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This article is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

Inventing Russia
English-Language Writers and Their Imagined Russia
Donald Rayfield
Britain has many invented Russias, based on imagination, experience, historical facts, sound political, economic or sociological theories. These inventions have to compete with Russia's new self-reinvention - Russia Today TV's picture of a fun-loving, high-tech tourist Mecca.

One invented Russia is the English novelists'. As for the Russian novelists' Russia, few foreigners read Ulitskaya, Pelevin or Akunin in translation; Russian nineteenth-century classics are obviously set in a Russia as remote from today's as Caesar's Rome from Berlusconi's. One bemused Russian critic (Liza Novikova, Kommersant, 14 February 2007) reviewed James Meek's The People's Act of Love: 'If there is still a demand for Platonov and Bulgakov, there must be a demand for the next generation of writers. But somehow they overlook Boris Vasil'ev, Leonid Yuzefovich or Dmitri Bykov. They write novels about Russia themselves. Perhaps they're saving money on translators. Also, [English-language] authors today are no longer inhibited by the mystery of the Russian soul, and there's less and less of that essential ingredient, ridiculous absurdities, cranberry trees [razvesistoi kliukvy], in their texts.' (Razvesistaya kliukva, 'the spreading cranberry tree', is not actually Alexandre Dumas's howler, but a Russian joke: in The Crooked Mirror of 1910, a farce in which two French playwrights devise a play titled The Cossack's Love set in St Moscow-sur-la-Volga, the heroine is celebrated: 'Dans l'ombre d'une klioukva / Était assise une dévouchka. Son nom était Marie, / Mais dans sa froide patrie / Elle s'apellait Machka.')

The English-language Russian novel (and play) arose in ...


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