The Great Russian Books and My Spiritual Quest
A Personal Reflection Essay by Professor Andy Kaufman, 2003
From College to the Kremlin: Finding Myself in Russian Life and Literature
My passionate interest in Russian literature and culture goes back to my years as a Russian major at Amherst College, where my intense curiosity about Russian culture led me to spend almost a year and half abroad in Russia in 1989-90. First I was a participant in an ACTR-sponsored foreign exchange program at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, and then, based on an independently submitted application, I was accepted as a private student (stazher) into the Department of Soviet Literature, on the Faculty of Philology, at Moscow State University. While at Moscow State, I became friendly with Dr. Aida Borisovna Abuashvili-Lominadze, a professor at the university and a member of the former Union of Soviet Writers. Through Professor Abuashvili-Lominadze I had the opportunity to become friendly with and learn from several prominent cultural figures, such as the writers, Andrei Bitov and Tatyana Tolstaya, the scholar, Sergei Bocharov, the journalist and professor, Galina Andreevna Belaya, and Gavril Popov, the former Mayor of Moscow and now the Rector of the International University in Moscow.
Through my experiences and relationships in Russia, I began to sense the strong connections–and antagonism–between Russia’s artistic-scholarly culture and its socio-political-economic culture. These connections were not only of academic interest to me; they were also of personal interest, since many of my Russian colleagues and friends at that time had experienced first-hand the repressive power of the Soviet State. The connections between these different aspects of Russian life also became evident to me for another reason: Having become involved in student organizations at Moscow State dedicated to the study and dissemination of literary and artistic values, I became painfully aware of just how rapidly the societal interest in such values was diminishing in Russia. I witnessed the combination of bitterness and longing, hope and despair, that filled the cultural air in those days, fueled in part by the growing obsession with materialistic values and concerns brought about by Gorbachev’s reforms.
Keeping the Humanities Human
During my time of living in the Former Soviet Union, I realized that my study of Russia, from that point forward, was never going to be a purely theoretical or abstractly academic pursuit; it would forever be imbued with the human element and everyday realities I had observed and experienced as a participant in Russian life. The connection between my academic study of Russia, my artistic sensitivities, and my worldly interest in what was happening in Russia at that time found expression in an article I published in the popular national Soviet magazine, Yunost’, in 1991. That article, based on an academic paper on contemporary Soviet culture I submitted as part of a course at Moscow State University, was written in Russian and was called: “Pis’mo russkomu avtoliubiteliu ot amerikanskogo studenta, vspominaiushchego ikh sluchainnogo znakomstvo.” [“Letter to a Russian Driver from an American Student, Recalling Their Accidental Acquaintance”]. When I returned to Amherst College for my senior year of college, I wrote a Senior Honor’s Thesis on Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time. My Amherst career also culminated with my decision to pursue a doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford.
I discovered early on in my Stanford career that my impassioned, personalized tendencies in studying Russian literature, encouraged at Amherst, would have to take second fiddle to a more professional approach to reading, research, and writing within the framework of a scholarly discourse. While at Stanford I became influenced by and increasingly conversant with various theoretical paradigms, such as (to name a few): the linguistic theories of Roman Iakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin, the semiotic theories of Yuri Lotman and the Moscow-Tartu Semiotic School, the psycho-linguistic theories of Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure, Freudian psychoanalysis, Nietzschean moral and epistemological philosophy (and its antecedents in eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophy), the sociological paradigms of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, the anthropology of Clifford Geertz, and the art historiography of W.J.T. Mitchell. Even as my intellectual curiosity about new critical paradigms grew, I instinctively gravitated throughout my graduate studies towards a Formalist-influenced type of literary scholarship, combined with strong tinges of the American “Old Criticism” belief in the capacity of literary art to speak to the universal and transcendent aspects of human experience.
Glasnost’, Perestroika, and My Rediscovery of the Russian Classics
Paradoxically, my unabashedly idealized scholarly proclivity was formed during a period, in which I directly confronted some of the harshest, most un-idealized realities of contemporary Russian life: I was spending my summers during graduate school working as a management consultant in Russia. Partly out of a desire to study the economic changes taking place in Russia, but mostly out of a need to deal with the economic changes taking place in my own life (i.e., the need to earn additional money), in 1993 I co-founded KTK Consulting Group, a management strategy consultancy, offering cultural insight and strategic marketing assistance to American businesses interested in entering the Russian market. My personal responsibilities, which were executed during my summer vacations from graduate school, included performing market research and analysis in Russia, teaching “crash courses” to our American clients on the essentials of Russian culture, and making strategic business introductions in Russia for our American clients.
While living and working abroad, I witnessed first hand the extraordinarily difficult decade of the 1990’s in Russia. The hopes and aspirations aroused by glasnost’ and perestroikawere being shattered by political turmoil, a growing disparity between the extremely rich and the extremely poor, excessive corruption in all spheres of life, and a generalized feeling of angst about the future. These large political and socio-economic themes, which I had been studying at Stanford as part of my Related Field in Russian and East European Studies, became apparent to me in a real-world context, as well. My experiences of living and working in Russia provided me not only with added practical insight into Russian society and cultural life, but also with a reinforced appreciation of the vital relevance of my scholarly study of Russian literature and culture.
Appreciating the Transcendent Power of Great Literature
Having experienced Russian life from within, I began to feel a growing sense of responsibility as a scholar and as a teacher of Russian language and culture to continue to include in my academic work a serious consideration of the social, political, and economic realities of Russian life, to which I had been exposed and in which I had participated. Furthermore, I felt obligated to begin to define for myself precisely what role my outside experiences should play in my scholarly work. One of the theoretical problems this search raised for me as a scholar was the question: To the extent that literary texts point to a worldly reality outside of themselves (and I tend to believe they do), how specifically do those texts deform or transform that external reality into an artistic reality that is different from the outside world they depict? I have been grappling with this question for years.
And I have begun to develop some tentative answers to it. My experiences in Russia have made me all too aware of the extent to which Russian literary creations are linked on multiple levels to the socio-political and economic forces in which they are produced. And yet at the same time I simply cannot deny the fact that when I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Tiutchev’s “Silentium!,” or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, I, like so many readers, feel myself in the presence of an almost indefinable experience of sublime and haunting beauty, which seems somehow to be more perfect than the outside reality it represents. That presence, I have come to believe, is something called art. I am persuaded that, while each literary work is produced in a specific socio-historical context, and is influenced by the conditionings and prejudices of its creator, that work–if it is first-rate art–also speaks to universal human truths that transcend its historical context and authorial limitations. Every literary text, I believe, contains a poetic universe that transforms the raw facts of ordinary reality into an extraordinary artistic experience filled with a grandeur and a completeness lacking in the everyday world. The works of Russian literature show us that, in art–and perhaps only in art–life’s dualities can be made whole and impurities made perfect.