My Favorite Russians

I.

This week I teach Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a wild ride of a novel that gets you into the head of a murderer.  It is heavy stuff, hard to read, and not because of the sentences.  You feel like you are on a roller coaster, in the mind of someone who might be a sociopath, or a political malcontent, or just a guy who is so crushed by poverty that he doesn’t really know what he is doing.

Except when he does.

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Even before William James was talking about “stream of consciousness,” before his brother Henry was becoming the father of the “psychological novel,” Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing the prose that happens after you have experienced things like flirting with political dissent, enduring the spectre of epileptic seizures, facing a firing squad.

I kid you not.

About that firing squad: miraculously, Tsar Nicholas the First scribbled a little note. Dostoyevsky and his fellow members of the Petrashevsky Circle were saved from death. Instead, they were sent to Siberia for years of hard labor. No wonder Crime and Punishment is filled with excruciating twists and turns. No wonder it addresses the reality of the miracle in the grittiest and coldest of scenes, in the most hopeless of circumstances. This is when miracles are needed the most.  Dostoyevsky knew something about that.

The pressure of teaching this novel to American students is the feeling that you need to explain the whole phenomenon of Russia–not just the country, but the idea of it–in order to understand its literature.  Of course, this is impossible, but the novels and music of Russia are so great, you want to try.  It is a tough course.  As Winston Churchill famously stated in 1939, Russia can only be defined as  “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But like all mysteries, if you have a curious turn of mind, you want to solve it.  I want to tell my students about the other novels I have read that were so important to me, but I resist.  This is not about me.  It is about every Raskolnikov that we hear about on the 5 o’clock news, and what on earth we are going to do with him.  It is about how we are going to explain his terrible crimes, and the way we are going to cope with how things have gone so horribly wrong, how things have come to this point.

On some level, this novel is not about the criminal.  It is about us, and what we do with criminals.

Crime and Punishment was published in 1866.  The protagonist, (not hero), Raskolnikov, studies the law for awhile. He kills women who have more money than he has.  His name has something to do with the word “schismatic.”  He defies our reasoning. The person who helps him the most is a prostitute.

I guess I will have to lecture on “Realism.”

II.

In the seventies and eighties, my father worked in the energy business.  He went to Moscow.  He told me that when he came back to his hotel room at night, all the lights were turned on, and his belongings had been searched.  He got out of line while waiting to see Lenin’s tomb.  Whistles were blown, and he got back in line.  He brought me back those little Russian dolls, the ones that fit inside each other:  the smallest an enigma, the next smallest a mystery, the whole set a riddle.  I could tell nothing about what Russian women were like from those little dolls.  They were just little characters with scarves. They could be propped up in a Disney ride. They could sing “It’s a small world after all” and make you feel like we can understand each other if we really try. They were wooden, with painted smiles.  I still have them, somewhere.

III.

When I was in college, I studied history.  But no history was more intriguing to me than Russian history.  I had the best Russian history professor, Dr. Wallace Daniel. He had done study at a university in Russia–I think it was in Saint Petersburg, but I could be wrong. He said that his Russian roommate never went to class and smoked a lot of cigarettes.  Dr. Daniel was fluent in Russian.  I think he was perfectly fluent. When he lectured to us, in Waco, Texas, it was, of course, in English.  Sometimes, he had a slight stutter when he spoke.  He was the best lecturer I have ever heard.  He emphasized everything through a repetition that cannot be bought.  I had perfect notes. Thanks to him, I learned about Nicholas and Alexandra, Faberge, Rasputin, firing squads, Peter the Great, Dr. Zhivago, Turgenev, nihilism, Pravda, The Master and The Margarita, Chekhov, Siberia, the importance of ports, Ivan the Terrible, and why it is useful to know the phrase “Imperial Russia.”  He taught me about glasnost and banging shoes on tables, and what Khrushchev meant when he said “We will bury you!”

Thanks to him, I can use “Slavophile” correctly in a sentence.

Dr. Daniel was the one who had Robert K. Massie, who wrote Nicholas and Alexandra, come to our campus and speak!  We weren’t exactly getting our history of the Romanovs from Wikipedia.  We were that lucky.  In the Russian roulette of professors, I had Dr. Daniel.  He had us read novels as well as history.  We saw film footage of the siege of Leningrad.  He knew what he was doing.

Putin and his combination of political prowess and histrionics is no big surprise if you were lucky enough to have had Dr. Daniel as your professor.  Now, Wallace Daniel is former Provost and Distinguished University Professor at Mercer University in Georgia. Sometimes, for obvious reasons, I wish he were President.  He would know what to do about the Ukraine, the Crimea, the other Georgia.  It helps to know more about a country than what they present at an opening ceremony or a sporting event.

Once, I went on a trip with my university to Europe.  We saw London, we saw France, and coming back to Waco I didn’t have a chance:  I was deeply depressed to have left behind Amsterdam, Bruges, Dublin, Dijon. So many books and things you had read about in books.  Cathedrals, war rooms, parks, French people.  Plus, I had met an actor.

When I came back, I went to Dr. Daniel’s office, asking some dumb question about a paper.  Then I sort of started crying.  I was about nineteen. How was I going to live in Waco now?  He looked around the office, no kleenex to be found. He didn’t give me some condescending pep talk about how great things were.  He said he felt the same way the first time he came back from Russia.  He told me about some books I might like.  It didn’t matter that it was 98 degrees outside in Texas. I knew all about Siberia, and I was so there.  He told me I would go back to Europe, there was so much to see.

Two days after I graduated from college, that is exactly what I did.  I was in Europe for four months.  He was right. About everything.

IV.

Saturday night, my twelve-year old, Christopher, who is also a violinist, and I head to Jones Hall.  We have tickets to my favorite Russians, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. They are both Russian, but nothing alike, although they both wrote scores about Romeo and Juliet.  You cannot really generalize:  different sensibilities, different centuries. We listen to ABBA on the way:  “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Take a Chance on Me.” There is no generation gap–we both know all the words.  It doesn’t matter that ABBA is from Sweden–they are so much part of American music that we have adopted them in our heads no matter what.  Just as it does not matter that Tchaikovsky’s overture is about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, because longing is longing–there is no language barrier. Sometimes star-crossed love has no border, and a disco is exciting whether it is in Paris or Waco.  I want to tell Christopher that when I was in college, I went to this place called The Outer Limits–you could go and dance even if you were underage.  But I don’t:  ABBA is busy telling us that the winner takes it all, and we fly down 45 like we own it.

We listen to the exquisite score of Romeo and Juliet–I know you would recognize it. Then there is a famous cellist for the pieces by Tchaikovsky and Fitzenhagen.  His name is Johannes Moser, and he is young and wears red socks. He is German and Canadian, both exacting and subversive.  I have never been to a symphony performance where the star gives an encore before the intermission, but this is exactly what he does. He plays Bach, and it is excellent.  I wonder how many hours he has played the cello.  He also smiles while playing. You don’t see that every day. I wonder if I could live without music. That would be hard. I really can’t think about it too deeply.

Prokofiev rounds the night out–some of it is sweet, but the dissonant parts remind me of how I would sneak staying up when I was younger to watch that show that came on really late called “Night Gallery.”  That show scared the daylights out of me.  So does Prokofiev sometimes–so modern, yet so popular.  Americans perform his music more than any country in the world.

V.

Once I was teaching at a university and I was called into a meeting because a newish professor of a lower rank claimed that I was not teaching the curriculum required for our courses, courses just like the one in which I teach Crime and Punishment. Like a perfect KGB agent, he had reported me to the the proper authorities, and an investigation ensued.  Very Soviet.  I wondered to whom he was reporting all of these accusations. Anticlimactically enough, I was teaching what was on the departmental syllabus. I wasn’t teaching from some fantasy reading list, one in which I assume this person thought I would teach not-so-great texts.  I am not exactly known as a “break the rules” kind of girl.  He told me that some students said I was teaching a different book than the ones required–an “anthology.”  He said it like it was a dirty word, as if I had committed a crime.  I asked him if he was some sort of police person.  I asked him who these students were–how can you mix up 8 books and an anthology?  He said he didn’t know their names, couldn’t even remember who they were.

I wondered if he had made it up.

Anyway, you might think that I was kind of angry about this, the insolence of it, the disrespect for rank, the disregard for facts, the idea that someone who didn’t know me at all felt like I needed some kind of intervention, some sort of surveillance, just to make sure that I was doing what HE thought I was supposed to be doing.  For heaven’s sakes you just can’t go around teaching Chekhov when clearly that is not on the syllabus without “approval” and all, right?  I guess he was trying to get me in some kind of “trouble.” It was an awkward meeting because this professor felt entirely justified in questioning my judgment even though I had taught at least 10-15 years longer than he had.  But what difference does that kind of experience make when you are an academic vigilante, with so much time on your hands that you can monitor the teaching of others, and not just yourself?  What difference does rank make when you are such a special, exceptional assistant professor, who obviously thought my chair and dean needed his assistance in monitoring my teaching activities?

I know:  it is hard to imagine.

I thought of Wallace Daniel saying in class:  “A functioning police state needs no police.”  I think William Burroughs actually said it, but we all got his drift.

So I looked around the room, and I thought about how Dostoyevsky was just the tip of the iceberg for the Russian novel, and that maybe our syllabi could definitely be improved now that I was being interrogated about it and all. How I wondered what Wallace Daniel would make of this:  this insistence on monitoring me by the local academic police. I thought of how Dr. Daniel led me to Pasternak, Turgenev, Tolstoy.  I thought of how my Dad, in the sixties, had actually won a set of the Great Books in a contest, and how those books took up shelf after shelf after shelf.  You could never get through all of the “great texts” in a semester, maybe not even in a lifetime.  I thought about how certain kinds of people are for regulation, and certain kinds of people are for freedom, and how studying Russian history can help you make up your mind about which one of those camps you might pick to pitch your tent.

I thought about how Anna Karenina was the most important novel for many writers, including Norman Mailer, and how long it was, and if that novel might be okay with this assistant professor if I dared to stray from the departmental syllabus and just teach it anyway.  I wondered what harm that might do.

I wondered if he had even ever read Tolstoy.

I thought about how grateful I was that I knew in my heart that The Cherry Orchard was an essential play, no matter what the syllabus states, and how I knew that from Wallace Daniel.  I thought about how in Anna Karenina a character named Levin is condescending to the true aristocrats, and how they find this excruciatingly amusing. His patronizing attitude is their entertainment.

I walked out of that meeting thinking how exquisite the lines are in Tolstoy, even from the very first page:  “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I hear the news, you cannot escape it: Putin is staged to invade territories that he thinks are Russian anyway.  He already feels they belong to him, that he knows best.

I have never been to Russia; don’t know any Russians.  Yet, despite the distance, I have my favorites.  They are the ones who have written the music played in Jones Hall on Saturday in Houston.  The ones who have written the words that describe the frigid winters in Russia, even if we read them in the April sun, in Texas, a state that likes to boast about its independent nature, its love of being free.

5 responses

  1. Hopefully Crime and Punishment does not get removed from the syllabus. If it does, I will insist that you become a rule breaker, and I can show you how.

    • Yes, show me how! That is how America came into being–lots of rule breaking!! I first read Crime and Punishment at KFHS–it should be in high school so that in college you can do the next level–Turgenev, Chekhov, etc. IMHO. :-)

  2. Exquisite. This is so different from your other pieces. I really enjoyed this kind of snapshot combination-like pearls on a string.
    It must be nice to have had that professor. Know that you impacted us in the same way.

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