Expert Says To Get Russia, Read The Great Russian Authors

Originally published on August 9, 2013 5:11 pm

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.


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Well, U.S.-Russia relations, as you've been hearing, are strained, perhaps in need of some mutual understanding. So we thought we'd revisit a conversation with Tom de Waal, who told us that in order to understand Russia and Vladimir Putin, you have to read Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These authors will help you understand not just Russia, but Ukraine and Georgia. De Waal is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "The Caucasus: An Introduction."

We spoke when many experts were caught off guard by how vulnerable Putin seemed after massive demonstrations against him. So where would you start your reading if you wanted to better understand Russia and some of its neighbors? First up, Nikolai Gogol's play "The Government Inspector," the classic comedy of errors meant to be a satire of Russia.

THOMAS DE WAAL: It's a tale of a small Russian unnamed provincial town and a very corrupt mayor, so nothing new there, and nothing works. There are geese nesting in the courtroom. Everyone is on the take. And then suddenly they hear a rumor that a government inspector has arrived from the capital. Everyone is, of course, terrified. The whole town is turned upside down. And then they make their mistake. They mistake for the government inspector this young man staying at the inn.

He realizes quickly that this is a case of mistaken identity, and he exploits them, just has a wonderful time eating the mayor's meals, seducing his daughter, everyone giving him little gifts. And then when he fears he's about to be rumbled(ph), he skips town. Everyone's in consternation because they suddenly realize they've been duped. And at the end of the play, announcement is made that the real government inspector has arrived, and there's this famous dumb scene in which everyone is completely dumbstruck.

YOUNG: So when he says at the end of the play, the mayor turns and says to everyone else on stage, what are you laughing at, you were laughing at yourself - is that Gogol speaking directly to the audience?

WAAL: It is. I think he's speaking to the whole of Russia, and I think it's a critique of the whole of Russia. You could call the system authoritarianism by consent, and that's basically what Putin's Russia is as well. It doesn't work unless everyone decides to go along with the system and not to rock the boat.

YOUNG: You read about another connection between the two. You say, you know, the inspector's a fraud, right? It's this young guy running around fooling everybody. And so the president in Russia might be.

WAAL: Yeah. I think Gogol's put his finger on something, which a lot of political scientists haven't, which is that the system is very brittle. It reliant on one man, on personalized power. It can crumble very quickly, and that's what we saw with the Soviet Union in 1991, and we've seen it on a smaller scale, suddenly, with the seemingly invincible Vladimir Putin challenge this year. And I think we see that in the famous dumb scene at the end of Gogol's play that suddenly this great, vertically erected system can fall apart. And you have almost instant chaos before someone comes along and reconstitutes it.

YOUNG: So that is the work of literature that you compare to Putin's Russia. Then you move to Anton Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard," and you say this can help explain modern day Ukraine. So, again, a thumbnail of "The Cherry Orchard." Perhaps, people are more familiar with this, and then Ukraine.

WAAL: Well, Chekhov is - you could call the master of the mundane. He's kind of poet of everyday life. You know, there are no dramatic tragedies in his stories. "The Cherry Orchard" is all about this estate in present day Eastern Ukraine with a famous cherry orchard and the rather feckless lady, landowner, can't really afford to keep it up. She's come back from Paris and deciding what to do with it. It's the beginning of the 20th century. The servants are no longer so subservient, and there is a new player in town who's a businessman who used to be a serf.

So the economic order is changing. There's a whole wonderful cast of characters. At the end, the estate is sold. The cherry orchard is chopped down and everyone disperses. The genius of the play is that it's really how you look at it. It could be a tragedy if you see the passing of the old order. It could be a celebration of the new order, of economic justice, or it could be a bit of both. You see it through a spectrum of different characters, which I think is why it's still a compelling play to watch.

Why Ukraine? Because Chekhov's famous for everyone talking past each other, no one agreeing, the conversation goes on. We, the audience, see everyone missing the point, the people with the money, aren't very good at expressing themselves. People expressing themselves don't have any money. And it's all a bit of a comedy. It's not tragic. And you look at Ukraine, it's a country of 45 million people.

In terms of land area, the largest European country. And yet it's a country which completely misses its potential, where people don't really push together. The people with the money, again, don't have the ideas. The people with the ideas don't have the money. It just kind of stumbles on. It's a bit of disappointment, but it's not a tragedy.

YOUNG: You quote others saying it's lost in transition. I mean, it was supposed to be a sort of dynamic bridge between Europe and Russia.

WAAL: So that's a kind of gray zone in between. It's neither Europe nor Russia.

YOUNG: You know, we did watch, you know, the Orange Revolution there, and we saw this very exciting woman emerge, the woman with the braid around her head.

WAAL: Who's now in jail.

YOUNG: Who's been jailed. So there is drama.

WAAL: There is drama in Chekhov, too, but it's drama without resolution. The Orange Revolution brought lot of drama. And then who happens to be president now, but the guy who lost the Orange Revolution. So everything changes and nothing changes, which I'm afraid is the story of Ukraine.

YOUNG: Then you bring us to perhaps the most dramatic comparison. The great Dostoyevsky novel, "The Brothers Karamazov," written in the 19th century, considered one of the greatest novels ever written. And you say it helps us understand present-day Georgia.

WAAL: Georgia is the opposite of Ukraine. It's a country that proceeds through drama, through confrontation, a very theatrical, dramatic people, which is why it's fun to be there, but sometimes its politics veers into disaster. "The Brothers Karamazov" is a novel about patricide. It's about killing the father. And this is really what Georgia confronted as the Soviet Union broke up. It slew the Russian father and it also slew the memory of the Russian-Georgian-Soviet parent Stalin. Since 2004, we have the youngest government in Europe.

YOUNG: And they're 20 and 30-somethings. I mean, it is young.

WAAL: Exactly. And we meet these people. And they're bright-eyed, full of passionate ideas. They're reformists, but they're not really democrats. They're so possessed by their ideas, they don't really want to discuss them. They know that they're right, and they're going to push them through. And the old generation can go hang if they don't agree. So it's all about reform with a capital R rather than democracy.

These are Dostoyevskian radical revolutionaries trying to rebuild a utopia and cutting corners in the process. Ivan Karamazov, who's not yet 30 and has already come up with this utopian theory, for the future really could be transported into their current-day Georgian government.

YOUNG: There you have it: Three great works, three countries, three ways of looking at Russia and two countries that have split off - through literature. Do you think this is unique to Russian literature?

WAAL: In Russia more than pretty much any other society I can think off, literature has a kind of social role. There is this group of people in society who think deeply about the world who are great writers. But they're not really connected to the political life of the country, and that that makes them more free. It makes them think harder. Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky were giants within the society, and I think they have these very deep insights into the way, not only the world works, but into Russian society and Russian development as well.

YOUNG: Tom de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We spoke last year. So, Jeremy, you have your reading for the weekend.

HOBSON: A little Chekov.

YOUNG: Yeah. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.