Putin’s Call for a Russian Canon

January 28, 2012 | 5

The process of “Russification” is almost as old as Russia itself, yet to see it take shape in the present day can be quite distressing. In particular, Vladimir Putin’s recent proposal in Nezavisimaya Gazeta — in which the prime minister called for a “Russian canon” of literary works — has some people worried about its insidious potential for propaganda. Count Alexander Nazaryan among that group.

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. I’m glad you posted this — otherwise, I may have never read Alexander Nazaryan’s essay on the topic. But, reading it irked me to the point of writing a rebuttal (on my blog, above).

    If we can have a list of great American novels, why is it fundamentally frightening and politically incorrect to have a list of great Russian novels? Is the term “Russian” acquiring the same negative connotation as the term “socialist” — said with disdain, almost as though it were an STD?


  2. Hi Ana,

    I think Mr. Nazaryan is extremely cynical and skeptical of Putin’s aims with this list (and he’s got plenty of reasons to be, given the Putin regime’s history of propaganda). I don’t necessarily agree. I think the concept, in a vacuum as you say, is a noble one. It of course remains to be seen which books make the cut, and no matter the result, debates will rage (as they do over the “Western canon” anyway).

    I also think the term “Russian” is a bit problematic when assembling the list. Russia has always been very heterogeneous, and its borders have changed so many times, that it’s tough to determine whether it suffices for a book to be ABOUT Russia (or “Russian themes”) or if the book must also be written WITHIN Russia (in which case it raises the question: which Russia?).

    In the Curiosity, I mentioned Russification because the idea is nothing new. Indeed, the state’s numerous Russification efforts throughout history are, in a lot of ways, among the most Russian policies ever enacted.

  3. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the response! I actually covered your concern about the term “Russian” in my article:

    “It’s the sentences about “the Russian people” and “Russian culture” that probably ring most terrifying here. Some clarification should be made: There are two words in Russian — russkiy (Russian, ethnically) and rossiyskiy (Russian, or belonging to the political entity of post-Soviet Russia). Throughout his essay, Putin does alternate between russkiy and rossiyskiy, with no discernible pattern. Yet context makes clear that he’s referring to national identity. There is no menacing push for ethnic subordination that I was able to glean from this text — and I’m ethnically mixed.
    Russians are unlucky when it comes to international affairs. Living in a country called Russia, we’ve also decided to classify “Russian” as an ethnic group. Truth be told, being Russian is not an ethnicity (being Slavic is). Yet today, it is far more difficult for Russian politicians to get away with pushing for national or civic unity than it is for politicians in the US. (Again, read the quotes above and replace “Russian” with “American” to see the different connotations.)”

    Given this, I worry about how Mr. Nazaryan and others would propose that Russian politicians proceed. Are they to avoid the term “Russian” altogether, lest it become offensive? How are citizens of the country (myself included) supposed to characterize ourselves? Russia is a nation, and hopefully will continue to be for a very long time. Maybe it’s the idea that “Russian” is an ethnicity (implicitly, a blonde/blue-eyed/Slavic one) which should be eliminated.

    As for “Russification” and it being a quintessential Russian policy, I think that’s too quick a statement to make. Every country strives to create a national identity for itself. The United States, for instance, conducts all of its classes in English, and creates ESL classes for students who are not fluent to help them achieve fluency. Is that also a form of Americanization, and some domineering attitude towards other cultures? I would say no — instead, it’s a natural effort to create a cohesive group of citizens who understand each other and share a common background, of some sort. There is no reason why a national/civic background can’t coexist with an ethnic, religious, and cultural one, or with disparate political opinions.

    My point of concern with Mr. Nazaryan’s assessment was that he essentially sweeps the idea of a Russian cannon of books under the rug of his general fear of Mr. Putin’s policies thus far. I wish the journalistic world would begin to take a deeper look at Russia, and stop reacting in the manner of, “the Russians are at it, again” to virtually every new development.

    I would argue that the literary world has a responsibility to do just that.

  4. You make a great point about the context in Putin’s speech. I just hesitate to take Putin at his word for anything, and it seems like that’s what Mr. Nazaryan’s trying to say. (To be completely fair, I hesitate to take almost any politician at his word for anything.)

    And you’re also right to point out the parallels with other empires. One could of course find examples of the US forcing its culture onto other territories. Arizona’s current controversial immigration and language laws come to mind straight away. The annexations of Hawaii and Texas are great examples as well.

    Likewise for the UK, or for any imperialist power. And it’s also true that Russification is not the same thing as (though it is a bit similar to) Sovietization, which was perpetuated by the Communist Party. (FWIW, “Sovietization” is a term still used by many of Putin’s critics today.)

    But my remark about Russificiation was not confined to Russia’s domestic policy alone. The nation’s attempted, just in the past 250 years, to “Russify” Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Finland, and what was once known as Bessarabia.

    However, I suspect Mr. Nazaryan’s distaste for Putin pushing a “Russian canon” is that he’s wary of any kind of forced unification at the behest of the state apparatus. Putin does say in the speech that he envisions the canon being required reading for students throughout the nation. One could argue about whether this is fundamentally different from US students having to read, say, To Kill a Mockingbird in freshman English, but given the history I just mentioned above, it seems reasonable to be wary of the proposal’s potentially sinister motives.

    Thanks for the essay, though. Hopefully Mr. Nazaryan, who frequents this site, will chime in with his own two cents.

  5. A Russian canon would be fine if it includeed such works as Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (plus Everything Flows) and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. I’m skeptical such a thing would happen.

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