You're probably here because you were hoping for a new post. Well, be careful what you wish for! Don't worry, though, I'll be back to the usual picture-laden goodness soon.
I started thinking about collective memory and cultural consciousness when Amara and I went to the Museum of the Blockade in Petersburg and got into a discussion of whether Russia's lingering obsession with World War II is unhealthy. The topic came to mind again this weekend when I attended the annual celebration of the Taganrog Pushkin Society. I was invited to recite a Pushkin poem in English. If you're unfamiliar with Pushkin, don't feel bad; there's a reason. In Russian, Pushkin's poetry may be truly great, but like most poetry, it loses a lot in translation.
So to review, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin is a poet from the early 19th century, a genius credited with being the first to use ordinary vernacular Russian to write great literature; a dissident and friend of the Decembrists who was exiled two or three times for his anti-tsarist writings and remarks; a true romantic, constantly bankrupt, in love, and getting huffy over questions of honor; and a dashingly tragic figure, having died young in a mysterious duel that's widely perceived to have been orchestrated by the authorities. To top it all off, he had great sideburns.
In a roundabout way, Pushkin got me thinking about cultural consciousness, a term I sort of made up and that I'm using to mean a person's conceptualization of what the culture they "belong to" or identify with actually is,, or is made up of. For me, that culture is primarily "American;" in certain instances, I may also be conscious of (and fashion myself to be a member of), say, Midwestern, semi-rural, and Ivy League subcultures. For you, my American reader (although I recognize I've got some non-American readers – hi, Celine!), it's probably American and some other things along racial/ethnic/gender/political/geographic lines. American society is delightfully fragmented like that.
Russian society, I'm becoming increasingly aware, is not. Although I might be making a risky generalization by saying this, the emphasis is placed to a much greater extent, both officially and popularly, on a homogeneous "Russianness," which is in turn much better-defined than our "Americanness."
Communist ideology clearly has a good deal to do with this, but I think the general idea of the Russian state as an entity of fundamentally ethnic origin plays a role, too. But that's interesting, because Russians certainly talk a good game about being a multi-ethnic country. I know this because they like to compare Russia and the U.S. as the two great melting pots, and it is true that Russia, as a state born out of an empire, is multi-ethnic. But there's no real public dialogue about that – nothing comparable to the ubiquitous multi-culturalism of the U.S. that has white Germanic schoolchildren in Ohio making paper dragon masks for Lunar New Year. The history and cultural memory all seems to be fairly monolithic, with its roots firmly in the Russians and their language. That comes back in part to history – Russia is actually a state born out of an empire born out of an ethnic group – and in part to Communist ideology, because after a brief multiethnic lovefest in the '20's and early '30's, Stalin decided that Russification was the safer route. Either way, it creates an interesting creature: a country that clearly claims its multiethnicity (in vogue nowadays; historically, the theory of communism as an ideology transcending national boundaries was probably a major motivator) while simultaneously claiming its Slavic past as its one true heritage.
This push for a defined Russian heritage has led, among many other things, to a sort of deification of the main figures associated with that heritage. Combine Pushkin's use of Russian at a time when many in Russian society were speaking French, his popular appeal as a writer whose poetry is both good and accessible, and the characteristics that made him a great figure for the Soviets to claim as a legitimizing predecessor to their cause – anti-tsarist, repressed by the regime – and you get a perfect Russian hero, who has been packaged and sold as such by the educational establishment for at least the last eighty years or so.
Because of that, the love and reverence for him even today is absolutely incredible, and of a magnitude totally foreign to English speakers. Our reverence for Shakespeare? Not. Even. Close. I was at least peripherally aware of that, but it was really interesting to go to this Pushkin celebration and see all the various ways he was invoked. One woman gave a tirade about the decline of culture in which she castigated a popular cultural TV show for not including enough Pushkin. She blamed the authorities' tight controls on the media for that; her implication was clearly that by rights, Pushkin ought to be included in every cultural program. She finished by thanking Pushkin for "gifting us with our velikii moguchii russki yazyk," (a common collocation that translates as great, powerful Russian language). The idea of a national literature being needed to legitimize a language is familiar to me – the Estonian language, for example, came to be seen as more than a "peasant dialect" only when people began writing literature in it – but the idea that Pushkin "gifted us" with Russian (and the assumption that follows from that, that there was no Russian literary tradition before him) strikes me as absurd.
A man then got up and said, "It's all very well that we remember all his love poems, but let's not forget that he was also a dissident. And if he were around today, the powers [i.e. the government] would not be pushing us around the way it is!" He then read a poem written in honor of the dedication of some Pushkin monument or other to prove his point. I was thrilled, as I always am, to hear real Russians – supposed by the Western media to be politically comatose – complaining about politics, but still, the idea that Pushkin himself would single-handedly change the political situation in Russia today seems even odder than the language claim. I feel that these kinds of assertions must have some kind of value outside their absolute truth value, but I can't really articulate what it is.
Also interestingly, the mysterious figure who lured Pushkin into his fatal duel by sending him an anonymous note labeling him a cuckold was overtly cast as an eternal, evil archetype – not a person per se, but a constantly-threatening force for destruction that represents the fundamental opposition between civilization and culture. (I didn't know they were fundamentally opposed...) But also as a person, and the embodiment of the Romantic hero: on a hunting expedition, he allegedly shot down every pigeon in a flock. I admit, there might have been some sort of language barrier there, because that part doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
Anyway, the only real point of this essay is that Russians' concept of their cultural heritage, their interaction with it and the role it plays in their lives are totally different from Americans'. I feel like I've only scratched the surface – for example, the way this shapes language policy/teaching/self-policing is another big can of worms - but this is already really long. So I guess I'll just let it peter out by saying that I was pretty surprised to find that after all my time here, there are still parts of Russian culture that really baffle me. It certainly made for a fun evening, though! (Although to be honest, that was helped by the fact that they put way too much rum in the flaming punch.)