A Champion for the Bourgeoisie

A Champion for the Bourgeoisie

Mini Teaser: A fictional 19th-century detective disdains Russia's intelligentsia and preaches a bourgeois sermon on virtue and responsible citizenship to Russia's nascent middle class.

by Author(s): Leon Aron

Chkhartishvili sees his hero as an embodiment of something that "a national Russian character--for different political and historic reasons--has always lacked: honorable self-restraint, privacy and dignity." In Smert' Akhillesa ("The Death of Achilles"), a beloved general, a hero of the victorious campaign against the Ottoman Turks and a symbol of Russian military valor, is found murdered in highly compromising circumstances. The general's aide-de-camp implores Fandorin: "Promise that you will not use your detective talent to harm the motherland. Russia's honor is at stake!" Fandorin answers, "I promise that I will not do anything against my honor, and, I think, this should be enough." Not that Russia's honor did not matter to Fandorin, but to him the honor of the motherland equaled, and could not be more than, the sum total of its citizens' individual honors.

In assessing Fandorin's challenge to the intelligentsia tradition of political and social change, one cannot wish for a better witness than the writer whose name became an adjective virtually inseparable from the Russian intelligentsia. By coincidence or design, Fandorin's life and career unfolded alongside that of Chekhov.

The heart of Chekhov's discord with the intelligentsia was the same as that which animated Vekhi: he seemed to believe that the path to a happier life ran not so much (or even primarily) through external change but through the fashioning of one's own way of honorable living in the world and following it daily. "When you turn around your life, everything will change", Sasha tells Nadia Shumina in the novella Nevesta ("Bride"). "The most important thing is to turn around one's life, everything else is not important." Chekhov considered decent and productive life by individual men and women immeasurably more important for Russia's progress than the future idyll brought about by state reforms. In a letter, he wrote "I believe in individuals. I see [Russia's] salvation in individual persons."

With modernist self-consciousness suffusing Chkhartishvili's texts, it is hardly a coincidence that Fandorin's history, his habits and even his appearance seem to be modeled on Chekhov. Fandorin, like Chekhov, is sent into the world with no connections and no money and makes himself by an intense and successful deployment of willpower at the daily bettering of oneself. A son of a bankrupt shopkeeper from Taganrog who supported his family by writing stories between studying for medical school exams and attending hospital rounds, Chekhov knew firsthand the price of such effort: "incessant daily and nightly labor, constant reading . . . [and] willpower." In this work, Chekhov wrote, "every hour was precious" and was not to be wasted.

Fandorin's temperament, too, is unmistakably that of an Anton Chekhov: neither optimist nor pessimist, but a pragmatic skeptic wary of grandiose social projects and believing in a few self-made and self-policed rules of honorable living. Chkhartishvili's hero daily practices the four virtues that Chekhov seemed to consider Russia's only hope: decency, dignity, competence and hard work.

Fandorin loves his work, performs it brilliantly; he treats others according to their abilities and effort, not rank. Amid corruption, Fandorin repeatedly refuses bribes. Where rulers and ruled alike disregard laws, he is scrupulously law-abiding. Surrounded by vulgarity, he shows a refined taste.

Above all Fandorin valued individual liberty as much as did Chekhov. "There is nothing I love so much as personal freedom", Chekhov told his close friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin.

In an 1889 letter, which thus anticipated Vekhi by two decades, Chekhov makes clear (by his own and his father's life stories) that the freedom he so treasured was the product of a backbreaking and sustained personal effort to rid himself of qualities incompatible with those of the free man. His was a story of

"a young man, the son of a serf , a former shopkeeper, a chorister, a schoolboy and a university student, brought up on reverence for rank, on kissing priests' hands, on veneration of other people's thoughts, thankful for every crust of bread, flogged many times . . . who lied to God and people, lied without need, simply out of the realization of being a nobody . . . this young man is squeezing drop by drop the slave out of himself, and wakes up one fine morning and feels that it was real human blood flowing in his veins, not a slave's."

A Hero for Contemporary Russia

For almost two centuries Russian literature has anticipated and powerfully illuminated discontinuities and transformations in the nation's values and aspirations well ahead of its rulers, officials, social scientists and even its secret policemen. There are tantalizing hints in the phenomenal success of the Fandorin cycle as well.

Could millions of Russians have spent their hard-earned rubles to buy more than a clever plot, elegant style and engaging hero? Might not have they also found in the book's existential credo a usable guide to forging their way through the onrush of modernity and freedom of choice, to charting their lives amid the ruins of erstwhile moral, economic and political certainties?

Fandorin's ideals may be precisely what is required in Russia today, where personal efforts (what used to be called the "small deeds" in Chekhov's days) by millions are far more important than the feats of a few: work hard, be honest, do not take bribes, pay taxes, be creative, take risks, abide by laws and force others to do so. Most important, Fandorin's insistence on serving and assuming personal responsibility for his country is key to the emergence of a civil society, without which Russia will never become a liberal capitalist democracy.

Has Fandorin's goal of organizing the space closest to him been found consonant by the Russians responsible for the explosion of private charity, human rights groups, private funding for the arts, hundreds of new print and cyber media that spring up every year and thousands of voluntary associations? What might be called the privatization of Russian national goals is well underway. For the first time in Russian history, the very criteria of national greatness are concerned not with the glory and military might of the state but with the welfare of individual citizens. As Boris Yeltsin declared in a televised interview in mid-June 1997:

"A great power is not mountains of weapons and subjects with no rights. A great power is a self-reliant and talented people with initiative. In the foundation of our approach to the building of the Russian state . . . is the understanding that the country begins with each of us. And the sole measure of the greatness of our Motherland is the extent to which each citizen of Russia is free, healthy, educated and happy."

Might not, then, the success of the Chkhartishvili's books signal the beginning of a tectonic and, for Russia, a most benign shift from the intelligentsia--which for over two centuries were bound to the state by employment and belief in étatist approaches to social change--to a self-supporting middle class?

"Russia never had commercial literature for the middle classes--partly because it never had a middle class", Chkhartishvili told an interviewer. "We either had pulp fiction that intellectuals were embarrassed to read or high-brow literature."

Recalling Chekhov's squeezing-the-slave-out letter, Fandorin's inventor pointed out in a recent interview that ridding oneself of inner slavery was the most important result of the revolution. "We have squeezed out a lot", Chkhartishvili said. "In the past ten or 15 years, people living in this country have straightened their backs." For him, the "most precious product of this evolution" is dignity: a quality that had been "in a catastrophically short supply" throughout Russian history (he has identified its scarcity as Russia's "main problem") but is inbred in the post-Soviet generation. "These are people", Chkhartishvili says of his readers, "with an absolutely new mentality, who are used to relying on themselves, not on the government. These are people thinking big of themselves."

Suddenly, Fandorins are everywhere in Russia. The nation that for ages has told itself that it was lazy and unlucky and incapable of getting anything done right has become, among many 25 to 45 year-olds, a country of perfectionist workaholics and seekers after quality in work and life: the accountant, the software developer, the lawyer, the shop owner, the doctors in private practice, the tailor, the political consultant, the journalist, the clothes designer, the real estate agent, the restaurateur, the owner of the local newspaper or television station.

According to public opinion polls, the "main interests" of the post-Soviet middle class are family and work, while income is third and is looked at not as a main goal but a "consequence" of good work performance. They are trudogoliki, literally "laborholics", and an overwhelming majority believe that the betterment of their life depends on them, not the boss and not the authorities of all levels. A few years ago a 38 year-old entrepreneur, a regional distributor of medical supplies in the city of Voronezh, told an American reporter:

"I don't know who will be leading Russia in a year's time. But in this little place of Russia, I know what we will do. We will improve services. We will hire new people, we will improve salaries. These are our plans, and most of them are realistic. We will do what we can in our own house."

Essay Types: Book Review