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Russian Literature in Germany: An Outward Glance. Part 2

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Russian Literature in Germany: An Outward Glance. Part 2

24.10.2008

Have you asked yourself how a person gets to know literature? The answer can be found in childhood. Mothers and grandmothers read us books, and sometimes even fathers. Then we read them ourselves, getting up on our tiptoes and reaching for books from the shelves of our home libraries. Then we go to school and, beginning in the first grade, we enter the world of Russian literature. We start with Pushkin and work our way up to the contemporary era. As for foreign literature, it’s generally more an elective than something required and it’s often limited to two or three authors who receive marginal attention by Russian literature teachers.

I learned from textbooks during the final year in German gymnasiums when taking that most difficult exam on German language and literature. Not everyone passes the exam, not by a long shot. Only those who have chosen to pursue a career in language and literature generally do well on it, if they even take it at all.

I should mention that I developed a great respect for German literature at the gymnasium. We thoroughly studied the historical development of world literature – its stages, periods, differences and similarities. The entire process of its development is viewed from the development of German literature. Of Russia’s contribution, we only studied Tolstoy.

As for German authors, beginning in AD 400, 620 writers and their works are examined thoroughly. Honestly, I am ashamed of my early education, where we went straight from ancient literature to Pushkin, skipping everything in between.

In the German gymnasium young people get to know German literature very well, from the very beginning right down to the contemporary era.

Foreign literature, primarily English-language literature, is encountered less through classroom study than through the pages of magazines that highlight the current bestsellers in translation, as well as through movie and television adaptations. Foreign language lessons are another means by which people commonly encounter this literature.

Most people study English, which means that English-language literature is generally studied. Students often travel to the United States for educational exchange programs. In a word, English-language literature is very much a part of German life.

There is an historical factor that German society is not willing to notice up close, but it is one that can gradually change the picture of cultural relations between Russia and Germany. As our unforgettable leader once said, “the process has begun!” Right now the process cannot be stopped.

Over the past 20 years, more than 3 million Russian-speaking residents have appeared in Germany. They are officially known as relocated persons – relocated Germans. Objectively, however, these are Russians who have a Russian mentality. The main thing, however, is that they are native speakers of Russian. We should also add to this figure about half a million Russian-speaking Jews. The local Jewish community attempts to draw them into their faith, mostly in vain.

In the depths of this mass of Russian speakers, a new generation of German citizens is growing up whose roots lie in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Odessa and Kiev, as well as on the banks of the Volga and the Amu Darya. This new generation has chosen a new lifestyle. It hasn’t yet determined what it really needs, but the Russian language, despite the fact that many of them speak it very poorly, has nevertheless left traces on their memory and consciousness.

Language is such a surprising phenomenon that it forever alters the structure of the brain, and even when it’s forgotten, it still leaves its mark on a person’s conscience.

There is no Russian diaspora in Germany. Government officials act as if they do not notice the hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers. They don’t see the Russian newspapers, magazines, libraries, television channels, song festivals, literary contests and theatres.

Almost every city’s library already has a stack of books in Russian. Until recently, a Russian book fair travelled throughout Germany. There are two excellent book catalogs – Aurora and Janzen – from which one can order new works of Russian literature. Finally, the biggest German online bookstore, Amazon.de, suddenly became a source of not only Russians books translated into German but also of Russian-language books themselves. This all suggests that unlike politicians, the business community is more likely to notice changes taking place in society.

In Germany, there are numerous literary associations of Russian-speaking authors. Some are large and famous, and others are not very well known at all. Some are clubs of literary enthusiasts. They publish their own small journals.

One of these associations is Edita Gelsen, which under the leadership of Alexander Barsukov has evolved into a well-known publishing group that enables an author to publish his book for a small amount of money.

Vladimir Batshev in Frankfurt is also involved in publishing. On this basis of his magazine Literary European, Batshev created the Writers' Union of Germany, where one can join by paying a fee and becoming a writer for the magazine.

Whatever masterpieces come from the self-published authors in Germany is not what’s at issue here; rather, what is important is that they are building an atmosphere conducive to the emergence of an interest in Russian culture and literature in the future.

The younger generation of Germans, which is growing up alongside mothers and fathers who “ache” with Russian poetry or prose might suddenly remember that at other times of his life the soul might be drawn to Russian culture. It is typically the third generation that remembers its roots, and there really isn’t much time to wait for this generation.

But waiting is not enough.

I am certain that most historical and cultural processes depend on the willingness and energy of each individual. What’s needed is strong desire, a willingness to forget about one’s fears and the ability to take action.

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