Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Father and son
Nikolai’s misadventures abroad with the painting involved a second character, for whom this ordeal became a watershed in his spiritual development — Leandr, his eight-year-old son.
Not long before their departure, on Leandr’s name-day, Nikolai devoted an exhortative poem to him:
In order that I name you, child,
Desired, darling son of mine,
Be a citizen of conscience;
Preserve in your heart ideals
Of good and truth; and share even
The last crumb you have with your young brother;
And in the face of strong scoundrels
Better to break, but never bend.
This simple, ‘home-made’ poem written by the head of an outwardly prosperous family says much about the essence of Nikolai’s relations with his children. Natural love between a ‘child’ and a father enters a new phase: the boy has to merit the distinction of being a ‘desired son’. Reserved fatherly love combines with sacrifice: not every father would wish his son to ‘break’ rather than ‘bend’, that is, to perish rather than betray his ideals. (Years later Leandr would say ‘Men die to uphold their principle’, and this would not be just words for him.) The father is deeply conscious of the necessity of this moral extremism and does not hide from his young son the troubles and injustices of the surrounding world, in which power is in the hands of mighty ‘scoundrels’. This general feeling of trouble and premonition of forthcoming ordeals is expressed in the exhortation to share ‘the last crumb’ with his ‘young brother’. Here, ‘young brother’ means ‘the people’ — the underprivileged and downtrodden. Even the traditional wish to ‘Preserve in your heart ideals / Of good and truth’ Nikolai supplements with the behest to be ‘a citizen of conscience’ — in other words, do not limit ‘good and truth’ to the circle of people close to you, but actively, consciously implement these ideals in society and the state.
Such moral expectations of children were quite usual among the Russian democratic intelligentsia of the time. Still, they were rarely realised in full, being often outweighed by commonsense. In the Ilin family, however, this rejection of compromise had been accepted unreservedly and fully implemented for many years in their everyday life. Leandr, although not the eldest son, was Nikolai’s first ‘real’ son — the son he had named, raised from infancy, and from whom he had almost never been separated. In his heart of hearts Nikolai hoped that, while his own attempts to act according to his principles sometimes went astray, this boy would be able to correct his father’s mistakes — to turn them into an ultimate good. And, amazingly, he did....
...These eight months away from home and the ordeals they came through together brought Nikolai and Leandr a great deal closer. Nikolai’s admonition to the boy from a year before did come true — Leandr from ‘the child’ grew into ‘the son’. The practical school of life into which his father plunged him, not suspecting himself how hard and harsh it could be, certainly taught him a lot. But the main result of this journey was not the accumulation of practice and knowledge, as the Americans saw it. The main result was specifically Russian — the moral and spiritual maturing of the child. After all, was not this — moral gain as the consequence of ordeals caused by impracticality — a distinctive characteristic of the Russian intelligentsia?