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    Russian Imperial Presence in Literature

Razvan Ungureanu


Beginning with the rich prose that celebrates the conquest of the Caucasus, Russian literature overflows with imperial imagery. In spite of that, little critical attention has been devoted to recasting Russian literature in postcolonial terms. The unique nature of the Russian Empire represents one reason for the scarcity of postcolonial criticism. Unlike the British Empire, which was characterized by a consolidated and cohesive center that acquired overseas dominions and thus controlled distant peripheries, Russian imperialism was concealed by its contiguous territorial expansions (Thompson 15). In this paper I analyze the development of Russian colonialism though a number of literary works generally considered representative by the Russians. The writings of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Petrushevskaia and Pelevin reveal that Russian colonialism did not appropriate literature in a deus ex machina manner; rather, it evolved through four major phases: endorsement, defense, legitimization, and deconstruction of the Empire.

I. Endorsing the Empire
Thematically, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons [1862] depicts the clash between the young Russian generation of the 1860s and the old sentimentalist generation of the ’40s. Arkady Kirsanov, a recent graduate of the University of Petersburg, returns home to Marino accompanied by his friend, Bazarov. Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, a traditional romantic who revels in Pushkin’s verse and relishes classical music, discovers that he is no longer able to understand his son. Bazarov’s nihilism personifies a seemingly incomprehensible ideology of the new generation; as Arkady explains, “A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in” (Turgenev 24). Although the conflict between the idealistic, romantic past and the realistic present occupies the thematic core of the narrative, Fathers and Sons is also a novel complicit with colonialism: a postcolonial deconstruction reveals that Turgenev unconsciously underwrites Russian imperialism by glorifying the conqueror and portraying the normality of profiting from colonial sources of income.

From the beginning of the novel, we discover that Arkady’s grandfather, Peter Kirsanov, was a general in the army, “first in command of a brigade, and then of a division” (Turgenev 2). Nikolai derives his family’s sustenance from the estate of two hundred souls inherited from his father. But how did Peter, “a coarse, half-educated . . . man” (1), acquire this number of serfs? He most likely acquired them following his service as general in the imperial campaigns of Tsar Nicholas I. Thus, just as Defoe’s Crusoe derives his earnings from a sugar plantation in Brazil and Sir Thomas’s slave plantation in Antigua pays the bills in Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park, Peter Kirsanov likewise profits from a colonial source of income. A similar argument can be made about Vasilii Ivanovich, Bazarov’s father, a retired army doctor who served in Peter’s brigade and now owns twenty-two souls.

The narrator’s description of Fenichka’s room reveals one of the colonial campaigns in which Peter and old Bazarov participated. As Pavel Petrovich enters the room, he observes that “along the walls stood chairs with lyre-shaped backs, bought by the late general in his campaign in Poland” (Turgenev 40). As Thompson argues, the campaign in Poland refers to the Polish Uprising of 1830. Furthermore, the lyre-shaped chairs were not purchased by Peter, but were rather looted from the Polish gentry. In a later passage in the novel, we also uncover that “Turkish firearms, whips, a sabre, [and] two maps” decorate the walls of Vasilii Ivanovich’s study (133). But how could a poor army doctor and a compulsive gambler afford to purchase this exotic merchandise? Like Peter’s lyre-shaped chairs, old Bazarov’s Turkish weaponry represents war bounty acquired during military campaigns.

Images of army generals decorate the rooms of both Fenichka and old Bazarov. Thus Vasilii Ivanovich has “a picture of Suvorov hanging in the drawing-room,” a general who led Russian armies to victories over the Poles, Turks, and French in the second part of the eighteenth century (Turgenev 148). Correspondingly, above a photograph of Fenichka on one of the walls at Marino, “General Yermolov, in a Circassian cloak, [scowls] menacingly upon the Caucasian mountains in the distance, from beneath a little silk shoe for pins which fell right on to his brows.” The proximity of Yermolov’s portrait to “a little lamp burning before a big dark picture of Saint Nikolai the wonder-worker” bestows on the general a divine mandate to expand Russia’s borders (40). Furthermore, Yermolov’s menacing glare conveys the savagery and inferiority of the soon-to-be-conquered inhabitants of the distant mountains. Turgenev thus almost deifies Yermolov, denies the Other his voice, and rhetorically suppresses the atrocities committed by the Russian armies during the conquest of the Caucasus. Ultimately all of these colonial elements in the novel point toward the same conclusion: although Turgenev’s intention was to cast the clash between generations in a manner sympathetic to the young radical intellectuals, Fathers and Sons nevertheless endorses Russian imperial conquests.

II. Defending the Empire
Among the defenders of the nineteenth-century Russian Empire none was more eloquent than Fyodor Dostoevsky. It so happened that he and Simon Tokarzewski, a Polish nobleman who opposed the Empire, were concurrently detained as political prisoners in the same Siberian prison, and both wrote down their memoirs. Their chronicles are remarkably similar; many of the events described by Tokarzewski in 1857 resurface in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead [1862] in an artistically refurbished fashion. Both authors describe the commander of the prison, the arrival of the Poles, the prison population, as well as the daily routines of the prisoners. Comparing these two accounts provides an illustrative exercise in postcolonial deconstruction, because Dostoevsky writes for imperial Russia while Tokarzewski represents the voice of the Polish Other. When such an analysis is undertaken, it becomes clear that House of the Dead defends Russian colonialism through a portrayal of the Other that is belittling and even factually incorrect.

From the moment he introduces the Poles, Dostoevsky describes them condescendingly, attributing to them a high degree of deliberate aloofness and a keen hatred for the Russians: “The Poles . . . behaved with a sort of refined, insulting politeness towards them, were uncommunicative and could in no way conceal from the convicts the revulsion they felt for them” (Dostoevsky 51). Dostoevsky emphasizes the hateful nature of the Poles through repetition; he reminds readers again and again about the “chilly, inaccessible politeness [of the] Poles” (124) who “for their exclusivity and their hatred of the Russian convicts . . . were in turn hated by the others” (93). House of the Dead thus gives the impression that the Poles got what they deserved; they bear the responsibility for being despised by the Russians because it was they who loathed the Russians first. However, Tokarzewski’s memoir In Siberian Prisons directly challenges Dostoevsky’s characterization of the Poles. Tokarzewski’s depiction of his interactions with the Other convicts reveals the abuse and mistreatment inflicted by the Russians: “There were weeks when I could not cross the courtyard without hearing curses and invectives. There were moments when I felt like jumping down a precipice if it opened before me, in the hope that it would be more bearable than my surroundings.”

The two authors’ depictions of Professor ┼Żochowski’s arrival at Omsk and the subsequent punishment maliciously imposed by the commander of the prison are also markedly different. In Tokarzewski’s narration, after the commander nicknamed Vaska exclaims that the professor looks like a brigand, ┼Żochowski feels insulted and corrects the commander by clarifying that he is a political prisoner. Vaska then humiliates the prisoner and orders that he receive three hundred lashes. Whereas Tokarzewski conveys the denigration of the human spirit and the suffering of an old man, Dostoyevsky’s corresponding account both ridicules the Pole by insinuating the professor’s illiteracy and diminishes the severity of the punishment imposed by the commander. House of the Dead suggests that ┼Żochowski “understood very little Russian.” Therefore his reply, “We’re not brigands, we’re political offenders” no longer represents a protest against Vaska’s denigrating remark; rather, it becomes a badge of inferiority attributed to a Pole unable to distinguish between words, a Pole who “thought they were being asked whether they were vagrants or brigands” (Dostoevsky 326). Furthermore, Dostoevsky reduces the number of lashes by two hundred, and even invents a later scene in which Vaska, while confessing that he has humiliated the professor, begs forgiveness.

The passages dealing with the Polish prisoners reveal that House of the Dead is, in many ways, a canonical colonial text. Although Dostoevsky quotes the Poles in his work, this represents a literary artifice; under the pretense of giving the Poles a voice the author misrepresents them, thus suppressing their story. Furthermore, the novelist dehumanizes the Poles by referring to them as B-ski, T-ski, M-cki, and Z-ski. These characters are unworthy of a name, a characteristic attributed to only one Russian character, A-v. However, this association carries only derogatory connotations, as the narrator hates A-v and refers to him as “a monster, a moral Quasimodo” (Dostoyevsky 105). Yet in light of Tokarzewski’s assessment of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist’s portrayal of the inferiority of the Others comes as no surprise; first and foremost, Dostoevsky was a nationalist who defended imperial conquests by stressing “Russia’s burden”: “He did not seem to understand that Ukraine, Volhynia, Podolia, Lithuania, and Poland were forcibly annexed by the Russian empire; on the contrary, he maintained that all these lands belonged to Russia from time immemorial, and God’s justice handed them to the Russian tsar because they could not possibly exist on their own, or rise from their backwardness, barbarism, and destitution without Russia’s help” (Tokarzewski, Web edition).

III. Legitimizing the Empire
Tolstoy’s War and Peace [1863-69] traces the lives of four distinguished families-the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Kuragins-during Russia’s Napoleonic wars. Alternating between soirees, battlefields, hunts, ballrooms, social and military life, Tolstoy brilliantly creates a sophisticated and appealing image of Russian society at the beginning of the nineteenth century, albeit a society representative of less than one percent of the population and comprising only the highest aristocracy. Amid this dazzling structure, the novelist further weaves his philosophical discourse that analyzes the propagating forces of history. Yet War and Peace is also a colonial epic whose imperialistic overtones emerge from the glorified portrayal of Alexander I, the belittling image of Napoleon, as well as from the assessment of Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars. Thus while Fathers and Sons and House of the Dead endorse and defend Russian colonialism, War and Peace legitimizes it by creating “an image of Russia so benevolent, so free of serious misdeeds and so replete with splendid citizenry acting in ‘real’ history that it [becomes] nearly unthinkable to assail it with fundamental criticism” (Thompson 85).

Russia emerges from Tolstoy’s portrayal of the war as a leader among European nations. During a conversation with his father, Prince Andrei reveals the plans of the military campaign against Napoleon. Prince Andrei’s account renders Russian involvement as the vital element of the battle plan; his country coordinates the campaign and decisively contributes to all the offensives. Thus, without Russia, Europe appears lost: “He explained how an army, ninety thousand strong, was to threaten Prussia and force her to abandon her neutrality and take part in the war; how a portion of this army was to go to Stralsund and unite with some Swedish forces; how two hundred and twenty thousand Austrians with a hundred thousand Russians were to operate in Italy and on the Rhine; how fifty thousand Russians and as many English were to land at Naples; and how this total force of five hundred thousand men was to attack the French from different sides” (Tolstoy 111).

The allied forces suffered a devastating defeat at Austerlitz. Surprisingly, despite this disastrous outcome, Tolstoy manages to project Russia’s greatness and to convey the inferiority of its allies. The novelist lauds Kutuzov’s leadership while concealing the fact that he commanded the forces at Austerlitz and was thus responsible for the loss. In rationalizing the defeat, Tolstoy points “to the treachery of the Austrians” and “to a perfidy on the part of the Pole Przhebyzhewski and the Frenchman Langeron.” The thought that Russia might bear some responsibility is inconceivable, as its army, “everyone declared, had been extraordinary and had performed miracles of valour” (Tolstoy 357). The narrator further glorifies the Russian soldier who emerges as vastly superior to his French and German counterparts: “The French soldier . . . has to be incited to battle by high-sounding phrases. The German soldier must have it logically proved to him that it is more dangerous to run away than to advance. But the Russian soldier has to be held back and urged to go slowly!” (358). Ultimately, as Thompson argues, “the French invasion consolidated the myth of Russian imperial innocence and helped to legitimize Russia’s imperial activities.”

Tolstoy’s portrayal of Alexander I in War and Peace represents the antithesis of Tsar Nicholas’s depiction in Hadji Murad. While Nicholas emerges as an illiterate, womanizing, ruthless villain, the society of War and Peace regards Alexander as an idol. As Nikolai Rostov’s thoughts illustrate, Alexander possesses some sort of magical magnetism capable of enticing everyone into an irrational, self-sacrifice-prone frenzy. The proximity of the emperor blurs the line that divides morality from evil; upon the ruler’s command, one becomes willing to do anything: “One word, he thought, from this man and this vast mass (myself, an insignificant atom, with it) would plunge through fire and water, ready to commit any crime, to face death or perform the loftiest deeds of heroism. And so he could not but tremble and feel his heart stand still at the imminence of the Emperor who was the embodiment of that word” (Tolstoy 283).

While Tolstoy presents Alexander as a hero, he denigrates Napoleon by portraying him as a petty and heartless tyrant. Napoleon is physically unattractive; the novelist describes him as short, fat, with a “stout back,” “plump hairy chest,” “puffy and yellow” face, “uttering little snorts and grunts,” and deriving immense pleasure from having his body rubbed down with eau-de-cologne by his valet (Tolstoy 924). Furthermore, Tolstoy also endows Napoleon with a nasty personality. When a regiment of Polish Uhlans attempts to impress the French Emperor by swimming across a river instead of seeking a ford, Napoleon appears not to care about their fate; rather, he occasionally casts a “glance of displeasure” at his drowning subjects who “distracted his thoughts”: “It was nothing new in his experience and he did not need any convincing that his presence in any part of the world, from Africa to the steppes of Muscovy alike, was enough to turn men’s heads and drive them to senseless acts of self-sacrifice” (722). The novelist thus dehumanizes the emperor and foreshadows Pierre’s discovery: Napoleon personifies the Antichrist.

Overall, Tostoy’s War and Peace creates an image of Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century that never existed. The educated, sophisticated, Western-oriented society gathering at soirees to discuss the politics of the day is representative of only a tiny fraction of Russia’s population, yet the author’s artistic genius allows him to present this noble, carefree society as characteristic of Russia as a whole. Combining this deceptive illustration of society with the novel’s emerging picture of Russian military greatness creates a mythical image of Russia worthy of admiration by the West. If Russia is all that Tolstoy says it is, accusing this nation of aggressively expanding its contiguous empire and atrociously suppressing the Other becomes inconceivable. Thus Tolstoy did more to legitimize Russia’s imperial activities than any other writer.

IV. Deconstructing the Empire
The contemporary novelists Ludmila Petrushevskaia and Victor Pelevin deconstruct the Soviet empire by portraying a Russian society in shambles. Both writers unveil the myth of Mother Russia and reveal its nasty undersides. Focusing on themes considered taboo in preglasnost Russia, such as family dysfunction, violence, prostitution, alcoholism, and sexual deviance, Petrushevskaia’s prose shocks and disturbs. Her protagonists are generally female characters who experience abject poverty, live in cramped quarters, have more children than they can care for, and are abandoned by the males who fathered them. Pelevin’s works blend postmodernism, metaphysics, and elements of the grotesque with mysticism and pop culture, resulting in exotic and often perplexing images: a universe inside of a teacup, humans metamorphosing into werewolves, an entire society functioning asleep, and passengers embarking on a train that accelerates toward destruction. Although Pelevin’s use of satire and black comedy differentiates the ambiance of his stories from the bleak tone of Petrushevskaia’s works, both writers ultimately deconstruct the empire by conveying the absurdity of life under the Soviet regime-and, perhaps, within the political culture that the cult of the Empire has created.

Petrushevskaia’s The Time: Night [1992] captures the grim lifestyle of characters from four different generations: Anna Andrianova, a poet striving to support her family; her son, Andrei, an ex-convict and alcoholic who shamelessly robs his mother; her daughter, Alyona, who abandons her child; her grandson, Tima, who at seven years old already suffers from a nervous tic; and her mother, Sima, who is committed to a psychiatric hospital after trying to commit suicide. The multiple references to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reinforce the novel’s thematic core: the depiction of a dysfunctional family. Thus The Time: Night stands in sharp contrast to the Soviet literature of the twentieth century that “idealized the image of Russian women by portraying them as exemplary individuals in all spheres of public life: unselfish and dedicated mothers, talented and hard-working professionals who were devoted to the communist ideology of building socialism” (Milivojevic 340). Petrushevskaia’s novel breaks away from the socialist realism tradition from the very beginning; when readers first meet the heroine, she travels from house to house with her “child of hungry times,” inventing pretexts for her visits, but in reality trying to feed her grandson (Petrushevskaia 1). Furthermore, Petrushevskaia also graphically portrays sexual encounters, another taboo of Soviet literature: “He thrust himself into the bloody mess, the bloody shreds of my body like a pump, pumping my blood, the straw underneath was wet, I was squeaking like a rubber toy with a hole in its bottom” (23).

Cramped living quarters represent another characteristic of Petrushevskaia’s works; families inhabit suffocating environments, share the same bed, and sometimes even sleep in the kitchen. In The Time: Night, Andrei’s imminent move to his mother’s house and the possibility of Sima returning home from the psychiatric hospital catalyze a space crisis: “Granny will have to go in the small room. I’ll move on to the folding bed in the kitchen. If Andrei turns up we’ll have to put him in with Granny” (Petrushevskaia 131). However, space does not represent Anna Andrianova’s most pressing worry; rather, the hardships she endures to support her family transform her into a neurotic benefactress, compulsively monitoring the consumption of individual food items: “Andrei came back from camp and ate my herring, my potatoes, my black bread, drank my tea and devoured my mind as always and sucked my blood, he was flesh of my flesh but yellow, filthy, tired to death” (73). Because both the lack of food and the lack of space are incongruous with the size and professed greatness of Soviet Russia, Petrushevskaia’s writing indirectly conveys the ludicrousness of an empire unable to provide for its own citizens.

Like Petrushevskaia, Pelevin writes against the traditions of socialist realism and criticizes the absurdity of life in Soviet Russia. In The Yellow Arrow [1993] he “depicts the Soviet world as a perpetual train ride” (Mozur). People aboard are unable to imagine life outside their compartments; although the train makes numerous stops en route to its final destination in the direction of “a broken-down bridge,” the thought of getting off before the onset of destruction never enters the passengers’ minds (Mozur). The hero of the story learns from his mentor, Khan, (a reference to Russia’s Mongolian past) that the travelers have lost the ability to think of themselves as passengers. Although they see life pass by through the windows, they cannot fathom living outside the train because they do not comprehend the existence of this outside world. Like The Yellow Arrow, “Sleep” [1994] presents an equally ludicrous universe. The story’s first sentence informs readers that “at the very start of the third semester, in one of the lectures on Marxism-Leninism, Nikita Dozakin made a remarkable discovery” (Pelevin 59). Nikita’s discovery is that everyone around him, from fellow students, to university professors, to television show hosts, and to his own parents, is asleep. In the end, Nikita learns to function while asleep, thus joining the mass hypnotic trance emblematic of life under the Soviet regime.

“A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia” [1994], the story whose title serves as the title of the volume, recounts the experience of Sasha’s transformation into a werewolf. As the protagonist gulps down a 92-kopeck bottle of Forest Joy Elixir for the Teeth, he begins to experience a new state of consciousness characterized by an increased awareness of himself and his surroundings: “He could sense numerous smells impregnating the air. . . . he felt a similar change in his perception of sounds . . . but the greatest transformation that Sasha sensed was in his own awareness of himself. This was something very difficult to express in human language, and he began barking, whining and howling to himself in the same way that he used to think in words” (Pelevin 15). While presenting a metaphysical meditation on the meaning of life, Pelevin’s story also analogizes the absurdities of Soviet society to man’s ability to metamorphose. If life as ridiculous as that experienced under the Soviet regime can exist, then what is to prevent man from transforming into a werewolf or wereowl? On a parallel level, Pelevin also attacks the depiction of the model citizen in preglasnost literature. Pelevin suggests that the Soviet man is not the idealistic entity who dedicates his life to building socialism; rather, man is like a bloodthirsty werewolf, constantly prepared to plunge his fangs into another man’s throat.

Petrushevskaia and Pelevin deconstruct imperial Russia by rebelling against the tenets of socialist realism and exposing the hidden side of Soviet society. Comparing the image of Russian society in War and Peace with that emerging from the writings of postglasnost writers is particularly illustrative: albeit one hundred and some years later, a world plagued by poverty, hopelessness, suffering, and absurdity replaces the sophisticated, benevolent Tolstoyan universe. While Tolstoy’s genius created a mythical civilization, Petrushevskaia and Pelevin depict reality. While criticizing life under the Soviet regime, these postglasnost writers also suggest, perhaps involuntarily, that an empire incapable of offering a decent lifestyle to its own citizens represents a failure and must cease to exist.

The writings of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Petrushevskaia, and Pelevin form a continuum that traces the endorsement, defense, legitimization, and deconstruction of the Russian Empire. In the beginning of this essay I indicated that the contiguous nature of the Russian Empire represents one reason for the scarcity of postcolonial literary scrutiny of Russian works. After discussing the development of colonialism in the literature of the center, a second reason emerges. Generally, colonial literature passes through various stages. Following territorial expansion, the center documents its conquest through imperial discourse. At a later stage in the development of colonial literature, the conquered begins to write back to the conqueror, oftentimes laying bare the myth of colonial innocence and exposing the atrocities committed by the colonists. However, this phenomenon of the empire writing back-the periphery writing back to the center-has yet to occur in Russian literature. Perhaps when the empire writes back, the West will begin to more widely accept Russia for what it has been for a large part of its history: an aggressive imperial nation craving the annexation of new territories.




Works cited
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead (London: Penguin Books, 1985).
Goscilo, Helena. “Ludmila Petrushevskaya,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Russian Writers Since 1980, edited by Marina Balina and Mark Lipovetsky (Thomson Gale, 2003), 220-29.
McCausland, Gerald. “Ludmila Petrushevskaya,” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Russian Writers Since 1980, edited by Marina Balina and Mark Lipovetsky (Thomson Gale, 2003), 208-19.
Milivojevic, Dragan. “Lives of Russian Women,” World & I, 9 (1994), 339-44.
Mozur, Joseph. “Viktor Pelevin: Post-Sovism, Budhism, & Pulp Fiction,” World Literature Today, 2 (2002), 58-67.
Pelevin, Victor. A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, translated by Andrew Bromfield (London: New Directions, 1998).
Petrushevskaya, Ludmila. The Time: Night, translated by Sally Laird (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2000).
Tokarzewski, Simon. “In Siberian Prisons 1846-1857,” Sarmatian Review, vol. 24 (April 2005), 111-26. Web edition: < http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~sarmatia/405/254tokar.html>.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (London: Penguin Books, 1982).
Thompson, Ewa. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000).
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons (New York: The Modern Library, 1917).


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