Literature and politics on Russian radio
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.