It's a joke but it's also the truth—Russians are able to write such long novels so consistently because they spend so much time confined by snow and prison walls. As a people, Russians seem attracted to confinement in general. After the fall of the Soviet Union, even to this day, a large portion of the populace has cried for the return of Communism; before that, the virtually enslaved peasants nevertheless looked on the Czar as a father-figure; and even longer ago, the Orthodox Church ruled with an iron fist and little opposition.
Russia's intellectuals, however, have always been motivated by dreams of freedom and independence. Fyodor Dostoevsky, arguably the Motherland's greatest novelist, spent time in a Siberian prison, but at the center of his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov comes an extended passage in which the self-actualizing force of freedom is contrasted to the slavery of bread and security. Or, more broadly, one can look to Pierre Bezukhov in Tolstoy's monumental War and Peace, a man who finally finds true peace in a rural existence of his own choosing.
Can we forgive writers like Tolstoy for assuming a romanticized view of the peasants themselves? Old Leo in particular liked to think of them as agrarian workers happy in their ignorance and simple life in the country. His depictions of them working the fields in Anna Karenina are among the most elegiac in all literature, but the reality was much harsher and much less like a good dream. Leo Tolstoy wanted so much to be like the peasants as he perceived them that he dressed like them and had children by them, but that's about as far as it went.
In the end he just wanted freedom, and while he may have imitated peasant fashion, he never would have given up his own liberty. Liberty was an ideal few Russian thinkers could give up, at least for themselves. Many of the world's most ardent defenders of anarchism as a political and social philosophy were Russian, the greatest of which was Michel Bakunin. Leo Tolstoy himself was an anarchist, or at least toyed with it as a viable ideological vehicle for his project of personal liberation.
But anarchism is an inherently godless framework for thought or action. God has a Law which He expects men to live by, and we only ignore that Law at the risk of invoking His wrath. Not all Russian intellectuals have been anarchists, and the long shadow of Russian Orthodox Christianity has stretched through the annals of Russian literature. Nicolai Gogol was a fervent supporter of the Church, and Dostoevsky's version of freedom was one rooted in the Christian Gospel, one that allowed men to pursue moral goodness rather than the evil their superiors intended for them.
And then there was Communism. Perhaps its appeal to the Russians was that it offered the lower classes a rigid system and the upper classes relative freedom. Except that, in practice, Communism squelched all personal artistic creativity that didn't support a specifically Communist program, thus binding writers even tighter than their less fortunate peasant brethren. A few great works sprang from behind the Iron Curtain, like Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago and Mikhail Sholokhov's epic And Quiet Flows the Don, but mostly the output was derivative and ultra-political.
One of the world's greatest writers of the latter half of the 20th century, however, again took up the cause of the Church against Communism, and was awarded exile as a result. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exposed the Communist regime and its hellish prison system in a series of books that ranged from the heartbreaking (Cancer Ward) to the clinical and journalistic (The Gulag Archipelago). The best-known and most accessible is the brief One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which chronicles in intimate detail a political prisoner's day in a Siberian workcamp.
If you're getting the impression that all Russian literature is political, philosophical and intellectual, you're getting the right idea. If it's not a weighty matter, preferably one of life and death, Russian novelists are unlikely to find it a suitable topic. Even those purporting to write love stories, like Ivan Turgenev, do so with a heavy sense of irony and tragedy. It's as if the perpetually dark skies and deep cold form the stuff of literature for the Russians, that it's not mere words on the pages but something more primal, something spiritual.
Russian literature is not for the faint of heart, and almost none of it is for those looking for light reading or fun diversion. Much of it is beautiful, but it's beautiful because it accurately captures the plight of humans, the universal human situation. The tension between the Church and humanistic philosophy in the Russian context is a microcosm of man's fight between two natures, that of God and that of the flesh. In a real sense, the literature of Russia is the literature of the world, and the literature of every human being in it.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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