in Latin America have long occupied a privileged position in society. During
the foundation of the Latin American republics, in the 19th century, writers
helped draft constitutions, laws, even new grammars. Many participated actively
in politics. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose 1845 classic, Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, was
read as a blueprint for Latin America -- either civilize like the Europeans or
become "barbarians" like the continent's remaining indigenous societies --
became president of Argentina in 1868. Well into the 20th century, authors from
Venezuela's Rómulo Gallegos to Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa had such stature that
they were serious presidential candidates in their countries.
since Latin America's literary boom of the 1960s, the notion of the novelist as
a larger-than-life figure, able and willing to intervene in national and
continental politics, has appeared to fade. Earlier authors, most famously
Gabriel García Márquez, ushered in an era of magical realism, depicting the
extraordinary as commonplace. In reaction, the Latin American novelists of
subsequent years became more modest and introspective -- more interested in
depicting private lives than crafting allegories for their nations. Today, the
novel in Latin America has lost the privileged space it once occupied, and
writers are simply not seen as the monumental figures they used to be.
is not to say that they have abandoned political themes or that readers should
abandon the Latin American novel as a gateway into the region's politics. The
violence currently gripping Mexico, for instance, has been perfectly
represented by a Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, in his posthumous 2004
masterpiece 2666. And Tomás Eloy
Martínez's 1991 novel, Santa Evita, tells us much about the passion play that has become the Argentina of the
Kirchners -- Néstor, who ruled from 2003 to 2007, and his wife, Cristina, who
has been president since 2007. Even magical realism, after all, is a partially
"realist" genre, and García Márquez's The
Autumn of the Patriarch, though published in 1975, offers striking insights
into the politics of contemporary Cuba. To understand today's Latin America,
literature is as good a guide as any number of think-tank reports -- and perhaps
settling in Spain, Bolaño lived for several years in Mexico, the setting for
some of his best works, including both 2666
and 1998's The Savage Detectives. 2666 is a monumental, 1,000-page novel
divided into five parts, the fourth of which, "The Part of the Crimes," deals
with the femicides that have plagued the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez
-- the model for the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in which the novel is set.
In his descriptions of more than 100 fictional homicides, Bolaño's use of
clinical details -- he notes exactly where the women are killed and even what
they are wearing -- makes the novel's resemblance to reality all the more
apparent. Some critics and readers have taken issue with the specificity of
these violent scenes, but this is precisely Bolaño's point. He finds a way to
represent the repetition of violence and the impunity of its perpetrators --
the lack of solutions to these crimes. In Santa Teresa, the pathological public
sphere ends up normalizing something that is truly abnormal: compulsive,
same time, Bolaño's novel suggests there is a point when this tragedy cannot be
normalized. The policemen in charge of finding the killers are depicted as
casual misogynists, even joking about the murdered women; with these men's
prejudices, it is almost impossible that any crime against women will be
solved. Bolaño also portrays some of the killers as jealous husbands, men
resentful that their wives make more money than they do. More than a recounting
of violent crimes, then, 2666 can be
read as a critique of the Mexican social order: It goes beyond the gory
violence to its roots, suggesting that at its dark core a patriarchal culture
is responsible for treating women as objects easily disposed of -- as much by
their partners and friends as by the drug lords or the factories where they
whole of 2666 can be read as an
allegory for the darkness of life in today's Mexico. The killings in Santa
Teresa go on, but the citizens, used to it, continue with the party. Christmas,
for instance, is celebrated in "the usual fashion" -- with posadas, piñatas, tequila, and beer -- despite the violence
enveloping their society.
Tomás Eloy Martínez
Santa Evita, which deals with the
necrophiliac character of Argentine politics, is grounded in well-known
historical facts. Part of the book is a biography of Evita Perón, the
charismatic leader who was the wife of President Juan Perón in the 1940s and
became a populist leader in her own right. Another section concerns the
afterlife of Evita's body, which was embalmed and later confiscated by the
military that overthrew Perón in order to prevent the body from being used as
an anti-authoritarian symbol. The novel follows the wanderings of the embalmed
body, which gives this otherwise realist text a potently surreal tone. The
narrator wants to escape her but can't: "She always finds me," he says. In
death, Evita becomes even more powerful -- a secular saint of sorts, forever
influencing Argentina's politics.
life, following the untimely death in 2010 of Néstor Kirchner, who was expected
to run for the presidency again in 2011, his widow, Cristina, the current
president of Argentina, has similarly sought to create a cult of personality
surrounding her deceased husband. In speeches, she refers to Néstor simply as
"Him," painting the dead president as an outsized figure, a providential man
who pulled the country from the abyss. In turn, Néstor has become more powerful
dead than alive -- a phenomenon that Martínez's novel prefigures.
analysts say the cult of personality Cristina has created seems to be about Néstor
but ultimately is about her. In this sense, Cristina is the new Evita; as Perón
says in the novel about his wife, "She is Argentina."
The Autumn of the
Patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez
four decades after its publication, García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch provides surprisingly skillful
commentary on contemporary politics, namely in Cuba. The novel belongs to the
Latin American subgenre of the "dictator novel," which reveals many aspects of
Latin American political culture under dictatorships: the outsized character of
the autocrat, the cult of personality surrounding him, and his populist appeal.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is set in
a fictional Latin American country, García Márquez may have modeled his
dictator on several historical Latin American strongmen: Bolivia's Mariano
Melgarejo, the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo, and Venezuela's Marcos Pérez Jiménez. But the behavior of the novel's patriarch, slowly losing his
grip on power and reality itself, bears a striking resemblance to that of Fidel
Castro, who has become a totemic figure in Cuban and Latin American politics
and shows up for special occasions, though he no longer wields any real power
-- it is Castro's brother Raúl who is the real ruler.
bureaucracy, the product of 50 years of Communist Party rule, has created an
endless parade of party officials intent on preventing promised changes from
ever arriving; change would mean losing power. García Marquez's novel suggests
that no one lets go of power easily, not even a dictator's most pragmatic
advisors. In the novel, the patriarch's circle of advisors plants the
dictator's face everywhere -- on stamps, coins, statues -- as part of an
elaborate charade to make the dictator think he is still in control. By
mounting this campaign, however, it is the advisors who end up in charge.
García Márquez, the fanciful magical realist, knows more than we might think
about how mass media can control societies.
American writers today may have lost the privileged space they once occupied in
society, but their works are no less politically insightful. Bolaño, Eloy
Martínez, and García Márquez are latter-day Virgils, guiding their readers
through Latin America's complex, labyrinthine politics.
Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union,
uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever
since. How to tell these multiple stories?
In retrospect, it is evident
that Western commentators failed to predict or explain what has happened to
these countries: their lurches from one crisis to another, weird hybrid
political systems, unstable stability.
Commentators have long tried to project models from the rest
of the world ("transition to a market economy," "evolution of a party system")
onto countries that have very different histories and cultural assumptions from
the West and often from each other. I have read about Russian Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin's "ethnocentric patriotism," his "delegative democracy trap,"
and his building of a "neo-patrimonial state" -- all very intelligent stuff. What
I take away from such jargon is a nicely constructed model or two (for both
Putin and the political scientists), but not the insights I seek into a living
So here is a not entirely frivolous suggestion: How about
skipping the political science textbooks when it comes to trying to understand
the former Soviet Union and instead opening up the pages of Nikolai Gogol,
Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky?
This is not just a thought experiment; the works these
authors wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries turn out to be surprisingly
applicable to today's politics in a broad swath of the former Soviet space, whether
it's the unexpected fragility of Putin's authoritarian rule in Russia or the
perpetually failed efforts to modernize next-door Ukraine. There's a reason:
Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of
Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced
some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that
the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship,
the aridity of public service, and the educated classes' hunger for
intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and
Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural
commentators -- they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual
voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament
readers found themselves in -- and still do.
In her surprising 2010 bestseller, The Possessed, Elif
Batuman makes the case for why Russian literature can be a guide to most of
life's questions, big and small. "Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky," she
writes, recalling some of the Russian canon's most famous characters, "at every
step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up
My idea here is a little more modest: a brief sketch of
how three great works of Russian literature can be mapped onto the stories of
the three post-Soviet countries in which Western commentators take the keenest
interest: Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. These classics, each more than a century
old, provide both the specific detail and the grand panorama that are lacking
in a shelf full of overmodeled political analysis.
Russia as Nikolai Gogol'sThe Government Inspector
A great burden of Russia is that it
has never rid itself of the habit of feudalism, of personalized power. Up until
the late 19th century, enslaved serfs constituted a majority of the Russian
population. Nor were the landowners who ruled the serfs independent -- they served
the state and owned property at the mercy of the tsar. The Soviet system
reconstituted that hierarchy, this time with centralized ownership of property
and the monopoly of the Communist Party. In recent years, Putin has repackaged
it yet again for the post-Soviet era, imposing a so-called "power vertical" even
while allowing his citizens a much greater degree of private space.
But, as Putin has recently discovered, the system is
surprisingly brittle. It requires constant maintenance, as it is built on a
chain of dependencies that are oiled by favors and kickbacks and riddled with
suspicion and duplicity.
It can break down quickly.
A tsar can get too willful or sick or run out of money to pay his bills, at
which point Russian citizens are fully capable of challenging their rulers -- if
they think it is worth the effort. As Russia scholar Sam Greene has put it, "There
is a common myth … that Russians are passive. This is not true: Russians are
aggressively immobile." By this he means that Russians are naturally
conservative, preferring to focus on survival strategies rather than take risks
that might make their situation worse. If they feel the emperor has no clothes,
though, they will protest. That's what happened from 1989 to 1991, when the
whole Soviet edifice crumbled, and, on a more modest scale, in recent months
since the rigging of December's parliamentary elections.
Which brings me
irresistibly to Nikolai Gogol's The Government
Inspector. Gogol is the master
cartoonist of Russian life. You could say he is savagely affectionate about
Russia. His only full-length play is Russia's greatest stage comedy and its
most devastating satire, a mirror of Russia's habit of replicating petty
despotism from tsar to serf. When Nicholas I watched an early performance in
1836, he famously exclaimed, "We all got it in the neck -- and me most of all."
The plot is simple: The corrupt mayor of a small town is
tipped off that a government inspector from St. Petersburg is arriving to
investigate how local affairs are being run. This causes panic! Everyone is
taking bribes, money for a new hospital was siphoned off and nothing was built,
and geese are nesting in the front hall of the underused courthouse.
Then the mayor and his underlings disastrously mistake a young city man living at the town's hotel for the
inspector. Khlestakov, as the guest is called, is in fact a wastrel brazenly
running up credit, having lost all his money in a game of cards. He quickly
takes advantage of the obsequious attentions of the town officials, proceeding
to fleece the local bureaucrats for money and seduce the mayor's wife and
daughter with wildly embroidered tales of life in St. Petersburg.
Just like Russian history of the last century, the play's
denouement brings a cycle of revolt, absolutism, and collapse. A crowd of
mutinous merchants complains to the newcomer about the mayor's abuses. The
mayor trumps them by announcing that Khlestakov has proposed to his daughter
and will take the family to St. Petersburg. The mayor lords it over a cowed
merchant, telling him, "Now you are sprawling at my feet. Why? Because I've got
the upper hand, but if the balance tipped just a bit your way, then, you
rascal, you would trample me in the mud and club me on the head into the
Then the balance does tip.
With Khlestakov having skipped town, the postman covertly opens a letter the
fraudster has written bragging about the hoax he has perpetrated. The whole
illusion shatters, and the town is struck dumb by the news that the real
government inspector has arrived. At the end, the distraught mayor tells both
his subordinates and the audience, "What are you laughing at? You are laughing
In Putin's Russia, as in
that of Nicholas I, everyone knows his or her place and colludes in corrupt
practices, out of self-interest or inertia or both. But it all depends on the
man at the top -- the tsar, the mayor, the president. When the illusion of
authority evaporates -- the inspector is a fraud, the president
overreaches -- everything can crumble quickly. In the play, order is
re-established quickly too: The new inspector will impose his will. In the
play's celebrated closing "dumb scene," though, the characters are struck
speechless, and we glimpse a moment of existential terror.
predicament is to swing between autocratic order and societal breakdown, which
is how most Russians experienced the post-Soviet 1990s. The Government Inspector
poses the same dilemma. If Gogol has a lesson here for Russia's current civic
protesters, it is that they must strive to change the system itself, not just
the man at the head of it.
Ukraine as Anton Chekhov's The
Ukraine is a large, peaceful country
that does little to make an impression on the world. It lacks its big
neighbor's Great Power complex and nuclear weapons, playing a sort of Canada to
Russia's United States.
Certainly, Ukraine's post-Soviet statehood is now real and
irreversible. In the two decades of its independence, it has twice achieved
what Russia has failed to: the handover of power from government to opposition.
It has failed, however, to
deliver tangible material benefits to ordinary people. In a recent Pew Research
Center survey of Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, the most negative attitude was
from Ukrainian respondents. More than half of them said they disapproved of the
post-Soviet transition to multiparty democracy and a market economy, a higher
figure than in Russia. Almost three-quarters said ordinary people had benefited
"not too much" or "not at all" from the changes since 1991. Top-level
corruption is a fact of life. Ukrainian politics, too, have veered from the
brave civic activism of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, when protesters
overturned a rigged election after Viktor Yanukovych was wrongly declared to
have defeated opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, to a Yushchenko presidency
so disappointing that in 2010 voters elected Yanukovych anyway.
The country seems to be, in scholar Lilia Shevtsova's phrase,
"lost in transition." Internationally, rather than acting as a dynamic bridge
between Europe and Russia, Ukraine has become,
as my colleague Olga Shumylo-Tapiola has put it, a "gray zone" somewhere in
between. Ukraine is stuck.
This sends me back to the
wonderful Anton Chekhov, the poet of the mundane. Better than any author,
Chekhov conveys how drama happens without drama. He famously wrote, "People eat
their lunch, just eat their lunch, and at the same time their happiness is
taking shape or their lives are shattered."
Many of his characters have a charming but fatal habit of
thinking great thoughts while the world passes them by. Maybe we can better
understand Yushchenko's underwhelming presidency if we compare him to the
eminently likable Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin in Three Sisters, who
spends much of the play dreamily predicting how, "in two or three hundred
years, life on Earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvelous" -- while utterly
failing to act in the present.
But it is Chekhov's last
play, The Cherry Orchard, which best evokes the dilemma of being Ukraine.
The year is about 1900. A charming but feckless aristocrat, Lyubov Ranevskaya,
returns from Paris to her family estate in eastern Ukraine and must sell the
house and its famous cherry orchard to pay off a mountain of debt. A veritable
social slide show of the era passes through the house: a rich new businessman, Yermolai
Lopakhin, the son of a serf who can now afford to buy and cut down the cherry
orchard; a revolutionary "eternal student" who announces that he is "above love";
an uprooted German governess; down-at-the-heels aristocratic neighbors; and
uppity servants who make fun of their masters.
They are all in the same house, thinking they are talking to
each other but actually talking past each other. We see that, and they don't.
The play builds to a dramatic close. A party is held as the
estate is put up for auction, and the ex-serf Lopakhin triumphantly buys it. He
extravagantly orders the gypsy musicians to play and then tries to console
Ranevskaya, "Oh, how I wish it would all pass and our disjointed unhappy life
would change quickly!" But there is no revolution, only more gentle muddle.
Everyone just moves on -- or back to Paris, in the case of Ranevskaya. Her
indolent aristocratic brother takes a job in a bank. Only Firs, the elderly
deaf servant, is left behind in the abandoned house, and that is by mistake.
mixed inheritance, missed opportunities, the triumph of new money, transition
without arrival. This is the story of Ukraine, a modern European country of 45
million people that is not really going anywhere. Through the poetic veil of The Cherry Orchard,
we can see that one of Ukraine's key problems is that the thinkers who dream of
a brave new life -- in their case, a destiny for their country as part of
Europe -- don't actually know how to make it happen. Yet Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a
comedy. He wants us to understand that no one is in terminal suffering. At
least Ukraine today is still more comedy than tragedy. But can its citizens
start to have a proper conversation with each other about their future?
Georgia as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
All 15 republics of the Soviet Union
that gained independence on Dec. 25, 1991, save Russia, were patricides: They
killed their Russian father to gain their freedom. Everywhere, the separation
was a painful one, but nowhere more so than in Georgia, a country whose elite,
over two centuries of empire, had forged strong ties with Russians through the
aristocracy, the Orthodox Church, and the Bolshevik brotherhood. The story gets
even more complex considering that, for 30 years of the 20th century, it was a
Russified Georgian, Joseph Stalin, who was the abusive parent.
In 1991, Georgia slew both
Russia and its own Stalin complex after an intense outbreak of nationalism,
when it threw off Soviet rule. Two presidents succeeded each other in years of
drama and civil war. Then in Georgia's peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution,
U.S.-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, only 35 years old at the time,
engaged in another act of patricide, ousting the man who had once been his
patron, veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has said he was skipping a generation in Georgia and
that the country needed to "start from scratch." Out went virtually the entire
former bureaucracy and its regulations. In came a group of 20- and
30-somethings educated abroad, forming the youngest government in Europe.
Now take a look at Fyodor
Dostoyevsky's final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Like the modern history of Georgia,
Dostoyevsky's plots are all about crisis and revelation, both real and
imagined. The drama and its philosophical insights are made by romantic,
impulsive, life-loving characters engaged in perpetual argument -- surely
In this novel a tyrannical father is murdered, and even if
none of the man's three sons actually committed the deed, each must confront
his secret patricidal desire to see the old man dead. Dostoyevsky's most
fascinating creation is the fiercely intelligent 24-year-old student Ivan
Karamazov. He is obsessed with utopian theories about how to end suffering in
the world and ready to contemplate extreme measures to make it happen.
In the book's most famous
chapter, Ivan tells his fable of a Grand Inquisitor from 16th-century Spain
rebuking Jesus Christ for granting humanity the "burden of free will," which
had brought only unhappiness. He envisions instead a small caste of enlightened
rulers who will govern the masses in their best interest, while blinding them
with deliberate mystification. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, "All will be
happy, all the millions of beings, except for the hundred thousand who govern
them. For only we, we, who preserve the mystery, only we shall be unhappy."
Ivan is a close fit for
today's young Georgian reformers: intense, arrogant, and philosophical. In a
modern incarnation he would perhaps have studied in the United States on a
Muskie fellowship, would have served as a deputy minister, and would now be a
24/7 blogger with a column in the new elite's in-house magazine, Tabula.
I had an online debate with one such Georgian a few months
ago. He tenaciously supported the U.S. government's use of "enhanced
interrogation techniques" against terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush
era, while I called it "torture." When I wrote that he reminded me of Ivan
Karamazov, he replied, "Dostoevsky would not be my choice to seek advice on
military strategy and tactics. To apply individual morality is philosophical
error that leads to morally indefensible catastrophic consequences." To my mind,
a perfect Ivan Karamazov response!
The new Georgian
generation has certainly done impressive
things. In many ways Georgia has been transformed since 2004. The tax and
customs systems have been overhauled, public service streamlined, and new
cities and road systems planned. But there has been a cost. The new elite is
perceived as arrogant and unaccountable -- one reason it got dragged into a war
with Russia in the summer of 2008. Corruption and criminality, which had
plagued Georgia for a generation, have been suppressed -- but at the price of the
creation of a new, feared police force seemingly answerable to no one.
According to U.S. State Department cables published by
WikiLeaks, the Georgian governing elite's most articulate spokesman, Giga
Bokeria, told the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi in 2008 that the Georgian president "believed
that he did not have the luxury of developing consensus in order to bring
irreversible democratic change to Georgia" and that "reform would stop" if the
opposition did well in the elections. This idea of "reform before democracy"
(some would call it the ends justifying the means) has a philosophical lineage
that goes beyond the 20th-century Bolsheviks and further back to the Russian
radical thinkers of the mid-19th century. Dostoyevsky spells out how dangerous
that can be: In his novel, Ivan Karamazov's single-minded pursuit of a rational
utopia and the strain of his father's death lead him to hallucinations and the
brink of a nervous breakdown. The Georgian government is some way from that
point. But the warning is there.