Not to celebrate Nabokov is a tragedy

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Culture never lies about politics, even when politicians do. Contrary to assurances by Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, that “we don’t seek empires”, Hollywood’s recent burst of “imperial” films – Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven – proves otherwise. Big deeds (the “war on terror”) require “big art”, and politicians safely leave it to culture to say honestly what they cannot or will not say publicly.

In a democracy, culture no less than government wants to keep people happy, readily converting political messages to define the national mood. It is from the movies, not from George W. Bush’s upbeat speeches, that America, anxious about victory in Iraq, gains a small degree of self-assurance.

In Russia, too, the entertainment industry has stepped in to assist the state in reclaiming the country’s significance and self-image, lost with the cold war defeat. Russian and Soviet literary classics: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (ca. 1937), Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle (1968) and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1956) have recently been made into television mini-series.

In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin’s eager imitation of everything that came from Russia’s victorious cold war rival, the US, created a chaotic system of governance that permitted enrichment of the few, leaving 50 per cent of the population below the poverty line. Culture too mimicked the most violent American movies: Russian-style “Pulp Fictions” seemed well suited to the “wild west” capitalism that had emerged.

Vladimir Putin, on assuming power in 2000, declared a restoration of the Russian state, to revive the nation’s strength after the chaos of Yeltsin’s post-socialism. Combining elements from the past – the tsars (Russian Orthodox Church and the imperial coat of arms, the two-headed eagle), the Soviets (influential security forces, military use of the Red flag, 2000 restoration of the 1944 Stalin-era anthem) as well as some of the go-go images of Yeltsin’s privatisation years – he produced a forward-looking version of modern Russia.

Culture willingly came to support this “positivist” project, choosing to remake for television authors of historic importance, whose art could conjure usable images of Russia’s past. Dostoevsky, that fountainhead of our psychology of suffering, throughout his writing offers a hallmark justification for Russia’s uniqueness: “We are backwards, but we have souls.” His Idiot glorifies tragedy by preaching that every advocate of evil requires a champion of good. This is a potent message today as it revives the notion of social equilibrium, destroyed by the unruly capitalism of the 1990s.

Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, written during Stalin’s purges, depicts the Devil’s visit to Moscow to bring good – to save Master, the writer, from injustice by murdering him. For generations of atheistic Soviets this fictional tale of good and evil served as a Russian “bible”. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, through the love story of Yuri Zhivago and Lara, questioned the inhumanity and excesses of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The book’s own weighty history contributed to the appeal of its “remake”: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was angered by the novel’s mystic religiosity, forcing Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958.

Responding to a national desire to avoid the extremes of Soviet socialism or post-communist capitalism, Russian culture has turned historic, literary and human tragedies into entertaining simulations of greatness, now devoid of real suffering and threats. In Hollywood style, the troubles are dispelled in hour-long, easily digestible episodes, allowing viewers to relive former grandeur and terror through the safety of television screens. Too bad that feats of Alexander the Great, shown in megaplexes like those in America, cannot guarantee real war victories in Iraq.

In Russia, simulations of the grandiose past do not translate into current greatness.

If Russia ever wants to get out of its Dostoevsky-defined culture of suffering, it may need to put on hold its tragic masterpieces, learning instead from say, Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian émigré American writer who a half-century ago rewrote an unhappy Russian character into an efficient pragmatic individual of the future. Disheartened by the world’s imperfection, Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Pasternak’s Zhivago and Bulgakov’s Master should give way to Nabokov’s Ada (1969) and Pnin (1957) – modern role models who take responsibility for their individual lives regardless of how flawed humanity or the state may be.

I love Russian literature. I am against trivialising Nabokov. But if culture continues to turn issues into movies, we are better off televising his novel instead of badly imitating American thrillers or remaking Russia’s painful history into “soothing” TV dramas.

Furthermore, politics here could learn from culture as Nabokov provides a better road map for the strength and respect Vladimir Putin so craves nowadays: Nabokov’s was a model of modern, international success. For he kept his Russian soul, without having to go backwards for it.

The writer teaches international affairs at New School University in New York; her book Visiting Nabokov is forthcoming from Yale University Press

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