Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sugar and Vice and Everything Nice

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the twentieth century Russian literature we’ve read has been its fascination with the regulation of vice.  We briefly discussed the regulation of sex in We last Wednesday; beyond this though, the One State is also intent on regulating or restricting all unwholesome aspects of its citizens’ lives, resulting in fables illustrating the consequences of laziness and missing work and the One State's outright prohibition of alcohol and tobacco as dangerous and subversive substances.  In Envy, Olesha also indirectly discusses how soviet society is trying to move beyond its vices through his drunkard narrator Kavalerov and Kavalerov’s interaction with the gluttonous Andrei, the lusty Anichka, and the delusional Ivan.  Basically, it’s suggested in these two novels that the new socialist utopia has no place for the bourgeois creature comforts of the old world.

That being said, while Olesha and Zamyatin both critique state interference in the lives of individuals and praise self-determination, their relative stances on vice are less clear to me.  I don’t think either of them endorses wholesale hedonism, but Zamyatin seems to associate vice with personal liberation far more than does Olesha.  Where Olesha portrays the consequences of vice (alcoholism, poverty, resentment, alienation) in a pretty unfavorable light, Zamyatin portrays D-503’s emotional awakening as triggered by, among other things, drinking liquor and smoking tobacco with I-330.  Where Zamyatin portrays vice as an act of rebellion, Olesha portrays it as a real social problem that interferes with the aspirations of his characters. 

What you guys think about the role of vice in post-revolutionary Russian lit?  Do you see authors treating vice as a social ill like Tolstoy and Turgenev earlier treated nihilism, or is there more at play here?  Is Olesha critical of Russians' vice, or is he indifferent to it? 


  1. I think that this issue of vice is certainly a difference between the 19th and 20th century Russian literature we have been reading. This makes a lot of sense considering that things that are considered to be vices are socially constructed and the time period in Russia at the turn of the century and in the decades to follow were a time of great social upheaval, including norms and social values.

  2. Especially in regards to We, I feel that vice is more a symbol of freedom than anything else. Sure, vices might be "bad," but they represent individual autonomy. Flaws make people unique, so an expression of this flaw should not be censored, in a sense, by the government.

    1. I think one shift has been a personal kind of anxiety about vice turning into a governmental/institutional one. For example, in Dosteovsky, Raskolnikov worries about his alcohol intake; and when the government gets him, it's his fault in a way. Whereas in WE the government is watching your vice and getting you from the start.