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Literature and politics on Russian radio

September 25, 2014

In the 1990s I would have given everything I owned for a machine that let me listen to live radio broadcasts from foreign countries (not just a few shortwave broadcasts at night); now there are a bunch of appliances in my house that let me do this for free, which I forget for weeks at a time because there’s so much else on the internet. But lately I’ve been listening more.

I often hear that Russians use more literary references (and folk sayings) in their speech than Americans, and sometimes I feel skeptical. But would a commentator on the BBC quote Phineas Finn (1867) the way Dmitry Bykov refers to Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867)?

Turgenev has one of his characters, Potugin, say “if we ceased to exist, the world wouldn’t notice, because we haven’t given it so much as an English pin [the Russian name for a safety pin].” Of course that’s an exaggeration; it’s said by a negative character. But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently. Even the film The Return is just recycled Tarkovsky. So there isn’t anything that would make you say, that’s the Russian style, that’s Russian life.

And what is the fundamental thing? The “Russian style” is Ukraine. That’s where we really did show the whole world what “Russian style” is. (September 17th, 2014)

The actual Turgenev quote is slightly different, and the pin appears as hyperbole about how little difference Russia’s disappearance would make, but the idea is the same. Here’s Constance Garnett’s translation; mouseover for the original: “our dear mother, Holy Russia, could go and hide herself in the lower regions, without disarranging a single nail in the place: everything might remain undisturbed where it is; for even the samovar, the woven bast shoes, the yoke-bridle, and the knout—these are our famous products—were not invented by us.” That yoke-bridle is the дуга, also known as the shaft bow. And the “place” is the Crystal Palace (follow the link for more context).

On a different day, Konstantin Remchukov argues that you can replace the words “rootless cosmopolitan” from the late Stalin–era anti-Jewish campaign with “fifth column” and get today’s Russian government propaganda. His illustration:

It goes like this: “In his published articles and oral presentations, Professor Kirpotin has preached bowing down before foreign powers and bourgeois liberalism.” Almost all the words are familiar. Notice the title Professor Kirpotin gave his work to try to keep his detractors from even getting within firing range, though it didn’t help: “Thus, in his article ‘The Heritage of Pushkin and Communism,’ Kirpotin claims that Pushkin ‘is a child of the European Enlightenment who grew up on Russian soil.’ In his article about Lermontov, V. Kirpotin presents this great Russian poet as a student of Byron’s.” (September 22nd, 2014)

Linking Pushkin with a foreign import like the Enlightenment was enough to try to get Kirpotin fired. This sounds like such a normal story to tell in Russian, but it’s hard for me to imagine an NPR guest talking about attempts to silence literary critics 65 years ago. Maybe somewhere there’s footage of Joe McCarthy going after an American equivalent of Professor Kirpotin.

 

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2014 2:31 am

    Turgenev is a household name in Russia because most schoolchildren begin studying Russian literature, in the 5th (formerly 4th) grade, by reading Mumu and write their first literary composition (sochinenie) about that novella. Things were the same 30+ years ago, when I went to school, and possibly 60 years ago. Then, at the sixth or seventh grade, kids study The Hunter’s Notes and a couple of years later, move on to Fathers and Sons. All that stuff is studied as thoroughly as is possible at school: kids still have to learn a big chunk of Bezhin Lug either by heart or “close to the text”. I still remember being told by a teacher that there was a landowner called Penochkin somewhere in The Hunting Sketches who enjoyed the sound of a cane hitting peasant bottoms; and by another teacher (a very good one BTW), that the first response in the “progressive” press to Fathers and Sons was The Asmodeus of Our Time by Antonovich, Bazarov being the demon Asmodeus; and that Pisarev defended Bazarov as the good guy in his essay The Realists.

    Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy do not get the same close reading at school because you cannot assign any major work by either until the kids have grown up a little, and because it’s impossible to study War and Peace in much detail for lack of time. I doubt that most Russian kids leave school having read War and Peace. I’m not even sure about Crime and Punishment.

    I have no idea if Trollope has any place at all in the English (let alone Scottish) school curricula. “Trollopean heroines?” Sounds like heroic trollops of French Lit. Turgenevskie devushki, in contrast, is a fixed Russian expression although I’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to mean. I guess Rudin’s principled fiancée and the like. (By the way, Yekaterina Shulman, who goes by Catherine Schulmann in the Anglosphere, has wondered what Trollope meant by “b****” – apparently bedbugs.)

    It’s interesting that The Smoke appeared months after Crime and Punishment, less than a year before The Idiot, two years before War and Peace and six years before the first installments of Anna Karenina. Potugin makes a perfectly valid point that nothing of value is “genuinely Russian”; but his invective on Russia’s zero contribution to humanity does not make much sense in retrospect because a couple of Russian writers were busy contributing almost as he spoke. I’d very much like to hope that Bykov and I are as mistaken as Potugin and that some Russians are secretly doing great work in literature, arts, or humanities somewhere – I just don’t know where to look.

  2. September 26, 2014 2:16 pm

    I often hear that Russians use more literary references (and folk sayings) in their speech than Americans, and sometimes I feel skeptical.

    I’m not sure why you’re skeptical; it seems to me pretty clearly one of those cliches that are cliches because they’re true. It’s certainly been true in my experience (and one of my problems when I was having a romance, mostly long-distance, with a Russian woman was that she would drop quotes and allusions into her cards and letters that, pre-internet, I had no way of locating).

  3. September 28, 2014 10:09 pm

    I’m not sure why you’re skeptical; it seems to me pretty clearly one of those cliches that are cliches because they’re true.

    I think it makes me bristle because it’s sometimes paired with the claim that no Americans, but all Russians (and all Europeans) understand and admire high culture. You can see where that cliché comes from too, but clearly some people in each country are more impressed by high culture than others.

    Still, I take your point. It must have been frustrating trying to decipher those letters!

    Turgenev is a household name in Russia because most schoolchildren begin studying Russian literature

    It may be right that the way literature is taught in schools is the explanation. Between my parents’ generation and mine, American students stopped having to memorize things like “Paul Revere’s Ride.” What literature we did read varied from school to school.

    There’s also Nabokov’s line about the Russian literary canon through 18-something fitting on a couple good-sized shelves. That combined with a standardized national curriculum could be enough to guarantee an audience that will nod at a Turgenev allusion.

    At the same time, there are some widely known, quotable things for English-speaking audiences beyond the Bible and Shakespeare. For instance, NPR stories on walls on the West Bank or the U.S.-Mexico border can’t resist “good fences make good neighbors,” sometimes ignoring the context in Robert Frost, and sometimes dwelling on it. I’m not sure why there isn’t a little more of this. An outlet like NPR caters to listeners (like me) who’d like to feel that others expect us to recognize allusions, even if we can’t. Maybe the choice of which books count as fair game for allusions would be controversial.

    Another possibility is that in the U.S., references to classic Hollywood movies fill the “prestigious allusion” slot.

    • September 29, 2014 8:26 am

      I think it makes me bristle because it’s sometimes paired with the claim that no Americans, but all Russians (and all Europeans) understand and admire high culture.

      Ah, well, that sort of thing makes me bristle too, but it’s extremely common to take an unexceptionable observation (group X enjoy good beer and have a wide variety) and turn it into a bigoted attack (group X are hopeless drunks). It’s important to separate out the truth from the bigotry.

      Another possibility is that in the U.S., references to classic Hollywood movies fill the “prestigious allusion” slot.

      Yes, I think this is a big part of it, and increasingly the references to classic Hollywood movies are being replaced by references to dumb recent Hollywood movies, video games, and the like. I am torn on this; my demotic/democratic side applauds, but my bookish/elitist side revolts: “Star Wars is not the equivalent of Shakespeare, dammit!” I fear the older and more distant from current culture I get, the more the latter will prevail (I already own a good cane which I look forward to shaking). But America is preeminently the land of pop culture, and there’s nothing to be done about it. (I fear Russia may head down the same path eventually.)

  4. September 30, 2014 8:19 am

    I’ve just read Smoke and I cannot understand why Bykov called Potugin a “negative character” (отрицательный герой). A broken man, perhaps, but a “negative character” implies a degree of villainy in Russian usage.

    • September 30, 2014 9:26 am

      In context I thought he meant merely that Potugin’s words did not represent Turgenev’s point of view (and used a stronger phrase than necessary, since he was thinking quickly on live radio). It’s also possible the book wasn’t quite like he remembered it. I have to go back to Smoke myself.

Trackbacks

  1. Turgenev as a household name | The Dilettante's Winterings Turgenev as a household name | On summer time
  2. Turgenev trivia | The Dilettante's Winterings Turgenev trivia | On summer time
  3. Digestive metaphors for a healthy nation | The Dilettante's Winterings Digestive metaphors for a healthy nation | On summer time
  4. Ancient Russians abroad | The Dilettante's Winterings Ancient Russians abroad | On summer time
  5. More Turgenev trivia | The Dilettante's Winterings More Turgenev trivia | On summer time

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