Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wit and Wisdom of Tatyana Tolstaya

I've recently discovered that Alexei Tolstoy is much better than his reputation would you to believe.  His Peter the Great, for example, is filled with adventure, historical sensitivity, and human pathos.   I should probably have read one or more standard biographies of Peter before I embarked on Alexei Tolstoy's beautiful but elliptical work on one of modern Russia's founders.  However, even without that background, I have been able to learn a lot about Peter the Great and his historical context from Alexei Tolstoy.  In fact, the book is so good you wonder why we turn at all to historians rather than fiction writers to give us a sense of what it was really like to live and breath in a completely different atmosphere.  In any event, Lev Tolstoy and Alexei Tolstoy are not the only two Tolstoys with great literary talent. Tatyana Tolstaya is a wonderfully gifted writer as well.  Her Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is filled with wit, wisdom, historical insight, great humanity, and hundreds if not thousands of perfectly crafted bon mots.  I've taken the liberty of placing a few of her gems below.  Pushkin's Children is a collection of disparate writings.  As such, the book sheds light on a variety of different topics in Russian history, literature, politics, and culture.

Her essay on Russian women is particularly revealing. Ostensibly a review of Francine du Plessix's 1990 book, Soviet Women, Tolstaya asks Western readers to avoid easy stereotypes of Russian women since Russian women do possess a great deal of power and historical agency.  Tolstaya's take on Gorbachev is especially enlightening.  Up until this point, I, like many Westerners, didn't quite understand why Gorbachev has been so deeply unpopular in his homeland.  Having helped to dismantle an "evil empire" with less violence than might have been expected, Gorbachev seemed to deserve some level of understanding and respect.  Tolstaya's fiercely indignant assault on Gorbachev serves as a partial anecdote to this outsider's perspective. For to Tolstaya, an unapologetic liberal and "Westernizer," Gorbachev was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Communist past.  To Tolstaya, Gorbachev's whole career was merely foam on the wave of an undemocratic, privileged, bureaucratic, and corrupt past. Gorbachev had risen to power in a brutal, stupid system, and he wasn't capable of governing without reference to brutal, stupid assumptions.

Tolstaya hated Gorbachev for his sycophantic past, for his ridiculous anti-alcoholism campaign, for his lack of principles, and for his treatment of Yelstin and others.  But it's the hypocrisy of the Western treatment of Gorbachev that seams to call out her deep antipathy for the man.  Gorbachev does not deserve to be lauded for presiding over the end of Communism:  the system had collapsed under its own weight.

Tatyana Tolstaya:

"Women can do everything, and men do all the rest."  Russian proverb.

"Russian men have been recumbent for centuries."

"Of course, I'm a slave, but what right does she have to interfere with my life?"

"Francine Gray, having spoken with dozens of women, noted with surprise that almost all of them talked about men as they would about furniture or other inanimate objects."

"During the four years of war there was only one sex in Russia--women. The men had gone to war."

"Learn to love us when we're filthy dirty.  Anyone can love us when we're clean."  Russian proverb.

"Russia didn't begin yesterday and it won't end tomorrow."

"We Russians don't need to eat.  We eat each other and that satisfies us."  Russian saying attributed by Tayana Tolstoy to Ivan the Terrible's reign.

"...Lenin's initial idea was to hold onto power for no less a period than the Paris Commune once did.  This desire to become a chapter heading in a history text is quite characteristic of bookish, theoretical thinking."

"And how could a Russian revolt be anything other than senseless and merciless, when the Russian government had exhibited a senseless lack of mercy toward its own people for centuries?"

"...In the 1930s, a herdsman was arrested and sent to the Stalinist camps for referring to a cow as "whore" because she made advances to another cow.  His crime was formulated as "slandering the communal farm herd."

"[Russians] mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and the Americans with their love of money.  And as a result in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, not logic, nor money."

"Now, our country possess certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic, and its inner geometry is decidedly non-Euclidean.  Our roads are Mobius strips;  our parallel lines cross as many times as you like;  the sume of the angles of our triangles is infinite."

"When did Gorbachev find out that communism doesn't work?... The answer is simple:  he knew that nothing works while still in his  mother's womb."

"After Stalin's death, people shed genuine tears; after the deaths of Brezhnev and Andropov, people laughed;  after Chernenko's death, they guffawed.  And how could they not?  A man comes to power, declares himself a genius, and kicks the bucket."

"...The struggle of "Russia" with the "West" is a battle with foreign sources of mythic radiation."

"There are no mermaids in parliament."

"...Russians perceive Russian life...as a constant, unending Lisbon earthquake."

"God is free, but that's his own business, and all of you, who love God, are obliged to be His slaves."

"Everyone always says [the Tsar] was such a tyrant.  But why, really?  They always served such fresh creme at court."

"Revolutions don't happen in paradise."

"Russia is, of course, a fantastical country, but not to that extent."

"Prince Michael opts for the tactics of a mad Dadaist:  he draws a horse and captions it a chicken."

"Every cook should know how to run the government."  Lenin.

"The first strikes like a stake, the second dives like a falcon, and the rest flutter around like tiny little birds."  Russian proverb related to swigs of vodka.

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