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Ventriloquism and the voice of the people

September 14, 2013

Thinking about Juliet M. Soskice yesterday had me thinking about how not enough people read Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо, about 1863-1877). It’s one of those books that was big in the Soviet school system and became uncool in post-Soviet Russia and the anti-Soviet West. And it was big even before the USSR existed: in 1917 David Soskice could say “Quotations from the works of Nekrassov are as abundant and widely known in Russia as those from Shakespeare in England, and no work of his is so familiar and so widely quoted as the national epic, now presented to the English public, Who can be Happy in Russia?”

And what should come in the mail today but an issue of The Russian Review with an article about Who Can Be Happy in Russia?

It’s by J. Alexander Ogden and deals with the problem of Nekrasov, a nobleman, “speaking for” the mostly illiterate peasants. There’s a tension between the idea that communication is hard across social classes — in the poem peasants and nobles misunderstand each other — and the idea that the gulf between them can be bridged, as with the noble Nekrasov creating a narrator who speaks in peasant language and is capable of presenting peasant and noble (and other) perspectives. But as Ogden says (605), you don’t usually feel this tension when you’re reading Who Can be Happy in Russia?

Ogden puts this in the context of the 1874 “going to the people” movement, the romantic nationalist drive to find wisdom and national specificity in the language of the common people, post-colonial theory, and speech act theory. Post-colonial theory is dismissed as not very interesting in this case: “through the lens of post-colonial theory, the focus becomes Nekrasov’s sense of entitlement and the fact that his speaking on behalf of peasants denies them a voice or any real agency” (592), but while this draws “proper attention to the voicelessness of the ‘silent masses,’” it doesn’t “help address the starring role that peasants play not only in Nekrasov’s work but in much of nineteenth-century Russian literature and the culture that produced it” (599). The speech act theory part of the argument draws on François Cooren, and this is where ventroloquism comes in and agency gets more complicated. Newer speech act theory takes “into account the crucial role of the listener in the speech act” as well as (with Bakhtin) looking at “the multiple voices — including voices of people not physically present — that contributed to any dialogue. Cooren then goes a step further to show that not only people but things ‘do things with words.’” What this means in the case of Nekrasov is that his long poem isn’t just “a simple, one-way imposition of an alien voice onto a silent narod,” but he’s a ventriloquist who can be seen as being animated by the peasant voice even as he’s supposed to be animating it (600).

Here’s something that surprised me. In 1874 lots of idealistic young people from the intelligentsia fanned out to the countryside to try to connect directly to the peasants and spread their ideas. The story I heard is that the peasants were suspicious of them and turned them in to the police. But Ogden, quoting a 1987 piece by Daniel Field, says that this is wrong “and that in fact ‘peasants attempted to protect propagandists’ and ‘a level of trust, a certain sblizhenie, was achieved’ between them” (595).

Something else: “Nekrasov presents an intriguing example of a nonpeasant writer — one proud of his noble status and not given to the extremes of prostration before the peasantry that, for example, Tolstoy was — who nevertheless was accepted by the majority of his audience (an admittedly intelligentsia audience) as someone who could speak for Russia’s peasants and even speak in the voice of Russia’s peasants” (598). Proud of his noble status? I think the conventional wisdom, which I find convincing, is that he tried to play down the fact that it said nobleman on his passport and create an urban raznochinets persona. And if he didn’t prostrate himself before the peasants, he made a show of having an egalitarian friendship with a particular peasant (see the dedication) and bragged about not living off slave labor.

See J. Alexander Ogden, “Peasant Listening, Listening to Peasants: Miscommunication and Ventriloquism in Nekrasov’s ‘Komu na Rusi zhit’ khorosho,’” The Russian Review 72.4 (2013): 590-606. I also like Ogden’s 2005 article that distinguishes the English idea of stylization from the Russian idea of stilizatsiia.

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