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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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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...

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