Literary odyssey of Russian

January 12, 1996

Research is something of a heroic activity in Russia, according to Ludmila Rzhanskaya of the Gorkii Institute of World Literature in Moscow.

Many research institutes have closed in the past five or six years, and salaries are ridiculously small. "Each month you're not sure whether you'll get paid or not," she says. "It requires inventiveness to keep going. Many of us joke that our work is a kind of hobby, and maybe we should pay for the privilege."

A chat with Ms Rzhanskaya would silence even the most querulous complaints about the state of British research. While financial difficulties in Russia make Mr Clarke's Budget allocation seem positively lavish, there is also a tradition of the impoverished intellectual which militates against any move to improve matters.

The Gorkii Institute is in a privileged position as part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, protected against staff cuts, but there has been an exodus of researchers to hard- currency posts in the west.

Dr Rzhanskaya herself worked part-time for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Moscow. But she turned down the offer of a permanent post in order to devote herself to editing an encyclopaedia of British literature. The decision entailed considerable sacrifice: widowed three years ago, she supports herself and a young son.

She is coordinating a team of six Russian editors, backed by unpaid help from British and Dutch specialists, and is herself responsible for recent British literature.

"I'm possibly in the most difficult situation, because I'm in charge of material that is not accessible in Russia," she says.

Modern western works are largely unknown, having been neglected or attacked for their "dissident ideology". Now that their artistic qualities can be better appreciated, libraries have no resources for new books. "We don't have any novels from the past decade," she says. But Dr Rzhanskaya has had a whirlwind introduction to current trends through a Caledonian Research Foundation fellowship based at Edinburgh University. Being in Scotland has had an unexpected spin-off.

"I think I was very lucky to come here and understand the distinction between national cultures in Britain and the great problems of national identity. It was a great surprise to me. Russians talk about Sir Walter Scott's English novels, and nobody knows anything about 20th century Scottish literature," she says.

"We will have two main entries in the encyclopaedia on Scottish literature, one on how the languages in Scotland developed and influenced each other, and another giving a perspective of its main characteristics.

"Scottish literature is more European and less isolated than English literature."

She is determined that the encyclopaedia will reflect the highest standards of scholarship. Many academics are anxious to work on it, but she fears that standards outside Moscow may not be rigorous enough, and has been inviting contributions from British academics.

"I think it will be very fruitful for the Russian public to get a book which provides an objective, pluralist picture of British literature in its cultural context, based on reality rather than stereotypes."

* Recent editions of encyclopaedias of British literature and 20th-century works may be sent to Dr Ludmila Rzhanskaya, Department of Modern Literature, Gorkii Institute of World Literature, ul. Povarskaya 25a, Moscow 121069, Russia.

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