Tolstoy, Pasternak, Pushkin--everyone knows Russia's got great literature. In fact, it's not even that closely guarded a secret that Western authors, in general, "are in love with Mother Russia," as AD Miller notes at The Guardian. John Le Carré took inspiration from Russia, as have a number of more modern English-language writers. Miller, however, sets out to explain why this is the case: "The vogue for Russian-themed novels reflects Russia's enticing turbulence," he begins. "But I think it also tells us something about our own moral anxieties."
First you've got folks like Gary Shteyngart who, born in the Soviet Union and later emigrating to Noth America, "inherited a folk memory of suffering, plus the minutely descriptive Russian language. The dying Soviet Union," Miller explains, "in which shortages could sometimes be overcome by ruses and yarns, was a natural breeding ground for fabulists." Its collapse also afforded an enticing sense of "disorientation." Meanwhile, "writers born elsewhere tend to be captivated first by the grandeur and reckless honesty of the great Russian authors." The "all-too-real elements of the Russian 20th century," too, provided great fodder for novels. Though the country has since calmed down, Miller admits, "Russia's sheer eventfulness is still a pull."
Then he talks about how Russia's very starkness illuminates Western problems:
There are multiple ways to think about Russia's extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. ... This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions--Why are we here? Is anyone in charge?--somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride. ... Another way in which Russia is polarised is in morality: in the range of individual responses to its acute moral challenges. Good times are somehow better in Russia--something about the fact that they might abruptly end--and so are good people. The country gestates bona fide saints ... [Yet] "The nightmare country", Martin Amis calls it in House of Meetings, his fierce tale of the gulag and its afterlife ... The lavish cruelty of mad tsars and Stalin is past; their successors are merely brutal and dismally corrupt. Conspiracy theories thrive in Russia, and in stories set there, because, well, there are conspiracies. For Amis and others, the mystery of Russia is also, in the end, the problem of evil.
Yet just as travel writing chronicles the traveller's preconceptions as well as his journey, so for some novelists, Russia is not, or not only, a sort of moral zoo, which writer and reader can visit with a safe sense of superiority. It is also a place to test their moral pride and presumptions.Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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