Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013

by Oliver Ready (Author)
Monographs X, 408 Pages


The theme of foolishness has long occupied an unusually prominent place in Russian culture, touching on key questions of national, spiritual, and intellectual identity. In literature, the figure of the fool – and the voice of the fool – has carried additional appeal as an enduring source of comic and stylistic innovation. Never has this appeal been stronger than in the past half-century, whether as a reaction to the «scientific atheism» and official culture of the late-socialist era, or as a response to the intellectual and moral disorientation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Persisting in Folly traces three contrasting phases within this period: the «praise of folly» that underpins acknowledged samizdat masterpieces by Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky, and Sasha Sokolov; the sceptical appraisals of the Russian cult of the fool offered in the 1980s by Viktor Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky; and the legacy of this conflicted tradition in post-Soviet prose. By combining close readings with a rich comparative and contextual framework, this book charts a new path through recent Russian literature and offers a wide-ranging consideration of the causes and consequences of Russian writers’ enduring quest for wisdom through folly.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Conventions
  • Introduction
  • The Scope of this Study
  • Folly’s longue durée in Russian Culture and Literature
  • Holy foolery
  • Folklore
  • Pre-revolutionary literature
  • The early Soviet era
  • The Late Soviet Cultural and Literary Context
  • Prelude: Fools in Search of an Author (Voinovich’s Chonkin, Shukshin’s chudiki)
  • Part I: In Praise of Folly
  • Chapter 1: From the Underground Man to Dame Folly: The Erasmian irony of Moscow-Petushki
  • Notes of a Psychopath
  • Moscow-Petushki
  • The Erasmian Tradition
  • The Basis of the Comparison in Genre, Form, and Rhetoric
  • Foolish Women and Androgynous Folly
  • The Drinking Party and the ‘Transvaluation of Values’
  • The Shared Philosophical Sources of Praise of Folly and Moscow-Petushki
  • Chapter 2: Not to Reason Why: Life against mind in the fiction of Yuz Aleshkovsky (Nikolai Nikolaevich, The Hand)
  • Introduction
  • Nikolai Nikolaevich (1970)
  • The Hand (1977–1978)
  • A ‘Hangman’s Narrative’
  • Hangman as Holy Fool
  • The ‘Vicious Circle of Reason’
  • The Re-evaluation of Values
  • Chapter 3: Wisdom and Stasis in School for Fools
  • Part II: Appraisals of Folly
  • Chapter 4: ‘The Idiot is You’: Viktor Erofeev’s assault on the cult of folly
  • The plot
  • The second collapse of ‘humanism’
  • A satire of Erofeev’s samizdat contemporaries?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: Fool outside Christ? Dmitry Galkovsky’s myth of Rozanov-yurodivyi and its precursors (Sinyavsky, Ven. Erofeev et al.)
  • The Émigré Perspective: Yury Ivask and Andrei Sinyavsky
  • The ‘Eccentric’ Perspective: Venedikt Erofeev’s Rozanov
  • View from the Dead End: Dmitry Galkovsky’s ‘Wise Mistakes’
  • Concluding Thoughts: Integrity at What Cost?
  • Part III: Continuations and New Directions since 1991
  • Chapter 6: The Infantility of Viktor Pelevin (‘The Ontology of Childhood’, Omon Ra, Generation ‘P’)
  • Omon Ra (1992)
  • Generation ‘P’ (1999)
  • Chapter 7: In Search of Maturity: The fool and his brother (Terekhov, Pavlov, Sadulaev, Makanin, Sharov)
  • Chapter 8: The Fool and his Father, and Sometimes her Mother: Intellectual disability and holy foolishness (Buida, Vasilenko and others)
  • Postscript
  • Про Иванушку-дурачка и золотую рыбку
  • About Ivan the Fool and the Goldfish
  • Select Bibliography
  • Primary Sources: Literature, 1963–2013
  • Secondary Sources: Literature, 1963–2013
  • Secondary Sources: Social and Cultural History, 1963–2013
  • Secondary Sources: Folly and Related Topics in Literature and Culture
  • Index
  • Series index

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It is a pleasure – and a relief – to be able to acknowledge and thank the various institutions that have supported my work towards this book over the past fifteen years. The Arts and Humainties Research Board (now the Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded my DPhil at Wolfson College, Oxford, with a three-year grant. I was fortunate to remain at Wolfson for a further three years as a Junior Research Fellow before moving down the Banbury Road to the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, where I held the Max Hayward Fellowship and where I remain a Research Fellow. Without the confidence placed in me by these two Colleges and by the Sub-Faculty of Russian at Oxford, this book would not have been completed.

No less vital were the encouragement and dedication of my doctoral supervisor, Catriona Kelly, and the unflagging interest and wise counsel of my editor, Andrew Kahn. Sincere thanks are also due to the two anonymous peer reviewers for their thorough and thoughtful appraisals of my manuscript.

Conversations with a range of authors, scholars and friends brought stimulus and perspective; I thank in particular Mikhail Aizenberg, Yury Buida, Oleg Dark, Caryl Emerson, Viktor Erofeev, Jane Grayson, Aleksandr Ilichevsky, Tommy Karshan, Sergei Roy, Vladimir Sharov, Ilya Vinitsky, Zinovy Zinik, and Andrei Zorin.

Behind the scenes Ania, my wife, and Marisa and Nigel, my parents, have offered every help they possibly could; they have my deepest gratitude and appreciation.

The bulk of Chapters 1 and 5 first appeared in different form in the Slavonic and East European Review, in the issues of July 2010 and January 2012, respectively. I am grateful to SEER for permitting me to use revised versions of these articles here.

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In order to reflect more accurately the evolution of samizdat culture, all literary works of the period 1963 to 1991 are dated according to the year(s) of composition, unless otherwise indicated. Fiction of the post-Soviet period (Chapters 6 to 8), by contrast, is dated according to the year of publication.

Quotations from primary texts are provided in translation and in the original for all works of fiction (and poetry). All translations are mine, except where indicated.

I have followed Library of Congress transliteration conventions, with the following exceptions: ‘ю’ is rendered as ‘yu’ (not ‘iu’), and ‘я’ as ‘ya’ (not ‘ia’). Names ending in ий are rendered with a ‘y’ (Dmitry, Aleshkovsky) and those ending in ‘ой’ with ‘oy’ (Tolstoy). Soft signs are not retained in the main text in widely recognized names (Olga, Gogol, etc.).

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If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

WILLIAM BLAKE, ‘Proverbs of Hell’

The Scope of this Study

For centuries, Russian writers have persisted in folly, with or without the hope of becoming wise. From Avvakum in the seventeenth century to Evgeny Vodolazkin in the twenty-first, Russian prose abounds in authors of lasting cultural influence who have placed fools, natural or otherwise, at the very core of their art. The prefatory remark in The Brothers Karamazov that the ‘eccentric’ (chudak) may bear within himself the ‘heart of the whole’ is yet more applicable to the chudak’s various literary cousins – the durak (fool), idiot and yurodivyi (holy fool) – who throng Dostoevsky’s novels and Russian fiction more generally.1 Socially peripheral but symbolically central,2 these ‘fools’ appear as protagonists and episodic characters; and they appear as narrators, flaunting their aversion to intellectual pretension and learning. In all these cases, they tend to be invested with an integrity lacking in others, and engage the reader with ancient paradoxes once set in play by Socrates (the wisest man in Athens only ‘to this small extent, that I ← 1 | 2 → do not think I know what I do not know’),3 and, most evocatively for the Russian tradition, St Paul, who enjoined his puffed-up brethren in Corinth to be, like he and his fellow apostles, ‘fools for Christ’s sake’ (1 Cor 4:10).

As these examples indicate, the search for wisdom through folly is by no means a prerogative of Russian culture, even if it has often been presented as such, not least as a means of self-identification vis-à-vis the allegedly rationalist, spiritually desiccated West. ‘I am not Byron, I am different,’ Mikhail Lermontov wrote in a famous lyric of 1832, before specifying the nature of these distinctions: his ‘Russian soul’ and his knowledge ‘that my mind will not achieve much’.4 A few decades later, Fëdor Tyutchev would declare, in a four-line poem that still overshadows his more original verse, that ‘Russia cannot be understood with the mind’.5 In fact, however, it was precisely counter-rationalist currents emanating from Western Europe that laid many of the foundations for the Russian cult of the fool. Without German Romanticism, the Slavophile movement would not have developed as it did, lending its imprimatur to literary critiques of intellectual abstraction. Without Don Quixote, behind which stood the fool-playing of Erasmus and Rabelais, Dostoevsky’s ‘fantastical realism’ would have taken a different course, and The Idiot may never have been written. Not even the vaunted yurodivye Khrista radi, or ‘fools for Christ’s sake’, broke new ground in life or literature at a conceptual level, following as they did the paths beaten by the Byzantine saloi, on whose Lives their hagiographies were modelled.

Moreover, in purely technical terms, few literary devices could be more universal than the deployment of the perspective of the fool to reveal the ‘truth’ about society and its rulers. It is precisely because his folly ‘defines him as not fully a person and therefore not a political being with political desires and ambitions’ (to quote J. M. Coetzee)6 that the fool offers the ← 2 | 3 → author unique possibilities of expression and a unique point of view. As Mikhail Bakhtin showed, it was in the Western European novel that the role of the fool (durak) in public culture and performance became internalized, together with those of the buffoon and rogue. Taking as his mask the non-comprehension of the fool and exploiting the latter’s unique license to accuse, parody, confuse, exaggerate, curse and make public, the novelist brought his fiction into the theatrical ‘chronotope’ of folly, appropriating a point of view that was ‘in life, but not of it’ and essentially allegorical in nature (‘The buffoon and the fool are the metamorphosis of Tsar and God’).7 With his unique ‘power of melting the solidity of the world’ (to cite Enid Welsford’s classic comparative study), the fool became central to the novel’s eternal polemic with convention and false intellectual authority.8

For all this, however, there is something particular about the Russian case: namely, the sheer persistence with which Russian writers have been drawn to folly. Rather like a psychic complex, it has served as a ‘nodal point’ of literary development in Russia, at once a creative stimulus and a hindrance.9 To the present day, the exploration of the paradoxes of folly and wisdom has resulted in the further paradox of cultural clichés (notably, the holy fool) being constantly reinvoked as if they were novel. For to the same extent that folly has offered Russian writers a cultural outlet and signature theme, that same outlet has always risked becoming a fetter and an ‘endless dead end’, to cite the title of Dmitry Galkovsky’s philosophical novel, a book which nevertheless seeks a way out through the author’s idiosyncratic revision of holy foolery.10 ← 3 | 4 →

This is related to another central tension in the Russian tradition: to the same extent that the fool’s appeal reflects the unusually direct and spiritually liberating impact of the New Testament on Russian culture, so too it has been saturated with a related sense of guilt over that culture’s original sin: namely, a profoundly unChristian social order in which gentry and serfs, the educated and the illiterate were separated by (in Rodion Raskolnikov’s words) an ‘unbridgeable gulf’,11 both before and after the Emancipation of the Serfs. By habitually identifying intellectual humility with wisdom, and sophistication with spiritual aridity, Russian writers have striven, quixotically, to build this bridge through words. In their works, the lowly and uneducated have, in many cases, possessed the moral qualities and wisdom denied to well-placed intellectuals, as if they were the latter’s doubles or (in the Jungian sense) shadows. Indeed, in Russian fiction it is the narod (the people) that has frequently served as the intelligentsia’s conscience (sovest' ), not – as the established formula has it – the other way round. The Bolsheviks, for all their successes in widening education and professional opportunity, failed to bring an end to this ‘gulf’. For this reason (and for others detailed further below), the Bolshevik Revolution only served to deepen the literary cult of folly, which was redeployed to offer radical challenges to Soviet ideology: to atheism, scientism and ‘Procrustean’ rationalism.12

These tendencies reached their apogee in Brezhnev’s Russia. In the prose of Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Sasha Sokolov, Dmitry Galkovsky and Viktor Erofeev, fool, narrator and (in several cases) author merge as never before in Russian literature, demonstrating a wilful embrace of the subjectivity and apparent anti-rationalism which Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy had always deemed anathema. These writers reprised the foolish perspective employed by authors testing the boundaries of acceptability in the 1920s (Zoshchenko, Olesha, Platonov and others), but took it in new directions. Keeping their distance from the Soviet establishment on the ← 4 | 5 → one hand, and from active political dissidence on the other, they explored divergent aesthetic and philosophical paths that share a common point of departure: the use of a radically unstable and equivocal form of first-person narration in which the narrator is strongly identified with the figure of the fool, both in terms of self-definition and his definition by others. At the origins of this new literary tradition lie two short comic masterpieces (1969–70), Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki and Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich. If there was a model for their use of humour and paradox, it lay outside Russia and far back in time: in the Renaissance literature to which late Soviet culture was drawn, with Erasmus’s Praise of Folly at its source (as I argue in Chapters 1 and 2).

The ‘praise of folly’ shared by Erofeev and Aleshkovsky, as well as Sasha Sokolov (Chapter 3), has manifest satirical dimensions: as a protest against Soviet authority, the standardization of culture and discourse, and the notorious abuse of psychiatry in Brezhnev’s Russia (among other targets).13 More positively, it may be read as an attempt to model a degree of freedom, to escape categories, at least at a psychological level. These dimensions, familiar in many cases from previous studies of late Soviet literature, are undeniable, but they are present in this book largely as a starting-point, for they only take us so far in understanding the prominence of the topic at hand, which remains strong even where the satirical impulse may be relatively subdued. Thematically speaking, its deeper roots lie in the soil of the Russian literary and intellectual tradition with which these author are in dialogue.14 As an extension of this tradition, familiar themes and motifs recur, gradually undermining the vitality and exuberance that the inversion of the conventional categories of wisdom and folly can supply. Among these motifs are the solipsism and passivity of the fool, and a childishness that often crosses into infantilism; among recurring environmental factors is the pattern, familiar from the nineteenth century, of absent or abusive fathers and overprotective mothers. There is a further continuity endorsed by the classics: as regards both narrator and author, this is a strikingly male tradition, for reasons that will emerge in the course of this study. Indeed ← 5 | 6 → the length of this volume could be doubled through consideration of the fiction of Sergei Dovlatov, Evgeny Kharitonov, Eduard Limonov, Vyacheslav P'etsukh, Evgeny Popov, Zinovy Zinik and others.

This backdrop helps explain why the fool himself becomes the object of satire in several first-person texts that submit the Russian cult of folly to unprecedented scrutiny and scepticism. Praise of folly becomes, in the works of Viktor Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky in particular (Chapters 4 and 5), appraisal of its dangers and limitations. To what extent has the Russian sanctification of folly been complicit in historical catastrophe and cruelty? To what extent does it permit and encourage the modelling of defensive, often misogynist ‘utopias’, structured around the continuum of fool-genius-saint-child? Accepting this critique, what model of the male Russian intellectual might be viable for the present day? Here, I pay particular attention to the Rozanovian strain in recent writing that culminates in Galkovsky’s Endless Dead End.

And yet, this sceptical appraisal did not mark the end of Russia’s love-affair with folly. The cultural myths which Moscow-Petushki and other texts helped produce proved too powerful. The last three chapters trace their legacy, afterlife and renewed pertinence to a society undergoing historic change and religious resurgence. In Chapter 7, I see the late Soviet tradition exhausting itself in some of the key works of Viktor Pelevin, governed by a foolish, infantile consciousness to whom maturity and responsibility is alien. In the work of many other post-Soviet writers, by contrast, we can discern a wide-ranging attempt to work through this legacy, to bring the male protagonist out of a psychological, solipsistic underground towards the ‘other’, into situations of responsibility and mutual dependency, while at the same time holding on to the spiritual and intellectual values historically invested by Russian writers in the fool. The final two chapters also discuss the challenges that appear to be offered to the strong gendering of folly in Russian literature, notably in Svetlana Vasilenko’s feminization of the yurodivyi (see Chapter 8). Related to this is another far-reaching development, traceable from Sasha Sokolov onwards: what happens to the Russian fascination with folly when a primarily metaphorical discourse that depends on certain cultural complexes and anxieties as well as religious authority is literalized as intellectual disability? ← 6 | 7 →

The three parts of this book match the phases I have just outlined. They are preceded by a relatively brief consideration of two major writers, Vladimir Voinovich and Vasily Shukshin, whose work is much invested in folly, but in fairly conventional forms. I describe this section as a ‘prelude’, not to suggest these writers’ lesser importance, but as a marker of the various shifts that can be traced from their fictions to Moscow-Petushki and subsequent samizdat texts: from the countryside to the city, from peasant to intellectual, and from third to first-person narration. As a whole, this book is thus intended to show the development of my topic over a period of half a century, beginning with the celebrated novel about Private Chonkin that Voinovich started writing in 1963, and ending with Evgeny Vodolazkin and Svetlana Aleksievich (2013). Through a chain of interconnected close readings, accompanied by the literary, social and cultural contextualization that is provided in the remainder of this Introduction and throughout the chapters, this development is shown to have its own coherent narrative.

At the same time, a good proportion of readers are likely to turn to this book with the narrower aim of reading about specific authors and works, and my chapters are also written with this aim in mind. Indeed, individual texts, rather than an overriding thesis, are my priority, one which informs my methodological approach. With the exception of Chapter 5, my focus is less on typology and conceptualization – which involves grouping together disparate authors – than on following the ways in which the self-identification with the fool (durak, idiot) that is a common denominator of all the narratives studied in the first two parts develops and changes within the texts themselves.15 Writers of fiction are less inhibited by categorical and ← 7 | 8 → lexicographic distinctions than scholars, and this is doubly true of those who trade in the frequently metaphorical discourse of folly. This discourse exploits a continuum of related types and conditions (from eccentricity to stupidity, holy foolery to infantilism) that are themselves open to perpetual redefinition within a single text, just as the word ‘folly’ (moria) constantly shifts in Erasmus’s masterpiece.

What I should make clear, however, is that this is not primarily a study of the many representations of insanity in Russian literature of this period. ‘Madness’ and the prevalent late Soviet trope of the madhouse certainly have their place on the continuum mentioned above, and will enter the picture in various chapters, but only where they are contiguous with my main topic of ‘folly’, which, to bring in the lexicographers, can aptly be parsed, for my purposes, as ‘the quality or state of being foolish or deficient in understanding’ (OED) – and indeed is used here interchangeably with foolishness. A focus on madness, whether genuine, affected or misdiagnosed, would inevitably move the centre of gravity of this study more towards political satire and dissidence; my approach, by contrast, tends to highlight texts that posit a more reflective distance from contemporary events.16 Another way of developing this distinction is to say that in the literature of the period foolishness tends to connote absence : a lack of conventional forms of knowledge and understanding that brings with it the lack or willed renunciation of other secular goods, such as social and intellectual status, maturity, sexual fulfilment, money and property. For Andrei Sinyavsky, as Mikhail Epstein has rightly emphasized, ‘foolishness [durachestvo] is a form of creative emptiness’, a ‘metaphysics of not-knowing’, ‘a null and ← 8 | 9 → even negative status of mind and will’, which is in line with the thrust of one of Sinyavsky’s aphorisms about the Russian character (also cited by Epstein): ‘The crucial thing about a Russian is that he has nothing to lose. He’s saved nothing, learnt nothing’.17 Even when it becomes ‘wise’, often through the direct contact with God that such ‘emptiness’ permits, such folly remains imbued with a spirit of negation. True ‘intelligence’ (um) is ‘of the people’ (naroden), that is, not intellectual, says the drunken grandfather to the intellectual protagonist in Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House (Pushkinskii dom, 1964–71); ‘intelligence is nullity […] Emptiness, the absence of memory, preparedness’.18 In its clinical manifestations, by contrast, madness often connotes presence in a secular sense: delusions, voices, a rupture of the equanimity sought by the ‘metaphysical’ fool, or the very real presence of the psychiatrist or other representative of authority. Certainly, madness may also be read as absence – a lack of reason – but the authors considered here, much given to paradox, are more prone to see insanity as an excess of reason, ‘reason operating in isolation’ (to quote the narrator of Aleshkovsky’s The Hand).19

Folly’s longue durée in Russian Culture and Literature

If, as I have suggested, this study presents the most recent chapter in a history of enduring cultural and literary preoccupations that gather around the figure of the fool, then a survey of this hinterland is essential in order ← 9 | 10 → to bring out continuities that transcend social and historical change. The survey that follows is inevitably selective; more detailed comparison with specific precursors will follow within the main chapters.

Holy foolery

In the minds of most Russians and Russianists, this hinterland is dominated, to an exceptional and sometimes unhelpful degree, by the malleable notion of yurodstvo, or holy foolery;20 and while one aim of this study is to suggest the need for alternative prisms by which to explore Russian writers’ fascination with folly, there is no denying the formative and historical impact of holy foolery on Russian culture, nor its enduring presence in literature and the arts.

Most fundamentally, holy foolery has served, over the centuries, as a conduit for the New Testament values whose allure in the late Soviet period (as for Dostoevsky and others in the mid-nineteenth century) was only accentuated by the very difficulty of getting hold of the New Testament in modern translation. In the key passage identifying himself and like-minded Christians as ‘fools for Christ’s sake’, St Paul expressed these values in maximalist form:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless […] we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.21

This description, which provides the matrix of holy foolery in both its essence and appearance, was of course inspired by the example of Christ, ← 10 | 11 → who had appeared foolish, even mad to many of his contemporaries by befriending outcasts and prostitutes, violating rituals and laws, and manifesting the self-abasement, kenosis and weakness praised by St Paul.22 The manner of his death was no less scandalous: ‘a stumbling block [skandalon] to Jews, and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23) – the same ‘folly of the cross’ that would be opposed by Russian writers to both ‘eloquent wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:17) and modern-day, putatively foreign rationalism. ‘You are attempting an impossible task,’ Tyutchev wrote to Schelling. ‘A philosophy which rejects the supernatural and wants to prove everything by reason must inevitably drift towards materialism before sinking in atheism […] One must either believe what St Paul believed, and after him Pascal, and kneel before The Folly of the Cross, or deny everything.’23 Folly in Christ has also offered an elevating model of social marginalization and ‘failure’. Where the Old Testament equates folly with sin and blasphemy,24 and wisdom with ‘a life of success and respect, not a miserable, shameful death on a cross’,25 St Paul endows the fool with immense charisma, according him ‘hidden and secret wisdom’ (1 Cor 2:7), rather as the fool has been associated in various pagan and primitive cultures with realities and forces beyond the reach of reason.26 The deepest truths, according to Christ, were now more accessible to ‘babes’ than to the seeming ‘wise’, a paradox that indicated a kinship between childishness, even infantilism, and saintly or redemptive folly that, canonized by Dostoevsky in particular, has remained salient in ← 11 | 12 → recent Russian literature, even among such ostentatiously non-Christian writers as Viktor Pelevin.27

To these foundations, the holy fools of Byzantium and Russia developed their shock tactics of ‘provocation and aggression’ (in the words of their most authoritative historian, Sergei A. Ivanov), targeting self-righteous, respectable citizens with apparently insane and even sinful behaviour that concealed a didactic message.28 Leontius’ vita of Symeon of Emessa (highly influential on the Russian hagiographic tradition)29 offers a particularly vivid and rich example, describing the outrages committed by that saint in order to ‘show a weakness in the virtuous life to the slothful and pretentious’. Symeon ties a dead dog to his waist and defecates in public, eats meat on days of fasting, throws nuts at women in church, consorts with prostitutes and pretends to rape the wife of a tavern-keeper.30 One can see why in the 1970s, in the wake of Bakhtin’s study of Rabelaisian carnival, the scholar Aleksandr Panchenko turned his attention to the theatrical and topsy-turvy elements of holy foolery: ‘All yurodstvo, speaking figuratively, is a gesture – enigmatic and paradoxical’.31

Enshrined in the Lives of the many canonized yurodivye Khrista radi who flourished above all in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, holy foolery has bestowed on Russia not only a rich religious and cultural legacy, but also the aura of a uniquely native tradition, one distinctive feature of which – not anticipated by the Byzantine salos – was the yurodivyi’s license to reproach the tsar.32 This feature is famously captured in Aleksandr Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (and Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name), but even more relevant to our topic is the late seventeenth-century autobiography of the Archpriest Avvakum, widely read in the Soviet period and an ← 12 | 13 → early example of first-person narrative in which the narrator consistently mocks himself as a stupid person and, worse, berates himself (in Pauline language) as ‘the scum of the earth’ for his sinful past and evil deeds.33 Avvakum does not present himself as a yurodivyi, but, writing as an Old Believer opposed to Nikon’s foreign-seeming reforms, he fraternizes with holy fools and uses one, Fëdor, to convey his message to the tsar. Moreover, he himself cites the words of St Paul (‘We are fools for Christ’s sake’) at the Council of Patriarchs, to whose intellectual snobbery he, like St Paul with the Corinthians, opposes his unschooled rhetoric and ignorance.34

No less important for the recent legacy of yurodstvo was its spread through Russian culture at large as an ever less containable phenomenon, merging with other religious paradigms and becoming a label that could be attached to uncounted thousands of madmen, beggars, wild men, prophets and ascetics who were insulted by some and revered by the God-fearing, well beyond Peter the Great’s attempts to suppress holy fools. (Diaries suggest that even in the Soviet period wandering ‘yurodivye’ remained an unexceptional occurrence.)35 Yurodstvo also merged with what we would now call intellectual disability, shedding the distinction, central to the hagiographic tradition, between feigned and unfeigned folly. As Ivanov notes, the very word yurodivyi (Church Slavonic urodivyi, urod) ‘originally meant one who was congenitally defective’, and it is clear that many people perceived as yurodivye or blazhennye (‘blessed’, once a synonym for yurodivyi) were indeed physically or intellectually disadvantaged; and in some cases, as Natalia Challis and Horace Dewey persuasively suggested back in 1974, autistic.36 It is against this background that Ivan the Terrible’s son, ← 13 | 14 → the mentally and physically disabled Tsar Fëdor, could himself be perceived as a holy fool and, as such, bring ‘comfort and consolation to the nation deeply stricken by the terror of Ivan’s reign’ (N. Zernov).37 And it is against this background too that the canonical nineteenth-century literary and artistic images of the yurodivyi took shape: the itinerant, inarticulate holy fool in rags and chains, and even heavy iron hats, barefoot in the cold, a ‘folk’ character to contrast with the noble or intellectual narrator, protected by village or gentry – the Grisha who dominates two chapters of Tolstoy’s Childhood (Detstvo, 1852), or the Paramon of Gleb Uspensky’s eponymous story (1877), described by the admiring narrator as ‘extremely slow’ (kraine nedalëkii).38 Paramon is clearly incapable of wearing any mask or feigning madness, but the authenticity of his ascetic piety, and the wounds caused by his fetters, overwhelm all observers, especially the narrator. A less extreme, but no less interesting example of a folk character with some marked holy-foolish traits is the Kasyan of Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter; an eccentric voice of conscience, he reproaches the aristocrat narrator for his love of hunting.39

The counterpart to this reverence was the tradition – frequently perceived as a plague – of false holy foolery, or lzhe-yurodstvo. It posed the uncomfortable question of how, if at all, one could ever distinguish ‘true’ fools for Christ’s sake from those who were merely mad or were deliberately exploiting the holy fool’s licence.40 From the nineteenth century onwards, historians and journalists often resolved this issue by setting a nostalgic view of saintly yurodivye in the distant past against the perceived proliferation of sham holy fools in the present; the very meaning and moral evaluation ← 14 | 15 → of the term yurodivyi began to bifurcate.41 In the novels of Dostoevsky, by contrast, the word became a rich source of ambiguity, confronting the reader with interpretative dilemmas that the author refuses to resolve.42 As Ivanov notes, in The Brothers Karamazov alone, eight characters are referred to as yurodivye, eliciting at least six different translations in Constance Garnett’s version, from ‘saintly fool’ to ‘idiot’.43 Such ambiguity would shape the persona of Dostoevsky’s devoted admirer, Vasily Rozanov, and Rozanov’s own admirers in late Soviet prose (see Chapter 5).

In this and other ways, the complex legacy of yurodstvo ensured that it would continue to exert a powerful pull in the Soviet period, when artists (like Pasternak or Shostakovich) might also serve, or have been thought to serve, as the conscience of the ‘tsar’, when a commitment to the New Testament had to be hidden, and when the character of the wandering fool crossed from official to unofficial literature, and on to its post-Soviet incarnations in the writings of Svetlana Vasilenko, Evgeny Vodolazkin and others. In the late Soviet culture of samizdat, much given to eclectic spiritual quests, yurodstvo gained particular cachet among counter-cultural artists and writers, from Andrei Tarkovsky and Iosif Brodsky to Sasha Sokolov.44 Such interest found further support in the essays of Sinyavsky and Tat’yana Goricheva, in A. M. Panchenko’s eighty-page reconstruction of medieval yurodstvo, and in the much-disputed Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (1979), ‘as related by and edited to Solomon Volkov’, in which Volkov presents Shostakovich as ‘unconsciously or not … the second (Mussorgsky was the ← 15 | 16 → first) great yurodivyi composer’, a role which Volkov also extends in his introduction to the Oberiu authors and to Mikhail Zoshchenko.45

This ferment gave rise to influential notions, developed in the 1970s and 80s by Goricheva, Epstein and others, of yurodstvo as a defining feature of Russian ‘postmodernism’. In turn, these ideas have inspired scholars and critics to seek the presence of yurdostvo as a subliminal code in the work of several of the authors discussed in this book, notably Venedikt Erofeev.46 These efforts have proved both productive and limited, or even (as Ivanov has argued) misleading. One problem is that the connection between postmodernism and holy foolery (interpreted, after Panchenko, as a form of spectacle) risks leading to circular forms of analysis, where both terms are being invented at the same time.47 The deeper issue, however, lies in the heuristic limitations imposed by holy foolery’s breadth of reference in Russian culture. If yurodstvo can be applied to a continuum stretching from affected ‘folly’ to buffoonery to genuine intellectual disability, then ← 16 | 17 → almost every manifestation of foolishness can be described with this term; but it loses much of its explanatory power. If it is to be applied narrowly in reference to the ‘authentic’ code established by Paul and the canonized holy fools, then its afterlife in modern literature is best seen as an adaptation of the original paradigm; such an attempt is made here in Chapter 5, on the basis of Dmitry Galkovsky’s Endless Dead End, while in Chapter 8 I consider the innovations sought in the post-Soviet period, where yurodstvo is strongly present as an explicit theme. Elsewhere, I seek overall to move away from this well-worn line of inquiry by suggesting that the soil of Christian folly in Russian literature does not have to issue in specifically Orthodox and ‘Russian’ holy foolery.


Like holy foolery, folklore also gathers disparate, sometimes contradictory themes and values around the figure of the fool. On the one hand, a great number of folk tales pivot on one or other form of odurachivanie, by which a peasant or worker ‘makes a fool of’ (odurachivaet) his social superior. It is a striking characteristic of many of these stories that the Everyman figure who outwits his master is himself designated or perceived as a fool, usually bearing the name Ivan-Durak, or simply Ivan.48 It is as though native wit is permissible only in the guise of folly, a pattern that chimes with the age-old popular suspicion in Russia towards ostentatious cleverness and khitrost' (cunning, guile), often perceived as alien, unpatriotic qualities; thus, in the climax of Part I of Gogol’s Dead Souls (Mërtvye dushi, 1842), the troika, symbol of ancient Rus, the land ‘which doesn’t like to laugh’, is described as a ‘guileless contrivance’, ‘put together by a nimble [rastoropnyi] peasant from Yaroslavl not with an iron screw but only with an axe and chisel’.49 ← 17 | 18 →

In the early Soviet period, such folktales gained a new relevance. With their aggressive satirical character, directed against the barin or the pop, they were published in great quantity during the years of Collectivization and the violent overthrow of the former rural authorities.50 Hence, no doubt, the cutting remarks about Ivan-Durak made by authors of this period as remote from one another as Andrei Platonov and Vladimir Nabokov, who rechristened him Johnny the Simpleton and called him ‘cunning as a skunk’.51 For writers of the late Soviet period, this tradition was relevant in a different way: it showed how folly could be used as a defensive strategy that can be exploited by artists as much as by the fools of folklore. It accords with the immortal advice of Peter the Great, still often cited today, that ‘A subordinate appearing before his superior should wear a brave [likhoi] and daft [pridurkovatyi] expression, so as not to embarrass his superior with his understanding’.52 The ‘subordinate’ should, to use the folkloric phrase, be sebe na ume (‘be on one’s own mind’), that is, keep one’s thoughts to oneself. Venedikt Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky are two authors who, in their own way, heed this tradition; while Viktor Erofeev is one who criticizes its consequences.

There are, of course, many other tales in which Ivan-Durak (or similarly named fools, such as Emelya-Durak) plays a quite different role, representing qualities which the Soviet establishment used as examples of how ← 18 | 19 → not to behave.53 Here, the folk fool often epitomizes genuine stupidity and slowness. His inability to say the right thing at the right time and to recognize the rules of social comportment elicits merciless punishment. Together with the many proverbs that emphasize violence towards the fool and the danger of associating with fools (for their stupidity is contagious), tales such as ‘The Utter [literally, Beaten] Fool’ (‘Durak nabityi’) suggest, as Daniel Rancour-Laferriere has argued, a sadomasochistic attitude on the part of listeners and storytellers: their desire ‘to beat the fool (sadism)’ is matched by the ‘urge to get the foolishness beaten out of oneself (masochism). In both processes there seems to be a fear of actually being a fool, that is, of crossing some boundary separating the self from the fool’.54 In their first-person narratives, authors studied in this book ostentatiously cross this boundary, rendering the ridicule of the fool identical with the ridicule of the self.

A further aspect of the folkloric tradition mitigates this ridicule. Some important skazki in the magical genre make virtues out of the passivity and stupidity of the fool; somehow, they facilitate his good fortune. In ‘The Fool and the Birch’ (‘Durak i berëza’), Ivan sells his possessions to a birch tree: when the tree fails to pay him, he chops it down and finds in its hollow interior a cauldron of gold hidden by robbers.55 Persisting in his folly, Ivan strikes lucky, stumbling on treasure or a beautiful princess. Recent writers have often been drawn to precisely this model of the folk fool, the antithesis of the Soviet ideal of the active hero. In his essays on folk culture, Andrei Sinyavsky ignores almost entirely the motifs of cruelty, murder and duplicity which characterize the fool in many tales, in order to stress the affection inspired by Ivan-Durak as an ‘apotheosis of not-knowing, ← 19 | 20 → not-knowing-how, not-doing and complete and utter guilelessness’.56 This description allows Sinyavsky to link Ivan-Durak to both the Socratic and religious traditions of wise ignorance, and to make the following claim, which is fully in the tradition of Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky and others: ‘The purpose of the Fool is to prove, in every aspect of his behaviour and appearance […] that nothing depends on human intelligence, learning, striving, will. All this is secondary and not what really matters in life.’57

Pre-revolutionary literature


X, 408
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Russian cult of the fool samizdat literature post-Soviet prose holy foolery the folk fool and intellectual disability
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 408 pp.

Biographical notes

Oliver Ready (Author)

Oliver Ready teaches Russian language and literature at the University of Oxford and is a research fellow at St Antony’s College. While living in Saransk and Moscow in the 1990s, he developed a strong interest in new Russian writing. He has translated books by the contemporary Russian authors Yuri Buida and Vladimir Sharov, and is general editor of the anthology The Ties of Blood: Russian Literature from the 21st Century (2008). His translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was published in Penguin Classics in 2014. Since 2008, he has been consultant editor for Russia and East-Central Europe at the Times Literary Supplement.


Title: Persisting in Folly
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420 pages