Review: Hokanson, Katya. «Writing at Russia's Border»

Katya Hokanson. Writing at Russia’s Border. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. x + 301 pp. ISBN 978-0-8020-9306-6. Cloth.


In this well researched monograph, Katya Hokanson explores the formative role played by the southern reaches of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, arguing, in an introduction, five chapters, and brief conclusion, that “peripheral areas, as sites of ongoing reconstitution of Russia’s imperial, cultural, and military identity, […] served as a catalyst to the creation of Russian national culture and literature” (20). Her de­tailed close readings of works by Pushkin, Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Lermontov, and Tolstoy—all of whom had either been sent south by the government or lived there in self-imposed exile—provide a chronological assessment of the cardinal texts in Russia’s nineteenth-century literature of the southern border. As she concludes: “it seems that the [Russian] writer needs the other to write a Russian national story. […] Hence many texts that we think of as being untouched by concerns outside the metropole are actually heavily informed by periphery” (19).

Hokanson’s introduction debunks the widespread nineteenth-century view—shared by the Marquis de Custine, Chaadaev, Gogol´, and Mickiewicz—that Russia was a country without a history, where “the landscape, even the very faces of the Russian people, lie open and empty, awaiting the lines of a historian, the stamp of history” (5). To the contrary, Hokanson argues, Karamzin’s sweeping History of the Russian State had already shown that great historical importance could be found on Russia’s vast and often featureless steppe amid its numerous peasant huts (10).

The book’s first chapter focuses on The Captive of the Caucasus, in which “Pushkin was expecting (and creating) a reader who viewed Russia as a land with a long and complex history, of which the story to be told formed only one chapter” (44). Articulating numerous issues that would eventually coalesce in the Russians’ image of their literature and country, Pushkin championed Russia’s cultural superiority and impending military victory in the Caucasus; sounded the theme of subject peoples struggling for independence; discovered his muse in the Caucasus and, associating the area with ancient Greece, invited readers to see Beshtu as the new Parnassus and himself as the new Homer; and, through references to the poetry of Zhukovsky, Voeikov, and Batiushkov, “challenge[d] the discourse of the ‘centre’ by using ‘Kavkazskii plennik’ as a framework to display both beautiful descriptive passages and elegiac monologues” (45). Pushkin also expanded the vital concept of narodnost´ (national character) in literature by incorporating non-Russian peoples, customs, and locales into his poema.

In chapter 2, Hokanson thoughtfully analyzes The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, making the case that this poema’s emphasis on non-Russian and female characters “create[d] entirely new possibilities for Russian literature and for the topics that [it could] address” (77). Unfortunately, her analysis of The Gypsies in this same chapter is too brief to add much to this argument. In chapter 3’s analysis of Eugene Onegin (including the expunged stanzas of “Onegin’s Journey”) and “A Journey to Arzrum,” Hokanson focuses on how “Pushkin correlates literary development to the ongoing tension between centre and periphery” (108). Although her chapter-by-chapter treatment of Onegin is not the most illuminating approach, she does some of her best investigative work by using clues gleaned from “Onegin’s Journey” and “Journey to Arzrum” to conclude that “Eugene Onegin should be read as a text that owes much to Russia’s margins, both provincial and imperial, and whose denouement [Onegin’s receptivity to love] can be far better understood in light of the residue of Onegin’s off­stage transformation in the Caucasus” (145).

Chapters 4 (Ammalat-bek and A Hero of Our Time) and 5 (The Cossacks) chronicle later stages in Russia’s involvement in the Caucasus. In Ammalat-bek,the goals of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky’s hero Verkhovsky mark a more reflective assessment of Russia’s imperial strategies. As an officer at the front in correspondence with the capital, he strives to assimilate the other “into the fold of benevolent Russian imperial harmony in diversity” (182) and “to make Russian policy in the Caucasus understandable on a human scale” (185). His death at the hands of the Dagestani warrior Ammalat makes clear, however, that Russia’s cultural border to the south is not infinitely permeable and that the lands beyond it may respond better to forcible control than benign incorporation into a greater Russia. In effect, this is also the lesson to be learned from Lermontov’s Maksim Maksimych, whom Hokanson labels “a kind of midwife of imperialist expansion” (174).

The fifth and final chapter analyzes The Cossacks, which was published over twenty years after the other works treated here. In the interim, the Russians’ world had changed dramatically, and Hokanson does a fine job framing the cultural-historical context for Tolstoy’s parody of the earlier Caucasian tales. As he wrote The Cossacks (1852–63), Russians grappled with numerous issues that were profoundly shaping their national identity, including the failed revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, and the emancipation of the serfs. From a new historical perspective, Tolstoi “defamiliarize[d] narodnost´, portraying the Russian Cossacks as unfamiliar and unassimilable, yet intimately tied to Russian history and identity. The Russian self is the terra incognita, territory to be travelled and discovered” (198). While Tolstoy underscores the distance between his protagonist Olenin’s starry-eyed visions of the south and the narrator’s more circumspect worldview, Olenin also shows the ability to grow—his story is a type of Bildungsroman—and, by implication, so does Russian literature and, perhaps, the Russian nation as well.

Writing at Russia’s Border has much to recommend it, but several structural and stylistic shortcomings also make it a challenging read at times. On one hand, Hokanson’s introduction sets the stage for her study admirably, the chronological treatment of texts suits her argument, and her pithy conclusion effectively sums up the body of the monograph. Numerous quotations from her appended translation of The Captive of the Caucasus meld smoothly with her analysis, and Hokanson is at her best when exercising her formidable talents as a close reader of literature, as her interpretations of black bread (155) and the exotic hat and painted nails of a Persian traveler (156–57) in “Journey to Arzrum” clearly attest. On the other hand, the text is marred by numerous typographical errors and a tendency to repeat often long passages of quoted material (compare, for example, pages 48–49 and 52, 58–59 and 61–62, 47–48 and 68–69, 139–40 and 153–54). In addition, there is a tendency to leave individual chapters and subsections without suitable conclusions (e.g. 168–69, 189), and at least two passages in the introduction are so compressed as to be misleading. The statement “St. Petersburg, a neoclassical European city sprung full grown from Peter the Great’s imagination” (4), conflates decades, even a century, of development, and the comment that “Russia, at a sensitive point soon after the impressive defeat of Napoleon, sought to create itself as European” (9) masks the significant progress that had been made in this direction since the late seventeenth century. Although Russian scholars can negotiate this historical shorthand without difficulty, it could give the wrong impression to those unfamiliar with modern Russian history. And that would be a shame, for this treatise on the development of Russian literature and national identity in the nineteenth century should appeal to specialists in history, literature, and cultural studies both within and outside the field of Russian.


David Gasperetti
University of Notre Dame