Saturday, June 25, 2011

Russian Lit- What Russians Like and Why


            Russia is famous for its literature. However, the writers that are the most famous in the West are not the same as the ones the Russians appreciate. There are several reasons for this.
            My 2005 undergraduate honors thesis framed and resolved the paradox: “How can the Russian people support President Putin and still value democratic norms?” I defined a democratic norm, I showed that Russians did indeed want democracy. I illustrated how Putin has acted against those norms. Finally, I resolved the paradox. How can Russian people want both of these things, Putin AND democracy?
            One example I gave was how little attention Russians pay to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn won a Nobel Prize. He lived in exile in Vermont for years.
I took 9 classes at St. Petersburg State University in Russia during my senior year of college on an exchange program with the University of Texas. Out of the 9 classes I took there, I made 8 A’s and 1 B. The class I made a B in was a Russian Politics class and the professor and I got into an argument about Solzhenitsyn. I said, “He won a Nobel Prize. He’s been fighting for the people of Russia his entire life even when he was living in exile in America.” The professor would not budge. Solzhenitsyn was a bigot and an idiot to her. That is the only class I got a B in at St. Petersburg State University. 
In my thesis I argued that Russia was at the time suffering from wide-spread political apathy. In my experience, Russians were excited to be free to go about their days and live their lives, to enjoy their families. They’re not all that interested in expending energy to instigate yet another Revolution. It is often the case in Russia that change brings about a worsening in the quality of life for the average person rather than an improvement.
The same reasoning can be applied to why Russian people don’t care much for Tolstoy (Tolstoy means 'fat' in Russian) . Tolstoy spends a lot of time preaching to people about morality. Russians don’t want to hear that. Russians read Dostoevsky in school and it depresses them. Dostoevsky intended his work to be read by the elite. He wanted them to understand the trials the destitute face. After experiencing the Ruble crash of 1998, most Russians do not need to look to Dostoevsky to learn how hard life is.
The quintessential Russian writer is Alexander Pushkin. He actually wrote a lot of revolutionary pieces that never got published due to the tyranny of Tsar Nicholas I. Russians love Pushkin because he talks about love. The best Pushkin poem is "I loved you".
My favorite Russian writer is Anton Chekhov because I believe his work to be timeless. Life will always be filled with scenarios of people sitting around bored and disappointed with life.
My favorite quote from any Russian work is from Uncle Vanya when several people are sitting around in such a situation and a man looks to a map of Africa on the wall and says,I suppose it is frightfully hot there right now.

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