entertainment

Russia's culturati a pale imitation of worthies of 'Utopia'

Carlin Romano, Inquirer Book Critic

Updated: Sunday, April 1, 2007, 3:01 AM

NEW YORK - Can we learn anything about today's Russian writers and intellectuals by examining their predecessors?

Get a jump on which Russians are coming (are coming!) by pondering a few who are going - that is, Tom Stoppard's 19th-century Russian intellectuals, once his hit Broadway trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, closes next month?

Consider this an attempt by a devoted Russophile and ex-Fulbright professor in Russia - from Philadelphia with love - to spur the conversation as Tony time approaches and Coast awaits its nominations.

First, excuse me nice reader, but big problem here!

Understanding Russia, let alone Russian intellectuals, can be as tough as figuring out the exact composition of Anna Nicole Smith's final chemical cocktail, or as easy as explaining why Americans smile a lot. (We're friendly, we're egalitarian, we had a successful revolution, we. . . .)

It depends on whom you ask.

For Churchill, Russia famously equaled "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." For others, all you need to grasp Russia and its thinkers are a few cliches: a land torn between East and West (hold on to that one - it works for Turkey, too), a people of "Caucasian body and Mongolian soul" (Ambrose Bierce's formula), a huge, pre-global-warming country with a tiny elite, post-peasant masses used to tyrants as leaders, and a political system dryly described by a 19th-century wag as "absolutism moderated by assassination."

Maybe not so big problem!

Either way, the assumption is that Russia and its thinkers, like many countries and their intellectuals, maintain a recognizable caste over centuries (e.g., Germany and its opaque grand theorists). So let's look at Stoppard's troupe, and the Russian culturati around today.

The Coast of Utopia revolves around Alexander Herzen (1812-70), the liberal political thinker who tracked Russian politics from abroad, opposing violent opposition to the czar, but urging the end of serfdom and other reforms.

Another key player is Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), the free-spirited son of Russian gentry who evolved into an anti-czarist revolutionary. He paid for it with jail time and endless dartings to stay ahead of czarist police.

The upshot of Stoppard's trilogy might be this - intellectuals rant a lot, but their ideas catalyze action and bring progress. Many 19th-century Russian intellectuals cared deeply about their country, and risked their lives and money to improve it.

Today? Just as the life expectancy of Russian men sinks to 59 thanks to nonstop drinking and smoking, the "courage expectancy" of Russian writers and intellectuals remains in a tailspin from the days of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and the dissidents.

A few journalists, a few politicians, stand up for Russian freedom and democracy today. But one has to stretch the bounds of "writer" and "intellectual" to catch echoes of Coast.

Former world chess champ Garry Kasparov, author of How Life Imitates Chess, ranks as the bravest figure by far. The brilliant 44-year-old firebrand helps lead United Civil Front, the only opposition group challenging the "Back to the U.S.S.R." eight-year plan of Russian ruler Vladimir Putin.

Like Bakunin in his brooding, volatile willingness to challenge "authority," Kasparov denounces the "corrupt" Kremlin. As Kremlin apparatchiks steal the assets of Yukos and other businesses, he condemns the gap between rich and poor in Russia, calling it "Third World stuff." Kasparov travels with bodyguards in the hope of not joining murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya as a martyr.

If Kasparov mirrors Bakunin's reckless courage, who might reflect Herzen's advocacy, from distant London, of a more democratic Russia?

Oddly, the closest analogue today would be Boris Berezovsky, typically tagged as the first rapacious oligarch Putin chased out of Moscow. The simplification ignores a key fact - Berezovsky, a scientist with a doctorate, owned and ran Russian media with a decided bias, but not the top-down censorship, distortion and intimidation of today.

Russian experts may squeal, "These are the grandchildren of Coast? Nonsense. What of real writers and intellectuals?"

Yes, what of them?

Victor Erofeyev (1947-), the enfant terrible who published the iconoclastic literary almanac Metropol in 1979 to rebuke the U.S.S.R., now hosts a culture show on Kremlin-controlled Russian TV and says, "Putin is a rather good person."

Other princes of Russian literature hide behind postmodernist curtains, punk trappings, genre teflon, literary narcissism. Victor Pelevin (1945-), perhaps the most prestigious Russian writer of his generation, makes no international peep about his country's politics beyond his mixes of sci-fi, po-mo arabesques, and mysticism lite.

Novelist Eduard Limonov (It's Me, Eddie) - a onetime emigré, founder of Russia's fascistic National Bolshevik Party, denounced by Solzhenitsyn as "a little insect who writes pornography" - opposes Putin, but from a militant, nationalist, gangster-worshipping mentality that recalls the worst of 19th-century Slavophilia.

Elsewhere, we don't hear from realist Ludmila Ulitskaya (1943-) or other fine Russian women novelists who publish, win prizes, and stay out of the limelight. Today, much popular Russian literature veers toward escapist pulp, science fiction and mysteries.

And why not stay safely out of sight? When Boris Akunin (nee Grigory Chkhartishvili), native Georgian and Russia's leading mystery writer, denounced Russia's attempt to destabilize its ex-republic of Georgia last year for leaning to the West, Russia's tax police quickly targeted him, as they had Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Finally, there is no worthy successor to Vissarion Belinsky (1811-48), the great literary critic faithfully played by Billy Crudup in Coast as a man devoted to the bond between literature and ordinary people. These days, Russian literary theorists like Mikhail Epstein construct arid theories (he favors the word "potentiation") repulsive to anyone outside a graduate humanities department.

No, if you spend a weekend watching Stoppard's heroes battle till their last breath for individualism and freedom in Russia, today's intellectual and literary elite bear comparison only to Soviet comrades, most of whom gazed at their feet as the Kremlin silenced brave peers.

It's possible things will change. Last month, novelist Vladimir Sorokin (1955-), long an aloof aesthete like Pelevin, tore into Putin in an interview with Der Spiegel, declaring, "The citizen in me has come to life." For now, he stands alone.

Perhaps we should start a contest for the best title of a devilish adaptation of Stoppard's trilogy - by revisionist director Peter Sellars? - that exposes the decadence of today's Russian literati. The Coast of Irrelevancy? The Isle of Inertia?

Trotsky once acidly observed, "From being a patriotic myth, the Russian people have become an awful reality."

One might say the same of the Russian intelligentsia.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.

Carlin Romano, Inquirer Book Critic

Read full story: Russia's culturati a pale imitation of worthies of 'Utopia'