THE REAL RUSSIA: HOW PAST FICTION CRACKS OPEN THE WINDOW TO TODAY’S RUSSIA

A disturbing, yet hardly surprising blanket of fear is hovering over Sochi, Russia as the 2014 winter Olympics draw near. There have already been deadly terrorist actions because of the proximity to the turbulent North Caucasus, and Russian officials have made no secret of the fact that they won’t tolerate the homosexual population. Even stray dogs are targets, killed for being in the area, for being unattractive, for not fitting into the “perfect” image Russian president Vladimir Putin hopes to reveal.

The real Russia. What does it look like and who are its people? In the coming weeks, we will be able to see this country through the media’s lens, opaque thanks to prolific censorship and to the culling of undesirables not in keeping with Putin’s falsified vision. A February 6 article by Reporters without Borders in Reuters found that a Norwegian television crew has been detained six times in three days, Czech reporters have experienced a similar ordeal, other journalists have been banned from entering the country, and there is constant surveillance of emails and phone calls. Homosexual propaganda has been criminalized, and Russian national television stations are mostly controlled by authorities. Most alarming is the fact that since 2,000, at least 30 journalists have been murdered.

It would seem, therefore, difficult, if not impossible, to discover Russia as it is and not what the government wants us to see. But there is a way, which I found when researching my novels which take place in Imperial Russia. Fiction. By definition, fiction is a lie, a fabrication with authors using words to create a false reality. If we look at Russia through the eyes of some of its most influential writers, however, we see that their stories are highly autobiographic, their characters shaped by the political times, their voices thinly disguised veils of the authors themselves. And even though these authors wrote during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their insight cracks open the window to ordinary Russia today, which much to Putin’s understandable dismay, has not changed when it comes to the people, their hopes, dreams and disappointments.

Because of vital works from Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, we have an inner knowledge of the people, the land and the culture which is far more authentic and valuable than any history textbook. In Russian literature, authors peel back the layers of an otherwise secretive world and, as Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay—The Decay of Lying—“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Alexander Pushkin, an author during the Romatic Era, 1820’s Russia, is considered by many to be the country’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Eugene Onegin, his most famous work, was written in verse and started the tradition of great Russian novels. The narrator, Eugene Onegin, is a poorly fictionalized version of Pushkin himself—educated, well-travelled, and a victim of social convention.

Most notable is the duel within the novel, with a woman’s love at stake. Though duels were forbidden in the Russian empire, Pushkin fought in twenty-nine, including the final one that led to his death. He died after fighting a man who was attempting to seduce his wife, a tragic example of life imitating art.

“It’s a lucky man, a very lucky man who is committed to what he believes, who has stifled intellectual detachment and can relax in the luxury of his emotions—like a tipsy traveller resting for the night at wayside inn.”—Eugene Onegin 

In 1880, a statue of Pushkin was unveiled in Moscow, and fellow writer Ivan Turgenev said that this statue “would announce to future generations our right to call ourselves a great nation, because this nation has given birth to such a man.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karennina has had such a powerful impact on me, I decided to make it my protagonist’s favorite novel in Rachel’s Secret. The idea that a woman should be with the man she loves, even if this means defying social convention, is as appealing today as it was when it was published in the 1870’s. The first sentence is among the most memorable of all works of fiction:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna is a hero, an early feminist, and a tragic character who crawls under your skin and stays there. The fact that she’s willing to leave her son behind to be with her lover, speaks to her unhappy marriage and her all-consuming passionate love for Count Vronsky. Like Eugene Onegin, Anna Karennina’s themes reflect the historical context: the election of an elected local government, the abolishment of serfs, the development of railroads and industry, and the emergence of women as people in their own right, not merely as appendages to men.

Anna’s rebellious nature, her independent streak, her willingness to defy social convention, mirror women of the time, looking for meaning, a purpose. Freedom. In the end, Anna sees suicide as the only way to obtain true liberty. A popular theme of the day, also seen in Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, this leitmotif demonstrates the political ideology of suicide as a means to absolute independence in Russia.

Leo Tolstoy, best known for the epic War and Peace, published in 1873, is one of Russia’s best known writers, yet as Anthony Briggs, Professor Emeritus, University of Birmingham explains in his introduction to The Cossacks & Other Early Stories, explains, Tolstoy is “still incompletely understood.”

Briggs describes Tolstoy as a man with a “hostile and aggressive personality…When the novelist Ivan Turgenev called him a ‘troglodyte’ in 1855 he used the term at first in a spirit of light humour, only to discover that it was taxonomically exact…In his day-to-day dealings Leo Tolstoy had the manners of a cave-man.”

Still, his experiences and personality are what made his work so accurately depict Russian people and their circumstances. His time as a combatant in the Crimean War, for example, helped him write passages in War & Peace. “When, in the novel,” writes Briggs, “Anatole Kuragin’s leg is amputated in the field hospital, and he sees it tossed across the tent, still encased in its boot, this is based on a recollection of events at Sevastopol.”

In his old age, Tolstoy “became obsessed with a search for religious truth and moral purity, setting unattainable goals of righteousness for himself and the rest of us.” He wrote about nonviolent resistance, words that inspired pacifist protestors like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. This softness is contrary to his “troglodyte” image, a paradox that makes him one of the most fascinating and most influential authors in history.

Anton Chekhov, the second most-staged playwright in the English-speaking world, after Shakespeare, was also a prolific and innovative short story writer. Born in 1860, he was influenced greatly by Russia’s conversion from an agrarian to an urban society. But what sets Chekhov apart from Tolstoy and Pushkin, is his diverse cast of characters. In his introduction to Anton Chekhov Selected Stories, George Pahomov writes that his “fiction captured the burgeoning Russian democracy, from bishops and doctors to shopkeepers, cabbies and criminals. No other Russian writer has such scope and breadth of characters, situations and locales. In Chekhov’s democratic worldview, no one was excluded.”

One of the biggest influences on Chekhov’s work was his medical training and his experiences as a doctor. This medical-literary combination was quite common in Russia, with Mikhail Bulgakov (A Country Doctor’s Notebook) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Cancer Ward) following the same path. Because of his scientific mind, Chekhov wrote with a need to rationalise people’s actions and events, with a clinical attitude. His early characters are quantifiable, as easy to predict as the symptoms of flu.

In “The Confession,” for instance, the narrator is a cab driver who gets a promotion. But neither his family nor his friends can accept the increase in his salary as real. Instead, they believe he has stolen money. In the end, perception overcomes reality and he is arrested.

“My dear ladies and gentlemen, I got caught; or, to state it more fully: yesterday I was respected and honored on all sides; today I am a scoundrel and a thief…”

As readers, we cannot see ourselves in this unfortunate character who “is not his own master and cannot change himself.” Over time, however, he does move away from this archetype to those who evoke more sympathy through hopelessness.

“Like the Russian Orthodox funeral service, the panikhida,” Pahomov writes, “which at the nadir of grieving and lamentation introduces a motif of hope and redemption, softly progressing from minor to a subtle major, Chekhov whispers of freedom, human potential and dignity…Though freedom, human communion, conscience and love are rare in Chekhov’s world, he implicitly accentuates their value by showing their scarcity.”

This is the core of Chekhov’s work, his ability to portray simple, ordinary people trapped in the stark reality of Russia at the time.

“I was oppressed with a sense of vague discontent and dissatisfaction with my own life, which was passing so quickly and uninterestingly, and I kept thinking it would be a good thing if I could tear my heart out of my chest, that heart which has grown so weary of life.” 

Chekhov’s writing is also distinguished by his ability to see women as equal to men, quite unusual in a country where women had to get a man’s permission to travel out of their city, where women had to venture out of Russia to go to university, where they were considered inferior to men. Says Pahomov, “Chekhov’s deep understanding of the unequal treatment of women and his awareness that such repression deprives society as a source of energy, creativity and well-being are part of what mark him as a modernist.”

I discovered Maxim Gorky while doing research for the third book in The Rachel Trilogy, Rachel’s Hope. I devoured his autobiography, My Childhood, in which he painted an abysmal yet unforgettable portrait of nineteenth century Russia. Born to poor parents in 1868, Gorky lost his father as a child and grew up with a tyrannical grandfather who beat him daily and was continually on the edge of bankruptcy. When Gorky’s mother died, his grandfather turned him out even though he was still a boy. In his introduction to My Childhood, Ronald Wilkes explains that “The young, impressionable Gorky was initiated into this world of cruelty, greed and bestiality at the tender age of five. He could not understand why people behaved like animals, and he tells us in Childhood that this hard life implanted in him a lasting pre-occupation with the sufferings and misfortunes of others.”

“Grandfather flogged me until I was unconscious and for several days I was very ill. I lay in a wide, stuffy bed, face downwards, in a little room with one window. In one corner, in front of a case crammed full of icons, burnt an everlasting lamp.”

Gorky’s unimaginable life gave him an insight to the poor and downtrodden that underlies his work. His characters represented authentic Russians and Gorky’s attention to detail made them and their surroundings leap from the pages of his books. Reading Gorky is understanding what it means to be an ordinary Russian:

“Long afterwards I understood that to Russians, through the poverty and squalor of their lives, suffering comes as a diversion, is turned into a game and they play at it like children and rarely feel ashamed of their misfortune. In the monotony of everyday existence grief comes as a holiday, and a fire is an entertainment. A scratch embellishes an empty face.” 

It is no wonder, then, that Gorky became a leading figure in the Socialist movement. His 1906 novel, The Mother, reflects the development of a political consciousness in Russia, with an heroic revolutionary, Pavel Vlasov. This character’s dedication to the cause, to freedom and better working conditions, helped me shape my own protagonist, Sergei, in Rachel’s Hope. In fact, Sergei works alongside Gorky, learns from him, and becomes devoted to socialism. Though my Sergei is fictional, there is no doubt Gorky influenced many real-life Russians, with his work and his actions, especially during the Moscow insurrection of 1905.

In The Mother, Pavel Vlasov goes to prison for circulating pamphlets calling on workers to unite and protest against the government. This is another example of life imitating art, with thousands of political exiles, including Gorky, imprisoned and exiled for daring to speak their minds or for owning banned literature.

“This novel,” writes Wilkes, “which became a best-seller, was really the first comprehensive portrait of the Russian socialist movement.”

It’s impossible to deny the relevance of Gorky’s The Mother today, where censorship in Russia still abounds, where the feminist punk rock group, Pussy Riot, was arrested for performing at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, members were sentenced to two years in prison. Looking at the intolerance of the Russian government towards the homosexual population and their attempts to deny freedom of the press during the Sochi Olympics, it doesn’t look like officials have altered or modernized their attitudes since 1906.

Thankfully, we can be assured of a fairly accurate reflection of Russia through its authors, many of whom were imprisoned and exiled for writing about the real Russia. Pushkin was exiled to Bessarabia and Gorky was imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress in 1905, but this did not stop either from writing what they believed, without diluting words with official propaganda, without sacrificing the quality and authenticity of their work. From these and other writers, therefore, we can peer into the core of this mysterious country, and see how very little has changed in the real Russia.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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