Pushkin not Putin

''In her lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich explained that in Russia 'suffering is our capital, our natural resource. Not oil or gas – but suffering. It is the only thing we are able to produce constantly.'''

On the cancellation of his lecture series at the University of Milano-Bicocca due to Ukraine invasion tensions, Paolo Nori said, "I recognize what is happening in Ukraine is dreadful, and I feel like sobbing just thinking about it. I can't help but feel sorry for the people in Ukraine. It's absurd, however, what's occurring in Italy... In Italy, being a live or deceased Russian is considered a crime.

It's not only an Italian thing. As a result, an exhibition of avant-garde Russian art in the Netherlands, as well as a Stravinsky concert in Belgium and a Tchaikovsky performance in the United Kingdom, have been cancelled. There is also a restriction on Russian cat breeders and Russian-bred cats from being displayed at the International Cat Federation (Fédération Internationale Féline, or FIFé) events! Because Columbia University Press no longer accepts Russian funding, it has substantially reduced its catalog of translated Russian classics here in the United States.

According to a Dutch Russian specialist, "there is Putin's Russia and there is Pushkin's Russia, and the two couldn't vary more." To "delete" anything Russian, we are risking losing a literary heritage that exhibits an extraordinarily deep awareness of moral issues in all their depth and complexity. More than anyone, individuals who endured tsarist rule and the subsequent totalitarian system should have an understanding of what evil is.

To paraphrase an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn character, "hasn't it long been acknowledged... that a major author in our country is something like the second government?" The writer embodied moral power, whereas the regime represented political power. The term "Russian writer" signified more than merely a poet or novelist; rather, it signified a somebody who served as the people's conscience.

Mikhail Sholokhov's support for the regime's condemnation of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Nikolai Arzhak sparked a wave of criticism from prominent Russian writers, including poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky and novelist Lydia Chukovskaya.

According to Solzhenitsyn, postmodern Russian writers who rejected moral seriousness as passé abandoned the Russian literary tradition: "Yes, they argue, Communist theory was a huge falsehood; but then, again, absolute truths do not exist and trying to find them is meaningless. " Not only was it unnecessary, but it was a waste of time and effort.

However, the pursuit of "higher meaning" is central to Russian writing. Nothing else is required of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy characters in their novels The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. Dr. Zhivago and Varlaam by Pasternak and Pushkin, respectively. Human struggle and pain are central to Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, a collection of short stories about Soviet forced labor camps. What a book is to Pasternak is "a squarish chunk of hot, blazing conscience–and nothing else!"

In Solzhenitsyn's view, Russians who embrace moral relativism or formal play for its own sake are not "Russian writers." The Russian classics are all about human pain, both physical and spiritual. Svetlana Alexievich said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "pain is our capital, our natural resource" in Russia. Suffering, not oil or gas, is the real commodity. No other product can keep up with our demand as well as this one."

Russische Literature uses pain as a starting point for explorations into the meaning and quality of life. Notes from the House of the Dead is Dostoevsky's novel based on his time in a tsarist prison camp. The Bible's famous passage, "Truly, verily, I say unto you, except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth great fruit" was the epigraph he chose for The Brothers Karamazov (John 12:24). The innumerable fatalities inflicted by Russian restrictions have yielded a literature of breathtaking brilliance and engrossing profundity.

The great Russian classics deal with eternal "accursed questions" - "accursed" because they can never be definitively answered – that are addressed in the works. No matter how thoroughly one looks into questions of meaning, one will never get to the root of the problem. These issues were only "scientifically" answered by politicians like the Marxist-Leninists who came to power in 1917. Not a single notable author agreed.

It's clear from the titles of their works that great writers were interested in a wide range of topics. Is there anything that isn't included in this book? What do Crime and Punishment fail to address in terms of crime and punishment? Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, Life and Fate, omits how much about human experience? Realist fiction about huge antitheses—the history of Russian titles that include Herzen's Who Is to Blame?—suggests the pressing problems raised in another tradition of Russian titles. What Is to Be Done? by Chernyshevsky Perhaps the best place to begin is with a more fundamental one: What Exactly Is Art?

Is there a culture more devoted to literature than Russia's? To Dostoyevsky, Anna Karenina's serialization in a Russian "thick journal" (the traditional method of putting a novel on the market) was a joyous occasion. It's finally been proven, he wrote in a review, that the Russian people exist! A French, English, or American would not initially consider writing a novel if they thought their country's existence needed to be justified.

Russians, on the other hand, speak as though life exists solely for the sake of being made into literature. Literature is more than just a place of birth for many people. Russian literature was Vladimir Korolenko's "homeland" when he was asked what nationality he felt most at home in when asked this question.

I have three homes: my Belarusian land, the hometown of my father where I have lived all my life; the motherland of my mother where I was born; and the wonderful Russian culture without which I cannot picture myself," Alexievich said at the conclusion of her Nobel award speech. She made it plain that "Russian literature" was what she was referring to when she said "Russian culture." There was no significance attached to the fact that neither her parents were Russian. Many Russian emigrants have said that they feel as though they are still in Russia by reading Russian literature. Russians, like Jews, are considered "people of the book" by many. A comparison may virtually be drawn between modern Russian literature and the Bible for ancient Israelites, who were able to add works to their collection as their canon was open.

For this "homeland," one had to be willing to die. Russian literature has always been perilous, both for those who read it and for those who produce it, due to the country's harsh political climate. Osip Mandelstam, author of a song ridiculing Stalin, was aware that he had prepared a suicide note, as his friends had told him. His wife Nadezhda said in her memoirs, which have become a modern Russian literary classic, that:

In choosing the manner of his death, M was counting on one remarkable feature of our leaders: their boundless, almost superstitious regard for poetry. “Why do you complain?” M used to say. “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There is no place where more people are killed for it.”

As Nadezhda Mandelstam put it to me, "It is difficult to bury poetry alive, and even a formidable propaganda machine such as ours cannot prevent it from living on." In the seventies, Anna Akhmatova told me, "I am easy in my mind." "'We have seen how durable poetry is,'" he said. In Mikhail Bulgakov's work The Master and Margarita, the most famous passage expresses a similar sentiment. "Manuscripts don't burn," the devil tells the Master after he resurrects the charred manuscript.

When Russian literature first began to be read in the West in the early 20th century, writers, readers, and critics were astounded. Virginia Woolf encapsulated the current consensus in the most succinct manner. "Conclusions vanish into thin air... and are superficial" in Western fiction, she wrote, as compared to Russian books. In contrast to the West, where storytellers strive for aesthetic perfection, Russians strive instead for "unmatched honesty." She went on to say, "The soul is the primary character in Russian fiction." We are all vessels for the "cloudy, yeasty, priceless stuff, the soul" that Dostoevsky writes about in his writings, and he reminds us that "whatever you are, you are the vessel of that troubled liquid."

My students' literary experiences have never been the same after reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The Russians don't waste time with symbolism, creative thinking, or pompous political judgment; instead, they focus on the questions that actually matter. Anna Karenina delves deeply into the moral and psychological underpinnings of love, and who among us isn't preoccupied with the subject? Students' economics lessons promote the impression that people do and always should pursue their own pleasure and that life is about worldly success they continually hear from others. And so Tolstoy surprises them. While reading The Death of Ivan Ilych, students will come face to face with a character who, despite his apparent success and happiness in life, now understands that he has never really lived. In the past, he has always changed his beliefs to fit in with the accepted norms of society. And now that he's perfected every social and professional role, he realizes with horror that these roles will continue, but he won't. It dawns on my students that this is not how they should live!

Another thing they've told me is that no other course they've taken has addressed the kinds of questions that college students should be asking. If they don't ask now, when will they? When one of the protagonists of War and Peace thinks he's found life's meaning, the other has just been disillusioned. Throughout the novel, the two friends have numerous discussions about the most fundamental questions of life, in which they alternate between fervent faith and despairing skepticism. For readers, Pierre's nave enthusiasm about learning about Freemasonry in the famous ferryboat conversation is a source of amusement and inspiration. The narrator admits, "You say that you can't see a reign of truth and goodness on Earth?" Because if we take our time on Earth as the end of all things, neither could I nor could anyone else see it. There is no such thing as good or truth on this planet (Pierre pointed to the fields). But there is a kingdom of truth in the entire universe, and we who are now children of the earth are, in the eternal sense, children of the universe. "

Anguish for Andrei stems from his earlier indifference toward his wife, whose death has rendered it impossible for him to make amends. Agonies of guilt have begun to suggest something beyond this material world, despite his razor-sharp rationality: "All I say is that it is not arguments that persuade one of the necessity of a future life, but this: when you go hand-in-hand with someone, and suddenly that person vanishes there, into nowhere," he says. To be clear, our deepest convictions aren't based on logical reasoning; rather, they're rooted on life events that shake up "this puzzled liquid, this hazy, yeasty, precious stuff," as Plato described the human spirit. Students now understand what they had only suspected in the back of their minds: social science and philosophy discussions can never bring them to a deeper understanding of life's meaning. The best books reveal to readers how life-changing ideas come to be accepted as reality.

"We must live, we must love, and we must believe not only that we are alive today on this patch of earth, but that we have lived and will live forever, there in the Whole," Pierre says to Andrei, pointing to the sky, in response to Andrei's longing for belief. Prince Andrei responds, "Yes, if only it were so." Awakening of "something that had long been slumbering in him," "something that was best in him," occurred. He does not yet believe in a meaningful world. Even though he appeared to be living the same life on the outside, within he had a fresh outlook on life. A person's innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences are the focus of many of the great Russian novels.

Pierre, a utopian who can't stand anything less than absolute assurance, finally loses patience with the Freemasons' infighting. A fiery speech delivered at one of their gatherings causes him to be troubled not by those who oppose him but by others who agree with him because they do so "with stipulations and adjustments" that are not acceptable to him. As a result, utopia is unachievable if moral truth cannot be as unequivocal and clear as the premises of geometry and if individuals cannot exactly agree. Because no two people's thoughts are exactly same, "Pierre was struck for the first time by the boundless variety of men's minds" at this meeting.

Moral truth is supposed to be clear, simple, and well-known, and any dissent identifies one as an adversary of social justice in the eyes of my students. As a result, they are moved by Tolstoy's conviction that individuality is an important reality of life, a belief shared by all great realist authors, even if they do not overtly declare it. Each person's life is unique and no one's life is precisely the same as another person's. "I" begins where "us" ends; what may be generalized about me is not the genuine me. As the story comes to a close, Pierre has gained a new perspective on the world. In "his knowledge of the futility of influencing a man's beliefs by words and his recognition of the likelihood that every man thinks, feels and sees things in his own manner,' Previously, Pierre was bothered or disturbed by the legitimate individuality of every man's opinions, but this formed the foundation of his empathy for and interest in other people."

As a result, journalists and academics are too quick to make categorical judgements on moral issues. We can learn from Russian history that such a mindset can be dangerous. Amidst the atrocities of Russian politics and categorical thinking in general, Russia's literary reaction is to demonstrate the complexity of human morality. While it teaches us a lot about the soul, it also shows us how to examine it with the utmost seriousness and care.

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