Sample Book Report

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RUS 2103 – Book Report:
Pushkin’s Children by Tatyana Tolstaya.
Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is an eclectic collection of essays –
mostly reviews – by Tatyana Tolstaya. The essays cover such varied topics as gender
equality, Russian history, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Solzhenitsyn, Putin, and Platonov. For
the unfortunate sake of brevity I have chosen three of her essays that struck me as the
most powerful, and that also give an overview of the issues she addresses and the various
styles of essay within the book.
The collection of essays begins with Tolstaya’s review of Soviet Women: Walking the
Tightrope, by Francine du Plessix Gray. This book, published in 1990, consists of
conversations du Plessix Gray had with Soviet women who recount their various
experiences during the Soviet Union. Tolstaya remarks on how the sketches bring a
certain honest perspective, which is especially important for western feminists who see
Russian women as treated unequally by their male counterparts. Tolstaya uses examples
from du Plessix Gray as well elaborating on the topic herself. In her elaboration she gives
examples from traditional Russian folklore of lazy men, reasons why – in the Soviet
Union – it could be psychologically and economically preferable to remain out of the
professional sphere, and claims that Russia is truly a matriarchy at its heart (excluding the
cities, as she claims that globally the “intelligentsia” of often very different nations have
very similar goals or cultural values) and likens men to “decorative houseplants.”
Although I liked the prose of this particular essay, and although I freely admit I don’t
really have the kind of knowledge necessary to contest Tolstaya on how power is
distributed between the genders in the Russian countryside, I still view her assertions
with a certain amount of wariness. Perhaps on a domestic level women have power but I
don’t think that merits calling Russia a matriarchal culture as men both dominate the
realm of Russian politics and the Orthodox church.
Although the essays contained within the book are usually varied – both in terms of
Tolstaya’s reactions to the work, and in the subject matter dealt with – Tolstaya dedicates
two essays in it to scathing criticisms of Solzhenitsyn (she also dedicates two essays to
praising Remnick’s work). The first of the two is a review of Rebuilding Russia:
Reflections and Tentative Proposals. Tolstaya has a whole host of, mostly ugly,
comparisons between Solzhenitsyn and classic Russian folklore heroes but my favourite
is Solzhenitsyn as Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is an old sorceress crone who lives apart from
civilization and doesn’t interact with anyone except through a serving maiden (for
Solzhenitsyn, claims Tolstaya, his wife). Tolstaya claims that Solzhenitsyn uses archaic
Russian that is inaccessible to the Russian populace that he is trying to correspond with,
is in love with his own ideas of how things should be done, and is hopelessly stuck in the
past (mired around the year 1917). Most pertinently, for me, Tolstaya says that
Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about what Russia is are somewhat misguided. Solzhenitsyn treats
Russia as a nation with a monoculture whereas in reality it is a melting pot of cultures. I
had had certain misgivings when reading Solzhenitsyn in the past and Tolstaya hit the
nail on the head. Solzhenitsyn, for me, is a man of the past. Especially in modern times as
nations are becoming increasingly dependent on one other for economy and when,
through the internet, it’s possible for citizens from all over the world to converse instantly
regardless of distance, it is impossible for an insulated country, such as Solzhenitsyn
dreams of for Russia, to exist. Foreigners will come. Russians will travel and learn new
things: culture defies national borders. A monocultural, modern society on the scale of
Russia is simply unrealistic. The very idea of glorifying only what Solzhenitsyn views as
“Russians” can only promote hatred and antagonism between the multicultural people of
Russia.
“Snow in St Petersburg,” although not unique among the essays in this collection, is
different in that it is a very short essay written by Tolstaya, rather than a review.
Consisting of only several pages it is rife with imagery and allegory. She paints St
Petersburg – the city of her childhood – as gloomy during the rainy fall, and describes the
anticipation for the rain to turn to snow and make the city into a beautiful black and white
portrait. The winter comes and Tolstaya describes a machine that sounds to me like the
half monstrous offspring of a tank and a snow plow, called a Vuchetich (after a Soviet
official). The Vuchetich plows through the city streets “stealing” the much anticipated
snow but, as it disappears out of the story, the snow keeps coming, “replenishes itself,
emerges whole, stubborn, unconquered, an etching on white paper, as it was forty years
ago, during my childhood – a sublime and indifferent engraving, unaffected by
commentary” (pg. 217). It seems a simple metaphor. The Vuchetich is the Soviet Union –
ugly and industrial and monstrous – which steals the snow – money? – from St
Petersburg. However, the Vuchetich is only temporary and the St Petersburg winter
recovers.
Overall Tolstaya is a fascinating and often hilarious writer. This is in part due to her very
revealing digressions – which make the collection possible to understand and enjoy
without ever having read any of the material that she is reviewing. She has a scathing
prose but she never lambasts needlessly and, even with Solzhenitsyn, will often have
points of praise to cushion her criticisms. I found it to be an entertaining and enlightening
read.
Bibliographical Information
Tatyana Tolstaya, Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians. Translated by
Jamey Gambrell. New York: Mariner Original, 2003.
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