Great whimsical little piece about Russia by children’s writer Brian Doyle, editor of Portland magazine (I concur wholeheartedly about the sweet wine..):

I was at a winery the other day, high up on a sprawling hill in Oregon, on a startlingly sunny day, and got to talking to an elderly gentleman who explained that he was from Russia, and he came up to the winery on sunny days when he could, driven by his silent grinning son, because the view reminded him of the Russian countryside, which he loved and missed very much sometimes.

Though your wine here is better than ours, he continued. Much better. Our wine is not terrible, but it is almost so. You could drink it if you had nothing else. I never did like vodka. It is potato wine, essentially, which is not an appetizing idea. Russia itself is an appetizing idea that has never quite flowered. We keep getting pruned by greedy men. What is Russia like? I will tell you a story. One time a statue was being taken down. The statue was of a famous man who directed the murders of thousands of innocent people and so was of course acclaimed a hero. As the statue is coming down, the head breaks off and bounces across the street and crushes a cab with the driver inside. The headline in the paper the next day reads, WORKINGMAN SLAIN BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL. This tells you something about Russia. Russia makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. One day something is funny, and the next day the same thing is terribly sad. This is Russia. On a sunny day on a hill in the forest, there is no more beautiful place in the world. But under your feet are probably the bones of children who starved. Our very best writers tried to write everything at once. Lev Nikolayevich tried to write every moment, and Anton Pavlovich tried to write one moment that encompassed them all. This tells you something about Russia also. It is a brave and craven country at once. We are great at war and terrible at peace. We want everything, and we don’t care about anything.    continue…

And some helpful generalizations on Russia from Andrew Kaufman:

The political drama being played out right now in Russia and Ukraine, and exemplified by Putin himself, is not merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the Russian soul that has been around for centuries. And Russian literature is the place we see it in full flower. The question Putin is grappling with is the one that recurs throughout the nineteenth-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?

In thinking about this question—to the extent that he’s consciously considered it at all—Putin, whose two favorite writers happen to be Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, has two distinct traditions to choose from. He has chosen Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy.   continue…

Tolstoy wrote a list of works that influenced him most:


Childhood to the age of 14 or so

The story of Joseph from the Bible – Enormous

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman – Great

The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky – V. great

Russian byliny: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Folk Tales – Enormous

Puskin’s poems: Napoleon – Great

Age 14 to 20

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount – Enormous

Sterne’s Sentimental Journey – V. great

Rousseau Confessions – Enormous

Emile – Enormous

Nouvelle Héloise – V. great

Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin – V. great

Schiller’s Die Räuber – V. great

Gogol’s Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect – Great

“Viy” [a story by Gogol] – Enormous

Dead Souls – V. great

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches – V. great

Druzhinin’s Polinka Sachs – V. great

Grigorovich’s The Hapless Anton – V. great

Dickens’ David Copperfield – Enormous

Lermontov’s A Hero for our Time, Taman – V. great

Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico – Great

Age 20 to 35

Goethe. Hermann and Dorothea – V. great

Victor Hugo. Notre Dame de Paris – V. great

Tyutchev’s poems – Great

Koltsov’s poems – Great

The Odyssey and The Iliad (read in Russian) – Great

Fet’s poems – Great

Plato’s Phaedo and Symposium (in Cousin’s translation) – Great

Age 35 to 50

The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek) – V. great

The byliny – V. great

Victor Hugo. Les Misérables – Enormous

Xenophon’s Anabasis – V. great

Mrs. [Henry] Wood. Novels – Great

George Eliot. Novels – Great

Trollope, Novels – Great

Age 50 to 63

All the Gospels in Greek – Enormous

Book of Genesis (in Hebrew) – V. great

Henry George. Progress and Poverty – V. great

[Theodore] Parker. Discourse on religious subject – Great

[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons – Great

Feuerbach (I forget the title; work on Christianity) [“The Essence of Christianity”] – Great

Pascal’s Pensées – Enormous

Epictetus – Enormous

Confucius and Mencius – V. great

On the Buddha. Well-known Frenchman (I forget) [“Lalita Vistara”] – Enormous

Lao-Tzu. Julien [S. Julien, French translator] – Enormous