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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Letters in Russian literature: A top ten

By Sean L Hanley, on 26 October 2012

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Image via Wikicommons. Public domain

Letters, ranging from the absurd to the tragic play an important role in Russian literature, notes Sarah Young

Letters play a significant role in some of my favourite works of Russian literature, and a couple in particular have been very much on my mind lately.  Here is my top ten, which manages to encompass everything from the absurd to the tragic. Apologies for the plot spoilers (especially in entries 10, 7 and 4), which were unavoidable. I adhere to my usual rule that no writer may appear more than once.

10. Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. The letter Vera writes to Pechorin in ‘Princess Mary’, in which she informs him she is leaving and will never see him again, is remarkable not so much in itself as for the reaction it causes. Pechorin, so cool and calculated in his actions elsewhere, rides after her in such a frenzy that he kills his horse. The image of his anguish outlasts his own acid comment, ‘anyone who saw me at that moment would have turned away in contempt’. Russian text | English text

9. Olesha, Envy. Two letters feature prominently in part one the novel as important expressions of their authors’ personalities. Kavalerov’s outburst of hatred for the man who saved him, in chapter 11, fixes the dominant characteristics we have already defined, but Volodya’s letter, in chapter 13, is downright sinister, admitting his jealousy of Kavalerov, and hinting at a viciousness we might otherwise not suspect in his character. Meanwhile his paean to the machine has become a key passage in the formation of the New Soviet Man. Russian text

8. Babel, Salt. This skaz narrative takes the form of a letter from a soldier, Nikita Balmashev, describing an incident on a train, in which a woman’s deception is discovered and punished. Full of mangled Bolshevik jargon and horrifying in its casual violence, this is far from being the only letter in Red Cavalry, but it is, I think, the most memorable. Russian text

7. Shalamov, Injector. There are, understandably, few humorous moments in Kolyma Tales, but this story – a classic urban myth-type tale about a machine being mistaken for a convict – is a notable exception. Many letters feature in the stories, because receiving them was such an important moment in the lives of the convicts, but I love this one in particular, although the context is very different, because it provides such a rare glimpse of Shalamov’s playful side, but also because of its brilliant execution of Soviet officialese. Russian text

6. Pushkin, Evgeny Onegin. In a work that in so many ways turns on reading and writing – and was probably responsible for the persistence of these themes in Russian literature – Tatyana’s letter to Onegin acts as the culmination of her literary education. Was ever a love letter so misplaced? Russian text | English text

5. Gogol, Diary of a Madman. Letter-writing dogs – what more could you want? (Letter-writing cats is the obvious answer to that, but we can’t have everything, and in any case cats clearly wouldn’t be interested in the minutiae of their owners’ – sorry, servants’ – lives.) Punctuation and spelling are all correct, even if Poprishchin notes something a bit ‘doggy’ in the style. Russian text | English text

4. Chukovskaya, Sofia Petrovna. Another work in which letters play a significant role, it is the final one, from the heroine’s incarcerated son Kolya, that is really heart-rending, in part because of his innocent inquiries about friends whose fates we have witnessed, but of which he is unaware, but mainly because of his mother’s response. Having devoted her entire life to Kolya, Sofia Petrovna’s final act is to betray him, destroying the letter and deciding not to write an appeal as he requests. One of the best depictions of the madness and moral compromises of the Stalin era. English text

3. Teffi, Subtly Worded. Teffi’s evocations of emigré life are hilarious, and this fabulous little anecdote about the complexities of aesopian language and evading the censorship is possibly my favourite. Russian text | English text

2. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. Letters abound in Dostoevsky’s fiction, from his first, epistolary novel, Poor Folk, to Prince Myshkin’s letter to Aglaya in The Idiot that becomes central to our understanding of his character, particularly when it is placed in a copy of Don Quixote, to The Adolescent, where the entire plot revolves around the possession of a letter and its contents. But the winner has to be the letter Raskolnikov receives from his mother – a masterpiece that places him in an untenable position; defining him as the perfect son and brother for whom every sacrifice is worthwhile, she equally makes it plain to him that such a perfect son would in no way allow his sister to sacrifice herself. Unpicking her contradictory messages is one of the great pleasures of literary analysis. Russian text | English text

1. Grossman, Life and Fate. Anna Semyonovna’s letter to her son Victor Shtrum, written from the Berdichev ghetto on the eve of the massacre of the town’s Jews, is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read in my life, and it is all the more remarkable because Grossman wrote it as an expression of his own grief for leaving his mother to that fate. I find it unbearable to read, so one can only imagine how unbearable was the burden of his guilt. Russian text

Sarah Young is Lecturer in Russian at SSEES. Her main areas of research are nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, thought and culture. This post is reproduced with permission from her own academic blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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