"Russia is a hypothetical culture. Ruled by despots for most of our history, we are used to living in fiction rather than reality," writes Nina L. Khrushcheva, who teaches international affairs at The New School. She is also the great granddaughter of the late communist leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev.
If Russian society exists in an unreal world — filled with fictional plots and settings and characters — we wondered: Are there certain traits in the Russian soul — recurring motifs in Russian literature — that can help put President Vladimir Putin in perspective? And are there notable fictional characters in Russian literature that Putin brings to mind?
The political — and very real and serious — drama unfolding in Ukraine right now "isn't merely geopolitical," says Andrew D. Kaufman. "It's a deep-seated drama of the Russian soul that's been around for centuries. And Russian literature is the place we see it in full flower." Andy is a Russian literature scholar at the University of Virginia and author of the upcoming Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times.
The question Putin is grappling with, Andy says, "is one that recurs throughout the nineteenth-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?"
Nineteenth-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, for instance, believed that Russia's mission was to establish a widespread Christian empire — with Russia at its epicenter, Andy says, pointing to The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov as exemplary novels. Dostoevsky's contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, believed that every nation is unique and worthwhile — none better or worse than others.
"Tolstoy was a patriot," Andy says. "He loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example, but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the dignity of every human being and culture."
Tolstoy was able "to uncover the full-blooded truth of every one of his characters, no matter their nationality," Andy says. "In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the French, British and Turks in the Crimean War, Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British or French."
And so Putin has two distinct traditions to choose from, Andy says. "He has chosen the Dostoevskian tradition, not the Tolstoyan one."
In certain works by Dostoevsky, says Laura Goering, professor of Russian at Carleton College, "the West is depicted as something seductive, yet soulless, a temptation to be resisted at all costs."
For example: Writing about his 1862 journey to Europe in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Dostoevsky describes the Crystal Palace in London: "You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal."
Laura says, "That conflict is further played out in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan's materialism is opposed to Alyosha's spirituality and Dmitri's very Russian breadth of soul."
Again and again in Russian literature, she says, "we see a claim to a kind of spiritual and moral exceptionalism that is fundamental to Putin's rhetoric. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,' it is not surprising that he continues to draw on the myth of a Russia divinely foreordained to stand firm against the corrupting forces of the West."
The genius of Russian literature, aficionados say, is that it is so very real. The great 19th century writers, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol did a masterful job of capturing the corruption, hypocrisy, inequity and greed — as well as that yearning "Russian soul" — of their times.
To Nina Khrushcheva, the spirit of Russia is captured in Dead Souls, a novel by Gogol. The story, she says, circles around the "messianic paradigm of greatness, large size, central control — in which affairs of the state are more important than affairs of an individual."
Putin, she says, is like a character in another Gogol work, The Government Inspector, a play whose title is sometimes translated as Inspector General. She says that the character, Khlestakov, a petty clerk "is only a simulacra of greatness, of real achievement."
As far as fictional constructs go, adds Nina — author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics — Russia today needs to start living as if it's in the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pnin. The title character "is as soulful a Russian as they come," she says, "yet he has the courage to live in the real world."
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