Lately I’ve been musing on general and perhaps unresolvable questions about what might be called the culture of Russian literature. One such topic is the turn to social realism that it took in the 1840s and maintained more or less uninterrupted for generations; all of Europe had a Balzac period, but only Russia was so stubborn about it. (There is an interesting discussion about this going on at XIX век [The tyranny of the radical critics, part 1, part 2].) Now, as I read Sollogub‘s 1841 Аптекарша [The druggist’s wife], another has started vexing me. The story begins in a way that’s become a cliché/signifier for Classic Russian Literature: “Уездный город С. – один из печальнейших городков России” [The provincial city of S. is one of the saddest towns in Russia]. This raised a smile, but when the second section started with a jump in time and space and I read “Городок, в который я вас хочу перенести, читатель мой благосклонный, совсем не похож на тот, которым я так грустно начал повесть свою об аптекарше” [The town which I wish to carry you off to, gracious reader, is completely unlike that with which I began my tale of the druggist’s wife in such a melancholy way], it occurred to me to wonder about that cliché. Why are towns in Russian literature always (or almost always) unnamed? Once you descend below the two great capital cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there is nothing. In the United States, every city has associated books; we can all think of famous novels set in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but even relatively two-bit regional centers like Albany, N.Y., have dedicated chroniclers like William Kennedy. You can get to know pretty much any city in America by immersing yourself in novels if you’re so inclined; authors love to try to do for their hometowns what Joyce did for Dublin.
Not so in Russia. Ancient towns like Rostov and Pskov; important regional centers like Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan; proud Siberian cities like Tomsk and Irkutsk—none of them, as far as I know, feature in literature beyond occasional mentions. Authors came from them, but they didn’t write about them except in their memoirs (as in Gorky’s autobiography about growing up in Nizhny). Now, one obvious response would be that Russia is far more centralized than the U.S., and all cultural life is concentrated in the capitals; while there’s some truth to that, it needn’t have had such a drastic result. Even if writers had to live and work in Petersburg or Moscow to have a career, why couldn’t they have written with affection (or spite, as the case may be) and deep local knowledge about the places they were from or in which they had spent time? Instead, when they wrote about cities other than the capital it was almost always a generic “city of N” (or S, or whatever other letter caught the writer’s fancy). This seems to be changing (recent novels have been set in places like Kazan and Kaliningrad), but it was true for a very long time, and I think it requires explanation.
Addendum (Dec. 2014): I’ve just found a perfect example at the start of Anastasia Marchenko’s story Гувернантка (“The governess,” from her collection Путевые заметки; see this post):
Три часа пробило на колокольнѣ маленькаго городка, названіе котораго я не нахожу нужнымъ объявлять вамъ, не потому, чтобы я хотѣла скрыть тщательно отъ васъ это названіе, или чтобъ подобная таинственность была необходима для лицъ моей повѣсти; — совсѣмъ нѣтъ я, просто, не хочу пуститься въ географическое описаніе и заставить васъ отыскивать (пожалуй, еще по картѣ) въ такой-то губерніи. подлѣ такой-то рѣчки, незамѣченный доселѣ городокъ… Не все ли равно, въ Сибири, или въ Украйнѣ совершалось это происшествіе нашей вседневной жизни? вѣдь вы не пойдете собирать справки въ вѣроятіи разсказа, а принуждены вѣрить автору на слово.
Three o’clock sounded from the bell tower of a small town, whose name I don’t feel I need to announce to you, not because I want to carefully hide the name from you, or because that kind of secrecy was essential for the people in my story; not at all — I simply prefer not to embark upon a geographical description and force you to track down (maybe even on a map) in such-and-such a province, by such-and-such a river, a town hitherto unnoticed… Isn’t it all the same whether these events of our daily life took place in Siberia or Ukraine? After all, you’re not going to go around collecting information to verify the likelihood of my story, you’ll have to take the author’s word for it.
I note that she uses the preposition в rather than на with the name of Ukraine, as preferred by Ukrainians today; I don’t know what current use was in the 1840s or whether it depended on geography (she grew up in Kovno, now Lithuanian Kaunas, and moved to Odessa as a teenager, shortly before publishing the stories), but I thought it worth mentioning.