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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Classic Russian Literature Sheds Light On Putin’s Russia

Vladimir Putin's return to power in Russia surprised political scientists, but readers of great Russian literature saw it coming. (AP)

Vladimir Putin's return to power in Russia surprised political scientists, but readers of great Russian literature saw it coming. (AP)

Russia experts were caught off guard again this spring when protests threatened to derail Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency.

Putin was inaugurated this week, but his motorcade to the ceremony drove through a ghost town, because police had cleared Moscow streets out of fear of more protests. It was only the latest in a series of surprising turns in recent Russian and Eastern European history, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tom de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says these events only seem surprising because we’re listening to political scientists and economists. Instead, he says, read the great Russian authors: Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector’ And Putin’s Russia

Gogol is “the master cartoonist of Russian life,” writes de Waal.

As he told Here and Now’s Robin Young, this is the classic satire of Russia, which even the Russian Tsar understood immediately when he saw it in 1836.

The play is a critique of how the whole of Russia, from the Tsar to the serf, colludes in a corrupt system. It also reveals how brittle the system is.

If you know Gogol, says de Waal, you would not be surprised at how vulnerable Putin seemed all of a sudden this spring, and how quickly the massive edifice of the Soviet state collapsed.

Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ And Ukraine

Ukraine is, “lost in transition,” stuck in a kind of gray zone, neither living up to its potential nor a tragedy, de Waal said, citing scholar Lilia Shevtsova.

Ukraine has managed to hand over  power from the ruling party to the opposition twice, something that has not happened in Russia. On the other hand, the country has not delivered enough material goods to its citizens.

The situation reminds de Waal of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” which features characters “all in the same house, thinking they are talking to each other, but actually talking past each other.”

“‘The Cherry Orchard,’ like Ukraine, offers a lot of drama, but without any resolution, more of a comedy than a tragedy,” de Waal said.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ And Georgia

“Georgia is the opposite of Ukraine,” de Wall said. “It’s a country that proceeds through drama, breakage, rupture, through confrontation. A very theatrical, dramatic people, which is why it’s fun to be there but sometimes its politics veers into disaster.”

For de Waal, “The Brothers Karamazov” is a novel about patricide, which he says is sort of what Georgia had to do when the Soviet Union broke up. It had to slay, metaphorically, the idea of the Russian father, especially as embodied by the Georgian born Soviet leader Stalin.

Georgia now has the youngest government in Europe, and while they are reformists, they are not democrats, just like radical revolutionaries that Dostoyevsky writes about.


  • Thomas de Waal, senior associate in Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The Caucusus: An Introduction”

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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