The Austian myth about Russia

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Later some authors of Village Prose drew attention of the Austrian audience (V. Shukshin, V. Rasputin, V. Astafyev) as well as, of course, the Sixtiers writers and poets and dissidents B. Akhmadulina, S. Dovlatov, D. Samoylov, J.  Brodsky, A. Solzhenitsyn, movie directors A. Tarkovsky, K. Shakhnazarov, O. Iosseliani, G. Daneliya.

An outstanding person who has become the symbol of bonding of the two nations is a Russian philologist, philosopher, famous translator, art historian, theologian and academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergei Sergeyevich Averinzev (1937-2004). Averinzev is in the closest relations with Austria. Since 1994 he has been teaching at the Institute of Slavistics of the University of Vienna. Scholars from all around Europe came for his lectures. The memories of Averinzev’s work in the University of Vienna are still carefully kept there.

The following examples vividly illustrate the perception of the Soviet Russia in Austria. Already in the 1920s in his reports for German newspapers (Frankfurter Zeitung, Neue Berliner Zeitung) an Austrian author Joseph Roth defines such new and frightening characteristics of the USSR as standard, monotonous, and mass nature. Roth never fails to point out in his essays and letters that “the Russians are not descended from Dostoevsky”.

Leo Perutz who was one of the most popular Austrian writers during the period between the two world wars recounts in his novel Little Apple (1928) the adventures of an Austrian officer Georg Vittorin who gets back from a Russian POW camp but wishes to return to Russia seeking revenge on Staff Captain Selyukov for the abuse. Having wound up in a small Ukrainian border town, Georg comes across a poster, depicting “a devastated, soiled village, and the Red Army men with repulsive, grotesque faces”, who “finished off the countrymen, running out of burning houses” and “the commander of the Red Army” who “was staring at the pope’s blood-stained corpse at his feet with a devilish and triumphant smile”.[1] This is a key image in the novel: the USSR is depicted here as a savage area where everyone lives by the rules of violence. The most positive Russian man that Perutz’s character meets in Moscow is Baron Pistolkors, a former chamberlain hiding from the new authorities; he seems to be the last person who still has humanity in his heart in this “new” Russia. His novella Herr, erbarme dich meiner! (1930) is also dedicated to Russia. It tells a story of an imperial officer who was sentenced to death. His life is saved when an important telegram is accidentally decrypted. The officer who has already embraced his fate is praying desperately asking God to have mercy on him when he finds out that this is exactly the decryption code.

Another Austrian writer Alexander Lernet-Holenia in his novel Ein Traum in Rot (1939) also depicts Russia right after the October Revolution. Lernet makes use of L. Perutz’s novel and the memories of Russian emigrants as well as turns to the book of Polish writer F. Ossendowski for the facts about history and geography of Siberia, about dolmens, local nationalities, cults and theosophic theories. The novel transforms all of this into the image of “the true Russians” – the Asians. One of the Russian characters of his novel generalizes: “We are all strong, stronger than people living in the West because there is power of an endless Asian soil, the cradle of the nations, that dwells in each and every one of us”.[2] Putting emphasis on the same idea, in 1941 Lernet-Holenia points out the following in one of his letters: “I think that my Ein Traum in Rot is extremely relevant. <…> It is probable that according to an opinion already expressed in the novel the essence of the Soviets is not bolshevism but the Asian savagery. Looking at the prisoners’ faces you can see that the majority of them are Kalmyks and Buryats. <…> Many Red Army men consider soap to be food and eat it with no hesitation ».[3]

In the novel Ein Traum in Rot the USSR brightly represents the spirit of the age and the decease of the civilization, the return to savage, somewhat prehuman state: the 20th century for the Austrian writer is “the time of uncontrolled masses, it is the reign of anarchy and existence without values or ideas”.[4]

[1] Perutz L. Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen …      Frankfurt a. M., Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt Publ., 1928. 272 p. Zwischen neun und neun. Munich, Albert Langen Publ., 1918. 224 p. (Russ. ed.:  Ekh, yablochko, kuda ty katish’sya… Pryzhok v neizvestnoe. Romany. Moscow, Prestizh Buk Publ., 2017. 438 p.)

[2] Lernet-Holenia A. Ein Traum in Rot. Köln, 1990. S. 160.

[3] Lernet-Holenias A. Brief an Emil Lorenz, 02.08.1941 // Sammlung von Herrn Roman Roček, Wien.12.

[4] Mayer F. Wunscherfüllungen. Erzählstrategien im Prosawerk Alexan-der Lernet-Holenias. Köln, Weimar, Wien, 2005. S. 77.

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