Northern Illinois University Press

This Meager Nature

Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia

Christopher Ely

"An elegant, stimulating and compelling work."—Slavic and East European Journal

"Superbly researched, well written, and incisive."—The Historian

"[Ely] deftly succeeds in bringing the Russian landscape, as it existed in the imaginations of travel writers, poets, and painters, into a bold new perspective."—Journal of Modern History

Boundless Russia, humble yet full of hidden grandeur—such visions of "the motherland" became crucial markers of Russian national identity. This Meager Nature is the first full-length study to trace the cultural construction of Russia's landscape during the nineteenth century, showing how artistic and literary representations of nature reflected and shaped Russians' ideas about themselves and their nation.

In the early 1800s, Russians commonly accepted the European judgment that their land lacked aesthetic value. That view changed with the outpouring of literary and artistic creativity that followed the century's political upheavals. Artists such as Aleksei Savrasov, Fedor Vasil'ev, Ivan Shishkin, and Nikolai Nekrasov turned to their native land and revealed the power of grey skies, vast open fields, and simple birch forests.

Russians came to embrace their land's modest beauty, which represented strength and hidden depths. The historical creation of Russia's sense of place resulted not so much from its citizens' encounters with their environment, Ely argues, as from their long-term struggle to distinguish Russia from Europe. The humble beauty of the Russian land served to assert the genuineness of Russia against the inauthenticity of western Europe. For those who embraced it, the "meager" beauty of the landscape provided a powerful means for experiencing and expressing Russian national identity.

(2002) 289 pp., illus., biblio., index
ISBN: 978-0-87580-303-6
cloth $46.50

Christopher Ely is Assistant Professor of History at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. He lives in West Palm Beach with his wife and two children.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowlegments
Introduction: Russia, Landscape, and National Identity
1. Arcadia on the Steppe
2. The Search for a Picturesque Russia
3. Landscapes of Nationality and Nostalgia
4. Outer Gloom and Inner Glory
5. To Paint the Russian Landscape
6. A Portrait of the Motherland
Conclusion: A Russian Sense of Place

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