Russia has finally had a controversy over the public school reading list, a sure sign that Westernization is proceeding apace. A few weeks ago, 13 anti-Soviet writers sent an open letter to the Education Ministry claiming that the Ministry's new booklist purposely drops major dissident writers like Pasternak, Shalamov, Akhmatova and Mandelstam. It's all part of Putin's plan to reinstate the Soviet pantheon, they say: first Putin's people reinstate the Soviet anthem, then they'll sneak the statue of Dzerzhinsky back onto Lubyansky Square, and finally they'll have the kids reading socialist realism again.
What distinguishes the Russian version of this debate from the American is that so far, nobody's mentioned God. Back where I come from, you can't assign a single book without running into God problems. The Baptists want you to teach Genesis -- the Book, not the band -- in sophomore Biology, or some hysterical born-again Mom accuses you of coven-sponsorship by letting Harry Potter into the school library. Semi-literate ranters think nothing of berating reading teachers for allowing the ungodly onto their booklist, and meetings devolve into shouting matches between rival sectarians.
In Russia, it's not the parents who have the God problem. Despite all those stories in the US press about the "revival of religion in Russia," most Russians keep god firmly in his place: the ikons in the corner. It's the Russian writers who have a God problem, as in they keep trying to be Him. The "militantly atheistic" Soviet State's worst intellectual crime was turning three generations of good Russian writers into imitation Christs.
It all comes of making writers into heroes. Writers shouldn't be heroes; writers should be lazy, self-centered, feckless jerks. It's their proper form. When you start torturing and killing them, they turn into martyrs, and from there it's a short walk to the Cross.
My first Russian-lit teacher was a kindly emigre who made it very clear to us that "good" Russian writers were good in both senses, moral and literary. Solzhenitsyn was morally good because he exposed the horrors of the GULAG, and a writer of genius because...well, because he'd exposed the horrors of the GULAG. That was the problem: the whole question of literary quality was completely eclipsed by the more urgent matter of moral courage.
There was a kind of logic behind this argument. It went something like this: Soviet reality was bad; pro-Soviet writers could not show it; therefore their books were false and bad. It doesn't hold up very well -- lots of great literature is completely false to the historical situation -- but it was enough to satisfy provincial kids like us.
My teacher had invented a whole urban legend to cover the one anomaly in this system, the novel And Quiet Flows the Don. This, she admitted, was a good book. And it was written by Sholokhov, a Soviet loyalist. That did not compute. Therefore, she told us, "everyone in Russia knew" that Sholokhov had stolen the manuscript from an unknown White officer and claimed it as his own. For her, as for far too many cultured Soviet people, Quintilian's formula was valid: high literature was "a good man writing well," while bad literature was socialist-realist hacks writing badly.
Even now, it's easy to believe the negative part of her claim -- that most mainstream Soviet novels really were bad -- if only because most novels are bad, period. How many decent American novels were there in the 1950s? You could count them on one hand. No doubt most Russian novels of the same period were equally awful.
It's the positive side of the list I'm inclined to doubt. How good are they, actually, all those dissident Soviet-era novels the West worshipped?
Take Pasternak's supposed masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. For most Westerners, it's a syrupy movie with Omar Sharif facing twin problems: surviving under the Bolsheviks, and choosing between the blonde and the brunette. But in Russia, where reading is a more serious business, the novel still matters a great deal. One of the accusations made against the Education Ministry is that it's trying to take Zhivago off the "required" reading list, relegating it to "recommended" -- which, as every ex-student knows, is an academic euphemism for "please ignore."