Judith Armstrong responds to Robert Dessaix

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Robert Dessaix’s essay acts as a jumping-off point which can lead in all sorts of directions from the starting-point of his own situation as student and teacher of Russian in the 60s and 70s, when the discipline was healthy and the ardour strong. The demise of interest in Russian literature, language and culture then becomes a synecdoche for the ‘degradation’ of the humanities and the loss in today’s society of ‘something of inestimable value’ – the humanizing and civilizing effects of in depth study of the language and literature of another nation.

Russian studies are in severe decline throughout the Western world, including the US, where they were once heavily subsidised by the government. A certain number of young Americans had to be properly trained to wage the cold war. The up-side was that the powers were not prescriptive about the money they poured in; literature and history were never questioned as desirable components of language courses. This meant that while a few spies and Soviet-watchers emerged from the student ranks to be hired as guardians against the evil empire, hordes of graduates entered the ordinary work-place armed with a good understanding of Tolstoy’s attitiude to adultery or a life-long appreciation of Chekhov’s plays. In these post-cold war days, when the spies are cooling their unemployed heels, and both the EU and NATO are exanding to include the healthier Eastern European countries, but excluding struggling, no-growth Russia, the funding for Russian studies has been withdrawn. Not only are Russian language, literature and history failing to attract students, neither the politics of the CIS nor the theory of socialism are any more popular in America than Australia. Dessaix sees our treasures flying out the window, and mournfully waves them out of sight. Yet, Russian studies will not die, because they do not depend only on the student estimate of job prospects or the politicians’ appraisal of economic potential. Russianists of Dessaix’ ilk persist – despite every discouragement. The reason I know first-hand about the situation in the US is because I receive at least one email bulletin every day from an American political scientist who collates news items on Russia published all over the world and sends them out to anyone who asks. He does it for love of the discipline. Gary Kern, another American academic whose name adorns the spines of various books on my shelf, has been moved to muse aloud, via the above-mentioned email, on the ‘narcotic agents’ that make Russia ‘like an addiction’ – so long as you survive the first drop.

Dessaix summed up this magic spell by a specialised invocation of the word ‘erotic’. In more analytical mode, Kern speculates on a number of possible ingredients: exoticism, emotion (‘the soul-thing’), the suffering, the alienation (which attracts Americans critical of their own society), and finally, surprisingly, the politics. Not because Russia has any importance as a world-player, but because so much time was spent by so many Americans in recent years trying to undermine a so-called threat to world peace that simply went away all by itself. Indeed an amazing phenomenon. One more component may be added into the potent drug that makes anyone who drinks it mad to return to Russia, under any regime. For many old hands, going to Moscow is like entering a capsule. In the bad old days this was particularly so, because you received no news whatsoever of the outside world unless the authorities decreed it should be featured in Pravda, which usually they did not. Even today, despite modern communications and the ubiquitous television set, that sense of difference still grips you the minute you set foot in Red Square. The horrors of rampant capitalism are very different from the terrors of maniacal communism, but there is still plenty to adjust to in Russia, including many of the same old shortages caused in part by the same old fiddles. But foreign journalists continue to ask for a second tour of duty there, some refusing to go home, ever.

The tantalizing glimpses of an exotic past dislocated from both the regime introduced by bloody revolution, and the present ‘democracy’ which has failed literally to deliver the goods, lures a good number of curious tourists to Russia. They go because they wish to sip that rich and addictive mixture that Dessaix and Kern try to define. But it is also true that the tourists are not reading War and Peace on the plane, any more than the Russians are reading Crime and Punishment in the Metro. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky KNEW what was wrong with their Russia and how to cure it. Now none of them have any answers, not even Solzhenitsyn, least of all Yeltsin.

Judith Armstrong is a full-time writer and reviewer, and a Senior Associate of the Department of Germanic Studies and Russian at the University of Melbourne.

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