Why Russian Literature Has Acquired a Global Audience


Literary traditions take centuries to develop, let alone acquire followers outside their own linguistic domain. Russian literature, however, has experienced an acceleration in the rate of worldwide popularity in 200 years.

After nearly a millennium of a work mainly composed of popular / fairy tales, or a few historical chronicles, it began to impose itself at the beginning of the 19th century with Pushkin and Gogol, then Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Nabokov, Akhmatova and their ilk ensured its continued prominence in all genres.

But, Russian literature, especially of the “classical school”, which includes his best-known works, also worked under a rather unfair and formidable perception.

Take views like: “This Vladimir Brusiloff I referred to was the famous Russian novelist.… Vladimir majored in the gray studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened until page three one hundred and eighty, when the muzhik decided to kill himself. ” (“Cuthbert’s Click” by PG Wodehouse)

Or: “Freddie experienced the kind of abysmal soul sadness that afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting a hard day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife and throwing the baby into the tank. the city, he turns to the cupboards. , only to find the empty vodka bottle. “(PG Wodehouse again)

Next, veterinarian James Herriot, in his memoir, reveals how a colleague read the opening para of “The Karamazov Brothers” to fall asleep.

Author Viv Groskop, to whom we will return later, observes that some common views on Russian literature are that it is “deep,” “difficult”, or requires a broader level of reference than that at which the casual reader. can suck. “You will never understand X if you haven’t read Y,” she said.

And then there is the question of names. Groskop quotes a Danish scholar, otherwise impressed with Russian literature, lamenting: “Why do they (the characters) all have to have forty-seven names?”

While works such as the heavy “War and Peace”, and many other nineteenth century novels, are probably responsible for the long end, and the “confusing” names are due to the Russian naming tradition including the patronymic and to the widespread use of diminutives, affectionate and others, to which one must get used, the question of the content is not entirely justified.

Not all Russian literature is dark, pessimistic, hardworking, and can hold its own, using a range of genres and styles to reflect the human condition and its times. Let’s look at half a dozen lesser-known works spanning the Golden Age to the present day, and subsequently available in English, which unfortunately leaves out writers such as Yulian Semionov, creator of the Soviet “James Bond” ( unfortunately only one of the series is in English) and fantasy / science fiction virtuoso Andrei Belyanin.

“Oblomov” (1859), the second novel by Ivan Gontcharov, is particularly noted for the way it takes 50 pages for its titular young aristocrat – about a tenth of the length of the book – to get out of bed, in which he spends most of his life on a sofa.

Falling into debt by refusing to take an interest in the exploitation of his domain in the depths of the countryside, our lazy character spends all the count trying to escape all responsibility, including love, despite the efforts of good friends. intentional and more focused, before going off to his desired state of perpetual rest.

Known for taking “the superfluous man”, Russia’s unique contribution to literary archetypes, to a new high – or rather a lower one, if you compare it to the creations of Pushkin or Lermontov – it is a sharp satire on the state of the aristocracy of Czarist Russia and shows why revolution has become inevitable.

“The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar” (1928) – either the translation of Susan Causey (2018) or Anna Kurkina Rush / Christopher Rush – by Soviet historian and literary critic Yury Tynyanov, relates the last year of the early 19th – century Russian playwright, orientalist, polyglot and diplomat Alexander Sergeyevich Griboedov after returning to Moscow and St. Petersburg after a successful diplomatic mission to Persia, then returns to Tehran on a new mission when he dies in an attack on the embassy by an enraged crowd protesting against a new treaty.

Showcasing a certain quirk in his style, i.e. the use of heavy Russian bureaucratic language, with a series of lyrical, psychological and historical digressions, Tynyanov’s modernist theories of literature, comprehensive psychological insights and at times striking many characters, even small ones, across a range of cultures – Russia, the Caucasus, and Qajar-era Persia, this is a well-documented piece of historical fiction.

“The Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Soldier Ivan Chonkin” (1969), by dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich, is the picaresque tale of absurdities that even totalitarianism cannot avoid.

It tells the story of a clumsy and unlikely soldier who is posted to a lost hole on the eve of WWII, forgotten by his superiors and labeled a deserter, and how he holds back a squad of the German Secret Service – winning a medal, before being arrested.

“Pretender to the Throne: The New Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin” (1979) and “A Displaced Person: The Later Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin” (2007) see him braving his interrogation, then forcing him to emigrate to the United States, from where he returned as head of an official delegation during the Perestroika era.

Science fiction has always been a favorite field for Soviet writers unwilling to follow the official line because it allowed them to use alien worlds to depict forbidden social and political situations in more realistic settings.

Amidst a scintillating lineup are brothers Arkady Natanovich Strugatsky and Boris Natanovich Strugatsky, more than two dozen works of which, written in collaboration, have been highly influential in the genre.

Two that stand out are “Monday Begins on Saturday” (1964), about the staff and activities of a Soviet research institute dedicated to the study of magic and the supernatural, in conjunction with the inane administrators who run it. “Tale of the Troika” (1968) continues the satire of the Soviet scientific system and its political superstructure.

Next, “One Billion Years to the End of the World” (1977; originally published in English as “Definitely Maybe”), which starts off rather on a comedic note and becomes progressively more menacing as a group of scholars, to both scientific and social science wonder why they are not allowed to work on it, and their answers.

Among the post-Soviet era is Grigory Chkhartishvili aka Boris Akunin’s crime thriller series Erast Fandorin, which takes place in the last decades of Tsarist Russia, but deserves an episode in its own right.

And if you’re looking for a way to familiarize yourself only with the classics, without reading them in their entirety, then Groskop’s “The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature” gives you an insightful look at 11 of them from “Dead”. Souls “to” Dr Zhivago “. It may also encourage you to read them.


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