Imperialism in Russian Literature

In this conversation with our editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, 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 received her PhD in Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University and has taught at the University of Virginia, Ohio University, Indiana University, and Rice University. 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. Both books have been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Polish. 

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Let us start with the characterization of Russia as an empire. In many articles and books you have written, you tirelessly point out that the Russian Federation should be regarded as an imperial power. However, the world doesn’t seem to acknowledge the imperialistic character of the Russian state. Could you elaborate on what makes you describe Russia in these terms? 

Ewa Thompson: Indeed, Russia likes to pass itself as a nation state among other states in Europe and the world. However, Russia is not a nation state.

Russia would like to be a nation state by Russification of all those nations that are part of the Russian Federation, but Russia so far has not succeeded in doing so. 

The reason that I call Russia an empire rather than a nation state or a regular European state is that 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. Russia lost some of this empire after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it’s still an empire. As you look at nations within the Russian Federation, they staged numerous uprisings — for instance, the Chechens in the 1990s had two uprisings and both were put down by Russia with incredible brutality and force. 

And why the world does not acknowledge that the Russian Federation is an imperial power? 

There are several reasons. 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. 

I wonder, what do you think about the argument that Marek Cichocki provided that the Western world is deceived by the fact that Russia presents itself as a Federation. Federation is an enlightenment concept, which assumes no enforcement of power on other acceding parties. However, behind the federalist veil an authoritarian power is exercised — and this. somehow deceives the Western scholars and academics. Would you also agree with this kind of interpretation for the enlightenment lenses? 

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. No matter what happens, they are secure because Russia will always have trouble subjugating those nations between itself and Western Europe. The trouble will be enough to prevent Russia from further conquests in the west. 

In fact, Russia would like to have an independent France because that’s a nice country to go to and get luxury goods from, and just maintain relations with. So, Russia probably doesn’t have plans to conquer Western Europe anytime soon. But because of this security which Western European nations feel, they prefer not to notice that Russia is imperial because it doesn’t affect them. They are secure. They don’t want to cause trouble. They don’t want a war with Russia, God forbid, this is the last thing they want. These countries prefer to turn a blind eye to the fact that Russia is an empire. They would offer you tea and sympathy rather than real help in trying to extricate oneself from the empire; as I said it happened in Chechnya, and now it is happening in other so-called republics within the Russian Federation. 

Of course, the Eastern Europeans have a completely different history with Russia than Western Europe — and the former’s security fears are much caused by Russia. 

Now I wanted to talk a bit about the literature, specifically Russian literature and its role in both containing the imperialistic ambitions of Russia and influencing the political thought of the Russian leaders. Why does literature have such  great importance for  Russian politicians? Do you see this kind of influence of Russian literature over politics? 

That’s a big topic. 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. 

Look at, say, War and Peace. It is probably one of the greatest novels ever written, there’s no doubt about that, and I think it is a fantastic book. However, you can be a great genius, and Tolstoy certainly was, and at the same time promote wrong ideas. How does Tolstoy describe Russia? Let’s take the course of the war with Napoleon which is such an important part of War and Peace. You remember Napoleon is going towards Moscow, and he finally takes Moscow and then the Russian army is going in the opposite direction, chasing Napoleon. And what do we see? How does Tolstoy describe that? Well, 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. 

All those borderline peoples are simply not important, they don’t count, they will soon be Russified anyway, or already have been Russified. The image of, say, Poland, that Tolstoy gave to millions of readers was extremely negative. I mean, negative in the sense that it was not a country worthy of existence. We know that in reality, Poland actually supplied Napoleon with something like 80,000 strong army and was obviously not on the side of Tzar Alexander, but on the side of Napoleon. All this disappears from Tolstoy’s description and such images remain in the cultures of France, Germany and Great Britain, and have a very powerful influence on the thinking of people in those countries.

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.

This negative image of other nations were present also in Dostoyevsky, as he presented, for example, Poles as really a subhuman species of people. But I wanted to ask 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. This makes it rather different from western literature, which tends to be much more down to earth and presents real people in real societies, say Flaubert,  Balzac,  Dickens, or even Jane Austin. Novels written by these writers present not just characters but also societies.

Now, in Russian literature, I would argue, 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. We cannot really deny that, and that’s a fact. Adam Czerniawski, who is a Polish poet and lives in London, remarked at some point that if Poland had been an independent country in the 19th century, The Doll by Bolesław Prus would have competed with Madame Bovary by Flaubert, and would have won the competition. I agree with this: The Doll is a great novel, but there was no Poland. Who’s going to read works by writers that represent a non-existing nation? 

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”. You also touch upon this problem in your own book “Imperial Knowledge. Russian Literature and Colonialism” from 2000. Could you expand a bit on this mechanism here? What are the prototypical literary characters that embody a demand to be pitied? How did they influence Russia’s self-perception?

That’s a really very complicated question, and there are several layers to that question. I also wrote a book titled Understanding Russia, the Holy Fool in Russian Culture, where 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.

This doesn’t really quite fully answer your question, but this is what can be said in just  a brief conversation. 

We could mention here non-Russian literature. For example, as Uilleam Blacker in the recent Atlantic article mentioned, “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. Ukrainian authors had to choose a strategy of defiance against the “imperial arrogance”. Do you think that the constant struggle for recognition excluded literature from Russia-dominated countries from the access to the Western public?

Oh, of course. 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. This was also done in Poland. For instance, I once did a study of how many copies of Zbigniew Herbert’s books were published in his early period when he was writing his first volumes, like “Struna Światła” or “Hermes, pies i Gwiazda.” I compared this to the number of copies of some third-rate Russian writer. It turns out that for Herbert there was something like 600 copies published in total, whereas for the third-rate Russian symbolist writer — 20,000 copies. It makes a difference. People who buy books don’t know about it, you know, ‘Herbert has all gone, but we have this wonderful Russian writer why don’t you buy this poet?’ These were some of the ways in which literature other than Russian were pushed aside. 

With the Russian invasion, some accounts of its imperialistic pieces of literature appeared here and there in the public sphere. For example, the poem “On the Independence of Ukraine” by Joseph Brodsky has been recalled as a symbol of the ever-present chauvinism of the majority of Russian great writers. In this poem, Brodsky uses ethnic slurs against Ukrainians and mocks Ukrainian independence. You traced a similar mechanism in writings by the 19th-century Russian poets who ridiculed Poland’s strive for independence. Could you say a bit more on this literary trope? What were the changes and what were constant motifs in Russian literature, starting from Lermontov and Pushkin up until the end of the 20th century?

I’m sorry about that because these writers were actually very good writers. Brodsky was a very profound poet, and I was very sorry to discover this poem many years ago. When it comes to Pushkin — again a great poet, but his poem, Na Vzjatie Varshavy [On the Taking of Warsaw] written during the uprising of 1830-31, was an ugly poem. Russian writers tended to side with the Russian government when it came to political issues.

This is again something that is very important.

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.

Some time ago I have noticed in Grossman’s most famous novel Life and Fate on the battle of Stalingrad a conversation between some intellectuals who referred to Chekhov with the utmost respect. They perceived him almost as a utopian theorist of Russian democracy (but they did not believe Russia would ever take this path). According to you, were there any Russian 19th or 20th century writers that indeed believed in a democratic project in Russia? Or did Chekhov himself join the pantheon of writers who justified Russian imperial struggle, and it was only Grossman’s wishful interpretation of his thought?

I consider Chekhov to be a wonderful writer first of all, but I also consider him a writer who writes about ideas rather than about real societies, real life politics and so forth. I don’t think that either Chekhov or his characters had any real program concerning a democratic Russia. They spoke about it, and Chekhov wrote about it, but again — these were ideas rather than real people who exist in a real society. If these were real people that were planning something like democracy in Russia, there would have been some democratic discussion in Chekhov’s texts. Instead, we see people who are sighing after democracy, who are longing for democracy, like in The Three Sisters, they want to live in a democratic society, in a wonderful society where justice prevails, but they have no idea how to go about creating such a society. They have no idea that a society like that requires sacrifice (sometimes of life) and fighting.

It would never occur to a Russian that in order to get democratic Russia, some of the citizens must die — because there must be an uprising, there must be some kind of war between those that rule Russia now, and those that want Russia to be democratic.

 I think that Russians have not reached the level of understanding that democracy requires sacrifice. Both in Chekhov and in other Russian writers there are many invocations of democracy. Characters from The Three Sisters would certainly be very good citizens if you put them into a democratic society, they would be teachers probably, and they would contribute. But on how to reach that society, you have a complete blank, both in Russian literature, in Russian thinking, and in Russian philosophy. There is simply no plan and no understanding that there must be a plan, there must be a fight for a free society. 

Would you say similar to think about Life and Fate by Grossman? He is admired in the west for his representation of the real characters, the action mostly happens in dialogues. He also somehow criticizes the Stalinist system. Could it be said that Grossman is of a new generation of writers who rejected the imperialistic ambitions of Russia? 

Yes, but at the same time, there are many other writers that criticize,  reject, and uphold the dissidents. They usually are sent abroad and that’s all you hear about them. Criticism is one thing, and planning to change is another thing. Just pure criticism it’s really like drinking tea and eating cakes and saying, ‘oh this government is terrible, you know, it would be nice to have a different kind of government’. You finished your tea, you finished your cake, you go home and you think about completely different issues. This is how I think Russian writers and Russian dissidents deal with this terrible system that exists in Russia. They do not try to even think of convincing Russian society that the system should be changed, because Russian society is not at all convinced that the system should be changed. All the polls indicate that Russians complain a lot, but they are not willing to do anything about creating a new society. I would say that Grossman is going in the direction of being more proactive about achieving change in Russia, but it is still very far from inspiring people to do something about it.

It comes to my mind that Sergei Lebedev, the Russian contemporary writer, in the face of Russian aggression has started to help Ukrainian refugees and has rejected to give any interviews about his work because he is really focused on helping. But perhaps this is just one person and does not represent the majority of Russian people.

Yes, that is very noble of him, and I certainly respect him. It’s very hard to criticize someone who’s basically risking his own life and wellbeing by doing something. But many Russians are trying to help the Ukrainian refugees and they declare themselves to be against the war. But there’s no plan among those people to change something fundamentally. Again, one has to remember that one thing is to complain, one thing is to be a dissident, and another thing is to be actually active in changing the system. 

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’. 

I will connect what you have just said to my last question to you. Sometimes discourses change by the violent use of power. Do you think that the hegemonic discourse that Russia has about itself (and had the sole authority to govern this discourse) will be changed with the Russian attack on Ukraine? Do you see any potential for change in perceiving Ukraine right now? Or rather are you inclined to think that the war against Ukraine will be transformed into a novel, Tolstoyan in spirit, again depicting Russia as an innocent victim, only trying to defend itself — the novel which will be based on the propaganda of the Russian Ministries?

I don’t think you can write another War and Peace for the simple reason of electronic communication, we know too much. If we had electronic communication at the times of the Napoleonic wars, we would see that when the Russian armies were going through Poland, say, there was hostility there, but when Napoleon’s army was going through Poland, people came and offered food. Electronic media now help us understand Russian aggression. It’s not simply Russia trying to fight the Nazis to bring Ukraine into the fold. In other words, such a novel cannot really be written today. 

As to whether there will be some kind of awakening in Russia, I don’t know, although I rather doubt it for the following reason. Look at Germany. It changed radically after World War II. And why did Germany change radically? Because foreign armies were in Berlin,  they forced Germans to change their views. If Germany won World War II, they would be worshipping Hitler today.

In order to really make a big change, foreign armies should enter Moscow and that is simply inconceivable. 

I don’t think that anybody plans for anything like that unless it’s an internal affair like an army from Dagestan or Tatarstan. Nobody in the west or anywhere else is thinking of anything like that. There is a difference here between Germany and Russia. Germany changed its profile because it was conquered, it was defeated. Russia has not been defeated, even if it loses the Ukrainian war, it remains a power. I rather think that will take longer than just one generation for Russia to change. But of course, everything is possible in history, it’s not probable, but it’s possible. I wish for Russia to change and to change soon.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Kruthika R

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