Lessons from Russian Literature: In Praise of Everyday Life

Professor in Russian and Film Studies, Emma Widdis offers the latest reflection in praise of everyday life. Her most recent book is Socialist Senses: Film, Feeling and the Soviet Subject, 1917-1939 (Indiana University Press, 2017)

Professor Emma Widdis

I had planned a term of research leave this Easter 2020. I was supposed to be in Russia, foraging in archives. Instead I found myself in lockdown in Grantchester, with a border terrier, two cats, a husband, and two teenagers home-schooling. Abandoning my sabbatical, I’ve been busy in Zoom seminars and supervisions, with students who find themselves suddenly adrift from Trinity and the University, facing new ‘take-home’ exams. I’m glad to have been in the thick of things during these strange times. I have been nothing but impressed by our brilliant students, and their dedication to continuing with their studies. It has been interesting to see not just the inevitable losses in their experience (collegiality, community), but also the some of the benefits in an examination system reconfigured to allow more space and time for reflection.

Auggie, one of Professor Widdis’ charges

Amidst all this, I’ve been asking my own questions. I’ve been thinking about the assumptions and pressures that, for writers and academics, are written in to our understanding of isolation. Does quarantine boost or hinder intellectual creativity? Russian literature is full of examples of (largely male) creativity in exile. The poet Alexander Pushkin spent a period in self-isolation on his beautiful family estate in Boldino in 1830, during a cholera epidemic. The period in Boldino was described by Pushkin as one of laziness, when he would ‘stay in bed until three.’ ‘I go riding,’ he wrote: ‘…at five I take a bath, and then dine on potatoes and buckwheat porridge.’ Pushkin described his approach to work during this period as ‘haphazard’. Yet the Boldino months were also some of Pushkin’s most productive. The ‘Boldino Autumn’ has become, in Russia, an inspirational myth of self-isolation, dreamed of by writers. So it was at the beginning of our own self-isolation here. It wasn’t long before Trinity Fellows were remembering Isaac Newton’s foundational work during his quarantine from the Bubonic Plague in 1665, and exhorting one another to show similar dedication and brilliance.

Pushkin at the Mikhailovsky by Pyotr Konchalovsky

No pressure there, then. As I waited in virtual queues to secure supermarket deliveries, as my husband and I prepared endless snacks and meals, worried about our own parents, tried to remember something about anaerobic respiration and oxidization to help out with online science, and moved rapidly between zoom supervisions and meetings, I couldn’t help but wonder about this so-called creative isolation. Perhaps it was a peculiarly male phenomenon. Certainly, another magnificent Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, had a quite different experience: evacuated with her teenage son when World War Two broke out in Russia, she found herself caught in the endless and impossible drudgery of seeking provisions to enable their survival. This was not Tsvetaeva’s most creative period.

Of course, these are far from exact parallels with our current situation (not least the shared domestic tasks of a modern couple); but the relationship between domesticity and creativity leads me to think about other lessons that Russian literature may have for us in these complex times. In my work and my teaching, I focus on the first half of the twentieth century, and in particular on the decades that followed the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. I love teaching this period for two reasons, which seem contradictory. First, because revolutionary culture provides a glimpse of human yearning. In the heady years following 1917, politicians and artists alike set out to create a perfect world, and perfect people to live in it. In Trotskii’s words, the new Soviet man and woman would ‘become immeasurably stronger, more intelligent and subtle; his body will become more harmonious.’ This was the age of science. Experiments in genetics, eugenics, and brain science, seemed to promise not just an unlocking of the mysteries of the human body and mind, but the possibility of their transformation. It was a compelling vision; and it remains so for students today.

Alongside those dreams of perfect worlds, however, I also love teaching early Soviet culture because of its celebration of the things that make such dreams impossible. Humans, and the everyday. Against the abstract politics of perfection, much early Soviet literature celebrated imperfection. The writer Mikhail Zoshchenko produced comic vignettes through the 1920s that captured the absurdities of the new Soviet everyday: flawed, ordinary human bodies struggling to adapt to a changed world. His tiny stories focus on bathrooms, on boots, on a person’s attachment to his very own scrubbing brush. Like Chekhov before him, Zoshchenko doesn’t rail against the banalities of the everyday; he reveals them as a fundamental condition of human-ness.

Zoshchenko’s hugely popular stories were published in journals.

So as I sit at home trying – often unsuccessfully – to balance the demands of my research against the seemingly more pressing demands of my family, their meals, their online lessons, and other such mundane domestic necessities, I remember those lessons. As I discuss and negotiate daily tasks with my husband, I’m reminded of the insistent, often frustrating, beauty of the banal. I may long sometimes for the sequestered paradise that is my office on New Court, but the messy everyday reality of lockdown is not just a distraction: it is the stuff of life. These Soviet writers were not lamenting the death of grand ideas amidst the ordinariness of the domestic. They were insisting on an attention to those details that shape us. Our recent lockdowns, then, will produce not just the scientific treatise or the lyric verse born of the luxury of isolation, but also the myriad stories and ideas that emerge out of our ordinary, and extraordinary, everyday.

The entire series of Reflections by Trinity Fellows can be viewed here.

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