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Changing taboos for Soviet and Russian biographers

January 24, 2014

AATSEEL 2014 ended with a panel on the series of popular biographies The Lives of Remarkable People (Жизнь замечательных людей), which began before the revolution, was revived by Maksim Gor’kii in the 1930s, and is now going strong in a post-Soviet incarnation. Its avowed intention in the beginning was to give ordinary people examples of lives to model their own on, and the series itself was modeled on Plutarch’s Lives. Angela Brintlinger, Caryl Emerson, and Irene Delic gave talks about how the series has handled Pushkin, Tolstoi, Blok, and Pasternak through the years.

How’s this for a brilliant, seems-obvious-once-you’ve-heard-it comparison: a biography is to a life as a translation is to an original text. Biographies and translations are “double-voiced” texts that can’t help being different from the thing they try to recreate and inevitably speak for themselves as well as for the other thing. However, by reading several translations or biographies you can indirectly get an idea of the text or life underneath through a sort of triangulation. That’s from Emerson, and it made me realize how much work has already gone into the group’s research: reading multiple biographies of Tolstoi is as hard as comparing translations of Anna Karenina, and on top of the biographies they were reading primary sources about the lives, things by and about the various editors of the biography series, and who knows what else.

Tolstoi is tricky for biographers (I’m still paraphrasing Emerson) because he left a ridiculous amount of writing about his own life, which you can neither trust nor ignore. Not only that, but his underlying life was free of events shaping it from outside: he always had wealth, rank, and the freedom to do what he wanted (compare Dostoevskii’s mock execution, hard labor, exile, and debts). To make up for the lack of life-forming events, Tolstoi created them artificially by taking things away from himself one at a time.

The biographer’s bias changes with Russian history and politics, and Emerson noticed a tendency in the most recent biography to paper over Tolstoi’s differences with the Orthodox Church. The biographers look closely at the document generally taken as excommunicating Tolstoi and find omissions (words like “excommunication” and “anathema” are not used) that, they argue, show the Church was willing to reconcile with Tolstoi if he had not tragically been too proud to take the first step.

I was not surprised to learn that in the Soviet era it was hard for modernist poets to get biographies in the series, but I would not have guessed just how different Aleskandr Blok’s and Boris Pasternak’s stories were. Delic explained that Blok was never really taboo in the Soviet Union, one of the few figures to have been prominent in “decadent” late imperial St. Petersburg and remain so in the post-revolutionary world. This had to do with his initial welcoming of the October Revolution, his well-timed death, and quite a bit of selective reading of his life and works. Blok lost interest in the revolution even before he died in 1921, but this was not emphasized in Soviet-era biographies. Nor did they discuss brothels, heavy drinking, syphilis, or the bureaucratric obstacles through which the government prevented him from going abroad to seek treatment for it. Still there were biographies published about him, unlike Pasternak, who wasn’t covered in the series until 2005! That’s when an 891-page effort by the ubiquitous Dmitrii Bykov came out. I didn’t know who Bykov was when I saw him read some of his poetry in Russian at a bookstore in North Carolina and he won me over with the line “безвыходно пропахло колбасой,” but since then it seems like I always hear about his fiction or nonfiction or read his political doggerel typeset like a regular article in Ogonek or hear him on Echo of Moscow’s Osoboe mnenie.

No one was going to claim that the current series is magically objective and beyond reproach, but Delic was impressed by the much broader range of subjects they are willing to consider, including people on various sides of historical conflicts, people whose lives were remarkable without necessarily being admirable. I think one of the panelists quoted the current editor as saying that Nazi leaders were still beyond the pale, which may have to do with a recent legal ban on disrespectful references to the Soviet victory in World War II.

Brintlinger was also excellent on the changing takes on Pushkin, but I think I’ve mixed up her story with bits and pieces I read on Oleg Proskurin’s blog some time ago (old post), and I don’t want to misrepresent her by summarizing badly. I think she told the story of Bulgakov being invited to write a biography of Molière for the series, with his finished work being rejected as unscientific.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2014 8:22 am

    I love Bykov (see here, and the posts linked in the first line), and I’m very much looking forward to reading his Pasternak bio.

  2. January 24, 2014 8:38 am

    Thank you for your posts about the conference, Erik! It’s particularly fun to see topics like this, which I’d wondered about when I scanned through the conference schedule.

  3. January 24, 2014 8:53 am

    Thank you so much for your stream of conference reviews, Erik! I always enjoy reading your posts, whether they’re updates from the Russophile blogosphere or from the mid-nineteenth-century trenches. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at AATSEEL – how did Kevin Platt guess why? I was indeed detained by a robber gang in a mountain fastness in Northern Italy!

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