Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War

As for “Anna Karenina,” it really does start where Onegin ends: with a flawlessly dressed heroine married to an influential imperialist. The tension between center and periphery is woven into the plot. The character of Karenin, a statesman involved in the resettlement of the “subject races,” turns out to be partly based on Pyotr Valuev

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As for “Anna Karenina,” it really does start where Onegin ends: with a flawlessly dressed heroine married to an influential imperialist. The tension between center and periphery is woven into the plot. The character of Karenin, a statesman involved in the resettlement of the “subject races,” turns out to be partly based on Pyotr Valuev, the Minister of the Interior from 1861 to 1868. Valuev oversaw the Russian appropriation of Bashkir lands around the Ural Mountains—and also issued a notorious decree restricting the publication of Ukrainian-language educational and religious texts throughout the Empire. (It reads, in part, “A separate Little Russian language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist.”)

Unlike Tatiana, Anna doesn’t remain faithful to her empire-building husband. She leaves Karenin for Vronsky, who turns down a prestigious military post in Tashkent in order to travel with her to Italy. But the Imperial Army gets Vronsky back in the end. That final image of Anna’s lifeless head is actually a flashback Vronsky has, on his way to join a Pan-Slavic volunteer detachment fighting the Ottomans in Serbia. With Anna dead, and the love plot over, his only desire is to end his own life, and to kill as many Turks as possible in the process. To quote a recent think piece titled “Decolonizing the Mysterious Soul of the Great Russian Novel,” by Liubov Terekhova—a Ukrainian critic who was reassessing “Anna Karenina” from the United Arab Emirates, as Russia bombed her home city, Kyiv—“Russia is always waging a war where a man can flee in search of death.”

Literature, in short, looks different depending on where you read it: a subject I found myself discussing one afternoon over lunch, in a garden overlooking Tbilisi, with Anna Kats, a Georgian-born, Russian-speaking scholar of socialist architecture, who immigrated to Los Angeles as a child. We talked about the essay “Can the Post-Soviet Think?,” by Madina Tlostanova, an Uzbek-Circassian proponent of “decoloniality,” a theory that originated in Latin America around the turn of the millennium. A key tenet is that “thinking” is never placeless or disembodied. The first principle of thought isn’t, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am where I think.”

I remembered the first time I read Pushkin’s travelogue “Journey to Arzrum,” the summer I turned twenty—during my own initial foray into travel writing, for a student guidebook. I had requested an assignment in Russia, but my Russian wasn’t good enough, so I was sent to Turkey. To improve my Russian, I was reading Pushkin on night buses, feeling excited every time I saw Erzurum (Pushkin’s Arzrum) on the schedule board at intercity stations.

“How to accumulate vast sums of money is the best trick you ever taught me.”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

Turkey hadn’t been Pushkin’s first-choice destination, either—he had wanted to go to Paris. Denied official permission, he resolved to leave the country the only way he could think of—by accompanying the military in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. The tone of the resulting travelogue fluctuates unsettlingly between chatty verbiage and dispassionate horror. “The Circassians hate us,” Pushkin writes at one point. “We have forced them out of their open grazing lands; their auls”—villages—“have been devastated, whole tribes have been wiped out.” Nine years after his first visit to the Caucasus, Pushkin seems to have gained some clarity on the Circassians’ plight. (In 2src11, the Georgian parliament voted to characterize Russia’s actions there as a genocide.) Still, in the next sentence, he goes on to observe, implausibly, that Circassian babies wield sabres before they can talk. Later in his account, Pushkin describes a lunch with troops during which they see, on a facing mountainside, the Ottoman Army retreating from Russian Cossack reinforcements—leaving behind a “decapitated and truncated” Cossack corpse. Pushkin quickly segues to the congeniality of camp life: “At dinner we washed down Asiatic shashlik with English beer and champagne chilled in the snows of Taurida.”

What can we afford to see, as writers and as readers? Could Pushkin afford to see that he benefitted from the “resettlement” of the Circassians? How clearly could he see it? For how long at a time?

After lunch, Kats and I took a funicular to the top of Mt. Mtatsminda, where she maintained that Tbilisi’s best custard-filled doughnuts were to be found. Rising above the treetops, thinking back on my own national and global privileges, the extent of which have grown clearer to me with the passing years, I did not, I decided, find it difficult to understand Pushkin’s simultaneous ability and inability to perceive the truth.

The relationship between literary merit and military power is not a delightful subject for contemplation. I prefer to think that I would have loved Pushkin even if Peter and Catherine the Great hadn’t waged extensive foreign and internal wars, dragging Russia into the European balance of power. But would Pushkin’s work still have been translated into English and stocked in the Barnes & Noble on Route 22 in northern New Jersey—in the world superpower to which my parents came in the seventies, in pursuit of the best scientific equipment? Even if it had been translated, and I had read it, I might not have recognized it as good. Would it have been good?

In Tbilisi, I remembered a line from Oksana Zabuzhko’s classic 1996 novel, “Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex,” which I read on my 2src19 trip to Kyiv. “Even if you did, by some miracle, produce something in this language ‘knocking out Goethe’s Faust,’ ” Zabuzhko writes, of Ukrainian, “it would only lie around the libraries unread.” Her narrator, an unnamed Ukrainian-language poet visiting Harvard, suffers countless indignities. She’s broke, and her work is rarely translated. But she refuses to write in English or in Russian. A self-identified “nationalist-masochist,” she remains faithful to her forebears: poets who “hurled themselves like firelogs into the dying embers of the Ukrainian with nothing to fucking show for it but mangled destinies and unread books.”

Were those books unread because they weren’t as good as Pushkin’s—or was it perhaps the other way round? If a book isn’t read, and doesn’t influence other books, will it hold less meaning and resonance for future readers? Conversely, can a “good” book be written without robust literary institutions? “Eugene Onegin” is clearly a product of Pushkin’s constant dialogue with the editors, friends, rivals, critics, and readers whose words surrounded him, even in exile. Nikolai Gogol, born in 18src9 in Ukraine with Pushkin-scale talents, became a famous writer only after moving to St. Petersburg.

Gogol, now a central figure in the post-2src22 discourse about Russian literature, first found critical success in the capital by writing, in Russian, on Ukrainian themes. But the same critics who praised him also urged him to write about more universal—i.e., more Russian—subjects. Gogol duly produced the Petersburg Tales and Part 1 of “Dead Souls.” A celebrated literary hostess once asked Gogol whether, in his soul, he was truly Russian or Ukrainian. In response, he demanded, “Tell me, am I a saint; can I really see all my loathsome faults?” and launched into a tirade about his faults, and also other people’s faults. He eventually suffered a spiritual breakdown, came to believe that his literary works were sinful, burned part of his manuscripts (possibly including Part 2 of “Dead Souls”), stopped eating, and died in great pain at forty-two.

The Kremlin now uses Gogol’s work as evidence that Ukraine and Russia share a single culture. (An essay about Gogol’s Russianness appears on the Web site of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, which Putin started in 2srcsrc7.) According to a 2src21 article by Putin, Gogol’s books “are written in Russian, bristling with Malorussian”—Little Russian—“folk sayings and motifs. How can this heritage be divided between Russia and Ukraine?”

In Tbilisi, the Gogol story I kept coming back to was “The Nose”: the one where Major Kovalyov, a mid-level civil servant, wakes up one morning with no nose. Fearing for his job and his marriage prospects, he hits the streets of St. Petersburg, searching for his missing proboscis. A carriage pulls up nearby. A personage emerges, wearing a uniform and plumed hat that denote a higher rank than Kovalyov’s. It is Kovalyov’s nose. “Don’t you know where you belong?” Kovalyov demands. “Don’t you realize you are my own nose! ”

The nose coldly replies, “My dear fellow, you are mistaken. I am a person in my own right.”

Read enough Putin speeches and Kovalyov’s attitude toward his nose starts to sound familiar. How dare a mere appendage masquerade as an independent entity? What cruelty, to separate the Little Russian nose from the Great Russian face! In “The Nose,” as in so much of the Russian literature that I had been revisiting, the interests of empire prevail. The police apprehend Kovalyov’s runaway organ “just as it was boarding the stagecoach bound for Riga.” Tellingly, the nose had been headed west.

The morning of my lecture, I went for a walk on Rustaveli Avenue. The broad tree-lined sidewalks were flanked with used booksellers purveying, alongside Georgian books I couldn’t read, lone volumes of Tolstoy and Turgenev. At one stall, a series of Soviet-era classroom maps—one of them showing the changing eighteenth-century borders of the Russian and Ottoman Empires—were held in place by a Latvian cookbook and a Dostoyevsky omnibus.

Dostoyevsky: we meet at last. I opened it to “Crime and Punishment,” the story of Raskolnikov, a poor student, who decides to murder an old pawnbroker to fund his education. Turning the yellowed pages, I noticed multiple mentions of Napoleon. I thought back on Raskolnikov’s theory about how “extraordinary” individuals have the right to kill others for “the fulfillment of an idea.” If Napoleon, who murdered thousands of Egyptian people and stole their archeological treasures, is lauded as the founder of Egyptology, why shouldn’t a student be able to kill one person to advance his studies? The logic of Raskolnikov’s crime, I realized, was the logic of imperialism.

“Putin’s offensive on February 24 owed much to Dostoevskyism,” Oksana Zabuzhko wrote in an essay last April, after the massacre in Bucha. She called the invasion “an explosion of pure, distilled evil and long-suppressed hatred and envy,” adding, “ ‘Why should you live better than us?’ Russian soldiers have been saying to Ukrainians.” It was easy to see that message in “Crime and Punishment.” Why should “some ridiculous old hag” have money, when Raskolnikov is poor?

Dostoyevsky didn’t, of course, endorse Raskolnikov’s views. (The clue is in the title: the story ends in a Siberian prison.) Still, he found his ideas interesting enough to be the subject of a book. Should we still read that book? In “Culture and Imperialism,” Edward Said raises a similar question about Jane Austen. He concludes that to “jettison” “Mansfield Park” is to miss an opportunity to see literature as a dynamic network, rather than as the isolated experiences of victims and perpetrators—but that the solution isn’t to keep consuming Austen’s novels in a geopolitical vacuum. Instead, we need to find new, “contrapuntal” ways of reading. That means seeing “Mansfield Park” as a book with two geographies: one, England, richly elaborated; the other, Antigua, strenuously resisted—yet revealed, all the same.

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