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.
In short, Voices of Russian Literature is not just a companion volume to contemporary Russian fiction. Laird, a British writer and translator now working in Denmark, has drawn on her experience as the editor of the journal Index on Censorship (for which I also wrote) and set literature in a philosophical and political context. So although her book concerns Russian authors, it will be intelligible and interesting to those who have only the vaguest acquaintance with them–no mean feat. The oldest writers in her book, born in the late twenties and the thirties, are probably the most famous in the United States: The names Andrei Bitov, Lyudmila Petrushevkaya and Fazil Iskander have appeared relatively often in our review journals, although Vladimir Makanin may not ring a bell. Of the middle generation, born from the mid-forties through the mid-fifties, probably only Tatyana Tolstaya is well-known here, despite the fact that Yevgeny Popov, Zufar Gareyev, Vladimir Sorokin and Igor Pomerantsev have also been translated into English. The youngest writer with whom Laird spoke, Viktor Pelevin, was born in 1962.
If the interviews spark curiosity about their work, readers can consult Laird’s bibliography, which lists English translations. (North Americans might also like to know that current and back issues of Glas, a journal of Russian writing that publishes entire novels as well as anthologies of prose and poetry, are available from the Chicago publisher Ivan R. Dee.) But I would also recommend these interviews to less literary souls who are concerned with the formation of new identities in post-Communist societies.
For Laird has captured a fascinating era, beginning before the breakup of the Soviet Union and continuing today, in which questions of identity are hotly debated. This has been a struggle not only between parties but inside individuals, as revealed by contradictions within the interviews. I am thinking, for instance, of Vladimir Sorokin’s skepticism about his own tendency to idealize the private sphere. In 1987 he told Laird that “the street is the space occupied by ideology, while there’s very little ideology in the apartment. I can’t say there’s none at all, because all of us grew up steeped in ideology and some version of Homo sovieticus remains inside us whatever our particular beliefs or attitudes to the authorities. So it’s only to a certain extent that the private world can be contrasted with the harsh, social world.” And in 1991 Yevgeny Popov qualified his statement that “there was this complete rejection of official speech in ordinary people’s consciousness,” adding that “on the other hand…you couldn’t help but be affected, and especially in the sphere of language. Everyone’s language, mine too, became sullied by Soviet jargon.”
Such examples suggest that the USSR cannot be characterized and then dismissed as the manufacturer of romantic idylls, for it has produced critical and self-critical analyses as well. That is an important point, because many recent commentators have presented the former Communist countries of Asia and Central and Eastern Europe as a culturally as well as an economically backward bloc, in an undifferentiated, negative picture of the region. (Social scientist László Kürti calls this “the backwardness project.”) The West’s claim to superiority over the East has a long history, of course; not just Orientalism but the cold war has predisposed us to a manichean dualism in which we play the flattering role of the forces of progress. In this context, it is noteworthy that Laird treats the men and women in the book with respect, both in the interviews and in her introductory remarks about each writer.
The view of the ex-Communist East as an area of retardation is one that many Russians and Eastern Europeans justifiably resent. Understandably, their hurt has often led them to counterattack, to offense as defense. In Voices of Russian Literature, Tatyana Tolstaya tells a sad and funny story about a New York conference on women in literature to which she and other Russian women were invited.
The organizers started telling us how we’d been oppressed, and were still oppressed, and they wanted to hear all about it and how it had affected us. When we denied that we’d been oppressed they started shouting at us and assuring us that we had been, it was just that we didn’t realize it…. So I started shouting back, I just screamed that no one had ever oppressed us in Russia the way we were being oppressed now–being forced to own up to things that had never happened.
That Western feminism can be perceived as a neocolonial theory is an uncomfortable but valuable lesson. And it is one that anyone who wants to decrease anti-Americanism–in Russia and elsewhere–might well take to heart. For there are plenty of normative Americans who are neither women nor feminists. It may augment our self-esteem to consider ourselves liberated, but in downplaying the weaknesses of our theory and praxis, we may well project an all-too-rosy image of ourselves. If we don’t want to be accused of constructing yet another idyll (America the emancipated), we’ll have to keep our own romantic nationalism in check.
A sense of group cohesion is often defined through opposition to an enemy, and there is a chance that the construction of a post-Soviet identity may build on anti-Americanism, which was also instrumental in forging a postwar Western European left. Whether that occurs depends in part on how we act and speak in this early, formative period. Voices of Russian Literature is a valuable reminder that ideologies take shape in private conversation as well as in public writing, and interviews not only reflect but develop attitudes.