Any avid discussion about Russia and Russians eventually gets around to the Russian soul. Russia and Russians are famous for their generous, expansive, passionate soul, and the numerous attempts to define its essence wind up in agreement on one point: the Russian soul is unlimited—it encompasses everything. Suffering and ecstasy, compassion and cruelty, self-sacrifice and greed, privation and excess. Two sides of the same coin. Russia’s glory and her scourge.
Let’s take excess: Ivan the Terrible gouging out the eyes of the architect who built his glorious new cathedral, so that he could never build another to rival it. (Okay, that’s unsubstantiated lore, but it’s completely in line with the many acts of creative torture this murderous tyrant inflicted on his subjects.) Peter the Great ordering a four-foot-tall birthday cake that contained a surprise for his guests: a midget bursting through the icing from inside the cake as the knife was about to slice the first piece.
Pictured here is the Morozov mansion in central Moscow, a specimen of architectural excess. Its size makes it not just a house, дом, but a mansion, особНЯК (from особый, meaning «special,» or «separate»). It was built in the 1890s by a frivolous and pampered son of the nobility, Arseny Morozov. It would seem he was determined to make his house a one-building history of architecture, incorporating everything from Greek columns to Eastern Orthodox church apses to ornate baroque curlicues and fanciful spaghetti twists. Arseny’s appalled mother pronounced her acid verdict on her son’s house: “You numbskull! Until now, I was the only one who knew how stupid you are; now the whole world knows.”
Others agreed with her. The great Tolstoy, by now grumpy with advanced age, growled that it was a “stupid house for stupid people.” By this point in his life, Tolstoy had forsworn frivolity, extravagance, and a great many other things (but not sex). He may have conveniently forgotten that in his bygone youth he could have out-extravaganced Morozov hands down. I think it is even fair to say he developed and perfected his own brand of excess. (For more on that, take my Tolstoy class or ask someone who did.)
Mother Morozov should not have been too surprised–Arseny’s architectural tastes simply reflected his personality, which was shot through with extravagance and excess. Example: He got the idea to shoot himself in the foot to find out if he could bear the pain. How well he bore the pain I don’t know, but he got blood poisoning and died.