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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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Prelude: Fools in Search of an Author (Voinovich’s Chonkin, Shukshin’s chudiki)

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Vladimir Voinovich’s most popular novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Zhizn' i neobychainye priklyucheniya soldata Ivana Chonkina, 1963–9; henceforth, Chonkin) reflects important reasons that pushed writers of the time towards a ‘praise of folly’, just as the novel itself, which circulated in samizdat from the second half of the 1960s, may be viewed as a probably influence on texts treated in the main body of this study.1

Voinovich’s subsequent books and political activism consolidated his reputation as a leading satirist and critic of Soviet civilization,2 but at the time he set about writing Chonkin this is not a description the author, or his readers, would have recognized. His early work, published and dramatized on a regular basis in the early 1960s, expressed critical tendencies that were in keeping with the spirit of the Khrushchëv era, and in particular of Novyi mir under Tvardovsky’s editorship.3 His attentiveness to the gulf ← 51 | 52 → between appearance and reality, ideals and actuality (as socio-political rather than philosophical dilemmas) were combined with other general features of post-Thaw realism, such as an emphasis on the emotional life of the individual, frustration with red tape, and the assertion of honesty and sincerity as general principles.

Many of these characteristics carried over to Voinovich’s best-known novel. Set in June 1941, in a village at the back of beyond, Chonkin offers a highly entertaining send-up of the Soviet military, the ‘intelligence’ services, a Lysenkoist scientist, war...

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