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You can't understand how Russians think by reading Russian literature

- June 16, 2015

Does Gogol or Pussy Riot tell you more about how Russians think? In this photo, taken on Feb. 19, 2014, a Russian security officers attacks members of Pussy Riot as the punk group tried to perform under a sign advertising the Olympics. (Morry Gash/AP)
James Stavridis, the distinguished retired four-star U.S. admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently made every Russian literature professor’s year. In a post over at foreignpolicy.com, Stavridis claimed that much of what you really need to know about Russian domestic politics and foreign policy could be gleaned from the country’s great works of literature. “Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov,” he wrote. “That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think.” He then gave a run-down of the plot lines of works ranging from Nikolai Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls” (1835) to Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan” (2006).
Everyone should read Russian literature, especially when a former NATO supreme allied commander Europe says doing so would improve international relations. All of us, policymakers included, would be smarter for it. But for most social scientists, Stavridis’s linking great works of fiction to political behavior looks dubious.
First of all, culture isn’t the same thing as high culture — the novels, poems and works of art that get wrapped into a distinct national canon. There is no particular reason to think that Dostoyevsky, for example, reveals something more essential about being Russian — or at least being Russian today — than, say, Russian-language hip-hop. Even then, it is hard to know which creative works are timeless expressions of cultural values and which ones are reflective of an important, but passing, moment in the life of a country.
If you want to know something vital about what it means to be American, are you better off reading Walt Whitman or David Ignatius (in his role as novelist, not pundit)? Ignatius is probably the better bet here, at least if you’re trying to discern how the Washington establishment sees global affairs. Whitman—“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”— might tell us something about the United States, but precisely what is a matter of interpretation. Neither structure nor content is a very good guide. Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” for example, ends mid-sentence, a fact that Stavridis says signals Russians’ “inability to predict a coherent future.” But then again, James Joyce in “Finnegans Wake” and Thomas Pynchon in “Gravity’s Rainbow” used the same technique, but it would be hard to boil down either work to a set of uniquely Irish or American values.
Second, national literary canons get constructed in particular ways for particular reasons. They are not a natural outgrowth of a set of cultural values unique to a given language, region or way of life. They are shaped by global markets, ideologies of purity and nationalism, conceptions of what it means to be an educated individual and often simple accident. The canon also changes over time, and what’s left out of lists of great works of literature can be more telling than what’s put in.
Consider another U.S. example. If you could read only three American authors to get at the essence of U.S. politics, would you choose Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and William Faulkner? Or would it make more sense to go with Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison? Far beyond the plotlines of these writers’ work, the relevant fact in understanding something essential about American culture is that these writers are still often labeled “great African American writers” rather than as plain American ones. As a guide to a given society, the meta-facts about the canon can be more reliable than the canon itself.
Once you start trying to make writers into windows — turning artists into putative informants on the eternal soul of a nation — the project quickly crumbles. Consider Gogol again, one of the writers whom Stavridis singles out as a key exemplar of the Russian mind. Gogol was what we would now call a Ukrainian. He was born in a Cossack village in eastern Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) and began his career by writing short stories that pulled together his experiences of provincial life. Besides his wonderful novels about the absurdities of imperial bureaucracy, he was also the author of “Taras Bulba,” a romantic epic about a Cossack rebellion against Poland — and a work that today stands as a symbol for the way many Ukrainians feel about Russia. The same diverse threads run through the work of any writer. Is Gary Shteyngart, for example, a uniquely Russian émigré voice, or mainly a New York one?
Yet while Stavridis’ claims don’t quite hold up, he does raise an important set of questions about how the social sciences (and, for that matter, policymakers) relate to culture. Is culture even a thing, and if it is, how does it affect the way that individuals and countries act in the international system?
The origins of area studies — the deep examination of the history, culture, economics and politics of discrete world regions — lay in what might be called a Gestalt vision of society: the idea that to “get” a place and its inhabitants, you need to see them as a whole, to try to wrap your brain around the entirety of their collective life. In the United States, that view produced work in the academic and policy worlds that was both wacky and fortuitous.
During World War II, the U.S. Office of War Information launched a series of “national character studies” aimed at determining the essential features of German and Japanese culture. One of those later became “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (1946), anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s famous study of Japan. The book today reads much like Stavridis’s schema on Russia (although based more on anthropological research than literary classics), but Benedict’s work did bring some nuance to the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan. Among other things, it encouraged occupation forces to tread lightly when it came to fiddling with locally important institutions and symbols, such as the Japanese emperor.
For the Soviet Union, the counterpart to Benedict was the similarly titled “The Icon and the Axe” (1966), by James Billington (soon to retire as librarian of Congress). One key to the Soviet Union, Billington held, lay in the deep cultural traits of Orthodox Christian spirituality, with its dominant focus on the world-to-come rather than the world-right-now, and the transformative, axe-like power of the state, slashing and molding society according to its own ideological vision. Like Benedict’s work, Billington’s writing helped shape conceptions of Soviet society by arguing that its Russian core was multidimensional and not timelessly totalitarian. The schema was simplistic, but the basic message was more complex: that there are Russian cultures, in the plural, rather than a single, inalterable way of seeing the world.
It was in the study of the Middle East that many of these “culturalist” approaches found both their most ardent defenders and their deepest critics. Works such as Raphael Patai’s “The Arab Mind” (1973) sought to characterize the Arab world through a reading of child-rearing practices and kinship systems. Other scholars, such as Bernard Lewis, read essential features of Arab life from classics of medieval literature. Both were the target of the most wide-ranging and influential response to culture-based arguments — Edward Said’s monumental “Orientalism” (1978) — but this particular way of seeing the Middle East has nevertheless had a long tail. “The Arab Mind,” for example, reportedly informed the actions of prison guards at Abu Ghraib, under the theory that placing Arab men in sexually demeaning positions would be especially shameful and thus make them more likely to divulge useful intelligence.
The great problem with “culturalism” as a way of seeing the world isn’t that it’s wrong. In some ways, it isn’t even wrong. It is always possible to find American novels that stress individualism, British ones that illustrate the power of class, and Chinese ones that praise social stability. The trick is to know when we’re honestly peering into another society and when we’re just imagining our own through someone else’s lens.
American foreign policy commentators have long believed you could glean something essential from the cultural products of other countries for one simple reason: this is precisely how Americans like to see themselves. Frontier mentality? Read James Fenimore Cooper. Wry pragmatism? Read Mark Twain. Missionary zeal and commitment to a cause? Read Herman Melville. The danger is that “culturalism” becomes just another kind of mirror-imaging. We think we understand another place by getting in touch with its greatest writers. What we’re really doing is imagining a minimally altered version of us — you and me but with the vices and virtues tweaked.
Literature, like all art, tells us more about the human condition than it tells us about the national one. It probably tells us even less about the decisions of the small group of people who actually make foreign policy. As Stavridis writes, “the soaring polls that buoy the Russian president today contain a component of sympathy which stems from intense nationalism, Orthodox faith, an appreciation of the fickleness of the hand of fate, and the salving power of dark humor.” One could certainly glean those themes from Russian novels. But as good ethnography and smart survey work can reveal, real insights usually come from research that breaks down these stereotypes and tries to examine how people actually behave, not the way a national canon says they ought to.
Being culturally sensitive means trying humbly to get at a society’s values, norms, and self-understandings — not just via Twain or Tolstoy but also in how Russians keep their place in a queue when it looks like chaos to an outsider or why Americans view even disastrous foreign policy choices in the frame of their own best intentions. That takes real engagement, honest conversation, and a willingness to accept that the motivations of other cultures and societies are just as complicated, contradictory and changeable as our own. In short, if you really want to know what Russians or any other people think, look up from your novel and just ask them.
Charles King is chair of the department of government at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of “Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul.”