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Vodka and Lament: The Allure and Anguish of Russian Literature

As a former aficionado of literature, I have long harbored a profound predilection for Russian literary works. The hallmark of Russian literature lies in its robust essence, akin to the sensation of vodka coursing down one’s throat with vigor.

A nuanced interpretation of “intensity” suggests that when narratives and characters are depicted in a heightened manner, tragedy becomes profoundly poignant, and absurdity, utterly startling. For instance, in Chekhov’s “Death of a Government Clerk,” a minor official meets his demise after a mere sneeze in the presence of his superior. Similarly, Gogol portrays a dandy in “The Government Inspector” who assumes the role of a high-ranking official, garnering adulation from city bureaucrats and the affections of society ladies.

Such tragedies and absurdities are ubiquitous in Russian literature, surpassing in frequency their counterparts in contemporaneous American or French literary works.

The “robust” temperament of Russian literature is intricately intertwined with the historical trajectory of the Russian nation. The centralized political system of the Tsarist era, divergent from those of Central and Western European nations, along with the entrenched social and economic hierarchies, meant that these “robust” narratives were often not merely products of artistic fancy but, to a large extent, reflections of lived experiences.

Echoing the temperament of their works, Russian writers constitute a distinct cohort, many of whom exude a palpable tragic ethos akin to that found in their literary creations.

Tolstoy (1828-1910), revered as the conscience of Russian letters, initially hailed from affluence and exuded sophistication. In his youth, he penned “War and Peace,” set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, delving into the intricacies of love and conflict among Russian aristocrats. However, in his later years, Tolstoy forsook his privileged background, crafting “Resurrection” and directing his gaze towards the plight of the serf class.

Some critics discern in “Resurrection” shades of Tolstoy’s own life experiences, particularly in the portrayal of a male aristocrat who impregnates a maid, subsequently driving her into prostitution, only to later aid her escape from harsh retribution. To a certain extent, this narrative serves as a collective confession and redemption of the moral failings of aging Russian aristocrats. Following the completion of “Resurrection,” Tolstoy adopted a frugal existence, prioritizing spiritual enlightenment over earthly pleasures.

In 1910, at the age of 82, Tolstoy absconded from his familial abode, departing this world in solitary seclusion at a nondescript station.

Turgenev (1818-1883), Tolstoy’s spiritual guide, also epitomized the tragic sensibility. Unwed due to an unrequited love for a married Spanish songstress, he reflected in his later years, “I found solace only when a woman pressed my head into the mud.” In contemporary terms, Turgenev’s disposition might be deemed somewhat masochistic, a sentiment hardly befitting societal approbation.

The annals of Russian literature abound with tragic luminaries. Pushkin (1799-1837), hailed as Russia’s paramount poet, occupies a place akin to that of Li Bai in Chinese literary tradition. Pushkin’s life, too, culminated in tragedy when, in 1837, he succumbed to wounds sustained in a duel precipitated by personal turmoil.

What, then, constitutes the essence of the tragic spirit? Viewed through the lens of economic rationality, it defies conventional wisdom, eschewing the maximization of personal gain in favor of pursuing cherished values and ideals, even at the cost of one’s own life.

This enduring spiritual legacy of the Russian people persists to this day, embodying an aristocratic ethos worthy of veneration. Despite lagging behind the West economically, Russia’s contributions to literature, art, and science shine resplendently in the annals of human history, a testament to the enduring legacy of the human spirit.

Regrettably, in many corners of the globe, such spirit remains a rare commodity.

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