Medvedev the Bookworm

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Forty years ago, a question of debate among American undergraduates was "What tells you more about your dormmates -- their bookshelves or their record collections?" Today's students probably ask "their web Favorites or their iPods?" -- or some other hi-tech pairing that ignores "dead-tree books." Leafing through processed wood pulp strikes this generation as either a quaintly Williamsburg-like experience ("Look, the pages turn by hand!") or a form of protracted low-tech torture -- like downloading from your mom's old kitchen desktop, only ... even ... slower. The horror, the horror!

That a higher percentage of Russian students still read books is nice but misleading. With Internet access growing exponentially, Russia is probably only a sovereign five-year plan away from every undergraduate owning a laptop. While there may be no proven correlation between a new HPAppleTosh 5000 and an aversion to turning paper pages, let's not be naive. If polls already indicate that more than 50 percent of Russians have read little or no literature in recent memory, my non-book-toting students and their non-book-reading peers all but obviate a Levada Center youth-and-literacy survey. Books? Game over.

This should be a big deal here. For centuries, Russians have been able to tell more about themselves from their national book collection than anything else. Are they really going to pulp all that for an iPod?

There is no Russian history without Russian literature -- which is not far from saying there is no Russia without Russian literature. The intimacy of this intracultural relationship, to which Americans are largely indifferent, has played a critical role in defining this nation since its 12th-century foundation narrative, "The Tale of Bygone Years."

Modern Russia boasts a national literature whose greatness compares only to classical antiquity and Elizabethan England. Over the 19th century, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov captured the literate world's attention even as they explained to Russians themselves just who they were -- hero by hero, heroine by heroine and villain by villain.

Their 20th-century successors were no less meaningful for Soviet society, in which literature enjoyed an importance unknown in any other time or state. Indeed, you could argue that the Soviet empire was toppled by two books -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago." The first punched open the emergency exit door, and the second broke it off the hinges.

Bewilderment with the temporal power and defining role of Russian literature is understandable from Americans, whose president may release his memoirs as a pop-up book. While several novels do help illustrate the American character -- "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Great Gatsby" probably convey the basics best -- American self-definition has always derived less from literature than statecraft. The national ethos can be fairly outlined from three phrases: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (a commendable formula); "all men are created equal" (a work in progress); and "government of the people, by the people and for the people" (two out of three ain't bad). That's the long and the short of the place, and most Americans are comfortable with it.

But Russians remain uncomfortable with their national self as defined in literature, perhaps because it isn't easily grasped or quickly conveyed. What to do? A country-wide competition in the mid-1990s for a "national idea" produced no winner -- an oxymoron ("sovereign democracy") has had to fill the perceived gap. Meanwhile, the nation's classic literature -- complex, endlessly engaging but incapable of instant answers in an era of nanotechnology -- is increasingly ignored and abandoned.

Or is it? Literature is still a matter of national import. As president, Vladimir Putin publicly feted Solzhenitsyn twice, in 2000 and 2007, emphasizing that the post-post-Soviet state values the imprimatur of the nation's "only living classic." And President Dmitry Medvedev? He could be a generation-spanning figure who makes reading fundamental again. Despite his Internet habit and love of rock music, Medvedev is also a true son of literature: His mother taught it, and he claims Chekhov, Bunin and Dostoevsky as major influences. His recent prescription for his countrymen's well-being -- "Read good books" -- can only warm the literate heart.

Yes, Russia's good books still have much to offer Russians and the world. If Medvedev decides it's time to ponder the "national idea" anew, here's some sound advice on where to send the search committee: Book 'em, Dima.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.