Sunday, August 3, 2008


I've always had a weird fascination with Russia, the way my father always had a weird fascination with China. It started in high school, when I was trying to cram in academic courses in order to graduate early. There was a semester long Russian History course, and it was taught by the American wife of a Russian immigrant. This was after the Berlin Wall came down and about five minutes before the USSR dismantled.

Trying to cram a thousand years of history into one high school semester is totally ridiculous, but I had a great time and aced that sucker. I knocked out my poli-sci requirement in college with "Russia and the United States". Catherine the Great, by Henri Troyat, is on my list of Required Reading in the study of reigning queens. So it is to my humble shame that I did not discover Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn until One Book One Chicago picked A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch for the book club. I want to say it was 2006.

A short novel with really clean, uncomplicated language (which I guess one could claim is equally about the translation) that gave this pampered western suburbanite a feel for how the hell a man got through the day in Stalin's gulag. A day, an hour, a minute at a time.

Last summer, I picked up The Cancer Ward, which was a fictionalized account of the author's Cancer treatment while in exile - I think it was the late 1950s. It drew a picture so far from the world that I know - between Communism, the illnesses, the (to me) backwards hospital culture, and then the gender roles - and I was completely sucked into it. I have three more of his novels waiting for me on my shelf right now. (Not to mention two Tolstoys, two Dostoyevskys and Troyat's biography of Peter the Great.)

Solzhenitsyn died last week. He had gone back to Russia several years ago and was very critical of the West. But he seemed to firmly believe something that I have always suspected: that Russia sometimes likes to think of itself as a European nation, but it is really its own animal.

"Any ancient deeply rooted autonomous culture, especially if it is spread on a wide part of the earth's surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking," Solzhenitsyn said in the Harvard speech. "For one thousand years Russia has belonged to such a category."

I can't manage to keep up with the American literati, let alone those of foreign countries, but here's hoping that post-Communist Russia is growing worthy successors to this great voice.

No comments: