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“Roosyan Klassiks”: An interview with Slovak writer Daniel Majling on Russia's cult authors and the current cancel culture

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Slovakia, Arts & Culture, Ethnicity & Race, History, International Relations, Language, Literature, Politics, War & Conflict, RuNet Echo, Russia invades Ukraine

Cover of Daniel Majling's collection of short stories titled “Ruzká klazika”. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Since the beginning of Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, [1] there have been calls to ban Russian culture in a number of European countries. The issue is particularly sensitive in Central and Eastern Europe, given the proximity to both Ukraine and Russia and the long-time presence of Russian culture from when Moscow imposed its control over the region until the late 1980s. 

Global Voices interviewed Slovak writer, playwright and comics author Daniel Majling to ask his views on the matter as his country has welcomed large groups of Ukrainians [2], while being a place where wealthy Russians have long been living [3]. Majling is also known in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic for his unusual 2017 book called “Ruzká klazika” which can be translated as “Roosyan Klassiks,” a collection of short stories, disguised as a translation, in which he invents humorous and sometimes grotesque fictional episodes based on the life of some the most famous Russian classics. He does so by twisting their names slightly, turning for example Turgenev into Toorgenef, or Tolstoy into Tolsztoi, with great humor and irony. The book was voted Book of the Year and shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera [4]. The first part of the book is available in English thanks to a translation by Julia and Peter Sherwood [5]

The interview was conducted in Czech and Slovak by email and edited for style and brevity.

When asked about calls to cancel Russian culture, Majling gives a nuanced answer:

Pýtali sa ma na to v posledných týždňoch viacerí – čo s ruskou kultúrou teraz? Nemôžeme sa tváriť, že sa nič nestalo. Pravdu povediac, ani ja nemám ktovieakú chuť čítať Čechova a viem si predstaviť, že to, čo je u mňa len nechuť, môže byť u človeka z rozbombardovanej dediny doslova fyzický odpor. Nestalo sa to prvýkrát v histórii.  Časť otázky bojkotu ruskej kultúry je jasná – je tu „kultúra“, či skôr propaganda, ktorú bolo treba bojkotovať už dávno. Ani nejaká spolupráca so štátnymi kultúrnymi inštitúciami teraz asi nemá zmysel.  Na druhej strane je jasné, že bojkotovaním Sorokinových knižiek alebo Zvjagincevových filmov to Putinovi práve „nenandáme“.

Potom sú tu už menej jednoznačné veci, ktoré by bolo treba prediskutovať knižku po knižke. Napríklad Solženicyn – ten bol po návrate do Ruska všetko možné, len nie človek, s ktorým by som sa vedel hodnotovo stotožniť, a predsa si myslím, že Súostrovie Gulag by sme vo vlastnom záujme bojkotovať nemali.

I have been asked this question often in the past weeks: What to do with Russian culture now? We can't pretend nothing happened.  To be honest, I have no desire whatsoever to read Chekhov and I can imagine that my lack of desire can be, for someone from a bombed-out village, quite literally the feeling of physical repulsion. This is not the first time this happens in history. Part of this question of the boycott of Russian culture is clear — this is a “culture” or rather a type of propaganda, that had to be boycotted a long time ago. It doesn't make any sense now to collaborate with state cultural institutions. On the other hand, it is clear that to boycott Sorokin [6]‘s books or Zvyagintsev [7]‘s films is not how we can actually “beat” Putin. There are also less black-and-white situations that require a case by case discussion. For example Solzhenitsyn [8]: After his return to Russia, he was a person I could not identify with in terms of values and yet I don't think that boycotting his “Gulag Archipelago [9]” would work in our favour.

Majling then offers a comparative analysis of the discourse around Russian culture by unpacking the concept of alleged toxicity of nations:

Tá otázka bojkotu má ešte ďalšiu rovinu. Mám kamarátov, ktorí sa o Dostojevskom alebo Tolstom vyjadrujú ako o principiálne toxických autoroch, v ktorých je hlboko zakorenený „ruský“ postoj k životu –  neúcta k slobode jednotlivca, nekritická podriadenosť voči autoritám, podozrievavosť voči racionalite, fatalizmus, fascinácia iracionálnom atď. 

Ak by sme otvorili otázku bojkotu ruskej klasiky pre jej „principiálnu toxickosť“,  jedným dychom by sme museli začať debatu o toxickosti  a bojkote Célina, Danta, Hauptmanna, Shawa, Sartra, Marxa, Nietzscheho, Heideggera, Platóna – ten zoznam autorov  je veľmi dlhý. Nemyslím si, že Dostojevskij je toxickejší ako Nietzsche.

Postoj, že v samotnej kultúrnej DNA Rusov je niečo toxické, má podľa mňa nebezpečne blízko k  etnocentrizmu. Latentne to v sebe obsahuje predpoklad, že niektoré civilizácie v sebe majú predispozície pre demokraciu a iné nie. Aj ja som čítal Huntingtona, ale v čase, keď bol v Španielsku Franco,  v Taliansku Mussolini, v Nemecku Hitler, na Slovensku Tiso, v Maďarsku Horthy, v Chorvátsku Pavelič atď., mohol niekto  rovnako „legitímne“ písať o európskej neschopnosti žiť v demokracii a o toxickosti našej kultúry, ktorá bola dobrá len na to, aby zavliekla svet do dvoch svetových vojen a predtým ešte vykonala na iných kontinentoch niekoľko príšerných genocíd. A napriek tomu sme sa k nejakej vratkej a neustále ohrozovanej demokracii dopracovali. Treba si však uvedomiť, že dni tejto demokracie sú spočítané, ak ju dopredu takýmto mudrovaním obmedzíme len na pár krajín. Ak sa k nej nemajú šancu dopracovať Rusi, ktorí k nám majú spolu s Juhoameričanmi kultúrne, nábožensky aj historicky najbližšie, ak sa k nej nemajú šancu dopracovať Rusi, ktorých posledný cár bol bratrancom nemeckého cisára i anglického kráľa,  čo potom Číňania s ich kolektivizmom? Čo Arabi a Peržania s ich sklonmi k teokracii? Čo africké národy? Ak nemá demokracia budúcnosť v Rusku,  jej dni sú z demografických, ekonomických a ďalších príčin spočítané aj na Západe.

This question of boycott has another layer. I have friends who talk about Dostoevsky or Tolstoy as toxic writers who carry deep inside of them a “Russian” attitude towards life defined as lacking respect for the freedom of the individual, submitting to authority without ever questioning it, being suspicious of anything rational, having a fascination for the irrational, etc. If we open this question of the boycott of the Russian classics because of their “toxicity,” then we also need to start the debate about the toxicity and boycott of Céline, Dante, Hauptmann, Shaw, Sartre, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Plato — that list of authors is long. I don't think that Dostoyevsky is more toxic than Nietzsche.

For me, the position arguing that there is something toxic in the very cultural DNA of Russians is dangerously close to ethnocentrism. This latently implies that certain civilisations carry with them predispositions for democracy, while others don't. But, when Franco was leading Spain, and Mussolini, Italy; Hitler, Germany; Tiso [10], Slovakia; Horthy [11], Hungary; and Pavelić [12], Croatia, someone could have “legitimately” written about the European inability to live democratically, as well as about the “toxicity” of our culture that was only good for dragging the world into two world wars and, before that, committing several horrific genocides on other continents. Despite all of this, we worked our way to a shaky and constantly threatened democracy. However, we need to remember that the days of democracy are numbered if we limit it in advance to just a few countries with such pontification. If the Russians, who are culturally, religiously and historically closest to us, along with the South Americans, do not have a chance to work towards democracy, if the Russians, whose last Tsar was a cousin of the German Emperor and the King of England, do not have a chance to work towards it, what about the Chinese with their collectivism? What about the Arabs and Persians with their leanings towards theocracy? What about African nations? If democracy has no future in Russia, its days are also numbered in the West due to demographic, economic and other reasons.

Regarding his specific interest in Russian literature, Majling explains that this comes in part from a period from 2009 to 2013 when he was commissioned to turn some Russian classics into plays , including Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina [13],” Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment [14]” and “The Brothers Karamazov [15],” as well as Gogol's “Dead Souls [16].” As he recalls:

Po štyroch rokoch intenzívnej práce s týmito textami som bol tým spôsobom písania a myslenia jednoducho nasiaknutý.  V divadlách strednej a východnej Európy má určite bohatšiu inscenačnú tradíciu Čechov než Ibsen, Dostojevskij než Balzac, a teda tu existuje aj väčšie všeobecné povedomie o príbehoch, témach, či konfliktoch, ktoré táto literatúra prináša.

After four years of intensive work with those texts, I was basically immersed in this kind of writing and thinking. In the theaters of Central and Eastern Europe, plays by Chekhov or Dostoyevsky are traditionally favored over the ones by Ibsen or Balzac, and thus there is larger awareness of the stories, the themes or conflicts brought up by this literature.

Indeed central Europeans have a specific vision about their relation to both Russia and Western Europe. At the very end of his book, Majling writes when comparing France and Slovakia that “v rodovej občine totiž nemôžu vznikať romány” — “In a family-based community [like Slovakia] novels cannot emerge.”  Here is how he explains this quote: 

Tá veta z konca knihy naráža na naozaj špecifickú situáciu malých národov. Na Slovensku každý náhodný spolucestujúci vo vlaku sa tu po krátkom rozhovore stáva bývalým milencom vašej terajšej spolužiačky alebo terajším zaťom vašej bývalej učiteľky. Tieto osobné vzťahy tu v dobrom aj v zlom skresľujú všetko – kultúru, politiku, ekonomiku. Nie sme súčasťou takého celku, od ktorého by sme aspoň sčasti mohli mať odstup. 
Čo sa slovenskej literatúry týka, bolo a stále tu je pár originálnych samorastov, ale tí v podstate nikoho nezaujímajú ani na Slovensku. Je tu však aj dosť početná skupina tých, ktorí sa tvária, že ich nová kniha nemá nič spoločné s titulom, ktorý vyšiel pred 25 rokmi kdesi v zahraničí. Ale to je pochopiteľné. Po prvé, je tu pomerne malá možnosť odhalenia, a po druhé,  je to súčasťou našej literárnej tradície. Naša národná veselohra Dobrodružstvo pri obžinkoch je v skutočnosti poľská hra Okrężne.

This sentence at the end of the books refers to the very specific situation of small nations. In Slovakia, every random traveler in a train will, after a short conversation, become the ex-lover of your school friend or the brother-in-law of your former school teacher. Those personal ties shape everything for the better and for the worse: culture, politics, business. We are not part of a world from which we can at least partially be distant. As for Slovak literature, there were and still are a few original mavericks, but basically no one pays attention to them, even within Slovakia. But there is a rather large group of those who pretend that their new book has nothing to do with a book that was published 25 years ago abroad. But that's understandable. First, it is rather unlikely they will ever be caught. Secondly, this is part of our literary tradition: Our national play “Dobrodružstvo pri obžinkoch [17]” [A classic comedy called “Adventure at Thanksgiving” [18]] is in fact the Polish play “Okrężne [19].” 

According to Majling, what matters most in the end for literature is that it should provoke, as he puts it:

Veľa autorov sa snaží písať angažovane a použiť  literatúru ako zbraň v boji za dobro, čo zväčša so sebou obnáša aj ideologické šablóny, ako písať, resp. nepísať o svete. Ibaže podľa mňa je primárnou úlohou literatúry byť „toxickou“, nehoráznou, pohoršujúcou a  nezmyselnou. Literatúra je sviatkom bláznov, priestorom na to, aby sme všetko to, čomu úprimne veríme, obrátili na hlavu, spochybnili to, domysleli do tých najabsurdnejších extrémov. Počas sviatkov bláznov bolo umožnené parodovať a zosmiešňovať svetské aj duchovné piliere, na ktorých spoločnosť stála, súdobú morálku aj dobré mravy samotného autora. Ak je to v súčasnosti v literatúre problém, potom sme na tom so slobodou oveľa horšie ako v stredoveku.   

Many authors try to be engaged writers and use literature as a weapon in the fight for good, which carries ideological ready-made models about how to write, or how not to write about the world. Except that for me, the primary function of literature is to be “toxic,” outrageous, offensive and nonsensical. Literature is the feast of the fools, the space where we should put upside down everything we believe in, where we should question and bring everything to its most absurd conclusion. The feast of the fools allowed for the secular and religious pillars on which society stood to be parodied and mocked. If this becomes problematic in contemporary literature, then we are far worse off with freedom that we were in the Middle Ages.


 

Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine [1].