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PN Review 275
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This article is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Semyon Lipkin and the Russia That Must Be There Somewhere Horatio Morpurgo
To be twenty-something and reading the Russians in the 1990s felt like a way to participate in the world’s ‘re-opening’. As Europe suddenly doubled in size, so did an uneasy awareness of one’s ignorance about everything for so long off bounds. A remaindered edition of the Rilke–Tsvaeteva–Pasternak correspondence, or my first Uncle Vanya – in a gloriously grubby little theatre outside Saint-Lazare – all felt like ways to get a fix on this perplexing culture and our new relationship with it.

That must be why the country’s long slide to authoritarianism since preoccupied me the way it did. Shocked by the assault on Ukraine but far removed from any of the actual destruction, the war struck at me with a long-overdue question. Why did I, as a young man, react to the collapse of Russian-backed dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe by immersing myself in the literature of, so to speak, the culprit nation? In fairness to my younger self, Czechs, Poles and Romanians figured largely also. The late lamented Milan Kundera did warn against easy assumptions about Russia. And I heard him. It just didn’t suit me to listen.

If you recognise this predicament, I recommend two recent publications. In 1998, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay for Novy Mir about a collection of poems published seventeen years earlier. Long before X formerly known as Twitter, Kundera once wrote a novel about slowness and what our abandonment of it was doing to us. Literary culture is slow but sometimes in a good way. Solzhenitsyn’s essay together with the poems discussed in ...

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