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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013


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 5: Fool outside Christ? Dmitry Galkovsky’s myth of Rozanov-yurodivyi and its precursors (Sinyavsky, Ven. Erofeev et al.)


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Fool outside Christ? Dmitry Galkovsky’s myth of Rozanov-yurodivyi and its precursors (Sinyavsky, Ven. Erofeev et al.)

Viktor Erofeev’s critique of the Russian cult of folly is in many respects persuasive, yet it should come as no surprise to find that this cult has survived and prospered in recent decades. While Erofeev writes from a secular and cosmopolitan perspective, folly retains its salience in Russian literature not only as the strategy of ‘self-defence’ he identified, but also as a vehicle for the exploration of religious and spiritual questions, often in a putatively Russian key. One recurring manifestation of this tendency, caricatured in ‘Life with an Idiot’, is the contested figure of the yurodivyi (see Introduction) whose revival in saintly guise has been a conspicuous feature of the post-Soviet landscape (see Chapter 8). This efflorescence can partly be explained as the surfacing in mass culture of buried threads of late Soviet culture. One of these threads, largely overlooked by scholars, leads back to the life and writings of Vasily Rozanov (1856–1919).

The reception of the unsaintly Rozanov, a writer and philosopher well known for his frequent antagonism towards Christ and Christianity, as a yurodivyi provides a striking example of how selective application of the original code of holy foolery has given birth to new traditions in modern Russian culture. This myth has served various purposes. One use, of greatest value to critics and detractors, has been interpretative and often reductive:...

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