wieda, nina

Tales of Unauthentic Human Beings: Competition in Contemporary Russian Literature

Russian language does not have a neutral equivalent for the English word “ambition.” The Russian cognate “ambitsiia” translates into English as “arrogance,” and the closest contextual equivalent “tshcheslavie” translates as “vanity” or “conceit.” This linguistic omission of a neutral or positive term for ambition reflects the cultural stigma associated with ambition, individual achievement and competition in the Russian context.  Traditionally, Russian culture has marked competition aimed at individual achievement as aesthetically and ethically unattractive.  By analysing samples of contemporary Russian literature, this paper argues that contemporary Russian culture has retained this attitude.

Because it has traditionally served Russians in place of philosophical and social debate, literature is a valuable source of insight into Russian value system Moreover, Russians have habitually turned to literature to guide their lives; this has buttressed the role of Russian letters as an articulator and promoter of the Russian system of values. 

Two of the most popular Russian novels of the last decade, Sergei Minaev’s Spiritless (2007) and Viktor Pelevin’s Empire V (2010) share an axiological interest in contemporary Russian culture.  They explore the question of competition in the contemporary Russian society: now that Soviet ideals are gone, for what does one aspire and how does one get to the top of the pyramid?  In Russia, answers to these questions are being formed in dialogue with the Western influence; both novels react to this influence by reflecting the East-West dialogue in their titles.  For example, the Russian title of Minaev’s novel mixes the Russian root -dukh- (spirit) with the English suffix –less.  The novels also don similar subtitles that identify their victorious protagonists as someone other than a human being: “the tale of an unauthentic human being” (Minaev) and “the tale of an authentic super-human” (Pelevin).  Different stylistically, the novels converge in witnessing that ambition does in fact lead to material success in modern Russia, while at the same time illuminating the moral cost of that achievement.

Friday 26 October 09:00-11:00 Panels VII, Panel 17 Theoretical Perspectives of Competition I (Hall 14)