#14 - JRL 7014
San Francisco Chronicle
January 12, 2003
Sharp pen dissects foibles of post-Soviet Russia
Reviewed by Walter C. Uhler
Writings on Russia and Russians
By Tatyana Tolstaya
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN; 256 PAGES; $15 PAPERBACK
By Tatyana Tolstaya
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN; 288 PAGES; $24
The book critic's nirvana: a significant book wrought from mere book reviews! Yet one need not be a book critic to appreciate Tatyana Tolstaya's scintillating prose and the bold, provocative assertions that breathe life into her reviews about Russia and Russians, transforming disparate essays into a discomfiting primer on post-Soviet Russian reality: "Pushkin's Children."
Discomfiting? Wielding her pen like a razor, Tolstaya shreds a multitude of shibboleths, including those concerning women's lives, Stalin's Terror, Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Russia's allegedly impoverished cuisine.
Take the piece "Women's Lives." Primed by the Russian proverb, "Women can do everything, and men do all the rest," feminists everywhere will be shocked to read that Russia's "entire female population vigorously repudiates feminism. " Nevertheless, Tolstaya presents plausible support for her surprising assertions.
Or "The Great Terror." Tolstaya has bad news for all those Russians (and American cold warriors) who deny that Soviet totalitarianism "arose in the bleak depths of Russian history." Although she admits that "it's impossible to figure out when this senseless mess started," she doesn't scrimp when distributing blame. The "simple people" are excoriated for their support of "Stalin and his cannibals." But she reserves her harshest words for Russia's intellectuals:
"How many scornful pages have great Russian writers dedicated to Western pragmatism, materialism, rationalism! They mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and finally the Americans with their love of money. As a result, in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, nor logic, nor money."
Guided by perspective, early essays condemning Mikhail Gorbachev and praising Boris Yeltsin give way to "toasts" to the "humane Gorbachev era" and scorn for the man with "the sluggish and possibly vodka-soaked brain" who "demolished a huge country in December 1991." Still, her disdain for Russia's Communists -- who "are closest in their views to America's extreme conservatives" -- remains constant.
However, given her stature as a writer of short stories, it's Tolstaya's observations about Russian literature that attract most attention. Two scathing essays about Alexander Solzhenitsyn; an endearing obituary of Joseph Brodsky, Russia's "greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century"; and a fascinating look at "perhaps the most brilliant Russian writer of the twentieth century," Andrei Platonov, are wrapped around the book's central essay, "Pushkin's Children."
Internal freedom or social freedom, the poet or the citizen, art for art's sake or to improve society? Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Blok and Vladimir Nabokov? Or Nicolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy?
Tolstaya's preference for inner freedom seems clear. Pushkin was the only writer who dared to ask, "Whether it depends on the tsar or depends on the People -- isn't it all the same to you?" She's also convinced that "the struggle of the poet and the citizen within any given writer usually resulted in the death of the poet" -- Gogol, Dostoyevsky and her great-grand-uncle, Tolstoy, included.
Pushkin's "weighty words" gained new adherents during the silver age of Russian literature. Those works (largely preserved by Western publishers), as well as novels by Nabokov, penetrated the Soviet Union and kept Russia's rich literary culture alive until Gorbachev's glasnost.
Subsequently, with "all manner of opinion . . . suddenly available," the word, "which had seemed unique and rare, was published in editions of millions and lost its magical qualities." Consequently, Tolstaya concludes, "the Russian writer at the end of 1991 feels like a senile old man on an uninhabited island in the company of indifferent goats and mindlessly cawing parrots."
"The Slynx" is Tolstaya's attempt to reverse the senility and transform Russia's goats and parrots into civilized human beings. It's a dark, morbid novel set in the remnants of Moscow and populated by all sorts of mutants and a few "Oldeners" 200 years after the "blast." The Oldeners, having survived the blast, are immune to death by natural causes and serve to remind the witless mutants that there was once much more to life than catching mice -- the current source of food, clothing and currency. The anti-hero of the story is Benedikt, who fears the death-dealing Slynx, but becomes the very monster he fears because of his inability to learn from the many books he's willing to commit any crime to obtain.
Pushkin is central to Tolstaya's novel. Benedikt knows "the pushkin," the monument erected in honor of the great writer, but he doesn't know Pushkin -- or internal freedom, or spiritual growth. Paradoxically, though, Tatyana Tolstaya appears to have donned the mantle of citizen; of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and, yes, Tolstoy, to resurrect the message of Russia's greatest poet.
Walter C. Uhler lives in Philadelphia and writes about Russian and military history.