Decolonizing the Mysterious Soul of the Great Russian Novel


Why, in the eyes of Western intellectuals, does Russian literature have an indulgence in moral purity and aesthetic inviolability, while imperial discourse is tolerated?

Ілюстрація Олександра Грехова, на якій зображені військові, які танцюють з жінками

"Ya shivu v bolshom dome na kholme" is the only phrase that Midge Maisel remembers from her major in Russian literature in college. This is how The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel starts her first stand-up gig. The words seem ironic to her, considering that, until recently, she had “lived in a big house on a hill,” a peaceful life of a housewife, before she found that her husband cheated on her with his secretary. Their marriage, which had started with a Russian winter-themed wedding, is just as much of an illusion as a happy life overall. I assumed that it was a metaphor to highlight the fragility of life --with a pinch of fun at the expense of contemporary higher education, which leaves its graduates helpless on the job market — but then, touched by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I decided to rewatch Gilmore Girls. Amy Sherman-Palladino, skilled at writing strong female characters, gave another character of hers, Rory Gilmore, love for Anna Karenina, too.

For me, a girl from Ukraine starting school in early 2000s whose main task was to study hard and read a lot, Rory from Gilmore Girls became more than a role model. I dreamed of being her: to love, write, and edit like she did. However, on my rewatch, I was taken aback by her fascination with Tolstoy’s novels. Why is the English-speaking world so fascinated by the Russian novel?

What attracts the readers? Balls, etiquette, or characters suffering from the mysterious Russian ennui?

Watching the show for the first time, I didn’t even notice the conversations about Tolstoy. Probably because Russian literature was something very familiar, and in the 10th grade, Tolstoy felt off-putting with his unequivocal vision of what a woman should be. The author believed that dirty spots on a baby's diapers were everything that Natasha Rostova from War and Peace needed to be happy, and the textbook suggested writing an essay on this character as the ideal woman.

In class, we watched a documentary chronicling Tolstoy's life, and in passing, they showed the lake where his wife tried to drown herself several times. Even at 16, I understood it was because she was unhappy in her marriage. The chronicle showed a shrunken Sofia Tolstaya trying in vain to get through to the train station where her husband, a great Russian writer, had been dying for many hours. She was not allowed to succeed, though, because among other things, Leo Tolstoy was a very cruel man and did not let his wife say goodbye to him.

Sorry, Rory Gilmore. I resisted reading Anna Karenina for a long time because I just did not understand what this man could tell me about feelings other than cruelty. Nor did I understand why I’m supposed to admire this book about a married woman from high society who fell in love with a Russian army officer, left her husband and son for a lover, and eventually committed suicide because she could not cope with the pressure of a society that would gladly accept marital infidelity but not open scandal.

For a long time, I agreed with Donna from the book based on Twin Peaks: a writer who decided a woman would commit suicide by getting run over by a train must have no idea how life works, because every woman cares what she will look like in the coffin, and none wants to look like a bloody mess.

I read Anna Karenina as an adult, trying to refrain from prejudice and see what made the Russian novel so famous, but I still failed to comprehend why it is considered a novel about love and what mysterious wisdom can be found in this book. I saw a character being psychologically abusive. Throughout the book, she never shows tenderness to her lover, Alexei Vronsky. The first intimate moment between Tolstoy’s characters is described in a rather gruesome manner:

“She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness... He felt what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life. That body, robbed by him of life, was their love, the first stage of their love. There was something awful and revolting in the memory of what had been bought at this fearful price of shame... But in spite of all the murderer’s horror before the body of his victim, he must hack it to pieces, hide the body, must use what he has gained by his murder.

And with fury, as it were with passion, the murderer falls on the body, and drags it and hacks at it; so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses.”

After being intimate with him for the first time, Anna shifts her choice onto Vronsky like a burden. “‘All is over,’ she said; ‘I have nothing but you. Remember that.’” Anna demands the full attention of her lover and with the zeal of a domestic tyrant tries to make him cut ties with all his public life, except for caring for her. Her eventual suicide, it seems to me, is based on her fantasy about his infidelity.

You know, Rory, I think Anna somewhat represents Tolstoy himself. Reading the description of that love scene, I cannot help but think about Tolstoy’s biography, about how he raped serfs and later liberated peasant women who lived on his property, about the countless illegitimate children born to these women, about the hypocrisy of his old age, when he suddenly became highly moral and condemned sexual abandon and private property.

At the end of Anna Karenina, I felt sorry not for Anna but for Vronsky — a devastated man who goes to Serbia, to war. But I have only recently realized something quite ironic.

Russia is always waging a war where a man can flee in search of death. And the rulers of Russia mainly explain this war by a certain high purpose.

Sadly, the great Russian authors — Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy himself — romanticized those wars with their stories of ballrooms, love, and duels. The alleged bravery of their heroes is paid for by the blood and victims of the colonial wars of aggression.

It is unfortunate that this aspect escapes the attention of the readership. If we fail to notice this, we only get Ya shivu v bolshom dome na kholme from the Russian literature, while it slips our mind that our affair with the Russian literature quickly becomes not so much a Russian winter wedding as a standup performance by the betrayed Mrs. Maisel. It is also unfortunate that, like Tolstoy, Russian society prefers not to notice that Ukrainian women are not Anna Karenina and do not seek to become a bloody mess.

I am horrified reading the Facebook diary of Mariupol resident Nadezhda Sukhorukova of March 19, 2022, when her city had already been shelled by the Russian military for many days: “I am confident I will die soon. It's a matter of a few days. In this city, everyone is constantly waiting for death. I just wish it won’t be too scary. Three days ago, a friend of my older nephew came to us and told us that there was a direct hit on the fire department. Firefighters died. One woman had her arm, leg, and head torn off. I dream that my body parts will remain in place, even after the bombing.

I don’t know why, but it seems important to me. Although, on the other hand, they will still not bury anyone during the fighting.” 

Russia, which had no distant colonies in Africa or Asia, managed to sleep through the decolonization process, further cultivating an imperial mindset, trying to drag back its old colonial property — Moldova, Georgia, and now Ukraine — in the late 20th and early 21st century, and calling military aggression a brotherly embrace. The narrative of great Russian culture as an inviolable classic about refined feelings and restless souls, is so powerful that even Russian missile strikes on Ukraine, which has been independent for 30 years, do not prompt Western intellectuals to question their ideas.

Professors of Italian universities are outraged when they are asked not to teach the students about Dostoevsky.

The president of the German PEN haughtily reminds us that we should be fighting against Putin, not Pushkin, ignoring the fact that Russia has been using its cultural institutions as “soft power” for many years.

Russian cultural centers around the world openly approve of their country’s aggression against Ukraine. Leo Tolstoy's great-grandson, Pyotr Tolstoy, has been using public reverence for his famous ancestor to successfully build a career as a propagandist on Russian TV and later to become a member of the Russian State Duma. For two years, he has been denying the existence of an independent Ukraine. Russian propaganda has ground up its own culture, making it toxic.

Even those works of Russian literature where Russian military power is not glorified, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, are now perceived in quite a different light. The hero, whose simplicity, like that of the evangelical Jesus, was meant to fix the corrupt society, is better known to several generations of Russians through the 2003 TV series directed by Vladimir Bortko. Currently, Bortko is a politician who fully supports Putin's policy and advises Ukraine to surrender.

As a teenager, I really loved Dostoevsky's novels, so I enthusiastically accepted the film adaptation, which has now become painful to watch. The lead actors were my favorites for a long time. In 2022, three weeks after Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine broke out, I was devastated to see one of them, Vladimir Mashkov, standing next to Putin on the stage while they were celebrating the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. Mashkov was reading a poem by Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev to justify the policy of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, interpreting the work of the long-deceased Russian poet as a direct reason to condemn the policies of the West and to glorify Russia’s power.

The fact that Vladimir Mashkov himself starred in the Hollywood films, Behind Enemy Lines and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, did not stop him from advising his daughter, who lives in the US, to return to Russia immediately — “to be a good Russian, to apologize for treason, and to be with the Russian people.” The role in the film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel did not make Mashkov kinder, and did not stop him from urging his daughter to “help fight against the Ukrainian Nazis.

Russian literature is undoubtedly remarkable and important for the world literary process, but does this mean that a well-written text is eternally truthful and does not require the use of decolonization optics?

No one denies Rudyard Kipling's contribution to British and world literature, but neither do we turn a blind eye to the awkwardness and colonial supremacy of White Man's Burden. Why, in the eyes of Western intellectuals, does Russian literature have an indulgence in moral purity and aesthetic inviolability?

Tolerating imperial discourse, even in literature, is a shameful practice that is now costing Ukraine thousands of lives. Russian culture, and literature in particular, needs an anti-imperial revision. I don’t want to live in a “house on a hill”; I dream of going back to my home in Kyiv, to my bookshelves and flowers on the windowsill.

I’m sorry, Rory Gilmore, but I will not read Tolstoy ever again, regardless of whether I can come back.