Blog Post

The New York Times and The City of the Sun: Notes toward a History of Forgetting

A history of forgetting is long overdue. I start it today with a short note prompted by recent news from Russia. The business section of The New York Times features an interesting piece by Andrew Kramer about the Russian government's push to replicate Silicon Valley by founding a new city not far from Moscow. ("Innovation, by Order of the Kremlin," 4/11/2010.)  According to Kramer, the Russians have not yet come up with the name for this Cupertino near Moscow. Informally, however, it has already been referred to as Город Солнца, "The City of the Sun," apparently, by none other than Vladislav Surkov, Putin's right hand in PR and ideas for modernization ( Аccording to Kramer, however, it has now been rejected because of its obvious association with a Moscow suburb Solntsevo (Sunny Ville or Sunnyvale), which happens to be the birthplace and headquarters of the infamous Solntsevo organized crime syndicate that has bedeviled post-communist Moscow. But the deeper irony behind this "nomen-est-omen" story seems to have either been lost on the NYT reporter or fallen victim to the editorial dumbing down.

What has been forgotten is that The City of the Sun is the title of Tomasso Campanella's famous utopian novel (La città del sole, 1623), a major work of Early Modern political fiction envisioning a perfect society and echoing the earlier Utopia by Thomas More. More to the point, Campanella's book has had a distinguished history in modern Russian political utopianism (e.g., in the Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov's 1908 utopian novel, Red Star). Most famously, it was put to good use by Evgeny Zamyatin's in his We (1920), an archetypal twentieth-century dystopia and a prototype of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. In it, Zamyatin presciently envisions many of the grimmest aspects of the coming Soviet state and does so with uncanny precision.

The Cupertino on the banks of the Moscow River may eventually get another name but the utopian impulse of Kremlin's bureaucratic modernizers, so deftly understood by Zamyatin almost a century ago, may yet do more harm than good. To paraphrase George Santayana, Those who forget their Zamyatin (and Campanella) are destined to live out his script.

Gregory Freidin's picture
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.