Practical application of Russian literature

Yesterday I posted about an article defining the influence of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych on the psychological and medical approach to death. It turns out that the usefulness of Russian literature goes beyond the medical profession, as Thomas de Waal points out in an excellent article in Foreign Policy.

With a tip of the hat to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, De Waal makes a case for the Russian classics (though not Tolstoy since the psychologists and doctors apparently have already claimed him) as a key to understanding the political and social dysfunction of Russia and its neighbors.

“How about skipping the political science textbooks when it comes to trying to understand the former Soviet Union and instead opening up the pages of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky?” De Waal writes.

What follows is a superimposing of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector on Putin’s Russia of today, of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard on today’s Ukraine, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov on Georgia.

While these various uses of Russian classics seem perfectly reasonable and effective you have to wonder where it will all end. In that spirit I offer a few possibilities. Feel free to suggest your own.

– Pet owners reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog to gain a foothold in the thinking of their beloved canine companions

– New York City health officials looking to Mayakovsky’s plays The Bedbug to deal with the invasion of those pesky creatures (and if you haven’t seen Isabella Rossellini’s bedbug video, you should). Or in a similar spirit of public health consciousness turning to Marina Tsvetaeva’s “The Rat-Catcher.”


For those of you who live in or near London, Russian-American poet Eugene Ostashevsky (who has a brief appearance in Batuman’s The Possessed) will be speaking at Pushkin House about the early 20th century avant-garde literary group OBERIU, which included Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky and Nikolay Zabolotsky among others.

I have heard him speak about the group and their work before and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The OBERIU were a fascinating, short-lived movement versts ahead of their time and still haven’t received the recognition and exposure their writing deserves. Ostashevsky will also be reading his poem Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies.

“When Morris Imposternak throws his round shield

Down during, say, the battle of Phillipi or something

Who knows what poems, what true propositions

Will rise out of the sticky, fragrant loam?

– from Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies by Eugene Ostashevsky

For more on The OBERIU, including translations, some background info and a slew of links go to the Russia Desk III at online magazine Danse Macabre.

Photos – 1) A Soviet industrial school, Bundesarchiv, 2) Daniil Kharms, 3) Alexander Vvedensky

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Categories: Literary Events, Magazines


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