The Mythologeme of Siberia : On the Concept of a Siberian Motif in Russian Literature

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  • The Mythologeme of Siberia

    On the Concept of a Siberian Motif in Russian LiteratureValerii Tiupa, Russian State University for the Humanities, MoscowTranslated from the Russian by Elena McDonnell

    This article deals with the literary image of Siberia in nineteenth- andtwentieth-century Russian literature. Siberia became more than just alocale in both Russian literature and in the public consciousness: it be-came a particular concept, a complex idea. Traditionally associated withsevere weather, long dark winters and later the proverbial place of penalservitudes, Siberia as a topos began to be unconsciously interpreted asthe mythological land of the dead. The author analyzes a wide rangeof examples from texts by Ryleev, Pushkin, Nekrasov, Dostoevsky, Tol-stoy, Chekhov, Erofeev and others, and illustrates that by placing theircharacters in Siberia, Russian writers follow the old archetypal plot ofinitiation. Surviving in Siberia is hence interpreted as coming back fromthe dead a social, psychological or emotional rebirth.

    By the nineteenth century not only was Siberia developed by the Russian Empiregeopolitically: it was also adopted in Russian culture as a particular concept.Siberia with its history of penal servitude, transit prisons, exiles, and, at thesame time, seekers of fortune (settlers) mythologized in the national perceptionand became the property of a doxa,1 a chronotopic image comprehensible to ev-erybody, of a particular expression of mans presence in the world.

    One piece of evidence that supports this is, for instance, this phrase from aprivate correspondence of the 1830s: Caucasia here in Russia is reputed worsethan Siberia. Neither in regard to climate, nor to aesthetics (in the same letterthe beauty of gloomy Caucasia surprising any ardent imagination is men-tioned) could Caucasia seem worse than Siberia. It could have been saidmeaning only one thing the mortality of this topos. In another private letter ofthe same period the author says about himself: your Melmoth is alive even inCaucasia; and further: I shall not fail to inform you about myself, whether aliveor killed. This phrase mythologically normalizes the state of death in Caucasia,as if it were the land of the dead.

    Orbis Litterarum 61:6 443460, 2006Printed in Singapore. All rights reserved

  • This comparison of Caucasia and Siberia is not accidental; it was Siberia thatacquired the characteristics and qualities of the mythological country of thedead in Russian cultural perception, from the dead commanders2 conquest ofruins of dead civilizations to the absurdist echoes of the Siberian mythologemein the prose poem Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedict Erofeev:

    A , ? , ? , . , - . , , ... , , , ? , . , . , , . ... (Erofeev 1990, p. 81)(And where is he now, your Evtushenkin?

    Who knows, where? Either in Siberia or in Central Asia. If he got to Rostov and isstill alive, that means hes somewhere in Central Asia. But if he didnt get to Rostovand died, that means hes in Siberia.

    Youre right, I backed her up, you wont die in Central Asia, its possible to livein Central Asia.

    And in Siberia?And in Siberia no, youll die. In general nobody lives in Siberia, only black people

    live there. Products are not transported in, there is nothing to drink, not to speak of ameal. Only once a year from Zhitomir, in the Ukraine, embroidered towels are broughtin and the blacks hang themselves with them.) (Erofeev 1980, 100)

    The blackness of the imaginary Siberian blacks is a manifest allusion to deadbodies that do not need any food or water, but do require ritual decoration. If thedead there continue to live, they need the systematic renewal of this decoration.

    The chronotopic image of Siberia in Russian classic literature presents it asthe land of cold, winter, night (moon) that is death in its mythological under-standing. Even though on that side of the Urals the three summer months arepredominantly very hot, in literary landscapes of Siberia summer and sun areusually ignored. At the same time Siberia is the land of uninhabited and infinite(the symbol of cosmic eternity) space. As Chekhov writes in his studies FromSiberia: - , , ,

    2 Valerii Tiupa

  • (Chekhov 1978, 36) (The fascination of the taiga lies not in gianttrees or in silence, but in the fact that perhaps the migratory birds alone knowwhere it ends; Chekhov 1969, 267.)

    However, with all its fundamental grave-like nature in the same studies weread: , , (Chekhov 1978, 19) (The Irtysh neither booms norroars, but seems to knock on the lids of coffins down at the bottom; Chekhov1969, 284) Siberia is abundantly populated by wild animals again, in FromSiberia: (Chek-hov 1978, 7) (But never in my life have I seen such an abundance of game;Chekhov 1969, 267). It is by no means an infernal chronotope of final and un-alterable death, but a place, pleasing to God, of temporary death a liminal(threshold) chronotope of mortal trial. For: , , (Chekhov1978, 28) (The Siberian highway is the longest and, it seems to me, the ugliestroad in the whole world; Chekhov 1969, 295), and , (Chekhov 1978, 29) (Everybody looks pityingly, as at a dead man; Chekhov 1969, 296) at the author who follows it.

    In ethnographical research, as is well known, the liminal phase of the initiationrite is the phase of the symbolic death of the initiated (cf. Gennep 1960) thevisit to the land of the dead, the master of which is usually a totemic animal. Itis noteworthy that Chekhov calls taiga (Chekhov 1978,36) ([a] monster of a forest; Chekhov 1969, 305). The youth who has suc-cessfully stood the trial of death, after contact with (often being devoured by)the bestial forefather (or foremother, represented in tales by Baba Yaga) comesback to life reborn into the new social status of an adult, that is a warrior, hunter,and marriageable man.

    The landscape of the marginal topos of penal servitude, exile, and life indifferent kinds of communitas, 3 with its woods and rivers making an impres-sion on any imagination (crossing a river and going deep into woods are thetraditional components of an initiation rite), and with its half-year-long winterand polar nights in northern regions, turned out to be a fertile field for actual-ization of one of the most archaic cultural models. The unique overlapping ofgeopolitical, cultural, historical, and natural factors resulted in the mythologizingof Siberia as the land of liminal half-death, which opens a problematic possibility

    The Mythologeme of Siberia in Russian Literature 3

  • of personal rebirth in new quality and the corresponding renewal of life. Thereis a remarkable supposition by Chekhov that on the banks of the Enisei , (Chekhov 1978, 35) (life began with amoan, but it will end with such prowess as we havent even dreamed of; Chek-hov 1969, 304).

    We are, of course, not talking about the Russian cultural figures, and aboveall writers, who consciously and deliberately use the mythological complex ofinitiation motifs. This mytho-poetic undertext, as any other, is a phenomenon ofthe meaning-generating mechanism of transhistoric cultural memory, an artisticform of implicit mythologism, whose prolifigacy was witnessed a number oftimes in the process of development of Russian realistic literature.4

    The text of Archpriest Avvakums Life is one of the earliest conceptualizationsof Siberia as a liminal chronotope in Russian literature. Voluntarily or not, theSiberian exile in Avvakums writings acquires some symbolic quantitative char-acteristics: ... (Zhitie 1934, 83) (So they sent me thento Siberia with my wife and children it was a journey of 3000 versts, and forsome thirteen weeks we dragged along; The Life 1963, 59). While the spatialdimension three has a positive sacred connotation, the temporal dimensionthirteen (characterizing the human actions) has a negative, demonic one. Sentfrom Tobolsk to the Lena and setting his hopes for Christ (whose death andresurrection are analogous to the initiation rite), Avvakum says: ... (Zhitie 1934, 86) (I confi-dently await His mercy and I believe in the Resurrection from the dead; TheLife 1963, 63). The hardships of the coming Christ-like initiation (the ones whoare punished become Gods sons as opposed to bastards) are foreshadowed:... (Zhitie1934, 89) (We must, through much tribulation, enter the Kingdom of God; TheLife 1963, 67).

    The factology of Avvakums own real sufferings is abundant in the symbolismof the rite of passage:

    , , ... . , ... ... ... , . , ...

    4 Valerii Tiupa

  • ... ; . (Zhitie 1934, 9091)(Then my bones began to ache, my veins to grow rigid, my heart to palpitate, verily,I was dying In the morning they flung me on to a small craft5 and carried me away.Then we came to the great rapids6 of the Padun7. They brought me into the rapids the water flowed over my belly and my spine.8 They took me out of the raft and,skirting the rapids, they dragged me over the stones in fetters.9 Verily I was in a sadplight, but with my soul it was well.10 And after that they brought me to the fortressof Bratsky.11 And there I lay till Advent,12 in a freezing tower; these are the seasonswhen winter reigns.) (The Life 1963, 6869)

    At the end of his sufferings in Siberia Avvakum exclaims: , ! , (Zhitie 1934, 98) (Now glory toChrist! Even if you die the minute after, it will be well with you; The Life 1963,7879). For this kind of (Siberian) death promises or even guarantees the res-urrection.

    The mythologizing of Siberia as a liminal space in Russian culture was finallyaccomplished thanks to the Decembrists cond