Brian James Baer is a professor of Russian and Translation Studies at Kent State University, and the editor of the Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Russian. He joins Signature to discuss the relevance of Russian literature today, and its long history alongside American literature.
It may seem shocking to say, but Russia and the U.S., which have defined themselves against each other for centuries now, have many things in common.
First, both cultures perceived themselves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as “young” vis-à-vis the great European cultures of France, Italy, and England. Russia, of course, had been a nation for much longer than the U.S., but its abrupt turn to the West under Peter the Great in the late seventeenth century made Russian writers feel they had to “catch up.”
This need to catch up was reflected in the literature of both countries, haunted by the specter of imitation and belatedness—compare, for example, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivner” with Gogol’s absurdly tragic copy clerk in “The Overcoat.” At the same time, that belatedness authorized—or compelled—American and Russian writers to play with the established literary genres of Western Europe, adapting them to their own needs and aspirations. They produced novels like Melville’s Moby Dick and Tolstoy’s War and Peace—described by Henry James as a “baggy monster”—that took the novel genre to its limit.
Second, both the U.S., as a nation of immigrants, and Russia, as a multi-ethnic empire since the reign of Ivan IV, had to fashion a national identity that was not based on a single ethnicity. And so, the two great superpowers facing off in the Cold War—the Soviets and the Americans—represented supra-ethnic configurations that challenged the Romantic conceptualization of the nation as the product of one language-one people-one territory.
And third, Russia and the U.S. shared an imaginative geography, vast tracts of land—the Great Plains in the U.S. and the Siberian steppe in Russia—that would become sites of endless possibility for self-fashioning and re-making, for criminality and redemption. This amalgam of historical and geographical circumstances fostered feelings of both inferiority and superiority that are continually being worked through in the literature of these two countries—albeit often in very different ways.
Because Russia has been for so long our “defining other,” Americans today may find it difficult to discern those deep commonalities. Many Americans may be unaware that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” to our currency in the 1950s in order to define the U.S. against a godless Russia. And so, when the Soviet Union collapsed and many U.S. politicians declared victory in the war of ideologies—which for conservative economist Francis Fukayama represented nothing less than “the end of history,”—we missed an opportunity to see how American society and culture were shaped by our adversary, or by the image we created of our adversary, and how the fall of communism might be as disorienting for us as it was for the peoples of Eastern Europe.
Our particular historical moment, therefore, makes it especially relevant for us to read Russian literature—to return not only to the classic novels of the nineteenth century written during a period of rapid social and economic change not unlike today’s in terms of its scope and speed, but also to discover contemporary Russian literature, which is characterized by a striking vitality and a diversity of theme and voice.
An especially good place to get acquainted with current Russian literature is the short story, which provides a very focused point of entry into the complexity of post-Soviet Russian society and its fertile literary imagination. The mischievous conceptual conceits of Vladimir Sorokin, the comic pathos of Liudmila Ulitskaya, and the metaphysical grotesquerie of Liudmila Petrushevskaya represent perspectives that are at once uniquely Russian and universal, addressing as they do not only Russia’s political and literary past but the contemporary realities of globalization and neoliberal capitalism, which have produced new forms of authoritarianism and subjectivity that affect us all. For all these reasons, I would say: Russian literature now more than ever!