Category: Russian literature

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

A long, pained decade of crudely administered austerity medicine after the global financial apocalypse of 2008 has left opulent scars on academia. Fewer students today choose to embark upon the study of humanities and, specifically, literature, than ever before in history of democratized access to education in the West. Countless pearls of our common literary heritage are lingering untasted and untested, all the while the increasingly dwindling number of PhDs, associate profs, fellows, and other knights of assorted regalia continue firing off essays, articles, and books that even fewer leaf through. It’s bleak and it sucks, and while the fine craft of belles lettres is ghosted by policy-makers who robotically herd the young’uns into science, tech, engineering, and maths, we’ve got Elif Batuman, her golden feather pen, and the kind of unwilting love of literature that makes one miss grad school with its all-nighters, caffeinated seminars, ulcers, halitosis, and overdue library books.

Elif Batuman takes us on a journey of her Russian literature studies, with some quintessentially academic self-congratulatory circle-jerking, plenty of beautifully phrased intertextual tapestry of Tolstoy, Babel, and Dostoyevsky, and a curious passeggiata through mythical Uzbekistan (birds, melons, and Timurids galore). In an inadvertent nod to the hilarious father of the campus novel genre David Lodge, much of all this literary analysis with the side of Derrida is steeped in a grad school cocktail of beer-cigarettes-infatuation. Like billiard balls, these academic pilgrims stumble into bits and morsels of knowledge, beautiful and fragile, holding it “like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.” Not in vain:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” 

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

In order to find these answers, Batuman’s character first needs to answer the two fundamental Russian problems (“What is To Be Done?” and “Who Is To Blame?” of course). She also has to figure out, after all these linguistic, literary, and logistical acrobatics, What Is Russia? Sadly, she never does, her gaze always already corrupted by the kind of apologist lens Nabokov himself would get pissed about when confronting some Oxbridge Russophiles who waxed poetic over Bolshevism. It’s all fun and games when your character dreams about playing tennis against Tolstoy, but when it comes to truly unpacking the toxic sediment of imperialism, colonialism, and a plethora of other -isms of the Russian Empire/USSR, The Possessed bashfully skirts around the hard stuff, and traipses away. Maybe next time. As such, the original question still stands very much open, even after some very sincere epistemological exercises:

“I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Words and ideas have no memory? The entire field of etymology (along with millions of post-colonial peoples of this planet) beg to differ. One shouldn’t fault Batuman’s character too harshly though. She is, after all, a student (and a bloody good one), passing the flaming torch to the next generation of curious spirits with appetite for learning and love of beauty. And that’s the point.

Image: Portrait of Tolstoy and Wife by Ilya Repin

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Famous people’s explosive, celebrated, seminal memoirs, how does one go about reviewing them without sounding like a worn out cassette? Take the Pussy Riot girls, for instance. Their story is generally well-known, regarded as heroism by some, as vulgarity by others.  Subversive and beautiful weapons, they’ve been fetishized and cursed, celebrated and anathemized. They had their own Netflix special, were whipped by the Cossacks during Winter Olympics in Sochi, were kicked off planes and were denied asylums. And still, seven years after that fateful performance, they manage to stay around, relevant, and, most critically, alive. The West, initially an eager enabler of Pussy Riot aesthetics and now engulfed by a threatening wave of its own existential problems, may grow fatigued of these statuesque rebels, but that in no way denies their significance. Their battle, after all, goes on. Their Sauron is far from defeated.

Maria Alyokhina, a key Pussy Riot girl, wrote her powerful and laconic memoir in 2017, quite some time after having endured her personal Golgotha. She is not prone to verbosity, making each word of her story heavy and impactful, like a sizeable stone being plunked into a quiet forest lake. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an intimate conversation Maria has with a reader, a close one, around a kitchen table, with strong black tea and cigarette smoke and mittens quietly drying on the heater. No embellishments, no sanctimonious sermons about fighting for human rights. Just a conversation, taking us back to that pivotal act at that strategically important church:

Glittering Orthodox iconostasis, scant light from gold and silver lampadas, cheerfully coloured balaclavas, and four slender bodies quivering in a punk song-dance whose thick-as-butter guitar riffs are periodically punctured by nun-like harmonies of the chorus:

“Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away!”

This performance was first in the arduous litany of many others: the Russian police had their own performance, and the corrupt courts too, and the brutal penitentiary system, and even the Botoxed tzar with his dead fish eyes had a show of his own. For everything in that country is performative, from the lowest bureaucratic motion to the highest affairs of state, concocted deep within Kremlin’s bloodied walls.

From Hobbesian Leviathan to Bentham’s Panopticon to Orwellian fantasies, a myriad of classical and contemporary metaphors have been used to various degrees of poignancy to describe what it’s like to live in a repressive system. And it’s always dismaying how fundamentally little things change, making pessimists the world over sigh and say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” On the Goliath side, organizations like KGB are now brandishing a new set of abbreviations (in this case FSB), but their ghastly innards (and often their actual staff) are the same old guard of Judas apparatchiks. On the David side, previous generation of Soviet political dissidents like Mandelstam and countless others are now replaced by Pussy Riot, Navalny, and God knows who else in the near future. There are many faces to a regime, but underneath it’s the same clever cockroach.

There is one thing about Pussy Riot that is somewhat overlooked by the mass media yet captured quite clearly in Maria’s memoir. These are clever girls. Well-read. Erudite. Deep thinkers. They are not actors, they are philosophers, tough like steel, fragile like children, terrifying in their modesty and surprising in their resilience. They are not into punk for the studs, spikes, and leather jackets. They repurpose and revive it, resurrecting it into a weapon of resistance powerful enough to piss off Putin, the man who rides horses topless, poisons his enemies, and periodically interferes in elections here and there.

In her tireless attempts to alleviate inhumane conditions endured by inmates in Russian prisons, Maria works hard and with mixed results, enduring threats, indifference and ridicule. No matter though, because her wisdom grants this young woman strength of acceptance and grace of humility. Maria gladly becomes a martyr, sacrified at the altar of the hollow Russian Ark:

“I think about fate. About how many prisoners who protested have died and now lie in the ground. It is just an illusion that you go on hunger strike to achieve results. Yes, that’s how it begins but, later, you realize that it’s not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment. You also realize that your right will always be just a narrow sliver in the field. Not there, with the majority. But I love this sliver of freedom, however little it’s noticed by those on the other side of the wall.”

Image: Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism, Saatchi Gallery.