Any national literature is to some significant extent a mirror held up to its people's collective countenance: its myths, aspirations, national triumphs and traumas, current ideologies, historical understanding, linguistic traditions. But it is also more than that – more than a reflection in the glass of what has come before and what is now, even as one glances into it, passing from view. It is, in a real sense, generative of new meaning, and thus capable of shaping that countenance in the future. For the society that takes its literary products seriously, the text of a novel or poem can be a kind of genetic code for predicting, not concrete outcomes or actual progeny, but something no less pregnant with future action: the forms of a culture's historical imagination. The variations seem limitless, and yet how is it we are able to determine any given work of literature is clearly identifiable as Russian? Why could Flaubert's Emma Bovary in some sense not be imagined by the great realist who created Anna Karenina? How is Dostoevsky's Marmeladov both alike, but more importantly, unlike Dickens's Micawber? What, in short, can be shown in a mirror that speaks back?
Few societies have been more dependent on their literature for overall meaning (social, psychological, political, historical, religious, erotic) than the Russia of the modern period (1800 to the present). For a variety of reasons we will touch upon in the pages to follow, Russians have turned repeatedly to their literature as the principal source of their national identity and cultural mythology. But this relationship to the written word is a two-edged sword. It gives Russian literature both a high seriousness that can be genuinely inspiring and at times an intrusive didacticism that can be annoying to a more pluralistic (or “secular”) Western audience.