Detail from Pushkin's Farewell to the Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin, 1877

Putin’s Russia vs. Pushkin’s Russia

Gary Saul Morson
Gary Saul Morson
10 min read


When Paolo Nori’s series of lectures on Dostoevsky at the University of Milano-Bicocca was canceled “to avoid any controversy … during a time of strong tensions” related to the Ukraine invasion, he replied: “I realize what is happening in Ukraine is horrible, and I feel like crying just thinking about it. But what is happening in Italy is ridiculous … Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy but also being a dead Russian.”

It isn’t only in Italy. In the Netherlands, an exhibit of avant-garde Russian art was canceled, as was a Stravinsky concert in Belgium and a Tchaikovsky performance in Britain. Even the board of the International Cat Federation (Fédération Internationale Féline, or FIFé) banned from its exhibitions not only Russian cat breeders but also cats bred in Russia. Here in the United States, Columbia University Press, having renounced Russian financing, is drastically curtailing its series of Russian classics in translation.

But as Dutch Russian expert Michel Krielaars observed, “there is Putin’s Russia and there is Pushkin’s Russia,” and the two could not differ more. In our frenzied rush to “cancel” everything Russian, we may throw away a literary tradition that displays an especially deep understanding of moral questions in all their depth and complexity. Who should grasp the nature of evil better than those who suffered so much under tsarist tyranny and then still more under the totalitarian regime that replaced it?

A character in one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels asks: “hasn’t it always been understood … that a major writer in our country … is a sort of second government?” If the regime represented political power, the writer embodied moral power. The very phrase “Russian writer” designated not just someone who produces literary works but someone who, like the ancient Hebrew prophets, acts as the people’s conscience.

When celebrated novelist Mikhail Sholokhov joined in the regime’s condemnation of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Nikolai Arzhak, poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky wrote that he was now “a former writer” while novelist Lydia Chukovskaya declared in an open letter that, in siding with the government against the persecuted, Sholokhov had alienated himself forever from the Russian literary tradition.

In much the same spirit, Solzhenitsyn rejected those postmodern Russian writers who, in treating moral seriousness as passé, had betrayed the Russian literary tradition: “Yes, they say, Communist doctrine was a great lie; but, then again, absolute truths do not exist anyhow, and trying to find them is pointless. Nor was it worth the trouble to strive for some kind of higher meaning.”

But Russian literature is all about striving for “higher meaning.” The heroes of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina do little else. From Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Varlaam. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales about Soviet forced labor camps, human effort and suffering acquire significance precisely because they inform the quest for moral truth and higher meaning. “A book,” wrote Pasternak, “is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience – and nothing else!”

Those who embrace moral relativism or formal play for its own sake, in Solzhenitsyn’s view, may be Russian and may be writers but they are not “Russian writers.” Human suffering, physical and spiritual, constitutes the central theme of the Russian classics. In her lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich explained that in Russia “suffering is our capital, our natural resource. Not oil or gas – but suffering. It is the only thing we are able to produce constantly.”

Suffering is the raw material for Russian fiction, which raises questions of meaning and goodness in the shadow of death. Dostoevsky entitled the novel based on his time in a tsarist prison camp Notes from the House of the Dead. He chose as the epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov a Biblical line about how suffering can lead to redemption: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). The fruit of countless deaths inflicted by Russian rules has been a literature of spectacular brilliance and compelling seriousness.

The great Russian classics address not fleeting issues of the day but timeless “accursed questions” – “accursed” because they could never be definitively solved. One could probe issues of meaning ever more deeply, but never reach bottom. Only politicians, like the Marxist-Leninists who took power in 1917 thought that these problems had been solved “scientifically,” once and for all. No major writer agreed.

Great writers addressed the broadest issues, as the titles of their works suggest. What is not included in War and Peace? What questions of transgression and responsibility are left out of Crime and Punishment? And how much pertaining to human experience is omitted by the title of Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece, Life and Fate? Such titles—the tradition of realist fiction about colossal antitheses—suggest the urgent questions posed in another tradition of Russian titles that include Herzen’s Who Is to Blame? and Chernyshevsky’s What Is to be Done? To answer those questions, perhaps, one must first address another one: What Is Art?

Have any people valued literature more than the Russians? When Anna Karenina was being serialized in a Russian “thick journal”—the usual way novels were first published—Dostoevsky expressed unrestrained enthusiasm. At last, he wrote in one review, the existence of the Russian people has been justified! I cannot imagine a Frenchman, Englishman, or American imagining that his people’s existence required justification, but if one of them did, surely he would not think first of a novel!

We usually presume that literature exists to reflect life, but Russians often speak as if life exists to be made into literature. For many, literature, even more than birthplace, constitutes their native land. When fiction writer Vladimir Korolenko, who was half Ukrainian and half Polish, was asked what he considered his nationality, he replied: “My homeland is Russian literature.”

Alexievich echoed Korolenko’s words when, at the end of her Nobel prize speech, she proclaimed: “I have three homes: my Belarusian land, the homeland of my father, where I have lived my whole life; Ukraine, the homeland of my mother, where I was born; and Russia’s great culture, without which I cannot imagine myself.” By “Russia’s great culture,” she made clear, she meant above all “Russian literature.” The fact that neither of her parents were Russian did not matter. As numerous Russian emigrees have felt, one lives in Russia through its books. Like Jews, Russians are “people of the book.” One might almost compare the status of Russian literature for Russians to that of the Scriptures for the ancient Hebrews when the canon was still open and books could be added.

One had to be prepared to die for this “homeland.” Given Russia’s oppressive politics, Russian literature has always been dangerous, for readers of forbidden books and, especially, for those who write them. The poet Osip Mandelstam, author of a lyric mocking Stalin, knew, as his friends told him, that he had in effect written a suicide note. In her memoirs—itself a classic of modern Russian literature—his wife Nadezhda observed:

In choosing the manner of his death, M was counting on one remarkable feature of our leaders: their boundless, almost superstitious regard for poetry. “Why do you complain?” M used to say. “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There is no place where more people are killed for it.”

One can kill poets—as Stalin often did—but poetry itself, Nadezhda Mandelstam explains, “is a law unto itself: it is impossible to bury it alive and even a powerful propaganda machine such as ours cannot prevent it from living on. ‘I am easy in my mind’ [poet Anna] Akhmatova said to me in the sixties. ‘We have seen how durable poetry is.’” The best-known line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s enchanting novel The Master and Margarita expresses a similar thought. When the devil restores the manuscript that the Master in despair burned to ashes, he remarks: “manuscripts don’t burn.”

When in the early 20th century, Russian literature first began to be read in the West, it struck writers, readers, and critics as unlike anything they had ever encountered. Virginia Woolf expressed the prevailing view most eloquently. Compared to Russian novels, she wrote, Western fiction seems relatively shallow; its “conclusions fade into thin air … [and are] superficial.” Western storytellers prettify their pictures while the Russians sacrifice formal elegance for what they value most, “unmatched honesty.” “It is the soul that is the chief character of Russian fiction,” she added. “The novels of Dostoevsky are … composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul” and remind us that “whoever you are, you are the vessel of this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul.”

Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, my students experience literature as never before. No more symbol hunting, artful theorizing, or smug political judgment: the Russians address the questions that really matter in a way that teaches readers something really worth knowing. Anna Karenina explores the nature of love with supreme moral and psychological profundity, and who is not vitally concerned with love? Students’ economics classes reinforce the idea they constantly hear, that people do, and always should, pursue their own pleasure and that life is about worldly success. And so Tolstoy shocks them. When students read The Death of Ivan Ilych, they encounter a character who could not have been more successful or enjoyed life more, but who now, as he is struck with illness and is slowly dying, realizes that he has never really lived. Having always adjusted his opinions to what proper people think, he does not know what he really believes. And having played each social and professional role perfectly, he now recognizes to his horror that these roles will continue but his “I” will not. My students realize: they must not live that way!

They also tell me: no other course they have taken has addressed such questions, which are, or should be, what college is all about. If not as students, when will they ask them? The heroes of War and Peace, Pierre and Andrei, quest for life’s meaning, and whenever one of them thinks he has found it, the other has just been disillusioned. Time and again, the novel presents their conversations about ultimate questions in which fervent belief and hopeless skepticism confront each other, as each friend reveals his deepest thoughts and feelings. In the famous conversation by the ferryboat, Pierre, who thinks he has at last discovered life’s meaning in the teachings of the Freemasons, thrills readers with his naïve enthusiasm. “You say that you cannot see a reign of truth and goodness on earth,” he confides. “Nor could I, and it cannot be seen if we regard our life here as the end of everything. On earth, here on this earth (Pierre pointed to the fields) there is no truth – all is evil and deception. But in the universe, in the whole universe, there is a kingdom of truth, and we who are now children of the earth are, in the eternal sense, children of the universe.”

Andrei’s despair derives from his earlier callousness to his wife, whose death has made it impossible for him to make amends. He wants to believe Pierre, and explains how, in spite of his razor-sharp rationality, his agonies of guilt have begun to suggest something beyond this material world: “All I say is that it is not arguments that persuade one of the necessity of a future life, but this: when in life you go hand in hand with someone, and suddenly that person vanishes there, into nowhere, and you yourself are left facing the abyss, looking down into it…” We recognize: our deepest convictions arise not from argument but from experiences that touch our deepest self and disturb “this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul.” Students now appreciate what they have dimly suspected: no social science or philosophical arguments will ever lead them to life’s meaning because the deepest convictions are not formed that way. The greatest novels show them the real way that life-shaping ideas come to seem true.

Pierre responds to Andrei’s yearning for belief with especially famous words: “‘We must live, we must love, and we must believe not only that we live today on this scrap of earth, but that we have lived and shall live forever, there in the Whole,’ said Pierre, pointing to the sky.” “Yes, if only it were so,” Prince Andrei replies. He does not yet believe in a meaningful world—such changes do not happen at once—but “something that had long been slumbering in him, something that was best in him,” awoke. “Though outwardly he continued to live in the same way, inwardly a new life began for him.” Inwardly: the great Russian novels are all about what happens to us inwardly, invisible to outside observers and often even to ourselves.

As a utopian impatient with anything less than perfect certainty, Pierre at last grows disillusioned with the fractious Freemasons. Delivering a fiery speech at one of their meetings, he is distressed not by those who disagree but by those who agree with him, since they do so “with stipulations and modifications he could not agree to since what he chiefly desired was to convey his thought to others exactly as he himself understood it.” If moral truth cannot be as unambiguous and clear as the propositions of geometry, and if people cannot exactly agree, then there will always be differences and conflicts rendering utopia impossible. “At this meeting Pierre for the first time was struck by the endless variety of men’s minds, which prevents a truth from ever appearing exactly the same to any two persons.”

My students dwell in a world where moral truth is supposed to be clear, simple, and well known, and where any disagreement marks one as an enemy of social justice. They are therefore struck by Tolstoy’s belief—shared by all great realist novelists, even if they do not explicitly state it—that individuality is an essential fact of life. Each person’s life belongs to that person alone and no individual exactly coincides with any other. What can be generalized about me is not the real me; “I” begins where “we” ends. As the novel concludes, Pierre looks at others differently because he has attained a new wisdom. It lies in “his recognition of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his acknowledgment of the possibility of every man thinking, feeling, and seeing things in his own way. This legitimate individuality of every man’s views, which formerly troubled or irritated Pierre, now became the basis of the sympathy he felt for other people and the interest he took in them.”

Journalists and academics too often regard moral questions as simple and so they readily pass categorical judgments. Russian history teaches us the danger of such thinking. And Russian literature, in response to the horrors of Russian politics and categorical thinking generally, teaches us that moral questions are complex, as are people and groups of people. It offers valuable lessons about the soul while showing us how to examine it with all the seriousness and attention it deserves.  

Gary Saul Morson

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University.