Imperialism in Russian Literature. Excerpts from Ewa Thompson’ interview

Ewa Thompson
Ewa Thompson

In this conversation prominent expert of Russia, professor Ewa Thompson discusses the imperialistic features of the Russian Federation; elaborates on how Russian writers advanced the imperial message of Russia, and shows  the persistence of the imperialistic motifs in Russian literature.

Ewa Thompson is Professor of Slavic Studies Emerita at Rice University in Houston, Texas, USA. She is the author of numerous articles and studies including Understanding Russia: The Holy Fool in Russian Culture and Imperial Knowledge: Russian  Literature and Colonialism. Here are some excerpts from an interview:

Russia likes to pass itself as a nation state, however, Russia is not: all the non-Russian territories that are part of the Russian Federation were conquered by the Russian army at some point in history (usually not very long ago). If a country consists of those territories that didn’t join voluntarily, obviously it is an empire and not a nation state.

There are several reasons why the world does not acknowledge that the Russian Federation is an imperial power. One of them is that Russia’s colonies are contiguous, they are not overseas colonies. Basically, countries like Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy, sought their colonies overseas. There’s a distance between them and those countries, those nations that they conquered. Russia simply conquered its neighbors, little by little it went east, south, north and west. Whenever you have the case of contiguous colonialism, it appears that maybe this is just an adjustment of borders and not colonialism. Other countries didn’t react, because obviously, colonies must always be overseas. There are some theorists of colonialism who still maintain it until today, even though it’s just impossible to maintain in the Russian case. 

The fact is that it is convenient for the Western European nations to regard Russia as a voluntary Federation of nations. I have written many times that Western European nations, such as France, Italy, and Germany know that they are separated from Russian aggression by a number of states that exists between Russia and Western Europe. … These countries prefer to turn a blind eye to the fact that Russia is an empire.

Russian literature contains the imperialistic ambitions of Russia and influences the political thought of the Russian leaders.

Let me just mention one novel, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In the 19th century, Russia was unknown in Western Europe, there was no electronic communication, and the country was separated from Europe by other countries that were partly under Russian domination. The only way in which Western Europe learnt about Russia was from literature. 

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace Napoleon is going towards Moscow, and he finally takes Moscow and then the Russian army is going in the opposite direction, chasing Napoleon. Tolstoy says that Napoleon’s army went eastward, went through Germany, and then reached Russia, and then back. The Russian army pushing westward reach Germany and finally gets to Paris.

Now, in this description, there is a total obliteration of all those nations that were in between Germany and Russia, and millions, if not tens of millions of readers got this image that Europe consists of Western Europe and then Russia. 

In a sense, Tolstoy’s novel did more harm, not just to Poland, but also to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine than many, many other more obvious things that happened in history. Literature in the 19th century and partly in the 20th century was really the main means of communication between Russia and the west.

Now, of course, the situation is completely different. We have instant communications through electronic means, and whenever we talk about the war in Ukraine, we have all those pictures that prove that Russia is clearly not welcome in Ukraine. But in Tolstoy, it seemed that everybody welcomed the Russian army. Remember the big fete in Vilnius that was organized by, of course, grateful people that lived in Vilnius, but in reality, the city didn’t really welcome Tzar Alexander I.

Why Russian literature has become so popular in the west? Why it was so easily described as humanistic, and what has given it this kind of “universalist vibe”?

There are several reasons. First of all, as I said, this was one way to communicate with Russia, there was no other way, so this was a factor. I would also say that Russian literature does not really present Russian society or human beings as they really are in society. Russian literature presents ideas that dress up as human beings. Novels written by Western writers present not just characters but also societies.

Now, in Russian literature characters really are quite isolated from society. 

Think about the fact that the characters in War and Peace, with very few exceptions, belong to a very small upper crust of Russian society, some of them have aristocratic titles, and you know how few people have them, right? They are not representative of Russian society. We don’t learn anything about Russian society from Dostoevsky: we learn about human problems; we learn about good and evil. The fact that Russian literature was so different was one factor why I think it became very popular in the west. 

The third factor is that we always prefer to read works written by writers who represent powerful countries, and Russia was a powerful country. It was very convenient for Russian writers to use the enormous spaces of Siberia. When we think of Raskolnikov who was sent there, and finally Sonya, and they were sitting at the bank of a majestic river with no people around making confessions to each other. This is a magnificent scene. If Raskolnikov was sent to, say, Ryazan or some other central Russian city, the pathos of this scene could not have been built up.

Now imagine a Bulgarian writer who is as talented as Dostoevsky, he doesn’t have much space to send these characters. A lot of effects that is really created by great geography is eliminated. As I said, there’s a certain preference in readership, even today, for writers who represent big and powerful countries.

To sum up: there are several reasons why Russian literature has become popular in the west. One is the greatness of Russian writers, there’s no denial of that. The second is that Russian writers write quite differently than western writers in presenting ideas rather than characters or societies. And the third is very simple — Russia was a powerful country and people are interested in what’s going on in a powerful country.

Oksana Zabuzkho  recently wrote on Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” (let me quote): “Russian literature has, for 200 years, painted a picture of the world in which the criminal is to be pitied, not condemned”.

In a book titled Understanding Russia, the Holy Fool in Russian Culture, I explored the dialectic of this kind of phenomenon that one sees in Russian literature, namely the criminal who is to be pitied rather than condemned. 

But let us start by saying that again I find a big difference here between Russian literature and European kinds of literature.

In Russian literature, it is taken for granted that if a criminal humiliates himself, if he rolls around in self-humiliation, that makes him a good person. In fact, it makes him a superior person to the person who may condemn him. 

This is quite different from the way we treat criminals in the west. Of course, we also pity them sometimes, but we believe that to be exonerated, a criminal has to express not just remorse, but has to have some kind of plan for improvement. 

Take Marmeladov who is my favourite example of this sort of thing. Marmeladov, a person who relishes in self-humiliation in a conversation with Raskolnikov, is a good example of what is valued by many writers in Russian literature: self-humiliation. This is something very alien to Western thinking.

In the early 19th century, Russian publishers accepted Ukrainian literature only if it was ethnographic, comedic, or apolitical”, and the works in Ukrainian were banned from the public sphere.

The Russians have done all they could to Russify Ukraine — and not just Ukraine, but all those other nations that are part of the Russian Federation, there is no doubt about it.

This was also true under communism. What happened under communism concerning Ukrainian was that when dictionaries of the Ukrainian language were published, the words that existed in Ukrainian and that were different from Russian words were omitted and Russian words were put in, so that the people would get used to the Russification of the Ukrainian language. This is just one small example of how this was done. 

When it came to publication, obviously there was very little interest in promoting Ukrainian literature, and very few writers had access to publishers (and certainly not to foreign publishers).

By contrast, Russian writers had full access to Western publishers. Russian literature was promoted, advanced, and paid for, so undoubtedly the Ukrainian language suffered.

Russian writers tended to side with the Russian government when it came to political issues.

We forget that all those pictures of the world and of Russia presented by Russian writers were strictly agreeing with the policies of the Tsarist state and the Soviet state. 

I don’t know whether it was done because those writers wanted to be published, or whether they really believed the propaganda, it is hard to say. The fact is that if you were not in line with the government, you had no access to publishers and you had no access to audiences. Those writers wanted to be published. Of course, it translates into building up a negative picture of, say, Ukraine or Poland in the west, but that’s what happens in Russia all the time. The descriptions of the minority languages and the minority nations in Russia are always negative. This is one of the burdens that the nations that have been subjugated by Russia have to carry and have to get rid of.

… There is another thing about so-called Russian dissidents. Let’s take Alexei Navalny, who is presently in prison, an opponent of Putin. Well, Alexei Navalny is still being promoted by some, as a representative of this better Russia, the Russia that will observe the democratic process and so forth. But Alexei Navalny is on record as saying that Crimea should be Russian.

I feel that if Navalny came to power, he would be very nice at the beginning of his rule, but within a few years, he would become another Putin. 

The fact is that some of those dissidents, Navalny and Solzhenitsyn among writers, criticized the system,but they really wanted  Russia to remain an empire. There is no admittance in Solzhenitsyn for instance, that Russia should relinquish those territories that do not want to be part of the Russian Federation — no Russian dissidents have ever said that. You know, it’s a long way from saying, ‘yeah, this government is not good, and I would like to help the refugees’ and actually saying ‘Okay, let’s do something about it’.