The name of Russia’s greatest writer is Tolstoevsky—or so goes an old, and still popular, academic joke. The joke does, however, have a point. It satirizes a certain vague idea about Russian literature that is shared by many American readers: the idea that Russian literature is a confusing and exotic, if not entirely alien phenomenon, a tantalizing exposure to the “mysterious Russian soul,” perpetually centered on what used to be known as “the ultimate problems of human existence”—those problems, at any rate, that are beyond the reach of our everyday cares and concerns. This stereotypical perception allows for little difference between the individual authors, be they Ivan Turgenev or Boris Pasternak, and accounts for a telling comment made by one of my acquaintances: “Why don’t all these guys [he meant typical characters from a Russian novel] just start looking for a...


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