Most people dream of becoming a Russian author. Sadly, their journey is often stymied by the dream’s preposterousness. If, however, you’re undeterred by the opening sentence's false premise, here are the 5 essential qualities that form the bedrock of Russian literature.
Note: Unlike the authors profiled in The 5 Worst Writers of All Time, the authors referenced in this article are real, as are the quotes from their works.
1. Characters must hate life
Along with his contemporaries Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) is one of the most popular nineteenth century Russian novelists.
Best known for his unabashed contempt for life, here’s Turgenev describing his prototypical bubbly character named Fyodor Ivanych Lavretsky, in the novel Home of the Gentry:
"He is a poor, lonely, crushed man."
Indeed he was.
Fyodor’s vernacular centers on matter-of-factly saying things like, "I look forward to a dark grave, not a rosy future." I don’t recall the precise context of this declaration, but I believe this may have been Fyodor’s reply to his niece asking him if he wants more tea.
You would be hard pressed to find any Turgenev character whose story arc transcends despair. In fact, his characters’ story arcs always exacerbate despair.
Turgenev even has a story collection aptly titled: A Desperate Character. To paraphrase a Woody Allen joke, for Turgenev, the glass is always half full—half full of poison.
2. Children’s books must permanently scar
When it comes to emotionally scarring your child, it’s important to emphasize the distinction between permanent and temporary scarring.
Short-term scarring is a staple of most children’s arts—it’s an effective means for parents to ensure that kids don’t get too haughty, fostering self-esteem through exposure to human nature’s dark side. Bambi’s mother dying is tragic, as is Old Yeller being put down. But these and other stories with underlying poignant motifs ultimately reinforce the universe’s positive aspects.
On the other hand, permanent scarring is the unique domain of Russian (and maybe German) children’s literature. There are no silver linings, only hideous linings casting a dreadful fate on even the most likable protagonists.
Take the Russian adaptation of the American fable The Little Red Hen.
The hen cleans and cooks, while her friends sit around doing nothing. When dinner is served, the naive reader thinks the morale of the story is that because no one helped her, the hen is the only one who gets to eat.
But in the Russian version, the lazy animals eat all the food, leaving the hen starving and in tears.
The stories with human characters are decidedly more emotionally violent.
In the biographical children’s novel Chto Ya Videl (What I saw), a mother calls her 7-year-old a “verminous child”.
Verminous is quite possibly the worst word you can call someone. So why did the mother call her son vermin? Because he eavesdropped on his mother and father talking. That was his sin. She also told him she didn’t love him, which now that I think about it, probably alleviated the mind fuck of being called a vermin by your own mother.
Another charming children's tale is about a boy kidnapped by a witch, who enslaves him for seven years. When he finally escapes, she turns him into a deformed dwarf with no neck and a freakishly giant nose.
The boy thinks it was all a dream, and when he merrily skips home to greet his mother—who of course doesn’t recognize him—he rekindles her grief by acting like he's her son. "What a cruel freak!" mourns the mother. He is then swiftly banished from his home.
3. Human Suffering Reigns Supreme
Russian books elevate the theme of human suffering to a level where not a shred of optimism for humanity’s salvation can survive. Simply put, all hopeful, non-cynical ideas about the human experience are extinguished.
Growing up, one of my favorite Russian writers was Daniil Kharms (Russian: Дании́л Ива́нович Хармс, 1905 – 1942). Kharms has a collection of vignettes with story lines ranging from improbably psychotic to improbably morbid.
In one vignette, a man tries to get in bed, but falls just short, and dies because he cannot get up.
That’s the entire story.
In another story, the protagonist eats one hundred cutlets and dies. Amazingly inspirational.
The unifying central message in all these vignettes is that human suffering is irredeemable and death is the only reprieve.
4. Every sentence must be saturated with extreme moroseness
Perhaps no other novel exemplifies this particular quality of Russian literature than Dostoevsky’s classic, Crime and Punishment.
Two months into this brooding, one thousand page tome, and having read seemingly every possible combination of words, I glanced at the bottom of my Kindle and realized I was only eighty percent through. Interestingly, the novel had seeped eighty percent of my emotional energy—a one-to-one ratio.
It's not that Crime and Punishment is terrible, it’s that whatever intrigue and insights into human nature Crime and Punishment contains is buried under endless words. There is no comic relief, no break from an intensely morose narrative, making it the ultimate blueprint for a Russian novel.
5. Writing must be stripped of subtlety
A hallmark of Russian culture is the absence of subtlety. In some cases, this cultural trait cultivates virtues like directness, honesty, and an aversion to passive-aggressive behavior.
But when it comes to literature, this trait manifests into hyper-aggressive writing, whereby the author imposes every idea, thought, or whim on the reader as if he were repeatedly striking the reader’s psyche with a blunt instrument.
Nothing is implied or tiptoed around—the maxim that good writing should show rather than tell is an anathema to the Russian author, who holds as sacred the principle of bludgeoning the reader in lieu of employing artfully oblique language.
A Russian novel is never ambiguous in its message; you'll never be left unsure about what the author meant or which human qualities he despises most.
Perhaps centuries of oppression, paralyzing winter, delicious pickled food, and unsuccessful invasions by history’s greatest armies foster a literary style where nothing good happens to anyone.
The blunt cynicism creeping towards nihilism that pervades Russian literature makes for an intense reading experience. Stripped of subtlety and hope, the quintessential Russian novel machine guns your senses and leaves nothing to the imagination.
*Disclaimer: Detractors might point to the fact that I’ve only read a small percentage of Russian literature, and therefore, my conclusions are derived from too small of a sample. To these detractors I say that contemporary culture thrives on cherry picking evidence to fit a desired narrative. So take your objections up with society at large—I choose not to be responsible for my actions.