Tales from the Cryptic


The “Russian Idea” suggests something static— an image of a country’s purpose or future.  “Ideology” sounds equally disassociated from the passage of time—a set of principles and goals that do not, on their own, tell a story.  Yet it is in the form of story, of narrative, that collective fantasies about Russia’s destiny take on their most compelling shape.  And, as with most ideological fictions, their fantasies are effectively transmitted to the extent that the stories encoding them capture their audience’s attention.  

For the purposes of the present study, these fantasies play out in four categories of text:

  1. Narratives that do not make Russian identity/fate their primary theme, but which nonetheless can be mined for evidence of broader cultural trends.  Such texts accrue significance primarily as a function of their number; that is, a broad-based reading of multiple narratives is required in order to reach even tentative conclusions.  This was the approach I used in parts of my previous book, Overkill, and that I apply only sparingly here.
  2. Narratives in which reflections on Russia and its role in the world are among the dominant concerns.  That is, fictional works in prose, film, or television  that are self-consciously preoccupied with the Russian theme, and that in turn demand a similar preoccupation the part of the audience.
  3. Political/philosophical tracts about Russia and “Russianness.”  While these works take the form of nonfiction (whether in prose or as documentaries), they are actually most effectively treated as unintentionally Borgesian experiments in fictional nonfiction.  Their power comes not from the persuasiveness of their constituent ideas, but from the appeal of the story they tell about Russia and its enemies. 
  4. The discussion and presentation of current events in the news media and on line. 

If I insist on the importance of fantasy, it is to move discussion away from the limited question of historical accuracy (the question raised by Child 44).  One of the more dismal points of commonality between theories of postmodernism and the empirical experience of ideological debates in the blogosphere and on social media is the growing irrelevance of the verifiable fact.  If facts actually solved arguments, the Internet would be a vastly different place, with no room for animus about, say, global warming or vaccine safety.  Debunking a fallacy is less a tool for persuasion than it is a rite of solidarity performed by and for the faithful.  

The “Russia narratives” discussed over the next several chapters are persuasive in that they tell a persuasive story.  Both a Eurasianist tract and a dystopian novel offer their reader a portable, imaginary Russia that may or may not ring true. Each offers a fantasy world whose effectiveness depends on its congruity with its audience's prior understanding of the world around them, an understanding that is always already conditioned by earlier fantasy narratives. 

What I am calling for is a deliberately perverse reading of these texts as exemplars of what looks like the wrong genre.  I want to treat realist fiction about the contemporary world either as if it were historical fiction about an imagined past, or fantasy about an imaginary world that bears a striking resemblance to contemporary Russia.  When writers turn to a different era (or, for that matter, an exotic land), they can labor under a burden of fidelity that is far more onerous than when setting a work in a default, amorphous present.  While historical fiction can be composed in a variety of literary styles, it is instructive that one of the first questions to come to a naive reader's mind is that of accuracy: can I trust a given portrayal of the past?  And if I can't, why should I continue to read it?  

For the naive reader, fiction about the past should be both informative (letting us know what a given time was "really" like) and confirmative (maintaining verisimilitude in part by not straying too far from the reader's expectations of the period).  On the surface, this looks like conventional realism, but it also resembles what is known in fantasy and science fiction circles as "world-building": constructing an elaborate fictional setting that feels both "lived in" and parceled out.  The reader should intuit that there is much more world available than just the part contained in the text.  Casual fans of Tolkien can easily sense that The Lord of the Rings has a vast pre-history, while true devotees can avail themselves of the books' multiple semi-finished prequels, which dole out exhaustive fictional historical knowledge and deep aesthetic disappointment in equal measure.

 Next: From Second World to Secondary World