January 26, 2012

Putin proposes Russian literary canon that’s “scary as hell”


In a waaaay too long essay (in English) for the Russian government newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Putin declares that he wants to establish a “Russian Canon” of 100 books that—as a summary on the Atlantic Wire puts it—is “more rigid and purpose-driven than the Western Canon.”

As the Atlantic synopsizes it,

He proposes “a survey of our most influential cultural figures [to] compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read,” he writes. Putin gets somewhat hazy on what to do after the list of 100 is established ”[Students] would be asked to write an essay on one of them in their final exams,” he suggests. “Or at least let us give young Russians a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and world outlook in various student competitions. State policy with regard to culture must provide appropriate guidelines.” Considering what the state has deemed appropriate from his own political critics, that phrase is chilling.

In his analysis of Putin’s call, Alexander Nazaryan, in a New York Daily News column, calls the concept “scary as hell” and observes that Putin’s essay comes under the heading “Russia: The Ethnicity Issue,” and is aimed at “all those Armenians and Tajiks who live in his country.” Russia’s “civilizational identity,” writes Putin, “is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture.”

Which leads Nazaryan to observe: “Social engineering through state mandated literature: Nothing else that Putin has done has been quite so nakedly Soviet in its desire to manipulate the human intellect into docility.”

In fact, Nazaryan declares, ”The obverse to writers’ importance in Russian society is the importance of silencing them, whether it’s Dostoyevsky on the gallows or Solzhenytsin in the Gulag. Putin, the amateur historian, knows all this. And he knows, too, that his ‘strategy [of] civic patriotism’ will require him to promote some books while banning others.”

So what does that mean for the kind of books to expect on Putin’s list? According to Nazaryan,

the books that will benefit from Putin’s new cultural policy will almost certainly be Soviet-era schlock churned out by Writers’ Union foot soldiers who glorified their compatriots’ miserable existence …

He has already maligned writers like Boris Akunin and Edvard Limonov for their anti-authoritarian political leanings; nor does the unimaginative former KGB drone have much patience for the futurism of Tatyana Tolstaya or Victor Pelevin.

Instead, expect the recrudescence of works like “And Quietly Flows the Don,” Mikhail Sholokhov‘s celebration of rural Russian life. It won the Stalin Prize in 1941 and the Nobel in 1965, despite strong evidence that Sholokhov didn’t write the thing and, more importantly, that it is about as tethered to reality as “Harry Potter.”

One things for certain, in any event: No writers from the “Western Canon” will be on the list. Nazaryan notes that in its reportage on the story, “Radio Free Europe has one citizen of Moscow wondering, ‘I wonder if Orwell will make the list.'”

Says Nazaryan, “No, he won’t.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.