The Importance of Ulitskaia’s “Personalizing the Past” and “Engaging the Present”

By Nick Cosentino

That Russian literary figures throughout history have played major roles in shaping public discourse is a now pretty well-established notion. Indeed the permanence of such figures as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is due in large part to the impossibility of separating them from understandings of 19th century Russian cultural and political trends.

But what we must take away from this notion is that to understand past or present Russian discourse, a good place to begin is with the authors of those periods. In order to understand what features most in Russian discourse today, for example, one might consider a close reading of the works of Liudmila Ulitskaia, a task that Dr. Elizabeth Skomp, Associate Professor of Russian at Sewanee-The University of the South (TN) has taken upon herself. [i]

In a recent guest lecture to the students and faculty of Miami University, presented by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, and as part of the Center’s  Colloquium devoted to Russian literature under Putin, Skomp offered an intriguing and succinct analysis of Ulitskaia’s works.

The largest portions of her lecture were spent analyzing Ulitskaia’s Medea and Her Children (1996), The Big Green Tent (2010), and Discarded Relics (2012), while she also made note of the importance of Ulitskaia’s The Kukotskii Case (2001), Sincerely Yours, Shurik (2003), and Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2006).

Skomp organized her discussion into two main sections, representing the “dual focus” she argues Ulitskaia takes in approaching her works: “Personalizing the Past” and “Engaging the Present.”  In the first section, Skomp focused on Ulitskaia’s usage of history as a common element uniting her prose. History in Ulitskaia’s works, she argues, “emerges on [both] a grand and a personal scale,” and it functions as a way to “re-remember neglected parts of the Soviet past.” Specifically, Skomp mentioned Ulitskaia’s use of history in Medea and Her Children, in which the forgotten histories of Crimean peoples, such as the Tatars, play an integral part.

Skomp also stressed the importance of family, both in terms of kinship and in terms of communality, as a theme prevalent in Ulitskaia’s works. Perhaps the most intriguing portion of this first section was Skomp’s explanation of continuity as a concept underpinning Ulitskaia’s writing. Ulitskaia, she argues, sees herself, as a member of Russia’s intelligentsia, as bound by a “moral imperative” to “rewrite the myths of Soviet history,” and “combat [the] complacency of today’s reading public.”

In her second section, Skomp talked at some length about the emphasis Ulitskaia has put on issues of contemporary Russian society such as gender, sincerity, and tolerance in her works, as well as through her acts of protest against the Putin regime. For Skomp, such acts further emphasize Ulitskaia’s belief in her role, and that of the intelligentsia more broadly, as “ethical arbiters of truth” who must challenge Putin’s “replicating and encouraging [of] unsavory elements of the Soviet past.”

What Skomp’s assessments of Liudmila Ulitskaia provide for us, in the final examination, is a better understanding of one of the most prominent literary and intellectual figures in Russia today. Ulitskaia has taken it upon herself, much as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did in the 19th century, to address the most prominent issues facing Russia. The hope, now, must be that the popularity of Ulitskaia’s works, and the weight of her insights, can help to shape a reality of Russia’s future freed from the crimes of the Soviet past and the Putinist present.

Nick Cosentino is a senior at Miami majoring in Political Science.

[i] Dr. Elizabeth Skomp has a forthcoming publication on Ulitskaia co-authored with Dr. Benjamin Sutcliffe of Miami University entitled Ludmila Ulitskaya and the Art of Tolerance available from University of Wisconsin Press beginning in June 2015.

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