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  • Nationalizing Sacher-Masoch: A Curious Case of Cultural Reception in Russia and Ukraine
  • Vitaly Chernetsky (bio)

Few writers can rival Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in the degree of notoriety that has accompanied his name. To an even greater degree than the Marquis de Sade, Sacher-Masoch’s legacy is inextricably bound with the psychosexual condition that has received a designation derived from his surname. For more than a century now, the overwhelming majority of Sacher-Masoch’s readers, especially in the West, have been primarily attracted to the depiction of unorthodox sexual practices that frequently appear on the pages of his texts. As Fernanda Savage noted in the introduction to her 1921 English translation of what is probably the writer’s best-known work, Venus im Pelz (1870) [Venus in Furs], “Sacher-Masoch was the poet of the anomaly now generally known as masochism. By this is meant the desire on the part of the individual affected of desiring himself completely and unconditionally subject to the will of [another] person . . . and being treated by this person as by a master, to be humiliated, abused, and tormented, even to the verge of death. This motive is treated in all its innumerable variations.”1 The readers who associate the writer’s name exclusively with the themes of erotic gratification linked to the experience of submission to the will of another person, and even those who are more attracted to the non-psychoanalytic view of the writing of Sade and Sacher-Masoch as part of a discourse of political freedom and slavery in which philosophy and sexually explicit narrative frequently overlap, might be surprised to learn that there were historical periods and national cultures that saw Sacher-Masoch very differently—as a realist-leaning author notable first and foremost for bringing little-known ethnographic facts to the broader reading public.2 Moreover, this approach to the writer’s work at times made it possible for readers to accept these very psychosexual practices featured in Sacher-Masoch’s writings as an essential part of the project of ethnographic [End Page 471] realism, and therefore, as “truth.” Two such national cultures, those of Russia and Ukraine, offer a fascinating cautionary tale of spirited attempts to claim Sacher-Masoch and his characters as “real” and “their own.”

In the opening lines of his 1967 study Coldness and Cruelty that has been widely credited with restarting academic interest in the literary legacy of Sacher-Masoch, Gilles Deleuze asks, “What are the uses of literature?”3 However, for all the insights contained in Deleuze’s book, this particular question remains a rhetorical one in his text. In this essay I offer an attempt to investigate an answer to this question—specifically, as it addresses the work and legacy of Sacher-Masoch—in Russia and Ukraine, two countries that have in recent years witnessed an unprecedented resurgence of attention to, and a proliferation of uses of, Sacher-Masoch’s legacy as a writer and public figure.

The interest in Sacher-Masoch in Ukraine would appear more logical: after all, L′ viv (a.k.a. Lwów, a.k.a. Lemberg), the city where he was born in 1836, and Eastern Galicia, the area surrounding his home city where most of his texts are set, are now part of Ukraine. However uncomfortable the associations most people have with his name, Sacher-Masoch is among Galicia’s best known sons. As I hope to demonstrate below, in Ukraine, the projects drawing on the legacy of Sacher-Masoch, ranging from scholarly to subversive, can be characterized as creative and critically informed, even if consistently generating controversy.

In contrast, the twists and turns of the interest in Sacher-Masoch in Russia, with extremely few exceptions, have taken an increasingly bizarre trajectory, producing a peculiar amalgam of aggressive imperialist mythmak-ing, along with a blindness to and disavowal of a wide range of features of his work that is staggering and might indeed be labeled “perverse.” In the guise of scholarly “expert discourse,” his texts have been frequently put to a highly selective and manipulative use that, to paraphrase Deleuze, might require both critical and clinical attention.4 Naturally, it would be well-nigh...