May 16, 2022

Don’t cry for me, Dostoevsky

In early March, the University of Milan-Bicocca responded to the Russian war versus Ukraine by cancelling a workshop on Dostoevsky. This peculiar stand versus Russian imperialism provoked a heated discussion amongst academics and intellectuals. The workshop was taught by the writer Paolo Nori, who immediately became popular. For a couple of days, the Italian intelligentsia dealt with the ditching of the seminar as an occasion of utmost significance– eclipsing even the real war in Ukraine.

Those demanding the immediate reinstatement of the workshop had actually obviously forgotten their literary idols observation that the happiness of the entire world is unworthy the tear of a kid. For everybody, Dostoevsky was quickly rehabilitated and the clumsy censors put to pity.

As pointless as the academic brouhaha may appear, it does raise a crucial question: what ought we to do now with Russian culture?

Lets not forget that this great Russian writer was a rabid anti-Semite and a hater of Poles. Rather of pitching orientalizing fairy tales about the Russian spirit, lets watch the evening news, where the actual Russian spirit is making itself manifest on the world stage.

Considering that the late 1920s, the fetishism of Russian literature has been an important aspect of the Stalinist cultural model. The great Soviet satirists Ilya Ilf and Evgeniy Petrov ridiculed this leap backward under the pen name F. Tolstoevsky. In Putins Russia, Tolstoevsky appears to have been reanimated.

Vladimir Putin and the majority of the Russian population supporting his war in Ukraine seem to have passed a point of no return. The cult of heroism in World War Two has changed the truth of a pan-Soviet triumph borne of universal sacrifice with a triumph march of exclusively Russian toy soldiers. Images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoke numerous associations, but one above all: Wehrmacht columns marching through messed up Ukrainian villages in June 1941.

Today the exteriors of structures in lots of Russian cities bear massive banners with the letter Z, the marking on the tanks and military vehicles moving towards Kyiv. Whether or not the kids lining up to form the letter Z in the backyard of their orphanage mature to regret the function they played in Putins war, the conversations of collective regret so common in the wake of the Second World War appear all however inevitable in Russias future.

Obviously, the sole function of this pantheon is to demonstrate and strengthen the achievement of the Russian state. Paradoxically, the citizens of this Putinist Mount Olympus primarily spent their lives locked in a mortal struggle with that very state in its various manifestations. But thats neither here nor there.

The Moloch of Russian civilization feasts on whatever in its course. Stripped of any innovative significance, the art of Kazimir Malevich and other avant-gardists makes the ideal backdrop for the Sochi Winter Olympics– or as design for the lounge at Moscows Sheremetyevo Airport. Dmitry Shostakovichs Leningrad Symphony, premiered in the city during the siege in 1942, accompanies the event of Russian victory versus Georgia on the main square of the Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, a stones toss from a prisoner of war camp. Performed by Valery Gergiev, the efficiency proved such a propaganda success that the repetition was played in the middle of the ruins of Palmyra, Syria, in 2016.

One great day, when Putin leaves Moscow for The Hague, Russians will face the biblical task of separating their cultural sheep from the goats. One hopes theyll have the wherewithal to restore their fictional civilization to its proper status as nationwide culture, warts and all. This will be a brand-new experience. Theyve never ever truly looked at their classics from a postcolonial viewpoint, or had an ear for the imperialist undertones of their fantastic novels and poems.

The Russian regimes distortion and abuse of the countrys cultural heritage is barely distinct. The book consists of excerpts from Goethe, Schiller and other terrific German authors. With a few simple adjustments, the Nazis turned national classics into weapons of war.

Like normal Germans under the Nazi program, Russians have been stupefied by propaganda and tempted by the siren tune of militaristic nationalism. They have no idea– and do not actually wish to know– what is occurring in Ukraine or the rest of the world. For that matter, Russians arent especially thinking about what is happening in Russia. The minority of the population that bravely opposed the invasion, despite the long shots of changing the political balance, have dealt with severe repression. The cult of heroism in World War Two has actually changed the truth of a pan-Soviet success borne of universal sacrifice with a victory march of solely Russian toy soldiers. Since 9 May 2015, the seventieth anniversary of Victory Day, vehicle sticker labels checking out, We can do it once again! have actually become a typical sight, more typically than not on the German brand names so popular with Russian motorists.

The intrusion of Ukraine has certainly provided Russia the opportunity to repeat World War Two. However in the current model, theyre combating on the incorrect side. Images of the Russian intrusion of Ukraine provoke numerous associations, however one above all: Wehrmacht columns marching through destroyed Ukrainian towns in June 1941.

In this Russian pantheon, Vladimir Nabokov is a close neighbour of Aleksey Tolstoy, a gifted author nicknamed the Comrade Count who became the literary servant of Stalin. Osip Mandelshtam, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century murdered in the Gulag, fraternizes with Sergey Mikhalkov, a crafty versifier who composed the lyrics of the Soviet anthem for Stalin and then modified them for Putin. This surreal literary dream team isnt cast in terms of culture but Russian civilization, a concept validated by Spengler, Toynbee and other dusty western theoreticians.

Vladimir Putin and the majority of the Russian population supporting his war in Ukraine seem to have passed a point of no return. The accountability of the Russian people provokes lots of questions.

The acme of this historic relativism is Moscow city councils decision to erect a monument to Andrei Sakharov, the fearless Soviet dissident, twelve days prior to the start of the invasion of Ukraine– and fifty-eight days after the banning of Memorial, the company established by Sakharov to research study and document the history of Soviet repressions. Sakharov will now find himself in the company of other Russian heroes such as Mikhail Kalashnikov, whose common machine weapon has been the source of so much human anguish.

Osip Mandelshtam, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century murdered in the Gulag, fraternizes with Sergey Mikhalkov, a crafty versifier who composed the lyrics of the Soviet anthem for Stalin and then amended them for Putin. Instead of pitching orientalizing fairy tales about the Russian spirit, lets enjoy the night news, where the real Russian spirit is making itself manifest on the world stage.

Reading room at the Russian State Library in Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back to Dostoevsky. We can not blame the fantastic author for the attack on Ukraine. We can point the finger at Putins ideologues, whose exploitation of Russian culture is at the heart of the present troubles. The Wests blindness to this exploitation likewise bears examination.