I’ve long wondered why so many great works of 19th century Russian literature are set in some anonymous, drab, and non-descript provincial town of “N”. We never know where “N” is or what makes it special. They also tend to be inhabited by a variety of lesser nobles, eccentrics, charlatans, obsequious bureaucrats, and bored, angst ridden youth engaged in petty intrigues and performances. Thanks to Anne Lounsbery’s Life is Elsewhere, I now know that the literary trope of the provinces as homogeneous, static, and anonymous speaks to the location of cultural and political power in Russia. Power is in the center-Petersburg and Moscow—whereas the province is some godforsaken backwater. How space is organized in the literary imagination of writers like Gogol, Chekov, and Dostoevsky served as a meditation on Russia provinciality to Europe. So, what did the provinces mean? How were they represented? And what does that say about Russian cultural identity? Here’s Anne Lounsbery with some answers.
Anne Lounsbery is a Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. She has published numerous articles on Russian and comparative literature and is the author of Thin Culture, High Art: Gogol, Hawthorne, and Authorship in Nineteenth-Century Russia and America. Her most recent book is Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917 published by Cornell University Press.