September 26, 2014 by AK
“The only thing you never turned you hand to // Was teaching English in a boarding school,” wrote Auden in his 1937 Letter to Lord Byron from Iceland. Dmitry Bykov, an influential and remarkably prolific Russian columnist, novelist and poet, teaches Russian literature at one or two Moscow schools. Erik McDonald of XIX век has been listening to Bykov’s discourses on Radio Ekho Moskvy and is wondering (I encourage you to read the whole post):
But would a commentator on the BBC quote Phineas Finn (1867) the way Dmitry Bykov refers to Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867)?
“Turgenev has one of his characters, Potugin, say ‘if we ceased to exist, the world wouldn’t notice, because we haven’t given it so much as an English pin [the Russian name for a safety pin].’ Of course that’s an exaggeration; it’s said by a negative character. But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently…”
Bykov is a Russian man of letters and a teacher of literature so why shouldn’t he be quoting Turgenev? But there’s more to it than Bykov being a literary guy – there’s Turgenev’s slot in the cultural columbarium, or the capsule hotel Kultura.
Turgenev is a household name in Russia because most schoolchildren begin studying Russian literature with his short story Mumu, a sad tale of serfdom, oppression, and silent defiance. It is about Mumu that Russian 10-year-olds write their first literary composition. Things were the same 30+ years ago, when I went to school, and possibly 60 years ago.
Mumu is actually a dog, probably a small spaniel, which ends up forcibly drowned. The story is not so much about the dog as about serfs treated by their masters worse than dogs, and one deaf and mute man who defies his mistress in his own way. The heartless slavemistress who is the story’s anti-hero was based, it is said, on Turgenev’s mother. There’s too much sadness in the tale for children to absorb and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, the dog has evolved into a tragicomical pop culture character.
In the sixth or seventh grade, Russian kids study The Hunting Sketches and a couple of years later move on to Fathers and Sons. All that stuff is studied as thoroughly as is possible at school: kids are required to recite a sizable chunk of Bezhin Lug either by heart or “close to the text”.
I still remember being told by a teacher that there was a landowner called Penochkin (from penochka, “warbler”) somewhere in The Hunting Sketches who enjoyed the sound of a cane hitting peasant bottoms; and by another teacher (a great one), that the first response in the “progressive” press to Fathers and Sons was The Asmodeus of Our Time by Antonovich, Bazarov being the demon Asmodeus, – before Pisarev defended Bazarov as the good guy in his essay The Realists.
Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy do not get the same close reading at school because you cannot assign any major work by either until the kids have grown up a little, and because it’s impossible to study War and Peace in much detail at a regular high school for lack of time. I doubt that most Russian kids leave school having read War and Peace; I’m not even sure about Crime and Punishment.
I have no idea if Trollope has any place at all in the English (let alone Scottish) school curricula. “Trollopian heroines” invite a silly wordplay on “trollop” and “fallopian”. Turgenevskie devushki (Turgenev girls) is a fixed and still relatively common Russian expression although I’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to mean.