There are countless ways to scare college students away from history classes. One way, as I found out my sophomore year, is to assign Dostoevsky’s Demons. The sheer size of it is enough to send overworked students running for the hills. I know I almost ran.
Over the course of the past five years, I’ve taken numerous history courses ranging from the modern Middle East to Cold War Russia. In all but two, I was assigned heavy textbooks and and historical texts to read. In the two Russian history courses, however, I was assigned a mixture of historical fiction and non-fiction. This initially struck me as not only new but also a little odd. Once I got past the sheer size of Dostoevsky’s Demons and the admittedly unsettling content, I realized that fiction has an essential role to play in the study of history, even more importantly so for Russian history. This post won’t so much advocate for the usage of fiction in teaching history as it will explain the ways in which I feel my own experience of Russian history was affected by the addition of novels and short stories.
Firstly, I think that the most important aspect that fiction plays in the study of history is to deconstruct the linearity of it. This linear progression renders the ultimate conclusion inevitable, and fiction can help to destabilize this perceived inevitability. In ‘Russia from Lenin to Putin’ we read Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin, which accomplished exactly this. Akunin inserted spies, incredibly influential journalists and bumbling generals as proxy variables for all the different players in a battlefield—especially in the late 1800s when the press had just begun to report from battlefields. Having each of these factors explored and brought to life created doubt in my mind as to whether Russia was bound to win the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. I began to wonder if it was really just Russian military superiority that led to victory. How much of it was individual effort from military officers like Skobelev?
This is an especially significant addition to a history course when we consider that history is a complex mixture of social, economic, geographic and political factors. There are many, many moving parts. One of the best ways to unpack the salience of each of these moving parts, in my view, is to use fiction in history classes to create plausible worlds. Whether or not the events in the book end up unfolding the way they did in history, the factors that are in play are laid out in a different way in fiction—a way that facilitates discussion based around ‘what ifs’. What if this General Skobelev had not been as much of a war hero as we thought? What if the Turks had not reached Plevna when they did? Mulling over the possibility of other narratives helps students understand the importance of each moving part. It helps us comprehend that things aren’t set in stone until they are in the past, and the ability to deconstruct the various elements of any one event in history is a crucial skill for any history student. Fiction is an excellent tool for the development if this skill.
Secondly, with particular reference to Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, I think that fiction in history classes helps students reconcile a holistic view of historical events in the context of time and place with the human experience of them. Fiction can humanize what would otherwise just be death tolls and numbers of wounded people in textbooks. Of course, the particular genre of fiction matters. Sorokin’s post-modernist novel helped shed light on the human cost of things, but the decidedly macabre and unsettling atmosphere in the book detracted a little from it. While a certain amount of detachment can be good for historians to maintain their objectivity, looking at the human cost of historical events and decisions helps make history real. Fiction helps reaffirm the notion that history is not as removed from us as we might like to think, that it was experienced by people like us who had lives and emotions like ours. In recreating historical events from the personal view of characters like Sorokin’s Komiaga, students get to see up close the way that history and victory come at a price—usually the suffering of human beings. In a way, then, fiction records the details that get written out of history: human pain and the experiences of living through history, both good and bad. I do not mean to suggest that human experience gets written out of history. Indeed, non-fictional historical accounts akin to Vasily Grossman’s A Writer at War record the brutal realities of human pain and war in perhaps the most realistic way. However, I posit that fiction allows for the kind of space from this reality that still facilitates conversations about the workings of power, politics and human nature in history. Furthermore, while Grossman and Sheila Fitzpatrick help to elucidate the realities of life in extraordinary circumstances like war and the experiences of writing history, fiction can tell stories of the ordinary—people in the Soviet Union who seem only to be peripheral faces to Fitzpatrick and Grossman can get their own narratives and space in the mind of the students.
Both these points are magnified when we consider using fiction to aid the study of Russian history, particularly within the academy in the United States. In a way, the stakes are higher because there are still remnants of Cold War propaganda in the way that Russia is viewed in America. History classes can be one of the best places to unpack how biases are built into our everyday exposure to ideas of Russia and the people who live there. In this project of unraveling bias, then, fiction becomes doubly important. Not only does it deconstruct the inevitability of history and help us imagine the human cost of events, but it becomes a vehicle to destabilize the myth of Russia—both Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia.
In my view, there are still enduring ideas about the drudgery and monotony of living in the Soviet Union. The remnants of Cold War era propaganda still come up in popular culture and the rhetoric of the government. There are jokes still circulating about how everyone from Moscow to Vladivostok had the same brand of soap (‘they called it….soap!’) and how people could very easily find an apartment in Moscow that could be mistaken for theirs in St. Petersburg. Fiction can help dismantle the myth of uniformity—a characteristic that becomes all the more important when we consider how Soviet Russia has been portrayed in the past, and how propagandistic these portrayals have been. We cannot move away from painting Russia as a perpetual enemy until we dismantle the stories of a monolithic totalitarian state bent on destruction. Fiction can add much needed nuance to portrayals of Russia and its people.
In reading Anton Chekhov’s short stories earlier this semester, I was exposed to more modes of existence in Russia than I thought there were even presently! Where humanizing history is important everywhere, its even more important for Americans to humanize Russia and to believe that life in Russia at any point was just as dynamic as life is here and now. As students of history, we cannot afford to delude ourselves and buy into exceptionalism and false notions of phantom enemies. Fiction and poetry in history classrooms might be one of the best ways for us to achieve this.