Andrei Bitov on "Russian Wealth"

1 Great Russian thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Fedor Dostoevsky, Lev Tolstoy, and others) mused about the dilemmas of late imperial Russia. Some of them penned specific proposals as to what should be done—Herzen's novel What Is to Be Done? ( Chto delat', 1863), Tolstoy's philosophical tract of nearly the same title, So What Are We to Do? ( Tak chto zhe nam delat', 1886), and Lenin's What Is to Be Done ( Chto delat') of 1902. In addition to listing the social ills that they desired to see eradicated, some social critics of the day identified as well what deserved to be protected—those aspects of Russian culture that characterized and enriched the nation. With the late-twentieth-century demise of the Soviet Union, these grand questions occupy the attention of great thinkers once again. Writers cum 'public intellectuals' such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Bitov speak and write extensively on the Russia that they have inherited, about what has been lost (as well as jettisoned) over the last two centuries, and what has endured.

2 As an emblem of these polemics, which pursued Russia's essence and the abiding question of "What is to be done?", we might consider the two incarnations of a journal entitled Russian Wealth ( Russkoe bogatstvo; translated also as Russian Riches and Russian Treasures). It was first published from 1876 to 1918 (until the Bolshevik Revolution). It was then "reincarnated" in the post-Soviet period, from 1991 to 1994. Populist editors of the nineteenth-century journal, Nikolai Mikhailovskii and Vladimir Korolenko, identified the wealth of Russian culture and civilization generally from "below." For them, Russia's treasure lay in the common folk ( narod) who had forever fed and clothed the nation. This understanding was not lost in the reincarnation of Russian Wealth in 1991. Yet, the editor and publisher of the late-twentieth-century journal, Anatolii Zlobin, and his editorial board did not strive simply to replicate its populist predecessor from the nineteenth century. They considered Russia's riches as emanating from "above" as well: " Russian Wealth is a major publishing innovation: each issue is dedicated to only one author, offering the reader works created in various genres."1 The editors strove to encompass the wealth of Russian high culture that had long been recognized in the pre-Soviet period by particular iconic Russian writers who had been graced by it. Two members of that pantheon, Russia's national poet Alexander Pushkin (born in 1799) and Vladimir Nabokov (born in 1899), both of aristocratic heritage, bore witness to the decline and fall (respectively) of the Russian aristocracy. Yet, recognizing the contributions of high culture to the Russian "treasure-trove," they gave testimony (figuratively and, at times, even literally) to the particular benefits of privilege for the arts.

3 Pushkin's commitment to aristocratic privilege was decidedly more ambivalent than that of the famously disdainful Nabokov. At various times and in various ways Pushkin called into question the tacit acceptance of social inequality. Scholars have chronicled and have even attempted to reconcile the protean Pushkin with the arrogant aesthete, the dandy, and even the revolutionary. For example, inherent contradiction, which is at the core of Yurii Lotman's understanding of Pushkin's politics and aesthetics, characterizes Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833) against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the Decembrist revolt of 1825. Lotman states: "The proponent of enlightenment, the 'intelligent man,' will inevitably be a lover of freedom."2 Aristocratic privilege provides the opportunity for enlightenment. Yet, enlightened thinking must call into question the very system that provided that opportunity. Onegin's political consciousness remains undeveloped because he chose not to avail himself of the opportunity granted him for enlightenment. Lotman concludes: "The fundamental characteristic of the artistic image of Onegin is the superficiality of his education."3 He squandered his aristocratic privilege.

4 Figuratively, "Russian wealth" connotes even more than the tangible artistic legacy of Russian culture, both high and popular. It is Russia and Russianness, from the beauty of the Russian countryside to that elusive spiritual connectedness of souls (in its layman's understanding)— sobornost'. The term carries here the more social and political, rather than religious, connotation of an "organic union of believers in love and freedom."4 As for the symbolic significance of the Russian land itself, interpreters of Russian art have recognized the expression of Russianness in works of landscape artists such as Ivan Shishkin, Aleksei Venetsianov, Mikhail Nesterov, Isaak Levitan, and others. Their observations provided the impetus to the 2004 exhibit at London's National Gallery "Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy." Thus, Russia's treasures include the real and imagined expression of all that is uniquely Russian.

5 After the Bolshevik Revolution, writers such as Vladimir Nabokov mourned the loss not only of their "childhood," but also of Russian culture, at least as they had experienced it. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (originally published in 1951; revised in 1967), Nabokov laments the passing of the " vie de château" he and members of his class lived: "The kind of Russian family to which I belonged—a kind now extinct—had, among other virtues, a traditional leaning toward the products of Anglo-Saxon civilization ... I learned to read English before I could read Russian."5 He describes, as well, French tutors and music lessons, a devoted mother who taught him to cherish the past, use his imagination, and appreciate "all games of skill and gambling" (42). Nabokov depicts (or projects) his "master's idyll" in his descriptions of others on the family estate. He represents his father as just and beloved by the male peasants of Vyra. The peasant women on the estate, he recalls, led a similarly content existence: "Through the window one could see kerchiefed peasant girls weeding a garden path on their hands and knees or gently raking the sun-mottled sand. (The happy days when they would be cleaning streets and digging canals for the State were still beyond the horizon)" (80). Despite Nabokov's rose-tinted gaze on manor life, his lament on the death of "Russia," or his reference to the Soviet abuses to come, the belief in an elemental Russian way of life has endured. Russian writers and intellectuals, in an ever more globalized new Russia, continue to mourn the loss of "Russian wealth," which they now recognize as existing in the Soviet era as well.

6 It would seem that no Russian can reject every aspect of the Soviet past. Even Viktor Pelevin, Russia's arch-postmodernist, departs in his novel Omon Ra (1992) from his more typical portrayal of the irrelevance of "value." Without irony, his cosmonaut heroes embrace Soviet notions of valor and self-sacrifice. Omon and his friend Mitek come to realize that their childhood dream to fly to the moon requires the "ultimate sacrifice." They learn that the Soviet Union does not have the technology or resources for the round-trip journey. But in order to save face with the West, the government will send a group of astronauts on a suicidal one-way trip. Omon and Mitek accept their fate for the sake of the "greater good." A cynical government exploits the idealism of Russian youth.6

7 As another example of the undervalued "wealth" of the Soviet Union, we might note the nostalgia that some might now experience viewing Ilya Kabakov's installation representing the Soviet-era communal apartment ( kommunalka). The Russian culture that Kabakov's You've Got Something Boiling, Ol'ga Grigor'evna evokes could not be considered part of the Russian or Soviet treasure-trove in any strict sense. In the late Soviet period, the artist took as his subject Soviet kitsch. Only a truly countercultural interpretation, favoring "rubbish" over high culture, could have identified in his paintings a "rich" Soviet culture. However, Eastern Europeans of various "strains" might now recognize in the post-Communist version of Kabakov's installation of a Soviet communal apartment a lost connection—the shared experience of what the Croatian ex-patriot writer Dubravka Ugrešić terms the "East European trauma."7 As difficult as living conditions might have been under Communism, many who lived it cannot help but react to the loss of a shared past life and sense of communality with nostalgia.

8 Still other writers, artists, and cultural historians engage the Russian/Soviet past from another perspective; not simply as Russian wealth or with an ambivalent sense of nostalgia. Within their purview of a broader Russian heritage ( nasledie), we must include, they insist, violence and misery as well. For instance, some landscape artists who conveyed the nation's wealth in emblematic vistas (Shishkin, Polenov, Kuindzhi, Levitan) recognized, even if they did not depict them, tensions and incongruities. Isaak Levitan was struck, while painting his Vladimirka Road (1892), with the realization that it was the road that convicts were forced to march on their way to Siberia. Prominent, and senior, among contemporary writers who confront the disparities within the Russian inheritance is Andrei Bitov.

9 Andrei Bitov's creative life has spanned Soviet censorship in the period of stagnation and the current "freedom" of the pen (albeit with the new limitations set by the "censorship" of the marketplace). If Bitov, in his creative writing and cultural commentaries, has recognized the underbelly of the Russian past, he was born into the tradition of the wealth of Russian high culture: "My big family didn't have to keep up with the latest to consider itself cultured. Its tastes were independent and distant from the times: the most contemporary writer was Leonid Andreev, the most recent composer—Rachmaninov."8 Although it may be difficult to identify direct autobiographical references to Bitov's own life, the writer continually confronts issues and philosophical questions that reflect the concerns of his class and generation. In fact, many of his most significant works qualify as "poetic autobiographies," which, according to William Spengemann's definition, are defined more by autobiographical intent (to define or explore the self) than the inclusion of autobiographical elements.9 The reader can extrapolate from Bitov's exploration of self to a consideration of the stewards and practitioners of Russian high culture.

10 A hallmark of Bitov's poetics is his penchant for intertextual ties to works of the Russian literary canon. In so doing, he reminds the reader of a multivalenced legacy. While paying homage to Russia's great books, Bitov reminds the reader of inherited cultural maladies. It is a practice we recognize early on in Bitov's writing. In 1968, in the story "The Idler" ("Bezdel'nik," published in the collection Apothecary Island), a young Soviet man faces the numbing reality of a scheduled life of uninteresting work. His fantasy life, often fed by alcohol, leads to censure from the boss, and in the end the idler refuses to defend himself. Allowing his mind to wander, not tuning in to his boss's offer of a last chance, Alesha ensures his dismissal. The short text echoes a myriad of Russian classics and their heroes. Alesha's uncreative office work recalls Gogol's "The Overcoat," while his sense of alienation and of being unappreciated suggests that Alesha is a twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century's "superfluous man." Alesha experiences his own version of Raskolnikov's memory, in Crime and Punishment, of the beaten mare, with the twist that, although in Alesha's version onlookers come to the horse's aid, the symbolic significance of this "literary" happy resolution has no effect on his personal dilemma—he is still unable to achieve his goal of getting a sick-leave pass from work. Alesha is also drawn to the free and mysterious "Islands" of St. Petersburg, just as Raskolnikov was. The connection to Raskolnikov is then mediated by association with another frequenter of the Islands, Nikolai Apollonovich of Andrei Bely's apocalyptic novel Petersburg (1916). Furthermore, the tension between fathers as representatives of the system and sons as "revolutionaries," depicted in Petersburg and descending from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, reverberates in the idler Alesha's arguments with his own father. And the ties to the past and the heritage of Russian literature do not end there. Whether these allusions recall positive or negative representations of Russian society, they all belong to the Russian "treasure-trove," which Bitov himself attributes to a kind of collective unconscious of Russian literature and culture.10 The heritage of Russian literature provides a richer context for the story. It reverberates with a wealth of perspectives on classic themes.

11 Bitov's monument both to Russian high culture and to intertextual allusions as a poetic device is, undoubtedly, Pushkin House ( Pushkinskii dom, 1978).11 First published in the United States in 1978 and in its entirety in Russia only in 1989, the novel continues to receive considerable critical attention. The narrator of Pushkin House identifies its iconoclastic genre as a "museum novel" ( roman-muzei). The novel is a figurative museum—a concatenation of extra-textual allusions, mostly to works of Russian literature. The book's title suggests from the start the significance of Russian literature for the novel. Pushkin House, the former Customs House in St. Petersburg, houses the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian (formerly Soviet-Russian) Academy of Sciences. It is also a museum. Yet, Bitov's "Pushkin House" exists on the abstract level as well, much as Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg (1916) refers to both the city and the idea of the city. Pushkin House likewise conjures up the mythology of the Imperial capital. Bitov recalls and laments the faded majesty of the city, in sharp contrast to Bely's condemnation of its imperial splendor. On the first page of the novel, Bitov describes Leningrad as "desolated," isolated, and "in dialogue" with no one. The city is imagined as a letter, "which had once been addressed by Peter 'to spite his haughty neighbor' but now was addressed to no one and reproached no one, asked nothing..." (3). Pushkin House concerns the interconnections of Russian literature per se as much as it does the relationship of the protagonists to Russian literature.

12 To recall the dense fabric of intertextual ties in Pushkin House, we need only consider briefly the overall structure of the novel. The titles of the prologue and three sections invoke famous works of Russian literature: Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? ( Chto delat'?, 1863), Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons ( Ottsy i deti, 1862), Mikhail Lermontov's Hero of Our Time ( Geroi nashego vremeni, 1840), and The Bronze Horseman ( Mednyi vsadnik, 1833) by Pushkin. Events within the sections reflect major themes from the works they allude to. Thus, the plot unravels slowly, and the (initiated) reader's attention is constantly deflected by associations that suggest alternative meanings.

13 Bitov's dialogue with Russian literature and its embodiment of high culture occupies center stage in Pushkin House. However, the story reveals to an equal or even greater degree disturbing elements of the common Russian heritage. The protagonist of the novel, Leva Odoevstev, represents the latest generation in a long line of Russian scholars. His line, the intelligentsia, traditionally preserved the legacy of Russian high culture. Yet, his parents' generation betrayed that responsibility in cowardly reaction to the violent assaults of Stalin's henchmen. Leva's grandfather, a renowned linguist, was denounced in the Stalinist purges, arrested, and imprisoned in the gulag. Leva's parents disowned his grandfather, and even if the rationale was to save their own son Leva, they nonetheless collaborated with this evil. The air of secrecy that subsequently descended on the Odoevstev household then had disastrous consequences for the next generation. Cut off from the history of his family, Leva cannot develop a relationship with the past and therefore has difficulty discerning what is real. He also does not receive needed support from his parents. Their deception with respect to the past has destroyed their ability to relate to their son sincerely on any level.

14 The wave of violence under Stalin destroyed the life and career of the patriarch of the Odoevtsev family. Yet, when the grandfather is rehabilitated and returns to Leningrad, Leva is stunned to realize what the old man has become. Leva's formerly refined and long-suffering grandfather has turned coarse and bitter. He cannot now embrace his rehabilitation and the values of pre-Revolutionary culture that the Odoevtsevs represented. The terror not only destroyed the life and heritage that defined Grandfather Odoevtsev. It destroyed the grandfather for that life and heritage. He has been transformed and now better represents the very process of dehumanization against which he stood up. Grandfather Odoevtsev cannot partake of "rehabilitation" or the resurrection of the old ways. ...

Simmons in International Fiction Review


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