Wednesday, August 27, 2008

crepuscular civilization

John Lothrop Motley to his Wife.

St. Petersburg, January 10th, 1842.
My Dearest Mary,
The English courier goes to-morrow, and you will not be surprised nor disappointed, I hope, to hear that I have already written to Fletcher Webster, announcing my resignation. I have had a talk with Colonel Todd, and he has consented that I should leave whenever it suits my convenience. As there is not an earthly thing to do at the Legation, I have no hesitation in resigning a sinecure whenever I please, and, as the Minister has made no objection, I shall leave this some time in March.

I shall leave this in March for Berlin, go to Hamburg, and from there to the Netherlands, where I wish to pass a few weeks, and then, if you decide to remain at home, I shall cross to England, and take passage about the end of May for Boston.

Todd has been perfectly kind and considerate towards me ever since we have been here, and I have stated this in my letter to Webster explicitly, mentioning that we have never had a word of difference on any subject, and that therefore my reasons for leaving were unconnected with any disagreement with him.

I dined a week ago at the British Ambassador's, and two days ago at Sir James Wylie's, where there was a large and pleasant company. The Prussian Minister, the English, and several notables were present. Count Nesselrode was to have been there, but received orders to dine with the Emperor on the same day. I don't know whether I have ever described to you the great bureaucrat of the great autocrat. He is a small man, with a hooked nose and spectacles, of affable and supple manners, and apparently gifted with ubiquity, for I have seldom been where he was not. I have been honoured by several short interviews with him, and I regret that I did not take down his conversation in shorthand, that I might transmit it to you. The topics have usually been the state of the weather, the heat of the rooms, and a comparative view of the state of the thermometer this year and this time last year. Upon all these subjects of general and exciting interest he seemed full of general information, and delivered his opinions with decision, and at the same time with a frankness hardly to have been expected of a man so deeply versed in the wiles of diplomacy.

Sir William Wylie is a remarkable man. He has been in the Russian service fifty-two years, and is now "Inspecteur-General du Service des Armees," with the rank of Major-General, having emigrated originally from Scotland as an apothecary's apprentice, I believe. He is a hearty old gentleman, upwards of seventy, and goes out bear-shooting in winter with the ardour of a youth. There has been nothing at Court since last I wrote. The day after to-morrow is the Russian New Year's Day, and we are bidden to what is called a cercle at the Palace, which is a showy, formal, and most insipid ceremony. There is to be a ball the same night at Count "Woronzow's; but I believe there are to be no more at the Palace this winter, of which I am very glad. I have been driving round occasionally in my sledge to look at some of the churches, in the hopes of seeing something worth describing to you. Some of these, with their graceful cupolas and clusters of turbaned minarets of green and gold, have a pretty, fantastic effect on the outside, but internally they are mostly bare and barren. I have been young lady enough to keep a journal (for your amusement when I return); but on looking over it I find it to be so meagre and so impregnated with my own dulness that I fear to communicate a portion of it to you if I transcribe from it, and, after all, there is nothing worth transcribing.

There are no fine buildings here, although there are many large and showy ones, and the architectural effects of some of the streets and squares are very imposing from their vastness and regularity. The best thing in St. Petersburg is the statue of Peter the Great. This, in my opinion, is the finest equestrian statue in Europe. There is something uncommonly spirited and striking in the action of the horse and the pose of its rider. He waves his hands as if, Scandinavian wizard as he was, he had just caused this vast collection of palaces and temples, this mighty swarming city, to rise like an exhalation from the frozen swamps of the Neva with one wave of his hand. Peter the Great was a great man unquestionably. He was addicted to drinking, murdering his son, beating his Prime Minister, and a few other foibles, to be sure, but still he was a wonderful man. He alone raised Russia out of the quagmire of barbarism, just as he raised St. Petersburg out of the morass; but it seems to me that just as this city may at any moment, by six hours too long continuance of a south-west wind, be inundated and swamped for ever, so may Russia at any moment, through a succession of half-a-dozen bad Czars, be submerged in its original barbarism. The present Emperor is unquestionably a man of great energy; but how can one man uphold this mass, even in the state of crepuscular civilisation to which they have reached? What is really admirable in the construction of St. Petersburg are the quays and walls along the Neva and the canals. These are all of granite, of great extent and most massive and admirable architecture, and, with the many bridges of the same material, are really Cyclopean works, and worth all the gilt gingerbread of all these stucco streets and palaces. These latter, compared to the marble halls of Venice, Florence, and Rome, are most tawdry and insignificant, although of great size, and ornamented, like Job Johnson's coat, with the most lordly indifference as to taste and expense.
Your own J. L. M.

-from The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley edited by George Williams Curtis 2nd edition (London: John Murray, 1889) vol. 1, pp. 94-96.

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