''Russian literature tells about hopelessness and dead end. Everything falls apart, everybody dies, everyone ceases to love''
Aleksey Vdovin, a literary historian, tells why modern and foreign literature are not taught at schools and what problems it is fraught wit
Teaching of literature in Russian schools today resembles a school programme of Germany at the turn of 19th-20th centuries. From the 1870s until the Nazi era of Germany, the students studied literature only from Nibelungs to Goethe and Schiller. Such programme was a means of planting the Aryan and fascist way of thinking because the idea that only their own was the best and all others' — hostile was assimilated this way. The bitter experience forced the Germans to abandon this approach, and today literature in German schools is studied not in chronology, but by topics and problems, including foreign and contemporary works. What problems the absence of foreign and modern literature in school programmes is fraught with and how to instil love for reading into students – read in the second part of the interview of Realnoe Vremya with literary historian Aleksey Vdovin.
Read the beginning here.
''There have always been problems with the inclusion of modern literature in school programmes''
Aleksey, from my personal experience of studying at school and experience of my peers I can tell that there is a feeling that Russian literature ends somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century. Then — nothing (if I hadn't read on my own will). What place does modern literature take in school programmes?
There have always been problems with the inclusion of modern literature in school programmes at least since 1871, that is, since the approval of the single Imperial literature programme drawn up during the ministry of infamous Dmitry Andreevich Tolstoy. In fact, the problem is that the experts who draw up the programmes always consider it impossible to include modern literature in the reading lists. The reasons are obvious: a small historical distance, which does not allow to assess whether the work is time-tested, whether it is classic enough to study. This is the reason, which sometimes relates to political and social acuteness, topicality of modern literature.
The most striking example in the history of Russia is the exclusion from the school programmes of all modern literature after Gogol for 35 years, from 1871 to 1905. Interestingly, against the background of other European countries of the late 19th century, such a time lag of 30-40 years is a very short period, not a norm, because in England and France the lag was 80-100 years. In this sense, the closest to the Russian situation is the arrangement of the school programme in Germany and the USA at the turn of 19th-20th centuries.
If we talk about our time, the school programme in modern Germany is very different from Russian one, especially in terms of modern literature. They teach literature not strictly according to chronology, periods, but by topics or issues, and contemporary literature of the 1980s and 2000s is also discussed, not only Goethe and Fontane. Besides, the programmes differ in different parts of the country.
It would be useful for many in Russia to understand the invisible link between school literature and state ideology or, what is even worse, propaganda.
In general, the Germans learned this bitter lesson of history of the 20th century that it is impossible to base the teaching of literature just on classic literature and only on the literature of their nation. The thing is that from the 1870s until the Nazi era of Germany, the German students studied literature only from Nibelungs to Goethe and Schiller. Historians have long proved that this was a means of planting the Aryan and fascist way of thinking, even if teachers and experts did not realize it. Its main idea is that all yours is the best and all the others' — hostile.
So, it is useful for many in Russia to understand the invisible link between literature at school and the state ideology or, what is even worse, propaganda. Although a single ideology is prohibited by the Constitution in our country, today we can observe how single-mindedness is imposed, in particular, through school programmes of humanitarian disciplines. One should read the amendments to the learning standards for literature, which are being discussed by the public, to verify this.
Why do they practically not teach foreign literature at Russian schools? How this can be changed?
There is no way to fix it. The birth itself and the model of literature at school since the mid-nineteenth century does not involve the study of literature different from national. Small inclusions of Shakespeare or Goethe is a fortunate exception. As long as there are national states and state-run educational system geared towards the respective goals of raising the nation's loyal citizens, this will continue.
Let me stress that I am not saying that it is bad or, on the contrary, good. I'm just stating the situation. It is arranged this way, it is a fact. It is a different matter — to assess and write prescriptions for the future.
Although the single ideology is prohibited by the Constitution, today we can observe how single-mindedness is imposed, in particular, through school programmes of humanitarian disciplines.
''Literature at school is necessary at least for some other tasks than to educate 'the Russian people' and the citizen''
What needs to be changed in modern methods of teaching at school to arouse children's interest in Russian literature?
I have a disappointing answer: no cosmetic measures will change the situation significantly. Because, again, the entire system of literary education, starting from the 19th century, was created for the strictly defined task and, in my opinion, it is extremely difficult to reconfigure it, especially in the political situation we have today.
There is a chance only in case if in our society teachers, experts, officials, scholars ever again agree that literature at school is necessary at least for some other tasks than to educate 'the Russian people' and the citizen. While such tasks are a priority, we cannot fundamentally improve anything in school literature.
Of course, there always will be the best teachers who create miracles on their lessons, but if we talk about the majority, then alas. I see no way out. Again, the problem is not in so-called bad teachers or lazy or forgotten-how-to-think children. It's different.
Of course, there always will be the best teachers who create miracles on their lessons, but if we talk about the majority, then alas. I see no way out.
''The nature of classics is such that it only reveals its semantic potential over time''
Young people often say, probably because of their ignorance, that Russian classic literature is old-fashioned, irrelevant. What is the relevance for modern young people of the works by Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy?
Again, it is very difficult to answer definitely. Every teacher himself of herself in the classroom tries to link somehow the content of novels with what is outside the window or in the heart. It turns out differently. I would say that relevance is always visible at two levels — at the level of echoing between political or social events in classical literature and present day and between the emotions of heroes and our experiences. Well, then each work resonates with present day in its own way in these two directions.
I remember a scene from Dunya Smirnova's film Two Days, when a high-ranking official from Moscow was appealing to the employees of the museum-estate, saying that it was necessary to prohibit Russian literature at schools. Because it creates in people some pipe dream about ideal, elevated relationships, sacrificial love and so on. But, they say that they will never meet this in life, so they will suffer, all the time dissatisfied and unable to look at life soberly. I've heard such opinions not only in films. What do you think about it?
It is another reductio ad absurdum of the idea. Well, show me where in Russian literature of the 19th century there are lofty ideals that are suppose to be in practice? There are almost no such works. Myshkin did not save anybody, Raskolnikov only begins to rise to a new life. Oblomov died early. Turgenev has no happiness at all, there is only duty and service. Exception — the novels like What Is To Be Done? or Step by Step by Omulevsky, but they on the periphery of attention now and only confirm the general rule. On the contrary, Russian literature if says something, then it is about hopelessness and dead end. Everything collapses, everyone dies, everyone ceases to love, and even if Sonya in the final of Uncle Vanya repeats the mantra ''we will see the sky in diamonds'', then only to make the reader once again to think about the opposite — about the complete despair of her and uncle's existence.
The nature of classics is such that over time it only reveals its semantic potential, it becomes only stronger, like wine.
One can often hear such judgment that students can have outstanding memory, swallow a lot of books from the programme, but they still will not be able to understand all those aspirations, experiences, ideas that torment the heroes of Russian classics.
Yes, of course. We understand at school 30-40 percent at best. After all, the nature of classics is such that over time it only reveals its semantic potential, it becomes only stronger, like wine.