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January 2002

The strange case of D.S. Mirsky

by Hilton Kramer

On the writer, occasioned by the publication of D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890-1939, by G. S. Smith.

Of the millions put to death in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, the case of the Russian literary critic and historian D. S. Mirsky (1890–1939) is surely one of the strangest. Unlike so many other victims of the Terror, Mirsky may be said to have written his own death warrant by choosing to return to the Soviet Union from a decade-long exile in Britain at the very moment that Stalin was declaring war on intellectuals like himself as class enemies. There were many other Russians, to be sure, who were persuaded to repatriate themselves in order to participate in the brave new world of Soviet Communism, only to find that their ultimate reward was humiliation, arrest, and execution. But few were as heavily burdened as Mirsky was by politically incriminating antecedents. From a Soviet perspective, there could never have been any doubt that Mirsky really was a class enemy.

He was born Prince Dimitry Patrovich Svytopolk-Mirsky, scion of one of the oldest princely families of Russia. He thus belonged to a class which Lenin had earmarked for extinction. Add to this the fact that at the turn of the century Mirsky’s father had been appointed Deputy Minister of the Interior and Commander of the Corps of Gendarmes—head of the secret police—in the Czarist government. And then, as a Guards officer in the Civil War that followed upon Lenin’s seizure of power, Mirsky himself had fought with the “Whites” against the Bolsheviks. Given this background, the wonder is not that Mirsky died in the Gulag—which he did in 1939— but that he managed to function as a writer in the Soviet Union for as long as he did: five years, before his arrest in 1937. For, as G. S. Smith correctly observes in his recently published biography of Mirsky, “Stalin’s unmistakable agenda was to make literature an instrument of Party control.” Yet about the obvious risks which this agenda posed for Mirsky himself, he appears to have remained curiously complacent. [1]

It’s not that he didn’t work assiduously at the grim task of making himself politically acceptable to the Soviet regime. That, too, is part of the terrible story that G. S. Smith, a professor of Russian at Oxford University, now recounts in harrowing detail for the first time. It is thus a story of Mirsky’s betrayal of the writers who befriended him during his decade of exile in the West. It is also, in part, the story of his own betrayal of his literary vocation.

In London in the 1920s, where the classics of nineteenth-century Russian literature were enjoying a considerable vogue, Mirsky had been respectfully received in both literary and academic circles. Among the writers he got to know in London were T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Jane Ellen Harrison, as well as Leonard and Virginia Woolf and other luminaries of the Bloomsbury group. He lectured at London University and wrote for the London Mercury. Later, in what may be called his Soviet exile, he described the London Mercury in The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (1935) as “petty middle class—”

people far removed from any kind of moral esthetic extreme, and eminently suspicious of all foreigners, yet none the less completely assured that literature and art correspond to absolute values situated somewhere above the stratosphere and quite unhampered by the transitory trifles of political life.
Still, if we can discount Mirsky’s freshly adopted Marxist-Leninist vocabulary—the book was written in Russian for Soviet consumption—there is much to admire in his assessments of the British literary scene.
The basic trait of Bloomsbury is a mixture of philosophic rationalism, political rationalism, estheticism, and a cult of the individuality [sic]. Their radicalism is definitely bourgeois, a product not even of Shaw’s new progressivism or the Fabians, but of the old bourgeois radicalism and utilitarianism.… Bloomsbury liberalism can be defined as a thin-skinned humanism for enlightened and sensitive members of the capitalist class who do not desire the outer world to be such as might be prone to cause them any displeasing impression.
Writing in the 1930s, he also described T. S. Eliot as “the only real poet and the only person of any significance in the group.” And while he praised the novels of Aldous Huxley for depicting “the putrescent capitalist class with exceptional vim,” he nonetheless concluded—correctly—that “Huxley is not at all in the same order as Proust, Joyce, or Eliot.”

It was in London in the 1920s, however, that Mirsky wrote (in English) his masterly History of Russian Literature. This is his best-known work, and one that has remained in print to the present day. [2] Even the redoubtable Vladimir Nabokov acknowledged that he was “a great admirer of Mirsky’s work”—“In fact,” Nabokov wrote, “I consider it the best history of Russian literature in any language including Russian.”

Professor Smith goes further in tracing the curious history of Mirsky’s masterpiece.

Mirsky is familiar to all students of Russian literature outside Russia, amateur and professional, as the author of what is still generally regarded as the best history of their subject from the beginnings to 1925. This masterpiece was originally published in two volumes, and reissued in a one-volume abridgement. It has held its place in the English-speaking world for over seventy years, which may well be a record for this kind of book. Translations into German, Italian, and French have consolidated its status in Western Europe. Meanwhile, in his native country, Mirsky’s History was accessible before 1991 only to the privileged few who held passes to the restricted holdings of the metropolitan libraries, since it was written in English, published in Great Britain and the U.S.A., and was ideologically unacceptable. When the book was eventually translated into Russian, it was published in London like the original, and it has still not been published in Russia.
Mirsky began his literary career in St. Petersburg as an academic philologist and minor poet in the period preceding the Revolution. He was thus a member of what Professor Smith characterizes as “the most talented and tragic generation in Russian history”—the generation which included what he calls “a sainted quartet of poets”: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelshtam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. “In early adulthood,” he writes, “these people had to decide whether to cast their lot for the Revolution or against it, and then to remain in their country or to leave it.” Remaining in Russia was not then possible for Mirsky, however. “Whatever his political views may have been at the time,” writes Professor Smith, “he had practically no option but to leave Russia: men of his social situation were in principle marked down for physical extermination by the new regime, especially if they had taken up arms against it.”

It was in exile, then, mainly in England but with frequent travel to France, that Mirsky entered upon his most productive years as a writer. In addition to the two-volume History of Russian Literature (1926– 27) and a great deal of literary journalism and translation, he also published in English an anthology of Russian poetry (1924), Modern Russian Literature (1925), Pushkin (1926), A History of Russia (1928), Lenin, and Russia: A Social History (both 1931). He was also gathering material for the two books that were later published in the Soviet Union: The Intelligentsia of Great Britain, written in Russian and translated into English in 1935; and his Russian-language Anthology of Modern English Poetry (1937). Alas, in the Orwellian world of Soviet literature this Anthology of Modern English Poetry was published under somebody else’s name after Mirsky was arrested. According to Professor Smith, “It is still revered by poets and quarried by Russian students of English literature, but to this day not many of them know that it is [Mirsky’s] work.”

Mirsky’s London exile was a remarkable success story in every respect but one: his desperate need to attach himself to a destiny larger than his own. Financially he was not in need, but spiritually he inhabited a void, which even his great love of literature was insufficient to fill. As Professor Smith writes:

He was far more successful at day labour in the Western literary world than anybody else in the Russian emigration before Nabokov in the 1950s, and as a money-maker he was surpassed only by people whose chosen material did not necessitate translation, such as a few of the painters, dancers, and musicians.… The key to Mirsky’s success was, obviously, his superb active command of English… and that key was turned by Mirsky’s driving intellectual energy and ruthlessly disciplined work habits.
Yet in the face of this extraordinary success, which provided him with an income as well as a certain fame, not to mention a guarantee of his personal political safety, Mirsky joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1931. And then, in 1932, thanks to the interventions of Maxim Gorky, Mirsky received permission to return to the Soviet Union.

Virginia Woolf, who had met Mirsky in Paris in 1924, has left us with a bleak glimpse of him on the eve of his departure for Moscow. In a diary entry for June 1932, she described her last encounter with him.

Prince Mirsky came with his dubious fluent Russian lady: I mean she was full of temperament; had the free gestures of the Slav; but Mirsky was trap mouthed; opened & bit his remark to pieces: has yellow misplaced teeth; wrinkles his forehead; despair, suffering, very marked on his face. Has been in England, in boarding houses for 12 years; now returns to Russia “for ever.” I thought as I watched his eye brighten and fade—soon there’ll be a bullet through your head. Thats one of the results of war: this trapped cabin’d man: but that didn’t lubricate our tea.
I think we can assume that Mirsky was fully aware of Virginia Woolf’s snobbery, yet, despite his inevitable descent into Marxist-Leninist dialectics in The Intelligentsia of Great Britain, he treated her with considerable respect in that book.
Virginia Woolf may be described as the principal literary expression of Bloomsbury. She is unquestionably a great artist. She has created her own method, a lyrical kind of exposition of her leading characters—what might be described as an esthetisation of the method used by Chekhov in The Three Sisters. Virginia Woolf is even more thin-skinned than Forster is, and she experiences the sufferings of others acutely. But the sufferings with which she deals are limited to purely physiological suffering, as that of a woman growing old, and to individual psychological sufferings caused by the breakdown of personal bonds.
Then comes a heavy dosage of the dialectic:
Wherever [these individual sufferings] do appear as socially conditioned sufferings, they are, as in Proust, without exception the sufferings of the parasitic cream of the bourgeoisie.… The suffering is wrapped up in self-contained rhythms and sublimated from the world of reality to a world of esthetics. Her lulling rhythms are a fine example of the narcotic function which art takes on in the hands of liberal esthetes, who turn it into a new and more perfect form of dope, though of course one not intended for the people.
The Intelligentsia of Great Britain concludes with the obligatory prophecy of a “proletarian revolution” coming to Britain. “The interest in the U.S.S.R. is enormous and the interest in marxism is growing… everywhere there is healthy young growth; cadres are already forming, cadres who will be able to weld together a genuine sympathy for the cause of the revolutionary proletariat,” and so on. As Professor Smith observes: “The [London] Daily Worker was duly appreciative.”

It was left to another English writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, to describe Mirsky’s actual situation in the Soviet Union in the period preceding his arrest. Muggeridge, who had had what he calls “a vague acquaintance” with Mirsky in London, was in Moscow as a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. He gave us a portrait of Mirsky in a novel called Winter in Moscow (1934) in the character of Prince Alexis, and there are also glimpses of Mirsky in Muggeridge’s diaries and in the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles of Wasted Time (1972). Not surprisingly, his description of Mirsky in Moscow in the Chronicles is even bleaker than Virginia Woolf’s. It is too long to quote here in its entirety, but the following passage may convey something if its flavor.

He was always invited to Moscow receptions to show any foreigners present that a prince could survive unhurt under a dictatorship of the proletariat.… Mirsky always turned up, I think largely for the free champagne. He was a great drinker, and not too well provided with money. In any case he only earned rubles—by writing articles in the Literaturnaya Gazeta tearing to pieces contemporary English writers like D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, to whom, in conversation, he would always refer as “Poor Lawrence!” “Poor Tom!” “Poor Aldous!” I found this sympathetic. In the civil war he had fought with the Whites, afterwards living as an exile in Paris, and associating himself with the most extreme reactionary views. Then he came to London, where, inevitably, he became a professor, and was commissioned to produce a book on Lenin. In the course of working on it he came to see his subject as an enlightened savior rather than, as heretofore, a degraded villain. So he changed from being a prince to being a comrade.… When I outlined his career to Luciani, the Temps correspondent, he observed sourly that Mirsky had pulled off the unusual feat of managing to be a parasite under three regimes—as a prince under Czarism, as a professor under Capitalism, and as an homme-de-lettres under Communism. It was a just saying, but all the same I liked Mirsky.

Mirsky never really succeeded, however, in satisfying the Soviet literary bureaucracy. As Professor Smith observes: “Mirsky had been ‘restored in his Soviet citizenship,’ but he was clearly given to understand that he remained an outsider.” He simply knew too much and cared too much about literature to conform to Soviet requirements, and it was in any case inevitable that his personal history would be held against him. “Mirsky ran afoul of the highly placed Party members about ten years or so younger than himself,” writes Professor Smith, “men to whom his background was alien, offensive, and unredeemable.”

Some of the grimmest pages in Professor Smith’s biography are devoted to Mirsky’s ill-fated attempt to collaborate on the collective production of a book celebrating the construction of the infamous White Sea-Baltic Canal in 1933, a project correctly described by Professor Smith as “a monumental waste of time, money, and human lives,” and well-known in the West for several reasons. It famously won the praise of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote at the time that “It is pleasant to think that the warmest appreciation was officially expressed of the success of the GPU, not merely in performing a great engineering feat, but in achieving a triumph in human regeneration.” Later, the White Sea-Baltic Canal project was subjected to a more graphic analysis in the pages of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. And this murderous project is also remembered today in art circles for the contributions of Aleksandr Rodchenko to the book celebrating its completion. Rodchenko was responsible for the book’s photographs and layout, and these were exhibited as admirable works of art only a few years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the annals of suffering “sublimated from the world of reality to a world of esthetics,” Rodchenko’s contribution to the White Sea-Baltic Canal project can hardly be surpassed.

Grimmer still are the verbatim records of Mirsky’s interrogation following his arrest which Professor Smith has obtained from the Soviet archives and quoted from extensively in the final pages of his biography. In the Gulag, in the Kolyma mountain range, Mirsky was assigned to logging, and, as Professor Smith reports, “His performance and personal conduct were described as ‘unsatisfactory.’” He died in a camp hospital on June 6, 1939. “This is how Comrade Prince D. S. Mirsky, aristocrat of critics, came to his final rest,” writes Professor Smith. “At some time in the future, perhaps some way will be devised of setting up, in his own country, a memorial worthy of him. In the meantime, this book may serve as a temporary marker.”

D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890-1939 is far more than a temporary marker, however. In recounting for us the strange case of this greatly gifted writer, Professor Smith has given us a life that reads at times like an updated version of the Russian novels Mirsky himself wrote about so brilliantly. One cannot help but wonder what, if anything, the Russians themselves will now make of it.

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890–1939, by G. S. Smith; Oxford University Press, 398 pages, $110. Go back to the text.
  2. A History of Russian Literature: Comprising a History of Russian Literature and Contemporary Russian Literature, by D. S. Mirsky, edited and abridged by Francis J. Whitfield. Northwestern University Press, 383 pages, $19.95 paper. Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 January 2002, on page 17

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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