Written by Julia Chamberlain
In March of 2022, the University of Milano-Bicocca canceled a planned course in Russian literature as an act of protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the university quickly reversed its decision, the debate alone points to a disquieting comfort with censorship. No one can doubt the sincerity of the university’s motives: solidarity with the suffering people of Ukraine. However, as librarians, it is within our credo to approach all instances of censorship with a healthy skepticism – no matter how well-intentioned they might be. It might be uncomfortable, but our duty to the public involves grappling with exactly these questions. So, in light of Putin’s war, how are we to evaluate Russian literature?
In canceling their course, the University of Milano-Bicocca encourages misconceptions about the classics of Russian literature. Far from supporting dictators, there is a special dread and hatred of the autocrat to be found in Russian authors: not merely in their works, but in their lives. Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of the monumental Crime and Punishment, was nearly executed for his progressive politics as a young man. Despite an experience that would have terrified most into silence, he still went on to write novels that critiqued nearly all aspects of 19th century Russia. Notes from The Underground and The Idiot are scathing indictments of Tsarist Russia’s debased, materialistic aristocracy. Crime and Punishment is itself a novel about the dangers of ideologically motivated violence: a warning against megalomaniacs and their flimsy justification for taking human lives. I’m looking at you, Putin.
At the dawn of the Soviet era, Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novella, Heart of a Dog, hilariously satirized the growing power of the Bolsheviks: the party of Vladimir Lenin that had seized power in the October Revolution of 1917. The novella follows the misadventures of Sharik: a stray dog that has been transformed into a grotesque, immoral humanoid after an experiment gone wrong. Sharik goes on to join the Bolsheviks, where he finds welcome company as a bully concerned solely with his own power and pleasure. Heart of a Dog is by necessity an incredibly funny book: as without humor, it would be too terrifying to read. Beneath all the wacky predicaments and lame puns, there is an undercurrent of deep unease with a society now controlled by what the author viewed as common criminals: a land where anyone wearing the correct uniform may take what is yours, assault you, or “denounce” you to the authorities for the simple crime of having the wrong views on society.
During the Cold War, Boris Pasternak’s classic 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago was forbidden publication by the Soviet authorities for failing to adhere to “Soviet Realism” – the state-mandated literary school that forbade authors from depicting social problems. If an author were to publish anything short of glowing praise of the Soviet system, they could expect a long stay in prison – if not an unofficial death sentence. At tremendous personal risk, Pasternak delivered his completed manuscript to an Italian publisher (where it was, ironically, published in Milan). Indeed, Pasternak even remarked “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!” The novel would earn Pasternak the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature – though he was forced to decline the honor due to fear of retaliation from the Soviet authorities Pasternak’s ordeal came during the “Khrushchev Thaw” beginning with this ascent of Premier Nikita Khrushchev. As Joseph Stalin’s unlikely successor, Khrushchev sought to distance himself and his people from the long nightmare of the Stalinist era. Among Stalin’s many victims was the writer Alexander Solzhentisyten (pronounced ‘Salts-and-neets-son’). As a young man, Solzhenitsyn was among the tens of thousands of Soviet citizens exiled to work camps in Siberia (known as ‘Gulags’), where they struggled to perform grueling labor in deplorable conditions. Most of these souls were political prisoners whose only crime was failure to conform to the prevailing views of society. Solzhenitsyen escaped with his life and penned the harrowing novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich based on his experiences. As part of his de-Stalinization campaign, the novel was published in 1962 with Khrushchev’s approval. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a miraculous example of literature’s power to effect positive change in even the most tyrannical of societies, as it was instrumental in ending the Gulag system.
All of these titles (and many more) are testaments to the Russian literary tradition and its courageous defiance of autocracy. Literature is more than just stories: it is a means of bearing witness. Literary art does not allow atrocities to be forgotten nor does it leave the dead in silence. Those who can do nothing to stop monstrous power structures may still bear witness – and to silence the voice that spoke when speaking was death is to condemn them a second time. Russian literature is filled with heroes who lost their lives and their freedom to speak-out against injustice: Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam. Consider: these are only the names that are known to us – how many more literary voices have been silenced by Russia’s many autocrats? How many are being silenced in Russia today? How many has Putin murdered in Ukraine? The mark of an unfree society is the destruction of voices we find challenging; when society loses its sense of discernment, it assumes guilt by proxy. Would it not be a miserable hypocrisy to ban works challenging the autocrat in defense of a people fighting the autocrat? It would be a performative activism worse than useless: it would be doing Putin’s work for him.
Putin fears literature. Putin fears free speech. Putin fears people brave enough to challenge him even in the face of exile and death: and that is why he fears Ukraine. As Americans, we owe Ukraine a debt we can never repay. We must be cognizant of our freedom of speech and the tremendous privilege it affords us. It is a privilege denied to most; it is a freedom Ukraine is fighting and dying for.. As human beings, failure to support Ukraine would be unconscionable; as librarians, failure to challenge censorship would be a violation of our ethos. These events might seem distant to us in the United States – but morality knows no distance. So then, what can we librarians do to challenge Putin? What can you, the average patron, do? You can read Russian literature – and we can supply it to you. You can read these imperishable works of dignity, despair, and victory over the autocrat. You can read them side-by-side with Ukrainian literature as you learn the Russian and Ukrainian languages. You can donate to reputable charities supporting Ukraine and sign them “Bulgakov” and “Pasternak” and “Mandelstam.” We at the New Haven Free Public Library have excellent resources to help you do all of that. Literary art is a thing of endless power; it is your duty as human beings to use it to fight injustice wherever it exists. It is our duty as librarians to give you the tools you need to fight it.