Bates on the Russian Greats

Summer reading: that most excellent of programs, which allow us lucky students to read the best that literature has to offer over the summer…and so forth, and so forth. I’m sure all of the English teachers would be only too pleased to wax lyrical over the merits of summer reading if you asked them to. All I know is that I ended reading A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the story of the day-to-day routine of survival in the bleak and snowy gulags of Siberia in Stalin’s USSR, on the beaches of the sunny Maldives. Talk about mixed messages!

This year, the list was formatted rather differently- though it seems like only a few of us noticed (I certainly didn’t), rather to a few teacher’s disappointment. Scouring the list for books I hadn’t already read, I settled on what might be termed “the big three” of Russian literature.

The first, as I already mentioned, was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize in Literature laureate and one of the Soviet era’s most celebrated writers, crafts a powerful narrative in A Day in the Life which never the less is exactly what it says on the tin: it follows its main character, Ivan, from when he wakes up to when he goes to bed. I have no qualms in admitting that this was chosen mostly because it was probably the shortest book on the list. Despite that fact, I think it was also one of the most powerful: it served as a powerful indictment of the Soviet system of sending dissidents to languish in these Siberian prison camps. Solzhenitsyn wrote, of course, from personal experience- he was imprisoned for eight years in a gulag for commenting derogatively on Stalin and his conduct in World War II. Short and strongly written, with fascinating characters and an important message, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes highly recommended- of all three, this was my favorite. Read it!

The next book- read on a cramped, vibrating plane about twenty years old, hurtling across the sky from a former British army base (long story)- was Crime and Punishment, the great novel by the even greater author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky was a student of human nature whose fascination with the mind was sharpened by personal tragedy: like his countryman, he had been exiled to Siberia by the government of Russia. Crime and Punishment, his second novel, was written after his return from a five-year spell in an Imperial labor camp. It focuses on the moral dilemma of Raskolniv, a young university student in St. Petersburg, who commits murder. His intended victim is Alyona Ivanovna, a cruel moneylender, but, during his clumsy attempt, he ends up also killing her sister Lizaveta. Again, like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the main story  is helped along by strong secondary characters who, unlike those of that rather shorter novel, generally each have a well-developed subplot to themselves. Dostoyevsky uses several viewpoints and excellent descriptive language to paint the internal struggle of Raskolniv, set against the wider life of the less-prosperous middle classes of the vast Russian Empire.

The third novel, which I enjoyed safely at home, is also probably one of the finest recent Russian novels easily found here in America. Fathers and Sons, the politically-charged novel by Ivan Turgenev, was not only one of the best novels I read this summer (after, but also a fascinating portrayal of life among the upper middle classes of Russia just before the emancipation of the serfs. Kirsanov, the main character, is one of the many students, liberal and activist, who shaped Imperial Russia right at the cusp of its fall. Influenced by his charismatic friend Bazarov, he comes into conflict with his middling noble father and his eccentric uncle, even as he feels contempt for the fashionably socialist salons which spring up all over Russia’s towns and cities. With irony, affection, and a fascination for the human condition (which he shared with Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky), Turgenev paints a  highly realistic picture of the growing divide between the “fathers” (the largely conservative, paternalistic older generation of nobles and farmers) and the “sons” (the increasingly liberal, even socialist, university graduates who are expected to succeed them). Perhaps most interestingly, Turgenev does not take a side. While this was criticized at the time- the Right thought he was too good to the liberals, the Left, too forgiving to the reactionaries- today, this not only distinguishes him from some of his contemporaries, but also allows for rich interpretation of all his fascinating characters. Again, this is another short, but excellent, read.

Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn- some more names to keep in mind next time you go to the bookstore.

-Sebastian Bates, World News Correspondent

Posted by on October 25, 2011. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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