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Erotic Nihilism in Late Imperial Russia

The Case of Mikhail Artsybashev's Sanin

Otto Boele

Publication Year: 2009

Banned shortly after its publication in 1907, the Russian novel Sanin scandalized readers with the sexual exploits of its eponymous hero. Wreaking havoc on the fictional town he visits in Mikhail Artsybashev’s story, the character Sanin left an even deeper imprint on the psyche of the real-life Russian public. Soon “Saninism” became the buzzword for the perceived faults of the nation. Seen as promoting a wave of hedonistic, decadent behavior, the novel was suppressed for decades, leaving behind only the rumor of its supposedly epidemic effect on a vulnerable generation of youth.
    Who were the Saninists, and what was their “teaching” all about? Delving into police reports, newspaper clippings, and amateur plays, Otto Boele finds that Russian youth were not at all swept away by the self-indulgent lifestyle of the novel’s hero. In fact, Saninism was more smoke than fire—a figment of the public imagination triggered by anxieties about the revolution of 1905 and the twilight of the Russian empire. The reception of the novel, Boele shows, reflected much deeper worries caused by economic reforms, an increase in social mobility, and changing attitudes toward sexuality.
    Showing how literary criticism interacts with the age-old medium of rumor, Erotic Nihilism in Late Imperial Russia offers a meticulous analysis of the scandal’s coverage in the provincial press and the reactions of young people who appealed to their peers to resist the novel’s nihilistic message. By examining the complex dialogue between readers and writers, children and parents, this study provides fascinating insights into Russian culture on the eve of World War I.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I would like to thank the institutions whose financial support has made this book possible: the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Centre for International Mobility in Helsinki, the University of Groningen, and the Institute for Cultural Disciplines of the University of Leiden. ...

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A Note on Transliteration, Translation, and Dates

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pp. xiii-xiv

In the main text, I have relied on the Library of Congress system of transliteration with a few exceptions. The names of Russian rulers and well-known cultural figures are expressed in the more familiar English versions (Nicholas for Nikolai, Tolstoy for Tolstoi). In the notes I adhere strictly to the Library of Congress system (Gippius for Hippius). Dates ...

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pp. 3-26

In February 1908 Lev Tolstoy received an agitated letter from a certain Moisei Dokshitskii, the seventeen-year-old son of a watchmaker, who claimed to have fallen into a state of utter confusion after reading Mikhail Artsybashev’s novel Sanin (1907). Always striving for “inner perfection,” as he put it, Dokshitskii became convinced that the novel’s eponymous hero embodied his ideal: “[He is] the perfect man who you ...

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1. From Onegin to Bazarov: The Canon of Epoch-making Heroes

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pp. 27-50

Although Sanin has enjoyed the reputation of a pornographic potboiler, the stir it created cannot be understood properly without taking into account two other aspects that most critics found even more unnerving: the striking timing of its publication and the literary genealogy of the eponymous hero. By “timing” I mean that the novel was published at a moment that compelled readers and critics to per-...

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2. Sanin: A Hero of Our Time?

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pp. 51-75

On Sunday morning, January 9, 1905, a massive crowd of demonstrators from various parts of St. Petersburg set off in the direction of the Winter Palace with the aim of presenting the tsar with a petition. The document contained far-reaching economic and political demands, but they were formulated as a humble request in which the tsar was respectfully addressed as the “father.” To demonstrate their ...

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3. Counterliterature: The Search for Poetic Justice

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pp. 76-96

Among the many reasons for which critics and readers found fault with Artsybashev, one of the most important was his decision to end the novel with the sudden departure of his hero. Sanin leaves his hometown as unexpectedly as he arrived, even deliberately avoiding a last encounter with his family. After two suicides and one rape, this denouement was perceived as highly unsatisfactory, for it implied, in the ...

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4. The Pornographic Roman

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pp. 97-115

As I mentioned briefly in the introduction, Sanin has always enjoyed the dubious reputation of being one of the quintessentially pornographic works of Russian literature. It was not only labeled as such by many of Artsybashev’s embarrassed contemporaries, but less than a year after its serialization, it was banned for violating, among other things, the 1001st statute, popularly known as the “statute on ...

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5. Sanin and Its Readers: A Bible for an Entire Generation?

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pp. 116-142

So far, I have restricted myself to discussing the reactions of the literary establishment and the intelligentsia at large. With the exception of a few dissenting voices, an overwhelming majority of critics were appalled by the novel and vilified Artsybashev for lionizing an immoral hero or simply expressed their apprehension over the intelligentsia’s “escapist” mood, which Sanin seemed to embody. We have ...

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6. Hard-core Saninism: The Case of the Free Love Leagues

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pp. 143-169

In the summer of 1909 the town of Novokhopiorsk was up in arms. Gymnasium director Shostenko had declared the city’s only park a no-go area for his pupils. In his opinion, the presence of a booth selling alcoholic beverages and the sometimes obnoxious behavior of its clientele made the park an inappropriate location for adolescents. A group of fathers was so outraged by this decision that they sent a denuncia-...

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7. Muscles for Money: Sanin as Ex-student

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pp. 170-190

As we have seen, critics speculating on the significance of Vladimir Sanin as a contemporary type stressed the importance of his former involvement in the liberation movement. Whether he had eventually betrayed the revolution or instead represented its ultimate manifestation, opinion makers considered him a “hero of our time” because of what he was and what he had been. In other words, in order to ...

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pp. 191-194

When I had barely started my research on the myth of Saninism, an acquaintance asked me to go see some friends of hers in Moscow and present them with a copy of her recently published PhD dissertation on Marina Tsvetaeva. Although the thesis was written in Dutch and would therefore probably remain unread, I was struck by the solemnity with which the beneficiaries, three elderly women, ac-...


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pp. 195-206


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pp. 207-244


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pp. 245-255

E-ISBN-13: 9780299232733
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299232740

Page Count: 255
Publication Year: 2009