Expert Says To Get Russia, Read The Great Russian Authors

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Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. (Kwong Yee Cheng/Flickr)
Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. (Kwong Yee Cheng/Flickr)

With U.S.-Russia relations at a new low, we revisit our conversation with Tom de Waal, who says that when it comes to understanding Russia and Vladimir Putin, stop listening to the political scientists.

Instead, de Waal says reading Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky will help you understand not just Russia, but key neighboring states like Ukraine and Georgia.

Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector’ And Putin’s Russia

Gogol is “the master cartoonist of Russian life,” de Waal writes.

As he told Here & Now, this is the classic satire of Russia, which even the Russian Tsar understood immediately when he saw it in 1836.

The play is a critique of how the whole of Russia — from the Tsar to the serf — colludes in a corrupt system. It also reveals how brittle the system is.

If you know Gogol, says de Waal, you would not be surprised at how vulnerable Putin seemed all of a sudden last spring when demonstrations broke out against him, and how quickly the massive edifice of the Soviet state collapsed.

Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ And Ukraine

Ukraine is “lost in transition,” stuck in a kind of gray zone, neither living up to its potential nor a tragedy, de Waal said, citing scholar Lilia Shevtsova.

Ukraine has managed to hand over power from the ruling party to the opposition twice — something that has not happened in Russia. On the other hand, the country has not delivered enough material goods to its citizens.

The situation reminds de Waal of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” which features characters “all in the same house, thinking they are talking to each other, but actually talking past each other.”

“The Cherry Orchard, like Ukraine, offers a lot of drama, but without any resolution — more of a comedy than a tragedy,” de Waal said.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ And Georgia

“Georgia is the opposite of Ukraine,” de Wall said. “It’s a country that proceeds through drama, breakage, rupture, through confrontation. A very theatrical, dramatic people, which is why it’s fun to be there but sometimes its politics veers into disaster.”

For de Waal, “The Brothers Karamazov” is a novel about patricide, which he says is sort of what Georgia had to do when the Soviet Union broke up. It had to slay, metaphorically, the idea of the Russian father, especially as embodied by the Georgian born Soviet leader Stalin.

Georgia now has the youngest government in Europe, and while they are reformists, they are not democrats, just like radical revolutionaries that Dostoyevsky writes about.


This segment aired on August 9, 2013.


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