Judging by his article, "Russia's culturati a pale imitation of worthies of 'Utopia,'" Carlin Romano and the editors of Philadelphia Inquirer have conspired to subject their readers to an infantile April Fools' Day joke. Thus, readers of the April 1, 2007 issue of the "Inky" might be forgiven, if, after reading Romano's review of Tom Stoppard's 3-part play, The Coast of Utopia, they had no better understanding of 19th century Russian intellectual history than they had before falling for his joke.
The real joke, however, concerns Mr. Romano's apparent ignorance of 19th century Russian intellectual history. It seems to be no more informed than that held by the woman I encountered on February 24, 2007, during the intermission of the third play of Stoppard's marathon. She said to no one in particular: "Do you understand any of this?"
Mr. Romano, the self-proclaimed "devoted Russophile and ex-Fulbright professor in Russia - from Philadelphia with love," not only fails to grapple seriously with the ideas of such people as Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and Vissarion Belinsky, he makes no mention at all of such historical figures as Pyotr Chaadaev, Nicholas Ogarev, Nicholas Stankevich, Nicholas Chernyshevsky and the great novelist, Ivan Turgenev. All appear in Stoppard's trilogy.
Yet, readers might have been interested to know that the publication of the first of Chaadaev's Philosophical Letters had the impact of a bombshell. He asserted that human history consists essentially in the development of ideas that move people to action. Consequently, Russia had no history, because, the ignorance, barbarism, and slavery that constituted Russia's past did not constitute history. [Chaadaev's views as summarized by S. V. Utechin, Russian Political Thought: A Concise History, p. 76] The Tsarist regime responded by officially declaring Chaadaev insane and placing him under medical care.
Similarly important was the unmentioned Ogarev. He was "the man who gave more thought than anyone else to the practical problems of the revolutionary movement, the problems of organization, strategy, and tactics." [Utechin, p. 119] And the unmentioned Chernyshevsky plays a minor, but crucial, role in Stoppard's play, because his appearance - given his novel, What is to be Done -- establishes the revolutionary link to V. I. Lenin, whose "most important single work of Leninist theory" [p. 217] carried the same title.
Moreover, had Romano read Stoppard's own essay, published in the very Lincoln Center Theater Review available to all who attend Coast, he would have seen Turgenev's significance: "But it is Turgenev who brings us closest to the world of the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia, and, moreover, his A Sportsman's Sketches was plausibly said to have done more than anything else to turn the 'Reforming Tsar' Alexander II toward abolishing serfdom. Perhaps it is the artist, after all, rather than the three publicists of genius [Herzen, Bakunin and Belinsky], who is the true hero of The Coast of Utopia."
In addition, it was Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, that introduced the character Bazarov, a nihilist who rejects "everything that cannot be established by the rational methods of natural science" including "literature and philosophy, the beauty of art and the beauty of nature, tradition and authority, religion and intuition." [Russian Thinkers, p. 277] Bazarov shows up in Part III of Stoppard's play as the Doctor.
Worse than these omissions by Romano, however, is his failure to examine, let alone critique, Mr. Stoppard's treatment of those individuals and their ideas. Which is to say that readers of Romano's review will find no mention of the great 20th century British thinker, Isaiah Berlin, and his influence on Mr. Stoppard's interpretation of 19th century Russian intellectual history. Romano's failure is significant, if only because Stoppard himself has asserted: "We should talk a little about Isaiah Berlin, because he is the presiding spirit of the trilogy."
It was Berlin's belief that "the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge give us no warrant for supposing that all good things are reconcilable with each other," which influenced both his philosophy of liberty and tragedy, as well as his critique of utopianism. Having agreed to write a book about Karl Marx, Berlin came across the memoirs of Alexander Herzen. According to Stoppard, Berlin "started to read it there and then. It changed his career, his life."
It was Berlin's book, Russian Thinkers, that prompted Stoppard to write The Coast of Utopia."*** And, when one reads Berlin's qualified praise of Herzen, it's easy to see how he became central to Stoppard's three plays: "Herzen does at least face genuine political problems, such as the incompatibility of unlimited personal liberty with either social equality, or the minimum of social organization and authority; the need to sail precariously between the Scylla of individualist 'atomization' and the Charybdis of collectivist oppression; the sad disparity and conflict between many, equally noble human ideals; the nonexistence of 'objective,' eternal, universal moral and political standards, to justify either coercion or resistance to it; the mirage of distant ends, and the impossibility of doing wholly without them." [Russian Thinkers, p. 105]
Yet, under the influence of Russian Thinkers Russia's significant Slavophil points of view merit but a token appearance (in the person of Konstantin Aksakov) in Part II of Stoppard's trilogy. And Dostoyevsky - about whom the great scholar and statesmen, Thomas Masaryk once wrote, "an analysis of Dostoevsky is a sound method of studying Russia" - is mentioned but once.
Unfortunately, none of this is found in Romano's review. But what's worse - given his avowed intention to "spur the conversation as Tony time approaches and Coast awaits its nominations - Romano contents himself with one sentence of anti-intellectual tripe: "The upshot of Stoppard's trilogy might be this - intellectuals rant a lot, but their ideas catalyze action and bring progress." How profound!
He might have noted -- as this viewer of Coast believes - that Stoppard has written three very good plays about Russia's "Romantic Exiles," which he has made accessible to the public by very Stoppardian [?] methods. First, nuggets of serious ideas are submerged in waves of soap opera domesticity, especially love, infidelity and death. Second, Stoppard portrays a few of his characters as more frivolous than they actually were. His treatment of Bakunin, Marx and Turgenev immediately comes to mind.
Yet, what Stoppard has rendered brilliantly accessible, Romano has rendered ghastly unintelligible. After telling his readers virtually nothing about the ideas that inspired Russia's 19th century intellectuals, after telling them virtually nothing about Stoppard's treatment or mistreatment of them, and after saying nothing at all about the brilliant sets produced by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, Romano inexplicably attempts to contrast "the worthies of 'Utopia'" with the louts who pass for writers and intellectuals in Russia today. Even if this wasn't another case of a poor thing poorly done, how does it "spur the conversation as Tony time approaches?"
*** Like Stoppard, my graduate school mentor, the brilliant Sergei Vasilievich Utechin, personally knew Isaiah Berlin. He was his friend, and exchanged letters with him. Moreover, Utechin's first wife, Patricia, was Berlin's personal secretary. (I've videotaped Utechin's reminiscences, including those discussing his association with Berlin. I've also written an obituary of S.V. Utechin for Slavic Review, which can be found here.)