Friday, January 25, 2008

The Russian Story Teller

Today I attended a lecture by Natalja Tolstaja, Associate Professor in Nordic Languages at the University of St. Petersburg in Russia (I suppose most people know where St. Petersburg is....either Minneapolis or Russia and with a name like Tolstaja it seems obvious I suppose.) The topic of the lecture was Living and Writing in Russia Today, and it was a fascinating if somewhat formal two hours.
Tolstaja is a story teller in the old tradition, the scene is set and the characters painted before we are skilfully led through a history that defies fiction in extremity and pathos. The main focus for Tolstaja's story world is her homeland, mainly St Petersburg and Moscow and she describes the vast tracts of rural Russia as "dead". Those that have talent and youth escape the tedium of the provinces to take their chances for "a place under the sun" in the two biggest cities. Those young people that stay in the provinces share their communities with the old that populate the farms, living at a subsistence level. Often alcohol is a trap for young people in the provinces and they often die young.
The situation in St. Petersburg is somewhat different. It is hyper expensive to rent a flat, anything can be brought in one of the many new supermarkets that have sprung up in the last 8 years, cars are relatively cheap. Tolstaja said that many of her students drive to university. Housing is another matter however, to buy a small room in the outskirts of St Petersburg coast at least $75 000. Meanwhile the "largest ice skating rink in Europe" has been built in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. This bought a reaction from the director of the Hermitage, but he did not get much attention in his pleas to keep the St. Petersburg’s Palace Square a historical site. Now a high-rise is planned for the area and UNESCO has threatened to withdraw St. Petersburg's heritage status if it goes ahead. Nobody in St Petersburg seems to be overly concerned with the idea of losing the UNESCO stamp of approval. However St Petersburg is "another planet" when compared to Moscow. The example given by Tolstaja of the difference is that if an academic article is published in a St Petersburg journal the author is paid about 18 Euros. If the same article is published in a Moscow journal the author will receive the equivalent of 250 American dollars. St Petersburg residents see themselves as educated, cosmopolitan, poor and the heirs to the culture of the old Russia (the many Russians: the imperial and the soviet). The popular image of the Moscow resident held by those in St Petersburg is of lower education, crass, rich and elitist.
The future as painted by Tolstaja is a bit scary and a bit exciting. Money seems to be what matters in Russia today, and considering the history of deprivation that the nation has lived through (illustrated in a story by Tolstaja of her 92 year old former English teacher recounting how it was to be living in St. Petersburg in 1941 when starvation was a reality) it is not surprising that Russians have embraced conspicuous consumption with the fever they have.
I asked a question about bohemianism in St Petersburg, if there were artists who were not interested so much in making money, but rather made art for art's sake. Tolstaja replied there were but they received little attention outside their own circle of associates. She went on to say that television under Yeltsin was very free with lots of direct sending of debate programs. Today there is nothing like this, rather stand up comedy of a very low state is popular as well as other low grade programs (sounds familiar). I think Tolstaja was moving in the direction of media critique taken up by so many in the west, but perhaps best encapsulated by Noam Chomsky around the Manufacturing Consent period. Although Tolstoya points out the dangerous and failings in the new Russia of Putin and Gazprom etc, she seems to keep her critique on a fairly broad social plain. I got the impression that being culturally unsophisticated (like preferring ice skating to heritage monuments or the shops to the Hermitage) is a greater failing in Russia today than the murder of journalists or the abandonment of large demographic groups of the population. Despite the preference for critical caution and a fascination with traditional bourgeois cultural values Tolstaja really does tell a great story. She is a skilled speaker and brings her characters to life with an attention to detail and a love of irony.
Natalja Tolstaja is the author of Ensam ("Alone") which is about to published in Swedish, she is a Knight of the Order of the North Star , is a lecturer and translator and a very gifted story teller.

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