What’s on Vladimir Putin’s Reading List?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Shapiro headlined “What’s on Vladimir Putin’s Reading List?”:

Vladimir Putin is reputed to love Russian literature. So did Joseph Stalin, who read voraciously and even gave “advice” to authors after reading their manuscripts. Czar Nicholas I made himself Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, a dubious honor the poet would rather have forgone. Even Lenin was influenced as much by Nicholas Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel “What Is to Be Done?” as by Karl Marx.

Why would Russian leaders take such an interest in literature? Even if Mr. Putin only pretends to be guided by great writers, why should he feel the need for such pretense? American presidents don’t claim to get their ideas from “Moby-Dick” or “The Scarlet Letter.”

The answer is that in Russia literature has greater prestige than anywhere else. It is important for leaders to situate themselves in their country’s cultural tradition, and in Russia that means literature.

Not all Russian literature conveys the same message. While some works express the most profound truths about human existence, others voice various forms of opprobrium and hatred. Some Russian thinkers adhere to a kind of nationalism Americans rarely understand. Whereas Americans presume that the state exists for the benefit of its citizens, nationalist Russians often presume the reverse: People come and go, but the state endures. That is why Russians are ready, sometimes eager, to die for it.

The profound contempt for anything “bourgeois” among many Russian writers—Alexander Herzen, for example—reflects a distaste for any view of life that does not transcend individual contentment. For Nikolai Gogol and other 19th-century writers, the bourgeois outlook was fit only for Germans. More recently, it is attributed to Europeans and Americans, who allegedly care for little but economic prosperity. To someone like Mr. Putin, this understanding of life characterizes people too weak to defend themselves. A famous paraphrase of Lenin reads: “When we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.”

In the Soviet period, “class” replaced “nation.” The Communist Party represented the most progressive class in history, the working class, and the Soviet mission was to ensure its final triumph and the destruction of its enemies everywhere. Much Soviet literature celebrates violence against class enemies. When one of Mikhail Sholokhov’s characters can’t bring himself to take food from starving Ukrainian peasant children, the novel’s model hero expresses rage: “You’re sorry for them. . . . You feel pity for them? And have they had any pity on us?” Another echoes this sentiment: “You could line up thousands of old men, women and children, and tell me they’ve got to be crushed . . . for the sake of the revolution, and I’d shoot them all down with a machine-gun.” The world divides neatly into “us” and “them.”

It is hardly surprising that this ethic carries over to war. Some 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II, and one can readily imagine that literature expressing joy at the prospect of killing Germans, not just soldiers but women and helpless children, was easy to cultivate and regarded as a virtue. “If you cherish your Mother, / Who fed you at her breast,” wrote Konstantin Simonov in his popular poem “Kill Him!” “Then kill a German—make sure you kill one!” The unfortunate result of this history is that Russians often regard themselves as victims entitled to do anything in response to the supposed evildoing of others.

If one is a victim, as Russians of this sort see themselves, one knows that the rest of the world is infected with “Russophobia.” Because they hate us, the reasoning goes, we must never rely on their high-minded professed ideals. We must count on our self-defense, and for that it helps to have a buffer state, like Ukraine, on the path of the foreign invasion sure to come.

Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov understood the dangers of this psychology well. They belong to another tradition, which Alexandr Solzhenitsyn described as one of commiseration with those suffering. Mikhail Gorbachev professed, at least, to be influenced by the humanism of Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Writers belonging to this tradition famously claimed that Sholokhov, despite being Russian and a novelist, did not qualify as “a Russian writer.” A true Russian writer, rather than seeing the world only from his own perspective, enters into the minds of others. In Chekhov’s celebrated short story “Enemies,” two men, who could both transcend their own tragedy and see the world from the other’s perspective, instead dramatize their own victimhood and become enemies for life. As the story ends, the author comments that this is how the most destructive political convictions are formed. “Time will pass, and Kirillov’s sorrow will pass,” Chekhov observes, “but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in his mind until the grave.”

These two traditions—Chekhov’s and Sholokhov’s, the one that appreciates the suffering of others and the one that focuses on one’s own injury and insult—form a Russian dialogue. Vladimir Putin and his followers draw their inspiration from one, but the best of the Russian spirit, and its gift to the world, belongs to the other.

Gary Saul Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president. Their most recent book is “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”

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