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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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Note on Conventions


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In order to reflect more accurately the evolution of samizdat culture, all literary works of the period 1963 to 1991 are dated according to the year(s) of composition, unless otherwise indicated. Fiction of the post-Soviet period (Chapters 6 to 8), by contrast, is dated according to the year of publication.

Quotations from primary texts are provided in translation and in the original for all works of fiction (and poetry). All translations are mine, except where indicated.

I have followed Library of Congress transliteration conventions, with the following exceptions: ‘ю’ is rendered as ‘yu’ (not ‘iu’), and ‘я’ as ‘ya’ (not ‘ia’). Names ending in ий are rendered with a ‘y’ (Dmitry, Aleshkovsky) and those ending in ‘ой’ with ‘oy’ (Tolstoy). Soft signs are not retained in the main text in widely recognized names (Olga, Gogol, etc.).

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