Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In all but the most recent times Russian imperialism has shaped how people outside of Ukraine have viewed that country --- as dryly depicted in this scene from The Wire.
The Wire You’re Russian right? No, Ukraine. Kyiv is Ukraine. It's the same difference though…
Brooke Gladstone This idea, of course, was the same one that Putin used as grounds for a full scale invasion nearly a year ago.
Sky News “They are one people,” he said, “a common culture, language and politics stretch back to the beginning of ancient Rus and more than a thousand years ago, when Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine, was the regime's center of power.”
Timothy Snyder Mr. Putin has made very clear, actually for the past ten years or so that he doesn't believe that Ukrainians are a people and he doesn't believe that the Ukrainian state is actually a real state. Those are the classic arguments that Europeans made for 500 years when they colonized other people.
MSNBC He wants Ukraine to become part of his sphere of influence in perpetuity.
Brooke Gladstone But the effort to eliminate Ukrainian identity started long before Putin, as described in this video made for the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.
Varvara Shmygalova The cultural genocide began with Tsar Peter I, who in 1720 issued a decree banning book printing in Ukrainian language and removing Ukrainian texts from church books. In 1804, Emperor Alexander I banned all existing Ukrainian language schools.
Brooke Gladstone In her recent piece in The New Yorker, “Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War,” writer Elif Batuman recounts a trip to Ukraine in 2019 to discuss two of her books --- One a novel, one not. Both with Dostoyevsky and titles: The Possessed and The Idiot. She found herself learning that her beloved books that she believed transcended politics did not and could not.
Elif Batuman My idea of how I grew up during the Cold War was that I was part of the tiny minority of the world who was not brainwashed. I alone had access to ideas that I was choosing freely and without ideology, and that I was specifically choosing novels because they weren't political and they weren't ideological and they weren't tainted by these things. And what I came to realize in my late thirties is that, of course, nothing is free from ideology, that these novels are products of a time and place in history. So what I realized after I came back from Ukraine was, you know, I've already been on this huge rethinking of Anna Karenina and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin because of gender norms, why would imperialistic norms not be there too? Then I started this project of rereading. And what I found is that it's not that the writers were bad or that they approved of these things, but that the writers were a product of empire. The novels were a product of empire. Writing a book is something that takes enormous resources of leisure and money and a whole literary culture to be in conversation with. Without a robust literary culture and robust literary institutions, Pushkin would not have been able to write Eugene Onegin.
Brooke Gladstone Pushkin had a fraught relationship with the imperial regime, didn't he?
Elif Batuman So Pushkin, as a very young person, he was exiled from St. Petersburg by the czar personally for some poems that he wrote when he was still a teenager. Part of how Pushkin got his start was by sort of adapting Western European romanticism into a Russian context. So he had written these poems. The famous one is “An Ode to Liberty,” and it's just, you know, like, let us shake off our chains and autocracy is wrong. And the czar felt so called out by this that he banished Pushkin from St. Petersburg and he didn't return for another ten years.
Brooke Gladstone And Czar Nicholas was actually Pushkin's personal censor. You found that he went in line by line.
Elif Batuman When Pushkin was allowed to return ten years later, by then there was a new czar. That was Czar Nikolai. And Czar Nikolai was Pushkin's personal censor. And when I was in Georgia this summer, I found a monograph that had been written by a Georgian philologist about Czar Nikolai’s changes to Pushkin's history of the Pugachev Rebellion. And he, starting with the title, he rewrote it, He rewrote everything. It was completely bonkers.
Brooke Gladstone Tell me about Pushkin's poem, “The Bronze Horseman.”
Elif Batuman So The Bronze Horseman is a poem that Pushkin writes after he is allowed to return to St Petersburg. It's now celebrated as a founding canonical text of St Petersburg about this iconic monument to Peter the Great, which is a bronze horseman by Falcone. I was interested in The Bronze Horseman because part of the backlash against Russian literature in Ukraine in the past year has taken the form of dismantling Pushkin monuments, which are all over the former Soviet Union and certainly all over Ukraine and their streets named after Pushkin. So I was thinking about The Bronze Horseman, and I reread it, and the preface starts with Peter the Great, looking out at this desolate swamp dotted with the miserable huts that Finnish people built and thinking from here we can menace Sweden. And then he builds this imperial capital, which gives Russia naval access to the Baltic Sea and key to Russia becoming a major imperial player in the European balance of power. That's just sort of a little prequel. The rest of the poem is about this bronze monument of Peter coming to life and jumping off his pedestal and terrorizing this clerk to his death. So, you know, reading it, it just occurred to me that Pushkin did not have unmixed feelings about monuments. He didn't have unmixed feelings about Empire. And it's not about like he loved the czar. It's much more complicated than that.
Brooke Gladstone Now, let's talk about Dostoyevsky, who inspired the titles of your books, the murderous protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the ultimate dark depiction of Nietzsche's Übermensch, the man of the future who could rise above conventional Christian morality to impose his own will. You also see Raskolnikov using the logic of imperialism.
Elif Batuman The logic of the Nietzschean Übermensch is the logic of imperialism. These things are all connected. They come up at the same time. Raskolnikov justifies his crime with this argument that most people are ordinary. And then there are some people who are extraordinary. And the iconic example of the extraordinary person is Napoleon. These people have the right to kill others for the fulfillment of an idea. And his logic for committing murder is he's a law student and he's penniless and his sister is having to marry this horrible guy and kind of prostitute herself to pay for his studies. So he's going to murder this old woman --- she’s his landlady. And she's also a pawnbroker who he says makes the world worse, murder her, take all her money and fund his own education, and then he's going to philanthropically spread his largesse. And it's going to be a great thing for the world. He talks about Napoleon being this hero who invades Egypt. And if you think about Napoleon, he goes to Egypt. He plunders the treasures resulting in the death of huge numbers of Egyptian people. And then he's celebrated as founding Egyptology, which is, you know, already an insane name for a scholarly discipline. So, in a world where we're taught that people like that are heroes, Raskolnikov logic is not really that crazy. He's following something to the letter.
Brooke Gladstone In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky doesn't endorse the logic of the Übermensch or of imperialism, and yet Dostoyevsky gives a speech towards the end of his life in the 1880s honoring Pushkin. Many people have drawn a connection between Dostoyevsky and Putin because of that speech.
Elif Batuman He linked Pushkin's universality to the reforms of Peter the Great who westernized Russia, and made Russia competitive with the powers of Western Europe. And he did that through drastically modifying all aspects of Russian life. Dostoevsky says So what happened in Peter's reforms? Is it just that we adopted European customs and dress and science? No. We actually accomplished this much larger thing, which is we learned how to take the genius of a foreign people into our soul.
Brooke Gladstone He said that Russia, like Pushkin, was on a course to, quote, “reconcile the contradictions of Europe, thereby fulfilling the word of Christ.” There's definitely a Christian bent to a lot of Putin's justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and the battle with the corrupt West.
Elif Batuman Yeah, So I think the speech is an expression of what people call Dostoyevsky's messianism, and Putin definitely also has messianism. You know, I don't know that Putin is the world's most sophisticated reader or analyzer of Russian literature. He just kind of takes what he wants. So, Putin at an event this but there's this ideology called russkimiri, the Russian world, that started after the fall of the Soviet Union, a philosophy or a movement to maintain the power of the Russian language and what they called the “near abroad.” You know, places like Ukraine that were now abroad, but that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union. And Putin now invokes the Russian world. He's invoked it to justify his invasion of Georgia and the invasion of Ukraine. And it means the suppression of Ukrainian language and national identity.
Brooke Gladstone You can find Dostoyevsky's speech quoted on the russkimir website, but at the time he was delivering it, Dostoyevsky was met with cheers and weeping and exclamations that he had solved the riddle of Pushkin.
Elif Batuman Yes, that's right. The war and the necessary and overdue revisitation of Russian classics that it has led to, I really want it not to be an occasion for us to villainize Russian books or to view them as being somehow like Darth Vader vehicles of imperialism. I want to question what was it about me that I was able to go through this long in life thinking that these books actually were somehow universal and were not political? And I think it's because I had a certain worldview that comes both from U.S. ideology and from Turkish national ideology, and that there's two kinds of countries in the world, you know, there are some that are invaded and others that expand. And what Dostoevsky was saying in the Pushkin speech is Russia has this destiny to expand and become universal. And any of these Slavic people who block that, why are they being backwards and provincial and not getting with our great forward program?
Brooke Gladstone And so a year ago, after Russia invaded Ukraine, when a number of Ukrainian literary groups, including Pen Ukraine, signed a petition for a total boycott of books from Russia in the world, that was met with a statement from Pen Germany saying that the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin.
Elif Batuman Mm hmm. So if you say that enemy is Putin and not Pushkin. While that is true, inserting literature into this rhetoric of blame and enemies is not productive. To say the enemy is Putin and not Pushkin to me implies that Putin and Pushkin have nothing to do with each other. I think elsewhere in that statement they talked about grouping Pushkin and Putin together as a kind of stereotyping just because they both happen to be Russian. And I think that that argument is counterproductive. It's infuriating to Ukrainian people. It's a kind of gaslighting to say that these things aren't connected because, of course, they're connected. Pushkin was a product of the Russian empire, and Putin's ideology owes so much to imperial expansion. None of this is Pushkin's fault, but they're both expressing an expansionist agenda, and it's very important to look at Pushkin's work, to look at the role of expansionism, to look at how he felt about these things, and the very ambivalent and ambiguous way he treats expansionism.
Brooke Gladstone Gogol's The Nose. Now he's regarded as a Russian writer by the Russians, he wrote in Russian. But he was born in Ukraine.
Elif Batuman Yes, absolutely. He was born in Ukraine. And he spoke Ukrainian with his mother. And it was really a decision for him to write in Russian. He moved to St Petersburg. That's where he first achieved literary fame. And it was for writing in Russian on Ukrainian subjects and Ukrainian themes and also incorporating some aspects of Ukrainian vernacular into his writing. And he became famous as like, you know, the critics of St Petersburg were like, look at this young guy out of Ukraine writing these provincial, hilarious sketches, but it's time for him to set aside the provinces and start writing about more universal themes. And he comes to Petersburg and switches to Russian themes. He writes The Petersburg Stories and Dead Souls.
Brooke Gladstone I don't know if he did Russian officialdom any favor with those books. I mean, Dead Souls is the -err example of corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance.
Elif Batuman Yeah, absolutely. It was very ambiguously received and a super ambiguous book. All these great books are quite ambiguous.
Brooke Gladstone And with regard to The Nose?
Elif Batuman So The Nose is this famous story about a civil servant who wakes up one morning and has his nose is missing. He's a civil servant who's reached his degree of rank by serving in the caucuses in the colonies there. And now he's come to Petersburg to try to get a promotion and to try to get married. And now he doesn't have a nose and he's like, How am I going to get married? How am I going to impress my superiors? So he runs out and starts looking for his nose, and then he sees a carriage pull up in front of a building and an imposing figure gets out, and it's his own nose. And the nose is wearing a uniform of a higher-ranking civil servant than he is. And he confronts the nose and says, You know, sir, you know, excuse me, you are my nose. And the nose says,
Brooke Gladstone How dare you?
Elif Batuman How dare you? Yeah, you're mistaken. I am a person in my own right. And rereading that, I just thought Kovalyov the civil servant. His attitude towards his nose is so similar to the, you know, great Russian attitude toward Ukraine, which is how dare this little appendage go off by itself. And then just as Ukraine is saying, I'm my own country, the nose is saying, no, I'm a person in my own right. And actually, as in so many of these works, the interests of empire prevail. And at the end of the story, the civil servant gets his nose back, the police bring it to his house and they say, Oh, we caught it. This nose was about to board the stagecoach to Riga. Which is also interesting because you find out the nose was trying to go west.
Brooke Gladstone This trip you took to Ukraine, having written two books with Dostoyevsky titles. Is there a way to sum up what you were left with, with this argument, this discussion, and also the incredible passion for books?
Elif Batuman The place that I came out is that it was sort of a journey of thinking like the best novels enable us to see more than the writer saw at the time. So, I think it's sort of an act of generosity or imagination that we can do as readers is to put all of Dostoevsky in context with the best Dostoevsky, because we're not all our best selves, certainly were not our best ideological selves all the time.
Brooke Gladstone The Ukrainians, they are just steeped in trauma right now. And so, some of them right now, they can't give Dostoyevsky a pass.
Elif Batuman Yeah, and nobody should read something that's going to cause them pain.
Brooke Gladstone Thank you so much.
Elif Batuman Thank you so much.
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