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Taking the waters: Russian literature’s holiday in the Caucasus

By Blog Admin, on 29 July 2013

Le Proval a Piatigorsk

Le Proval a Piatigorsk.
Via Wikimedia Commons

In the final post before the SSEES Research Blog takes a short summer break, post-graduate student Benny Morgan reflects on the brief flowering of health tourism in southern Russia, and as a setting for Russian Romantic literature.

What the American temperance campaigner Diocletian Lewis (1823-1886) called the ‘mineral water mania’ of the mid-nineteenth century took a scientistic turn in the Russian Empire at around the same time as it did in Western Europe and the United States. In the 1860s the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg examined a rash of medical dissertations on such topics as ‘The Effect on Blood Pressure of Baths and Showers at Different Temperatures’, describing in awed detail the results of douching experiments on rabbits and large dogs – and the language of the burgeoning hydropathic establishment trickled quickly into the promotional material of Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘watering places’.

By the century’s close, every southern town of note – Slaviansk, Borzhom, Piatigorsk – was producing brochures puffing the benefits of its waters, listing ailments treated and tabulating the testimonies of bathers and drinkers cured or ‘partially relieved’ of unpleasant symptoms. Yet spa therapy’s medicalization at mid-century also had the curious effect of sending the Russian watering place as a destination of fashion into apparently terminal decline. The empire’s Crimean and Caucasian resorts could compete neither infrastructurally nor rhetorically with the appeal of Baden-Baden, Wiesbaden and Vichy; dire comparative statistics – forty thousand visitors to Russian spas annually compared with half a million to German ones – drew hand-wringing about national ‘underdevelopment and lack of culture’ on the part of civic pamphleteers.

One marker of the commercial struggles of the Russian water-cure industry in the latter nineteenth century is the near-death of the southern spa theme in literature. Lidiya Veselitskaya’s Mimochka at the Waters (1891), a rare fin du siècle novel with a Russian health resort setting, makes fun of the westward trend in bathing culture by having its heroine ask, when a cure atKislovodsk is broached, ‘Aren’t there waters enough abroad?’ Foreign spas had monopolized the narrative as well as the therapeutic imagination.Despite their vivid ideological differences, both Dostoevsky and Turgenev look to Germany in their watering-place novels; the conspiratorial picture of resort culture given in The Gambler and Smoke (both 1867) offers perhaps the closest thing to a fictional consensus the two ever mustered. Tolstoy too, for all his creative investment in the Caucasus, takes the protagonists of his mature fiction to German spas in pastoral landscapes (see Family Happiness (1858) and Anna Karenina (1873-77)), not notionally domestic ones wedged into ravines.

Indeed, Chekhov’s minor-key masterpiece The Lady with the Little Dog (1899) draws for much of its melancholic atmosphere upon a sense that Yalta, another liquid mainstay of the Russian South, has become a place perpetually out of season: that the brightest heads have turned elsewhere. But for the critic with an interest in place and its ideological significance in fictions, a look back at the brief flowering of the southern cure has much to recommend it. The Romantic spa also offers itself as a point of departure for attempts to think through the attitudes that modern Russian literature has shaped and reflected with respect to cultures of health – and when tracing the ties that bind the realist spa text (Smoke), the bania tale in revolutionary skaz (Zoshchenko’s ‘The Bathhouse’ (1925)) and Brezhnev-era medical allegory (Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1967)).

The Caucasian spa resort is a vital setting in Russian literature of the first decades of the nineteenth century. As Robert Reid has written, spa resorts in this period frequently serve as a microcosm of metropolitan social life. In Lermontov’s novel A Hero Of Our Time (1840), the importance of the Caucasian setting is underlined at a moment of high drama and dudgeon: for maximal lethality and discretion, Pechorin and Grushnitsky fight their duel on a narrow mountain ledge – the kind of Romantic landscape that neither Moscow nor Petersburg could have provided. Sublimely situated yet easy to populate with a recognizable elite cast, southern spas offered a logical second home for the ‘society tale’ at a time when the Russian nobility still went abroad in fairly small numbers. Like the German spa at mid-century and afterwards, Russian watering places frequently host sexually transgressive plots. Pechorin and Grushnitsky come to pistols over an overblown flirtation, while Aleksandr Shakhovsky’s play A Lesson for Coquettes, or the Lipetsk Spa (1815) abounds in amorous indiscretion. Shakhovsky’s and Lermontov’s southern resorts have something else in common too: like most nineteenth-century fiction about watering places, they show a curious lack of interest in the bathing and drinking practices that ostensibly drove spa culture.

Beyond sex, privilege, idleness and dislocation, the Caucasian spa in Russian literature is also an emblem of imperial conquest – and thus a culturally ambivalent space. Louise McReynolds has written that the establishment of water resorts in the Russian empire’s southern borderlands can be seen as ‘a rearguard action of cultural appropriation in the long and costly conquest of [the] region.’ Many southern spas began as garrisons or military convalescent homes and it is as a venue for soldierly bonding – potboiling rather than matchmaking – that Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky views the resort of Kislovodsk in a story called ‘Evening at a Caucasian Spa in 1824’ (1825). Bestuzhev’s text, drawing from both a broad Gothic palette and the generous mythic allowance of the Romantic travelogue, offers a ‘frontier narrative’ in the extended sense of that term. A frame story – the narrator’s arrival at Kislovodsk on a proverbially stormy night and immediate recourse to a drink- and yarn-soaked common table – opens the way for multiple, frequently abortive tall tales. Each of these stories is motivated by anxiety about a menacing Other (Chechen or Georgian, Polish or English, female or supernatural) and each is met with the almost-incredulity of the sceptical but unshockable journeyman. The competitive krasnobaistvo [ostentatious or grandiloquent narration] of Bestuzhev’s speakers mixes the ‘language of the bivouac’ and ‘the language of high society’; the storytelling is by turns intricate and lustful, proverbial and direct. ‘Evening at a Caucasian Spa in 1824’ dwells in the unclaimed spaces between cultures, genders and world-views. ‘External frontiers’, writes Franco Moretti in his Atlas of the European Novel, ‘easily generate narratives’ – and Moretti’s broader claim that ‘space acts upon style’ finds confirmation in this early Russian watering-place story, as the social and existential dynamics of an encampment on hostile ground stimulate an engagement with the more skittish and intermediate aspects of experience and its narration.

Bestuzhev-Marlinsky’s story of the Caucasian spa also gives voice to what would become an truism in Continental spa texts of the second half of the nineteenth century – that visitors to water resorts generally arrived with an ulterior motive:

Why are we all here? […] Everyone will say: to take a cure. But aside from this many have incidental or even primary aims. Some come to dissipate themselves in love affairs; some to make themselves respectable through marriage; others to redeem the injustices of fortune at the card table.

Like ‘Evening at a Caucasian Spa in 1824’, Aleksandr Druzhinin’s satirical story ‘A Russian Circassian’ (1855) stages wishful fantasy and false witness in a colonial spa setting. Matvei Kuzmich Makhmetov, the ‘Russian Circassian’ of the title, is a retired civil servant whose shrewish wife scorns and impedes his Romantic sensibilities. Dazzled by a chance visit from the exotic Aslan Makhmetov, who brags of the dagger-wielding exploits of yet further Circassian namesakes, Matvei Kuzmich begins to imagine himself a rugged warrior in the mould of the legendary Shamil. After racing through the Caucasian tales of Lermontov and Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, he procures himself a beshmet and sword-belt and sallies forth to Piatigorsk, where he abandons his daughter at the baths and volunteers for a ‘perilous’ military expedition. Predictably, Matvei Kuzmich’s dreams fizzle into humiliation. All who meet him at the spa take him for the ‘tourist’ he is – Piatigorsk is shown to be already possessed of a flourishing souvenir industry – and the soldiers who encourage his zeal to enlist turn out only to have been having fun at his expense. His ‘brother’ Aslan Makhmetov is outed as a fraud and a coward and in a final moment of shame Druzhinin’s ‘Russian Circassian’ is ripped off by a local money changer. Matvei Kuzmich’s clumsy idolization of ‘Circassian’ valour and simultaneous readiness to join a campaign to stamp it out makes light of Russian literary two-facedness with respect to the empire’s southern fringes. Druzhinin seems also to suggest that neither appeals to shared heritage nor liberal-cosmopolitan ideas of hybridity and mutual adulation (‘Russia is good, but the Caucasus is even better’) are satisfactory solutions to the diplomatic and psychological challenges posed by Russian imperial expansion.

A footnote to this brief survey of Russian fictional responses to the southern spa arrives in the shape of an unfinished work by Aleksandr Pushkin, a totemic figure in the nation’s literary culture. A fragment known to critics as Novel At A Caucasian Spa (1831) marks an important stage in Pushkin’s creative development: namely the attempt at the height of his fame as a poet to branch out into extended narrative prose. Pushkin got no further with his spa novel than a few plot outlines and a roughly drafted opening but the manuscript hints at a work close not only to the German spa fictions of Turgenev and Dostoevsky, but also to the society tales (‘The Shot’; ‘The Queen of Spades’) that Pushkin did get around to writing: ‘a satirical description of society at the watering-places […] a notorious cardsharp and daredevil […] a duel’. The scientific turn in water curing may have squeezed the life out of the nineteenth-century Russian spa, but it did not undermine an (international) narrative tendency to paint deceit, folly and violence as the likely result of male idleness and separation from the hearth – whatever the sulphurous content of the spring at hand.

Benny Morgan is a doctoral student of comparative literature at UCL SSEES.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

The SSEES Research Blog will return in September.