Poetic justice: Russian literature is to die for

Last week a 53-year-old denizen of a small town in the Urals went to see his older friend and mentor, aged 67.

In the good Russian tradition the two friends cracked a bottle of what in common Russian parlance is called ‘white wine’ (vodka to you). The report of the incident doesn’t mention if a second bottle saw the light of day, but on general principle and lifelong empirical evidence I’d think it likely.

In another good Russian tradition, once the two chaps got properly lubricated, they kicked off a heated literary dispute. In this instance the bone of contention was the comparative significance of poetry and prose as genres of literature.

The guest, whose CV includes university education and a career as school master, maintained that only poetry qualifies as real literature. The host, whose professional credentials weren’t divulged in the report, begged to differ.

I don’t know the details of his argument, but no doubt the names of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky came up, as did the fact that some of Russia’s greatest poets (Pushkin, Lermontov, Pasternak, Bely et al) eventually turned to prose, with hardly any movement in the opposite direction.

I do hope you’re suitably impressed and ever so slightly envious. How often do you hear two pissed Englishmen falling out over such topics? I’d suggest they’d be more likely to disagree about the relative merits of two football clubs or perhaps of various Black & Decker home-improvement tools.

On balance, having experienced both, I prefer the English way: it seldom reaches out to the sublime but at least it’s less likely to sound ridiculous, as the argument in question clearly is.

Staying within the confines of Russian literature, the dispute reminds me of a 5-year-old character in a popular children’s book. The boy asks his slightly older brother, “If a whale wrestles with an elephant, who will win?” Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer, as the saying goes.

Well, in this instance the answer was rather worse than merely stupid. For the champion of poetry grabbed a knife off the table and killed the defender of prose with one mighty thrust.

Drunk as he was, the ex-teacher was sufficiently compos mentis to do a runner and go aground in another friend’s house. This friend either wasn’t informed of his guest’s chosen method of settling literary disagreements or else didn’t particularly care about literature one way or the other.

Considering that Russia’s murder rate is higher than ours by an order of magnitude, and in that region by two, the police resources there are stretched thin. Yet in this case the law enforcers did themselves proud: they quickly tracked the poetry lover down and charged him with violating the Russian Criminal Code, Article 105, Part 1 (murder). One hopes poetry is amply represented in his prison library.

What’s one to make of this? Jokes aside, literature has to be held in high esteem to be considered a matter of life or death even in a state of inebriation. Not many Westerners, apart from the French, would allow such abstract arguments to inflame their passions to such an extent.

I’d suggest that this is an argument against universal education. Education only means anything important when it brings about a certain ennoblement of character and refinement of soul, not just wider erudition. Yet observation suggests that most people find it easier to absorb information than to improve their character in any noticeable way.

Someone who has read Shakespeare’s sonnets may still beat his wife, even when she doesn’t deserve it. But someone whose soul was penetrated and shaped by Shakespeare’s sonnets, or come to that Pushkin’s poems, would be unlikely to resort to domestic corporal punishment or, in our case, murder.

It’s much healthier for most people to cultivate an interest in things like football and home decoration than, say, iambic pentameter vs. dactylic hexameter. This diminishes the chances of serious culture falling into wrong hands, with concomitant damage done to both the neophyte and serious culture.

On a personal note, incidents like this make me even happier about leaving Russia over 40 years ago. Human life is worth considerably less there, nor lasts nearly as long.

According to one news item today, a quarter of Russian men die before their fifty-fifth birthday. The BBC ascribed this rather appalling statistic to vodka, but clearly at least some of it has to be due to literary arguments fuelled by vodka. 

“They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea,” wrote Horace. That may be. But thankfully they do change their life expectancy.


My new book, How the Future Worked, ponders many such stories. It’s available from www.roperpenberthy.co.uk.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.