimism had established itself as a cultural trend. The classic work on European melancholy was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West [Der Untergang des Abendlandes], the first volume of which was published in 1918. Europe was indeed going through a period of high turbulence with wars and revolutions, immense social changes and the destruction of old traditions, and history and time became special objects of modern sensibility.
The aim of this article is to introduce the debates published in three pre-revolutionary journals that actively developed the theme of emotional connection with the past, and simultaneously promoted the ideas of cultural heritage preservation. This article describes those individuals’ passion, which later influenced the establishment of 20th century cultural heritage preservation institutions in the Soviet Union and even internationally.
The analysis in this article uses the history of emotions as its research framework, and focuses on the concept of social melancholy developed by Mark Steinberg for the analysis of the cultural history of pre-revolutionary Russia. This article claims that during the time of the late Russian Empire, or speaking from the perspective of cultural history, the Silver Age, the Russian aesthetic and intellectual elite, united around the journals Mir Iskusstva [The Worlds of Art] (1898—1904), Starye Gody [Bygone Years] (1907—1916), and Iskusstvo [Art] (1905) and following international intellectual trends, addressed the task of the appropriation of Russian history and creatively modernized the relationship with the Russian past.
The article is composed in three parts. Part one provides a theoretical background for the study of social melancholy — the sense of the loss of Russian cultural identity and the disappearance of material culture. It points to the connection between social melancholy and the construction of Russian cultural history.
Parts two and three describe what was new in the Silver Age’s attitude to the Russian tradition, namely the new rhetoric that emerged to express the relation to the past. Cultural preservation enthusiasts developed a deeply emotional way of talking about the disappearance of Russian traditions, introducing a new historical sensibility in relation to cultural heritage, which found its expression less in academic studies than in the artistic practices of writers, painters, poets, musicians, and cultural journalists. The second part describes this new rhetoric of the disappearing past, using the analysis of articles in the art journals Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody, and the short-lived Iskusstvo. The third part looks closely at the Silver Age’s rhetoric of heritage preservation and the use of the notion of vandalism. It seeks to reveal the connection of these ideas with the general European reaction to fast growing industrialism and outlines the ground for the emergence of ideas on cultural heritage preservation that were significantly developed later in the 20th century.

Three pre-revolutionary art journals

Mir Iskusstva (1898—1904) was initiated by the St. Petersburg group of art enthusiasts with the same name and was dedicated to developing the connection between Russian and international art. The driving force behind this journal was cultural entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev (1872—1929) and artist and writer Alexandre Benois (1870—1960). Starye Gody (1907—1916) was also produced in St. Petersburg by publisher and editor Petr Veiner (1879—1931), one of the founders of the Museum of Old Petersburg (founded in 1907), a museum of local history and culture in St. Petersburg. The journal aimed at representing the history of Russian culture and supporting public interest in art and craft collecting. Iskusstvo: Zhurnal Khudizhestvennyi i Khudozhestvenno-kriticheskii [Art: The Journal of Art and Art Criticism] was published in Moscow by Nikolai Tarovatyi (1876—1906) in 1905, and was meant as a continuation of the work started by Mir Iskusstva. All three journals ceased to exist after the revolution 1917: Mir Iskusstva was closed already in 1904 as the editors’ group felt that its mission was fulfilled, as well as due to difficulty with financing the publication; Starye Gody was closed due to the turbulence of the revolutionary period; and Iskusstvo was closed due to Tarovatyi’s early death.
All three journals analyzed in this article clearly express concern about the destruction of cultural monuments as an outcome of rapid industrialization in Russia in the late 19th — early 20th century. Modern industrial society at the turn of the century tried to exploit not only natural or human but also symbolic resources, including historical and cultural monuments, transforming them into “cultural heritage” — pointing out the value of historical artefacts for the national identity as well as the responsibility to preserve them for future generations. Thus, this article interprets the appropriation of cultural history in the context of the general trend of Fin-de-Siècle society, seeking inspiration, justification and a basis for modern society in old art, craft and architecture.
The study of the Silver Age, the period in Russian history with an intensive cultural life, coinciding with the last decade of the Russian Empire, has an established academic tradition. One general research field is the study of aesthetic development representing the work of multiple artistic and literary groups as well as artistic trends such as impressionism, symbolism, rayonism, futurism, cubism, etc. in the arts; and symbolism, acmeism, futurism, etc. in literature. Another well-developed research field is the analysis of Russian culture within the framework of the construction of the national idea. Thus, the ways in which the Russian Empire modernized were often analyzed from the perspective of Russian singularity, its special historical destiny, rather than as part of general European history, although the comparative approach has also been introduced into the study of Russia.
Despite being quite original, cultural development in the late Russian Empire followed European trends in many respects. The interest in cultural heritage was promoted by such civil societies as Mir Iskusstva and The Society for the Protection and Preservation of the Monuments of Art and Antiquity in Russia, the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, and the Bund für Heimatschutz and Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk in Germany. Intellectual and artistic circles in both Russia and the rest of Europe criticized the positivistic enthusiasm for progress as well as the rapid industrial development that led to the destruction of historic monuments and traditional ways of living. Instead they drew attention to the past, praising the arts and crafts of bygone times. They searched for artistic value in history rather than in the future, pointing out the dangers of the idea of rootless progress. Russian artistic and intellectual groups of the Silver Age, united by the idea of preserving Russian history, demonstrated openness to and knowledge of international culture. To become a part of the European art scene was one of the main goals of Mir Iskusstva’s members. Thus, their interest in the national cultural heritage was intertwined with the ideas of aesthetic cosmopolitanism, to use a contemporary concept — since the study of the national past was a popular European trend, originating in the Gothic revival in England as early as the late 1740s.

Social melancholy and Russian tradition

The influential article “Morning and Melancholy” by Sigmund Freud, written in 1917, the year the Russian Empire ended, introduced a new category that enabled the notion of melancholy to be considered for the analysis of the collective imagination. In this article Freud explained melancholy in comparison with the grief: both feelings related to the loss of the object, but in melancholy, as Freud claimed, the patient “cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost. This, indeed, might be so even when the patient was aware of the loss giving rise to the melancholia, that is, when he knows whom he has lost but not what it is he has lost in them”. Here Freud defines the narcissistic character of melancholy, its orientation on the self.
In social melancholy, the feeling of missing the past helps to recall what has gone and include it in constructing the “self” of a modern person, a suffering individual who experiences the groundlessness of existence in the modern world that destroys traditions and old ways of life, and talks about “loss, doubt, despair, and disenchantment”.
Social melancholy plays an important role here — the fantasy of the lost old world, which has the appeal of the original, forms the idea of old artefacts as valuable cultural and historic monuments, and transforms them into what nowadays is understood as the symbolic capital of a nation. Thus, exactly like personal melancholy, social melancholy can have a constructive aspect, filling in a void in a nation’s collective identity.
Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev (1794—1856) in his Philosophical Letters (1826—1831) described Russian tradition as present in its absence. His works played a significant role in forming Russian melancholic rhetoric on the lack of tradition. He claimed that other European countries had paid attention to their history, while in Russia the habit of caring about its own past was nonexistent. This became an influential idea that formed Russian self-perception up to the revolution in 1917, a colossal social and political shift, which brought a new type of history writing. This absence of tradition was experienced as a painful loss of something that at the same time was considered as never having properly existed — the absence of the opportunity to be like other Europeans with their attention to their own history. The shared relation to this absence of tradition and the collective imagination of what had been lost was instrumental in constructing the collective identity in the late Russian Empire.
Steinberg sees the period between two revolutions 1905—1917 as an “unprecedented ‘epoch of moods’ (epokha nastrienii)”. He develops a link between the study of Russian modernity and the study of melancholy as a social feeling, and demonstrates that “Russian melancholy of the early twentieth century […] was a mood understood to exist primarily in the public sphere”. Together with Valeria Sobol in the introduction to Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe, Steinberg develops the idea that emotions are proved to be not just personal but a social phenomenon and can be culturally constructed. For Sobol and Steinberg, social emotions both react to and shape experiences. They claim that an emotional culture exists, which is influenced by and has an influence on “norms, habits, values, moral codes, and discourses, especially about self and society”. As a result, this social perspective on emotions brings historicity in sensibility. At the time of the late Russian Empire, as Steinberg notices, melancholy had its roots in “a disordered world” and was “intensely public and even popular”.
This public expression of emotions was not something specific to Russia but rather characteristic of general European self-perception at that time. The ideas on the preservation of cultural history, material and immaterial, were obviously influenced by this general perception of the epoch, facing impending disaster. The common feeling, expressed in various publications, was the sense of failure to catch something that had just emerged from oblivion and was going back into the darkness of destruction, together with the disappearing world of old Europe and the Russian Empire.

Will it be missing forever?

The absence of something which did not even exist — a missing object — can cause even stronger emotions than real loss. This section analyses the discourse on the sense of the missing connection with history during the late Russian Empire. The cultural epoch of the Silver Age in Russia brought together a variety of social actors around the theme of cultural heritage preservation: scholars such as Nikodim Kondakov (1844—1925) or Dmitry Aynalov (1862—1939), intellectuals, artists and writers such as the members of Mir Iskusstva, and connoisseurs, collectors and organizers of new cultural institutions, such as Princess Maria Tenisheva (1858—1928), founder of the Museum of Russian Antiquity in Smolensk. This cultural epoch united scholarship with media popularization and self-educated enthusiasm as well as self-funded curatorship and collectorship.
In the period of modernization, the loss of connections with the historical past and cultural tradition was experienced as a cultural and social catastrophe that many in intellectual circles felt obliged to try to prevent. The feeling of the melancholy of loss shaped the discourse on the preservation of cultural artefacts, leading to the establishment of institutions to preserve the cultural heritage — museums, private collections, journals, educational programs, and so on. This in its turn stimulated the discussion about the necessary cultural policy for heritage preservation. The cultural discourse of appropriation of the past was developed in a style of very personal emotional attachment. Russia’s own past, which was considered to have just been discovered as an object of study and admiration in the 19th century by scholars and Slavophile writers, was immediately experienced by cultural actors of the Silver Age as being lost. The general sentiment was that without active engagement the disappearing past — Russian cultural history — would be gone forever.
The theme of the careless attitude towards Russian historical and cultural monuments was not invented during the Silver Age. As early as 1883, Russian art historian Alexandr Vasil’chikov (1832—1890), director of the Hermitage from 1879—1888, wrote:

New architects in the West, having renounced eclecticism and too slavish imitation of Vignola, began to seek inspiration in the monuments of folk antiquity. While in Russia, these monuments are destroyed with impunity or rebuilt in the most ignorant way, whereby the last traces of antiquity are erased, in the rest of Europe they know how to protect them.

Nevertheless, this was still an expression of professional duty by the director of Russia’s most significant museum and was addressed primarily to a professional audience. Archeologist and art historian Georgii Filimonov (1828—1898) expressed similar professional concern. In 1879 he underlined the absence of interest in the Russian cultural tradition even among representatives of the teaching staff at Moscow University:

The foremost figures of Western enlightenment in Russia, with its best representatives — professors of Moscow University who had just returned from abroad and brought the last word in art criticism from there — could not naturally look at Russian art except from the point of view of Western science, and the latter, as we know, did not know and did not want to know Russian art. Nor was it much more widely known to Russians who were engaged in art at that time, both theorists and scholars as well as practitioners and artists.

At the end of the 19th century, intellectual discussions on cultural heritage in Russia had become fueled by the intensified fear of the total loss of connection with the past. Russian art historian and journalist Nikolai Wrangel (1880—1915) wrote highly emotionally in 1910 about the disappearing culture of Russian manor houses (usad’by): “It seems a terrible and impossible nightmare, that this reality, which is so close to us, no longer exists and has been carried away irrevocably.” Just few years earlier, artist Ivan Bilibin (1876—1942) had written in Mir Iskusstva: “Only recently, as if it were America, we discovered an old artistic Rus’, vandalized and mutilated, covered with dust and mold. But under the dust she was beautiful, so beautiful that the immediate impulse of those who opened it is fully understandable: restore it! Restore it!” These were not professionals from established cultural institutions addressing a narrow professional circle, but independent writers for whom publishing was an enthusiastically active, free-time occupation — cultural heritage preservation was a passion for them. They appealed to a wide audience in their texts on the pages of popular journals that they established, edited and published themselves.
This feeling of loss of the past consequently replaced another sententia widespread in Russian intellectual circles — the statement of Russian cultural backwardness. Highly authoritative Russian philologist, art historian and folklorist Fedor Buslaev (1818—1897) claimed that Russians themselves accepted the German and French disparagement of Russian cultural history as dark and lacking in cultural development. According to art historian Dmitrii Ainalov, Buslaev evaluated foreign scholarship on Russia as often negative and not very informed about its own subject of study. Buslaev saw an example of such an approach in the works of Karl Schnaase (1798—1875), a German art historian, author of Geschichte der bildenden Kunste [History of the Fine Arts], where Russian culture was described as suffering from the lack of its own ideas, and as being significantly culturally defined by Mongols, whose influence contributed to the creation of a tasteless aesthetic mix.
In 1877 Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814—1879) published L’art russe: ses origines, ses éléments constructifs, son apogée, son avenir [Russian Art: Its Origins, Its Constitutive Elements, Its Apogee, Its Future], a book on Russian art that was also criticized by Buslaev. In his work, Viollet-le-Duc repeated the idea about the corruption of Russian architecture due to Asian influences. Buslaev in turn aimed at demonstrating the generic connection of Russian art to Bulgarian and Byzantine, not Asian art.
Buslaev launched yet another theme that became important for the Russian self-image: stimulating an emotional relation with the past by introducing the discussion on Russian religious creativity. He claimed that although it lacks the vivid colors and beautiful forms of Italian and French art as well as their naturalism, Russian art embodied other important values: strictness, the true religious character of painting, lost by the West.
The most influential journals warning of losing the past were Mir Iskusstva, and Starye gody in St.Petersburg and Iskusstvo, published by Nikolai Tarovatyi in Moscow. The pivotal organization for the development of cultural heritage preservation ideas was Obshchestvo zashchity i sokhraneniia v Rossii pamiatnikov iskusstva i stariny [The society of the protection and preservation of the monuments of art and antiquity in Russia], established in St. Petersburg, and spread across Russia in more than 20 branches. Opposing themselves to the ignorance of the masses, these intellectual circles helped to construct the culturally cultivated sense of losing the past, as well as inspiring and propagating a strong emotional connection to Russian cultural history.
The journal Starye Gody was especially influential in nurturing the feeling of loss. It is symptomatic that the journal’s popularity began with the Nikolai Wrangel’s article “Zabytye mogily” [“Forgotten graves”] about graves at Lazarev cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
The oblivion vis-à-vis cultural history stimulated strong feelings of sadness and powerlessness among contributors to Starye Gody as they tried to document disappearing treasures. They found the charm of old mansion houses especially attractive and travelled to document their passing. One example of the expression of highly emotional suffering at cultural loss is the description of a vanished mansion house in Lialichi:

To preserve what has survived, a significant budget will have to be spent only on the most necessary repairs of this palace construction… I’m not talking about restoring the palace’s art, an idea that is so seductive and seems so possible, thanks to paintings and architecture that have miraculously survived. Meanwhile, it is absolutely necessary to save not only the palace, but the whole estate. After all, apart from Moscow estates, this is the only example of an estate in Russia where the general ensemble has survived, where you can feel the former breadth of artistic ideas and feel a sad pleasure from dying but still audible echoes of the past.

A contributor to Starye Gody constantly faced what he or she interpreted as the unfair treatment of the cultural heritage and experienced a strong feeling of anxiety from witnessing the disappearance of the past. In a report “Vsio to zhe” [“Still the same”] by E. M. Kuz’min, a passionate description is given of the scene of demolition of an old bell, “Sokol”, from Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. For those workers who demolished the bell, it was just “old, useless”. Kuz’min hopelessly complained that the words of connoisseurs appreciating the objects of the past are not heard: “We write and write — and in the depths of our hearts a doubt scratches from time to time — why? If they want to destroy — they will destroy, if they want to damage — they will damage, and not out of hate, but not even knowing what they are doing.”
Special attention in Russian cultural heritage preservation debates was given to the disappearance of the church’s material heritage. Under Peter I, the patriarchy was abolished and was replaced by the Most Holy Governing Synod, which also became responsible for church property. Some members of the church demonstrated their interest in material culture, for example, members of church archaeological societies. Nevertheless, the level of attention to the religious cultural heritage among clergy was low. Bilibin wrote on this subject:

The state of ancient churches is most pitiable. Being in the hands of uncultured people, they are vandalized or destroyed by ‘repairs’ until no longer recognizable … Sometimes, after a bishop has made a detour of a known territory, dozens of old churches are sentenced to destruction as unnecessary trash.

Even before the Revolution, some intellectuals discussed the idea of the musealization of valuable church objects in order to preserve them.
The discourse on the past in Russian intellectual and artistic circles therefore rotated around the theme of finding and preserving something which had already almost disappeared. The reaction to the objective changes brought by modernization and industrialization led to the development of an aesthetic sensibility towards disappearing history, and found its expression in the rhetoric of loss.

Cultural heritage preservation and vandalism

In the late Russian Empire the modernizing discourse on vandalism — the thoughtless destruction of the cultural and historical monuments — was accompanied and at the same time produced by the discourse on cultural heritage preservation and the revitalizing of old artistic traditions. The collective sense of missing historical treasures expressed in the shared feeling of melancholy, as mentioned in part one, was not just negative. It simultaneously nourished the idea of cultural heritage preservation, stimulated the formation of a Russian identity, and helped the Russian intelligentsia to follow the general European fashion on the medieval revival.
In Russian society — polarized between Westernizers and Slavophiles — the special character of the Miriskussniki art group’s ideas was their interest in promoting both the modernization of art and at the same time, the protection of historical monuments. The artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875—1957), a member of the Mir Iskusstva group, wrote in his memoirs in 1955:

In the broadest program of the “World of Art”, in addition to the propaganda of contemporary Western art, the connection with which our art world was so lacking, there was also propaganda and, it may be said, the rehabilitation of our own art of earlier years. Much has been forgotten: our wonderful 18th century was ignored; the beauty of St. Petersburg, glorified by Pushkin, was interpreted as an official, barracks style.

The general rhetoric of the circle of Mir Iskusstva, Starye gody and Iskusstvo was that being forgotten, the historical monuments would fail to withstand the destructive force of the appropriation of space by growing urbanization, and the appropriation of resources by rapidly developing industries. Here the conflict of different types of modernization and appropriation became evident: cultural vs. economic, artistic vs. mass-produced. An attempt was made to resolve this conflict, for example, by such cultural actors as Maria Tenisheva and Savva Mamontov (1841—1918) who established workshops with the aim of preserving and developing traditional Russian crafts in the Talashkino and Abramtsevo artistic colonies, respectively. The task of artists and intellectuals involved in the Talashkino and Abramtsevo estate artistic groups was to balance these two types of appropriation — capturing the cultural heritage and supporting it — and to find solutions that would resist the homogenizing force of industrial capital.
Paradoxically, such defenders of folk culture as Tenisheva were dissatisfied with the quality of the handicrafts available in late 19th — early 20th century Russia. These enthusiasts of traditional Russian craftsmanship felt that it was not enough just to save existing folk crafts in their condition at that time. They believed that craftsmen’s production should be improved by the study of older traditions, and that this tradition should be re-interpreted by artists such as those engaged in the workshops of Talashkino and Abramtsevo. Thus, the enthusiasts for preserving the past in reality re-invented the tradition that they wanted to save, to better suit their idea of what Russian craft was. The pure original tradition was nowhere to be found and had to be purified by the efforts and investments of intellectual elite. As a result, the wealthy enthusiasts of the Russian craft revival manage to produce and popularize their own interpretation of Russian craftsmanship — what is known as Russian modernism.
This attention to the crafts was not specifically Russian but represented a general European trend. Following the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement, the members of the Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo circle encouraged resistance to industrial mass-production and searched for examples of esteemed artistic manual work. To achieve this, they needed to redefine the criteria of what was valuable in the tradition to include objects of simple peasant craft in the sphere of artistic interest. Thus, it was not the peasant or craftsman who was interested in saving the old tradition in the first instance, but an artist who saw its historical value and could adjust it to contemporary society and popularize it in the era of modernization. It was up to those intellectuals who mastered the art of emotionally charged cultural promotion to decide what was worthy of the status of national cultural treasure.
The mixed rhetoric of modernization and preservation found its expression in Miriskussniki’s attitude to St. Petersburg, which was considered at that time as a modern city without cultural heritage status. It was Benois who first introduced the theme of the disappearance of old St. Petersburg. Benois’ article “Agoniia Peterburga” (“The agony of St. Petersburg”), published in 1899, articulated the protection of St. Petersburg. In another article, “Zhivopisnyi Peterburg” (“Picturesque St. Petersburg”) from 1902, he wrote:

I would like artists to fall in love with St. Petersburg and to sanctify and promote its beauty, thereby saving it from perdition, stopping its barbaric destruction, and protecting its beauty from the encroachments of rude, ignorant people who treat it with such incredible disregard, most likely only because there is no protesting voice, no voice of protection, no voice of delight. St. Petersburg — the barracks, the offices — is therefore not worth mercy. We, on the contrary, will not tire of repeating that St. Petersburg is an amazing city; not many are of a similar beauty.

The term vandalism, coined to describe the destruction of artworks following the French Revolution, was quickly adopted in cultural heritage preservation practice across Europe, including the circles of authors published in Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo. For example, Benois wrote about the demolition of old buildings in his article titled “Vandalism” in chronicles of Mir Iskusstva in 1904:
In some 40, 50 years, thanks to the general low standards, and to the system of art teaching, the architects, and even more so semi-architects — civil engineers — have lost all concept of what architecture is. The worst is that they are not limited to their own products, but they also spoil, break and destroy what little beauty we had, that was produced during the heyday of architecture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Wrangel, who published extensively in Starye Gody, saw vandalism as a special characteristic of the Russian people: “With criminal negligence, with deliberate laziness and with zealous vandalism, several generations have brought to nothing all that their great-grandfathers created.” He diagnosed the reason why Russia had a special relation to its own history. According to him, a continuous culture had never existed in Russia. He saw Russian history as the history of endless cultural losses: what the Varangians created was destroyed by the Mongols; Peter the Great destroyed the culture that started to flourish under the first Romanovs; Russian manor house culture disappeared with the reforms under Alexander II. For Wrangel, the history of Russian culture was a history of disappearance and discontinuity, with ever loosening connections to Russia’s own past.
The concept of “vandalism” was often used within intellectual circles to criticize the general attitude towards the preservation of cultural heritage in Russia. Starye Gody published a series of articles titled “Materialy po istorii vandalisma v Rossii” (“Materials on the history of vandalism in Russia”) by art historian Georgii Lukomskii (1884—1952) describing vandalism not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but also in provincial towns such as Riazan’, Ekaterinoslav, Taganrog, Minsk, Smolensk, Voronezh, Kiev, and others.
The criticism directed towards modern urbanization was very vivid in Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo: Zhurnal khudozhestvennyi i khudozhestvenno kriticheskii. The contributors to these journals passionately criticized urban industrial development that paid little respect to the cultural and historic monuments of the past:

With fantastic speed, here and there, huge houses are erected — the last word in hygiene, sanitation and all other techniques. Giving way to them at almost the same speed, the last witnesses of the “distant — close” disappear — the wonderful aristocrats’ palaces, ruthlessly destroyed … Of course, the pogrom cannot be stopped, but everyone has the right to demand that when destroying the beautiful old, the builder should then replace it with the equally beautiful new, if not more so … Meanwhile, anyone with taste will be horrified, having seen all that has been built in Moscow in the last 10—15 years.

Iskusstvo closely followed discussions on cultural heritage preservation in Russian society in 1905, the year of its publication, reporting on important public debates and exhibitions. For example, Tarovatyi expressed how Princess Maria Tenisheva’s newly opened museum of Russian antiquity in Smolensk inspired him. In his description of the museum, Tarovatyi praised the works of old Russian crafts and criticized industrially produced goods in comparison with hand-made objects, following, like Miriskussniki, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement:

You look and do not believe that there was once a time when ordinary folk artists, simple and, in our opinion, uneducated, by some miracle created incomparable samples of art, penetrated by and reveling in beauty, and in the flight of unrestrained imagination gave their contemporaries such masterpieces from which our factory applied art is as far as from the earth to the sky.

Tarovatyi witnessed the rapid disappearance of that tacit knowledge inherent in the hand-made works of wood, metal, textile, leather, and stone, that also carried and epitomized local character and the national style.
Summarizing, we can say that the authors of these journals who focused on the preservation of the cultural heritage used the concept of “vandalism” to broadly describe the spirit of modernization. They criticized the destruction of old cultural and historic monuments, the oblivion or corruption of old tradition, and the absence of interest in the national past. “Vandalism” was not a well-defined notion but rather a rhetorical figure, the watershed dividing those who felt involved in preservation practice and debate, and those who were outside it — those who had experienced that melancholy feeling of losing the past, and those who did not pay attention to the disappearance of the knowledge of cultural history and of material cultural artefacts.


The modernization of society, stimulated by industrialization and reflected in the modern style of the Silver Age, found its emotional expression in the sense of social melancholy. One aspect of this was the feeling of regret for inevitably disappearing traditional culture. Thus the discourse on cultural heritage preservation was introduced simultaneously with the rhetoric of losing the past. In their reaction to the mechanization of labor and rapid urbanization, accompanied by the destruction of historical monuments, the cultural actors around Mir Iskusstva, Starye Gody and Iskusstvo developed a new way of talking about cultural heritage preservation, proposing a new definition of what was to be valued as cultural heritage and worth preserving for future generations.
Steinberg and Sobol point out that every historical epoch has its own regime of emotions: “Existing emotional regimes — the repertoires of sentiment publicly available to individuals”, which an individual can chose from when sharing his or her feelings and thought publicly. In this article I described one of the nuances of the emotional palette that was available for a person interested in culture in the late Russian Empire. The article demonstrates that the ideas of cultural heritage preservation went hand in hand with the promotion of the feeling of loss of traditional culture and history. The rhetoric of this cultural loss, developed by cultural heritage preservation enthusiasts in the late Russian Empire, still inspires contemporary heritage preservation discourse, and the socially shared melancholy about disappearing monuments of the past still functions as a driving force for national and international cultural policies and initiatives.
The feeling of the loss of the past is personal; otherwise it would not be such an effective stimulus to inspire people to invest their own time and financial resources in cultural heritage preservation work. This article points out the importance of the emotional aspect in the formation of the cultural heritage preservation discourse. Using the example of three journals that were pivotal in the development of the preservation discourse in the pre-revolutionary period, I demonstrated how the rhetoric of losing the past contributed to the development of a new approach to history, presupposing a more personal relationship with the cultural heritage. This assumes a more creative appropriation of the past — in art works, educational programs and materials, publications, exhibitions, public talks, art history and art criticism, curatorship, and so on. These activities helped establish the new habitus — the new type of living through old history, making cultural history closer, transforming, adjusting it to the needs of modern discourses and practices.
Nevertheless, as I demonstrate in part one, the object of melancholy is present in its absence. The object of study and admiration — cultural artefacts — constantly need to be re-invented, revived, and re-constructed. Despite the enthusiasm of cultural heritage preservation expressed by the producers of the journals, this presence of the absence of the object of their admiration did not remain unnoticed by the participants of the preservation discourse. After all, Wrangel wrote in Starye Gody in 1910: “the whole ancient Rus’ beckons and attracts us only as a beautiful, whimsical, and mysterious fairy tale, which once we dreamed awake.”
Although an object of intangible dreams, cultural artefacts manifested themselves in tangible objects of value. Being the objects of nostalgia, the works of art and craft, history and culture, have been exploited in the 20th century as a resource for the creation of material values, which helped to establish the international network of cultural institutions of heritage preservation.≈

*All translations from Russian by the author.
Note: The article is written as a part of the research project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” financially supported by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies.


  1. “Russians writing in the early twentieth century about the meaning of their times did not need convincing that emotions were embedded in social life. They were preoccupied with the ubiquitous evidence of feeling in public life and viewed these emotions as signs to be read in order to diagnose the state of their society, culture, and polity”. Mark D. Steinberg, “Melancholy and Modernity: Emotions and Social Life in Russia between the Revolutions”, Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 4 (Summer 2008), 816. On the linguistic analysis of the expres sion of feelings see also Vladimir Glebkin, Kategorii russkoj kulʹtury XVIII-XX vekov: skuka [Categories of Russian culture of the 18th—19th centuries]. (Tsentr gumanitarnykh initsiativ: Moscow & St. Petersburg, 2018).

  2. Mark Steinberg writes on this “writers across the social, political, and philosophical spectrum seemed to agree that the prevailing emotionality of the age was pensive, anxious, disenchanted, tragic, debilitating, and uncertain… At the heart of this reading of the public mood — in part, of course, a reflection of their own moods – lies a perception of modern time as bringing more loss than gain, as moving into an uncertain future, if moving at all.” Mark D. Steinberg, “Melancholy and Modernity: Emotions and Social Life in Russia between the Revolutions”, in Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 4 (Summer, 2008), 819.

  3. On social melancholy see Steinberg, “Melancholy and Modernity” (2008). Ilya Vinitsky also contributed to the discussion on social melancholy and wrote about Russian Sentimentalism: “Melancholy was conceived not as a purely psychological state, but rather as a cultural one, with its own branching system of interpretations, arguments, and myths, and numerous forms of expression…” See Ilya Vinitsky “’The Queen of Lofty Thought’: The Cult of Melancholy in Russian Sentimentalism”. In Mark D. Steinberg and Valeria Sobol (ed.) Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe. DeKalb, (Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 19.

  4. This epoch can also be defined as “Russian Modern”, the term widely used by Russian scholars; see for example, Modern v Rossii. Nakanune peremen. Materialy XXIII Tsarskosel’skoi nauchnoi konferentsii [Modernism in Russia. On the Eve of Changes. Materials of the XXIII Conference in Tsarskoe Selo], (St. Peterburg: Gosudarstvennyi musei-zapovednik, 2017). “Tsarskoe selo”.

  5. In my article, I use the notion of “history” not as the science of history but as a synonym to the “past”.

  6. On the ideas of Russian cultural modernism as well as the challenge to define it, see Leonid Livak, “Terminological Labyrinth of Russian Modernist Studies” in Irina D. Shevelenko (ed.), Reframing Russian Modernism, (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2018) 23—49.

  7. The condition for systematic and centralized research work on Russian cultural heritage started taking shape in the 1840—1860s. The Imperial Russian Archaeological Society was founded in 1846; the Imperial Archaeological Commission in 1859. Exhibitions of old artefacts were regularly organized, presenting icons among archaeological findings. The ground for the academic study of the Russian cultural heritage emerged in connection with Russian Byzantine studies. In the second part of the 19th—early 20th century this research field developed intensively and included the works of several generations of scholars, such as Fedor Buslaev (1818—1898), Georgii Filimonov (1828—1898), Nikodim Kondakov (1844—1925), and Dmitrii Ainalov (1862—1939). The important journal on the theme was Drevnosti [Antiquities] (1865—1916), and Vestnik Obshchestva drevnerusskogo iskusstva pri moskovskom publichnom musee [Bulletin of the Society of Old Russian Art at the Moscow Public Museum] (1874—1876).

  8. On the transformation of the past into capital see Boltanski, Luc and Esquerre, Arnaud, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise, Paris:  Gallimard, coll. «NRF essais», 2017; and Mikhail Iampol’skii (2018) Bez budushchego. Kul’tura i vremia [Without a Future. Culture and Time]. Poriadok slov.

  9. I use the contemporary concept of “cultural heritage” to make a connection between the historical study of emotions with contemporary cultural policy studies. At the same time I am aware that this concept was not widely used at the epoch which I analyze. Instead the writers of that time would use the concept of “pamiatniki stariny”, “the monuments of old time”. Nevertheless, their discourse is located in the same area of what was further formed and institutionalized as cultural heritage studies and policies.

  10. See, for example, Camilla Gray The Russian Experiment in Art 1863—1922 (Rev. and enl. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986); John E. Bowlt Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia’s silver age, 1900—1920 (London: Thames & Hudson 2008); Bowlt, John E. The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the “World of art” Group (Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental research partners 1979).

  11. Irina Shevelenko, Modernism kak archaism: natsionalism i poiski modernistskoi estetiki v Rossii [Modernism as Archaism. Nationalism and the Search for Modernist Aesthetics in Russia]. (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2017); Kelly, Catriona and David Shepherd (eds) Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution: 1881—1940, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis  (ed.) National identity in Russian culture: an Introduction, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  12. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875—1914 (London: Abacus, 1994).

  13. On the work of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of the Monuments of Art and Antiquity see Anna Kharkina “Cultural Enthusiasts, Civil Society and the Strategies of heritage-Making in the Late Russian Empire”, in Transactions of the Association of European Schools of Planning, vol. 3, no 2, (2019), 155—167.

  14. On aesthetical cosmopolitanism see for example, Mike Featherstone, “Foreword to Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism” in Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism and Global Culture, (Brill, 2019) Available at: https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789004411487/front-6.xml. Accessed January 9, 2020; Motti Regev, “Cultural Uniqueness and Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism” in European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 10 no.1, (2007), 123—138.

  15. On the adaptation of the national past to current political needs and popularity of producing traditions supporting political regimes in Europe see Eric Hobsbawm “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870—1914. In Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 /1983/),. On Swedish production of cultural heritage discourse see Jean-François Battail “Kulturarvet och det nationella självmedvetandet — en idehistorisk skiss”, in Jonas Anshelm  (ed.) Modernisering och kulturarv: essäer och uppsatser (Stockholm: B. Östlings bokförl. Symposion, 1993).

  16. Sigmund Freud ”Morning and Melancholy” in Jennifer Radden (ed.) The Nature of Melancholy: from Aristotle to Kristeva (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 285.

  17. Mark D. Steinberg “Melancholy and modernity: Emotions and Social Life in Russia Between the Revolutions”, Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 4 (Summer 2008), 826.

  18. The concept of symbolic capital was developed by Pierre Bourdieu in his books Distinction and Practical Reason: on the Theory of Action. Cultural heritage artefacts are usually considered as objects with this symbolical value as the objects of common appreciation, social significance, and uniqueness.

  19. On the positive effect of melancholy see Freud (293): “The ego may enjoy here the satisfaction of acknowledging itself as the better of the two, as superior to the object”.

  20. His melancholic attitude to Russia’s not belonging to the family of civilized countries is well expressed in his first letter. See the analysis of this letter, for example, in Gordon Cook “Čaadaev›s First Philosophical Letter Some of the Origins of Its Critique of Russian Culture” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 20, H. 2 (June 1972), 194—209.

  21. See Arup Banerji, Writing History in the Soviet Union: Making the Past Work (Routledge: London and New York, 2008).

  22. Steinberg, “Melancholy and modernity”, 813.

  23. Ibid, 814.

  24. Mark D. Steinberg and Valeria Sobol (ed.), Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 5.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Steinberg “Melancholy and modernity”, 819, 826.

  27. See, for example, Bahun, Sanja, Modernism and melancholia: writing as countermourning (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Ferri, Sabrina, Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744—1836 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2015); Jean-Philippe Mathy , Melancholy politics: loss, mourning, and memory in late modern France (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011); Harvie Ferguson, Melancholy and the Critique of modernity: Søren Kierkegaard’s religious psychology (London: Routledge, 1995); Javier Krauel, “Ángel Ganivet’s Idearium Español as Fin–de–Siècle: Imperial Melancholia”. In Revista Hispánica Moderna, Volume 65, Number 2 (December 2012), 181—197.

  28. On the concept of “missing” in relation to the economy of heritage artefacts see the collection of articles in special section “Cultural Heritage and the Property of Missing Persons”, eds. Irina Sandomirskaja and Anna Kharkina, in Baltic Worlds, vol. XII:3 (2019), 43—100.

  29. On the formation of the cultural policy discourse in Russian in the late Russian Empire see Kharkina (2019).

  30. Susanna Rabow-Edling, Slavophile thought and the politics of cultural nationalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).; Laura Engelstein, Slavophile empire: Imperial Russia’s illiberal path (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
  31. Alexandr A. Vasil’chikov, “Novye priobreteniia Imperatorskogo Ermitaga” [“New Acquisitions of the Imperial Hermitage”], Vesnik iziashchnykh iskusstv, vol. 1, no. 1—4 (1883): 2.

  32. Georgii D. Filimonov, “Samostoiatel’nost’ russkogo stilia s tochki zreniia sovremennoi kritiki na zapade” [“The Independence of the Russian style in terms of modern Criticism in the West”], Moskovskie Vedomosti, no. 8 (Moskva, 1879): 1—2.

  33. Nikolai N. Wrangel, ”Pomeshchich’ia Rossiia” [“Landowners’ Russia”], Starye Gody, (July-September 1910): 58.

  34. Ivan Ia. Bilibin, “Narodnoe tvorchestvo russkogo Severa” [“Folk Art of the Russian North”], Mir Iskusstva, no. 11 (1904): 317.

  35. The discourse on Russia’s backwardness was introduced by Pyotr Chaadayev, see Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadaev (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).

  36. Ainalov was a student of Kondakov, who in his turn studied at the historical-philological department of Moscow University, which was headed by Buslaev.

  37. Dmitrii V. Ainalov, Znachenie F. I. Buslaeva v nauke istorii iskusstva [The Significance of F. I. Buslaev in the Art History Studies”] (Kazan’: Tipo-litografiia Imperatorskogo Universiteta, 1898): 7.

  38. Ibid., 7—8.

  39. Ibid., 10.

  40. Ibid., 12.
  41. Feliks M. Lur’e, ed., Mir iskusstva: khronologicheskie rospisi soderzhaniia 1899—1904 [The World of Art: Chronological Description of Content 1899—1904] (Sankt-Peterburg: Izdatel’skii dom ”Kolo”, 2012) 10.

  42. Alexandr A. Rostislavov ”V Lialichakh” [“In Lialichi”], Starye gody (January 1914), 49.

  43. E. Kuz’min, “Vsio to zhe” [“All the Same”], Starye gody (May—June 1910), 78.

  44. Ivan Ia. Bilibin, “Narodnoe tvorchestvo russkogo Severa”, Mir Iskusstva, no. 11 (1904), 306.

  45. Quoted from Feliks M. Lur’e, ed., Mir iskusstva: khronologicheskie rospisi soderzhaniia 1899—1904 (Sankt-Peterburg: Izdatel’skii dom ”Kolo”, 2012), 20.

  46. On the transformation into the industrial city of St. Petersburg in the end of the 19th century see Marshall Berman, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity (London,  New York: Verso, 1983), 249—287.

  47. On the hard competition for Russian icon painters resulting from the industrial production of icons see Nikodim Kondakov (1901) Sovremennoe polozhenie narodnoi ikonopisi [The Current State of Folk Icon Painting]. Sankt-Peterburg: Obshchestvo liubitelei  drevnei pis’mennost’.

  48. More on this subject see Wendy R. Salmond, Arts and crafts in late imperial Russia: reviving the Kustar Art industries 1870—1917.(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996).

  49. Tenisheva, for example, complained that peasants were more interested in urban culture — music and fashion — than preserving their own. See Maria Tenisheva, Vpechatleniia moei zhizni [Impressions of My Life]. (Parizh: Izdanie Russkago Istoriko-Genealogiccheskago Obshchestva vo Francii, 1933).

  50. Although giving the example of the analysis of the work of the architect, metalworker and designer W.A.S. Benson, a member of Arts and Crafts, who was passionate about machinery, Alan Crawford questions the idea that the Arts and Crafts movement was strictly negative towards machinery. See Alan Crawford, “W. A. S. Benson, Machinery, and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain”, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 24, Design, Culture, Identity: The Wolfsonian Collection (2002), 94—117.

  51. Alexandre N. Benois “Zhivopisnyi Petersburg” [”Picturesque Petersburg”], in Mir Iskusstva 7, no. 1 (1902),  5.

  52. A.H. Merrills “The Origins of ‘Vandalism’”, in International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 16, No. 2 (June 2009), 155—175.

  53. Astrid Swenson, The Rise of Heritage: Preserving the Past in France, Germany and England, 1789—1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 34—37.

  54. Alexandre N. Benois, Chronicles, in Mir Iskusstva, no. 10 (1904), 208.

  55. Nikolai N. Wrangel, ”Pomeshchich’ia Rossiia”, Starye Gody, (July-September 1910), 7.

  56. Ibid., 6.

  57. After the February Revolution 1917, Lukomskii was a Head of the Art and History Comission of Tsarskoe Selo, which aimed at describing and cataloguing the works of art and craft from the royal palaces after the resignation of Nicholas II. See Christopher Morgan and Irina Orlova, Saving the Tsars’ Palaces (Clifton-upon-Teme: Polperro Heritage Press, 2005).

  58. See Starye gody for February, March, and May 1914.
  59. Nikolai Ia. Tarovatyi, “Novaia Moskva” [“New Moscow”], Iskusstvo, zhurnal khudozhestvennyi i khudozhestvenno kriticheskii, no. 1 (1905), 33.

  60. On this museum see http://www.smolensk-museum.ru/muzej—1/istoriya—1/, accessed on 9 January 2020.
  61. Nikolai Ia. Tarovatyi, “Musei russkoi khudozhestvennoi stariny kniagini M. K. Tenishevoi v Smolenske” [”Museum of Russian Art Antiquity of the Princess M.K.Tenisheva in Smolensk”], Iskusstvo, no. 5—7 (1905), 157.

  62. Steinberg and Sobol, 9.

  63. See, for example, the motto of the civil movement Arkhnadzor, uniting a group of citizens who act with the aim to preserve historical monuments and landscapes in Moscow: “Happy is he/she who has the courage to defend what he/she loves” http://www.archnadzor.ru/, accessed 7 January 2020.

  64. Nikolai N. Wrangel, ”Pomeshchich’ia Rossiia”, Starye Gody, (July-September 1910), 16.
  • by Anna Kharkina

    PhD in history and philosophy. Previously an archivist at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (ArkDes); currently involved in the research project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” at Södertörn University. Anna Kharkina previously worked in various cultural institutions in Russia and as a freelance curator and writer.

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