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Russian Fantasy and Its Real History

August 21, 2011

Needing distraction from Peter the Great’s Great Northern War against the Sweden of Charles 12 – I’m engrossed in Robert K Massie’s 1980 biography of the Tsar – I pick up Gogol’s Collected Tales in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Stories like The Nose, The Portrait and The Overcoat all tell of surreal and grotesque developments – someone becomes a nose, a person steps out of a painting and so on. Gogol lived 1809 to 1852 but his stories seem to point to Kafka, or to the magical realism of South American fiction.

But I am also re-reading Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen (2004) or at least picking my way through it. So I have this heretical thought: what actually happened in Russia with the Bolshevik freak show that commenced in 1917 leaves all this fantasy stuff behind. The grotesque and surreal was actually everyday life. Like Solzhenitsyn’s observation that if Chekov’s characters had been told about the tortures that would shortly become life for millions of Russians they would have walked off-stage and committed suicide.

Nothing in Gogol is remotely as creepy as Lenin declaring that the whole class of rich peasants would have state power directed against them, or Trotsky and Zinoviev and other cafe windbags taking the reins of power, or a cut-throat like Stalin deciding that all potential – note that “potential” – enemies must be executed.

In fact confine yourself to the history of the security agencies alone – the Cheka, the NKVD, the OGUPA – as Rayfield does, and the story is best told as a national nightmare. Total fantasy. The surreal and grotesque. Nothing in their history prepared Russians for what was to sweep over them. Gogol’s polite little stories are ridiculously tame compared to 1917 and Russia’s actual history thereafter.

Strangely one work of fiction did prophesy: Dostoevsky’s Demons or The Possessed (1871-2) a story of a revolutionary cell and the warped, power-mad characters it attracts. These were precisely the types who would invent Bolshevism and flourish under it. The people who Dostoevsky imagined terrorizing a little community and committing a single murder became rulers of the whole country and set about murdering millions.

  1. August 21, 2011 7:05 pm

    I love the Russian stuff, more please, sir.

  2. nick permalink
    August 21, 2011 8:03 pm

    hello Mr Carr

    Do you ever despair being confined to reading these works in translated form? (sorry to bring your spirits down) I am currently a student (of international relations) and wish to learn a 2nd language, of course everyone tells me to study an Asian language (Hindi, mandarin, Japanese etc) and they are right when it comes to career prospects and getting ready for the 21st century. Yet I am tempted to study a European language, Russian or French etc out of love for the culture and the literature itself; I can only think Camus or Dostoevsky would be better in the original language. What are your thoughts on such matters?


    • Bob Carr permalink
      August 21, 2011 10:08 pm

      All correct but the difficulty of learning a language late in life is formidable. If I were you I would take it up now and French would be easier. Wow! Flaubert, Balzac and Proust in the original.

    • Charles permalink
      August 22, 2011 12:57 pm

      Nick, I’ve had a lot to do with languages and language learning. Czech is my other muttersprache(mother tongue), four years of French at high school(a lot of which is still in my head), a year of university German and three years of university Japanese which I began from point zero in my mid 20’s in the 70’s. I love languages; they’re about the only thing I don’t really have to work at. Forget what everyone is telling you about learning an Asian language with a view to career prospects. GO WITH THE HEART and LOVE of the culture!!! So, if it’s French, fine. Still a lot of hard work I can tell you. If it’s Russian as well, that’s fine too. If you can manage both at the same time, all the better, though you’d be flat out EVERY DAY. Love is the key and will get you through. All those years ago I happened to have a love of Japan, its language, history, culture, and music especially, and still do(thanks largely to the tv series, Victory at Sea). As Bob Says, the sooner the better, the younger the noggin the better.

      And, if it’s not a part of your current course, do at least first year economics, even if you’ve got to hold your nose. Integral to understanding international relations, and so much of history as well. And if you can afford a few hundred bucks, sign up to don’t represent them and am not a paid up member) read by presidents. It’s a treasure trove for anyone studying or interested in international relations.

      Woops, as prolix as ever!

  3. John Curtain permalink
    August 26, 2011 6:04 pm

    There was an excellent mini series from the 1980s based on Massies biography of Peter The Great . It’s possible to get it on DVD through Amazon UK . As well as writing some excellent historical works ( Nicholas And Alexandra , Dreadnought and Castles Of Steel ) he also wrote “Journey ” a very moving account of bring up his heamophliac son , His son , by the way is a candidate for the US senate ………

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