11 February 2008

Russians Will Be Russians

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.)


Mike S said...

On the American side, I think that to some extent we have Ohio schoolchildren making lunar new year dragon for the same reason we have them light kwanzaa candles - so we as a culture feel less guilty about our santa clauses and a Christmas tree on the white house lawn and creation-"ism" and pro-life.

In the same way that we place such cultural emphasis on the melting pot, Russia may in fact place cultural emphasis on being part of the "great language/culture/whatever."

In truth, America is probably more tolerant and melting-pot-ey and Russia is probably more uniform and monolithic, but not in as polarized an extent as it may look sometimes.

Also: Pushkin is that good. I'm not kidding. I am totally with every other Russian on this one. I don't like any poetry/verse in English, I don't really care about it in Hebrew, I probably can't appreciate it in French but Pushkin....

Давайте пить и веселиться,
Давайте жизнию играть,
Пусть чернь слепая суетится,
Не нам безумной подражать.
Пусть наша ветреная младость
Потонет в неге и вине,
Пусть изменяющая радость
Нам улыбнется хоть во сне.
Когда же юность легким дымом
Умчит веселья юных дней,
Тогда у старости отымем
Все, что отымется у ней.


Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post. What struck me is that your description of the role of Pushkin in Russia sounds remarkably similar to the role of Jose Marti for Cubans. Marti was a late 19th century Cuban poet/journalist/painter/agitator for liberty from Spain. He died in the manner most likely to deify him possible -- leading a hopeless two-man charge in Cuba's war for independence from Spain. Marti is *the* national Cuban hero. He is equally adopted as "theirs" by the Castro government and the exile community in Miami (my primary source of exposure).

Of course, the parallel isn't perfect. Cuban culture has a sharp split between the exile community and pro-Castro Cubans. In contrast to how you describe how Pushkin rose in Russian culture, I think the split has actually helped elevated Marti - both sides want to claim his legacy as the true freedom fighters.

Anyway, I thought this might provide some interesting food for thought. Best!


Leslie said...

Interesting. I didn't know you were such a Pushkin fan! I have to admit that I still don't exactly get what the fuss is about him, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when reading poetry, you really have to understand every word, which I don't. I read prose in Russian quite well by now, skipping over the words I don't know and figuring them out from context, but tackling a book of poetry with a dictionary in hand still leaves me cold.

As for the poem I recited at the party – Я вас любил:

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

I loved you. In my heart there is an ember
Of love, not wholly faded may it be.
But do not let it hurt you to remember –
I wouldn't have you suffer pain for me!
I loved you in a hopeless, silent fashion,
Wrecked now by shyness, now by jealous fear.
I loved you with such pure and tender passion –
God grant another love you so, my dear!

Ehh. It loses a lot in translation. But I hereby resolve to temporarily lay aside Bulgakov and pick up a book of Pushkin poems to see if I can't справиться с ним. :)

Mike S said...

I don't read as much Pushkin as I should. And gosh, that translation does kind of make me cringe - I really don't think that poetry translation should even try for matching rhymes :).

In any event, I think that for me often the lilt of Pushkin's language is actually a bigger part of the appeal than his specific words or meaning. He just crafts meter and rhyme in such a satisfying way that sometimes it doesn't even matter what he's saying (again, to me).

What булгаков are you reading? Мастер и Маргарита would be my guess :).

Leslie said...

Nope, reading an entire novel in Russian is something I have yet to tackle. ...Wait, that's not true, I just finished Герой нашего времени, but that's a very short novel. Anyway, I'm reading Роковые яйца and then hopefully Собачье сердце. I hear Мастер и Маргарита is really, really difficult in Russian.

Mike S. said...

It's really surreal and has funky continuity issues (oddly enough makes me think of братья стругацкие). I'm not sure if I'm happy to have read it or just, I dunno, accomplished.

For a good first novel to read, maybe check out Адамов's Тайна Двух Океанов. I read it a long time ago, but remember it being lots of fun.

Nana said...

Here's my thoughts:

1. This reminds me of when my sister and I were exchange students in Weimar, Germany, home of Goethe. We took a walking tour of the town and I have to say, there wasn't a damn bench that man sat in that didn't have a plaque on it. We started elaborating on the tour ourselves - "This is the lake Goethe walked across." "This is where Goethe healed the lepers."

Try it yourself sometime - "This is where Pushkin invented Russian." "This is where Pushkin raised Lazarus from the dead."

2. If you think Russians are ethnocentric, you should teach Koreans.

Nana said...

Justin and I nominate a new word for this phenomenon: Pushkin got Goethe'd. (Now I want to see the Teen Girl Squad death animation for GOETHE'D!!!! Perhaps you sell your soul to Mephistopheles, and then you get squished by a copy of Faust?)

Although I guess it would be fair to say that Goethe got Pushkin'd. Or that, from a Korean perspective, both of them got King Sejonged.

Leslie said...

Thanks, I will check that out, if our abysmal local bookstore carries it (khudozhestvennaya literatura doesn't seem to be their thing). I feel like it's been recommended to me before, but possibly by you.

I've actually read M&M in English, so the surrealism probably wouldn't be the major problem. Funny that you feel that way about it... it seems to be a very fashionable favorite book among Russians of our generation. There was an allegedly-good TV miniseries of it done a couple of years ago (with Bezrukov, if you know who he is, as Jesus) that I've been meaning to watch.

Leslie said...


GOETHE'D!! I love it. (Sorry, Koreans, KING SEJONGED!! doesn't have quite the same ring to it.) Randomly, there was a scene from Faust performed at that otherwise Pushkin-dedicated evening, but no one got squished by a book.

Also, your new puppy is so cute!! That's really great of you guys to do that, and it made me want to go out and adopt a Russian puppy, even though I know that's a terrible idea. Even as I type this, I am thinking, "Maybe it's not /such/ a terrible idea..." It takes a lot of shots and stuff to get a dog back to the States, though.