The Guardian: The Menace of Russian Classics

Alexander Potemkin,  25 November at 14:09 0 1860

At the beginning of last year, Levada-Center, a Russian independent sociological research organization, conducted a poll among 1,600 Russians. They were asked only one question—to name the most prominent Russian writers. Here are the final figures: Leo Tolstoy (45%), Fyodor Dostoevsky (23%), and Anton Chekhov (18%). The following writers were among the top ten: Alexander Pushkin (15%), Nikolai Gogol (13%), Mikhail Sholokhov (13%), Mikhail Bulgakov (11%), Ivan Turgenev (9%), Maxim Gorky (7%), and Mikhail Lermontov (6%).

Three percent of the respondents added Darya Dontsova and Boris Akunin to the “list of most prominent Russian writers,” while 4% mentioned Nikolai Nekrasov, Alexander Kuprin, and Ivan Bunin and 5% opted for Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

These figures show some interesting processes. Despite the concerted efforts to keep names such as Ustinova, Dontsova, Roy, Shilova, Polyakova, Marinina, and other so-called well-known writers afloat, they in no way hold a leading place in the minds of readers as “classics of today or tomorrow.” And despite the endeavors of book magnates to create a mass culture of light fiction, they have been unable to replace the classics of the Golden Age. It is essentially impossible to force society to believe that classical literature is no longer important and can easily be supplanted by contemporary writers, in whose popularity huge amounts of money are invested. Business is business (and here the book-printing press works just as efficiently as the money-printing press), and literature is literature. Monetization, powerful advertising, buying up book shelves in stores to be filled with current kitsch, and publicizing these authors on all kinds of TV and radio talk shows may generate revenue, but they will not win you recognition. Readers buy kitsch to relax after a hard day’s work and distract themselves from the hustle and bustle on public transportation. You often hear people saying, “I read a couple of pages of this rubbish to help me fall asleep at night instead of spending money on sleeping pills.”

But this reading in no way fulfills the true task of classical literature—enriching the soul and mind.

Culture, science, and civilization are a multistory building. A university graduate, school teacher, researcher, university professor, Zhores Alferov, and Alexei Abrikosov are all physicists. But it is an outrage to place them all in the same sentence, keeping in mind their contribution to and achievements in science. Nor can Donstova and Bulgakov, Ustinov and Sholokhov, Roy and Pelevin be placed in the same sentence. It is equally an outrage to compare the complexity of different structures in the same sentence—a plywood barracks, prefabricated housing, a glass and concrete building, and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. They cannot and should not stand alongside the masterpieces of art and architecture. However, present-day liberal culture experts are imposing precisely this model on society. And not only in Russia, but in other countries as well. It does not matter what, or how, a person writes, builds, paints, or composes, if he can put one word in front of another in some insipid form, he is called a writer, knock together some rickety structure, a creator, and place some awkward daubs on a canvas, an artist. Some swanky creative rating is not a democratic category. Can Yuri Polyakov, a mediocre playwright and envy-ridden author, be placed alongside Anton Chekhov? It is like being unable to tell the difference between an inner tube bobbing down a calm river and a fifteen-story liner ploughing the high seas. Or a storm on the ocean and ripples in a glass of murky water. Everyone should be ranked according to quality and appropriated a relevant stamp. But the problem today is that it is not literature and art professors who are assessing the quality, but businessmen. And this is where an author’s high ranking drowns in money. Cheap romances and hackneyed detective stories are taking a stand against profound creativity and genuine art. The triptych of sex, illicit gain, and crime are the favorite subjects in present-day fiction.

Can these really be the only things that spark the interest of contemporary civilization?

It is interesting how several European media reacted to this Russian sociological poll. They were filled with politicized headings and arguments: “A new survey has found that living writers are not much favored in Putin’s Russia” (Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian). They interpreted Russians’ devotion to the classics and the fact that they placed classical literature at the top of the cultural pyramid as adherence to some ideological agenda, as evidence that Russians are following some official course. As though to say that people are reading only what is approved by the government.

This problem is two-sided. First, there are representatives of the professional community in Russia’s liberal sphere who think approximately the same way as the British Guardian. That is, they believe that the current authorities have put forward the idea of “Russian culture” and “Russian classics” as a national idea and the foundation of the national identity. This means that “Russian culture” is a socially unifying factor. And they do not like this at all. It does not suit those who see this posing of the question of the classics and Russian culture as a way to “remove (to be more precise ignore) the tension existing in society—ethnic, religious, social, and political.”

But why not remove the tension? If the classics and traditional culture have things in common, this is seen as bad, whereas if the classics are changed beyond recognition, this is seen as good. Culture becomes an extension of politics not only when it unites, but also when it disunites. However, the very term “cultural politics” frightens some of the creative community to death. They shout “blue murder!” in advance, even though no one has forbidden, removed, or closed anything yet. Instead the government is only trying to find a common language with society, with civil society that has been so anxious for the current cultural innovations. But this “agreement of intent” is causing mass protest and rejection of the topic even before it can be discussed. “They already know it all.” This is precisely the behavior of those who are used to “creating” for government grants and have no gender, civil, or state feelings. Without this civilizational baggage nothing in particular can be created.

I recently went to see a performance at the fashionable Stanislavsky Electrotheater in Moscow… I will remind the innovators that creativity is generated by the intellect, while the conscience should, is even obligated, to participate during the creation of a cultural product. This play lacked the most important thing—it had no emotional activity, free thinking, or morals honed by our centuries-long history (even if it changes from time to time). There was only a preplanned perverse postulate to play on the audience’s base feelings. Of course, I was horrified by what I saw and heard, and made a hurried departure from this “innovative” performance after only fifteen minutes…

On the other hand, The Guardian author laments that Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin, Mikhail Shishkin, and Vladimir Sorokin were not among the top ten prominent Russian writers. Is it really worth removing Chekhov and Bulgakov from the top ten and replacing them with Shishkin? Or Sorokin? Akunin? They rank at the end of the first one hundred…

If the abovementioned authors are not on the list of prominent writers, of course, it can only be concluded that the survey’s findings suggest a tendency to play safe and rely on the officially authorized options. That is, those surveyed answered the sociologists’ questions under fear of arrest! But why should the survey findings be prescribed to current Russian regime (which the publications does), and not to the cultural heritage remaining from high Soviet culture? Although Bulgakov can hardly be considered an official Soviet writer.

The “dissidence” that nourished the West during Soviet times has come back into fashion. It is no accident that Taplin mentions Anna Gunin, who recently co-translated a book by Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich, and offers her own hierarchy of Russian literature. She points out that state-approved author Maxim Gorky is one of the government’s favorites (this, of course, is a huge overstatement—despite the 150th anniversary of his birth being celebrated this year, Gorky can in no way be considered either an “official,” or “favorite” party-authority writer—A.P.) and is way ahead of dissident writers Platonov and Bunin, suggesting “the lingering Soviet influence on the public’s mindset.” And this permits her to confidently say: “We could read into this that the Russian public is tending towards politically uncontroversial art these days..”

The name for this art is recurring, so to speak, Sovietization.

But whereas Russian culture, according to The Guardian, is undergoing recurring Sovietization, what does the high value rating of Russian classics have to do with it? How are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol responsible for “Sovietization?”

I think the aim here is to bring the lovers of classical and contemporary literature, readers and writers, into opposition with each other. If readers in England were to put classical writers in first place in their country, this would be considered perfectly normal conservatism (and this is what the newspaper writes), but if the Levada-Center reveals such a situation in Russia, it suggests “a conservatism beyond the casual reader’s nostalgia that inflects every literary poll.”

However, the author of the article about Russian readers and writers was correct in sensing a menace. Russian literature and culture really are a menace since they are the country’s golden reserves, its uncountable and invaluable cultural capital. It represents an enormous potential in which each Russian finds inspiration and strength. As soon as you come into contact with it, intrinsic spirit immediately triumphs over contemporary abstract universalism and political pertinence that support the myth about the “totalitarian threat” of Russian culture. They truly do fear that Russia’s political strategies could be motivated by historical and cultural factors (the British often recall Crimea, but do not want to hear anything about Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, or other occupied territories).

They (the British) will always be interested in relying on those writers and those cultural figures who believe that they “live in a country of unabolished slavery,” that “feudal law and the archipelago Gulag have become part and parcel of everyday Russia” and become ingrained in almost every Russian. But attentive reading of Russian literature in fact reveals something else—the enormous freedom of the Russian people and their ability to sacrifice this freedom to save, as has happened several times already, all of Europe…

The survey just happened to show that Russian literature is not at all a graveyard of enslaved writers. The classics, as long as people continue to read them, are not the monuments, but the living bread of culture.

P.S. Dear Ms. Phoebe Taplin, I took a look at your website. You are an energetic and talented lady. But your knowledge of Russian literature is poor, to put it mildly. I recommend that you take a course of lectures about our contemporary world from some wonderful Russian literary critics and philosophers—Doctors of Science and Professors Kapitolina Koksheneva, Natalia Smirnova, Sergei Antonenko, and Mikhail Maslin; you might also find great benefit in taking a look at the books of Sergei Averintsev, Yuri Lotman, Alexander Panchenko and Dmitri Likhachev… This will enhance your knowledge of Russian culture, and your articles will be read not only by the British, but also by a wide Russian audience.

Man is a strange creature with the complete freedom to choose what he thinks, does, and devotes himself to in life. He is free to follow his own inspiration and view the chaos in his own mind through a variety of different lenses. He can nourish his mind, create images that elevate humanity, portray its peculiarities, and delight in its acute awareness. And then, all of a sudden, the sublime feelings disappear, and he is left with nothing! Indeed, the 21st century is full of such strange people! This is a brief description of myself!

P.P.S. I am sending you my novel The Bondage in English. After reading it, I would appreciate it if you put me in 399th place in the list of Russian writers.


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