I’ve finally finished Samuil Lurie’s “Изломанный аршин: Трактат с примечаниями” [The broken cubit-ruler: An annotated treatise] (see this post), and I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book (the reaction of many of Anatoly’s readers at his post — “LOL dude can barely write Russian, what’s he talking about, I don’t get it” — makes me despair of post-Soviet literacy), and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized (and thus makes for slow reading, with frequent pauses to look things up or shoot off e-mails asking for elucidation if you don’t happen to be Russian); 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother (although it does have a clever detective-story aspect which I won’t spoil); and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.
In short: Nikolai Polevoy, an industrious editor, writer, and translator from the merchant class with a desire to improve the Russian Empire (which he loved! no revolutionary he!) according to the best Enlightenment principles, from 1825 to 1834 ran his own journal, Moskovskii telegraf (The Moscow Telegraph), so successfully he was one of the most popular literary figures in Russia. Then his journal was closed down (see the Wikipedia article for boring details) and for the next decade he was relentlessly hounded by the all-powerful reactionary Uvarov, who was so convinced, against all evidence and reason, that he was a dangerous revolutionary that even when Polevoy was dying and desperate he would not allow him to give public lectures on literature, and the all-powerful critic Belinsky, who, thinking that Polevoy had written a vaudeville play in which he was lampooned (a play Polevoy certainly didn’t write and apparently never even saw), spent a decade viciously attacking him and all his works in every available public venue — when a friend suggested after some years that perhaps it was time to let up a bit, that surely the sick and debt-ridden Polevoy had expiated whatever sins Belinsky held against him, responded with a long letter so stupefyingly vindictive and nasty that I think it would make me physically sick to translate it. Only after Polevoy’s death did Belinsky apparently have second thoughts; he wrote a long and laudatory obituary which (because everything of Belinsky’s became sacred writ for the Soviets) is the source of basically whatever little is remembered of this brave fighter for justice (as Belinsky justly called him, though Belinsky had spent years accusing him of being an ignorant hack who had sold himself to the powers of reaction and repression — which is particularly amusing since in the late 1830s Belinsky himself had been stoutly defending said powers of reaction and repression, due to his infamous “reconciliation with reality”).
So now you know the story. There’s lots of fascinating material about Pushkin and whales and the literary life of the 1830s and ’40s (it provides the perfect lead-in to Annenkov’s The Extraordinary Decade, which I’ll be reading next), and if the style appeals to you as it does to me (though clearly it doesn’t to everyone) it’s a pleasure to read, but I can’t recommend it. I want to close by paying tribute to a more recent figure Lurie mentions, Yulian Oksman. Oksman was a brilliant literary scholar who was arrested in 1936 because of a false denunciation (a common fate in those days), spent years at Kolyma, got another five years tacked on for “slandering Soviet justice,” was released in 1946, and resumed his career, eventually receiving the Belinsky Prize for his work on Belinsky. (You see the connection.) You’d think a man with such a past would keep his head down and stay out of trouble, but not Oksman; as soon as he was freed he began a long campaign against everyone in literary-scientific officialdom who had aided Yezhov, Beria, and the other butchers in creating the Terror; he called the denouncers by name at every meeting he could and demanded their expulsion from their posts. Furthermore, he established links with Western Slavicists and sent them the works of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and other Silver Age writers who were non-persons in their native land, as well as his own remembrances of them (he was of their generation, born in 1895). This annoyed the authorities enough that in 1963 a case was built against him; it didn’t wind up going to trial, but he was forcibly retired and thrown out of the Writers’ Union, and when he died in 1970 there was no mention in the Soviet press. I don’t really understand the reckless courage of people like that, but I’m glad they exist and I honor them.