Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

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Readers in the West frequently encounter Russian literature in what might be called an artificial environment, in which literary works are detached from their cultural context. This leads to misunderstanding, since the reader is likely to overlook significant differences between Russian and Western perspectives.

Western critics often contrast Sinyavsky with his countryman Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Clearly the two men represent diametrically opposed approaches to literature. Solzhenitsyn the novelist has assembled a vast historical archive to authenticate his fictional re-creation of Russia in the years leading up to the Revolution. Sinyavsky is a creator of fantastic fictions, scornful of the pretensions of realism. Solzhenitsyn is the foremost representative of what has been called the authoritarian-nationalist wing of the Russian emigre community, while Sinyavsky is one of the leading figures of the liberal-democratic wing. Many critics, dismayed by Solzhenitsyn’s apparent contempt for Western institutions, have pointed to the grounding of his political program in his Russian Orthodox faith, which they regard as dangerously archaic.

While there is unquestionably a real basis for the contrast between Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky, it is misleading on both sides, particularly with regard to Sinyavsky’s alleged affinities with liberal humanism. In an essay titled “Dissent as a Personal Experience” (Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 1982), Sinyavsky defines his position. As a writer, he says, he is in opposition to not only the Soviet government but also his fellow emigres: “I am an enemy—an enemy as such— metaphysically, in principle.” He rejects Solzhenitsyn’s mixture of religion and authoritarian politics, but also—in A Voice from the Chorus as in Unguarded Thoughts—he rejects such dearly held Western notions as “freedom of choice,” “human dignity,” and “the inviolability of the person,” dismissing them as nothing more than cant. In Unguarded Thoughts he writes that truly Christian attitudes and actions are “abnormal,” against human nature; in A Voice from the Chorus, he describes the process of writing as equally abnormal and paradoxical. In some ways, from the viewpoint of secular Western society, Sinyavsky may be more “extreme” than Solzhenitsyn.