Russian Maze

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Annette Messager at Ekaterina Foundation (Moscow)

In his famous essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss put forward the thesis that “persecution gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and … a peculiar type of literature.” Especially in conditions where speaking true is harmful to the speaker, writing and reading “between the lines” are preferred techniques to take part in a private conversation of savants in the face of public exposure. A popular subject or piece of fiction may be tailored in an uncompromising fashion, yet a critical writer will address some sentences to the reader, which intentionally break with the preconditions of the dominant view he/she wishes to criticize.

“[I]f an able writer who has a clear mind and a perfect knowledge of the orthodox view and all its ramifications, contradicts surreptitiously and as it were in passing one of its necessary presuppositions or consequences which he explicitly recognizes and maintains everywhere else, we can reasonably suspect that he was opposed to to the orthodox system as such …”

This style of conveying one’s own view in public is typical under conditions where prosecution is waiting for the critical writer, e.g. in totalitarian regimes. But this style of writing makes a high demand on the reader and his ability to understand the double talk and separate the propagandist, majority view from its critical inversion. Not surprisingly, philology in Russia has had a high social standing and was for a long time deemed a highly respected branch of scholarship.

During the Fulbright Summer School in the Humanities at Moscow University this June the intricate relation of readers and writers, especially in Soviet and less so in post-Soviet Russia, became apparent as a major trope in research on literature and popular criticism. In turn, an arrangement such as in Leo Strauss’ description, creates a certain necessity to have “first readers” who are able to educate the public on the most important contemporary authors and teach how they should be read. Ilya Kukulin, editor of The New Literary Review, pointed out that a common way to evade censorship and speak to readers in disguise was the use of “Aesopian language”. Named after the Greek writer, Aesop, this language conveys its intention mainly by metaphor, analogy and simile. As in his fables of animals acting like humans, the morale of a tale refers back to the humans instead of the animals.

Apart from Aesopian language proper, the form of discourse associated with it is still pervasive as a legacy of decades of persecution in Russia. As Julia M. Allen points out, Russia invented this particular form of writing as a way to escape censorship:

“Aesopian language is discourse characterized by indirection. Such discourse can be found almost anywhere, but the term originated in nineteenth century Russia, where to speak openly was dangerous, given the Czar’s vigilant censors. Considered from the perspective of the censored (and it was those who were censored, after all, who first coined the term*), “Aesopian language” encompasses all the linguistic devices writers and speakers use to communicate with audiences in situations where their words are either overtly or covertly restricted.”

*The first use of the term is generally attributed to Russian satirist M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin in the early 1860s.
(Julia M. Allen “‘That Accursed Aesopian Language’: Prosecutorial Framing of Linguistic Evidence in U.S. v. Foster, 1949” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.1 (2001) 109-134)

In the long run, this way of double talking continues down to the contemporary music scene, where one state leader is curiously absent from the list of despots selling out natural resources to sustain autocratic rule. See this example of Lyapis Trubetskoy in their title Capital (h/t Mikhail Egorov).

What happens to such kind of cultural knowledge and textual competency when a nation is invaded by an unlimited number of foreign discourses, phrases and ideas? When the parameters of true but disguised speech and official but propagandist speech no longer frame the intellectuals’ self-image and their role in society? The introduction of the Internet, more than mobile phones and televisions, has created a cultural vacuum in Russia, at least in the eyes of those intellectuals schooled in intricate double-talk. Their competence in double entendre and ethos of education for a long time legitimized their own speaking position. But abundance creates confusion. In the old days, a good book could be pinpointed simply by its rarity. Illegal prints, known as Samizdat literature, where a common way to circulate precious pieces of criticism. But consumerist emancipation and relentless individualism have provoked a crisis in the evaluation of this cultural heritage.

Boris Dubin, Head researcher at the Yuri Levada Center, presented a rather somber picture of the role of reading and intellectual discourse in post-soviet Russia. Comparing contemporary society to Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, Dubin summarized that market economy and disillusionment about possible change had created a middle person rather than a middle class in Russia. Fragmentation of leisure and intellectual pursuits is reflected in a small number of strong ties and leaves engagement with collective issues to specialists. The legacy of the pre-and post-Soviet past looms large over attempts to create a future. Dubin said that “group feelings were always weak in Russia.” The familiar image of worker’s collectives is itself a cover-up for enforced collectivization and was quickly shed after 1990.

The net of the past is not merely present as state apparatus, in the form of institutions or old cliques. The critical stance towards the present is held captive on all sides in a discursive web of outlived parameters. For a critical stance to develop a vision of the future, these parameters will have to be exposed as the coveted mechanism of control which they are. Not much reading between the lines here, but there are flowers and music on the Red Square at sunset.


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