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#33 - JRL 2009-112 - JRL Home
Date: Sun, 14 Jun 2009
From: Sergei Roy <sergeiroy@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Robert Bowie in JRL 103 #37

On a Comical Study in Russian Humorlessness
By Sergei Roy

The other day, as I was looking through Johnson’s Russia List, I hit on a lengthy text on the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol; correction: purportedly on Gogol. Frankly, I was a bit surprised to see a Gogol scholar wandering so far from the customary haunts of the gogolevedy “Gogol scholars,” serious folks writing papers for dead serious academic publications and, if they are lucky, introductions to Gogol’s continually republished works. A whole library of books, monographs, papers, articles, dissertations, essays, and what have you has been written about Gogol during his life and especially since his death, and if anyone found something new to say about that genius of Russian letters, he would most certainly be likely to announce it first to his academia colleagues, not to the general public on a site mostly devoted to Russian politics and business.

But the very first sentence of that text lifted the mystery. Here it is: “What better proof is there than the life of Nikolai Gogol of the age-old Russian bias against laughter, especially against the laughter that criticizes, satires, or (horror of horrors) gets ironic?” The Russians’ bias against laughter? Against satire and (horror of horrors) irony? Russians a humorless nation?! What sort of ludicrous drivel is this?

I took another look at the byline, and was immediately enlightened. Robert Bowie, of russianmindsetsconsultancies.com . Aha, THAT Bowie. The “consultant” who once advised President Obama, on JRL, “if the first meeting is with Medvedev, he (coached by his advisors on the "American smile") will probably walk into the room beaming broadly. Then we'll have a nice contrast and an immediate American psychological trump: in the face of an unsmiling Bama, Dima will end up looking (to his fellow countrymen) ludicrous, demeaned.”

My response, also on JRL, to this truly ludicrous fantasy was this: “If the American president really wants to improve U.S.­Russia relations, why should he want ‘Dima’ ­ that’s President Medvedev of Russia, I assume ­ to ‘end up looking ludicrous, demeaned’? What would a ‘ludicrous, demeaned’ Medvedev be expected to do next, genuflect? Go away in a huff? Or ignore the inane facial tricks and proceed with negotiations critical to the state of the world?”

In his skit, Mr. Bowie came up with a few similar gems of his consultancy wisdom for Obama, some of which I ridiculed on JRL in “Washington Post Editorial and ‘Cross-cultural Intermediation’” (it can still be read at www.guardian-psj.ru under Editor’s Column). As with every charlatan, Bowie’s “consultancy” is clearly based on the principle that “un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire.” One would certainly like to think that Mr. Obama is not that kind of “un plus sot.” The Obama­Medvedev meeting is scheduled to take place quite soon; then we will know.

Bowie’s latest text on JRL is apparently intended to further “demean” Russians by picturing them as a race devoid of an essential human characteristic, a sense of humor, and Gogol is here a mere peg to hang Bowie’s Russophobic fancies on.

In war, Cold War included, an important task of propaganda warfare is dehumanizing your enemy, portraying him as animal or subhuman, vermin that can and should be obliterated without a single ethical twinge. It took this kind of moral stance for America’s settlers to decimate native Indians, to keep Negroes (the Afro-Americans of today) in slavery and later segregated, still later to A-bomb out of existence the innocent civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to use Agent Orange on the Vietnamese, and, more recently, to use depleted uranium on Iraqis and Serbians, to name just a few of their exploits.

Bowie’s exercise in dehumanization fits quite snugly in this context. What sort of human or, horror of horrors, humane attitude can there be towards a people whose last flicker of humor came around the middle of the 19th century, and who have since become humorless subhumans, or so Bowie would have us believe.

For him, laughter is “what Russia once had and what it has long since lost.” It’s a theme that he carps on ad nauseam, talking of “the Russian imperative not to laugh,” of mocking laughter being “scary” for Russians because it “undermines the (always shaky) political and cultural system,” etc. etc. This shaky system called Russia has managed to survive for more than a thousand years, but what of that! It can be brought down by a snicker any time soon, according to Bowie.

The only man to have retained a sense of humor in Russia appears to have been Stalin (“Stalin had a wonderful sense of humor”), but he can be safely discounted as he was not a Russian at all, but a Georgian name of Dzhugashvili. Bowie forgets to mention this fact, and the couple of examples of Stalin’s “humorous behavior” that he cites look to me like instances of vengeful malignity rather than humor: a good illustration of Bowie’s own comical conception of what humor is.

Anyway, we are told in so many words that only Stalin-like dictators are allowed the luxury of vicious laughter in this country, while Russians as a nation are a bunch of humorless, cowardly slaves, as in this quote: “ ‘Give us anything,’ say the Russian people. ‘Give us, above all, a father figure we can rely on [Peter the Great, a martinet-brute, Nicholas I, a martinet-brute, Stalin, etc., etc.]. Why do we need leaders like this, those whose stature automatically insures their immunity to laughter and mockery? Because they, and only they, can bring us ORDER.’”

That is what the Russian people, these abject, never-laughing, order-loving cattle say, according to Bowie. Now, what did that people do, in cold historical fact? Anyone with a smattering of Russian history might explain to our gogoleved that over the centuries Russia’s lower classes were in a state of continuous rebellion against the order imposed on them by the ruling classes; that they organized bands of freedom-loving Cossacks in what is known as military democracy, and went to conquer land after land, the Don, the Kuban, the North Caucasus, the Trans-Volga wilderness, the Urals, Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia, the lands beyond Lake Baikal (Zabaikalye), the Far East, Kamchatka, Chukotka, Alaska, eventually establishing a presence as far as California. To ignore this drive for freedom, away from princely and imperial “order,” a drive that in the long run created the world’s biggest country, is to present a truly charlatanic, literally half-ass picture of the moral fiber of this people.

In my long and varied career I have come across Russophobes of every hue. Probably the worst, or in any case the stupidest and most ridiculous variety are American “Russia specialists” whose ideas about Russia and Russians were initially shaped by Cold War Hollywood B films. Can’t say I saw many of those (that’s more that can be asked of a sentient being), but some impressions still stick in my mind: of stocky, incredibly fat, beastly-eyed women in implausible uniforms, with hairdos achieved with a pair of garden shears, howling The Internationale; of a Russian officer gulping down a glass of vodka and, for a chaser, crushing the glass with his teeth and swallowing the fragments; characters barking at each other in no recognizable variety of Russian; that sort of thing.

Pictures like that, imprinted on the brain at an impressionable age, are bad enough. Things grow even worse when these impressionable brains are polished by professional Cold War Kremlinologists. The product of the polishing process is a “Russia specialist” of an instantly recognizable variety, someone who will seek out, say, and even perhaps believe anything that will present Russia as a land of aliens or Untermenschen that is a danger to humanity, a threat that must be destroyed before it destroys what is known as the free or civilized world.

If you think I am exaggerating the effect of those B films, just take a look at this Bowie passage about Stalin (in a text ostensibly devoted to Gogol): “Stalin even had a double who looked exactly like him. The spirited dictator sometimes used this man to mortify and freak out his subordinates, while Uncle Joe watched from behind a curtain, chuckling merrily.” No reference for this flight of fancy is given. And no wonder, for who would remember all those B films dishing out this kind of garbage…

Like I said, Bowie is just one of a breed of B-film nurtured “Russia specialists.” As proof, let me quote yet another such, who is, would you believe it, even cruder and more ridiculous than our Gogol scholar.

Recently I published an essay on former Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov (on guardian-psj.ru, JRL, Russia Beyond the Headlines, and elsewhere). Among the few responses I received was this gem from someone called Charlotte Wilson: “Yuri Andropov told my husband what was bothering him. It was not his kidneys, and not the cancer, ‘it's the radiation that's killing me.’ He talked about this after a boar hunt at his country home… Frederic [Wilson’s husband.­SR] was a Classical concert pianist. One evening after dinner, Andropov took him into his study for a vodka tasting and a private concert.” Apart from being a “Classical concert pianist,” Frederic (named after Chopin, I am sure) was a CIA and NSA “agent, operator and officer for 46 years.” Not only is Ms. Wilson dead serious about a CIA agent getting pally with the ruler of one of the world’s two superpowers who was tied to a kidney machine for most of his general-secretaryship but would leap out of the hospital bed to indulge in boar hunting (in Red Square?) and vodka tasting with this agent-operator-officer cum classical pianist. Like Bowie, Charlotte Wilson also runs a site devoted, among others, to Russian affairs. It’s a bit marred by her spelling perestroika as “peritroka,” presumably a cross between a peri and a misspelt troika, but what would you? B films do have this deleterious effect on a person’s linguistic habits.

Bowie may feel insulted by being lumped together with this clearly clinical case, but then he should not make bloopers like confusing the gender of the Russian writers he pontificates about. Cf. this passage: “Among the Russian writers who are, primarily, ‘worshippers’ are some of the greats: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatov, Pasternak, and many others.” For your information, Mr. Bowie, Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova (a pseudonym; real name, Gorenko) was not a male named Akhmatov, as you suggest, but a poetess and a very beautiful lady whose portrait was painted, among many others, by Amedeo Modigliani. You can see a few reproductions of those portraits on the covers of a volume of Anna Akhmatova’s poems translated into English by a certain Sergei Roy and published by Raduga Publishers (Moscow, 1988).

Given this level of Bowie’s expertise, it would be ridiculous of me to go on analyzing Bowie’s text, the more so that the opinions (except the weirder, B-film-induced ones) expressed there are not his own but borrowed from a variety of ill-digested or suspect sources. Going into all this would be like looking for pearls in a dung-heap, to quote a Russian satirist, one of a goodish number whose existence Bowie so strenuously denies.

Bowie takes his conviction that humor died out in Russia in the mid-1800s from the British critic D.J. Richards, who classified all Russian writers as either “wits” or “worshippers.” Wit, says Richards, “went into a rapid decline, however, in the late thirties and early forties” of the 19th century. Bowie would have us believe that that decline was terminal and has continued unabated to the present day to produce a nation of morose automatons imprisoned “in the cultural and religious oubliette called ‘Don’t Laugh’” ­ in which (and that is “ the main point of my article,” says Bowie) even Gogol the supreme wit died. Strangled, so to speak, by “the prevailing interdiction of laughter in a thousand years of Russian history.”

Well, let me state quite forthrightly that this talk of the “prevailing interdiction of laughter” over a thousand years in Russia is either an indication of the abysmal ignorance of anyone spouting such balderdash, or else an exercise in dehumanization as stated above, or both.

The ignorance especially shows through in the question with which Bowie starts his rant: “Who among Russian writers could, still can, make us laugh like Gogol does? Nobody.” A qualifying clause is needed here: “nobody that Bowie cares to know of.” And a fat lot he knows about wit in Russian literature and the Russians’ love of humor.

So let me talk on this subject, or rather two connected subjects, in the briefest outline, always remembering that I am not an historian of Russian literature or a recognized, TV-infesting wit but a mere Russian intellectual, an intellighEnt, with rather more than sixty years experience in reading in a few European languages but chiefly in Russian, I guess. Lacunas are inevitable in this sketchy narrative, but it may still do some good to anyone grievously misinformed by the gogoleved.

The simple fact that Bowie takes such great pains to deny is this: there has always been a strong culture of humor, irony, and satire in Russia; before, during, and after Gogol. The carnival spirit, the spirit of making fun of everything worth laughing at, far from dying out in the mid-1800s, has kept going from strength to strength to this day.

In the nature of things, some periods have witnessed greater wits, others, lesser ones, but the culture of wit has always been there. The fluctuations in the scope and quality of wit do not make Russia any different from any other country, say, Britain: which present-day British politician equals Winston Churchill in wit? Gordon Brown? Don’t make me laugh, I am supposed to live “in the cultural and religious oubliette called ‘Don’t Laugh.’”

The “interdiction of laughter” on some things in some sections of society is not a peculiarly Russian feature either, as any Dutch cartoonist, or anyone suffering from the strictures of Political Correctness (invented in the USA, not Russia, let me note in passing) will tell you these days. But to insist that all, or most, or any of Russian society from Gogol to this day accepted and lived by such “cultural and religious” taboos is patent, clinical nonsense. The truism about forbidden fruit being particularly sweet has worked beautifully in Russia as anywhere else; maybe more so.

Let me take a classic example. Pushkin’s “Gavriiliada” makes fun of the Immaculate Conception and was naturally banned in Russia for quite a long time, as it would then have been in any other Christian country, nowhere more fiercely than in Bible-thumping America. That ban had a highly predictable effect in Russia, though: the poem continued to circulate during all that time in countless copies, spiski, in the then version of Samizdat. Some of that sort of forbidden wit circulating in spiski was pretty low, as in Barkov’s obscene poems and those of his numerous imitators; others were destined to become classics of Russian letters, as Alexander Griboyedov’s “Wit Works Woe,” still performed on the Russian stage and still a source of much laughter.

The case of Griboyedov’s comedy, which Bowie does not even mention, is particularly telling in giving the lie to Bowie’s absurdities about “oubliettes.” The first two editions of the poem, in 1833 and 1839, were butchered by the censors because of its merciless guying of Moscow society’s manners and mores, yet all Russia was reading it in those handwritten copies, spiski, of which there were four canonical ones, with corrections done by the hand of Griboyedov himself. Now, the first complete version of the comedy was published and performed on the stage in the 1860s, that is, exactly at the time when Russian wit was going into irreversible decline, if we are to believe the US “Russia specialist.”

Wit, both censored and uncensored, continued to be very much part of the life of Russia’s educated society under any regimes, the severe one of Nicholas I or the more liberal one of Alexander II. The ability to produce a bon mot, a good pun or epigram was a treasured accomplishment at which both ordinary men of the world, zapisnye ostryaki “inveterate wits,” to steal a phrase from Pushkin, and the great ones excelled.

Of the not-so-great, one may mention Ivan Myatlev (1796-1844), author of numerous comic poems, unexpected rhymes, macaronic verse, skits, and so on, which became especially popular in the 1840s, right at the time when Russian wit was on the point of dying out, according to Richards­Bowie.

Among the greatest was the poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873), a “bonmotist” on whose lips all of Moscow and St.Petersburg society used to hang.

Another poet, Count Aleksei Tolstoy (1817-1875; that is, Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, not to be confused with Aleksei Nikolayevich, still less with Lev Nikolayevich) wrote a great many satirical poems, including one that made fun of “order” for which wretched Russians are said by Bowie to be hankering but which is forever eluding them. Together with his three cousins, the Zhemchuzhnikovs, he created a mythical character called Koz’ma Prutkov whose ironic and satirical writings are still a source of rip-roaring laughter as well as inspiration for many imitators.

Nor should we forget Dmitry Minayev (1835-1889), a consummate master of parody, pun, epigram, and satirical verse. His famous pun Dazhe k finskim skalam burym // Obrashchayus’ s kalamburom “Even Finnish brown rocks // I address with a pun” is probably familiar to every literate Russian and has in turn been parodied, rather vulgarly, by later wits.

Or take Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). Here is too great a figure to remain unnoticed even by Bowie, so he goes into a curious rigmarole to deny him the stature of a “wit”: “What’s the difference between satire and irony? The main difference is that the satirist, sphincter muscles tightly clenched, goes about castigating evil doers and evil institutions in no uncertain terms. When you read a satirist, you can tell the good guys from the bad. The ironist (or, to use Richards’ formula, the wit) takes nothing seriously, holds up all truths to doubt, laughs lightly, tolerantly at human foibles.” Gogol is an ironist, Saltykov-Shchedrin a satirist, so he does not count in the historiography of Russian wit.

Bowie may know something about sphincter muscles, but he knows damn all about witty Russian writers or Russian humor. To take the “ironist” first. What’s so forgiving, light-hearted, or tolerant about Gogol’s attitude toward his characters like Plyushkin, Nozdryov, or that dealer in dead souls, Chichikov himself? Why did Gogol dream of another world, the world of the second volume of “Dead Souls,” inhabited by real human beings, not evil caricatures of same? To turn to Saltykov-Shchedrin the satirist, what was the state of his sphincter muscles when he wrote, so tolerantly and light-heartedly, of the moujik who fed two generals, or Crucian the Idealist, or poor Wise Gudgeon? Where’s that hard and fast line that separates Gogol the wit from Saltykov the non-wit, the tight-sphinctered satirist? In Bowie’s one-track, reality-denying mind, that’s where.

Incidentally, Richards’ division of Russian writers into wits and non-wits or “worshippers” is, putting it plainly, just a lot of hooey. OK, Pushkin showed a great deal of wit in many of his writings, but what about “Boris Godunov,” a “people’s drama,” or “The Captain’s Daughter,” or many other extremely serious works? Where’s the sparkle of wit in these writings? Whoever caught themselves laughing reading them? So is Pushkin a “worshipper” here? What exactly does he worship?

Russian writers, great and small, were sometimes wits, at other times “worshippers” (none a greater worshipper, in the literal sense, than Gogol), sometimes realists, at other times idealists, many were predominantly moral philosophers, and great moral philosophers at that. Which does not at all mean that they were boring, morose purveyors of ethical truths without a witty bone in their makeup. Also, if those “plebeian types” that Richards speaks of did not produce prose sparkling with wit, maybe the kind of social conditions they used to live in and write about did not inspire much hilarity: it rather drove them to drink and suicide. Maybe Richards should have chosen someone else to criticize in such a patronizing manner. What he says tells more about the critic himself than about the subjects of his criticism, and it is all quite unflattering. He might just as well have criticized the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for not being funny enough.

Now, Dostoyevsky is said to be a “worshipper.” Oh sure, he was a very serious writer revered throughout the world for his high moral stance, but has Bowie (or Richards) bothered to read his “The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Dwellers,” or “Uncle’s Dream,” or quite a few works from the same pen that are marked by subtle, and often not so subtle humor and irony?

Tolstoy is cited as yet another “worshipper.” The “worshipping” nonsense aside, Tolstoy was of course a great moral philosopher and generally a thinker of world stature, but anyone who missed the strong ironic streak in War and Peace, to mention just one masterpiece, must be plain blind. As a matter of fact, Tolstoy comes very near satire in, say, the scene where Napoleon waits a long time for a deputation from the citizens of vanquished Moscow to hand him the keys to the city, and no deputation comes, while his retinue mumbles, “‘Mais c’est impossible,’ shrugging their shoulders and not daring to utter the implied fearsome word: la ridicule…”

But to go back to the undoubted wits of the second half of the 19th century in whose existence Bowie just does not believe.

Alexander Ostrovsky (1823­1886) wrote some 50 comedies that are marked by every variety of humor, irony and satire that Russian audiences enjoyed at the time and still revel in, as they are still produced on the Russian stage.

The 1890s saw the emergence of so-called decadent literature and Symbolism, which was at once wittily parodied, in verse, by the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and the poet Apollon Maykov.

But the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was, of course, dominated by the gigantic figure of Anton Chekhov. Bowie on Chekhov: Of those who don’t take life (or themselves) too seriously, I would definitely include Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).” So it appears that Chekhov is a “wit,” after all, and all talk about wit dying out in Russia after Gogol is rubbish. As is, by the way, Bowie’s opinion that Chekhov did not take life seriously and was nothing but an Antosha Chekhonte afflicted with giggles. You find a very different Chekhov in his beautiful and totally non-witty “The Steppe,” while “Sakhalin” is a serious, entirely non-humorous account in fine prose of his trip across Russia to the Island of Sakhalin to study the living conditions of convicts there. Not to mention the fact that his comedies are ever tinged with the underlying tragedy of human existence. “The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya,” in fact all of his plays are still alive today, which they would not be if there was nothing but light-hearted chuckles in them, if they were like the thousands of vaudevilles that preceded them. Great literature just does not work that way.

Which does not mean that there was not a lot of chuckling and giggles and other sorts of laughter in the literature of the turn of the century period called The Silver Age. It witnessed a veritable explosion of humor and satire. The movement was centered around two magazines, Satirikon (set up in 1908 in place of the weekly Strekoza (Dragonfly) and run by the brilliant humorist Arkady Averchenko) and later also Novy Satirikon (New Satirikon, founded 1913). Participating in those and other journals were Taffy (sometimes spelled Teffi; real name, Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), Sasha Chorny (Alexander Glikberg), Pyotr Potyomkin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vlas Doroshevich, Korney Chukovsky, and many others, too many to be listed here. Apart from being witty, theirs was really good literature that we still read with pleasure and appreciation a century later.

I am sure these names mean nothing to Bowie, for he seems to take as God’s truth this curious statement by Richards: “the wittiest Russian writers of any stature to emerge in the twentieth century were an aristocratic émigré, Nabokov, and two Soviet heretics, Zamyatin and Sinyavsky.”

Well, as for the “stature” of Yevgeny Zamyatin and Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Terts), Richards might find it hard to explain why these writers are so thoroughly forgotten by now. It says something about the quality of their wit, doesn’t it. I would also be grateful to anyone who would quote to me a single witticism by Sinyavsky, by way of a sample. To me, he was a painstaking literary critic for the “Novy Mir” “stout” literary journal of the Tvardovsky period, who took it into his head to write prose and became an unreadable bore. He had his hour of glory abroad as a dissident persecuted by the Soviets, so he is better known to dissertation-writing Slavists in Europe and America than to the Russian reader.

I was also somewhat astonished at seeing Vladimir Nabokov described as a wit par excellence. There is of course an ironic streak in him, particularly in his attitude to what is known as “American culture,” but on the whole he is a quintessentially serious writer who is very good at conveying his sadness at the implicit tragedy of human destiny, rather than making light-hearted fun of it.

However, if Bowie wishes to count Nabokov among Russian wits, let him, only he should not tell outright, baseless lies about the writer, like the following: “Nabokov is looked upon by many Russians as somehow alien and foreign. They think that he sold out to American literature (because he switched over to writing in English while living in the U.S.), but their major objection is his artistic stance­ -- he is a wit who loves irony, and irony makes them uncomfortable.”

That’s a juicy chunk of Russophobic fancy, and nothing but. Of course, some Russians, as well as non-Russians (Gore Vidal, for one; and if I remember rightly, Nabokov could not find a publisher for his “Lolita” in irony-loving America, and it had to be published in Paris) are not Nabokov fans; some like him more, others less. But to talk of that writer being resented by all Russians because he is an “ironist” while they fear irony is sheer, unmitigated nonsense. In Soviet times I, like millions of others, read much of Nabokov in Samizdat in Russian, the rest in English. In the 1980s, though, came a whole avalanche of Nabokov editions avidly swept off bookshop shelves. Since then there has been a steady stream of these editions, including translations into Russian of his English writings (some done by my good friend Alexander Goryanin). A multi-volume Collected Works sold out as soon as the current volume appeared ­ all out of fear of irony, I presume. Someone would do well to compare the print-runs of Nabokov’s books in America and Russia; that might throw some revealing light on who loves irony more.

But all this is by the by. What is positively astounding is the impudence with which Richards and Bowie declare that there have been no wits in Russian literature except Nabokov and a couple of back-benchers. To quote again Ivan Krylov, slona-to ya i ne primetil “The elephant? I did not notice him,” in a fable about someone visiting the zoo. Apparently neither Bowie nor his guru Richards have seen a single volume of the Antologiya satiry i yumora Rossii XX veka (An Anthology of Satire and Humor of Russia of the 20th Century) IN FIFTY VOLUMES. “Russia specialists,” I don’t think…

Going through these fifty volumes in this space would not be either practicable or necessary. Suffice it to list here just a few of the great ones, whose writings have shaped, and still continue to mold, the minds and souls of many generations of Russians.

Mikhail Zoshchenko, at one time the most popular individual in the Soviet Union, would probably come at number one in my personal catalog, but I find myself undecided between him and Isaac Babel, author of some of the most polished Russian prose.

Then come Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, authors of two evergreen classics of the catchiest humor, “Twelve Chairs” and “The Golden Calf.” These picaresque novels were a particularly strong influence on my generation. Someone said that Shakespeare’s works were a mere collection of the most frequently cited quotes, and the same can be said of Ilf and Petrov today, I guess. Quite a few people in Russia are saying things now without suspecting that they come from that source. In my circle, it was popular to know the two volumes s paltsa “from the finger”: you stuck a finger somewhere in a random page and were expected to go on quoting the whole page, verbatim. Those few in Russia who have not read the books are sure to have seen several screen versions of them, with absolutely scintillating casts.

Andrei Platonov is, of course, a great writer on any scale you care to apply to him, especially standing out for his completely inimitable style. The way he made fun of communism in his later works earned him censure from none other than Stalin; for years he was not allowed to publish anything, though for those who cared there was always the Samizdat.

Mikhail Bulgakov, another great one, was somewhat luckier. I read his “Sobachye serdtse” (Dog’s Heart) in a worn typewritten copy (which I still treasure), but his magnum opus, “The Master and Margarita,” believed to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, came out in 1973 from a major Soviet publishing house, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, and instantly created a veritable frenzy: pretty soon an intellectual or near-intellectual who has not read “The Master and Margarita” would be looked on as a rara avis in this country.

Then there was Yuri Olesha… Oh, I don’t know. The closer I come to the present day, the times I know best, the more often I recall Koz’ma Prutkov’s aphorism: Nel’zya obyat neobyatnoe “You can’t embrace the unbounded.”

All I can do is look at my bookshelves and read the names. There’s Venichka Yerofeyev and his “Moskva­Petushki,” a cult book whose content is sometimes still re-enacted by a crowd of fans who go to the Kursky Railway Station, fill a train leaving for Petushki, drink the weird cocktails and other brews described in the book, and hold endless Yerofeyev-type conversations. An Oxford scholar and a good friend of mine has written a longish paper (still unpublished, I believe) tracing back Yerofeyev’s wit to none other than Erasmus of Rotterdam, but even the present brief exposé shows that Venichka had a solid native tradition to derive from.

Then there’s Sergei Dovlatov, another serious drinker and writer of exquisite Russian prose. Next to him, Yuz Aleshkovsky, a really rough diamond. Fazil Iskander, whose stuff you just cannot read without a sort of Buddha-like semi-smile playing on your lips. The Strugatsky brothers, particularly their “Monday Begins on Saturday” that I have probably reread a dozen times or more. Dina Rubina. And, of course, Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, good old Slava who can pull you out of any pit of depression the moment you open a book by him, one of which he was kind enough to give me, with a nice inscription. Not forgetting the poets or rather singer-songwriters like Bulat Okudzhava, Yuri Vizbor, Alexander Gorodetsky, and especially Vladimir Vysotsky, the entire country’s idol in the 60s and 70s who wrote some 700 songs, of which a goodish number still make people laugh till tears come streaming down their faces (I am proud to say I had the pleasure of translating some of them into English in “Hamlet with a Guitar,” Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1990).

Then again, you can switch on Russian TV almost any day and you will see people literally rolling in the aisles as fine writers like Arkady Arkanov, Mikhail Zadornov, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, or Anatoly Trushkin read their stuff, and I only mention those whom I particularly like, while there are countless others whom I just don’t care for, though they still make plenty of people perform the rolling-in-the-aisles trick.

From this, there is but a step away from literature proper into the vast field of folk humor: practically pagan rituals accompanied by singing and banter; jocular songs, especially four-liners called chastooshki making fun of absolutely everything in often exceedingly juicy language; the so-called anekdoty (not exactly anecdotes in the English sense but jokes, mostly off-color, a good many of them on politics), all that sort of thing. They express the irreverent spirit of the people even more directly than literature, and anyone who talks of Russians’ humorlessness while completely ignoring this culture of folk wit must be seen for what they really are: ignoramuses or charlatans, and you can take your pick. Covering this field, though, would expand the present text to a lengthy monograph, and will have to remain a task for the future.

Incidentally, the Russian folk’s view of Americans is encapsulated in the phrase tupoy amerikOs, loosely translated as “an obtuse American.” That is a view to which I certainly do not subscribe, having known and worked with all kinds of Americans, both obtuse, Sarah Palin’s Joe SixPacks, and brilliantly witty ones (Bowie definitely not among the latter). On this national spirit issue I rather hold with Mikhail Kotsyubinsky’s maxim: “All folks are human, and he who isn’t, let him be ashamed.” But that’s the Russian take on Americans (compare it, say, with Lenin’s admiration for the American business sense), embodied in at least one perfectly unprintable chastooshka that I know of; there are sure to be others.

It is a fairly good-humored if condescending view which, however, the Russians keep strictly to themselves. At any rate, they do not write incredibly ill-informed or mendacious, insulting papers about other peoples’ moral and mental makeup. Nor do they publish them on otherwise respectable sites.