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Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries

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Edited By Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

This volume offers a view of modern Russian intellectual culture as shaped by the dynamic of conversions. The individual contributions examine a rich variety of personal conversions occurring in a culture in which the written word enjoyed a privileged status and, historically, was closely linked to the sacred. However, the essays presented go beyond the original meaning of conversion as a change of religious beliefs. They address shifts in style, aesthetic outlooks, and mindsets, political and ideological transfigurations as well as religious conversions in the true sense of the term.
Whether at the level of culture, society or biography, the study of conversions opens the way to profound reflections about questions of identity, cultural ruptures, and continuity. The awareness of former conversions and the possible «convertibility» of one’s own ideological, spiritual or social stance has been among the central traits of Russian intellectual culture during the last two centuries.
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“An upheaval was so necessary”: Authorial Conversion and the Literary Public in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky)

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In this chapter I will not deal with “conversion” in the narrow sense of a shift from one religion to another, although the conversions I will analyse are very much affected by religious or religion-related factors. It was, after all, an intensification or re-evaluation of religious belief that, according to the commonly accepted versions, led the great nineteenth-century Russian writers to turn away from literature. Paradoxically, this “turning away” was often publicly proclaimed by the means of literature. This chapter will deal with these specific conversions from literature that are at the same time conversions in and by the means of literature.

Much has been written about the deep links between aesthetics and ethics in Russian literature of the second half of the nineteenth century: It is well known that the greatest Russian novels were meant not only to distract the public and to generate an income for their authors, but to solve the moral and metaphysical dilemmas of Russian society. The great works of Gogol, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy either overtly address or implicitly articulate an appeal to conversion that encompasses Russian society as a whole. Conversion is, obviously, understood here as an all-embracing reorientation that should lead to a redefinition of the relationship between self and society, society and state, and, in this way, to a renewal of Russia – as a society, as a state, but also as some kind of spiritual entity. In fact, one could argue that the master key of the great...

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