SLOVO Festival: Shishkin Lectures

As part of Academia Rossica‘s fifth SLOVO Russian Literature Festival – named In Search of Lost Reality – a number of events took place in London. Among them were four lectures by the Russian émigré writer Mikhail Shishkin. I attended two of these lectures, which took place at the King’s College Strand campus.

Shishkin, who currently lives in Switzerland, has written several acclaimed novels including The Light and the Dark (which I have read and enjoyed) and Maidenhair. His lectures focused on Russian literature of the past centuries, as well as the modern political situation in Russia. I would have liked to see all four, but unfortunately I already had plans.

Of Living Noses and Dead Souls

Nikolai Gogol and his attempt to write “a new Bible”

“Gogol and his reception are Russian literature’s greatest misconception. Collectively, his works constitute the Russian Book of the Dead, and yet he’s been consigned to the humourists’ shelf.”

The 11 March lecture looked at Nikolai Gogol, one of the most famous and pivotal Russian writers who had a great deal of influence on the development of Russian literature (though, ironically, he was born in what is now Ukraine). I believe it was Dostoyevsky who said of Russian writers, “We all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat” (or something to that effect). The Overcoat (1842) is an absurd and surreal tale of a man whose social status and self-worth hinge upon the possession of a new overcoat; it is a deeply odd story with a tragic outcome. Shishkin, however, focused in his lecture on Gogol’s religious bent, in particular his bid to write “a new Bible” with his work Dead Souls (1842).

Shishkin began with a reference to the current war in Ukraine, Gogol’s birthplace; he argued, as he would argue again later, that culture is the only thing that can unite people and fight the brutality of war. He went on to talk about perceptions of Gogol’s work: short story The Nose (1835-36) was seen as “filthy, crude and trivial”, while Shostakovich – who would adapt the tale into an opera – viewed it as a horror story. The reading public took the author for a satirist, and the first volume of Dead Souls was seen as a satire, as was the play The Government Inspector (1836) which Shishkin argued was about fear. However, Gogol had a strong religious faith, thought God’s greatest gift was the Word, and believed that a ‘higher power’ was directing his writing. He later renounced his early work, believing it to be sacrilegious, and a reader of Dead Souls Volume 2 told him, “You want to write the second Bible”.

The first volume of Dead Souls is all we have; designed to loosely resemble Dante’s Divine Comedy, it was meant to be a trilogy, but the second part suffered setbacks and the third was never written at all. Gogol burned the second volume three times, in 1843, 1845 and finally in 1852, just before he died of a mystery illness. He thought his book was not progressing because he was unworthy of it, and seemed to have a fear of being buried alive: he wrote in his will that he should not be buried until decomposition became apparent.

Shishkin argued that literature before Gogol was a child, and that his work represents the awakening conscience of a nation. His interpretation of Gogol’s work is fascinating, and I should like to reread some of it with these ideas at the back of my mind.

 “Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!” A.Pushkin
“Черт догадал меня родиться в России с душою и с талантом! Весело, нечего сказать.” А.С. Пушкин

Literature and politics in contemporary Russia

On 25 March I attended the final lecture, in which Shishkin talked about literature and politics and contemporary Russia. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this, as I’m not the world’s biggest fan of contemporary politics, but I actually found it really interesting, particularly the comparisons he drew between literature and politics now and literature and politics of a century and two hundred years ago.

Shishkin began by remarking that a century ago, Russia was the centre of world literature, as hundreds flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, home of Leo Tolstoy, in spite of the fact that the writer of Anna Karenina and War and Peace “didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing”. Where, he asks, did Russia’s powerful literature come from?

At the time of Shakespeare there were no Russian writers of significance. Russia was surrounded by enemies, and subservience to the Tsar gave subjects a sense of higher purpose, apparently. Peter the Great, founder of St Petersburg, wanted to ‘cut a window to Europe’ but many have argued that he actually ended up weakening the Russian Empire.

Poets did not properly appear until the eighteenth century. Alexander Pushkin was unique in challenging the established hierarchy of power, helping to create an alternative power pyramid with the poet on top, the power of a free artistic spirit. It has been suggested that his muse was a “terrorist muse”, as one of his poems was passed around by the revolutionary group the Decembrists. Interestingly, though, the Tsar did not execute Pushkin – he realised that he needed him. This sentiment was echoed by the Soviets in the 20th century, who suppressed Christianity but could not give up Pushkin – they needed him to give them spiritual legitimacy.

Shishkin suggested that in Russia, the choice has always been between “bloody chaos and ruthless authority”. The bloodless revolution of 1917 could not last, and during the Soviet era, authority was certainly ruthless. Literature was preserved underground, but many writers still followed the tradition of gravitating towards power.

One of the most interesting parts of the talk came when Shishkin talked about his own memories of the end of the Soviet period. He recalled the failed coup of 1991 and the Chechen wars of 1994, and how after initial optimism – he worked in a school, hoping to play a part in changing Russia – a period of disillusionment began to creep in. The struggle for power and money led to the division of natural resources and the rise of hugely wealthy oligarchs. In Russia, said Shishkin, the government is like the mafia, and is on the path to becoming a police state. He told us of how, as a child, he spoke to his grandmother on the phone, who, confusing her grandson with her late husband, asked where they were taking him (her husband had been arrested).

Nowadays, poets can no longer align themselves with power. Unlike Tsar Nicholas, who was a keen reader of Pushkin, and Stalin, who enjoyed the work of (of all people) Bulgakov, Putin doesn’t read or seem to have any appreciation of literature. Shishkin suggested that if you are “neither a fighter or a scoundrel”, and do not wish to become one or the other, you must emigrate and escape from Russia. This is what Shishkin himself has done – he now lives in Switzerland. Russia, he suggested, is stuck in the past.

And yet the lecture ended on a relatively positive note. Dictatorships come and go, said Shishkin, but literature remains. I liked the sound of this – and I loved the passion for literature that came through in this lecture and the one before.

Byron and politics: ‘born for opposition’ – King’s College London

Manuscript of Byron’s ‘Detached Thoughts’, number 84, NLS Ms.43352

I managed to catch the King’s College exhibition about Byron just in time – it closes on Wednesday. The exhibition is displayed in the beautiful Weston Room, part of the Maughan Library, and was curated by the Foyle Special Collections Library of King’s College London and the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland, for the 39th International Byron Conference in July (there’s an International Byron Conference! How awesome!).

I wanted to see the exhibition for two main reasons. One: it is full of manuscripts and rare books, which are always interesting. Two: it’s Byron! I have a bit of an obsession with the man, so there was no way I was going to miss this.

‘Byron and politics’ takes a slightly different look at the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet’s life, focusing on his political life and bringing together manuscripts, letters, printed editions and several of Byron’s personal possessions. The exhibition explores the contradictions in the poet’s thought and life: he hated the ruling Tory party but also disliked their opponents the Whigs; he was an aristocrat with a seat in the House of Lords, yet he spoke up for the poor and needy, notably in his Parliamentary speech in which he championed the cause of the Nottinghamshire Luddites; he was in love with the idea of democracy yet refused to admit the poor he knew to be capable of taking part in it. Byron greatly admired Napoleon and was overwhelmingly disappointed when he chose exile over  a ‘noble death’. He himself met his end in Missolonghi, Greece, fighting for the cause of Greek independence.

For someone whose reputation is of a wild, wicked, immoral and frivolous poet, Byron’s deep engagement with the political issues of the day are something of a revelation. This aspect of his life shows, perhaps, a deeper side to his character and a more serious one. He also seems to have had a strong sympathetic understanding of the less fortunate, though ultimately he refused to side with any one party or way of thinking, preferring to form his own views. I took a copy of the exhibition guide, so that I can revisit this aspect of Byron’s life in the future.