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The fluctuations of Dostoyevsky

According to study, the prestige enjoyed by Russian writers during the first Vargas era oscillated in accordance with the political pendulum

Reproduction Sérgio Guerini Xylograph by Axl Leskoschek illustrates a scene from The Possessed, published in the 1940sReproduction Sérgio Guerini

In 1943, legal writer and journalist Clovis Ramalhete, in an article in the magazine Diretrizes entitled “Dostoyevsky on Ouvidor Street,” said that in prior years, “Dostoyevsky, in Brazil, had successively been a shantytown author, a riverside novelist, a nocturnal punnist, and other character types common to the civil registry of Brazilian literature.” It’s not possible to know for certain to whom Ramalhete was referring in the quote, but the irony is clear: Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) had become a ubiquitous literary reference in Brazil, even though he could be adapted to contexts that were very different.

Researcher Bruno Barretto Gomide, professor of Russian language and literature at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), borrowed the title of the article for his post-doctoral dissertation, which was approved in August 2016. This dissertation deals with the relationship between the reception given to Russian literature in the Brazilian political and cultural milieu, and the “political fluctuations of the Vargas era,” referring to the period from 1930 to 1945, especially the dictatorial regime in power after 1937. One of the conclusions of his study is that at the end of this period (1944-1945), with the publication of a collection of this author’s works by publisher José Olympio, which was located on Ouvidor Street, in the center of Rio de Janeiro, Dostoyevsky “gained an ecumenical character” in Brazil.

Gomide, who had studied Dostoyevsky’s reception in Brazil between 1888 and 1937 for his doctorate, leading to his book Da estepe à caatinga (From the steppe to the caatinga) (Edusp, 2011), spent eight years studying the Vargas era, working on four inter-related core areas: Brazilian literary criticism; the publishing market for the Russian authors, with emphasis on the collection of José Olympio; the activity of the Estado Novo censorship bodies in relation to Russian literature and the Soviet cultural policy for international promotion of its writers. In addition to the research and analysis of writings in the press and books published in Brazil, with support from FAPESP, Gomide travelled to Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) and to the United States (to consult the library system at Harvard University). One of the topics he studied was the reception given to Russian literature in several countries “in order to detect similarities and differences in relation to the Brazilian case.” Seeking to verify the effects of government censorship of Dostoyevsky in Brazil, Gomide found that this author appeared and disappeared in the collection of educational books of the USP School of Education.

Reproduction Sérgio Guerini Xylograph by Axl Leskoschek, an Austrian who settled in Brazil, for the Brazilian edition of The Brothers KaramazovReproduction Sérgio Guerini

Abrupt fall
“The way that political and cultural actors related to Russian literature, mobilizing passions for and against it, enables us to sketch out a significant block of Brazilian cultural history,” argues Gomide. According to him, between the early and middle years of the 1930s, there occurred what critic Brito Broca described as a “Slavic fever:” several publishing houses, many of which were associated with leftist intellectuals and printers, published books by Russian writers, coinciding with the literary promotion policies of the Soviet Union (USSR) and the international formation of support networks for the regime and the Soviet people.

With the communist uprising in Brazil led by Luiz Carlos Prestes in 1935 and the installation of the Estado Novo in 1937, publication of Russian works fell sharply, and only regained ground at the end of 1942. Gomide notes that even with this oscillation, Russian literature was never totally absent from the Brazilian scenario, but the authors published were those from the 19th century, and not those from the period after the communist revolution of 1917. Whether up or down, Brazilian receptivity during this period was always guided by political nuance.

During the Vargas era, Gomide identifies three groups of critical readers. One of them defended the position that Russian literature from the 19th century had nothing to do with Bolshevism. This group included Catholic intellectuals such as Alceu Amoroso Lima and Tasso da Silveira, some of whom had connections to integralism (the Brazilian political movement similar to fascism). “For them, the revolution had buried Russian literature,” affirms Gomide. There was a second group which, in spite of the anti-revolutionary dimension of authors such as Dostoyevsky himself, saw a direct relationship between his works and the revolution. “They believed that all the writers from that period were leftist and used as their argument the confrontation by some, such as Dostoyevsky and Leon Tolstoy (1828-1910), with the State,” says Gomide. The third group took an intermediate view: its members believed that the works of this group of authors “foretold” the near future, but that they could not be held responsible for the revolution. One of the figures at the forefront of this trend, who looked at Dostoyevsky “with a mixture of fascination and terror,” was Gustavo Barroso, a theorist of integralism.

“The drop in the publication of the Russians that occurred with the Estado Novo coincides with the violent police repression against leftist intellectuals,” observes the researcher. “Publishers were frightened and dissuaded from publishing Russian authors.” One emblematic case of a change in this scenario was that of modernist intellectual Jaime Adour da Câmara, who, in the late 1920s, had travelled to the USSR due to his interest in that country’s literature. But a story published in the magazine Dom Casmurro in 1937 reported that Adour had abandoned a study on Tolstoy because he had travelled “to the boondocks.” Gomide points out that several other intellectuals of that time also went “to the boondocks.” “The intellectuals on the left became silent, and many of them came to work in areas of the Estado Novo.”

One key moment in this phase was a visit by the police to the only direct translator from Russian at that time, Georges Selzoff. “The police advised him to stop,” says Gomide. Records found by the researcher in the files of the Department of Public Order and Security (Deops) record the direct seizure of materials related to Russian matters. In 1945, a chronicle by poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), Livros assassinados (Murdered Books) remembered the then recent persecution of books by all authors whose last names ended in “ov” and “insky.”

According to Gomide, even the Soviet regime never looked kindly on Dostoyevsky’s literature. Its cultural promotion material intended for use in other countries did not include books or texts by this author. “Dostoyevsky was seen as cruel genius, a talent used for evil,” affirms the researcher. “In the eyes of the regime, this author’s works were driven by pathologies and perverse states that did not correspond to what a society of the future wanted.” Gomide remembers that also from the directly political viewpoint, Dostoyevsky was a character that the communist government preferred to ignore: all the novels of this writer’s final phase – the best known, such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and principally The Possessed – contained disagreements with the Russian left.

Reproduction Sérgio Guerini Xylograph by Axl Leskoschek, an Austrian who settled in Brazil, for the Brazilian edition of The Brothers KaramazovReproduction Sérgio Guerini

Russian Soul
Things began to change in Brazil towards the end of the Vargas dictatorship, as the government moved closer to the Allies during the Second World War, especially after the Battle of Stalingrad, fought between 1942 and 1943, in which the Russian army defeated the Nazi troops, marking the turning point in the conflict. The Brazilian publishing market reacted quickly to the new times. Publisher José Olympio released the Dostoyevsky collection, the first in Brazil dedicated to a single foreign author (while at the same time publisher Globo was publishing the works of French author Honoré de Balzac). During this period at the end of the dictatorship, Gomide detects a reconciliation between the left and the right on this matter. Russian literature was never so frequently published in Brazil as it was in those days, although most of the time it was in translations from French or English. The researcher counted 83 titles between 1943 and 1945, a volume greater than that of the current trend, which began at the end of the 1990s, with emphasis on direct translations considered to be of excellent quality made by names such as Paulo Bezerra and Boris Schnaiderman (1917-2016). Strictly speaking, the latter had been translating from Russian since the 1940s.

Bezerra, a retired professor from Universidade Federal Fluminense, who translated, among other works, Crime and punishment, with more than 120 copies sold since 2002, says that “direct translation makes readers feel the authenticity of the characters and the rhythm of the narrative.” He suggests that Bezerra, under the current “Slavic fever,” the assessment of the popularity of Dostoyevsky is due to the “the current nature of problems not resolved by modern society and the revolutionary form of his novels, in which representatives of the different segments of society are presented with the same degree of importance.” Andrea de Barros, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), who studied the reception of Dostoyevsky in Brazil, says that the beginning of the favorable international reception of this writer, in the 19th century, was due to the idea that “there was a kind of redemption of European positivism in that literature.” According to de Barros, “to this day, the idea of a ’Russian soul,’ a romantic vision of Russia and of the Russian people, permeates the imagery of Brazilian readers.”