It’s official, I’m now into the twentieth century with my Russian Reading, having finished ‘The Duel’ by Kuprin. ‘The Duel’ was published in 1905, and, as I’d only read one of Chekhov’s post 1900 stories, this feels like a good place for me to take stock of my first century of Russian Literature.
The problem is that this would be a silly label to apply, history does not fit itself into boxes and the best way to divide Russian Lit is not by century, but into pre-1917 or post-1917. As the romantic, chivalrous and traditional title of Kurpin’s story suggests, he’s definitely pre, thematically as well as historically. There was, in fact, a 1905 revolution in Russia, complete with strikes and mutinies and leading to major political reform. In 1906, a new constitution was enacted in which Tzar Nicholas II agreed to share power with the parliament … but Kuprin’s narrative takes place in a military camp and is far removed from these conflicts.
Actually, during the project, I’ve realised how narrow (and poor) my general historical knowledge is. If I was reading a book set in 1915 I’d, of course, be expecting some reference to a major world event, but there are very few dates I can do this with. It took a fair amount of research before I realised that the First World War wasn’t really the defining war for the Russians that it is for Western Europeans. They’d only just lost the Russo-Japanese war after all, and so mass mobilisation and industrial-age warfare was actually nothing new.
With that in mind, Kuprin’s criticisms of the military in ‘The Duel’ are timely and heart-felt. Nonetheless, he is clearly writing in the tradition of the Russian greats who came before him and so at this distance he doesn’t seem to be that original. I’m pleased to have read the book and to have spent a bit more time in a world in which there may be protests, but there are also certainties. Still, 1917 is not far away now, and it’s going to be exciting to see how the next writers on my list respond to the challenges of a changing Russia.
I’ve written a more complete review of ‘The Duel’ on my ‘Kuprin‘ page under my Russian Reading project.