Reading Russia

I’ve long held a fascination for things Russian even though I’ve never been there and have only visited a few former Soviet and Iron Curtain countries (Czech Republic, Azerbaijan, East Germany). While I grew up in the fearful times of Cold War America, Russia occupied a high place on the cultural scene. Its Bolshoi dancers were next to none. Its painters, like Chagall and Kandinsky and writers, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy were closer to spiritual leaders than artists during my teens. One of the first pieces of classical music that I fell obsessively in love with was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.

How does this square with Putin’s Russia? Well, it doesn’t. No more than the great twentieth century American novelists and musical giants of jazz can be put in the same box as Tr*mp. Trying to understand any country by its rulers and political leaders is an exercise in futility.

In recent months I’ve been dipping into things Russian again by rereading some Ivan Turgenev, followed by Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia. This reading exercise might sound heavy-going, but really it wasn’t. Turgenev is probably the most accessible of the classic Russian writers, having been well ahead of his time by embracing a more modern, and less ponderous, style than his contemporaries. A Short History of Russia, though written by an academic, is intended for a generalist audience.

An article in The New Yorker about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons inspired me to give this book another read. In The New Yorker piece, Keith Gessen mentions almost in passing that this classic was not a reflection of Turgenev’s relationship with his own father nor with a son as the writer never had any, but that it made some connection to Turgenev’s relationship with his illegitimate daughter. I thought rereading the novel would be a less blokey affair and might take on something of a feminist reading. Not quite. Published in 1862, it still revolves around the lives of men, but it’s more about the bromance between the two main characters and their ideals – the one, Bazarov, being an arrogant, often rude nihilist, the other, Arkady, trying to be a nihilist while respecting his elders and society’s norms. Yet, I was pleased to rediscover the women characters, who are far from frivolous. Example, Anna Odinstov captures the attention of both men through her intellect and skills in debate, chipping away at the nihilists’ disregard for love.

The action of Fathers and Sons takes place in 1859, just before the emancipation of the serfs (1861) and during a time of heated debates over the future of Russia. According to Galeotti’s history of Russia, Alexander II’s freeing of the serfs was ‘the most ambitious social-engineering project Russia had yet seen.’ While the serfs wanted their land, the country operated on a system of landed gentry. There were those in the country who favoured the modernisation along the lines of Western Europe. Others, the conservative Slavophiles, saw Western influence as decadent and wanted Russia to carve out its own place in the world, neither East nor West. Basically, everyone wanted change, but no one knew what to do. Much of this debate continued well into the next century, being reshaped by the first World War and the Revolution. What Galeotti is particularly adept at doing is showing how the country defined and redefined itself through its own sense of history and patriotism, one that has been rewritten and skewed over the centuries. We see the latest version with Putin.

Of course, this isn’t unique to Russia. Consider what Britain is experiencing in the re-evaluation of the monarchy and its connection to colonialism and the slave trade. I’m not a huge fan of the self-absorbed Harry and Meghan, but I was glad to see their Netflix documentary putting the spotlight on such issues and having the sense to bring on board the Black British historian David Olusoga. Ah, I wasn’t going to be yet another writer voicing their opinion about H and M. Sorry, readers. Back to Russia – both books are worth a read and reading history alongside fiction is highly recommended by this blogger.

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