Optical Play: Glass, Vision, and Spectacle in Russian Culture (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory)

Optical Play: Glass, Vision, and Spectacle in Russian Culture (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory)

by Julia Bekman Chadaga

ISBN: 9780810130036

Publisher Northwestern University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Other Media

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Sample Chapter


Looking through Glass: The Transformation of Vision

[Following his journey to the Russian capital, Algarotti wrote]: "St. Petersburg is a great big window on Europe" ... When we say 'St. Petersburg is a window on Europe,' we are quoting not Algarotti himself, but Pushkin. But Pushkin translated this expression not from the language of the original but from the French. The French translation did not contain the augmentative suffix. For Algarotti this expression had a somewhat different meaning than for Pushkin, because in Italy the term 'big window'—with the augmentative suffix!—is also used to refer to a window through which you can step out onto a balcony or a loggia. That is, it is an exit into an exterior space. Whereas among us it has become merely a window, which has given rise to jokes to the effect that normal people use the door, but we're always trying to climb in through the window.

—Mikhail Tallai, Russian Genealogical Society

Traditional Russian culture viewed the window as the border between the world of one's home and the hostile external world; as such, this aperture was considered one of the most dangerous places in the house. People believed that demonic forces (nechistaia sila, literally "unclean power") could gain access to the home through the window and cause harm to the residents and their loved ones. This belief gave rise to numerous omens: for example, a bird flying into a window signified someone's imminent demise; a woodpecker knocking on a window frame presaged death or misfortune. A positive counterpart to these feared intrusions was the sunbeam, the only element from outside whose entry through the window Russians welcomed. One old riddle reified solar energy as a "golden log" poking into one's window (iz okna v okno zolotoe brevno), while another presented sunlight juxtaposed with solar rays extending into the home as "a lady in the yard with her sleeves in the hut [barynia vo dvore, a rukava v izbe]." To prevent anything "foreign" from getting inside the home, Russians drew crosses with chalk or coal on the upper part of the window and sprinkled holy water on the frame.

These beliefs reveal a set of anxieties about border-crossing and the foreign that are also observable in a multitude of Russian superstitions and sayings regarding mirrors. Thus, these glass expanses that appeared in Russian homes carried with them a powerful symbolic charge alongside with their pragmatic light-giving function. To stand or sit next to a window was to become a border guard of sorts in the microcosm of one's own home.

Another reason that windows have a particular resonance in the Russian context is that their function evokes the conflict between openness and isolationism that is at the heart of modern Russian identity. The eighteenth century saw a Petrine revolution in architecture: windows became larger as Russia became more open to Western influences. In 1739 Count Francesco Algarotti famously dubbed St. Petersburg, the capital that Peter built ex nihilo, a "window through which Russia looks at Europe." Algarotti had in mind a large window through which one can step out onto a balcony; subsequently, as Algarotti's phrase was absorbed back into Russia and served to shape the nation's self-identity, this specific definition gave way to the broader meaning of openness and, perhaps, wistful surveillance of a lovely and inaccessible view.


The symbolic significance of glass can be fruitfully examined as part of the larger phenomenon whereby building materials take on meanings distinct from their utilitarian designations. The construction of St. Petersburg serves as a vivid case study of just such a process. In the consolidation of state power though secularization, symbols with previously religious significance became associated with the state. In the case of Peter the Great, attributes that were once Apostle Peter's became those of the emperor. Feofan Propokovich, referring to the emperor Peter in a speech, cited the Gospel's etymologically based association of Peter with "the rock" upon which the future was to be built. The emerging myth of Petersburg reinforced this symbolism through the opposition of wooden Russia versus stone Petersburg, established by a total ban in 1714 on the erection of stone buildings anywhere in Russia except in the new capital.

Peter has always been associated with the stone out of which his city was built. Yet an equally important material in this respect is glass, for the new, European-style architecture in St. Petersburg called for much greater lighting of interiors, therefore much larger windows, than had been the norm in seventeenth-century Russia. In his biography of Lomonosov, P. P. Pekarskii notes that "many country- and even city-dwellers in [the mid-eighteenth century] considered simple glass windowpanes to be a luxury and used mica and animal bladders instead." This state of affairs was changing, however, and architecture in Peter's newly constructed capital set the tone. Tiny mica windows and stained glass in leaden sashes receded into the past. The first palaces built in Petersburg featured hallways brightened by rows of evenly spaced windows. William Craft Brumfield notes this innovation in describing the Kikin Chambers (palaty), which served as the initial site for the Kunstkamera; he calls attention to the "large window frames, whose expanse of glass provides a telling contrast to pre-Petrine dwellings, which seem to have been designed to exclude a view of the exterior world." Peter's famous Domik (little house), the new capital's first dwelling, featured log walls painted to resemble brick and large windows composed of numerous panes of glass, a radical departure from Russian architectural conventions of the time. The architecture of the Petrine period was characterized by structures that let more light and air into buildings, as well as by expanded interior spaces, thinner walls, and lighter constructions. By the second half of the eighteenth century, windowpanes as large as five meters long and three meters wide began to be produced. Daylight entered palaces and then more modest homes, while the improved construction of lamps as well as extensive use of wall mirrors and optical capacities of faceted glass in chandeliers gradually led to brighter interiors. (Glass contributed to brighter exteriors, too: glass panes for lanterns were cast in bronze molds and then polished; the first lanterns began to appear on the streets of Moscow in 1730.)

In their attempt to dematerialize the solidity of walls and create an overwhelming, ostentatious ambiance, Baroque architects painstakingly arranged mirrors in order to best reflect the room's numerous light fixtures, which were themselves made of glass. In upper-class interiors, mirrors and windows alternated with one another, creating the illusion of expanded space; this effect can be seen, for example, in the Italian House at the Kuskovo estate near Moscow and the Catherine Palace. At the court of Empress Elizabeth, the grand hall that was used for her beloved masquerades was described by a visitor as having twelve large windows in a row "corresponding to the same number of mirrors of a truly enormous size." (See figure 2.) (Here I would like to note how radical this proliferation of mirrors was in a country where such objects had been virtually taboo not long before; this is a topic that I will discuss in detail in chapter 2.)

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Karamzin provided a sketch showing how profoundly the urban landscape had changed, and how the internal landscape had changed with it:

Our age might be called the age of laying bare [otkrovennosti] in the physical and moral sense: just take a look at our charming beauties! ... There once was a time when people hid in dark homes and beneath the shield of tall fences. Nowadays everywhere there are bright homes and big windows facing the street: go ahead and peek in! We want to live, act, and think in transparent glass.

Karamzin's evocation of transparency is fitting in a work entitled "My Confession" (1802), whose narrator unapologetically reveals his amoral way of life to one and all. This passage brings up another important aspect of the Petrine architectural innovation: not only did windows let light inside dwellings, but they allowed the dwellers to look out, and potentially, outsiders to look in. The introduction of more and larger windows ushered in a new psychological state (this would, of course, affect primarily those who could dwell in buildings affected by the changes, although the position of outsider-looking-in was potentially open to anyone) based on a changed relationship to interiors as well as a greater interaction with and awareness of the world outside—a widening of one's outlook (krugozor).

In her Memoirs written in 1767, Princess Natal'ia Borisovna Dolgorukaia describes herself at age sixteen, observing from a window as history marches past in all its ceremonial garb. The first such procession, taking place in 1730, is the funeral march for Peter II that moves past the Sheremetev house in Moscow. First come archpriests and archimandrites, followed by medals and coats of arms borne aloft; finally Dolgorukaia's fiancé Ivan in a mourning cape passes by:

They had to carry the Emperor's body past our house, where I sat by the window, gazing at the woeful ceremony.... When [Ivan] came up even with our windows, he looked over with weeping eyes, his countenance saying: "Whom are we burying! It is the last, last time that I shall see him!" I felt so faint that I fell against the window; I was too weak to sit up.

Soon afterward, another procession makes its way past Dolgorukaia, who this time finds a window in a palace anteroom from which to watch Empress Anna's accession ceremony:

I sat in an anteroom in the palace and saw the whole ceremony. It went by the windows where I was sitting, and now for the last time I saw my fiancé commanding the Guards: he was a Major and he sat on a horse saluting [the Empress]. Imagine how I felt viewing that spectacle.

Each of the window passages above also contained a reference to Anna that was cut from the 1810 and 1840 editions of the Memoirs. In the former case, Anna's right to the crown is questioned, while the latter paints a monstrous portrait of the empress: "she was truly terrible to look at, with a repulsive face, and she was so large that when she walked among her cavaliers she was a head taller than all of them, as well as extremely fat." Dolgorukaia's view from on high paradoxically allowed her to look down upon the most sovereign figure in the land while observing the procession of autocratic power that signified her imminent undoing, whose trajectory she was helpless to stop. Re-creating through writing a gaze through a window, Dolgorukaia wrote from a doubly cloistered perspective: a position of power and powerlessness.

The official procession viewed from a window reappears once more, in a transformed state, in Dolgorukaia's Memoirs. The Dolgorukii family is banished to their remote estate in Penza. They stop to rest in a village belonging to Dolgorukaia's mother-in-law. They have been there for less than a month when soldiers of the new regime invade their home; the family is ordered to pack, and they are subsequently transported under heavy guard to an even more remote Siberian town. Dolgorukaia sees danger approaching through a window:

In the distance I could make out a large number of men and horses coming toward us at great speed.... We could see immediately that we were in for more trouble, that ill-feeling for us was growing rather than declining. You can imagine the state I was in then. I collapsed down on a chair, and when I came to, the manor was full of soldiers.

Dolgorukaia spoke of collapsing against the window at the culmination of her description of the funeral; here, she loses consciousness at an analogous point in the narrative, again as if the sight is too overwhelming. The window allows her to see out, but it also suggests protection and a border that is not supposed to be breached; her loss of consciousness allows her to elide the violation of her family home by the soldiers, who are already inside when she comes to. Previously, Dolgorukaia watched official processions through a window; the approach of Anna's soldiers is a variation on the procession motif.

As Lewis Mumford observes, windows presented the world in a frame, and by virtue of this function, glass came to both symbolize and facilitate "the double process of naturalism and abstraction which had begun to characterize the thought of Europe.... [Glass] made it possible to see certain elements of reality more clearly: and it focussed attention on a sharply defined field—namely, that which was bounded by the frame." Windows and paintings both present an image within a frame; Dolgorukaia's depiction of her window views may have been informed by the visual art of the time. For example, an engraving of 1709 depicting Peter the Great's triumphant entry into Poltava avoided the use of perspective and situated the whole of the procession on one page. Wortman observes: "The effect is to take the entry procession out of the ordinary and give it a sense of otherness." The engraver Ivan Sokolov was instructed to follow the example set by this work in his depiction of Elizabeth's triumphant entrance into Moscow, which shows the entire procession arranged in seemingly endless rows snaking back and forth across a single page. Visual art was a part of Dolgorukaia's cultural vocabulary: hence in the midst of describing the hardships of her exile journey, she digresses to praise the beauty of her husband's riding horses: "Were I anartist, I would not have hesitated to paint their portraits." In her memoir, Dolgorukaia uses windows to frame and thereby to control and alleviate the distressing events that she is narrating.

The final window image in the Memoirs appears when the exiled family is journeying down a river on the way to Berezov; when the weather is calm, Dolgorukaia sits by the window in her cabin and either weeps or washes handkerchiefs. She also finds another way to amuse herself: "Sometimes I would buy a sturgeon and tie him on a line so that he could swim along beside me, a slave as I was." This time Dolgorukaia is in an even more liminal space—drifting between water and dry land. And this time she controls what she sees out of the window by creating her own spectacle, complete with her own "captive"—a fish, a creature that is heavily weighted with Christian symbolism and, to a mind so inclined, embodies the hope of rebirth.

The way in which Dolgorukaia stages the turning points of her life around windows echoes the strategic use of these glass portals by writers and artists in other times and places; thus, in post-Renaissance paintings the motif of the window serves as a boundary separating "places of contemplation, of detached introspection, of protective domesticity, and later of romantic longing from the world's hustle and bustle, its sensual lures, its impermanence, its lack of order and control." Windows introduce a paradoxical dynamic into our relationship with visible reality, which we can access with our gaze but are helpless to control. Glass thus makes us mindful of the connection between seeing and power. On the one hand, looking is a kind of possession that grants power over the object of the gaze. On the other hand, the glass pane wavers between visibility and invisibility; when it cannot be seen, it gives the illusion of direct access to the object beheld, but that illusion can be dashed in a moment, showing that the power dynamic is more complex than it may seem. Several key Russian texts from the nineteenth century elucidate this connection by staging encounters between the male and female protagonists around windows. When authors working in the period of nascent Realism deployed windows in their texts, they were mindful of both the materiality and the symbolism of these objects; they drew upon a wealth of associations stemming from the anxiety around border-crossing as reflected in the symbolic status of windows peculiar to Russia.

Excerpted from "Optical Play: Glass, Vision, and Spectacle in Russian Culture (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory)" by Julia Bekman Chadaga. Copyright © 2013 by Julia Bekman Chadaga. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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