15 March 2022

To understand Russia read Osipov, not Dostoevsky


Russian culture is being cancelled everywhere.

The Royal Opera House called off a residency of the Bolshoi. The BBC scrapped performances of Tchaikovsky. In Canada, Alexander Malofeev, the piano prodigy, was cancelled even after he denounced Putin’s war. The same thing happened to filmmaker Kirill Sokolov at the Glasgow Film festival — whose film was removed despite his repeated criticism of Putin’s war. Chess player Alexander Grischuk was banned from a Norwegian chess tournament. An Italian University even tried to suspend its course in Dostoevsky.

So much, then, for the time-honoured platitudes about sports and arts transcending politics. Apart from being racist, all this only serves to give Russia and Russians something to complain about. It plays directly into Putin’s narrative.

Mostly, however, dead Russian writers are still acceptable. Indeed, far from being cancelled, Russian classics are being pushed in a rash of articles advising you which classic Russian novels to read. That’s unsurprising, given the political significance of Russia’s literary heritage. Gogol died as an unrepentant reactionary and Russian exceptionalist. Likewise, Dostoevsky – whom Putin is known to admire – believed in Orthodoxy and nationalism. Twelve years ago, there were rows between Russia and Ukraine over which country could claim Gogol and Bulgakov as ‘their’ authors.

Russia’s classic literature was so political because in the 19th century Russia had extensive censorship, but literature was less censored than other areas. So many of the great novelists of that time were not just artists, but political and moral thinkers. There was nowhere else to express and discuss such ideas. 

This is not a new idea, of course. Foreign Policy was writing in 2015 about how Russian literature held more clues to understanding Russian policy than CIA briefing documents. ‘How will Russians fight and what kind of leaders do they follow? Want to understand their patriotism?’ they asked. ‘Go read the master, Leo Tolstoy’.

This is the revival of the cloying stereotype that Russia is a country of deep ‘soul’. But the idea of a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma which you can start to solve by reading Tolstoy is complete bunk. Literature is no substitute for history and politics (however dubious that CIA intelligence turned out to be), but it can be a wonderful complement to those things.

But instead of looking to classic Russian literature, we ought to look for modern books that can help us see current Russian culture. Rather than trying to connect with Russia’s mysterious distant heritage, we ought to understand its very present culture of propaganda and deceit.

Two books that might help in that endeavour are Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko and Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, both of which were translated into English last year.

Red Crosses is about the persistent effects of Soviet life on modern Russian politics. A young football referee has had his life torn apart. When he moved into a new apartment he finds a red cross on the door, painted there by his neighbour, an old woman with Alzheimers who uses the crosses to remember the route home. She is glad to have a new, young neighbour, as this gives her a chance to tell someone her memories of the war before they are obliterated by the disease.

As her tale unfolds we are shown the horrifying effect of the Soviet machine on the life of an ordinary woman. She did admin work for the government during World War II and finds her husband’s name on a list of German prisoners of war. Under Soviet law, this makes her liable to be killed as a traitor. She would be considered an accessory to her husband who ought to have killed himself in a fit of Soviet glory rather than allowing himself to be taken prisoner and giving away state secrets.

Put in this impossible position, she deletes her husband’s name from the list, and repeats the name of the prisoner above, thus removing her husband from the records. She is forced into a life of deceit and guilt by the official system.

The effects of this decision stay with her for the rest of her life, and are only resolved when her young neighbour goes to find the man whose name she repeated all those years ago. The twist at the end is shocking and dark. It shows very clearly that people who believe in Soviet propaganda are alive and well in the Russian-speaking world.

If you think we have a problem with fake news, wait until you read Filipenko. Throughout the novel, archival documents, letters to and from the Soviet government, are printed as part of the story. This is the art of a modern political novelist who is not trying to argue about partisan policy, but insists on historical accuracy. And though you can debate the numbers, Filipenko’s basic point is true: people in Russia are trapped by their history.

As Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, the only journalist to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, told Der Spiegel in February, ‘Not everything can be explained with Putin. It’s also the people. If you’ve been locked in for as long as we Eastern Europeans were, you no longer know what it means to be free. What remains after a dictatorship? Not just a broken economy, but also a duped populace.’

This idea recurs throughout Rock, Paper, Scissors, a collection of short stories written over the past decade by that most Russian of things, a doctor who is also a writer of stories. Like Filipenko, Maxim Osipov writes about a modern Russia that cannot – and in many ways does not want to – escape its past. You will probably learn more about Russia today from him than from Chekhov.

In one of his tales, an alcoholic is beaten up by the police on a train after a doctor calls attention to the man’s withdrawal symptoms. The doctor feels guilty, but then learns the man was a murderer who would likely have escaped. In another story, there is a doctor with two jobs: a poorly paid one working in a clinic, and a well paid one escorting people who emigrate to America. His experiences of American airports and travel are isolating, petty, and cold. His life in Russia, depressing though it is in many ways, offers a chance of happiness and to really help people. Modern Russia is complicated, not least because its people are trapped in, and shaped by, its restrictive regime.

These are stories of people living in a confused, broken country, a feeling that will only intensify as Putin’s brutal war destroys the country they knew and grew up in. Many have now fled, possibly for the rest of their lives. Sadly, this is not a new sensation. One of Osipov’s characters is a woman who lived through the Soviet Union’s collapse:

Once there had been socialism and Ksenia had done her duty, believing and not believing, like everyone else. She had her country; she had her daughter. They had ideals, and things to respect and fear. Then Socialism was no more; the country fell apart; new standards emerged. She knew what had to be done. She had herself christened — her daughter too — and she helped to restore the church. Ye shall know them by their business. And then? Her daughter died. No daughter, no nation. Some reward. It was all beyond comprehension.

That story was written between 2009-2015. Imagine how much worse life must be for Russians now. And how much more difficult it will be in the future.

If you want to understand modern Russia, reading Turgenev and Tolstoy will tell you as much as reading George Eliot and Emily Bronte does about modern Britain. Start instead by reading Filipenko and Osipov. They will show you a glimpse of a country where murderers can be described as average people, where supposedly good citizens shovel the snow from around Stalin’s statue, and where even before this war, it was an endless struggle to live a good life.

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Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at commonreader.substack.com.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.