Paradise or purgatory?

Historically, there have been three Russian cultures, each alien to the other two: the pagan tradition of the East Slavs, systematically rooted out over the centuries by the Orthodox religion; an imported Byzantine culture of icons and religious texts, largely abandoned by a secularised intelligentsia; and modern secular culture itself. Although the heartland of Russia is part of Europe, modern Russian secular literature came into its own very late - 500 years after Chaucer and 200 after Shakespeare. On the backdrop of derivative and secondary 18th-century Russian literature, the Golden Age of Russian letters - the early 19th century - blazed up with a sudden brilliance that would have been unthinkable if Russia had not already been so deeply immersed in European culture. (Aleksandr Pushkin's Tatyana in Evgeny Onegin felt more at home in French than in her native Russian.)
A significant Russian presence abroad extends back to Peter the Great. When serfdom was abolished in 1861 - four years before slavery in the United States - the former serf owners were compensated and, suddenly fi nding themselves with cash in hand and no responsibili ties, rushed off to places like Paris and Baden-Baden, where they quickly squandered it all at the gaming tables and were reluctant to go home. Some of the men became card sharks and certain ladies earned such an "ill repute" that the Russian Embassy in Paris refused to receive them.

For centuries Russians were travellers, diplomats, йmigrйs. And there were the exiles. If some 150 German writers found themselves in exile from 1933-1945, thousands of Russian writers fled their native land for much longer periods. The young Soviet government was basically a cabal of йmigrйs returned to power, their chairs in Paris and Berlin cafes still warm when the new exiles arrived to occupy them. There followed multiple waves of йmigrйs - those who left during the Russian Civil War, during the Second World War, from the 1960s to the collapse of the USSR, and the most recent arrivals, whose motivation is more practical than political.

Exile is a sort of purgatory; it's when you can't go home. But during periods of political confl ict it can also be a profession, as writers abruptly fi nd themselves especially attractive to politicians. Often the country they fl ed from takes the bait and attacks them, providing invaluable advertising. If the Soviet government had simply ignored Pasternak, it is doubtful many Americans would have known even of his existence.

And when the confl ict is over, writers are called back to their native land to "heal" their people. The poet Joseph Brodsky begged off: "I fi nd it difficult to imagine myself a tourist in the country where I was born and raised. That would be just one more absurdity in an existence already replete with them. If a criminal has reason to revisit the scene of his crime (perhaps to dig up the loot), it is senseless to return to a place of love. Of course, I could make the trip, smile, say `yes', and accept congratulations, but that prospect is deeply revolting to me... In general, I doubt [I'll go]."

It was nothing new. In the 19th century Ivan Turgenev was keener to pursue the French mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot than visiting his estate, and the great comic writer Nikolay Gogol was even more emphatic:

"If you only knew the joy I experienced in leaving Switzerland and fl ew off to my beautiful Italy. She is mine! And no one in the world shall take her from me! I was born here; Russia, Petersburg, snow, scoundrels, the office, my university post, the theatre - all this was a dream. I have awakened in my homeland."

But after beating their breasts for decades over their exile status, many Russian exile writers (and not only Russians) remind some readers of a certain character in Brer Rabbit Meets a Tarbaby: "Only please, Brer Fox, please don't throw me into the briar patch."

Now the Cold War is over, it is time to do a cool summing up. What does the "end of exile" mean for Russian letters? Which of the "dissidents" were great writers and heroes and which were pawns in a propaganda campaign? These writers' pronouncements were broadcast over the Voice of America, Radio Free Liberty, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, while publication of their books and the journals that reviewed them was fi nanced by Western intelligence agencies, which then shipped the books clandestinely back to Russia. But, really, is "Western" culture all that different from other countries? How many famous American writers or painters became famous because they happened to frequent the right Parisian cafes and had the right connections? Cultural affinity and affection are only natural for Russia and America, for both are colonies of European culture. The Cold War was an aberration. In the 19th century little Russian boys read James Fenimore Cooper's adventure tales and dreamt of running away to America. They still do today.

John Glad is a former director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies.

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