Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2017

Russian Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2001), by Catriona Kelly

The first thing to say about this VSI on Russian Literature is that it needs updating.  Authored by Catriona Kelly from Oxford, it was published in 2001 – ten years after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and you only need to look at the Russian category on Stu’s blog at Winston’s Dad and here at ANZ LitLovers to see that not only are there now numerous post-Soviet writers clamouring for our attention but also that books suppressed under the Soviet regime are now seeing the light of day. These recent titles – none of whose authors get a mention in the VSI – include:

But that is not my only reservation about this VSI.  I found the whole approach a bit disconcerting.

In the Introduction, for various reasons (14/11/17, see update below), Kelly rejects the three forms common to introductions to national literatures: the canon; the sketch of literary movements and cultural institutions, and the subjective personal appreciation approach.  (Alas, I was expecting something rather like a combination of those, which I think would have been rather useful).  Unsurprisingly, given the brevity of the VSI series, she also declines to try the strong central thesis or the in-depth analysis approach.  Instead, she decided to centre it on the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare i.e. Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837):

Pushkin’s writings themselves touch on many central themes in contemporary literary history, from the colonisation of the Caucasus to salon culture.  Many different critical approaches have been applied to them, from textology, or the comparison of manuscript variants, to Formalism, to feminism. The development of the ‘Pushkin myth’ (the writer as ‘the founding father of Russian literature’ raises all kinds of interesting questions about how literary history is made, about how the idea of a ‘national literature’ comes into being, and about the way in which these processes made certain kinds of writing seem marginal (writing by Russian women, for instance).

The trouble is, pitching a VSI to Russian Literature via Pushkin is problematic since most of the English-speaking readers to whom the VSI series is pitched won’t have read Pushkin except in translation, which is not usually an encouraging experience.

Kelly begins, in Chapter 1 ‘Testament’ by acknowledging this difficulty of Pushkin for non-Russian readers.  On a pedestal in the Russian literary world as the ‘greatest’ among Russian writers, Pushkin’s position is less secure among readers reliant on translation.  Outside Russia, admiration rests on the great prose writers exploring ideas and moral dilemmas – with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at the pinnacle.  Pushkin didn’t write any comparable novels, and he does not even seem particularly ‘Russian’.  But undeterred, Kelly goes on to explain, in some detail, Pushkin’s intense sensitivity to stylistic register, to the connotations of words especially the opposition between Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy, and those of native Russian origin – well, that’s interesting up to a point, but this genius of Pushkin remains inaccessible to us.  Translations of Pushkin’s style are problematic.  Kelly says that modern linguistic taste has changed in the English-speaking world but not in Russia.  It follows that translations admired by native speakers of Russian tend to go down badly with native speakers of English, and vice versa.  For most us, reading Pushkin in clumsy translation is as close as we’re going to get.  (I did not like Anthony Briggs’ version of Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin at all).  Kelly thinks this problem is best served by multiple translations.  Well, maybe.

(BTW, I may not have liked Briggs’ translation, but I did like his more down-to-earth explanation of why Pushkin is A Big Deal).

Moving on,  Kelly sets out to frame her VSI in her own idiosyncratic design.  She says that Pushkin’s 1836 poem ‘I have raised myself a monument’ (reprinted in Russian and in Kelly’s translation) reveals seven themes of universal resonance in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian culture and she uses them as the basis of the chapters in the VSI:

  • memorials to the famous as expressions of state power and cultural authority;
  • a writer’s ‘monument’ in the sense of his posthumous reputation;
  • other writers as ideal readers;
  • a writer’s role as a teacher to his nation;
  • the writer as a member of polite society;
  • the part played by literature in colonising, or civilising barbarian nations;
  • the relationship between writing and religious experience.  (p.14, writing them as dot-points is mine).

Photo credit: The Spouse

Chapter 2 ‘Writer memorials and cults’  discusses this famous statue of Pushkin in Moscow, (where we duly paid homage when we visited the city in 2012).  It’s an icon that testifies to the lasting hold of Romanticism on Russian literary culture … his pose and expression of fierce concentration suggesting he is gripped by inspiration (when in fact he slogged over his drafts just like ordinary mortals do).  Ok, but the rest of the chapter about the cult of Pushkin and the commemoration of other authors seemed a bit pointless to me.  (It’s rather like discussing British literature through the prism of tourism at Stratford-in-Avon or the tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral…)  I hoped for more in Chapter 3, ‘Pushkin and the Russian literary canon’…

Pushkin’s eventual realisation that he was the literary hero that Russia was looking for, faltered a little under the Soviets who thought he was no more than a supremely gifted member of a reactionary cultural elite but changed their minds under Stalin when he was thought to be an artist of supreme talent and utterly sound opinions. 

The Soviets, as we know, came up with a list of approved writers, filtering out many authors for being too conservative and more likely to pen court odes celebrating autocracy than to attack serfdom:

…keynote speeches at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers emphasised the pre-eminence, alongside the realist fiction of Gorky and of Tolstoy. of ‘progressive’ critics such as Belinsky, Noklay Chernyshevsky, and Nikolay Dobrolyubov.  As late as 1949, a list of required reading for the Soviet masses [included] Lomonosov (as an example of the supreme auto-didact and scientific genius), the ‘revolutionary moralist’ Radishchev, Belinsky, and Dobrolyubov, with the radical poet Nikolay Nekrasov the sole example of an imaginative writer. (pp. 42-3)

The result was that much of pre-Soviet literature went into oblivion during the USSR and has only been republished since the late 1980s. Kelly mentions a ‘masterful’ History of the Russian Empire (1818-29) by Nikolay Karamazin and I looked it up at Goodreads… it appears to be only available in Russian but it has lots of 5 star reviews.   Clearly, contemporary Russian readers are impressed.

However, Kelly seems rather condescending about popular opinion.  She remarks on the deleterious effects of censorship, but says that the quality of readership under the Soviets was worse…

… when education and publishing for the masses created a new class of self-confident, but rather intellectually limited, readers who took their restricted knowledge of the classics as a measure of aesthetic standards in the absolute.


even at the end of the twentieth century, the levels of reverence for classic authors were considerably higher in Russia than they were in Western Europe, let alone America, a situation that was fostered, as well as bedevilled, by the spread of commercially orientated values in Russian society generally, and in the press in particular. (p.60)

What’s wrong with a bit of reverence for classic authors, especially when they’re authors like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?

I didn’t find this chapter helpful at all.  The repudiation of the Soviet canon is pointless, since no one takes it seriously now anyway, and I don’t know what to make of the implication that Russians themselves are no judge of literary merit.

Chapter 4: ‘Writers’ responses to Pushkin’ completely confused me.  Having centred the whole VSI on Pushkin, Kelly goes on to give examples of ways in which he was and then he wasn’t the ‘founding father of Russian Lit’.  Chekhov admired his sparing use of figurative language; Tolstoy liked the directness and immediacy of Pushkin’s opening paragraphs.  But Pushkin didn’t always anticipate future forms, wasn’t the first to streamline syntax,  and left plenty of room for writers to do their own thing independently of him.  He ‘failed’ among his many brilliant excursions into diverse genres, to provide models for the enormous psychological novels that have, since the late nineteenth century, been internationally regarded as Russia’s greatest contribution to world literature. And they are?  We are not told. It is assumed that we’ve read them and that we know what she’s talking about.  I think I do, but of course I might be wrong about that.

Look, I won’t go on.  I read it right through to the very end but this VSI is a disappointment.

Once again (although it doesn’t cover classic Russian literature) I would recommend Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (2016) to anyone with a keen but non-scholarly interest in Russian literature.  Rather than sneering at the Soviets, he says that

… even during the long Soviet period (1917-1991), a considerable amount of remarkable work was written.  (p.159)

He discusses dissident authors published abroad as well as those loyal to the Soviet regime and those who fell foul of it.  Notable authors not mentioned in the VSI include Isaac Babel, (two short story collections on my TBR); Andrey Platonov, (two of his on my TBR); Vasily Grossman (see my reviews) and Ivan Bunin (his Well of Days is on my wishlist and he was the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1933 – yet still not mentioned in the VSI even though his citation was for the strict artistry with which he carried on the classical Russian traditions in the writing of prose and poetry!) 

Orthofer goes on to write specifically of novels written during the collapse of the USSR as well as the period after it.  From Orthofer’s ten pages, the reader can glean a wealth of authors to discover, including Boris Akunin, (who writes historical detective fiction); Victor Pelevin (postmodern SF); Alexander Zinoviev (of quixotic politics, he wrote satire); and  Venedict Erofeevif (black humour).  And if you’re looking for women writers, there’s Olga Grushin; Anya Ulinich, Lara Vapnyar and Ekaterina Sedia.

PS Although I found it a difficult book to read, Moscow in the 1930s, a Novel from the Archives introduced me to the pre-eminent poet Marina Tsetaeva and the tragedy of her literary circle under the Soviets.  You can read some of her poetry here.

Update 14/11/17: Now that I’m reading Christopher Butler’s excellent VSI on postmodernism, I suspect that Kelly’s approach is deconstructionist.  He says:

Deconstruction (particularly as practised by literary critics) was culturally most influential when it refused to allow an intellectual activity, or a literary text, or its interpretation, to be organised by any customary hierarchy of concepts…

(Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), OUP, 2002, p.21)

Author: Catriona Kelly
Title: Russian Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2001
ISBN: 9780192801449
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. Thank you for reading this so I don’t have to….. What an odd approach – sounds remarkably half baked. And I would add Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list of essential 20th century Russian authors lost under the Soviets and now being rediscovered.


    • Such a disappointment! I’ve loved almost everything I’ve read in Russian Lit, and I guess I feel short-changed that this VSI is not going to make anyone want to explore it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the VSI series but will avoid this book. I tried Pushkin (in translation, of course) but couldn’t get on with him. Still, I like Eugene Onegin the opera. But give me Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol, Grossman and I’m on. Wonderful writers. Whatever we are losing in translation, much remain.


    • Yes, wonderful, wonderful writers, and the contemporary authors I’ve read are good too, not as magisterial of course, but often with a discerning sense of droll humour.


  3. I am very picky when it comes to reading about Russians or Russian books. IMO you have to be immersed in the culture if you’re not a Russian.
    I agree w/ you on the Orthofer book. It was very helpful.


    • Well, yes – and no. It helps to know something about the culture of any place you’re reading in translation, but sometimes you start knowing absolutely nothing about a place and you get by anyway. (I’m thinking of my first book from Iran, skipping from one revolution to another and I only knew about the religious one. Google helped me with that one).


      • Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I meant anyone who writes a book about a specific country’s literature, so I prefer to read a book written by a Russian about Russian lit–or someone who is immersed in the culture.


        • Well, we would have to assume that Kelly is well and truly immersed in it. I had a look at her Oxford page and she has published heaps of stuff about Russia, and as a translator of Russian she obviously knows the language very well too. LOL I don’t think she would have got the gig at Oxford if she didn’t have credibility on that score.


          • Yeah I know. It’s just a quirk of mine. I prefer to read Russians writing about Russians.


  4. I may try this one I know very little about Russian lit


    • There must be something better than this, Stu. I think you’d be better off reading the Wikipedia entry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Possibly I often think I don’t read enough Russian lit but I think most people think that a good guide be handy


        • Absolutely. But this isn’t it. You don’t come away from it thinking, I must read Tolstoy, I’d like to read Dostoyevsky, Grossman sounds like a great read. You don’t finish the book with a grasp of the major movements, you don’t even really get the sense of what Soviet era ‘approved’ books were like or why they might or might not be interesting to look at. It’s not the book’s fault that it’s out of date since it was published so long ago (relatively speaking) but you do get the feeling that she hasn’t kept up with anything recent from the first decade of the post-soviet era.


  5. This sounds like a very odd book: Pushkin of all people! I read a short story collection by him while I was in labour with my son (and my husband sat asleep in the only chair) and he certainly did not distract me from labour… Haven’t touched him since. Indeed, where are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?


    • My word, that was stoic. #Musing, I wonder what we might recommend as reading fare for women in labour?


  6. […] Russian Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Catriona Kelly […]


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