There is an old Woody Allen joke that goes as follows: I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia. Once you stop chuckling dear reader, I implore you to think deeply about what he is saying. Woody, although no force of academic prowess is in fact touching on something very real. Leo Tolstoy’s famous and often times agonizing magnum opus in many respects displays in its 1200 plus pages, all the vastness, uncertainty and incongruities of Russia. This was not lost on me when I first opened it in late 2014 and promptly closed it ten minutes later. Dear reader, I am the first to encourage diving into the deep end, but when it comes to Tolstoy, I must admit I first dipped my feet with his contemporaries. Gogol is a wonderful place to begin, you’ll feel as if you’re reading Kafka’s more humorous grandfather. Lermontov too seems like a manageable place to begin your journey. In fact just yesterday I was at the Hamburger Kunsthalle lost in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds and was reminded of my first foray into Russian literature with A Hero of Our Time. Oh reader how I wish I was in your place, how I long to open that book with fresh eyes and for the first time get lost in in the sensuous, tragic and romantic world of Pechorin. But I digress, we must return to Tolstoy, as he would have wanted.
In case you remain at the edge of your seat, wondering, “did he ever finish War and Peace?” I’ll satiate you with a simple yes. Perhaps the last simple answer I’ll give on this journey. I found in War and Peace something that I wasn’t looking for, but now seems a completely unavoidable fact. Russia as a nation has a relationship to its literature unparalleled in the modern world. And if you are wondering, “How dare an undergraduate make such a bold claim?” I ask you to hold your questions. This journey, as it is undertaken by me and me alone, will be full of such bold and unverifiable claims and perhaps you will find one you agree with, which of course will make the read worth your while.
Throughout my short but passionate relationship with the Russian Canon I have noticed another peculiar thing; As vast as Russia is, most canonical works tend to deal almost entirely with Western Russia. That is from the Volga to the ever protean Western Border. I was sure that the east, meaning Siberia could have provided infinite depressing material with which the authors could have crafted stories. What’s more I know the authors spent time in these places. Chekhov made frequent visits east (of course made simpler with the recent construction of the Trans-Siberian, although he preferred sea-travel) and of course most famously, Dostoyevsky’s four years in a Siberian prison camp. This of course led me to find his book chronicling his time in the east, Notes on a Dead House (often titled Notes from the House of the Dead). I couldn’t resist. I bought the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I’m sure you, dear reader, know to be the best. I began reading, but something didn’t feel right. Everything felt so foreign to me, as I thought of Siberia as a world away. So I stopped, applied for funding and decided to go see it for myself… albeit in much cozier conditions than Fyodor.
And so dear reader, apart from hours spent at the Russian Embassy, haggling for Visas that brings us to today, May 25th, 2016. In one week I shall depart for Petersburg and from there begin a multi-week journey to the farthest reaches of the continent. So stay tuned oh glorious exalted reader. The journey has begun.