Constructing Putin’s 100-book canon

In his recent article for Nezavisimaia gazeta, Vladimir Putin proposed the creation of a 100-book canon of Russian literature, which every school leaver will be expected to read and will, in Putin’s opinion, help to establish some sense of civilisational identity in Russia. Given the history of the relationship between Russian writers and the state, it is perhaps unsurprising that his suggestion elicited a lively online response, with many commentators, tweeters and bloggers proposing texts for inclusion, as well as registering concerns that such a scheme might be reminiscent of unpalatable political policies from the past.

Leaving aside the various reactions to Putin’s plan and which texts might be included or omitted, there seems an obvious question to ask: how will Putin approach the process of forming his 100-book canon? He simply suggests a survey of the ‘most influential cultural figures’, with no elaboration on who these people may be, or what qualifies them to contribute answers to such a survey.

These questions of canon formation and the processes that are involved are central to our project on Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Poetry. While educational institutions and publishing houses may perpetuate a particular canon, the texts which are studied and published are likely to be decided upon by others. The significance of one poet promoting another cannot be overlooked. Neither can critical assessment. However, depending upon the motivations of the group putting forward a text for inclusion, the resources available to them, or the influence that they are able to exert on the process, a different canon will emerge. In addition, some works might make ‘the list’ because of whom they were written by, not because of the quality of the writing, and some writers who have already managed to achieve a place in the canon might manage to retain this spot. As Golding points out in his text From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry, ‘once in, a poet tends to stay in’ (1995, p.8), not necessarily through merit, but because they are already in there. Furthermore, these factors affecting canon formation must be weighed against others that are specific to the Russian literary context, most notably the publication status of a book during the Soviet era.

In the light of the factors influencing the canon-forming process, it will be interesting to see which books make Putin’s list. Will poetry be included? If it is, which poets will meet with approval, and will those selected be those who emerge as the ‘most canonical’ in the Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry project?

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