Thursday, October 29, 2009

La Vie en Rose

Years after the French Revolution had been quelled by the Bourbon restoration Talleyrand once asserted that no one who had not lived before the Revolution knew how sweet life could be. Talleyrand’s statement is ambiguous. As an aristocrat who miraculously survived the Revolution to serve both Napoleon and his opponent, King Louis XVIII, Talleyrand obviously understand how the Ancien Regime allowed the aristocracy to enjoy privileges that evaporated in the French Revolution and seemed nearly unbelievable to the generation that grew up in its wake, whether they supported the French dynasty, opposed it in favor of another, or opposed the very principle of monarchy.

Yet Talleyrand’s statement was also a product of nostalgia for a lost world. It represents the severity of the rupture that the Revolution represented in the life of the nation. Before the Revolution, the French people were subjects, both in the literal sense of being under the king’s authority, and in the more general sense of being victims of history. After the Revolution, the French became citizens, agents of fate, and makers of history.

Talleyrand’s remark about the break between the existential difference that separates pre and post-revolutionary eras is applicable to the Soviet Revolution. If you never lived before the Revolution, you didn’t know a certain variety of Russian greatness, symbolized by huge aristocratic estates (many kept up with cunning marriages to bourgeois families). These estates were built on the labor—the surplus value of labor—of thousands of Russian serfs or peasants. The estates represented everything good and bad about old Russia. They were architectural miracles, frequently any number of artistic and cultural enterprises, including gardening, musical performances, theatrical performances, and of course novel-writing. Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Bunin—all expressions of the sweetness of life before the Russian Revolution transformed everything.

The scene in Dr. Zhivago where formerly wealthy bourgeois see their home divided up by resettled workers in illustrative. Such scenes actually occurred. Masters shared their homes with former servants, hoping not to be denounced for demonstrating any unwarranted territorialism over their former possessions. Former bourgeois and aristocrats—a few who were formerly not so far from the Russian court—could be seen shoveling snow or performing other menial tasks to earn their bread.

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