Slot:       29C-3          Dec. 29, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Self-Identity and Imagining the Other

Chair:     Polina Barskova, Hampshire College


Title:       Provincialism in Bunin’s Village (1910)

Author:   Alina Orlov, Defense Language Institute

It has been observed that Ivan Bunin’s novel The Village (1910) serves as a metonymic meditation on Russianness (Maltsev, Dmitrieva, Henry). What is less often recognized, however, is the extent to which Bunin’s analysis of Russia’s national character is original.  This paper will argue that while Bunin draws on earlier portrayals of provincialism—from Griboedov to Sologub—thereby charging his work with the force of a long-standing socio-critical tradition, he uses the rural topos to stake out a new aesthetic position, one that is thoroughly modernist.

If Gogol portrays banality and Goncharov describes uneventfullness, Bunin re-enacts these qualities in his prose.  His narrative rambles along aimlessly, like a dilapidated carriage through vast flatlands.  There are no remarkable characters and events.  Major action takes place elsewhere, and we hear of it only through rumors.  Meanwhile, local conversation is dull, presented ‘as is,’ rife with ungrammaticalities, and stitched together like ‘found’ objects in Futurist collages.

This is not to say that Bunin’s stance vis-à-vis the village that is Russia lacks emotion.  The opposite is true; behind Bunin’s artistic mimicry, one detects a poignant lament that the country is so hopelessly dreary and backward.  Bunin’s alter-ego character Tikhon, an aspiring poet, complains that Russians are not more like the Germans and the Jews, “who behave properly [del′no] and cordially [akkuratno].”   That is to say, even the Germans and the Jews are more civilized.  “But with us,” Tikhon complains, “we are all enemies.  We envy one another.  We gossip.  We’ll visit once a year, and when someone does stop by unexpectedly, we rush around from room to room straightening up….   And what’s more, we’ll begrudge our dear guest an extra spoon of jam!”

While Bunin bemoans Russia’s impoverishment, he sees it not as a temporary state, but as essential and unalterable.  His reproach of Russia’s provincialism is existential in that it is both heartfelt and cynical, sympathetic and disengaged, admonishing and fatalistic.  In The Village, Bunin offers a paradigmatically modernist mode of Russian self-criticism.


Title:       Orientalism in Tynjanov’s Historical Novel Smert′ Vazir-Mukhtara

Author:   Anna Aydinyan, Yale University

Written in late nineteen twenties Smert′ Vazir-Mukhtara was first published as a book in 1929, the anniversary of A. S. Griboedov’s death in Teheran. The novel covers one year in the diplomatic career of Griboedov, the period of time immediately following Russia’s victory in the Russian-Persian war. As a result of the victory Russia acquired three new provinces, basically completing its conquest of Transcaucasia.

By the time the novel was published, official Soviet ideology changed from defining the former Russian Empire as “a jail of the peoples,” to the theory of lesser evil, according to which the Russian conquest saved the conquered peoples from more oppressive Oriental Empires. Yet the novel offers more support to the former definition. Moreover, in his book Tynjanov shows how the building of the Empire is closely connected to the cultural phenomenon that later, in the scholarly world of the last quarter of the Twentieth century, has received the name of Orientalism.   

This paper is a part of a larger study on Orientalism as revealed in Tynjanov’s novel. While the study is mostly concerned with Russian Orientalism in its relation to Qajar Persia, the present paper analyzes Russia’s relation to its own Orient, the Caucasus.  A separate section of the novel shows how the literary Orientalism of poetry about the Caucasus and imperialistic expansionism shaped each other. This idea resonates with the number of later scholarly works on Russian Orientalism, inspired by disintegration of the Soviet Union.

One of the persistent myths of nineteenth century Russian Orientalism is the myth of a “happy marital union” between Russia and Georgia. The marriage between Griboedov and Nina Chavchavadze becomes the symbol of this beautiful union in the many memoirs of their contemporaries. The canon for representation of this marriage, shaped in the nineteenth century, was revived later in Soviet times as an illustration of the friendship of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Georgia. Tynjanov deliberately breaks this canon, showing that far from being “mutually benefiting” this marriage brought only grief to Nina, the Georgian side.   


Title:       The Slovak Opera Beg Bajazid: A Socialist-Era “Clash of Civilizations”

Author:   Charles Sabatos, Oberlin College

For centuries, the Turks were seen by the nations of Eastern Europe as a menacing force of foreign domination, which continues to influence the region’s perspectives on Turkey, and by extension, the rest of the Muslim world.  As the fear of Turkish invasions faded, representations of the Turks were adapted to suit the changing political context.  For example, during the 19th century National Awakening in Slovakia, writers drew on older sources such as folk songs in order to give their newly-codified literary language a sense of historical continuity. 

One of the best known examples is Samo Chalupka’s 1863 ballad “The Turk from Poniky” (“Turčin Poničan”), based on the legend of a Christian boy kidnapped into slavery and converted to Islam, who later returns to his native village as a Janissary and enslaves his own mother before discovering his true identity.  What sets this poem apart from works with similar themes in Balkan literature is that unlike the South Slavic nations, Slovakia experienced a limited and brief Ottoman occupation.  Almost a century later, in 1955, this theme was adapted for the opera Beg Bajazid, with music by Ján Cikker and libretto by Ján Smrek.  This version of the “Turčin” legend adds historical detail (such as the Turkish name “Bajazid” for the title character) and features a young Slovak maiden (representing national “purity”) who is forced to marry the Turk.  Although written in the socialist period, the opera displays the traditional Christian-Muslim antipathy described in recent years as the “clash of civilizations.”  However, at each stage of its adaptation from historical event to folklore, Romantic-era poetry to modern opera, the underlying symbolism of the Turkish “other” shifts in relation to the evolving Slovak sense of national identity.