The Provinces.

Back in 2010, I linked to Anne Lounsbery’s “To Moscow, I Beg You!”: Chekhov’s Vision of the Russian Provinces; she’s since incorporated her thoughts from that and other articles into her new book Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917. I am looking forward to acquiring it when used copies become available at a reasonable price (the Kindle version is a very reasonable $9.99, but this is one I want in hardcopy); in the meantime I had a sample delivered to my Kindle, and I’ve been enjoying it so much I wanted to quote some passages. Fortunately, I found another article of hers, “No, this is not the provinces!”: Provincialism, Authenticity, and Russianness in Gogol’s Day, that has some of the same material in easily copy-and-pasted form, so I will take the easy way out and copy-and-paste a few paragraphs from that:

Ever since the founding of Petersburg in 1703, Russia has been in the rather anomalous position of having two capital cities. Both Moscow and Petersburg are undeniably capitals (stolitsy); each has inspired its share of literary paeans and literary attacks; each has been described and redescribed in terms ranging from the sociologically precise to the mystically evocative. But “the provinces,” on the other hand—and particularly the provincial city—have often been represented simply as the not-capital, as the embodiment of lack. The history of the word provintsiia and its cognates reflects this. The noun provintsiia entered Russian with Peter the Great’s reforms, when it was used to designate a large administrative and territorial unit of the Russian Empire. In 1775, under Catherine, another round of reforms did away with the term, replacing it with guberniia. After provintsiia lost its concrete administrative meaning, it came to refer simply to the not-capital, to things outside of Petersburg and Moscow; at the same time, it began to serve less as a real geographic designation than as a qualitative judgment.

But the designation “the provinces” does not refer to absolutely everything outside of Petersburg and Moscow, because the label “provincial” does not focus on rural life per se. Rural life is the village (derevnia, derevenskii). Instead, provintsial’nyi (or gubernskii) typically describes provincial cities and towns—places like N, the setting of Dead Souls. Similarly, a nobleman’s estate, regardless of its location, can be deeply provincial or not provincial at all. (For example, a huge lavish estate like the Sheremetevs’, complete with its own opera company, cannot accurately be described as provincial.) It is therefore crucial to recognize that in this sense of the word, peasants are not provincials, and peasant culture is not provincial culture. Above all, peasants are associated with a folk authenticity—and as I will argue, it is precisely authenticity to which the provincial sphere has no legitimate claim. Peasants are not trying and failing to follow the mode of the capital; they are not implicated in the system that Franco Moretti has described as “fashion, this great metropolitan idea … this engine that never stops, and makes the provinces feel old and ugly and jealous—and seduces them forever and a day.”

Russian literature’s preoccupation with provinciality seems to go hand in hand with the absence of a strong regionalist tradition. The striking frequency with which the peculiarities of European Russia’s huge array of local subcultures are collapsed into the label “the provinces” suggests that this literary tradition is not one in which particular regions (regions within European Russia, that is) have strong associations with particular meanings. Compare this to canonical European novels, in which, as Moretti has argued, quite typically “what happens depends a lot on where it happens.” In Jane Austen’s plots, for example, narrative complications generally arise in certain English counties,and these narrative complications then meet their (matrimonial) resolutions in certain other counties. Furthermore, English Gothic novels are virtually never set in the regions where Austen’s narratives unfold. This indicates that Britain’s and even England’s internal borders, those that divide regions, are meaningful for the narrative structure of English prose. In France, Balzac’s enormous Human Comedy develops a whole anatomy of the country’s very different, highly individualized provinces. While Lucien Chardon (in Lost Illusions, 1837–43) is as desperate to escape the provinces as any Russian hero has ever been, Chardon’s cheerless provincial hometown is a real place (Angoulême),and Balzac describes this real place in great historical and social detail. The same holds for the American tradition: we have learned to expect entirely different things of a story set in Oxford, Mississippi, than we expect from a story set in Maine. In fact, to a large degree American prose fiction (and particularly American realism) developed in response to the pressures and contradictions of regionalist perspectives.

All of which is extremely relevant to my 2013 post about the “city of N” and the lack of regional literature in Russia (using “regional” in Lounsbery’s sense of ‘part of traditional Russia outside the capitals, not the borderlands’).


  1. It feels kind of kind of contrived and circular in argumentation, to push a thesis that Russian literature willfully ignored regional differences by taking all stories about peasants and ethnic minorities out of considerations (because these people people had specific ethno-regional labels, while the “generic provincials” adhered to generically Russian cultural norms and were largely educated people looking in awe towards the grand centers of culture and learning in the capitals). This way, the authors as intensely region-aware as Gogol or Leskov are painted as chroniclers of un-geographic mishmash. Of course a satirical image of the generic backward Russia exists in Gogol’s or Saltykov-Shedrin’s works too, but their protagonists in this generic province aren’t what the Russians would call the “provincials” (провинциалы). The provincials are often more generous and sincere than their capital counterparts, despite being less well rounded. Sobakevich isn’t a provincial in that sense.

    BTW Russia had the third official capital, the spiritual one, the holy city of Kiev.

  2. Gogol did chronicle an un-geographic mishmash in Dead Souls, and the early stories aren’t about the Russian provinces. Leskov does have more specificity than most 19th-century writers, but that’s not saying much. You’re ignoring the basic point that there is no Russian equivalent to the regional literature of France, England, or the US.

  3. I would be surprised if regional literature of France wasn’t written in Paris with regional details being mere props. But I don’t know it. Leo Tolstoy and Pushkin prose did the same, adding regional colors for verisimilitude. Ostrovski or Bulgakov were also based in the regions they wrote. Sorry, Language, I continue to feel that the paper was mere стёб in its attempts to squeeze the literature of Russia between Dead Souls and Sinyavsky…

  4. It all has to do with rather late and sudden emergence of Russian classical literature (from zero to world’s best in two generations).

    There was simply no time to develop regional literature (nor any realistic means to support it economically outside of capital cities), but it did appear close to the end of imperial Russia.

    Most of it arose even later becoming part of Soviet literature.

    Quiet Flows The Don, for example, is so regional that it is set in concrete stanitsa (Cossack village town) and khutor (family farm).

  5. I continue to feel that the paper was mere стёб in its attempts to squeeze the literature of Russia between Dead Souls and Sinyavsky

    Maybe take a look at this JSTOR page for the book, where you can at least see the chapter titles and a few sentences from each; it is, of course, ridiculous to judge a scholar’s entire work by a few paragraphs quoted from a fifteen-year-old paper. She has a great many things to say and supports them with a great many details; it’s not just some hand-waving “this is how it seems to me” blather. It’s a scholarly monograph, not a blog post.

  6. Russia was still strikingly under-urbanized by the end of the 19th century. To make things worse, most of its towns hadn’t played the same social and economic roles as European towns – until perhaps the turn of the 20th century, when capitalist development turned some of them into genuine commercial hubs. Odessa came close to being a real city around 1900, but it’s outside Russia proper and barely had two decades to nurture its own fiction. Other commercially successful towns, mostly in the south and the east, held a great promise but the Revolution cut it short.

    Actually, you can find Russian regionalist fiction even in the 19th century but it’s mostly in the second and third tiers, so to say. Melnikov-Pechersky. Reshetnikov. Mamin-Sibiryak. A few stories by Leskov and Korolenko. In the pre-WWII Soviet period, Shishkov, Bazhov (both born in the 1870s), and Shergin.

    Kamensky, obviously, although he was primarily a poet. Chekhov’s three sisters lived in a hopeless city that resembled Perm. Fifteen years later, the futurist Vasily Kamensky would declare himself “the enlightener of Perm,” give public lectures there (“How to live in Perm on the Kama”), and even call the city his bride.

  7. Huh, I’ll have to give him a try.

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