Tuesday, October 13, 2009

But how do I become a Russophile?

Zhivago Co-Stars

So you want to be a Russophile but you don’t know where to start. It’s a very common conundrum. Do you delve right into Dr. Zhivago? Well, I suppose you could do worse. Zhivago has its merits. You’re not dealing with the best in Russian literature, but you do have the advantage of a damned good film to get you primed for the book. And Zhivago takes you right into the Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. You get a glimpse of class conflict, a healthy dose of Russian tragedy and suffering, a glimpse of Russian poetry, a dash of romanticism and nostalgia, and a nice introduction to the Siberian landscape.

On the other hand, I’d also recommend a short book on Stalin, who seems to encapsulate Russia’s long experience with autocracy. I’d probably start with Koba the Dread. Martin Amis, the author, has taken the trouble to encapsulate his father’s famous flair for anti-communism in digestible form. Koba was one of Stalin’s hundreds of nicknames. You get all Stalin’s crimes in a neat, artistic tale of horror, with Stalin cast as a monstrous killer. If this doesn’t seem like it could be the last word on a man like Stalin, who was capable of charming F.D.R. as well as Zinoviev and Kamenev, you’re right. But certainly Stalin had his vampiric qualities, and these deserve a little attention from a gifted mythologist like Amis.

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons would be a third choice. It’s short, perhaps 200 pages, written by one of Russia’s most notable authors, and not too complicated or involved. And it gives you a plot as well as a style rooted in the 19th century but pointing toward the 20th. By contemporary standards, it’s a gentle plot, but one that adumbrates generational conflicts that will become increasingly antagonistic in the future. And of course its lead character was based on the real life of Bakunin: and what better guide to Russia could there be?

I wonder what other books readers would recommend as a primer to the tragic greatness of the Russian past?


  1. A common conundrum indeed! I found a watershed in Isaiah Berlin's _Russian Thinkers_.

  2. Yes! Berlin's essays are always wonderful. I hope to post something about his quasi-romantic relationship with Anna Akhmmatova in the near future. And, unrelated to Russian history, Berlin's essay on romanticism is the single best primer for the subject.

  3. I agree. How sad that the History of Ideas is going by the wayside... Berlin makes a good case that intellectual history is especially relevant to Russia.

  4. I anyone is interested in learning more about the art of the Soviet Era, please take a look at this website: www.McCartheyGallery.net. It contains links to articles about Russian art and information on some excelleent English-language books (most of whic can be putchased on Amazon.com and simillar sites).