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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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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...

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