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Putin Proposes a New Russian Great Books Program

The 100-book required reading list is to be compiled by Russia’s “most influential cultural figures.”

By Dennis Abrams

Late last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, perhaps better known for his judo skills than his literary tastes, laid out plans to compile a canon of 100 Russian books, “that every Russian school leaver will be required to read” in an attempt to preserve the “dominance of Russian culture.”

Get Caught Reading Russian

In a more than 4,500-word article in Russia’s Nezavismaya Gazeta newspaper, the Russian prime minister, currently running for a third time as president, wrote that “in the 1920s, some leading universities in the United States advocated something referred to as the Western Canon, a canon of books regarded as the most important influential in shaping Western culture,” adding that “each self-respecting student was required to read 100 books from a specially compiled list of the greatest books of the Western world.”

Proclaiming that Russia has “always been described as a ‘reading nation,’” Putin proposed taking a survey of the country’s “most influential cultural figures” and the compilation of “a 100 book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read – that is, to read at home rather than study in class or memorize. And then they would be asked to write an essay on one of them in their final exams. Or at least let us give young Russians a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and world outlook in various competitions.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, even though the list is still to be compiled, there is opposition to Putin’s plans. Journalist Alexander Nazarayan, currently writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York, called Putin’s announcement a “cultural-unity-through-literature proposal” and proclaimed it the Russian leader’s “most chilling [plan] of all.”

“Social engineering through state mandated literature: Nothing else that Putin has done has been quite so nakedly Soviet in its desire to manipulate the human intellect into docility,” is quoted as saying in The Guardian, predicting that “the books that will benefit from cultural policy will almost certainly be Soviet-era schlock churned out by Writers’ Union foot soldiers who glorified their compatriots’ miserable existence.”

Similar projects have been instituted around the world by other political leaders, including Hugo Chavez, who developed a “revolutionary reading plan.” Some see them as a boon to the book business, while others deride them as propaganda of the state.

Whether Putin’s selections will be featured at the specialist Russian bookshop scheduled to open in Waterstones’ Piccadilly branch is a question still left unanswered.

DISCUSS: National Reading Programs, Boon to Publishing or Agitprop?

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  1. Posted February 14, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    The Western Canon, one would assume, was made up of “classics” originally written in different languages such as Greek, Latin, German, etc.

    It seems — the text above is not perfectly clear — that Putin’s “classics” were all originally written in Russian and, one would assume, largely by persons educated in Russian language and thought.

    Putin’s approach is sadly limited…

  2. Posted February 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    It is highly unlikely that Putin will mandate a diet of pure Sotsrealism in his proposed canon, pace Nazarayan, as it was under Putin and Medvedev that Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was added to the Russian school curriculum which, as a journalist, he must surely know.

    Most likely it will be extremely heavy on the classics, especially the likes of Pushkin and Tolstoy and not so heavy on anything written post-1917, although no doubt Sholokhov and Bulgakov will get a look in.

  3. Devaki Khanna
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Considering the fact that Russian authors have seldom supported the establishment–from Pushkin to Pasternak and Solzhentsyn–I wonder what Putin’s Russian Canon will unleash.

  4. Varlam K
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Putin will likely choose very safe picks that will engender no controversy from the bulk of his supporters.

    It will likely be picked by a pedigreed group to whom any minor criticisms can be referred.

    In truth, I see nothing terrifying about such a list.

    It will not likely include any avant garde writers, yet truthfully few Russians read them anyway.

    The list will serve to reify and solidify further those who are already perceived to be in the canon.

    There will be post-Soviet work, I predict, including Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.

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