The Creative Passion

Mark Leier

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One 

Werewolves, Nobles, and the Idyll of Priamukhino
There was little in his family background or his early childhood to suggest that Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin would grow up to be anything other than a loyal officer and subject of the Tsar of All the Russias. As a young man, he even looked the part. He stood six feet four inches tall and filled out his gaudy Russian military uniform splendidly. His thick blond hair, startling blue eyes, strong nose, and chin complete with a dimple made him perfect for a recruiting poster.1 As an officer in the artillery, the most prestigious arm of the military, his future seemed assured: a good war or two to provide quick promotion, then early retirement to run the family estates, where the lands and serfs would provide a comfortable income as he pottered about the gardens and read the classics of literature and science.
Instead Michael Bakunin became the most notorious radical of the nineteenth century. He devoted his adult life to the destruction of the tsar and feudalism, of capitalism, the state, even God. He inspired armed revolutionaries from Auguste Vaillant, who lobbed a bomb into the French parliament in 1893, to Eldridge Cleaver, a founder of the American Black Panthers. His name is still used, wrongly, as a synonym for revolution and mass destruction for its own sake.2
Where did his passion for revolution and anarchism come from? As a child and young man Bakunin never felt the knout of the overseer or the fist of the foreman, never faced the uncertainty of crop failures and famine, never had to worry where his next meal or bed would come from. This has led critics to denounce his ideas precisely because of his noble status in the same way contemporary critics attack those who protest globalization as liberal elitists, idle rich kids, dilettantes, and professional troublemakers. This is of course ridiculous, for ideas must be judged on their merits, not the wealth of those who hold them. Other critics insist that the answer to Bakunin’s politics lies in his childhood, despite the fact that many nobles of Bakunin’s generation, each with very different upbringings, embraced revolution. Neither explanation is satisfactory, but Bakunin’s family history and the history of Russia itself do hold some important clues.
The Russian nobility was a complicated tangle of wealth, status, service, and ancestry. Simply referring to Bakunin as a noble obscures more about the family’s station than it reveals. The Russian word dvorianstvo may be translated as aristocracy, nobility, or gentry, but none is really sufficient. It was divided into six strata, including those who had been granted their status by patent, those who had earned it through service to the tsar, those with old titles such as prince or new ones such as count or baron, and the old aristocracy. Some ranks were comparable to the English peerage, while others were more like American planters on small plantations.3 Nobles guarded the privileges of rank jealously and carefully calculated their own position as they plotted the rise and fall of their allies and rivals in the ranks.
This bewildering system reflected the diverse needs of the Russian empire. Ironically, while Russia’s land mass was larger than that of any other nation, as early as the 1760s the regime was alarmed that it faced a land shortage. Agriculture was the principal source of wealth for Russia’s preindustrial nobility, and farm production for profit required huge amounts of land and peasants to work it. Russia did not have a consistent system of primogeniture; more often, all the sons of hereditary nobles inherited equal shares of the estate and title. Over time, this meant that more and more nobles competed for increasingly scarce arable land. At the same time, much of Russia’s land was not very productive. Famine was a constant threat, as the available land could not always sustain the population. The obvious solution was to keep expanding the empire. Trade, especially for Siberian furs, pushed the empire outward, and constant expansion was the key to preserving the integrity of Russia’s borders from its host of enemies, even while enlarging its territory created new problems of security. As the empire spread, the new territories had to be settled, new subjects administered, and new lands made productive. Established nobles were reluctant to move to the distant, rough regions, and so new nobles were created and given charge of settling the new lands while indigenous landholders were incorporated into the Russian system.4
The complicated ranking system had political consequences as well. As nobles competed among themselves for status, favor, and promotion, their incessant squabbling kept them from pursuing their common interests. The Russian aristocracy could rarely act as a united class, for each group and member suspected any change as a potential threat to their own particular privilege. This meant that reform could rarely come from the nobles. It could rarely come from the tsar either, for even the most obvious and needed changes confronted stiff opposition. Even in times of emergency the tsar could not always act swiftly or firmly. When war broke out, as it did often as the empire expanded its designs on its weaker neighbors, the nobility expected to be appointed to the higher echelons of the officer corps, with appointments based on family connections, court favor, status, rank, and seniority. The civil service worked in much the same way, and this practically guaranteed the regime would flounder, for competence was far down on the list of qualifications for generals, ministers, and officials.
In an attempt to promote people by merit, Peter the Great created the Table of Ranks in 1722. It established corresponding hierarchies of fourteen ranks, or chiny, in the three state services of the armed services, the civil service, and the judiciary. The fifth chin, for example, was equivalent to the military rank of brigadier. Nobles entering state service began at the fourteenth, or lowest, rank and worked their way up. While promotion through service was not unknown before, and while the tsar could not ignore the claims of aristocrats, the reform codified and regulated promotion based on skill.
The Table of Ranks did two other things. First, while it did not abolish the importance of lineage—the same old noble families continued to dominate Russian society—it placed great emphasis on education. Kinship still provided tangible advantages and privileges, but credentials and education were necessary to win promotion. It followed that families would be less likely to expend money and influence on family members who seemed unlikely to fare well under the merit system. Second, Peter the Great opened the Table of Ranks to commoners, who could now compete with the hereditary nobility for positions and influence. Commoners who entered the military service and were commissioned as second lieutenants or ensigns obtained the lowest rank and the right to own land and serfs. Their sons were automatically entered in the fourteenth rank and could work their way up. At the eighth chin, the rank was hereditary and title passed on to children.5
The Bakunin family benefited from Peter’s system. Sometime in the sixteenth century, Ivan Bakunin established the family as pomeshchiki, that is, landowners who held peasants as serfs, at Iaroslavl. The family entered the nobility, but Ivan’s title was not hereditary. He could maintain his status, land, and serfs only at the pleasure of the tsar and in return for service to him. During Peter the Great’s reign, the family secured its position in the aristocracy. Like all noble families, service to the tsar was still required of the Bakunins, usually in the form of military service and supplying serfs to the army, but now their noble title was a hereditary rank that did not have to be won anew by each generation.
In a culture that put great emphasis on ancestry and lineage, the Bakunin family sometimes claimed to be descended from Stephen Báthory, king of Poland from 1575 to 1586. Stephen, originally a Transylvanian prince, waged several successful military campaigns against the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible for control of Livonia, roughly present-day Estonia and parts of Latvia on the Baltic Sea. The Bakunins were careful not to press the dubious family connection too hard. Stephen’s niece, Elizabeth, died in prison in 1614, after being convicted of lycanthropy. During her career as werewolf, Elizabeth was alleged to have slaughtered more than six hundred virgins, bathing in their blood to preserve her youth. It is probably just as well for the history of anarchism that the connection to the Báthory family was slim. Otherwise his detractors would undoubtedly insist that Michael Bakunin’s political views were the result of the werewolf gene. Instead they have had to rely on the less scientific theories of psychology and psychohistory.
Whatever the family’s roots and appetites, it continued to prosper and rise through the ranks. Michael’s paternal great-great-grandfather, also named Michael, was a military officer during the reign of Peter the Great and served in Tsaritsyn, later Stalingrad, now Volgograd, in the southeast corner of Russia on the Volga River. His son Vassily entered the civil service and served in the Foreign Affairs office. In the 1740s, under the reign of Empress Elizabeth, Vassily took up postings in the Persian embassies and made his way to the office of Active State Councillor, the fourth-highest chin. His three sons took up state service, two of them, both named Peter, in foreign affairs. The middle son, Michael, whose grandson would become the notorious anarchist, entered the court system and was appointed to the sixth chin, Collegiate Councillor, under Catherine the Great. Over the next sixteen years, he rose to the fourth rank, as his father had before him.6
He was virtually an archetypal Russian noble of his period, of the kind that inspired caricatures of Russians as vital and excessive, bear-like and overbearing. Large and physically powerful, he was given equally to feats of daring and fits of rage. Family lore credited him with single-handedly driving off a band of brigands with a hastily seized wooden board. Less creditably, he was noted for reacting badly to perceived insult and on one occasion jerked a rude coachman from his perch and tossed him into the river.7
He married Liubov Petrovna Myshetskaya, a princess from a very old Russian family. The family was an ancient one, much older than the Bakunins, but not as distinguished. It was, however, extremely wealthy, and the match combined status and wealth to the benefit of both families. Unlike most European countries, Russian noblewomen could own property and serfs, and Liubov inherited substantial holdings in Tver province. In 1779, she purchased a village called Priamukhino in Tver, and Michael retired from court life to manage the provincial estate.
They raised three sons and five daughters. Two of the daughters married, three remained single, and two of the sons followed the traditional paths of the male nobility, one to the civil service and the other to the military. The youngest son, Alexander, followed a different path. If his father was the archetypal Russian noble of old, Alexander would represent and help shape the modern Russian nobility of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Unlike his father, Alexander was not physically powerful or impetuous. Believing him to be frail and unable to withstand the harsh Russian climate, his family sent him to Italy at the age of nine.8
As a young man, Alexander studied at the University of Padua. It was the same university his alleged ancestor Stephen Báthory attended, in itself not surprising as Padua was especially attractive to foreign students. If the Italian geography and climate differed greatly from that of Priamukhino, so too did the intellectual and political climate. In the Russia of the tsars, even if you were an ambassador to England or France, you were going to have to serve somebody. Bob Dylan made it scan, but Nicholas I said it first: “I consider the entire human life to be merely service, because everybody serves.” Of course the tsar served only God, who did not resort to prison, the knout, or the gallows if his immediate servants didn’t obey. Political freedom was virtually unknown in Russia. Even those of noble birth had few ways to make their voices heard or to influence public events, for the tsar was bound by no constitution or parliament. As Tsar Paul was alleged to have remarked to the Swedish ambassador, “the only important person in Russia is the one speaking to the emperor, and only while he is so speaking.”9
By contrast, students, especially when they move from the countryside to the city and are far from family scrutiny, often find university a time of liberty, even license. This was especially the case at Padua. Created in 1222, the university was built as an expression of freedom when professors and students at Bologna left in protest over the usurpation of academic freedom there. Its motto, Universa universes patavina libertas (Paduan freedom is total, complete, general, for everyone), could not be more different from the orthodoxy, autocracy, and cultural poverty that Russia represented. Alexander did well there, ultimately receiving his doctorate in natural history for a three-volume thesis on worms. The topic was apparently good training for a career in diplomacy, for upon receiving his degree, he began a career in the Russian foreign office, serving as secretary in the legations in Florence and Turin. His postings allowed him to observe firsthand the most important event of the eighteenth century: the French Revolution. It would have a profound effect on him and his family.
Like much of our history, the reality of the revolution has been replaced with a jumble of images: an effete aristocracy, ragged peasants bearing pikes, Marie Antoinette suggesting the starving eat cake if they could not obtain bread, the tricolor, Napoleon. Behind all is the grim silhouette of the guillotine. The intensity of the images and the antirevolutionary propaganda that was thrown up in the English-speaking world—even the twentieth-century Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester may be read as paeans to reaction—tend to make us forget the profound accomplishments of the French Revolution. “The people rising in its majesty” destroyed the absolutist monarchy and proclaimed the Rights of Man and an era of liberté, égalité, fraternité. By comparison, the American Revolution was little more than a change of management, albeit a hostile one. The events in France reverberated around the world and changed everything, from political power to the arts to the concepts of nation and nationalism to the way things were measured. Across Europe artists, philosophers, musicians, and poets applauded and supported the revolution, at least in its early years. This identification with the ideals of the revolution was taken to heart in the field as well as the salon and concert hall and lecture room, most directly and effectively in Haiti, where black slaves took the revolutionaries at their word and in August 1791 launched the world’s first successful slave revolt against the French themselves.10
Alexander Bakunin too, a young man in his twenty-first year, was swept up in the upheavals. He may even have been present as an observer or a participant in the single most important event of the opening days of the revolution: the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. The Paris prison, with its moat, thick walls, and menacing towers, was a hated icon of the old regime and Louis XVI, and the taking of the prison by insurrectionists became one of the crucial symbols of the French Revolution, for it heralded the end of absolutism and gave substance to the hopes of the oppressed.
If Alexander Bakunin was not in Paris on 14 July, he should have been. He sympathized with the revolution and was convinced that the old ways of his father were no longer sufficient. Upon his return to Russia, Alexander would bring with him new ideals of freedom, education, and justice. If these were to be largely restricted to his family and would remain dependent on the enserfment of peasants, they were no less dear to him.
His return came sooner than expected. His father’s health faded, and Alexander’s brothers had to remain in the tsar’s service. The sexism of the period deemed his mother and sisters unable to manage the estate; that left Alexander. His parents petitioned to have him released from service on the grounds of family hardship and in 1790, barely in his twenties, fresh from duties in some of the most sophisticated cities in Europe, exposed to the turmoil and excitement of revolution, Alexander gave up a promising career in the glitter of diplomatic service and foreign postings for the rustic routines and pleasures of a provincial manor.11
Certainly the estate was beautiful enough. Priamukhino was on the Osuga River in Tver province, about sixty miles due east of the city of Tver, known as Kalinin from 1933 to 1990. The family estate, located one hundred and fifty miles northwest of Moscow and perhaps twice that southeast of the capital, St. Petersburg, was far removed from the intrigue and culture of the cities. It was made up of three villages, including Priamukhino itself, and spread over four thousand acres of birch, pine, and spruce forest, about 675 acres of farmland, and about 340 acres of pasture. By comparison, the standard nineteenth-century homestead allotment in the Canadian and American prairies, the quarter section, consisted of only 160 acres.
The wealth of Russian nobles, however, was customarily measured not by the size of land holdings but by the number of adult male serfs, or “souls,” controlled by the lord. The Bakunins in this period owned about five hundred “souls” and probably as many women and children. Sixty-five serfs were used as domestic servants, about thirty-five for the Priamukhino household alone. The remainder worked the Bakunin land, cut timber, raised stock, fished, and produced clothing and other goods as family units. Combined with the service the family rendered the tsar and the pedigree supplied by Liubov Myshetskaya, the Bakunin family was somewhere in the middling ranks of the complex social order of the Russian aristocracy.12
Putting aside for the moment the plight of the serfs—something most Russian nobles did regularly—Priamukhino appeared a peaceful, harmonious setting. It disguised, however, a harsher reality. Alexander’s father was foul-tempered and in ill health, and his mother was cold, inflexible, and sternly religious. The estate was deeply in debt, mortgaged to the tune of 53,000 roubles, roughly the entire worth of all the Bakunin holdings. Far from giving up the cares of the workaday life for life as a country squire, Alexander was summoned home to resuscitate the failing estate.13
Alexander took up his duties with a mixture of optimism and resignation. Managing the affairs of estate, however, was much more difficult than he had anticipated. After two years of work, despair replaced his initial optimism. In 1797, he left Priamukhino to take up service again, this time under Tsar Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, at the tsar’s estate at Gatchina, thirty miles southwest of St. Petersburg.
Court life under Paul, however, was very different from that under Catherine the Great. Catherine was intelligent, ambitious, and at least in the early years of her reign, cultivated a taste for the Western European Enlightenment and intellectual life. She corresponded with Voltaire and designed sweeping reforms for Russia. While the reforms were rarely put into place and Catherine’s commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment was perhaps more of a fashion statement than a heartfelt conviction, her court was a hospitable and rewarding one for the nobility in general and bright young men such as Alexander Bakunin in particular.
Paul’s court was not. He was a narrow, ferocious man of few ideas and much hate. His father, Peter III, reigned for but a year before Catherine forced him to abdicate so she could take his place; Peter was mysteriously murdered soon after. Catherine despised their son Paul and in an attempt to keep him off the throne, insisted that Peter III was not his real father. Despite her best efforts, Paul, aged forty-two, became tsar when she died in 1796. One of his first acts was to have his parents disinterred so his father’s remains, from more than thirty years ago, and his mother’s relatively fresh corpse could be crowned. The ghoulish ceremony was intended to underscore Paul’s royal lineage, but it tended instead to underscore his dubious mental health.14
It was a dangerous time to have an idiot on the throne. The French Revolution had brought war in its wake as monarchs and reactionaries sought to crush the spread of radical ideas. When Austria and Prussia attacked France itself, the republic hastily organized popular mass armies that repulsed the invaders and swarmed over the Austrian Netherlands, seized Savoy and Nice, and invaded Germany. Panicked, by 1793 a hasty coalition of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Holland, and Spain arrayed itself against revolutionary France. Catherine too was edging toward the alliance against France at the time of her death. Paul, however, keeping to his policy of doing precisely the opposite of whatever his mother had, first remained neutral, then sided with the reactionary coalition. He then reversed himself, and in 1800 allied with France, in the belief that the ascension of Napoleon Bonaparte to the position of first consul—virtually dictator—would end revolution and restore stability to Europe. It also put Russia at war with its former ally, Great Britain.
By then Paul had alienated nearly everyone from peasants sick of war to nobles angry and fearful of the tsar’s shifting policies and mercurial temper. Even his own son, Alexander, plotted against him. In March 1801, the conspirators seized the unhappy tsar from his bed to force him to abdicate. In the scuffle that followed, Paul was strangled with a scarf, his chaotic reign and sad life finally over and his son, Alexander I, firmly on the throne.
Ten months was all Alexander Bakunin could stomach in the service of the capricious, mad tsar, and he had returned to Priamukhino by 1799. Whatever the idiocies of rural life, they had nothing on the idiocies of the court, and Alexander resolved to abandon ideas of service and devote his energies to making the estate profitable. Even with his new resolve, life at Priamukhino was difficult. In a letter to his brother Michael, after nearly a decade on the estate, Alexander warned him off giving up service to return permanently to Priamukhino. Granting his brother that the blossoms of spring awakened nostalgia for the country life, he assured him that the reality of the bucolic retreat was considerably less pleasant. Education in the country was poor; as Alexander put it, moving there meant risking having the children grow up to be “bumpkins.” The lack of proper medical attention was a serious concern, as was the lack of cultural life. Furthermore, Priamukhino could not support an extended family.15
Despite his gloomy, if realistic, appraisal, by 1801 Alexander’s efforts were starting to pay off. His mother inherited several villages and the serfs who lived in them, almost doubling the number of “souls” the family controlled. The debt was reduced significantly, and Alexander made improvements to Priamukhino. A watermill used to grind grain was expanded, a lumber mill was erected, the family house was renovated and enlarged. With the death of his father, Michael, in 1803, Alexander reigned over the estate in name as well as in fact. His mother deeded him the bulk of the estate, much of which she had brought to the marriage, thereby giving him a real and permanent stake in Priamukhino.
It allowed Alexander to put into practice the ideas and ideals he had imbibed as a young man and to return to his plans to reshape Priamukhino. The garden was extended, trees planted, meadows cleared, copses and hedges arranged, and over twelve hundred nonnative species of plants introduced and carefully charted as he drew on his expertise and interest in natural science. Alexander’s interests were as much cultural as horticultural. He saw himself as a bridge between two worlds, and consciously set about “grafting foreign shoots to native roots” as he adapted and applied European advances to Russian tradition in a pastoral climate of peaceful coexistence. There were, of course, limits to what was possible, but he turned the constraints to advantage, suggesting both practically and metaphorically, “Aren’t huge apple trees better than imported peaches which cannot live outside a greenhouse?” Conspicuous consumption was neither possible nor desirable and Alexander would later take pleasure from that, writing that while the house was large, it was “without parquet flooring; we have no expensive rugs . . . no precious porcelain adorns my board but three or four simple dishes. . . . The divan and carved chairs are upholstered in tapestry, and only on great holidays are the covers removed from them. But when, at the evening hour, the whole family is gathered together like a swarm of bees, then I am happier than a king.”16
His project was a political and cultural one as well. Like many of his generation, Alexander was acutely aware of the problems Russia faced, at least as they applied to his own class. In discussions and writings he called for a reformed judicial system that would end corruption and arbitrary decisions, with laws that would clearly outline the mutual rights, obligations, and responsibilities of subjects and rulers. Property should be protected by law and not subject to seizure by the autocracy, he continued, and the rights of all should be protected from tyranny. The clergy in deeply religious Russia should be cleansed of superstition so that the arts and sciences would not be impeded by outmoded thought, while the economy, chiefly based on agriculture and the export of raw materials, should be modernized so trade and industry could flourish.
Perhaps most trenchant was Alexander’s assessment of serfdom, the very basis of Russia and Priamukhino’s economy. While he was not prepared to abandon serfdom, he deplored the terrible conditions in which peasants lived. Unlike many, then and now, who blame the poor for their poverty, Alexander understood that it was Russia’s own underdevelopment, itself the result of economic and political repression, that was chiefly responsible. Hoping to create a model of enlightened serfdom, he drew up “An Agreement Between Landlord and Peasant” for his own serfs that outlined the mutual rights and responsibilities of each, and even proposed a scheme to give peasants land and hereditary title. That would give them a stake in improving their productivity and remaining loyal to the nation.
But Alexander was no revolutionary. His reforms were largely, if not exclusively, aimed at improving his own lot, and his views on enlightened serfdom did not extend to freeing his “souls” anytime soon. At best, he hoped to create a society in which all classes knew their place and were content to remain there, while contributing happily to the general prosperity. Economic, political, and moral independence were to be encouraged, but this independence would have strict limits. The end he desired was a society where all would cheerfully agree to do things his way and his proposed reforms sought to continue the exploitation of serfs while eliminating the conflict between landlord and peasant. If this seems at once self-serving and naïve, undoubtedly it was, in much the same way employers today hope that calling people “associates” rather than “workers” will cause them to identify with the company even while they are paid minimum wage. But it did indicate Alexander’s desire to make Priamukhino into a model of progress and tranquility.
Such a project bespoke a broad romantic streak in Alexander Bakunin, as he hoped to use modern ideas and techniques to return to a state of nature and harmony. In 1810, at the age of forty-two, Alexander was swept away with another romantic impulse. He fell in love with Varvara Muravieva, the eighteen-year-old stepdaughter of Pavel Poltoratsky, lord of the neighboring estate. Such a gap in ages was common among the European nobility. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was thirteen years older than his partner when they wed in 1831; Michael Bakunin’s contemporary and friend Alexander Herzen was the love-child of a forty-two-year-old father and a sixteen-year-old mother. Indeed, it is not uncommon today among royalty. The spread between Prince Charles and Princess Diana was thirteen years, and among the more significant royalty of the entertainment world, larger gaps are common: Cary Grant was thirty-four years older than Dyan Cannon, Michael Douglas is twenty-five years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Céline Dion twenty-seven years younger than her husband.
Alexander and Varvara produced eleven children over the next fourteen years. Large families were not just the result of insufficient birth control. They were common in preindustrial societies, where children were a potential source of wealth and status rather than a net cost. In peasant families, more children meant less work for everyone and a greater chance that someone might make good, while in the nobility they increased the chances for successful marriages and well-rewarded service to the regime. Even in industrializing England, the average noble family had six children in this period. In Russia, a higher infant mortality rate due to the greater distances and worse medical care encouraged childbearing. Furthermore, the custom among Russian nobility was to employ wet nurses, which deprived mothers of breast-feeding as an unreliable but statistically significant form of birth control. Two daughters, Liubov and Varvara, were born to the Bakunins in 1811 and 1812; Michael was born in 1814. Then came Tatiana and Alexandra in 1815 and 1816, followed by five boys, Nicholas, Ilya, Paul, Alexander, and Alexei between 1818 and 1823. A year later, another daughter, Sophia, was born but died from dysentery before she was three.
Varvara paid a high price for such fecundity. Michael noted as an adult that while they all adored their father, none of her children loved her, believing her to be vain and selfish.17 Varvara was often described as a martyr, and certainly she had cause to see herself as such. She was responsible for running the household and tending her mother-in-law. Both duties were tiring, often tiresome, and rarely appreciated. Married to a much older man, exhausted from continuous childbearing, it was hardly surprising that Varvara was thought by her children to be distant and remote. But this was less a personal attitude than the role imposed by society. Russian noblewomen were tightly circumscribed and their behavior was expected to fall within strict limits. While they could own property, it was usually given over to the husband or male children to manage. The household was her sphere, and if some found fulfillment in this, undoubtedly many did not. Their relationship with their children was expected to be restricted and formal. Mothers were rarely closely involved with bringing up the young sons; instead, they oversaw the nurses and governesses who were responsible for training and ensured that the proper values and lessons were learned. Cast as managers and disciplinarians, they sought respect rather than warmth and affection from their children.
This respect was based on the notion of the mother as the embodiment of virtue. Virtue in turn was derived from her sacrifice for the family, in particular the pain of childbirth. The particular status let mothers assert some authority using the tools of the powerless—shame and guilt. Their martyrdom had a deeper social significance as well. In addition to giving women some power in the family, indirect to be sure, it offered them some political status outside the home. Wealth and beauty bestowed status, but so too did virtue, measured in the public realm by devotion to duty and chastity. These in turn were measured by the degree of martyrdom women expressed. The martyrdom of nobles was also a sophisticated way to demonstrate that being rich carried its own burdens and that the nobility, like the peasantry, was making sacrifices for the good of the empire. That it was essentially a fraudulent exercise had no bearing on the intensity of feeling and belief. The melancholy and aloofness of Varvara Bakunin, then, were typical of her class and gender. They undoubtedly made up part of the allure she held for Alexander, for they were among the defining features of the perfect wife of the day.
Unable to exercise power directly in the home or society, even over their own children, manipulation was a fundamental survival tool for noblewomen. Undoubtedly this had an effect on the children, especially since even adult children often depended on their mothers to intercede on their behalf to obtain official favors and aid. In the complex world of Russian autocracy, status, and hierarchy, where harsh rules and the tsar’s whim made it necessary to find exceptions and appeals, mothers were often crucial interlocutors who could plead on behalf of their children to win favors at court, ranging from positions in the civil service to release from military service. This combination of shame, guilt, manipulation, and necessity that characterized the relationships of sons and mothers practically guaranteed conflicted relationships. As Michael Bakunin’s contemporary and sometimes friend Ivan Turgenev described his own mother, “It was so easy for her to force us to love her and take pity on her.” Such a reaction was typical, and Michael was no exception in his conflicted feelings toward his mother. Her behavior also meant that open rebellion against her was difficult and conflicts were likely to be left unresolved. The point to be emphasized, however, is that Michael Bakunin’s relationship with his mother was typical of his era and class, while her relative powerlessness was felt more profoundly by her than anyone else.18
In the meantime, Alexander determined to make the children part of the liberal experiment at Priamukhino. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, Alexander earnestly tried to avoid the mistakes that had turned his own childhood into one of “boredom and captivity.” In 1814, the year Michael was born, Alexander crafted his ideas for raising children. In place of his own mother’s coldness and his father’s rage, Alexander would be warm and kindly. Instead of insisting that his paternal authority be obeyed, he would encourage his children to disagree with him; when it was necessary to instruct or correct them, he would use reason, guidance, and suggestions. Perhaps most striking in Orthodox Russia, he would not insist that his children be religious, but would “only attempt to show them that religion is the only basis for all virtue and our entire good fortune.”19
His efforts to provide a kind, warm environment for learning were largely successful. Writing near the end of his life in 1871, Michael recalled his father as “a man of much spirit, well educated, even scholarly, very liberal, very philanthropic, a deist not an atheist, a free thinker. . . .”20 The characteristics applied equally to Alexander’s principles of pedagogy. The children were given a great deal of liberty, but not license; they were encouraged to express themselves and were treated gently. Tutors were engaged to teach the subjects Alexander could not, and the children had regular lessons in French, English, German, Italian, art, and religion. They read Western literature and philosophy, and took classes in music. Michael proved adept at the violin and had a talent for sketching. While their education was more liberal and progressive than the norm, it was not far different from that of their peers, except in one crucial aspect. Alexander educated his daughters as well as his sons, unlike most Russian nobles who generally restricted their daughters’ education to domestic duties, etiquette, and the like.21
Michael’s earliest writings suggest that he was a well-behaved son, mindful and respectful of his family and custom. He wrote birthday greetings and thank-you notes to family members in a careful, schoolboy’s script that was as far from his cramped, illegible adult scrawl as his filial obedience was from his career as a revolutionary. The nine-year-old signed himself “your affectionate and respectful son” as he dutifully wished his father “much happiness” on his birthday. The following year he promised his maternal grandfather that he would always keep his word and would try always to improve himself. In other letters, the young Michael wished his mother well on her birthday, hoped for her speedy recovery from illness, and undertook to work harder at his Latin and arithmetic. Dutiful letters penned in squirming protest under the eye of a stern parent or schoolmaster should not be given too much weight, but little in Bakunin’s early life pointed to a later career as a dangerous revolutionary. The family was comfortable, if not wealthy, and the children’s upbringing was a model of liberalism.22
Yet there was less to this liberalism than met the eye. For despite his best efforts, Priamukhino would be shaped by far more powerful forces than Alexander Bakunin: war, revolution, and the all-pervading rot of serfdom.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Leier. All rights reserved.