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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013

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Oliver Ready

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.

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Chapter 4: ‘The Idiot is You’: Viktor Erofeev’s assault on the cult of folly

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CHAPTER 4

‘The Idiot is You’: Viktor Erofeev’s assault on the cult of folly

The poet Mikhail Aizenberg has called the 1970s – the years of his own formation in Moscow’s literary underground – a ‘historical lacuna’, a time outside time when ‘the noise of history could not be heard’. The various forms of internal emigration which many artists sought in those years evidently had its compensations, above all the time to pursue eclectic interests and participate in the lively, light-headed subcultures of the time. But, as Aizenberg emphasizes, the silence of history was oppressive. ‘It was all quite fun,’ he wrote in Znamya in 1998. ‘But even this phrase demands a negative qualification: it could all have been fun had it not been for the depressing, deadly feeling that this was forever. That this was how you would croak, like a cockroach in a crevice.’1

We should, as Alexei Yurchak cautions, recognize the potent myth-creating capacity of such memoirs, just as we should be aware that the influential label for this period, ‘the stagnation era’ (epokha zastoya), entered popular discourse only at the time of perestroika.2 Nevertheless, it would be ← 217 | 218 → hard to deny that both Aizenberg’s recollection and the label ‘stagnation’ reflect a fundamental truth about the mood dominating intellectual life in Soviet Russia in the late 1970s and 1980s, one encapsulated by Yurchak’s own title: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Social and political conditions did...

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