Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World

(*And Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.) The case for (re)reading Russia’s greatest literary classics.

THOMAS DE WAAL

Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these multiple stories?

In retrospect, it is evident that Western commentators failed to predict or explain what has happened to these countries: their lurches from one crisis to another, weird hybrid political systems, unstable stability…

… the works these authors wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries turn out to be surprisingly applicable to today’s politics in a broad swath of the former Soviet space, whether it’s the unexpected fragility of Putin’s authoritarian rule in Russia or the perpetually failed efforts to modernize next-door Ukraine. There’s a reason: Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship, the aridity of public service, and the educated classes’ hunger for intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural commentators — they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament readers found themselves in — and still do.

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