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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 6: The Infantility of Viktor Pelevin (‘The Ontology of Childhood’, Omon Ra, Generation ‘P’)

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CHAPTER 6

The Infantility of Viktor Pelevin (‘The Ontology of Childhood’, Omon Ra, Generation ‘P’ )

Perhaps no two words better capture the ambivalent psychological and cultural consequences of the end of Soviet power in Russia than the idiom krysha poekhala, ‘the roof has come off’ – if we take ‘roof’ to refer to both authority within society and sanity within the individual mind.1 One does not have to accept the blanket deprecation of the ‘wild 1990s’ (likhie devyanostye) that has buttressed the reputation of Putin-era ‘stability’ to acknowledge that alongside the exhilaration and benefits of unprecedented opportunities, the post-glasnost years brought widespread hardship, alcoholism, drug use and criminalization, plummeting life expectancy, ‘brain drain’, and, among many of those who stayed, profound psychological malaise and dislocation, influentially described by the anthropologist Serguei Oushakine as ‘aphasia’, the inability to find a new linguistic and symbolic discourse to replace that of the past.2 Directly or obliquely, post-Soviet literature has been shaped by, and given shape to, these traumas, just as it has been moulded by the upheavals within the literary sphere in the 1990s, as print-runs nose-dived, the publishing industry disintegrated, and formal and informal support systems crumbled. The dichotomy of sanctioned and unsanctioned literature gave way to the divide between genre fiction – which captured the present in motion and with it the overwhelming majority of post-Soviet ← 287 | 288 → readers – and ‘artistic prose’, which was increasingly viewed as elitist, lifeless, and (with greater justification) fatally obsessed with...

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