Writing Russian Lives. The Poetics and Politics of Biography in Modern Russian Culture
Like many genres, biography came belatedly to Russia. As with other such late arrivals, it underwent intensive growth in quantity, sophistication, cultural significance and popularity from the era of Nicholas I onwards, and stands today as a dominant force in post-Soviet publishing. Yet studies of Russian biography’s poetics and its role as a literary and cultural institution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries remain thin on the ground, a fact often lamented, yet not fully addressed, in the scattered writings on the subject.
Writing Russian Lives examines modern Russian biography as a literary form, a publishing phenomenon and a cultural force. From Imperial to pre- Revolutionary and early Soviet biography and memoir writing, the volume also explores the history of the long-running ‘Lives of Remarkable People’ series, whilst consideration of survivors’ testimonies from Nazi-occupied Russia and the problems of presenting personality in the late Soviet era offer innovative research and insight into less traditional forms of the genre.
Russian Populists of the 1870s generation who remained in the country after 1917 struggled to find a place in the new society but also to defend their legacy as genuine revolutionaries who had pursued a different path from that of the Bolsheviks. Working collaboratively with others of his generation, many of whom were now members of the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles (OPK), Nikolai Charushin wrote his memoirs (O dalekom proshlom, 3 vols, 1926–31) in close collaboration with several other surviving figures in that generation and under duress, to ‘get history right’ and provide an authentic rendition of their life experiences. The authors deploy the tools of memory and generational studies to show how a joint process of memoir writing evolved into one of collective auto/biography. This close study and comparison of the text of Charushin's memoirs with those of others of his generation, of their unpublished correspondence — including previously overlooked letters of Vera Figner — and of the activities of the OPK sheds light on the ‘memory wars’ of the early Soviet era.