The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.
The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.
“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.
Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6
Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.
In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.
Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.
In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.
Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.
Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.