Northern Illinois University Press

“The Provinces” In Russian Literature

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Nineteenth-century Russian literature created an imaginary place called “the provinces”—a place at once homogeneous, static, anonymous, and symbolically opposed to Petersburg and Moscow. Life is Elsewhere looks at a wide range of texts, both canonical and lesser-known, in order to explain why the trope has exercised such enduring power, and what role it plays in the larger symbolic geography that structures Russian literature’s representation of the nation’s space.

Author Anne Lounsbery discusses her research on nineteenth-century Russian literature in this Q&A.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Once when I explained to a Moscow acquaintance my interest in provincial places (provintsiia), she shuddered and said “Oy! Zombies live there!” (Oi! Tam zhivut zomby!). And a Petersburg highbrow once told me, “It’s not possible to live in the provinces!” (V provintsii nevozmozhno zhit’!). In essence both were recapitulating the same idea I encountered over and over in 19th-century texts: life in provincial places is not fully real. As one of Chekhov’s characters puts it, “our homeland, the real Russia, is Moscow and Petersburg, but here is just the provinces, the colonies.”

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I’d been quicker to trust the patterns I was seeing. I’m glad, though, that I read and researched as much as I did, since all that work took me well beyond canonical texts.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies?

I’d hope that not just literary scholars but also historians and others would pay more attention to the powerful metaphors that shape and misshape our experience of real places. As the African-American poet Claudia Rankine written, “Transcendence is unevenly distributed and experienced.”

*Featured photo by Tobias Markmeyer.

Anne Lounsbery teaches Russian literature at New York University. She has published numerous articles on Russian and comparative literature and is the author of Thin Culture, High Art.

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