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Russia: Lesley Chamberlain

Russian literature mainly developed from the late eighteenth century as the country's social and political conscience. Repeatedly since then, writers have reworked key historical events and relived tragic political epochs. Their constant question is: how should we live? Any reader who works through the great novels chronologically will see this question echoing self-consciously down the generations. This is one of the world's most philosophical literatures, yet also one of the most straightforward. The burning desire for social reform, coupled with constant speculation about Russia's identity and future, tends to be expressed in lengthy, easy-to-read realism.

Alexander Pushkin, born on the cusp of the nineteenth century, is best known abroad for Eugene Onegin (1823–31), the lovelorn novel in verse which Tchaikovsky later set to wistful, enchanting music. Pushkin also loved historical subjects which he brought to life in limpid modern prose. The short novel The Captain's Daughter (1836) draws its colour from the 1770s, when a bandit pretender to the throne, Pugachev, terrorized provincial Russia in the name of social justice. It is a vivid and dramatic story of love and war and a young man's initiation into life, with more than a touch of swashbuckling Romantic adventure. Pushkin went on to die young in a duel.

Adventurousness is even more true of Pushkin's near-contemporary, Mikhail Lermontov. But Lermontov's short novel A Hero of Our Times (1840) suddenly moves Russian writing into the modern world. Its young anti-hero, a disaffected soldier in the Caucasus who feels himself most at home in nature, is preoccupied with the existential themes of will and identity, and that perennial Russian question ‘how to live’. He kidnaps a woman and at last shoots a man in a bid to discover the limits of freedom.

The Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol, who finally burnt his manuscripts and starved himself to death, also reads like our contemporary, because of the way he approaches the big questions through laughter. His 1842 masterpiece Dead Souls is a crazy satire on the corruption and inertia of nineteenth-century provincial Russian life. Imagine Dickensian characters in a Russian setting, and an author fond of butting in on his own narrative, and you will have a sample of Gogol's unique world. His short stories have the stamp of the absurd, too, but with cruelty and hopelessness lurking behind the laughter. ‘The Nose’ (1836) and ‘The Overcoat’ (1842) depict the little man who feels powerless in society and quite deserves his fate.

Fyodor Dostoevsky considers violence and powerlessness in Crime and Punishment (1866), a detective classic which is also a study of free will and guilt. In Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoevsky uses a rebellious anti-hero to explore the subjects of power and reason. His greatest religious and philosophical novel is The Brothers Karamazov (1880). A way into this powerful, difficult book is to read the famous extract called ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Christ and the Inquisitor meet in a legendary clash between compassion and worldly power.

Leo Tolstoy is often considered Dostoevsky's opposite in mood. Tolstoy probes the surface of conventional upper-class Russian life to expose the tragedies and insincerities lurking behind love and success. The characters he approves of tend to leave the city and lead simple lives close to the peasantry. But no thematic description can do justice to Tolstoy's magnificent long novels War and Peace (1863–9), set against Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, and the classic story of adultery, Anna Karenina (1873–7). The characters are so vital they leap off the page. This is timeless, brilliant, endlessly enjoyable story-telling.

Ivan Turgenev is almost a miniaturist beside Tolstoy. While First Love (1860), the story of a young boy enchanted by his father's mistress, is a classic love-story, written with great delicacy, the novel Fathers and Sons (1862) has more to say about the fate of Russia. Young men who as students grow restless with static provincial life suggest how revolution will one day come upon Russia, helped on by a few obscure foreign philosophical ideas.

A uniquely tender and funny novel by Ivan Goncharov turns its back on politics. The eponymous hero of Oblomov (1859) is an aristocrat happy, against the strivings of ambitious men all around him, never to get out of his dressing-gown.

Revolution as a theme, also reflected in a transformation of writing style, bursts upon Russian literature as the twentieth century begins. It simmers away in Maxim Gorky's compellingly realistic evocations of harsh working life in the autobiographical trilogy My Childhood (1913), My Apprenticeship (1915), and My Universities (1921). By contrast Andrei Bely's St Petersburg (1922), a meditation on violence, has an experimental feel, close to the mood of symbolist poetry and avant-garde painting. Evgeny Zamyatin emigrated rather than toe the political line. His futuristic dystopian novel We (1920–1) has often been compared both to Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which it helped inspire, and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). It turns on the theme that there can be no such thing as the final, perfect society.

For writing reflecting Russia's civil war after the Revolution the Red Cavalry stories (1923–5) of Isaac Babel are unsurpassed in their steely vividness and brutality. Mikhail Sholokov's authorship of Quiet Flows the Don (1928–40) has been questioned, but this panoramic novel of village life in southern Russia remains a superb, engrossing read, reflecting the fate of families and communities forced into fighting on different sides. The less-well-known writer Anatoly Marieng of balances 1920s gaiety with the increasing misery of wartime hunger in his cinematic novel Cynics (written 1928, published 1991). Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago (1957) is a great love-story and poetic meditation set in divided and famine-stricken Russia. In quite a different but equally striking modern style, Vladimir Nabokov, who emigrated at the start of the Revolution, created a nightmarish experience of totalitarian power in Bend Sinister (1947).

Mikhail Bulgakov stayed as a witness of the terror of the 1930s. His The Master and Margarita (1928–38) is probably the most loved fiction in Russia this century. This rich novel, finally published in full in 1973, over thirty years after Bulgakov's death, reflects by comic and fantastic means the corrupt life of ‘official’ writers, but its major subject is the tragedy of people either ‘disappeared’ by the secret police, or condemned as insane. The Heart of a Dog (1925), a novella about a transplant, chillingly reflects the attempt to create a post-revolutionary ‘new’ man.

In the Soviet period the dictates of official Socialist Realism forced novelists into a propagandizing mould. Viktor Nekrasov's In the Trenches of Stalingrad (1946) is nevertheless a vivid and realistic war novel. Much of Andrei Platonov's work went unpublished in his lifetime, but with the end of the Soviet Union has been rediscovered. The Foundation Pit is a short, unforgettable novel about how the enforced confiscation of private land and property in the 1920s turned confused and numbed human beings into brutes. But for the sheer extent and realism of his revelations, Alexander Solzhenitsyn towers over all others as a chronicler of his political times. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) brought the taboo subject of Stalin's labour camps briefly into the Russians' own public domain before political repression returned. His later novels Cancer Ward and The First Circle, published outside Russia in 1968, continued his powerful reassessment of Soviet history. Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate (1980), another prose work centred on the battle of Stalingrad, is a fine indictment of the totalitarian age, though of such vast proportions that most readers will probably find Yury Dombrovsky's The Keeper of Antiquities (1966) more satisfying, with its well-drawn characters and mixture of comedy and menace. In Anatoly Rybakov's hands the novel of historical and political revelation has the engaging feel of a Tolstoyan saga. His two documentary novels, Children of the Arbat (1987) and Fear (1988), peppered with historical characters, vividly convey the darkest years of Soviet Russia.

For the most part it has been male prose writers who have unveiled the horrors of the public world this century. Women writers like Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya have rather depicted the effects of the Soviet system in the personal sphere. Petrushevskaya's Time: The Night (1992) shows us strained relationships and hopeless, burdened lives led in a cramped apartment: a harrowing read. Since the end of the Soviet Union writers have relished their ideological freedom and experimented with many styles. More women writers have emerged and older writers have been rediscovered. Viktor Pelevin stands out for his fantastic novellas Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow (1994). But above all Venedikt Yerofeev's Moscow Stations, not available earlier in Russia, is a classic: a short, lovable monologue by an alcoholic which manages to evoke all the richness of the Russian tradition and the religious faith of the people, while showing the desperation the Soviet system inflicted. Yerofeev's drunken odyssey is literally a journey to the end of the line.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction