‘The Study of Literature Should Not Be Reduced to Moral Assessments’
Interview with Andrei Zorin
December 14, 2023
  • Andrei Zorin
    Professor and Chair of Russian at the University of Oxford and Fellow of New College
  • Evgenia Vezhlyan
    T-invariant columnist, author of the column Yest’ smysl
Oxford professor Andrei Zorin explains why Russian literature is not responsible for the Kremlin’s policies and why it is dangerous to use historical arguments to justify current conflicts.
The original interview in Russian was published on T-invariant; we are publishing fragments of that interview with their permission.
A view of Front Quad, The Queen's College, Oxford. Source: Wiki Commons
T-invariant: After February 24, the situation in Russian studies has changed a lot. It has different dimensions, different shapes. How do you see this?

Andrei Zorin: Well, of course, everything connected with Russia is under suspicion, and sometimes there are calls to shut down all Russian studies as meaningless and harmful. I think different humanities disciplines are in different situations here. History will not be cancelled, if only because the history of a large number of peoples in Europe and Asia is connected with Russian history – one way or another, Russia and the USSR will also have to be studied.

When I had to give the inaugural address at Oxford, I gave it on Tolstoy. And I said that for all Slavists across the world, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are like union leaders who provide us with decent working conditions, our salaries and positions.

Now, this situation has changed: Russian literature began to be held responsible for many unpleasant aspects of Russian history. Pushkin and Dostoevsky are suffering to a greater extent, Tolstoy and Chekhov to a lesser extent, but they are also suffering.

People speak about the need to revise the canon, to cancel some classics altogether and to transfer others (Gogol, for example) to another national culture. This trend is impossible not to notice. It’s easier for me because I do not have long left. In two years I will retire and I can afford not to pay attention to current trends... But for young people entering the profession, who are at the beginning or at the peak of their career, of course, the problem is serious.

Ti: In fact, the revision of the Russian literary canon began even before February 24. It was clear that the grand narrative about the “great Russian literature” needed rethinking. And we started doing something in that direction. But at the same time, no one doubted the very value of Russian literature. Now the situation seems like a dead end. Can we even find any arguments for what we are doing? Or can we no longer save anything and everything is just falling apart? Should we panic or not?

AZ: You used the word “we” several times: we were shaking the canon up, we were already working on it. I would not include myself in this “we.” I did not undermine any canon. On the contrary, I am a very big adherent of the canon. The literary canon is the joint creativity of generations, something on which intergenerational cultural continuity stands. If the canon is too stiff, of course, it is worth shaking things up, but if it is completely destroyed, culture ceases to exist.

Today, it seems to me appropriate to try to stand up for the canon in new conditions. Any canon is a self-enriching phenomenon, absorbing the experience of new generations, capable of generating new meanings and answering newly emerging questions. It is constantly replenished. New names and texts appear. Some things fade into the background, become less interesting, while others, on the contrary, begin to attract increased attention.

The canon is not a thing, but a process; it does not freeze once and for all, but has its own dynamics. And, above all, it is constantly rethought and reinterpreted: we take from each author and from each text what we need from them now.
Of course, if we do not like the state of the country or public consciousness, then there is a temptation to blame everything on the canon.
In 2004, Oprah Winfrey picked Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for her summer book club. Source: Vk
But literature, even the most brilliant, does not create history, does not produce its traumatic experience. It says something about this experience and makes sense of it. Thanks to great literature, we can understand a lot about culture and social consciousness in general, and not only on the national level.

Russian culture, like no other European culture, was divided. Three hundred years of cultural rift, when the educated elite and the majority of the population looked at each other with misunderstanding and often rejection. From the bottom they looked upward with contempt and hatred; from the top downward it was sometimes with adoration, sometimes with a feeling of guilt, sometimes also with contempt, but always as if looking at a stranger. This is the fundamental trauma of Russian culture.

The Russian literary canon is one of the few, if not the only, institutions where this divide has been bridged. We can say that whereas bad literature is liked only by inexperienced readers and good literature only by experienced ones, great literature is liked by everyone. Here, in the canonical texts, culture is “stitched together.” It seems only here.

Therefore, the study of Russian literature is the most important key not only to understanding Russian society and Russian history, but also to understanding the current state of the country. And this study should not be reduced, as is increasingly happening now, to moral assessments – censure of some geniuses or condescending approval of others.

The finest complexity that is allowed in such a conversation is separating the positive, humanistic component from the terrible, imperialist or, for example, misogynistic component in the work of an author.

Ti: I know that in recent years you have been studying Tolstoy a lot, writing a biography that is intended for a fairly general reader. Is your interest in Tolstoy related to your sense of the current situation in Russia?

AZ: You know, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, there are two sides to the matter. One side is my personal biography. I have been a Tolstoy fan since I was 12, as I just said. I have been reading him all my life. And somehow I could never decide to finally take him up professionally. Partly because I thought that a lot had been written about Tolstoy – what else can I add to what was said by great academics – partly because it was scary... But the moment came when I realized that either I had to take up the subject now, or I would have to forget it. And in this sense, for me it is more a personal than a political issue. A question of age, where I am in life.
A scene from the Soviet film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1960s). Source: Wiki Commons
Meanwhile... When I started studying Tolstoy, I saw that it was trendy. I found myself caught up in a worldwide wave of interest in Tolstoy, which clearly made itself felt during the centenary of his death in 2010, first in the West. Then, like any Western fashion, it gradually came to Russia. And it has not subsided.

During Covid, there was a read-along forum on the English-language internet about War and Peace – 30,000 subscribers with daily discussions and debates. At the same time, two new translations of the novel were published, which were successfully sold out, plus a separate, third translation of an earlier edition. The six-episode series on War and Peace, the film Anna Karenina, the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is magnificent. Etc. etc. We are living through a Tolstoyan boom.

Ti: What is happening?
A number of global trends directly correlate with the ideas of Tolstoy, especially late Tolstoy.
Vegetarianism, environmentalism, criticism of urban civilization, a suspicious attitude toward sexuality very characteristic of the sexual counterrevolution that we are experiencing now, both on the left and on the right.

The idea of nonviolent resistance as the main form of political action (perhaps put into doubt by recent events, but which had been steadily gaining momentum in previous decades). This idea spread more in the form given to it by Gandhi and King, but both Gandhi and King were, as you know, students of Tolstoy.

Or take, for example, the widespread trend of downshifting – Lev Nikolaevich, of course, was a staunch downshifter. And so, take whatever you like: the fight against the death penalty, what is called penal abolition, the abolition of prisons, criticism of the ideology of patriotism, the idea of the universality of human nature... What seemed strange and extravagant in the late Tolstoy has now become very important.

Ti: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about “empire” [imperstvo]. Sometimes it seems like it’s just a label for everything bad. The word “imperialist” seems especially strange when applied to writers. Brodsky, Pushkin. They also sometimes say Tolstoy was an imperialist. But what does that mean? The talk about so-called “imperialness” [imperskost’], if we are talking about Russia, about the history of Russia – what is this?

AZ: Empire is a historical form that created identities based on a distinct division between metropolis and periphery, or colonies. This contrast can be looked at in different ways. Horace and Virgil, whom no one seems to be proposing to cancel yet, were proud of their empire and their emperor, while, say, Lermontov hated his empire and dreamed of hiding from its tsars “behind the wall of the Caucasus.”

Like most historical entities, empires had both attractive and ugly sides. Quite often the metropolis asserted its superiority, including in the cultural sphere, with the most ferocious violence. On the other hand, many empires prided themselves on their openness to people from the lower classes, both in social and ethnic terms. People from the periphery came and made careers in the capitals. Let us just remember Horace, how he became Augustus’s favorite poet... In both Pushkin and Brodsky we can find imperial motifs, as in many great, not very great and not at all great poets, writers, artists from different countries.

Empires arose, experienced golden ages and collapsed. In the 19th century, empires everywhere began to shake, and the 20th century brought the downfall of a series of empires around the world. Because of the communist experiment, the Russian empire in a new shell was preserved 75 years longer than other continental ones, and 30-40 years longer than the large maritime ones.
Today, empire has a bad reputation because many people, especially those involved in big politics, have no sense of history: they think that the era of empires can be revived.
Attempts to do this are fraught with the terrible consequences that we are witnessing.

Empires can be studied, both advantages and disadvantages can be found in them. It’s another matter when an empire naturally ceases to exist, has outlived its usefulness, but people are trying to artificially revive its corpse. This, of course, retrospectively changes many assessments.

Ti: So you want to say that Russia today is such a historical zombie?

AZ: No, I would not say that. Russia, as it was constituted, had a chance of becoming a federation. But it did not work out. As soon as the crisis of statehood was overcome, it immediately began to restore imperial structures, and then remember its former greatness and try to grab some more pieces of the former empire. They say that Ukraine was not on the maps of the Russian Empire. It was not! Just like Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan, etc. [were not]. There was an empire. And then it fell apart because it could no longer exist.

Attempts to revive it and create a golem in its place look unnatural from a historical point of view and, of course, compromise the Russian Empire. It’s not that there was not anything historically bad about it. There were a lot of bad things. But some things were not bad at all. And you can go through it: how was everything set up, why were bright, gifted people involved in building the empire? What did this mean for the conquered peoples? Did this always mean only death, extermination, assimilation? What were the pros and cons? These are all debatable issues if we treat it as a dead historical heritage and not as something that is suddenly a role model for us. The main evil, in my view, is in this “retrospectivism,” and not in empire as such.

Ti: Getting back to Russian literature, where we started. All this has quite a big impact on Western academia. What is it like to be a professor now, teaching Russian literature and Russian culture? Do you feel any changes in attitudes toward you?

AZ: No. But I see that my colleagues are thinking. Some have plans to reorient themselves and focus not on Russian culture itself, but on the cultures of other peoples of the empire that have not previously received enough attention.
Correcting this imbalance is a completely reasonable and natural task. But I do not think that because of this, Russian literature should be thrown in the trash with the terrible word imperial written all over it.
We label all literature imperialistic [imperskost’], and then we say: “well, Tolstoy was OK after all. There is something against empire in Hadji Murad. Sure, Pushkin glorified the empire, but sometimes he also understood some things correctly, but Lermontov definitely transcended it.” You see, it does not work like that. There are always so many different sides to great literature. By the way, in the literature of the colonies there is also always an interest in imperial values and an alignment with them. And this does not compromise it either.
The library at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka). Source: Wiki Commons
Ti: What about your work at Russian universities? You collaborated with RANEPA and Shaninka. Have you continued, or is it over?

AZ: No, I quit.

Ti: Did you quit yourself? Were you asked, or did you just leave?

AZ: I left Shaninka because the program that I invented there and of which I was the academic director for 12 years had run its course.

Ti: Public history?

AZ: Yes, yes. It was the joint decision of the program’s management. We successfully saw through the existing classes, but did not start new recruitment.

Ti: Tell me, what is happening with public history, with history in modern Russia?

There is an interview I gave in 2007 or 2008 to Polit.Ru, when this state obsession with history was just beginning. Back then, the following parallel came to my mind.

During the era of military coups in Latin America, there was a slogan that the army should “go back to the barracks,” in the sense that the military should not rule the state but do its own job. I proposed the slogan: “bring historians back to the lectern.”

People always live by history, and when I gave lectures on public history, I talked a lot about this. People understand historical events differently and relate themselves to them.
But to think that history explains who is right and who is wrong, and can serve as a way to resolve today’s conflicts, is a terrible methodological error.
History can only be studied when we realize that it cannot have direct consequences for today.

Otherwise, it turns into an endless back-and-forth over rights: who lived where and when, and therefore where is whose land? Who are whose ethnic ancestors? Is Kyiv the capital of Ukraine or is it the capital of Russia? And who really has symbolic rights to the heritage of Kievan Rus? If your life today directly depends on the answer to the question of what happened a thousand years ago, then you, of course, will make the answer the result you need.

Therefore, history as a science is possible only when the historian’s conclusions have purely scientific significance for modern times. Then we are able to learn from it. We figure out what happened at some time and realize that these kinds of decisions could lead to such and such. And it’s best not to go down that road because it will not end well. This is how you can talk about history. Klyuchevsky well said that history does not teach any lessons but greatly punishes one for not learning them.

But it’s another matter when we begin to adapt history to our own needs. The amount of amateurish and biased history now goes beyond all limits; even the current president of Russia writes historical works.

And what’s terrible here is not so much that he does not know what he is talking about – that would be OK. People have the most eccentric hobbies... But the terrible thing is that he is instilling in the whole country the idea that this has political significance. That if a thousand years ago Russians and Ukrainians, as he thinks, were one people, then now they are also one people.

This is an unscientific proposition in all respects, but it could be relatively harmless if it was, say, the subject of a dissertation or a topic for an academic conference. But when war and peace depend on his decision, that’s a problem.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy