Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hatred of Sex as the Guiding Principle of Russian Literature

God, I'm happy I recovered this post. (The post on Norway will have to wait for now, since I need to go look for the pictures I used in it once again.)

I almost never read anything by the Russian authors any more. Russian literature has not been able to recover from the political, ideological, and artistic constraints imposed on it in 1934. When literature is not allowed to develop naturally, it withers away and dies. And this is exactly what happened to literature written in Russian. I have tried for years to find good Russian writers but they don't seemk to exist any more.

This is why I was happy when my favorite Times Literary Supplement published a long review of Kamennyi most by a writer named Terekhov. I immediately bought this huge 800+ volume and started reading it. Of course, as was to be expected, I discovereed some really bad writing, a complete incapacity of the author to use his own language correctly, and a boring attempt to imitate Western authors in a very clumsy manner.

However, buying and reading this book was not a total waste. It helped me realize that the guiding principle of the Russian prose writing by men is hatred of and disgust with sex. (Until well into the XXth century there were no well-known female prose writers in Russia, which has always been a profoundly patriarchal society. So there is no literary tradition to speak of in the case of Russian female novelists, and I don't know if my argument would apply).

The main character of Kamennyi most (in Russian) has a lot of sex with a lot of women. His descriptions of these sex acts are filled with so much hatred and disgust that they are impossible to translate. I tried to think of translations for them but in vain. I simply don't know any words in English that would transmit the same emotional charge.

For anybody who read the XIX century Russian novelists, however, this is not surprising. The same hatred of human sexuality informs Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, Chekhov's The Duel, pretty much all works by Dostoyevsky. The list can go on ad infinitum. There is no way anybody can understand why the protagonist of Terekhov's latest novel hates sex so much, unless one has read his literary precursors.

So if anybody is looking for a doctoral dissertation topic in Slavic Studies, feel free to use this one.


NancyP said...

Would that anti-sex attitude in the 19th century novels be due to the influence of the state Orthodox Church?

V said...

Of course it is related to the church. But definitely not limited to it. My impression is that Russian society just has (OK, had, I did not have contact with it for a while) more hatred "in the air" than you typically encounter in North America. Not only towards sex or towards women - towards pretty much everything: differences, freedoms... I mean not so much political freedoms, I mean freedom of expression, freedom to be oneself.

It is one of those chicken and egg questions - was church the force which shaped Russians this way, or did they develop particular brand of Christianity because it fits their history (serfdom until the mid-19th century, then communist rule since 1917) and national character (collectivist, compared to Western average)

Богдан said...

Я абсолютно не є прихильником російської літератури, але мені досить дивно чути про ненависть до сексу щодо країни Катерини ІІ та Распутіна. Мені здається такий підхід дещо поверховим. У Росії, з 18 сторічча була легалізована проституція, заборона якої відбулась лише із перемогою більшовиків. Дивно й чути дорікання у нелюбові до сексу Л.Толстого, який народив 13 дітей!
Мені здається, що названі вами автори намагалися піднімати проблему аморальності і бездуховності сексу без кохання, а це дещо інше...

Clarissa said...

The characters of these authors keep having lots of sex and then keep hating themselves and their partners for doing it. :-) Weird, I know.

Clarissa said...

V.: A "national characters" does not exist. It is an ideological construct which started being created in the XVIII century.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Regarding nineteenth-century literature, however, hatred of sex is pretty much everywhere. In fact, I wonder if what you seem to define as a characteristic of Russian literature is not a characteristic of other literatures in the West.
If we are talking about a specific hatred of sex in Russian literature during the last century (not to talk about movies!), then maybe it has to do with totalitarianism.

Why don't you develop a comparative project on that? With former fascist countries like Spain for example? This is a topic that goes beyond Slavic Studies.


cringe-all said...

Of course people were more uptight in the 19th century and the feminist movement was yet to come about, remember? I don't see sex being celebrated in Victorian literature either. Although I don't read Russian, I've read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in translation, and do not share your perception.

Clarissa said...

I was mostly basing my analysis on a review of a book that came out a couple of years ago. And I'm not talking about "being uptight." I'm talking about hatred and disgust. An example: when the main character has an orgasm, he describes it as "a puddle of dirty grey mucus that came out of me."

cringe-all said...

Thank you, Clarissa, for your note. I haven't read the book in question, and don't think I will after your rave review. :) I was more concerned with your take on 19th century stuff, and generalizations on Russian society and literature. Have you read Tolsoy's "Father Sergius" ( I did find that one very misogynistic.

Clarissa said...

You are absolutely right, Tolstoy's misogyny is scary. He had a very sad personal life, so maybe that's why he disliked women so much. There are rumors that his wife abused him.

paul said...


Might I suggest you keep an eye out for a book we have coming out this fall, "Fish: A History of One Migration." It is a novel told in the first person by a Russian everywoman, and it was written by a man, the amazingly eloquent writer Peter Aleshkovsky. The Russian edition was shortlisted for a Booker a few years ago.

For more info on Peter and the book, you can visit his website:


Paul Richardson

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Paul. I'll check it out and possibly write a review of it here.