Magazine article Foreign Policy

How Gogol and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky Explains the Post-Soviet World

Magazine article Foreign Policy

How Gogol and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky Explains the Post-Soviet World

Article excerpt

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Twenty years ago 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the SOVIET UNION, uneven shards from a broken monolith one story turned into 15. Most soviet watchers to keep up haven been struggling ever since. How to tell these multiple stories?

In retrospect, it is evident that Western commentators failed to predict or explain what has happened to these countries: their lurches from one crisis to another, weird hybrid political systems, unstable stability.

Commentators have long tried to project models from the rest of the world ("transition to a market economy," "evolution of a party system") onto countries that have very different histories and cultural assumptions from the West and often from each other. I have read about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's "ethnocentric patriotism," his "delegative democracy trap," and his building of a "neo-patrimonial state"--all very intelligent stuff. What I take away from such jargon is a nicely constructed model or two (for both Putin and the political scientists), but not the insights I seek into a living society.

So here is a not entirely frivolous suggestion: How about skipping the political science textbooks when it comes to trying to understand the former Soviet Union and instead opening up the pages of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky?

This is not just a thought experiment; the works these authors wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries turn out to be surprisingly applicable to today's politics in a broad swath of the former Soviet space, whether it's the unexpected fragility of Putin's authoritarian rule in Russia or the perpetually failed efforts to modernize next-door Ukraine. There's a reason: Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship, the aridity of public service, and the educated classes' hunger for intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural commentators they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament readers found themselves in--and still do.

In her surprising 2010 bestseller, The Possessed, Elif Batuman makes the case for why Russian literature can be a guide to most of life's questions, big and small. "Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky," she writes, recalling some of the Russian canon's most famous characters, "at every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with Russian."

My idea here is a little more modest: a brief sketch of how three great works of Russian literature can be mapped onto the stories of the three post-Soviet countries in which Western commentators take the keenest interest: Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. These classics, each more than a century old, provide both the specific detail and the grand panorama that are lacking in a shelf full of overmodeled political analysis.

Russia as Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector

A great burden of Russia is that it has never rid itself of the habit of feudalism, of personalized power. Up until the late 19th century, enslaved serfs constituted a majority of the Russian population. Nor were the landowners who ruled the serfs independent--they served the state and owned property at the mercy of the tsar. The Soviet system reconstituted that hierarchy, this time with centralized ownership of property and the monopoly of the Communist Party. In recent years, Putin has repackaged it yet again for the post-Soviet era, imposing a so-called "power vertical" even while allowing his citizens a much greater degree of private space. …

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