A Chat with Vadim Shneyder about Russia’s Capitalist Realism

This week NADS President Kate Holland sat down with Vadim Shneyder to talk about his newly published book, Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.

KH: Congratulations on the publication of your book! Tell us a little about the book’s premise. What questions does it pose and how does it go about answering them?

VS: Thank you, Kate! The book’s basic premise is quite simple: nineteenth-century Russian realist literature grappled intensely with how to make sense of a world that was being transformed by the economic and social forces that we today call capitalism. The Russian Empire in the decades after 1861 (when the slow, complicated process of emancipating the empire’s tens of millions of serfs began) experienced the same phenomena—urban migration, industrialization, the growth of railroad and banking industries—that are familiar from accounts of the industrial revolution in the West. The questions the book asks all stem from this. How did Russian realist writers respond to these changes? How do their responses compare to those we find in Western literatures—particularly British, French, and American—and in other genres of writing in nineteenth-century Russia, including journalism, social criticism, and scholarship? How did developments like industrialization, the growth of the money economy, and the increasing importance of abstract economic forces shape the narratives of Russian novels and stories? What kinds of formal innovations, what kinds of new techniques of narration and description, did writers have to develop to grapple with these phenomena? How might the Russian realist tradition have helped people to imagine what it means to live in an economy—a system of invisible economic connections that shape both individual fortunes and the material world that people inhabit?

My strategy for trying to answer these questions relies in part on contextualizing the realist classics in a particular way. I read them alongside the many other genres of writing that made up public discourse in Russia at the time and which also grappled with the meaning of economic transformation, as well as numerous lesser-known contemporary novelists. With that context in mind, I then returned to the classics. When I read novels like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with these economic matters in mind, I was amazed at what I noticed for the first time. Certain famous scenes made sense in an entirely different way. In other cases, marginal characters and peripheral episodes suddenly took on much greater significance. What this experienced confirmed was my impression that these novels were marvelously sensitive and responsive to their times, but that the responses often came not so much as explicit commentary on some issue, but in moments that initially struck me as difficult or strange or boring. Why does Anna Karenina devote endless pages to the discussion of farming? Why does everything in The Brothers Karamazov cost exactly three thousand rubles?

KH: I was fascinated by the story you tell in the introduction about the book’s inception and historical timing. Tell us a little about how you came to write the book.

VS: This thing called “the economy” has been on my mind for many years. My scholarly career has been punctuated by economic crises. I was approaching the end of my undergraduate years when the 2008 financial crisis took place. Twelve year later, as the book is coming out, the world is once again in a severe recession. Politicians have been talking about the need to make sacrifices—including sacrifices of human lives—for the economy. But what does that mean? What is the economy? How is people’s material welfare connected to the numbers that scroll across the bottom of the television screen during the evening news? Questions about how people have made sense of economic forces—how they have made economic abstractions comprehensible, narratable, thinkable—lie at the heart of my project. I wanted to look at a period when the idea that there is such a thing as a national economy, extending far beyond the boundaries of anyone’s community, became necessary for making sense of life, but before we learned to take the economy’s existence for granted.

That said, I didn’t initially recognize that Russian literature of the second half of the nineteenth century had much to say about all this. I was studying for my qualifying exams and reading a lot of the realist classics. It was The Brothers Karamazov in particular that struck me with its veritable obsession with sums of money and the language of indebtedness. What was this all about? The novel captured my attention, but it seemed so archaic, so distant from the standard nineteenth-century realism of the big cities and the modern world, like the works of Dickens or Balzac, that I didn’t quite know what to do with Dostoevsky’s novel. But once I started paying attention to Russian literature’s interest in money, I began to see more and more of it. And as I read more widely, I began to see two things—one, that the Russian realist tradition was profoundly interested in economic matters, not just money, but commerce more broadly, economic calculation, industry, and many other things, and two, that in this respect, while the Russian tradition wasn’t identical to the European realisms, it was engaged in a comparable kind of inquiry into what it meant to live in, and write about, a world shaped by economic forces. In the end, nineteenth-century Russian literature illuminated these vague questions about twenty-first-century economic life that I had been living with, while those twenty-first-century questions encouraged me to look at nineteenth-century literature in a different way.

KH: In examining the economic background of classic Russian novels and the ways they engage with that background, you seem to be going against the strong critical legacy that sees those novels as expressing timeless truths. Is that the case? What is the payoff in examining these works in the particular context of their historical moment? How does it contribute to a renewed understanding of these works? For instance, how do such questions help us understand Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, two of the central novels you examine.

VS: This book is historicist at its core. I am interested in the relationship of Russian literature to historical time—to the ways that realist novels conceived of their present and imagined the future, the ways that they struggled to articulate concepts that did not yet exist, but for which many people felt a clear need. In these respects, I do think that my book takes a different path than those interpretations of Russian literature that emphasize its timeless qualities. Art serves many different needs. One of those needs that I am particularly interested in is how art helps people make sense of what seems unprecedented about their own times, how it helps people feel a little bit less lost in their present. One of the payoffs of this approach is simply to accumulate knowledge about what the past was like and how the it differed from our present. The past is a vast repository of alternatives, and those alternatives can teach us about ourselves: things have not always been as they are now, and they can be different in the future. But that is a relatively timeless truth, I think.

One of the advantages of this approach is that it can renew our appreciation of the classics. As I said above, some of the passages and episodes that turned out most important for my argument are difficult or strange or somehow artistically unsatisfactory. If we focus on the eternal truths, then asides about banknotes or debates about how to calculate the value of a plot of land come to seem like mere ephemera, chaff to be discarded when we have extracted the kernel of wisdom from the work. I would suggest that every word of an older work of literature holds the potential for new discoveries and that the more resistant a passage is to our understanding, the more likely it is that it can teach us something unexpected.

KH: As well as dealing with major writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, your book also deals with lesser-known Russian novelists. Tell us about one of these writers you found particularly helpful in elucidating the particular “symbolic economy” of Russia’s transition to capitalism.

VS: Of the lesser-known writes whom I discuss in the book, the one who strikes me as particularly remarkable is Petr Dmitrievich Boborykin. He was an extraordinarily productive writer—so much so that he was regularly ridiculed for writing too much and for being too responsive to unfolding events. He was a novelist, dramaturge, theater critic and theorist, essayist, literary scholar, journalist, journal editor, and memoirist, who was active from the late 1850s until the second decade of the twentieth century. Boborykin wrote at times with a great deal more admiration for the emerging capitalist elite than any of the Russian novelists we continue to read today. He is one of the few Russian writers who seems to admire the transformative energy of capitalism rather than just lamenting what is being lost. He was also a naturalist writer—and a big admirer of Émile Zola—and critics have attacked him for the kinds of excessive and narratively pointless descriptions that Georg Lukács, for example, found so unsatisfactory in Zola’s own novels. It is these descriptive passages—for example, in the opening and closing chapters of his best-known novel, Kitai-Gorod of 1882—that give us a picture of Russia’s economic transformation like no other. Boborykin’s Moscow is exploding with newfound economic energy. Goods flow in from across the world, while money seems to waft through the city’s air. The narrator of the novel is evidently utterly fascinated by the endless procession of carts laden with every variety of commodity. It is a view of Russia that one never gets from the classics, a view that emphasizes its convergence with the West rather than its essential difference. Many Russian writers were deeply concerned by the capitalist future, and this anticipatory anxiety fueled their narrative investigations into what that future would be like. Boborykin thought the future had already come, both to the bustling streets of Moscow and to more provincial locations, such as the industrial town of Ivanovo, which he calls the “Russian Sheffield” in one of his articles.

KH: Your book has a special take on the eternal Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky debate. What can you tell us about the difference between how Russia’s economic development is represented in Dostoevsky’s novels versus in Tolstoy’s?

VS: Thank you for this question! I didn’t think that I was taking part in this long conversation, but now I realize that I am. This makes me think, for example, of the famous distinction, belonging to the symbolist Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, between Dostoevsky as the “seer of the spirit” and Tolstoy as the “seer of the flesh.” Dostoevsky’s novels have struck many readers as somehow immaterial. Characters talk endlessly, and the narrator give us abundant insight into their inner experience, but we often have only the faintest idea what they look like. Their physical and environmental setting is often sketched out with just a few telling details—a technique that encourages comparisons of Dostoevsky’s novels to dramas. Tolstoy’s works, on the other hand, abound in rich empirical detail. His characters are firmly planted in the physical world, and their inner states are often linked to bodily experiences. There is an echo of this distinction in my book, where Dostoevsky’s novels The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov devote considerable attention to money in all its slippages between concreteness and abstraction. Dostoevsky’s writing seems particularly well suited to the investigation of money because it so rapidly shifts between registers: at one moment, we are dealing with the most particular transaction involving a specific (typically tiny) sum of money and some trifling commodity. At another, we read an interpretation of the Book of Job in which a quasi-monetary logic of recompense prevails. I argue that there are many kinds of money in Dostoevsky’s novels, and I think that the very sketchiness of his descriptions makes it easier for money to carry on its movements and phase changes. It would be absurd for everything in a Tolstoy novel to have the same three-thousand-ruble price or for a bundle of cash to remain undamaged in a blazing fireplace. In Dostoevsky, this lack of precision with respect to real life and empirical detail strikes me not as sloppiness or incompetence, but as an expression of his tendency to allegorize—which works quite well for making the transformations of money narratable.

On the other hand, the intensively rendered empirical detail of Tolstoy’s fiction creates a space for physical labor that would be impossible in Dostoevsky. I devote a lot of space to a discussion of the mowing scene in Anna Karenina. I think that no other writer could render agricultural labor with such vividness. But what is important for my argument in that chapter is that the whole point of writing about the physical sensations of mowing a field is that this way of life—both as a set of social relations and a particular mode of attention to the human body in its natural setting—is in a state of historical transition. Levin pays such impassioned attention to mowing because the ancient agricultural way of life is under assault. In a modern world where nobles are either desperately selling off their lands to escape debts, like Stiva, or careening through life in a state of physical and emotional overstimulation like Anna on the train, the natural rhythms of agricultural labor will become inaccessible to the kinds of people who read and write novels. Tolstoy’s famous corporeality is linked—at times, I would argue, dependent upon—the way of life of the old Russian nobility, including its ways of owning and managing property. Levin lavishes attention on the land and the peasants because he sees himself as their steward, and he worries that the nobility’s sacred role is slipping into obsolescence.

KH: The final chapter of your book deals with Chekhov, beginning with his powerful account of a changing historical order, The Cherry Orchard. How does Chekhov’s representation of capitalism round out your story? Does Chekhov’s representation of capitalism have anything to tell us about our own times?

VS: What fascinates me in Chekhov’s response to all this is that his works deal more explicitly with the world of factories and big business than any of the earlier writers, and yet, the result is somehow that these things seem even harder to grasp. The earlier writers were mostly concerned with anticipations of the future; by Chekhov’s time that future of industrialization and the money economy had arrived. I argue in my last chapter that, while Chekhov makes businesspeople protagonists in his stories, bringing them out of the narrative shadows where they had dwelled for decades, but he does not take their businesses with them. Factory owners are afraid of their own factories. A man who runs a warehouse avoids going inside it, does not know how it is run, and is baffled to learn that his business is bringing in an ever-growing profit while nobody tends to it. Chekhov does not attempt to map out the economic system or explain how it works. His concern is with the sheer strangeness of these systems and forces that humans have made, but which now seem to have escaped human agency. There is something strikingly relevant in this perspective for our times, in which we might struggle to understand how a tech company can be worth as much money as the GDP of a small country or how collateralized debt obligations helped plunge the world into a financial crisis. A work of literature from 130 years ago can remind a contemporary reader that this uncomfortable feeling of being at the mercy of mysterious forces has been with us for a long time. In the face of such forces, there is little room for individual agency. In the end, Chekhov’s confused capitalists might convince us that there is something wrong with this situation, where we are at the mercy of the stock market as if it were an earthquake or a hurricane.


Vadim Shneyder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. His first monograph, Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, was published this month by Northwestern University Press. Vadim is the Secretary-Treasurer of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

This interview has been translated into Chinese by Tianxiang Chen and is available here.

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