by Olivia Kennison
Russian readers, both scholarly and amateur, consider the literary heroes of their country in a way wholly different from that of Americans. One can sense this when entering a Russian literary museum, of which there are hundreds across the country. In Saint Petersburg alone one can visit the former apartments of Anna Akhmatova, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and their common ancestor, Alexander Pushkin, which have all been turned into museums housing some portion of their earthly possessions. For Russians these museums, always located in a former residence of the writer, allow them to pay a pilgrimage to the artist that has brought beauty and history into their lives. A museum dedicated to Joseph Brodsky was opened for one day in Saint Petersburg in 2015, in the minuscule communal apartment in which he spent his childhood, and over 5,000 people lined up outside for the chance to walk through his halls and admire the papers he left behind. The cultural importance of writers and poets in Russia is strong, and it is the goal of the Literary Matrix series to ensure that this outlook on national literature is passed to the next generation.
Subtitled “the textbook written by writers,” the Literary Matrix series spans four volumes dedicated to discrete eras in Russian literature: the nineteenth century (ХIХ Век), the twentieth century (ХХ Век), and the Soviet period (Советская Атлантида), and a final volume titled Extracurricular Reading (Внеклассное чтение). Meant to provide an alternative to Russian classroom fare, these books contain literary articles by contemporary writers about canonical writers and poets included in Russian literature curricula. The articles are written with this specific audience in mind: secondary school and university students enrolled in literature classes. The Extracurricular Reading volume explores writers who are usually left out of standard literature programs.
In these books contemporary Russian writers and journalists choose writers from decades or centuries past and survey their biography and artistic life, usually tracking how the writer in question’s work changed or progressed through the years. Each author has chosen his or her subject for a reason that quickly becomes clear while reading his or her article; in most cases, this reason is deep love and respect for the artist and work. Literary critic Maya Kucherskaya writes about the poet Nikolai Nekrasov in her essay “The Danse Macabre of Nikolai Nekrasov.” Author Vladimir Sharov discusses Andrei Platonov in “The People of Andrei Platonov.” Marina Stepanova, a poet and publisher well known in the West for her efforts to promote press freedom in Russia, describes the life and legacy of poet Marina Tsvetaeva in her essay “Living Wage.” The authors are careful to set the writer in historical context and provide quotations from contemporaries to accurately illustrate the public and private lives of the subjects. It is worth noting that the volume dedicated to the Soviet period focuses specifically on those writers who were officially recognized by the government at the time. Articles about anti-Soviet and censored writers can be found in the XX Век volume.
These articles draw on the Russian tradition of literature: one of passionate devotion and intimacy. In Russian literature classes it is not uncommon for professors to call prominent writers and poets simply by name and patronymic, and it is the responsibility of the student to know exactly who is being mentioned, despite the fact that (God knows) Russian names do not run the gamut of creativity, and certain first names pop up again and again. Despite this, students and professors refer to writers in friendly, informal terms because these writers have been with them in one way or another for most of their lives. It is in this style that authors in the Literary Matrix series write about the giants of Russian literature. This intimacy is especially noticeable and touching in Svetlana Bodrunova’s piece about Anna Akhmatova, titled “It Is Only Possible to Judge by the Right of Love.” Bodrunova writes in the introduction that analysis of Akhmatova is difficult, but Bodrunova feels that she can try because of the great love she has for the poet. At the end of the article, she writes a poem to Akhmatova, written in the subject’s style, which she is allowed to write “by the right of love.” She feels personal ownership for the body of work Akhmatova produced (Russians have a much better word for the sum of the work an artist created in his or her lifetime – tvorchestvo) and is proud to have the responsibility of presenting her to less knowledgeable readers. In another article titled “His Own Man,” popular Russian poet and activist Dmitry Bykov writes about Maxim Gorky by focusing on Gorky’s popularity among contemporary readers and the political and cultural power he wielded for decades at the beginning of the twentieth century. This article draws less on the emotional attachment of the author to the subject and more on the phenomenon of enduring popular acclaim that led to Gorky becoming canonized as one of the greats in Russian literature. Bykov is particularly interested in tracking how the Soviet government censored Gorky’s biography in the decades following his death: the information withheld or offered during certain eras reveals nuances of the social climate at the time. These articles set the subject into a fully realized context and are sure to pay respect to the breadth of work produced and the boundless effect each had on Russian culture and history, and suggest specific work that may be of interest to readers.
It is difficult to think of authors in the American canon that are adored and respected on the scale the Literary Matrix series presents. In Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary, an account of the siege of Leningrad that led to the starvation of a quarter of the city’s population, she writes that everyone who could manage to read would pore avidly over War and Peace. They found impossible warmth and comfort in the pages of Tolstoy, who gave them tools with which to survive famine and sickness. What work of American literature can be said to have helped so many during such hardship?
The Literary Matrix series demonstrates the intensity of Russian devotion to its writers while also persuading the reader to dive deeper into the subject of each piece. These volumes make it clear that the life of a writer is just as important to preserve as the work produced. Reading these articles is like looking in the window while the author and the subject revel together in the beauty of prose and poetry and share their devotion for Russian literary tradition. Young Russian students experiencing not only the work of the writers assigned in school, but also reading these articles written by popular contemporary writers, will emerge with a much more fully developed portrait of the giants of literature and the effect that each has had on national culture and artistic life. We believe a translation of these volumes should be in the works, too, because English-speaking readers would stand much to gain as well.
Olivia Kennison is a senior at Bard College, where she is studying Russian language and literature. She held a summer 2016 summer internship at Read Russia.