Building 250, Room 251J
Stanford, CA 94305-2020 USA
The "stately homes of England" have long lorded over the country estates of imperial Russia's elite. The wealthiest of the Russian wealthy once claimed a decidedly Oriental opulence: how do you trump a serf orchestra? Yet what is more outrageous, or unjust, than a serf orchestra? And in any event, quite a long time has passed since this half-forgotten "golden age." The Russian country estate is now the Russian ruin, its owners executed by revolution, its treasures rudely confiscated, and its sanctuaries defiled. Meanwhile, English country houses prosper as never before. Their owners are still rich, and have many friends in times of need. Two million members swell the ranks of the English country house's defending army, the mighty National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Reverently maintained aristocratic bastions such as Chatsworth, Kedleston, and Arundel Castle are national treasures, bound to the affections of the public by centuries of seemingly unbroken tradition and implicitly conservative good taste. As the historian Peter Mandler observes, English country houses are now the "quintessence of Englishness." They are hailed by their most ardent supporters as "that country's greatest contribution to Western civilization" (1). In response, Russia's humiliated country ruins can only echo [End Page 729] Chaadaev's famous judgement, "We do not even have homes" – a judgement made, damningly enough, when the houses of imperial Russia's landed elite still stood.1
Two separate histories might be written to explain the different fates of these two houses. For the English gentry, the argument might go, land was origin and residence, as well as a source of continuing wealth. Strong enough to defend its property rights, the gentry invested money, sentiment, and pride into its country houses. Local society grew up around these estates, and the English country house under the dedicated stewardship of the gentry quite naturally became a citadel of English national pride. The Russian nobility, by contrast, was a service nobility of relatively recent origin and owed its wealth (largely measured in serfs) to continuing service. Long separation from the provinces and the need to use the estate to support a service career led to an absentee-owner mentality, and little emotional or financial investment in the country estate. Russian provincial society, exploited and neglected, lacked a local power base, and with it a rallying point for local sentiment. The social instability that helped end the Russian old regime ultimately undid its houses of privilege, while the deeper roots of the English manor anchored a much more conservative and appreciative nation.
Yet can the place of these two houses in the cultural history of England and Russia be meaningfully reduced to a history of two elites, or two provincial societies, one strong, the other weak? Recent histories of the manor home suggest that the answer is no. In both cases, the old mansion's story extends beyond the history of its masters, or their society narrowly conceived, into the arena of modern cultural politics and social thought. As Russia's ruins begin to be reconstructed, we can see the country estate as an important...