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Tarnishing the Family Silver

The descendants of Russia’s literary pantheon have a cringe-worthy, boot-licking session with Putin.

by Galina Stolyarova 28 November 2013

Young women heading to a bar or disco on a Friday night, and on the lookout for a partner, often receive a certain piece of advice from women’s magazines and lonely hearts columns: Hang out with a nice-looking girlfriend and you’ll improve your chances.


It’s a ruse the Kremlin and its brainchild, the United Russia party, have often resorted to. They have no hesitation in using popular singers and film stars  whenever they feel the need to buff their image. Sometimes, Kremlin spin doctors even try to suggest links between the ruling elite and serious culture. But here they almost always fail.


The problem is that among people willing to play ball with those in power, there may be a number of celebrities, but there are very few substantial cultural figures who ring real bells in the minds of most Russians.


Reputation and moral authority are hard-earned, and those who have them are rarely willing to trade them. A means of getting around this, employed a few years ago by United Russia in St. Petersburg, was to spatter one of its publicity campaigns with quotations from some of Russia’s greatest writers and to festoon the party’s posters with their portraits. The main public response was one of ridicule and the misconceived campaign was soon abandoned.


Despite that rebuff the Kremlin made another attempt this month to cash in on Russia’s lustrous literary past by cozying up to the descendants of our greatest poets and novelists.


President Vladimir Putin met a group of them in Moscow on 21 November, in a session that was heavily publicized and whose highlights duly aired on TV news bulletins. If it sounds a bit embarrassing, it was even worse than you might think.


There was the Russian leader discussing the country’s future with a bunch of people called Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Sholokhov, and Pasternak.


If the event had been a piece of absurd theater with Putin being interrogated by the most brilliant writers from the last two centuries it might well have been worth watching. But the sad group of relatives the Kremlin was able to wheel out failed miserably to make their mark on history or even to say anything useful on behalf of Russia’s troubled intelligentsia.


It was not just because these people seemed minute next to their gigantic ancestors that the occasion seemed so pathetic. It was also because the conversation contained little of note. It seemed that each side was trying to bask in the reflected glory of the other.


The descendants of the great writers were almost falling over one another in their bid to attract the president’s attention by showering him with praise and flattery.


Their sycophantic support for the regime even included sarcastic and critical remarks about protesters who have challenged the authorities with marches and demonstrations, such as the ones on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, in recent years.


The meeting grew out of a joint letter some of these Lermontovs, Sholokhovs, Pasternaks, and Dostoyevskys addressed to the Russian Union of Writers and to Putin earlier this year. The letter called for “literature, books and reading” to be reinstated to “their deserved high position in society.”


It was a noble idea that simply degenerated into self-promotion and into a complacent discussion about the role of political protest.


One of the participants asked Putin “to show mercy on the fallen people,” a phrase more appropriate to the 19th century than the 21st. Apparently, he was asking that those convicted of taking part in nonviolent political demonstrations not be left to rot in prison.


But even in the face of such an abject and feeble appeal, the president showed not a flicker of sympathy at first.

“One must not cross the red line,” Putin replied, adding that in Russia everyone is equal before the law. Not a single guest had the guts to challenge this absurd claim, or to point to the grave injustices meted out in Russia’s courts, and the ways in which these are compounded by police brutality and dire and inhuman conditions in so many prisons. 


But Putin was eventually tempted into a claim to preside over justice. He said the strong state he believed he had built could afford to be merciful. At this the hall exploded in applause.


Dmitry Dostoyevsky, great-grandson of the author of Crime and Punishment, then suggested that prison itself may be no bad thing, and that a spell behind bars could perhaps transform a prisoner into a better person – as in the case of Fyodor Dostoyevsky writing his Notes From the Underground while in jail and coming out in a state of spiritual renewal.


Thankfully, this toe-curling statement was too much for the widow of the dissident writer and Nobel prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who vividly portrayed life in the gulag in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


Natalya Solzhenitsyna argued that pre-revolutionary prisons were more humane than those of the present day. But it was the bad taste left in one’s mouth by Dmitry Dostoyevsky that lingered.


“My great-grandfather committed a crime, he went to jail and he paid the price, but he became a genius,” he said. “It would only be good for the state if today’s criminals and offenders were to undergo such a transformation!”


There is crime. And there is punishment. But this was pure torture.


How many of those rubbing shoulders with Putin realized that they were sullying their own reputations and cheapening the legacy of their ancestors? One cannot sell what one does not have, so the meeting was doomed from the outset.


Discussing the differences between conditions in modern Russian prisons and those of the past – an odd topic for a meeting supposed to be about books and reading – Dmitry Dostoyevsky even pointed that out his forebear was shackled while in prison. You’ve probably guessed the moral he drew from this: that because Russian jails no longer have shackles, the prisoners of today should not be complaining.


Left unmentioned was the moral suffering caused by unjust incarceration. Or the beatings and gross physical abuse inflicted in Russian prisons and penal colonies, and well-documented by victims, justice campaigners, and international bodies.


Putin can only have taken satisfaction from most of what he heard. But the voices that uttered so many complacent and fawning statements can surely claim no moral link with the titanic literary figures from whom they are descended.

Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.

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