A Hope Machine: On Jeffrey Brooks’s “The Firebird and the Fox: Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks”

By Caryl EmersonSeptember 2, 2020

A Hope Machine: On Jeffrey Brooks’s “The Firebird and the Fox: Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks”

The Firebird and the Fox by Jeffrey Brooks

FIREBIRD AND FOX: these two splendid creatures, one flaming upward and the other with her sly nose kept close to the ground, are the heroes of this new book by Jeffrey Brooks, who up front cautions the reader that his title pointedly differs from the celebrated pair applied by Isaiah Berlin to Leo Tolstoy. Berlin’s binary, Hedgehog and Fox, are both landlubbers, bottom-feeders. The first wants to know one pure and singular thing, the second insists on many diverse things — and perhaps this tension did indeed rip apart Russia’s great novelist. But Brooks has little patience with the purity argument, especially when applied to cultures. Even when diversity has not been the national ideal, it has been the rule and the practice. In Brooks’s view, what has always mattered to Russian culture at all levels is the airborne element, the potential for flight even if wholly fantastical, intermixed with a gritty earth-bound instinct for survival.

Brooks, a professor of European history at Johns Hopkins, made his mark in 1985 with his prize-winning monograph When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917. That pioneering book posed a question for which Russia, a latecomer to European modernization, has often been a test case. When a people are free, able to read, and given access to texts, what do they choose and which institutions help or hinder them? In this first book, Brooks focused on the social and economic changes that made popular culture possible at all — for the mere existence of people, whether enserfed or free, is not yet a culture. Given the hugeness, isolation, and roadlessness of the Russian subcontinent, just getting voices into communication and goods moved from one village to the next was a massive logistical challenge unknown to the relatively tiny Western European states. In his new book, Brooks extends the time period through the death of Stalin (1953), making for a neat century of radical change (1850s–1950s) that does not fetishize the 1917 Revolution as either full break or fresh start. The question he asks is also different. How does a people, once endowed with a modicum of literacy and mobility, manage to create and even to export — within a mere few decades — a dazzling, integrated culture, all the while burdened by an archaic, inefficient, and tyrannical government? In attempting an answer, Brooks aims to show another sort of mesh, the interconnectedness between high, middle, and popular art in their themes and recurring enthusiasms over a hundred years. His scope is now interdisciplinary and his imagery more mythopoetic. But parts of his early mission shine through.

On two matters Brooks has long been educating the Russia-watching Anglophone reader. First, he pushes back against our fixation on repressive political ideology, which fascinates us far more grimly than it did Russia’s own early mass readerships. The first literate generations of ordinary Russians took unfreedom for granted in the governmental and administrative spheres (that was the only life they knew); like common readers everywhere, they sought out cultural texts that promised excitement, pleasure, positive role models, and practical instruction to enrich their personal lives. At the end of the 19th century, literacy in the Russian Empire was roughly 20 percent. But it was rising fast. By the time of the Great War, the number of Russians who could read had doubled. Brooks has tirelessly tracked the proliferation of commercial presses, illustrated newspapers, book pedlars, and reading stalls, as well as the burgeoning popular appetite for adventure tales, bandits, wily entrepreneurs, and naughty Fools’ narratives. To be sure, Russian folk values were not identical to prototypes in Western Europe or the Americas. There was no Social Darwinist idea that a person is poor because he is lazy (people are poor because life is hard and unpredictable), and being rich was not something to crow about or flout for its own sake. Brooks discovers high levels of tolerance for diversity in village and town, and a populace not only reconciled with reality but often enthusiastic and hopeful about it. It is this focus that makes The Firebird and the Fox, like its predecessor in 1985, that rare thing in Russian Studies (and in today’s academic humanities more generally): a distinctly wholesome book. Without being naïve, it assumes that the first step toward making things better is to look for something good. As a cultural historian, Brooks is more interested in documenting kind and healthy deeds than cruel, oppressive, or perverse ones.

A second and related matter concerns the overwhelming greatness of the Great Russian Novel. We in the West, raised on the literary genius and subtle (or not so subtle) high-minded moral agendas of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev, tend to assume that these writers, who conquered our reading publics, controlled the field at home. True, it is easier to attend to authors (who can be translated into us) than to native audiences, an ephemeral alien mass that speaks its own language, shifts to and fro, follows local trends, buys or doesn’t buy a piece of fiction serialized in a newspaper or popular magazine, and fades away without leaving diaries or reviews. Brooks was among the first to study this early, eager, almost invisible readership. A constant theme in his work has been the vigorous migration of cultural values up and down the class ladder, as professional writers learn to make a living off their trade. Dostoyevsky, alert to the market and always in need of money, borrowed plot lines from domestic and European pulp fiction upon which to hang his complex philosophical masterpieces; Tolstoy, a shrewd financial bargainer until he resolved that literature should not turn a profit, produced hundreds of stories designed to speak to a newly (or semi-) literate readership between the mid-1880s and his death in 1910. But Brooks has a problem with our reflex always to work down from the greats. When Russia Learned to Read planted a thread of indignation that continues in The Firebird and the Fox, drilling deep into the communist era: that the idealistic and well-educated Russian intelligentsia, both left- and right-wing, assumed a paternalistic attitude toward the people. So did State, Church, and later Party. Commoners could not be trusted to choose their own cultural materials wisely. What is more, commercial markets and publishing houses were tainted by a profit motive, which went against the radical revolutionaries’ utopian insistence on seeing only an egalitarian ethos in the Russian village, and against the Russian government’s reflex of autocratic social control. Perhaps Brooks, in his first book, overrated the virtues of an autonomous readership, had one been allowed to develop. But virtue was not his theme. His purpose has always been to document ordinary people who, when given the chance, choose to read what makes them laugh, thrill, learn though fantasy, and feel a bit more like agents in a subsistent world.

The Firebird and the Fox builds on this hopeful thesis, democratizing it further and suffusing it with even more good will. In its opening pages, Brooks remarks that throughout his study he has elaborated “the metaphor of a cultural ecosystem.” The image is apt. An ecosystem is life-positive and morally neutral. It makes efficient use of death, lamenting nothing and wasting nothing; what dies off always clears space for new life, which will expand to fill it. Since our concern should be with those organisms that survive to interact with other survivors, memory is vital only to the extent that it is fertile. Lethal competition among parts is contrary to such an economy, as is an exclusionary hierarchy of values, because everything alive is symbiotic and works together synergetically. This ecosystem, lush but quite dry-eyed, underlies Brooks’s three “meta-themes” and his two emblematic animals from Russia’s survivalist folklore tradition. Animals and themes alike are treated in unabashed Romantic fashion, which lends the narrative an emotional sheen and emphasizes everywhere the unity of human beings and the natural world.

The first meta-theme is freedom versus order. Too much freedom is felt by Russian culture as perilous, as “fugitive desire, disorder, and demonic governance”; order, once restored, is “divine rule, constancy, and social harmony.” Since harmony is precious and all too easily dissipated, State and Church are not toppled by the outlaw but retain their right to pardon, even to redeem. Thus the rebel eventually repents, either by entering a monastery or by taking up the sword to slay Russia’s enemies. The animal connected with this theme is the Firebird (first free, then captured, then again free), Russia’s symbol of luminosity, imagination, and quest. As in all heroic quests, participants are sorely tested before justice (or the desired bride) is achieved. In his chapter seven, Brooks provides a detailed account of Firebird imagery as embodied for Parisians in Stravinsky’s brilliant ballet-pantomime score of 1910, managed by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. At the turn of the 20th century, Russian Symbolist poets, painters, and composers identified the Firebird with the power of free art. In pre-aesthetic variants of the quest, however, success often required the help of a Fool, usually of the secular rather than the Holy sort. Importantly, Russian foolishness does not embarrass. It frees one up, mixing piety with matter-of-fact magic. Killed-off or chopped-up epic heroes, if sprinkled with the right type of water, will reassemble and come back to life.

Brooks’s second meta-theme is self versus other (Russian versus the foreigner, Us versus Them). This is the familiar problem of boundaries, but exacerbated in a land lacking naturally protected borders. Outsiders can leak in, seep through, interbreed with, and how can the enemy be identified in an empire like this? The self-versus-other paradigm that most interests Brooks is not laterally across national borders, however, but vertically between upper and lower classes. High and popular cultures have always been on a continuum, but never as richly as during these hundred years. Brooks is delighted to find in Pierre Bezukhov, maverick hero of War and Peace, traces of the folkloric prototypes of lumbering bear and clueless (yet indestructible) Fool. But he does note that to the uninitiated outside reader, the Russian novelists we know and love, “tormented by moral imperatives, ethical choices, and life-shaping dilemmas,” might seem to have created “a world-class culture reflective chiefly of their own anguish.” Not true, says Brooks. The work of educated Westernized Russian writers is shot through with buoyant folk comedy — and not only in the obvious places, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece from the 1930s, The Master and Margarita. The laughing reflexes of popular art permeated every creative realm, and remained robust even under the sternest Bolshevik gaze. Perhaps these reflexes became even keener and cleverer during the worst decades, when “Us” were ordinary Soviet citizens and “Them” the omnipresent censor and police. In his chapter 10, Brooks gathers together all the laughing alternatives to arbitrary power under a single term, “irony,” and provides cameo stories of its deployment: in graphic art posters, children’s literature, puppetry, and wildly popular illustrated serializations such as Kornei Chukovsky’s poem for children of all ages, Crocodile, and later his Tarakanishche, the “Monster Cockroach” whose gross whisker-like antennae so reminded the reader of Stalin’s mustache. Some ironists “skated very close to the edge,” Brooks admits, as did the caricaturist Nikolai Radlov in his Swiftian lampoons on overstated Bolshevik claims to scientific progress. Others, like the toady poet Demyan Bedny, fell victim to bad timing, caught parodying what the Party or Stalin had suddenly, for no discernible reason, decided to praise. However, in these domestic Us-versus-Them vignettes, Brooks makes it his policy not to dwell on the personal suffering of the individual artist or writer. His interest is in the fertility of the venue and the enthusiasms of the readership.

His final theme is the relationship between reality and art, especially the social obligation of artists to serve a cause greater than their own creative vision. Such duties had literary as well as societal benefits. An entire chapter is devoted to the case of Anton Chekhov, who, Brooks persuasively argues, perfected his distinctive short-story form by surviving the rigors of newspaper serialization. Unlike the “thick journals” that had serialized War and Peace and Crime and Punishment for the readerly elite in the 1860s, the popular newspapers, which were less able to rely on a steady subscribers’ list and had to be hawked on the street, required faster, shorter, more free-standing fare, less tragic and less philosophically profound. When, in 1899, Count Leo Tolstoy turned to the popular illustrated journal Niva [Field] to serialize his final novel, Resurrection, it was a defiant marketing statement against the leisured landed class into which he had been born.

In the Soviet period, of course, the texture becomes more fraught. An artist’s obligation to “serve society” ceased to be a choice and became a question of surviving switches in the Party line. Brooks rarely seems appalled or disgusted by these events, only saddened. Characteristic of his reluctance to pass outraged moral judgment is his treatment of Maxim Gorky in chapter nine, titled “A New Normal.” The perspective is ecosystemic and thus supra-individual. When a norm changes (so the reasoning seems to go), some people will fall outside its permitted boundaries, others will remain inside. By the time Gorky left Russia for Italy in 1921, Brooks reminds us, he was an immensely famous writer, a humanistic (if erratic) benefactor of culture, and a frequent opponent of Lenin. But “as the Bolshevik regime consolidated power and ruthlessness, Gorky’s essays decrying violence and promoting civility assumed an anachronistic quality.” True about the ruthlessness, but something necessary is missing from the larger portrait. Gorky might indeed have opposed Lenin in some horrific aspects of Bolshevik policy, such as the summary quota-killing, for propaganda purposes, of targeted groups (prostitutes, for example). But Brooks makes no mention of those traits that Gorky and Lenin held in common — most importantly, Gorky’s shallow, dangerously naïve, thoroughly Romantic disrespect for law and legal procedures in modern civic society. For different reasons, one having to do with folklore and the other with a hatred of the capitalist order, Gorky and Lenin each adored the outlaw. But Gorky only wrote stories that admired lawlessness, whereas Lenin set up a state founded on it. More commentary on this would have helped to clarify Gorky’s return to the USSR from fascist Italy in 1932 to head Stalin’s Writers’ Union and become godfather to Socialist Realism, events to which Brooks fleetingly alludes in later chapters. But this rich story, rife with tragedy and delusion, is reduced to an “anachronism,” meaning: by the early 1920s, there was no longer any place for essays such as Gorky’s — decrying violence and promoting civility — in the ecosystem. Of course no book can cover everything from all angles. Still, reasoning “from the dominant mesh” is both comforting (that is: it renders reality smoother, more blameless) and troubling. Being mythopoetic symbols, Firebird and Fox can duck in and out of politics. But individual human beings with unrestricted political power should not be awarded that courtesy.


As organizing principles, Brooks’s three thematic clusters for Russian culture are extremely broad. Surely such anxieties are shared by all human societies. But during these targeted 100 years of rapid change, each of these themes does become urgent in Russia. Catastrophic, in fact. What keeps the lid on and sustains hope is the wily, alert, amoral, and ever-resourceful Fox. Chapter 11, on the Stalinist 1930s and ’40s, is titled “An Era of the Fox”; its featured hero is Stravinsky’s one-act chamber opera-ballet Le Renard (1916), a cruel and sassy vaudeville that blends the violent, subversive, and profane European male fox with the beloved Russian vixen. Brooks chose his exemplar well: what is lampooned in it belongs to the low genres, while the symbolic elements belong to high culture. At the end of Stravinsky’s ballet, the Fox is strangled by the rooster, tomcat, and ram (or goat). As was the case with Chukovsky and the artist-ironists, however, such sentimental facts as individual death are not the real story. The real story is the spectacle, the venue, the energy generated by confronting a challenge with pluck and daring. If the Firebird is gorgeously and abstractly ethereal, the Fox (or vixen) is all cleverness, self-interest, and appetite. The high-minded Firebird guarantees the survival of the clan in the future. The Fox, female and seductive in the Russian context, tells the story (sometimes successful, sometimes not) of the individual in a hard-pressed present.

How Brooks draws us in to the vitality of this cultural ecosystem is uncanny and exhilarating — although, truth be told, at times almost hallucinatory, given our current climate of protest, consciousness-raising anger, and demands for social justice. Put simply, Brooks’s method, and his instinct vis-à-vis the human subject, is to add dignity. When a positive way into dignity cannot be found, he will shift focus until a benefit comes into view. An instructive example occurs in his chapter three, on the creative explosion in the secular visual arts in the 1860s–’70s. Fans of art are familiar with such names as Ilya Repin and Ivan Kramskoy, rebels against the St. Petersburg Academy who in 1863 refused to paint the assigned classical topic and walked out without their degrees, forming the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) and devoting themselves to painting scenes from Russian life and folk belief. Brooks points out that these brave, gifted artists, themselves of humble birth, gradually rose in stature and were eventually accepted by both the tsar and Imperial Court. As artists, they had entered the cultural elite — although they were most famous for their canvases of oppressed, poverty-stricken commoners: barge-haulers, child beggars, tattered dusty peasants putting their faith in a religious procession under the pitiless sun. Brooks would place the Wanderers in a deeper context. He juxtaposes to their canvases the popular art in the proliferating illustrated journals. For it was no honor, and surely no inspiration, to the striving, newly emancipated Russian laboring class to see itself presented as picturesque victims. The popular journals, incorporating folk cartoon traditions and cheap woodblock prints, presented the peasant as hardworking, healthy, clean, and cheerful, not as suffering or oppressed. As was the practice with popular print culture in other countries, the destitute in Russia were marginalized, not advertised. Positive self-images were what the new, semi-literate audiences thirsted to see, and pictures (in addition to words) could prompt (as Brooks puts it approvingly) “new thinking about personhood, social relations, and national identity.” In the integrated cultural system of the Russian Empire, publishers and other forces for popular literacy cooperated with the so-called underclasses. And what the latter wanted was not anguish or exoticism but some measure of dignity, humor, and hope.

As a scholar of popular culture, then, Brooks is excited by signs of health. Nowadays this might be an unfashionable trait, but in other ways the book is constructed quite traditionally. It unfolds in three parts, as a chronological history. Part one, “Emancipation of the Arts (1850–1889),” features the peculiar mix of rebellion, artlessness, and simple luck that marks the freedom of the Russian Fool. Occupying the Russian “playsphere” together with rebels, bandits, and tricksters, Fools always prove a match for any lethargic slow-moving authority that would snuff them out. Here pride of place belongs to Russia’s first world-class writer of commoner origin, Chekhov (the grandson of a serf), alongside the peasant populism of the late Tolstoy. Both writers, not unfairly, are strapped to the back of Russia’s optimistic enlightenment project. But even then the filter is rosy. When discussing Chekhov’s fact-finding mission in 1891 to the Far East island of Sakhalin, then a penal colony, Brooks acknowledges the brutality and bleakness of the place but prefers to speak of the “courageous and energetic people” among the exiles who “rise above hardship with good humor.” He devotes a full half-page to Chekhov’s lyrical description of a young couple “somewhere between Tyumen and Tomsk” who had adopted an orphaned infant and were living an upright life modeled, it would seem, on those radiant domestic scenes from the popular journals. George Kennan’s scathing exposé, Siberia and the Exile System, had just appeared in Russian translation that same year, and Tolstoy thanked the intrepid American for this treatise condemning social injustice. But Brooks adds, “Kennan did not write with a love of peoples, as did Tolstoy and Chekhov.” We might infer (and it’s a marvelous thought) that for Brooks, love must involve, at least in part, respecting and admiring what the loved party wishes for itself.

Part two, “Politics and the Arts (1890–1916),” focuses on the Symbolist period. Here Brooks attends to those moments where the artistic avant-garde was not only tolerated by the regime but even subsidized by it. The showcased high-cultural item is Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in its first Parisian seasons (1909–’10) — but the showcased year is earlier and on home soil, the awful national humiliation suffered in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–’05. That military defeat, which generated among all classes a “shared feeling of senseless rather than heroic loss,” prompted Russia’s first, failed revolution of street demonstrations and national strikes. The year 1905–’06 is the darkest Brooks gets, far more pessimistic than the traumatic wars and famines that are to come. The shame felt by all Russians after the prestige of a global empire crumbled due to incompetent, bigoted, self-blinded leadership is something Americans can relate to today. To illustrate this moment, Brooks brings to bear his special expertise in Russia’s culture of humor. But here, signs of health are in scant supply. Satirical broadsides, newspaper cartoons, postcards, and feuilletons provide abundant examples of the shift from gentle self-correcting irony to extreme forms of the demonic and Gothic, to embittered images of a grinning Death: grim, final, skeletal, not available for resurrection.

And lastly, in part three, “The Bolshevik Revolution and the Arts (1917–1950),” Brooks draws on his intervening book from 2000, Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War. It would seem that reader-reception history is now being carried into an era when ignoring repressive Russian political ideology is well nigh impossible. But in keeping with his scholarly temperament and preferred data set, Brooks continues to highlight not the victims of social change, but the beneficiaries. By beneficiary, of course, he does not mean the cynical, smug apparatchik who sits on the seat of an ousted class enemy. Worthy beneficiaries include the cartoonists who try to bring those idiots down, the hard workers who otherwise could not rise, and Russia’s ordinary citizens who operate within what they know. Brooks is not a theorist but a cultural historian. He researches from the bottom up, so he is well aware that statistics can be deployed to various purposes. Body count and the misery of casualties is one purpose. But Brooks prefers demographics, literacy rates, print runs, the energy of mobility itself. His focus, therefore, will not be on nightmarish injustice, mass death, fraud, violence, the Gulag, the unnecessary killing fields of World War II, or any “what could have been” had Russia’s Soviet-era rulers been more humane, experienced, or pragmatic. The very sequence of chapter titles in part three, nine through 12, gives him away: “A New Normal,” “Irony and Power,” “An Era of the Fox,” “Goodness Endures” (yes: that astonishing final title is the defiant capstone that Brooks constructs over what most of us study as High Stalinism, the second of two blood-soaked decades). Stand back and stay calm. What happened, happened. Most people (not the professional revolutionaries, but ordinary workers) accept the fact that they cannot control their fate — but they still wish to be creators, not quitters, within that fate. They will adjust to a new norm, make culture out of it, take advantage of new opportunities. If enterprising enough they will outwit (or outfox) what is crushing them, finding new models of the hopeful and good.

Emblematic of this economy on the literary front is Brooks’s two-pronged treatment, in chapter nine and again in chapter 12, of the great Soviet-era writer Andrei Platonov. Like Chekhov a prose writer and playwright with impeccable workers’ credentials, Platonov was a fervent believer in Bolshevism, a practical man and an engineer, whose firsthand experience of the Terror-Famine of the early 1930s eventually eroded his faith. His two dystopian novels document the eerie reality of starving semi-literate peasants speaking the unreal language of a communist utopia; his Terror-Famine plays are almost unreadably brutal, yet must be read. Platonov’s son, arrested at age 15 for a careless comment made to a friend, returned from the camps with tuberculosis and died of it in 1943, having infected his father who was nursing him. Platonov himself died in poverty of the same disease. Brooks does not deny this story, but recodes it into his own salutary vision. Platonov, we read, is a great writer who “performed daringly on the high wire of humor”; his famine-and-Soviet-construction narratives are a “purposefully low-key and pedestrian portrayal of a quotidian horror [that] anticipates the drama of the absurd.” This is true. Platonov shares something with the Absurdist and Surrealist rejection of rational thought, especially as embedded in ideology. But in the French as well as Russian tradition, this hardly qualifies as humor, on the high or low wire. Analogies with an intellectualized performing art seem to stretch the utility of the laughing genres, just as those grinning skeletons that peopled the anti-state cartoons circulating in 1905 betokened not a show, not an amusing entr’acte, but the end of the line. Simple and absolute despair, with no saving aesthetic or folkloric envelope, is something Brooks instinctively resists. When he returns to Platonov in his final chapter, it is to the final decade of the author’s life. Publication venues were closed to him (not in keeping with the new normal) and he had turned to folklore and children’s literature to eke out an anonymous living. He composed many luminous tales. Here Brooks is utterly at home, and he gratefully proceeds to link the mature Platonov not with other writers of dystopia (such as Evgeny Zamyatin, author of the horrific 1921 fantasy We) but with Sergei Prokofiev, whose musical fable Peter and the Wolf (1936) is discussed at length as “a statement that goodness and kindness imbue strength to vanquish adversity.” “Like Prokofiev,” Brooks concludes, “Andrei Platonov […] developed a literary métier that allowed him to speak to children and promote faith in goodness.” So Goodness Endures in the martyred Soviet century: reading this, one does not know whether to laugh, smile, hug our neighbor, or weep.


When Brooks published When Russia Learned to Read, Russian communism was still standing, albeit barely. Its elaborate if decrepit organs of censorship were still in place to guide readers and monitor cultural artifacts. When that system collapsed, an authoritarian nationalism evolved in its place, confronted (like all of today’s strong-man states) with the problem of keeping people — now each armed with a mobile device — sedated, entertained, and optimistic about their given nation. New technologies have made us all more cynical about literacy and the appetite it fosters for access to words. Brooks is as alert to these distorting politics in 2019 as he was in 1985. But along with virtue, abuse of power has never been his theme. The focus of The Firebird and the Fox is on something less ethical, more organicist, than moral nausea (the phrase is Leo Tolstoy’s). What Brooks would have us sense is the release of energy during eras of crisis and rapid transition, and the elusive, capricious nature of such explosive release guarantees that almost no accurate political generalizations can ever be made. In this regard, Brooks’s approach resembles the work and worldview of one great 19th-century writer who, unfortunately, is not discussed in this book: Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895), and especially his tales about righteous persons [pravedniki, fem. pravednitsy]. These radiant, humble heroes persevere, even with gratitude, under conditions of injustice that would severely tax the best Fox — although their glowing behavior would be lucidly clear to any Firebird. Perhaps the closest equivalent we have to Brooks’s benevolent ecosystem is Bakhtinian carnival.

Brooks mentions Bakhtin’s carnival a handful of times, most often warily. He notes approvingly those Russian scholars who have shown, correctly, that Bakhtin’s rosy, wholesome view of medieval cultures of laughter is largely a myth. There was no “joy-filled revel” as backdrop to the “brutal, obscurantist, and grotesque” images of devils and death that defined the popular press after the 1905 Revolution. But in a deeper sense, below the cartoonists’ pen and at the level of a worldview, Brooks appears sympathetic to the luminous fundamentals of the carnival vision. This is luminous not in the sense of lighting the way to any particular truth (that is the luminosity of a Firebird during a quest, or the ferocious light of Tolstoy), but more simply as that force which constantly compromises total darkness. Carnival, after all, is a hope machine. It works with orifices, light at the end of the tunnel, eventual abundance, and the unexpected inter-pollination of tiny moving particles. Evil cannot be eliminated, of course not, but it can always be diluted by new life; devils are too ubiquitous and mischievous to be all-powerful and they can be confused, counter-tricked, upended. The cartoons that Brooks loves have this irrepressible energy in them, as do the folktales he relishes retelling. “[T]he fox […] succeeds in securing her objectives by maneuvering within the established order,” he writes — and carnival is precisely that playscape tolerated by the established order.

Herein lies the inebriating, galvanizing effect of The Firebird and the Fox. It does not see the political aims of revolution as either salvation or destruction; it does not see them at all. Brooks’s own historical imagination is deeply, gently permeated by the Russian folkloric ethos. At base, as his examples from Igor Stravinsky demonstrate, this ethos is merciless, stylized, unfree, and unsentimental. It takes some work on the reader’s part to associate it with goodness and kindness, but with his carnival luminosity, Brooks encourages us to do so. He ends his epilogue on Vasily Grossman, a genuine hero of the Stalinist era, and specifically on his World War II novel Life and Fate, in which a Russian Fool ends up in a Nazi concentration camp and “acts with naïve goodness in an environment of omnipresent evil.” The takeaway lesson is neither to agitate against that evil nor to condemn it, since clearly both those gestures are quixotic and impotent, but rather to look to ourselves: “[L]et us use every opportunity to be kind to others.” That such a message could prevail in that time and place, Brooks concludes, is evidence of a nation’s “moral genius.” Do we laugh, or weep?


Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.

LARB Contributor

Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.


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