I’ve been re-reading Russian lit and have been stunned by one universal theme

I didn’t say to myself one day, “I’m going to read my collection of Russian lit.” There was no such plan. Simply, I decided it was time to re-read Anna Karenina. I was uneasy about doing it, uneasy about the ending which had disturbed me so greatly at the first read decades ago.

Seems that over the years I’ve become more sensitive.

But it was time to face my fears. Yet, before Anna — as a sort of escape, or temporary evasion — I went back to War and Peace. Which had also troubled me a lot in both previous reads. I was fairly sure I’d still regard Natasha’s betrayal of Andrei as heart-wrenching and maddening. But could I give up masterpieces because they did what masterpieces should do — affect me deeply?

Nope. I steeled myself and launched into Mother Russia.

Since I customarily read from a few books each night, I also took down the Nabokov translation (and annotations, more about this later) of Eugene Onegin. This time, though, along with re-reading Onegin, I intended to read the accompanying book, Nabokov’s commentaries, although that volume is three times (I’m not making this up) thicker than Pushkin’s novel-poem (a great story, and a great woman’s story).

Rather quickly I dispensed with the Nabokov commentaries; he was intensely erudite, driven to dissect nearly every word. I was not similarly driven to read Nabokov’s every word. I wanted Pushkin’s every word.

And. Over the past several years I’ve gradually been reading Chekhov’s short stories. I’d bought the thirteen-volume collection for my father, when emphysema had pinned him to a wheel chair so that all he could do was read or be read to, but he hadn’t touched them. After he died, I took them back.

So here I was, perhaps getting over-immersed in a body of 19th century fiction strikingly different from my usual English lit reading. How different? It was an epiphany.

As I read, I found that my reaction to each story and its characters was so distinct from my initial reading, I could have been in another novel entirely. Characters, major moments I’d cherished either didn’t fully exist or had diminished into minor moments. Natasha’s first ball gown, her teenage excitements and anxieties about the ball…not the way I remembered them.

But that sort of thing is, in my experience, a normal occurrence when I re-read. Jane Eyre has become a proto-feminist, while everyone in Wuthering Heights should have been committed long ago to a local psychiatric facility. (How did I ever regard Heathcliff as a model romantic hero?)

Still, my Russian venture has handed me a radically separate perspective in another way entirely. Every novel, every story has one common element: cruelty.

Cruelty is a subterranean river running through Russian literature and, I’ve started to fear, through Russian life. I write “subterranean” because I don’t feel that cruelty is part of any of these great writers’ purpose in telling their stories. I don’t even believe they are conscious of the cruelty. It is simply part of the societies whose stories they are telling.

Of the writers I’ve been reading, Chekhov is the closest in time to us now (his short life ended in 1904). He’s also closest in society to us. He was middle class, a professional working man and an observer of all classes. Unlike Tolstoy and Pushkin, aristocrats, Chekhov didn’t have automatic condescension or contempt for what they all classed and called “peasants.”

Yet every one of Chekhov’s stories is pockmarked with cruel behavior by and to virtually everyone. I am finding it depressing, if not surprising. In his biography of Chekhov, Henri Troyat began with one of Chekhov’s memories:

My father began my education or, to put it more simply, began to beat me, before I reached the age of five. Every morning as I awoke, my first thought was, “Will I be beaten today?”

Cruelty. Oh, and god.

Now I better comprehend the Russian history I’ve recently read, the biographies of Lenin and Trotsky, and Stalin’s World War II warmaking. If tyranny in the form of war lords, tsars and Bolsheviks is Russian political heritage, if what we consider culture did not really begin in Russia until the early 1800’s, if cruelty was (and is?) a consistent element in Russian lives…well, what hope can we have for Russia?

If the wondrous Chekhov can depress me by telling his stories of Russian life, where can I find Russian joy? Is there any?

Yes, in these great Russian writers’ descriptions of the massive country, of the forests and fields. Of snow and rivers, of night skies and signs of spring. Mountains and the steppes.

All of them are lyrical about the land, minus the people. And when they wander off the paths of their narratives into the glory of their natural world, they take the breath away.

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