If Winter Comes

In the Russian soul it’s always winter, as the saying goes. Much of Russian literature too exists in a state of hibernation. It’s a survival strategy, as in nature, a way of adapting to adverse weather conditions. But the good news from the bookshelves is that the desolation of winter doesn’t have to be depressing. The Russian winter can be long and lustrous, a kind of deity, as Prince Vyazemsky claimed in “The Russian God” (1828), which is a poem about blizzards.

Nobody reads Vyazemsky these days but his best friend Alexander Pushkin alluded to that poem in chapter ten of Eugene Onegin, where he notes that a survival strategy can work not just for individuals but for the nation as a whole. “The storm of the year 1812 happened. Who helped us then?” asks Pushkin. “Winter or the Russian God,” whose freezing blizzards reduced Napoleon’s Grand Armée from an original force of 700,000 troops advancing on Moscow in the summer of that year to approximately 15,000 by December when they crossed the river Nieman back into Lithuania. Another of Vyazemsky’s winter caricatures, “First Snow”, furnishes the epigraph (“To live it hurries and to feel it hastens”) to Onegin, which is not only the greatest work in Russian literature but also contains the most beautiful lines about ice, snow and frost. Its heroine personifies a state of hibernation:

Tatiana (being Russian in her soul,
And not knowing why)
Loved the Russian winter
With its cold beauty.

Her pre-Freudian dream of being swept away by Onegin in the form of a bear that emerges from a snowdrift recalls the star-crossed lovers of Pushkin’s most romantic story, “The Blizzard”, in which a perfect storm stands in plotwise for the Friar and sleeping draught of Romeo and Juliet. It has a happier (or weirder) ending, though, and a good translation by Ronald Wilks can be found in The Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings (Penguin).

The Russian god of 1812 is the backdrop for Tolstoy’s famous account, in War and Peace, of Count Pierre Bezukhov stalking Napoleon through Moscow and off again into the harsh winter. The novel’s counterpart in the twentieth century, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (in a brilliant translation by Robert Chandler, recently dramatized on BBC Radio Four), actually contains superior descriptions of a foreign invasion coming to grief on a winter battlefield.

It’s hard to forget Grossman’s journalistic sketch of snow falling not on cedars, but on the ears of dead men at Stalingrad. “It was as though flakes of silence were falling on the still Volga, on the dead city, on the skeletons of horses. It was snowing everywhere, on earth and on the stars; the whole universe was full of snow…This soft, white snow settling over the carnage of the city was time itself; the present was turning into the past, and there was no future.”

Perhaps that memorability owes something to the fact that Grossman, unlike Tolstoy, was writing with a first-hand knowledge of Stalingrad, as a former war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda.

The dream sequence in Onegin always comes to mind when I think of poor Yuri Zhivago in Boris Pasternak’s novel hallucinating in the Siberian taiga and imagining that he sees his beloved Lara’s arms in the outstretched branches of a snow-laden bush. In the white landscape his void is a blackness so deep and frozen that a reader senses it will never thaw.

On a lighter note, it might be worth saying that the best joke about the Russian winter occurs in an American film. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s weatherman kills time (literally) by sermonizing to the good people of Punxsutawney. “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope,” he says one time around.

That’s funny, of course, but it’s not strictly true. For Chekhov, the Russian winter was always full of hope, not least because the promise of spring is almost the main imaginative theme of Chekhov’s plays. If we can only find snowboots thick enough, his characters seem to be saying, if we can only hold out until it comes!

In the short story “Misery”, which is modeled on “The Blizzard”, a sledgedriver is buried alive in the snow, “all white, like a ghost, with snow-plastered eyelashes,” like the clowns blown away in a Buryat blizzard in Angela Carter’s astonishing Nights at the Circus.

As Irina says to Olga in Chekhov’s Three Sisters: “The time will come, and everyone will know the meaning of all this, why there is all this suffering, and there won’t be any mysteries, but meanwhile, we must go on living. It’s already autumn, soon it will be winter, the snow will fall, but I will go on working.” Here the joke is the same as in Vyazemsky’s “First Snow”. The odd thing about the Russian winter is that it starts in the autumn.

Reproduced with permission of the Moscow Times

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