A Bible for an Entire Generation? Reconsidering Sanin’s Status as a Cult Novel

Otto Boele, University of Groningen

From the moment of its publication in 1907, Mixail Arcybašev’s novel Sanin has been regarded as a classical roman à thèse in the tradition of Černyševskij’s best-seller What Is to Be Done? Even if its success was short-lived and its long-term influence limited, many critics seem to agree that at the time Sanin was widely read as a manual for living. Although few contemporary scholars would go as far as D. S. Mirskij, who called it the “Bible for an entire generation,” Sanin’s reputation as a moral “guidebook” has proven remarkably persistent. In her recently published study The Mythology of the Underground Man (1999), Marina Mogil′ner even asserts that the sanincy (Vladimir Sanin’s followers) constituted an entire social movement.

One question that scholars have failed to ask, however, is why Sanin has elicited so few positive reactions, if it really was the catechism of the inter-revolutionary generation. Except for a few letters to Lev Tolstoj in which confused readers ask him about his opinion on Sanin, we hardly ever encounter a voice speaking out in favor of the novel’s purported message. Curiously enough, the sanincy themselves—if they ever existed—did not take part in the debate on Sanin.

In this paper I will attempt to present a more balanced picture of Sanin’s immediate success by examining a variety of reactions, ranging from readers’ polls to letters to the editor published in provincial newspapers. I will argue that while the novel did enjoy an unprecedented succès de scandale, it is unlikely that it ever functioned as a manual for living. Occupying a central place in the debate on the Russian intelligentsia after the revolution of 1905, Arcybašev’s hero was always regarded as the champion of the political Other. Whether he really served as a role model and attracted any followers remains highly questionable.