Western conceptions of Russian literature are almost entirely associated with the past two centuries. How did a largely illiterate country, totalitarian in both history and mentality, contrive in this period to produce a series of masterpieces at least equal to anything written in countries with much older literary traditions? In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov says that 19th-century Russia had attained with abnormal speed "a degree of culture which matched that of the oldest western countries".
Russian literature is a history of conflicts between authors and those in power. Russian and later Soviet writers have been torn between officialdom and progressive public opinion, represented except in the Soviet era by literary critics. The tsars and the Politburo shared a view of authors as servants of the state, while radical critics saw them as servants of the masses. Poets and writers were treated as public as well as literary figures. Maybe only now can a writer be just a writer, although some like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resist this.
When Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote in the 1970s that "a poet in Russia is more than just a poet", he was expressing the same idea as Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Nekrasov and Vladimir Mayakovsky before him. To read certain writers was an expression of political and social views as much as an aesthetic act.
Solzhenitsyn once admitted that "writers in Russia were like a second government, and their status as prophets and bearers of the truth was only bolstered by a state which treated them as such". Hence the respect writers have enjoyed in Russia, expressed by a greater number of literary museums than any other country.
Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett's book, the first literary guide to Russia in any language, is more than just a practical guide to sites. It outlines the history of Russian literature, its major trends and developments and a summary of political and social thought. It describes all the major literary museums in Russia, houses and apartments where famous authors lived, permanent exhibitions, other addresses of Russian authors, editorial offices, bookshops, publishers and places with significant literary associations.
Nineteenth-century authors were remarkably nomadic. Benn and Bartlett manage to describe not only numerous flats and houses in Moscow and St Petersburg and famous country estates but also many places in European Russia and even in Siberia. Describing St Petersburg, where practically every lane and street is associated with Russian literature, is a formidable task in itself. How much more research must have been involved in describing places such as Kolyma or Vilyuisk?
It is not surprising that the first literary guide to Russia should have appeared in English. Every Russian coming to Britain is surprised by the number of Russian plays performed in British theatres and there are numerous English works on Russian literature, many outstanding.
But names such as Nicolai Leskov, Sergei Aksakov or Nikolay Zabolotsky are not yet household names even among Russian specialists. Thus it is not quite clear for whom this book is meant. A rewarding and remarkable read for specialists in Russian literature, it is less user-friendly for the tourist with a more general interest in literature. More detailed biographical information, better maps and pictures and greater emphasis on "literary" rather than "guide" would greatly improve the next edition.
But this does not in any way diminish the importance of this new and very welcome publication. Benn and Bartlett have done a truly remarkable job and presented us with a well-researched, enjoyable book, written with great admiration and respect for Russian culture. Fascinating and absorbing reading, it should not be missed by anyone interested in Russian literature.
Dmitri Antonov is at the Centre for International Education, Moscow State University, and is also director of studies, the Russian Language Experience, London.
Literary Russia: A Guide
Author - Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett
ISBN - 0 333 711971
Publisher - Papermac and Picador
Price - £20.00 and £12.00
Pages - 495