Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is there anything this man cannot do?

Not content with riding bare-chested, appearing at wrestling matches (though he is not going to do that again any time soon) and diving for carefully placed amphorae, the once and future President, now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has decided to display his credentials as the world's (well, Russia's) leading literary critic. In fact, he intends to be the leading literary critic.

RFE/RL reports that the Prime Minister is taking his presidential campaign seriously. He has published all sorts of policies about dealing with immigrants (presumably from other parts of the former Soviet Union) but he is also giving attention to what being "an insider" in Russia might consist of. Well, somebody has to and there are no other Russian writers, thinkers or philosophers out there. The man has to see to everything himself. Shocking.

His latest idea is to create "a cultural canon of 100 books to serve as required reading for all students in Russia's schools". Well, all right, he can't do everything himself so he has called on the elves in his grotto "leading cultural authorities" to create such a list, asserting on no evidence whatsoever that other countries not only have such lists but actually abide by them.

As the article on RFE/RL points out, there already are such lists in existence but, apparently, the one Mr Putin has in mind is wider than just literary works (and, one assumes, he will not include And Quiet Flows the Don but one can never tell).
It remains to be seen, however, whether Putin will favor the inclusion of foreign authors, as many Western book lists do -- and as many Russian readers would seemingly prefer. An informal reader poll on the website ranks British writer Arthur Conan Doyle and France's Antoine de Saint-Exupery higher than native sons Pushkin or Tolstoy. To be fair, Mikhail Bulgakov and his beloved "Master and Margarita" still occupies the top spot.
I am not surprised about Conan Doyle and Saint-Exupery being so high on people's chosen book lists. I have written before about foreign literature being seen as something that is part of one's own in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. In fact the list is a very fine mixture of Russian and foreign books but I am delighted to see that not only Crime and Punishment but the wonderful Soviet satire The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov have attained high position.

I have an odd suspicion that Ilf and Petrov's satire will not be passed by the eagle-eyed censor-in-chief, though it is undoubtedly a classic. Conan Doyle? Well, who knows? Perhaps he will feel nostalgic about his childhood. But will George Orwell make the mark, as one Moscow wit has asked.

One writer who will not be on that list though he is highly regarded by Russians and non-Russians is Boris Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili. He wrote his first detective stories about the nineteenth century investigator Erast Fandorin under the pseudonym B. Akunin (get it?) but then expanded it to Boris Akunin. He has written a very large number of complicated and very literary novels, including one called F.M., which I have not yet managed to get through, though I was given a copy soon after it came out.

As far as Mr Putin is concerned, however, the most notable fact about Boris Akunin is not his stupendous literary output but that he joined those who protested against the Duma elections of last December. It could only be because he is of Georgian origin, opined the great literary critic. Akunin responded in an interview
I'm not taking this seriously. That is how he was trained in his special [KGB] school. It is his normal method of smearing an opponent. I don't feel smeared. OK, I'm Georgian, so what? There are people of many ethnicities in our country. Actually, he was hinting that since I'm an ethnic Georgian, it means I'm an enemy of Russia. That is what he meant....
Not taking the once and future President's opinions seriously? Dear me.

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