Writers and Citizens in Russia: Whose Voice is it?

Kathleen Parthe, University of Rochester

In the absence of foundational documents as a basis for civic speech, the most legitimate and compelling public voice in Russia has been that of writers sensitive to the country’s moral, spiritual, and political currents. Russian literature has reflected and shaped national identity, and in doing that has provided public speakers with a wealth of examples – of character and expression - to which a culturally literate Russian audience would respond. The great legal orators of the pre-Revolutionary period (e.g. Maklakov, Koni, Andreevskii, Il’in) were so inspired by this resource that, along with their professional activities, they wrote and spoke about Russian literature, and even composed their own poetry.

It is clear that writers inspired public rhetoric, but did they, in turn, pay attention to this activity in their works? During the decades of civically-aware Russian realism, did writers, given the constraints of censorship, bear witness to the presence or absence of civic speech? Did they encourage their compatriots in this sphere as they did in so many others? Did they help Russians find their own voices as citizens?

There are poets (e.g. Tiutchev, Baratynsky) who emphasized the near-impossibility of communicating the truth to others, and prose writers who depicted oratory in a generally unfavorable light, including those who before and after the Revolution made it a subject for satire (Chekhov, Voinovich). Turgenev’s Rudin is full of empty, superfluous eloquence, and the beloved kruzhok (circle) is said to give its talkative participants the illusion of activity (“Hamlet of the Shchigrov District” and Demons). As characters, the eloquent lawyers of the post-reform court system are more interested in successful careers than in moral truth (The Brothers Karamazov). University lectures, including those open to the public, which were an exhilarating aspect of life in 19th century Moscow and St. Petersburg, leave virtually no traces in artistic texts, nor do many other venues cleverly and courageously used by Russians to talk about current problems and possibilities for peaceful change. It is not until the ‘virtual’ civic speech of the Soviet era that literature pays attention, but in the Socialist Realist period this represents a fundamentally different type of communication.

Letters and memoirs (Fonvizin, Herzen, Chekhov) show writers’ awareness of the problem of a too-silent populace, but a preliminary consideration of artistic texts suggests a not-too-subtle pattern of ignoring, even discouraging, citizens who would speak out for themselves. Russian writers displayed a proprietary interest in speaking for the nation before 1917, and this pattern carries through to the liberal and unofficial literature of the Soviet period. Writers saw themselves as brave intercessors between power and the people, the de facto leaders of society, and the nation’s second government. This suggests that Russia’s cultural heritage is a necessary, but hardly sufficient, building block for post-Soviet civil society.