«I will not be able to return to Russia…»

Machine trans­la­tion

Philologist Boris Gasparov, a pro­fes­sor at Columbia University, is writ­ing a book on ear­ly German Romanticism and has no plans to return to the his­to­ry of Russian cul­ture, but describes him­self as an »inter­est­ed read­er of Soviet news­pa­pers. In an inter­view with T-invari­ant, he explains why the cur­rent emi­gra­tion of intel­lec­tu­als is more like German in the 1930s than the «philo­soph­i­cal steam­roller,» and gives hope that the cur­rent every­day «cloa­ca lan­guage« will go away, as «Soviet» Russian once did.

T-invari­ant: How did you face February 24th? This is our tra­di­tion­al ques­tion. You don’t even have to spec­i­fy the year…

Boris Gasparov: I was in Santiago, Chile, we went for a vaca­tion in the Chilean sum­mer, the first trip after covid. There was a fam­i­ly birth­day par­ty, a big fam­i­ly gath­ered. The kids were play­ing a noisy game in the yard. And then some­one asked: «Do you know what they’re play­ing?» It turned out to be war between the Russians and the Ukrainians. It was February 24th.

What can I say? I had to go to teach at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, also for the first time since the covid. Naturally, this did not hap­pen. I imme­di­ate­ly wrote a let­ter of res­ig­na­tion and protest against what was going on. I resigned from all of the com­mit­tees, boards, and coun­cils, and I have not par­tic­i­pat­ed in any life in Russia since.

I was one of the cre­ators of the human­i­tar­i­an pro­gram at the St. Petersburg Higher School of Economics. It began in 2015 with incred­i­ble suc­cess, attract­ing hun­dreds of stu­dents. There was a huge res­o­nance, and we assem­bled an inter­na­tion­al, first-rate team. Now there are very few peo­ple left: they have left. And there’s almost no one left in the Moscow pro­gram either.

T-i: How did your col­leagues and your boss­es react to your departure?

BG: Very polite­ly and kind­ly. The human rela­tions have not been inter­rupt­ed, but they under­stand that it is inher­ent­ly impos­si­ble for me to par­tic­i­pate in projects in Russia or relat­ed to the country.

Boris Mikhailovich Gasparov is a philol­o­gist. He was born in 1940 in Rostov-on-Don, where he received his philo­log­i­cal edu­ca­tion. He grad­u­at­ed from the Gnessin Institute with a degree in musi­col­o­gy. From 1968 to 1980 he worked with Yuri Lotman at the University of Tartu. He is one of the reg­u­lar authors and edi­tor of «Proceedings on Sign Systems». In 1980 he moved to the United States. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing at Columbia University.
Sergei Averintsev wrote that «Philology is the art of under­stand­ing what is said and writ­ten.» But for Boris Gasparov, under­stand­ing only «said and writ­ten» has always been insuf­fi­cient. He match­es music, his­to­ry and every­day life with the «writ­ten». Because the word is in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them, and only in this way can the mean­ing of what has been writ­ten be clar­i­fied. Gasparov cov­ers a tremen­dous vol­ume of mean­ing: from the Tale of Igor’s Campaign (in Russian) to the hypoth­e­sis of the exis­tence and devel­op­ment of lan­guage (in Russian and English) to his reflec­tions on Russian clas­si­cal music (in English). And with­in this vol­ume, «the art of under­stand­ing spo­ken and writ­ten» gains new strength and depth. Ed. T-invariant.

T-i: We know that you are prepar­ing a new book and it also has noth­ing to do with Russia. Tell us about it please.

BG: I am very lucky. I can’t imag­ine how I would go on with my affairs con­nect­ed with Russian cul­ture now as if noth­ing had hap­pened. I had a project on the philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tions of social­ist real­ism and oth­er top­ics. But I absolute­ly can­not con­tin­ue this now.

I was qui­et­ly prepar­ing a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent project. It required a long prepara­to­ry work, read­ing a huge amount of sources, sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, main­ly German. And it turned out that I was engaged in a project that had noth­ing to do direct­ly or even indi­rect­ly with Russian cul­ture, and was thus ther­a­peu­tic for me.

What is now called «ear­ly roman­ti­cism» of the 1790s is very dif­fer­ent from the roman­ti­cism of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. In Germany, this phe­nom­e­non was rep­re­sent­ed by the Jena Romantic Circle, in which the Schlegel broth­ers and Novalis played the lead­ing role. I am writ­ing about the philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tions of this direc­tion, about those philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples that put them in oppo­si­tion, on the one hand, to the Enlightenment ratio­nal­ism, which was in cri­sis and was already leav­ing, and, on the oth­er hand, to the ris­ing tide of ide­al­is­tic phi­los­o­phy and late roman­tic self-con­scious­ness with their reliance on sub­jec­tive con­scious­ness and on the nation­al tra­di­tion. The Jena Romantics were utter­ly devoid of a nation­al­is­tic spir­it. They had the typ­i­cal cos­mopoli­tan self-con­scious­ness of the eigh­teenth century.

The main idea of the book. What did the Enlightenment and Idealist phi­los­o­phy have in com­mon? They envi­sioned a cer­tain abstract image of the cog­niz­ing mind as an inte­gral intel­lec­tu­al force that pos­sess­es an inner cog­ni­tive uni­ty, a pur­pose­ful­ness to cog­ni­tion. The title of my book is The Subject Dethroned. That is, the sub­ject is dri­ven from the throne on which it has placed itself. My Jena Romantics treat the process of know­ing as an entire­ly human process. It is an end­less inter­weav­ing, clash­ing and merg­ing of dif­fer­ent minds think­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing. Each indi­vid­ual sub­ject is not a Subject with a cap­i­tal let­ter, but an agent of a com­mon cog­ni­tive process. His thoughts are nev­er just his thoughts. Other peo­ple’s thoughts flow into them, flood them. Whether he is con­scious of this or not, whether these peo­ple are present near­by or present only in mem­o­ry. Therefore, the process of cog­ni­tion can be nei­ther com­plete­ly pur­pose­ful nor uni­fied. This is the idea of the inter­twin­ing of an infi­nite num­ber of alter­na­tive lines. Contradictions, devi­a­tions from the pre­vi­ous­ly intend­ed path, con­stant­ly arise in this process. These are its con­sti­tu­tion­al prop­er­ties, not the exter­nal noise that dis­turbs the cog­ni­tive mind. Paradoxically, it is in this way that the cog­niz­ing mind places itself on an equal foot­ing with the world it cog­nizes. The world, too, is char­ac­ter­ized by col­li­sions, insta­bil­i­ty, and unre­li­a­bil­i­ty. This strat­e­gy of cog­ni­tion per­ceives the prop­er­ties of the world it seeks to know, rather than leav­ing them aside as some­thing alien to it.

The Jena Romantics through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and part of the twen­ti­eth had the rep­u­ta­tion of peo­ple who were not all right with log­i­cal think­ing, who for some rea­son treat­ed the uni­ver­sal laws of log­ic, cog­ni­tion, and the progress of sci­ence so friv­o­lous­ly. And in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, with the rise of post­mod­ernism, they sud­den­ly became unusu­al­ly pop­u­lar, and they were seen as allies of decon­struc­tivist crit­i­cism. Which is part­ly true. But there are also dif­fer­ences between the ear­ly Romanticists and the crit­i­cism of the total mod­el of think­ing at the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Postmodernism spoke of the death of the author in the sense that the author’s work is open to a wide vari­ety of inter­pre­ta­tions and they all have the right to exist. The posi­tion of Jena phi­los­o­phy can be described as the «death of the crit­ic. The crit­ic aban­dons his pre­rog­a­tive to speak from his pedestal and pro­nounce his judg­ment. If, rough­ly speak­ing, the post­mod­ern self-con­scious­ness tends to believe that «all inter­pre­ta­tions are equal­ly good,» in the con­scious­ness of the Jena Romanticists, «all inter­pre­ta­tions are equal­ly bad,» that is, they are nev­er self-suf­fi­cient. They are inter­nal­ly flawed and con­tra­dic­to­ry, and their mean­ing changes sub­tly to its oppo­site with­out the crit­ic him­self notic­ing it. But these cracks and crevices in the facade of the con­cept are the most valu­able: through them one can see the inner springs that guid­ed the cog­ni­tive effort. In my work, I am also going to exam­ine these themes in rela­tion to the phi­los­o­phy of lan­guage and the the­o­ry of the nov­el. It will be a lengthy book.

The Jena Romantics were a group of German philoso­phers, poets, and writ­ers. It includ­ed the Schlegel broth­ers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, Wilhelm Thieck, and Novalis. The begin­ning of the Jena cir­cle is usu­al­ly attrib­uted to 1796, when Friedrich Schlegel came to vis­it his old­er broth­er in Jena. From 1798 to 1800, the broth­ers pub­lished the mag­a­zine Ateneum, where many the­o­ret­i­cal works were pub­lished that sub­stan­ti­at­ed the new direc­tion in art. The end of the Jena cir­cle is usu­al­ly attrib­uted to the death of Novalis in 1801. They were young and dar­ing. They beat Schiller bad­ly, though they loved Goethe. The Schlegels were rather the­o­rists of the new - roman­tic - art, which they con­trast­ed with the Enlightenment and clas­si­cism. Thicke and Novalis were more like prac­ti­tion­ers. Thicke, in par­tic­u­lar, wrote the play The Cat in Boots, an exam­ple of roman­tic irony. Novalis’s is the nov­el Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which describes the search for the «blue flower» - the roman­tic ide­al. The influ­ence of this cir­cle, which exist­ed for only five years, on the sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of art and phi­los­o­phy is enor­mous. Ed. T-invariant.

T-i: Tell us why the new book plays, in your words, a «ther­a­peu­tic role»

BG: Why I said it was ther­a­peu­tic for me. Romanticism in gen­er­al and Jena Romanticism in par­tic­u­lar, despite its strong dif­fer­ences from the col­lec­tive image of the «Romantics,» was and is under sus­pi­cion in Germany. It is asso­ci­at­ed with organi­cism, which is known to be a sib­ling of author­i­tar­i­an­ism, with the cult of the nation­al spir­it. All this does not apply to Schlegel and Novalis at all, but it does not change the mat­ter. It is a sad fact that Germany is still, after almost a hun­dred years, still not recov­er­ing from the 13 years of its his­to­ry that have tak­en place. Even now my German col­leagues feel uncom­fort­able talk­ing about roman­tic phi­los­o­phy, about the philo­soph­i­cal con­tent of Wagner’s operas, etc. Here’s the Enlightenment - that’s fine! It is true that it is German schol­ars who have made great efforts to reha­bil­i­tate ear­ly Romanticism and sep­a­rate it from late Romanticism, but when it comes to cul­tur­al stereo­types born of trau­ma, things are mov­ing slow­ly. I am writ­ing my book with an aware­ness of how deep this trau­ma is in the German cul­tur­al tra­di­tion of the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­turies. And, as if respond­ing to this prob­lem, I am also indi­rect­ly deal­ing with the trau­ma that is just begin­ning to open up in Russian life and culture.

T-i: Do you men­tion the theme of trau­ma in German soci­ety in the new book?

BG: No, that would be tact­less of me. I used to teach in Germany. I first went there in the late ’80s. I was struck by young peo­ple who were 20 years old in 1989. Their par­ents were prob­a­bly young chil­dren dur­ing the war. But the young peo­ple were full of aware­ness of what a huge moral bur­den lay on their shoul­ders. There is prob­a­bly no such poignan­cy now, but that spir­it in Germany per­sists. That light­ness, the open­ness to the world that the Jena roman­tics demon­strate, that’s what I want to empha­size in my book, that’s what I kind of refer to the German cul­ture that’s close to me.

T-i: You don’t want to do Russian cul­ture any­more. Does it mean that after this book you will do any­thing except Russia too?

BG: It’s hard to make any pre­dic­tions. So far the works in the queue do not include Russian cul­ture. I’m going to write about music next. Why is that… I just had to give up pub­lish­ing my lec­tures on Socialist Realism, which I had a few years ago in Moscow. This work looks strange now. To talk today about these creepy nov­els, the creepy Stalinist time of the 1930s, as a his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non that is an inter­est­ing sub­ject of study is strange. I thought it was impor­tant to show what moved the writ­ers, what brought this lit­er­a­ture to life. No writ­ers write sim­ply on com­mand, on a phone call. They always respond cre­ative­ly to the chal­lenges of the times. That chal­lenge can be fear, but the chal­lenge can also be pos­i­tive, like want­i­ng to be part of their time. There is no point in dis­miss­ing social­ist real­ism as absurd. Why did the social­ist real­ist heroes see all this fairy tale real­i­ty as real­i­ty? What twist of con­scious­ness was behind it? It’s all wor­thy of atten­tion. But how to write and rea­son about it now that the shells are falling?

In my stud­ies of Soviet cul­tur­al his­to­ry, I have pro­ceed­ed from the premise that this is his­to­ry. This peri­od end­ed, and it is inter­est­ing for us as a his­tor­i­cal epoch which had its foun­da­tions, its inner devel­op­ment, its end­ing, its mem­o­ry. It was its end­ing that framed it, and it became pos­si­ble to study it as a cul­tur­al-his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. Now there is no such notion, as you understand.

T-i: So his­to­ry has ceased to be history?

BG: Yes, we see how the Soviet stereo­types of con­scious­ness live and act in a rather hor­ri­ble way. And we can no longer talk about Socialist Realism as if we were study­ing the Enlightenment or Romantic era. The ground is gone from under our feet. It is no longer his­to­ry. And respond­ing pub­licis­ti­cal­ly is not my business.

T-i: And yet I don’t under­stand why such a rad­i­cal rejection.

BG: I’ll try to explain. It’s real­ly rad­i­cal, I’m aware of that. I keep watch­ing, although I don’t see any­thing com­fort­ing. This is my per­son­al posi­tion, I could­n’t rec­om­mend it to any­one else. I have friends in Russia, and human rela­tions con­tin­ue. But now we are talk­ing about the posi­tion of a sci­en­tist. My char­ac­ter as a researcher implies empa­thy toward the sub­ject I am study­ing. I do not engage with a sub­ject for which I feel alien­at­ed and have no desire to under­stand. There is bound to be a desire to feel a per­son­al appeal, not to impose my ideas about the sub­ject on it, but to try to make sense of how it presents itself and for what rea­sons. I do not have this atti­tude toward con­tem­po­rary Russian reality.
Here is an exam­ple. In my youth, when Jacobson and Sossur flour­ished, we were all Sossurian lin­guists. And then the end­less crit­i­cism of struc­tural­ism began, in which I took part. And it was at this point that I had a desire to under­stand what Sossurian phi­los­o­phy of lan­guage con­sist­ed in, to see its sources and inner moti­va­tions. That is, while I fol­lowed the para­graphs of struc­tur­al lin­guis­tics, there was no desire to enter into a dia­logue with it.

T-i: And human relations?

BG: I help peo­ple who are leav­ing or who have left. That’s where I’m com­plete­ly engaged. People still get, unfor­tu­nate­ly, most­ly tem­po­rary places at uni­ver­si­ties. There is a lot of under­stand­ing on the part of uni­ver­si­ties. There was a fear that I would meet a prej­u­dice: «Enough with the Russians, now we are help­ing Ukraine. And, indeed, we help Ukraine a lot. But at the same time we still have a lot of con­tacts with aca­d­e­mics and intel­lec­tu­als from Russia. Two col­leagues from Petersburg Vyshka now work for us at Columbia University.

T-i: Your book Language, Memory, Image. The Linguistics of Linguistic Existence» is a kind of answer to Sossur?

BG: When this book came out in 1996, I under­stood it that way. But then in the 2000s, when I was old­er, I began to look at the clash between struc­tural­ism and its crit­ics as a fact of the his­to­ry of thought and I became aware of the rel­a­tiv­i­ty of all posi­tions and the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of their sources. Sossur was no longer mono­lith­ic to me. I real­ized that it was our read­ing, that we were only read­ing out what we need­ed at that moment. It is a com­plex and con­tra­dic­to­ry phe­nom­e­non. In the same way, I want­ed to look at the inner con­tra­dic­tions of Pushkin’s time. For me, it is impor­tant to feel the sub­ject as a fact of his­to­ry. I don’t know how to study a riv­er when you’re swim­ming (or drown­ing) in it.

Boris Gasparov. «Language, Memory, Image. Linguistics of Language Existence», Moscow, 1996. Boris Gasparov’s book «Language, Memory, Image» deals with «every­day lin­guis­tic exis­tence». Gasparov refus­es to fol­low the tenets of struc­tural­ism. He says that there is no point in look­ing for the ide­al struc­ture which ful­ly and incon­sis­tent­ly describes lan­guage. We need to look close­ly at how lan­guage lives, how it is used by peo­ple immersed in a com­mu­nica­tive envi­ron­ment. Why are there so many excep­tions in any nat­ur­al lan­guage? A lan­guage with­out excep­tions would do a much bet­ter job of con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion unam­bigu­ous­ly. But nat­ur­al lan­guage is designed to describe a non-lin­guis­tic real­i­ty that has not yet become a fact of lan­guage, but is just becom­ing, and in this case, errors, reser­va­tions, and excep­tions are inevitable. According to Gasparov, in «every­day lin­guis­tic exis­tence,» we do not use a lex­i­con com­posed of words, but com­mu­nica­tive frag­ments (CF) - word com­bi­na­tions con­sist­ing of one, two, three, but no more than four lex­i­cal units. These word com­bi­na­tions are formed dynam­i­cal­ly in the com­mu­nica­tive envi­ron­ment and are felt to be sta­ble. According to Gasparov, knowl­edge of lan­guage is not the abil­i­ty to recall a lex­eme and cor­rect­ly pro­close it, but the abil­i­ty to apply at the right moment a set of QFs relat­ed to the com­mu­nica­tive sit­u­a­tion that has arisen. Ed. T-invariant.

T-i: Did you devel­op the theme raised in the book «Language, Memory, Image»?

BG: The book was pub­lished in 2010 in English (Boris Gasparov. Speech, Memory, and Meaning: Intertextuality in Everyday Language, Berlin/​New York, 2010. Ed. T-invari­ant.) I was not sat­is­fied with it. In it I tried to con­cen­trate on the the­o­ry of mean­ing. Maybe I should­n’t have done that. It is not my inten­tion to turn the­o­ry into canon. I’m try­ing to open up the prob­lem, to show that inter­est­ing things open up if you look at it from this angle. That is where my mis­sion ends. And call­ing some­one to fol­low me… I’m not ready to fol­low myself. That’s why I jump from one field to anoth­er, I do music and the his­to­ry of thought, par­tic­u­lar­ly roman­tic thought. But I start­ed doing romance 30 years ago, I start­ed div­ing back in the ’90s.

It’s just that my heroes (German roman­tics) are always escap­ing from a closed cog­ni­tive space, from a trap, from the cog­ni­tive world built by them­selves, even though it is com­fort­able and con­ve­nient to live in it and devel­op it from inside. They want to escape from it. I think I’m doing the same thing.

T-i: You’re doing it. Here’s an arti­cle about coun­ter­point in Doctor Zhivago. You take ter­mi­nol­o­gy and method­ol­o­gy that is not appro­pri­ate for ana­lyz­ing the nov­el. You have the gen­er­al line of the party!

BG: Of course I do! It con­sists in the fact that you don’t want to belong to any­thing, as soon as it comes up, you want to run away at once. I like that old job, I don’t refuse it. But it is sharp, it hits a tar­get. Now I am clos­er to what Pasternak took from his stud­ies in phi­los­o­phy, neo-Kantianism, from his cri­tique of the intel­lec­tu­al com­pla­cen­cy of neo-Kantianism, which led him to a posi­tion of con­scious weak­ness, awk­ward­ness, illog­ic. His «suf­fer­ing» ver­sion of mod­ernism is opposed by Mayakovsky: «Art is not a foun­tain, but a sponge. I am now clos­er to this spir­i­tu­al quest of his, rather than to the way Pasternak arranges archi­tec­ton­i­cal­ly all these poly­phon­ic or coun­ter­point lines in the novel.

Boris Gasparov. Temporal Counterpoint as the Formative Principle of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In: Literary Leitmotifs. Essays on Russian Literature of the 20th Century, Moscow, Nauka, 1993. In his work Gasparov shows that «acci­den­tal», «mirac­u­lous» coin­ci­dences and encoun­ters in the nov­el are no more acci­den­tal than the con­so­nance of a chord. The char­ac­ters’ fates and plot lines form a musi­cal coun­ter­point, and the nov­el­’s time turns out to be non-lin­ear, woven of vari­a­tions and themes. Ed. T-invariant.

T-i: Historical par­al­lels are, of course, a sly thing. But can we see some­thing use­ful for us today, for exam­ple, in Doctor Zhivago?

BG: We are inside the same incred­i­ble chaos. But to me now it seems clos­er to the con­scious­ness of the German emi­grants of the 30s and 40s, rather than the inter­nal or exter­nal emi­gra­tion from the Soviet Union. I had a lot of con­nec­tions in Russia, I was active­ly involved in uni­ver­si­ty and aca­d­e­m­ic life. Part of the rea­son for my harsh reac­tion is that I per­ceive what hap­pened as my per­son­al defeat, a ter­ri­ble, resound­ing defeat in every­thing we have been doing for the last 20 years. I’ve been giv­ing it my all, putting off all oth­er plans, this and this book. The result is there. I don’t know what will hap­pen now.

I know that there were peo­ple in German emi­gra­tion who nev­er man­aged to return to Germany after 1945. Thomas Mann, for exam­ple. My favorite German writer is Alfred Döblin. He came to Germany and could­n’t stay there, left. There are many oth­er examples.

Here I have this feel­ing that I won’t be able to go back to Russia, I will look at peo­ple and think about who they were, what they did, what they said «back then» …

T-i: Do you see a par­al­lel between what’s hap­pen­ing today with the German emi­gra­tion rather than with the Russian emi­gra­tion dur­ing the Civil War in 1917?

BG: Not polit­i­cal­ly, of course, like they say nowa­days, that this is a new fas­cism. It’s more about the degree of tragedy: this is not some kind of uni­ver­sal cat­a­stro­phe, but some­thing that has grown out of our lives, before our eyes. The sit­u­a­tion that exists now is rather anal­o­gous to the one that took place in Germany. Therefore, the trau­ma in which we live and will live is sim­i­lar to the ongo­ing trau­ma in German cul­ture. We see the destruc­tion not only of our present life, but also of our past. You can no longer look at the past as you used to. Whether you like it or not, your vision is being cor­rect­ed, you are being car­ried side­ways all the time.

All this talk about Kiev being one thing and Novgorod anoth­er. It was unim­por­tant talk until recent­ly. Now it has become a burn­ing prob­lem. Was Kievan Rus the root of Russia? Everything is high­light­ed dif­fer­ent­ly: the cul­ture, the lit­er­a­ture of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Hooked on to Pushkin’s unfor­tu­nate poems. True, in «Defamers of Russia» he spoke not about the Polish upris­ing, but about the cam­paign against Russia in the Paris news­pa­pers. I would like to say that it’s not about this poem or the «Borodino anniver­sary». But the point, in my opin­ion, is that in Pushkin, despite the sharp moder­ni­ty of his thought and artis­tic con­scious­ness, in human terms one can feel a cer­tain archaism. He is a man of XVIII cen­tu­ry, it was hard for him to inte­grate into XIX cen­tu­ry. His per­son­al atti­tudes, his aris­to­crat­ic rejec­tion of «not his own peo­ple», his game of the landown­er, his view of Russia grav­i­tate back to the Catherine era. Zhukovsky and Vyazemsky were more suit­ed to the new cen­tu­ry, with its lib­er­al human­ism and atten­tion to the indi­vid­ual. Pushkin had the bril­liance of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, quite amaz­ing, but alien to a soft­er human­ism. It was because of this human strange­ness that he entered Romanticism like a brick thrown into water and posed the roman­tic prob­lems of lan­guage, the inner world of the indi­vid­ual, and mem­o­ry with such incred­i­ble sharp­ness and cru­el crit­i­cism of him­self, with such an abil­i­ty to see every­thing, and him­self above all, in moments of fall, from a grotesque per­spec­tive, as the Romanticists of the 1820-30s, in gen­er­al, rather beau­ti­ful­ly soul­ful for all their super­fi­cial Byronism, had nev­er dreamed of it. This seems to me more impor­tant than the ques­tion of whether he was an impe­ri­al­ist or a pro­gres­sive or what­ev­er. At sev­en­teen, he did­n’t blink an eye:

You auto­crat­ic psy­chopath,
You and your throne do I despise!
I watch your doom, your chil­dren’s death
With hate­ful, jubi­lat­ing eyes.

And «To the Defamers of Russia» is an echo of the 18th cen­tu­ry. The abstract­ness of the 18th cen­tu­ry was pecu­liar to it. How to try to make sense of it all in the cur­rent clam­or, I have no idea.

T-i: If every­thing has col­lapsed all the way back to the his­to­ry of Kievan Rus’, is it worth doing any­thing at all in his­to­ry and culture?

BG: It’s just a metaphor: «every­thing has col­lapsed». Such expres­sions rep­re­sent our spir­i­tu­al world as a kind of mate­r­i­al object. But the spir­i­tu­al world is infi­nite­ly flu­id and does not depend entire­ly on our will and actions. The spir­i­tu­al home has no own­er. It is like air. And we have no con­trol over how our vision changes when we begin to see things dif­fer­ent­ly, whether we want to or not, and to look at our past from a dif­fer­ent angle. The worst thing is to pre­tend that noth­ing hap­pened. I have my poet­ics, my poems, my nov­el the­o­ry, that’s what I do. The rest is unim­por­tant. It’s a los­ing position.

T-i: To feel the spir­it of the era, who and what do you read? What opin­ion leaders?

BG: I read Radio Liberty, «Meduza» and «MK».

T-i: I did not expect to hear about «Moskovsky Komsomolets».

BG: I’ve always been a very inter­est­ed read­er of Soviet news­pa­pers, to under­stand the time, its language.

T-i: I can’t help but think of «cloa­cal lan­guage,» a term intro­duced into the pub­lic domain by philol­o­gist Hasan Guseinov.

BG: Yes, I remem­ber that polemic. And I see it every­where, there’s an incred­i­ble coars­en­ing of mores going on. The back­street lan­guage is being cul­ti­vat­ed. I’m sure it’s not a trend of lan­guage in gen­er­al, but a delib­er­ate­ly cul­ti­vat­ed dis­ease, and it will pass with time. Just as the Soviet lan­guage went away. It would seem that for 70 years, the lan­guage was so poi­soned by every­thing Soviet, not even ide­ol­o­gy, but all the idiomat­ics, the struc­ture of speech, all this spir­it. It seemed that it was no longer pos­si­ble to use this lan­guage. But no, they cre­at­ed some­thing new. The same thing is going to hap­pen with this «cloa­cal language.

I came to America in the 1980s. And I saw that there were no ele­men­tary expres­sions in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Russian to describe every­day mod­ern life: bank­ing oper­a­tions, var­i­ous part­ner­ships and trustee­ships, char­i­ty, polit­i­cal life. Sometimes impro­vised, some­times bor­rowed. It took a gigan­tic col­lec­tive effort to make all these things every­day facts of lan­guage. Much has been accom­plished. Language came alive. The down­side or side effect of this effort is end­less bor­row­ing. But the lan­guage will cope with these prob­lems. Some local ther­a­peu­tic mea­sures are pos­si­ble. But try­ing to strate­gi­cal­ly deter­mine the direc­tion of the lan­guage is utopia, and it leads nowhere.

T-i: It turns out that lan­guage is much more sta­ble than memory.

BG: Language changes, every­day expres­sions change. Our mind­set is chang­ing. I’ll make a pre­dic­tion. The Church Slavonic root played a huge role in the Russian lan­guage. And mod­ern Russian is flood­ed with Church Slavonic, many of them mod­eled on the Greek lan­guage. We find them in the most bizarre com­bi­na­tions with inter­na­tion­al words of Latin ori­gin. By the way, this is what sep­a­rat­ed Russian and Ukrainian lan­guage. Ukrainian lit­er­ary lan­guage shunned heavy Church Slavonic inher­i­tance, and thus a mutu­al antipa­thy of the two lin­guis­tic con­scious­ness­es arose. Russian looks at the Ukrainian lan­guage as a rus­tic and rus­tic. And Ukrainian looks at Russian as inflat­ed, heavy-hand­ed and authoritarian-«imperial. The Soviet era was a time of incred­i­bly inten­sive use of heavy­weight Slavicisms, all this archa­ic idiomat­ics, reli­gious in ori­gin, flour­ished in the ide­o­log­i­cal Soviet dis­course, quite coex­ist­ing with the inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric. Nowadays, all this cru­di­ty and delib­er­ate col­lo­qui­al­ism of the Russian lan­guage works, strange­ly enough, not only as a minus, but as a plus. All of this makes the lan­guage eas­i­er. It makes it less pompous and heav­i­ly archa­ic. In gen­er­al, it is even use­ful, although it is not very pleasant.

Questions were asked by EVGENY NASYROV, VLADIMIR MIRNY

,   13.04.2023