Friday, January 24, 2014

Olga Andreyev Carlisle's Under A New Sky: A Reunion with Russia

One of my greatest pleasures is to stroll into my office library to select another book to read on Russia.  I love reading so much it has utterly overshadowed my ability to conduct real research.  My wife, a very succesful researcher in the field of electrical engineering, tells me that I should stop reading for a period of several months to do some sustained thinking about Russia.  This time away from books would allow me to decide what it is that I wanted to contribute to the study of Russian history or literature. The time away from books would afford me the chance to separate out my thoughts from those of my favorite authors.  What is it I have learned about Russia and the Russian Revolution?

It's difficult to know for sure if one never pauses long enough to reflect on one's own opinions.  Sadly, my love of reading is difficult to surmount.  As soon as I've finished one book, I long to take up another one, or several of them simultaneously.  Perhaps my compulsion to reach for another book is a symptom of fear.  Do I have something original to say about Russia or revolution in general?  If I were afraid of the answer, I'd naturally never want to settle down with my own thoughts very long. 

In any case, for the time being, I remain a serial reader of Russian books, always in danger of favoring historical breadth rather than depth.  And this week, I made my customary visit to my office library and stared at its various sections.  What book to select, and from which section?  My Russian books are organized haphazardly under the following headings:  the Revolution proper, memoirs, poetry, theatre, literary criticism, contemporary fiction, Soviet fiction, anti-Soviet or diaspora fiction, Stalinism and the history of the gulag, Russian women and gender studies, academic tomes, intellectual history, late imperial Russia, the Cold War, international communism, regional studies, and comparative revolution, contemporary Russian fiction, the literature of the Russian diaspora, late and post-Soviet Russia, complete histories of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov (works by those two writers overwhelmed neighboring shelves), nineteenth century fiction, generic histories of Russia, Russian history and literature journals, etc.  

Understandably, the choice of a next book can be a difficult decision.  Last week I settled on something from my late Soviet/post-Soviet shelf, although the book might just as easily have been categorized under memoir. Ordinarily, I don't expect much from my modern Russian books.  I don't read a lot in this area, and so don't spend a lot of time or money ensuring that I've acquired the best books on Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. What's more, so many books were churned out in response to the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union, that many of them have not withstood the test of time.  Even so, I always feel that one can't quite make sense of the whole of the Soviet experience, or even the Revolution proper, unless one understands its concluding chapters, or indeed its epilogue.  This of course is my problem as a researcher.  I can't settle down to even a single era.  As soon as I finish a book on the Revolution, I wanted to know what happened before these events, what happened after them, and what happened in other areas of the world simultaneously.  

But I digress.  In this instance, I picked up a short book by Olga Andreyev Carlisle, granddaughter of the best-selling late imperial author, Andreyev.  The book turned out to be a real find.  While not terribly poetic or original, Andreyev Carlisle's family ties form a tangible link in the chain of pre-revolutionary Russia, Soviet Russia, and post-revolutionary Russia.  They also bind Russians who moved abroad to those who stayed behind.  Incredibly, the Andreyev clan also turns out to form a link between liberal and nationalist insofar as Olga's aunt turned away from the liberal and democratic traditions of her husband's family and moved toward spiritual mysticism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

The focus of Olga's memoirs is the virtues of the Russian intelligentsia. The book depicts Olga's interactions over the years with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Askoldov, Lydia Chukovsky, Nadezdha Mandelstam,Vasilyn Aksyonov, and Joseph Brodsky.  In fact, Olga has family ties to authors and poets as well as socialist revolutionaries such as the famous Victor Chernov, one of Lenin's fiercest critics on the left.  Her book testifies to the continuing power of the idea or myth of the intelligentsia.  Although Olga's hopes in the 1960s were dashed after the Soviet Thaw came to an end, she was intimately involved with Russian intellectual resistance to totalitarianism, both at home and in the diaspora.  This book is an attempt to document the survival of liberalism in Russia against all odds.  On the other hand, Olga's second homecoming at the end of the Soviet period, her "reunion" with Russia, is clouded by the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism.  At the time, many Russian Jews had real reason to fear the advent of Russian "democracy."  Resurgent Russian nationalists were blaming Jews for the entire Soviet experiment, and using only thinly veiled threats to drive many Russian Jews into exile.

This reminds me of my attempts to follow one popular Russian news service.  Reading the RT news is an unnerving if profitable experience on many levels.  For the RT press seems to exist only to retaliate against American and West European attacks against Russia.  If Russia is criticized for human rights violations, Russia's news organs make counterclaims about American human rights violations.  In a sense, reading the Russian news is salubrious.  Russia's unique, non-European, vantage point can unveil hypocrisy and highlight American foreign policy errors and abuses.  But of course the news is often disingenuous.  Russia really does make outrageous mistakes in its treatment of minorities, for example, with the recent anti-gay laws being only the most egregiously hurtful of these laws.  But worse still is to read the website feedback sections, filled as they with endless and flagrant anti-Semittic, racist, and homophobic rants.  Reading these neo-Nazi diatribes of hate, one is reminded of the paradox which has confounded Olga and all other members of Russia's intelligentsia.  If Russia is the land of Tolstoys and Gorkys and Bunins, it's also the land of the Zhirinovskys and Black Hundreds.


  1. Oh it's so nice knowing that you're such a book lover just like me..though I never tried reading Russian books. But now, I am encouraged to try one at a time, I'm positive that I will enjoy it just like you.
    Happy reading!

  2. You can't go wrong with Russian books! And perhaps I'll soon post a list of Russian books for "emerging Russophiles..: Thanks againf or the comment.

  3. Are these Russian books that have been translated into English? I don't speak or write Russian but find it interesting. Do you know a website where I can find out more?

  4. Yes, all of the books mentioned on this blog are English-language versions, so enjoy! I will try to do a post which recommends books on Russia to the beginning student. I don't know any specific websites to recommend but obviously many faculty post their syllabi on Russian history online and this can be a good place to start exploring Russian history and literature.