Self-Knowledge in Contemporary Russian Literature

By
Jodi Koehn

High literature in transitional societies is a forum for national self-definition and identification, remarked Leon Aron at a 10 December 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute. Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., compared three recent literary works bycontemporary Russian authors--Vladimir Makanin, Mikhail Butov, and Ergaly Ger--to describe the existential questions in contemporary Russian society. According to Aron, reading these novels would help us to understand the great change happening today.

The heroes of the three novels, Aron argued, all felt the need for self-exploration and self-knowledge in an effort to redefine themselves in the post-Soviet era. After watching Soviet institutions crumble, these characters were faced with the question of how to live in a society inwhich values and beliefs were no longer pre-determined by external forces. With their principles no longer explicitly defined by their opposition to a regime or system of thought, the protagonists in each of the novels experienced difficulty in deciding what they believed in as opposed to what they did not.

In both Makanin's Underground or the Hero of Our Times and Butov's Freedom, the heroes were self-exiled from Soviet Russia. Their exile was a "deliberate act of defiance in defense of personal and artistic freedom." Makanin's hero, Petrovich, an unpublished writer, went underground in an effort to "protect his art" from corruption. Butov's hero felt an unconscious need to be by himself, to achieve a certain amount of self-knowledge which might "get him to the point of dignity and usefulness."

According to Aron, one of the results for establishing this moral sovereignty over oneself and effecting spiritual secession from the Soviet state was that one no longer had permanent housing. To have housing, Aron noted, you needed a resident permit; to have a resident permit you had to work for the state. Neither protagonist was willing to do so. They derived various strategies for keeping a roof over their heads, of which Makanin's hero, Petrovich, had the most permanent strategy. He became a watchman in the worker's dorm turned apartment building. As a writer--even an unpublished one--Petrovich projected a high moral stature and was trusted by building residents.

Underground characters were in a rather privileged position, because they could watch Soviet civilization fall apart without being "contaminated" by it, Aron stated. With the demise of communism, their rationale for being underground no longer held. Whether to ensure protection from corruption for oneself and one's art--as with Petrovich--or to embark on the sort of quest for self-knowledge in the hope of bettering oneself and becoming useful and dignified--as was the case with Butov's character--you no longer needed to be underground.

The question of what to do now, how to cope with a broader agenda, is suddenly thrust upon the characters, Aron argued. The official ideology of communism disappeared along with the society and economy it spawned and protected. Adaptation, Aron remarked, was more difficult for those who defined themselves in opposition to the regime. According to Aron, living honorably was no longer synonymous with the solitary struggle against the regime because the regime was gone. Values became a matter of choice rather than a product of resistance and rejection of the official ideology. The dwellers of the underground needed to do something to energize themselves and support the "huge existentialist project helping those around them to reconstruct their own being," Aron noted.

In Ergaly Ger's novel, The Gift of the Word. Fairy Tales over the Phone, two misfits found self-knowledge and love through and in words, over the phone. According to Aron, this medium fit well with the current quest of Russian intelligentsia. The hero perceived the spokenword as far superior to the written word. Words were used to convey the hero's strategy for coping with the "sudden onrush of freedom" and for helping oneself be more creative in this strange new world, Aron remarked. The "gift of the word" refers to both the hero's talent as a playwright and to the self-knowledge he achieved.

While Butov and Makanin write with modernist and post-modernist sensibilities, Ger's work is a traditional Russian novel, but manages to combine modern slang with the traditional style. Butov refers to a Russian proverb, Zhizn' prozhit'--ne pole pereiti ("life is harder than crossing a field"), also used by Boris Pasternak as the closing line of his poem "Hamlet" (1946),asking what is to be sacrificed and what should be preserved. According to Aron, there is no better expression of an existential, post-communist credo.

These three novels demonstrate that Russia still has the capacity to produce talented writers,Aron stated. Furthermore, with the fade of censorship, the Russian novel isagain "passionately engaged in the most profound issues of the day," Aron argued, helping its citizens and the world to survive in these troubled times.

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