I’m digging into The Russian Context: The Culture Behind the Language by Eloise M. Boyle and Genevra Gerhart (which I wrote about here), and I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about it, but right now I just want to quote this paragraph from the introduction to the Literature section (which “contains those quotations from literature that the educated Russian carries in his head, and that a student of Russian will encounter not only in everyday conversations with Russians, but when he picks up a newspaper or turns on the television”); it provides a concise explanation of a well-known phenomenon:
Educated Russians carry a virtual library around with them, not necessarily because of an innate interest in literature, but because their teachers (and sometimes parents) made sure it would be carried around: practically everyone in the country has been required to memorize essentially the same bits of poetry and prose. (Scratch a Russian, any Russian, and you can hear about a green oak tree at the seaside with a golden chain around it.) Such memorization led to a shared interest in and understanding of literature, which then became a way for people to communicate with one another. This led in turn to a sense of community felt at poetry readings and other literary events. This fodder for allusions is therefore readily available to all, and is found everywhere in Russian life: in speech, in advertising, and in journalism.
I wrote about the green oak here:
Pushkin, of course, is a far greater poet than Landor, and he is not only a classicist; his Mozartean combination of classical expression and frequently romantic sensibility can be found in English poetry only in Coleridge. What Nabokov calls “the extraordinary lines, among his greatest, that Pushkin added in 1824, four years after its publication, to the beginning of Ruslan i Lyudmila (‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]…’) is the only thing in any language I know that can be set beside Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”
I could wish there were a similar literary culture among my own countrymen.