War and peace, with our strange strong love for Russian literature

Leo Tolstoy

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • One is really spoilt for choice among the greats of modern Russian literature, whose life stories are often as colourful as those of the characters they created.
  • From Gorki we moved on to Fyodor Dostoevsky, with his visceral novels, like Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.

War and Peace, by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, is arguably one of the greatest novels of all time. Since you are an avid follower of current affairs, I need not tell you why this nineteenth century work of fiction came to my mind today. My immediate trigger was the report that a sizeable number of young people gathered this week at the Russian Embassy in the capital of a neighbouring country, apparently wishing to travel to Russia.

I will not pry into your opinion or standpoint, or that of your country, regarding the events unfolding there and the neighbouring regions of Europe. To me, however, as a literato, what the current Russia-Ukraine conflict has done, apart from reminding me of the many superb Russian literary texts that I have read and enjoyed, is to highlight a dichotomy I have always vaguely felt in many of those very texts.

On the one hand, the reader of nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian classics, even in translation, is enthralled by the sheer artistry, the characterisation, the precise depiction of situation, mood and setting in the works. On the other hand, however, the reader is frequently startled, “agonised” and almost inconsolably saddened by the bleak brutality of the events. Maybe the beauty of these texts lies precisely in that intriguing mix of the elegancy of the narrative and the pain of the reality.

Speaking of literary beauty, I remember the last time I sat in Ngugi wa Thiong’o class at UoN, in the late 1970s, before the politics of the times forced him out of the country. It was a Master of Arts class, and Mwalimu Ngugi had assigned us a reading of Anna Karenina, another famous novel by Leo Tolstoy, for our class discussion. About a dozen of us assembled in Mwalimu’s spacious study in the Ed II Building, with me as a voluntary or “auditing” participant.

When Ngugi invited us to contribute to the discussion, my youthful colleagues were generous and eloquent with their observations. On the face of it, Anna Karenina is about marital fidelity, with the heroine of the title painfully negotiating her relationships up to a tragic climax. Now with hindsight, however, I feel that it is fundamentally about the predicament of the woman in a feudal or semi-capitalistic society.

Anyway, most of our responses to the novel were of a patently social and political nature. We variously said what we probably expected Ngugi, with his well-known fierce social concerns, would like to hear. But he asked us a startling question. “Did it occur to you,” Ngugi asked, “that the novel is a work of art?” Our teacher and great literary artist had pointed out to us the biggest weakness of literary interpretation in those days. Critics concentrated obsessively on the sociological aspects of texts almost to the total neglect of the creative aspects.

Ngugi had, indeed, been one of the crop of our teachers who taught us to like Russian literature. As we gradually moved away from the narrow constraints of British Literature, our professors started introducing us to African, American, Caribbean and European literatures. The well-known classics of Russian literature were obvious candidates for the exercise.

While we read Maxim Gorki’s Childhood in Dar in the first year, our colleagues at Makerere in the mid-1960s read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn, who was forced into exile in America during the Soviet era and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, is best-known for his exposures of Stalin’s penal colonies in The Gulag Archipelago. Another Russian author who fell foul of the Soviet authorities, was Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago. Pasternak had also been awarded the Nobel, in 1958, but he had been forced by the Russian authorities to reject it.

One is really spoilt for choice among the greats of modern Russian literature, whose life stories are often as colourful as those of the characters they created. From Gorki we moved on to Fyodor Dostoevsky, with his visceral novels, like Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. Then came Anton Chekhov, the playwright who wistfully dramatizes the decay and eventual demise of the Russian landed gentry, in plays like The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya.

Our young lecturers, like Ngugi and the late Grant Kamenju, introduced us to several Soviet era authors, most notably another Nobel Prize winner (1965) Mikhail Sholokhov, author of And Quietly Flows the Don. It is a fascinating work, but it is in four hefty volumes, and I have not done much more than skim through some of them. Have you, however, noted how frequently these Russian authors keep winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?

A very famous precursor of all the above-mentioned stalwarts, whom some commentators call the founder of modern Russian literature, is the eighteenth century poet, novelist and dramatist, Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin is as famous for his “romantic era” literary works as for his flamboyant and tragic life, which ended in a gun duel. Pushkin had African ancestry, his maternal great-grandfather being an Ethiopian adopted into Russian nobility by his godfather.

With such a “small world”, maybe we can guess why some Africans may want to travel to Russia today. My own curious memory is that the first Master of Arts student I supervised at UoN wrote and successfully defended a dissertation on Alexander Pushkin. I learnt more about Pushkin from this lady student of mine than I ever taught her.

Finally, our best-known Russian text in East Africa is, I believe, Nikolai Gogol’ hilarious play The Government Inspector (Mkaguzi Mkuu wa Serikali). You remember, the characters in the play keep talking about St Petersburg, where Vladimir Putin was Mayor before he became President of the Russian Federation. But what brought me down to earth with a thud was the discovery that Nikolai Gogol was actually Ukrainian-Russian.

Should such people be at each other’s throats for any reason?

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 

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