- Making Sense of Exile:Russian Literary Life in Paris as a Cultural Construct, 1920–40
The importance that Russian émigrés attributed to literary expression as a medium for cultural preservation makes their writings a fruitful case for the study of cultural modeling. Émigré literature cannot be comprehended by an immanent analysis that disregards its historical context. The view of culture as a control mechanism for organizing and preserving information (Clifford Geertz) presupposes the existence of a system of rules by which human experience is translated into culture or text. Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii consider this system of rules as the language of culture, which helps describe experience through a selective process that singles out particularly significant facts and creates what Paul Ricoeur calls "ideal models" for social phenomena.1 These models inform experience with meaning and evolve to reflect the changes in their creators' circumstances. A product of selective interpretation, the meaning bestowed upon social phenomena may not coincide with the logical intentions of the original actors. Giving meaning to exile, Russian expatriates created ideal models of the Russian, French, and Soviet literary traditions and writers; of literary activity in exile; and of its cultural mission. These models defined the thematic scope and aesthetic peculiarities of émigré writing in the triangular equilibrium of émigré, French, and Soviet literatures. The evolution of the ideal model of literary activity in emigration constitutes the backbone of the history of Russian émigré literature. The present article will examine the ways in which émigré literati gave meaning to their exilic experience, focusing on the relation between literary events (works or meaningful deeds) and their interpretation from the vantage point of the émigré ideal models.
To be sure, in speaking about Russian literary life abroad, one must distinguish between "Russian literature in exile" and "Russian émigré literature." Russian émigré literature is the sole subject of the present study. Russian literature in [End Page 489] exile thrived in Berlin as early as 1920 and antedated émigré literature, whose appearance around 1925 may be ascribed to several events, of which the most important was the consolidation of Soviet rule. By 1925, it became clear that the new order in Russia was a long-term phenomenon. This evolution in the political situation urged exiled writers to define their position regarding the Soviet regime and to come to terms with the possibility of indefinite expatriation. The need for self-definition grew sharper in the literary diaspora inasmuch as artistic expression in the USSR came under ever-greater ideological pressure.2 The steady abatement of Russian literary life in Berlin throughout 1923–24, the mass migration of future "émigrés" to Paris, and the return of future "Soviet" writers to the USSR marked the birth of Russian émigré literature and its opposition to Russian Soviet letters. As Paris replaced Berlin, every émigré literary event was informed by the triangular aesthetic opposition of émigré, French, and Soviet letters.
"Russian" and "French"
By virtue of its concentration in Paris, émigré literary life developed in close connection with French literature. The centuries-long prestige of French culture determined in more than one way the interpretation of Russia's revolutionary experience, viewed through the prism of the French Revolution of 1789 and its repercussions – civil war, emigration, Jacobin terror, political Thermidor, and so forth.3 The very appellation "émigré" (emigrant) harked to the French emigration, which produced Mme de Staël's Letters from Germany, Chateaubriand's René and Mémoires d'outre-tombe, and Senancour's Obermann. Incidentally, the Soviet regime also accepted the term "émigré" as valid in Russia's post-1917 situation. [End Page 490]
From the beginning of Russian literary life in France, exiled literati distinguished the formal mastery of French writers from the lack of technical skill among the Russians, whose "traditional" sincerity, psychological depth, and humanism contrasted with "French" artificiality, aesthetic superficiality, and formalism.4 Kirill Zaitsev criticized André Gide's novel Les Faux-Monnayeurs because its "French intellect and eloquence" concealed indifference to things spiritual. He contrasted Dostoevskii's moralistic stance to Gide's "refinement at the expense of spirituality." Ivan Shmelev found that Marcel Proust could not satiate exigent spirit, citing Dostoevskii...