One of my favourite things to do in the world is to go to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. I go every time I am in Moscow, and every time I go, I visit the same paintings. The paintings that I love, I love for themselves, but sometimes also for the stories attached to them.
One such story is the creation of Isaak Levitan’s famous Vladimirka.
In the summer of 1892, so the story goes, Levitan and his wife were walking in the Russian countryside, wondering at the natural beauty around them. They came across a peaceful road, and walked along it, taking no particular note of it. It took a little time for the significance of the road to dawn upon them. This road that they had so casually happened across was the infamous Vladimirka, the road along which those sentenced to penal servitude would walk at the start of their long, hard journey to the labor camps in Siberia.
Siberian labor camps might now be more popularly associated with the Soviet regime, but the Russian Empire had been sending convicts East since the seventeenth century. In 1865, Nikolai Leskov published his novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which ends with the main character, Katerina, making that journey as part of a train of convicts. The long walk to Siberia, and the road along which convicts walked, was already well known by the time Levitan and his wife came across it.
Their realisation entirely rewrote the scene for them, and would inform Levitan’s eventual painting of the road. What initially seemed to be a picturesque corner of sleepy rural Russia transformed in the instance of their revelation into something much darker.
Isaak Levitan, Vladimirka, 1892. A landscape painting of an unpaved road stretching to the horizon through flat, green, countryside, with a cloudy sky above. Image source: Wiki Commons
I have always loved this story, in part because of its acknowledgement of how the violence of Imperial Russia was woven into the fabric of the land, but also for its metaphorical richness.
Just because you can see a thing does not mean that you understand its significance.
I was reminded of Levitan and his road because of recent articles and comments about reactions to the pandemic. There has been much judgement of other people’s actions, reactions, and inactions. Is it better to talk about the situation, or avoid the topic? To continue a normal schedule, or reject normality as past its time? Is it better, is it possible, is it right, to rest, or to work? What does it mean when someone reacts differently to this situation than we do?
There are many things that could be said on this topic. But I think Levitan and his road have something to tell us here.
Right now, we are all Isaak Levitan. We all experience other people’s reactions to the present situation as artefacts external to ourselves, that we come across by chance as we follow our own path. Our initial reading of those reactions may then be like that of Levitan’s initial reaction, of seeing the Vladimirka, but not immediately grasping what he had found.
Levitan was able to go beyond his initial impression of the road, and commit to a painting that both expresses the natural beauty of the scene and strives to convey the melancholy of that place of violence.
Levitan saw a beautiful landscape, and came to grasp that it was also a scene of horror. As we come across other people’s reactions to the pandemic, we come across reactions that might be totally other to our way of processing the situation, reactions that might immediately strike us as meaning one specific thing. Yet how they may seem to us from the outside is not necessarily how they feel to the person experiencing them. Sometimes what looks like a beautiful scene can, from another perspective, be revealed as a convict road.
Can we accept that others’ lives may not be what we initially perceive them to be? Can we acknowledge that we all begin as the Levitan calmly walking in the country, and aim to become the Levitan who created the Vladimirka?