There’s a German expression, heile Welt, that means “idyll” but translates literally as “intact world.” I thought of it often as I read Sally Laird’s interviews with Russian authors, conducted from 1987 through 1994. The site of the safe haven varies from writer to writer. It might be identified with children, as when Vladimir Makanin states, “In childhood you have your own internal world. The world still seems harmonious to you–not necessarily beautiful, but harmonious, whole. As soon as you grow up you lose that sense of harmony.” Or with “decent people,” as when Lyudmila Petrushevskaya says that “the right people have always understood me. Horrible people and fools, as I’ve told you, are never going to like my stories–so luckily the people who surround me have always been clever, nice, generous, shining people!” Somewhere or other there was likely to be a group that ostensibly retained its innocence despite the general fall of man.
I would surmise that similar statements can be heard today in the former USSR–in fact, the worse things get there, the more people may seek refuge in such constructions. If you lived in a place racked by corruption, shortages and violence, you too might be tempted by nostalgia.
In Laird’s book, such idylls are generally presented by the writer as a source of strength. Psychologists might call them enabling fictions. Andrei Bitov appears to derive security from his sense of belonging to the pre-Soviet intelligentsia: “Our family kept a kind of insurance by living all together–several different families, brothers and sisters, all lived together in one big apartment, and because of that we were able to keep a certain way of life as it used to be, before Soviet times. For the rest of my life it gave me a feeling of what ‘home’ was, the feeling of a place to return to.”
Tatyana Tolstaya’s self-confidence also seems linked to her image of her family, which included the writer Aleksei Tolstoy. According to her, it had “no sacred cows,” exerted “no pressure at all” to live up to the family name, and they “never envied other people their success–it just isn’t in their genes.” The hyperbole marks these statements as a form of mythmaking. As a member of that charmed circle, she shares its magic. “I seem to be able to walk straight through what other people regard as walls. No one can create an obstacle for me,” she tells Laird.
I would call this creation of idylls neo-Romantic if Romanticism had ever ended. It is probably more accurate to speak of varieties of Romanticism. The one called Socialist Realism located utopia not only in the Communism of the future but also in its heralds or precursors. Yet that ideology and aesthetic lost most of its appeal among intellectuals long before the fall of the Soviet Union, as Laird shows. Within the USSR, alternative value systems were articulated in literature, sometimes as a direct challenge to the state and party but more often as an implicit one. To quote Fazil Iskander, best known for his novel Sandro of Chegem, which was published in mutilated form in the USSR in 1972 and in full in the United States in 1979: “Dictatorship presented a kind of wall which every honest writer was duty bound to hack away at with any instrument he possessed. And at the same time the deeper you plunged into this work, the better you carved yourself out a sort of peaceful, harmonious niche within the wall.”
In German: heile Welt.
In fiction, an image of wholeness may function as an effective foil, providing welcome contrast to fractured and fragmentary stories. It can serve as a source of fresh insights, moral judgments and consolation for all the nastiness in a text. So far, so good. When Iskander, for example, tells Laird, “I think the combination of seriousness or lyricism with irony and satire is much more interesting–more human,” I nod along. My problems begin when a writer stops talking about literature–when Iskander, for example, speaks nostalgically of patriarchal Abkhazia, although earlier in the interview he had distanced himself from antidemocratic forces. On the map of current utopias, nationalism appears as a spacious haven where a lot of very different people have sought comfort and warmth. It cannot be identified solely with the right wing in the former Communist states; the situation, Laird reveals, is much more complicated.