Leonid Mozgovoy, the owl-eyed seventy-one-year-old actor, has played Chekhov (goatee), Hitler (mustache), and Lenin (goatee, bald cap), all in films by the famed Russian director Alexander Sokurov. And sometimes, in his natural hair, he becomes Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” a one-man show featuring Humbert reading his own story out loud, that has played in Saint Petersburg on and off over the last two decades. When it was first staged, the monologue had to pass muster with the khudsovet, a Soviet censorship organ. It did. “They said I perform it rather chastely,” Mozgovoy recalled in an interview.
On a snowy night in early 2013, “Lolita” went up once again, unchanged, but it had suddenly become the most scandalous show in town. The performance had been postponed since last October amid threats to Mozgovoy and others. In January, three men jumped the play’s twenty-four-year-old producer, Anton Suslov, giving him two black eyes and a concussion while calling him a “pedophile”; a murky video of the beating was posted online. The same libel was slashed in spray paint across the walls of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg and the writer’s ancestral estate in Rozhdestveno, about fifty miles from the city. Anonymous activists had petitioned to have the play banned, the museum closed, and Nabokov’s books purged from stores. The author, whose novels thrum with ironic recurrences, might have been perversely pleased with this: thirty-six years after his death and twenty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union with all its khudsovets, Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial.
These events are some of the more alarming demonstrations of Russia’s rightward tack. Ever since the wave of urban protest that hit the country in late 2011, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party seem to have decided to cut their losses with the country’s finicky élites and focus on demonizing them as Western agents for the benefit of a poorer, older, more rural voter base. So far, this strategy has brought about a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, harsh prison terms for the punk band Pussy Riot, new tools for policing free speech on and off the Internet, and the banishment of USAid on a fresh wave of anti-American paranoia. A simultaneous emphasis on “traditional values” has resulted in the whitewashing of Stalin’s legacy and the reëmergence of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a major political player. (Nabokov once endowed some of his own characters with a similar vision. In “Pnin” he described the loathsome Makarovs, “for whom an ideal Russia consisted of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, the Russian Church and Hydro-Electric Dam.”) Everything blunt, homespun, and orthodox is in. Everything multifaceted, foreign, avant-garde, or deviant is out. “Lolita” didn’t stand a chance.
No United Russia member has been more active in whipping up this frothing conservatism than the St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov. Last February, he drafted a bill banning “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia to minors,” making it (whatever it is) punishable by a fine of five thousand rubles and up. The bill’s confused language, which blithely conflated gays, pedophiles, and transgendered people into one degenerate bunch, didn’t stop it from passing. The law’s first victim got fined for standing in the street with a billboard that quoted the actress Faina Ranevskaya, who is Russia’s Dorothy Parker: “Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is field hockey or ice dancing.” Soon, a group of nine conservative organizations, with Milonov’s full support, was suing Madonna, who was due to perform in the city, for her gay-friendly stance (the case was eventually dismissed). The legislator had succeeded in making St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital, a lair of reactionary politics.
It was roughly at the same time that a local organization calling itself “Orthodox Cossacks” started harassing the city’s cultural institutions for promoting deviant art. The activists, who possibly exist only online (the official Cossack organization denies any connection), sent a series of e-mails railing against the Hermitage for exhibiting work by the Chapman Brothers. They also criticized the producers of a musical medley show for including two songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and the Museum of Erotica for being a museum of erotica. On Christmas Eve, 2012, St. Petersburg’s Nabokov Museum received a similar e-mail, full of bad spelling and signed by five people calling themselves the “free Cossacks of Saint Petersburg.” The museum made the e-mail available to me. After a respectful introduction addressed to the museum’s director, Tatyana Ponomareva, (“We ask you to consider this letter a request, nay, a plea, to a true Russian woman”), the faux Cossacks get down to business: “We believe that Nabokov’s museum cannot exist in St. Petersburg, and ask you to move it outside city limits…. Our goal is to rid our beloved country from the culture of Satan, depravity, and violence.” The museum, says docent Danila Sergeev, ignored that letter and two equally demented followups. Then, on January 9th, someone tossed a vodka bottle through the rightmost window of the museum’s living room, where objects like Nabokov’s game of Scrabble are on display. Curled inside the bottle was the same “pedophile” message. Four days later, strangers attacked the “Lolita” director, Suslov. None of the cases has been solved. On January 25th, a version of Milonov’s “anti-pedophilia” law sailed through the federal Duma.
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …