5 Reasons to Read the Russians
Russia, as Churchill once said, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The largest country in the world, it covers nine time zones, most of which (particularly if one moves eastwards) are largely empty of people. Landscape, weather, size, history and location – straddling East and West – all combine to make Russia a place of extremes and have traditionally hindered its development into a State with features one might recognise as modern or democratic, something it still struggles with today.
Until the mid-1800s the souls of nearly 40% of the population were ‘owned’ by the aristocracy under serfdom (see Nikolai Gogol’s satirical masterpiece Dead Souls). When Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861 he did so because it was better to free the peasants from above rather than waiting until they won their freedom from below.
Just over 50 years later the Russian Revolution and the insanely vicious Civil War of 1917 – 1922 showed how social tensions and social inequality weren’t so easily dealt with. As did the Soviet era itself – the dream of equality turning under Lenin and Stalin into a nightmare unparalleled in the history of humanity.
All of this has provided Russian writers, artists and intellectuals with a very rich seam of social and existential subjects to address and explore; and a real urgency to do so. We speak of the ‘Russian soul’ – one which reflects the extremes of emotion, civilisation and barbarism that has so bedevilled the country.
The miracle is that Russian writers have consistently been able to rise to the gigantic task of representation that has faced them as artists, and have done so with exquisite refinement, skill, sensitivity and an aesthetic intelligence and innovation which places them in the front rank of world literature. Here are just five summits of their achievements:
Has there ever been a more miraculous or sensitive exploration of love sacred and profane than Ivan Bunin’s Dark Avenues? (Chekov, Turgenev and Akhmatova were no slouches in this department either).
Has there ever been a more complete account of society at all levels than Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Or social satire more hilariously devastating than that penned by Gogol and Bulgakov?
“No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.” Read Isaac Babel’s stories and marvel at the craft (or Mandelstam’s poetry for that matter).
Poetry liberated from history and custom, as in Mayakovsky: “Formerly I believed books were made like this: a poet came, lightly opened his lips, and the inspired fool burst into song – if you please! ... And while, with twittering rhymes, they boil a broth of loves and nightingales, the tongueless street merely writhes for lack of something to shout or say.” See his For The Voice for this poetry of the street. (This 1923 collaboration with El Lissitsky is also a landmark in modern graphic design and bookmaking).
5. Existential angst
No contest here. Whether it is The Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov or Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s your man for the deep questions of life and existence. (See also Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva etc).
Ready to start reading? Check out Marc’s list of 11 Great Works of Russian Literature.