In Defense of Boris the Russki

Ayşegül Savaş calls into question a kind of racism in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and laments the liberal reluctance to rebuke discrimination outright, regardless of its targets.

Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | January 2020 | 10 minutes (2,603 words)

Recently while running, I listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on audiobook. It was recommended to me because of my interest in suspenseful novels and books about art.

An hour into listening, I was puzzled by the book’s two-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists. Back from a run, I read that although the book had won the Pulitzer Prize, there’d been some controversy surrounding the award. Francine Prose drew attention to Tartt’s lazy clichés. James Wood described the book as a children’s story. The Paris Review, London Review of Books, and Sunday Times had similar things to say.

Several chapters later, I realized that none of the criticisms had objected to the book’s racism. After another search, I was relieved to see that one article on Salon questioned the book’s “wishful portrayal of people of color,” all of whom played the part of loving, docile servants. The writer carefully dissected these characters, revealing the “banal multicultural textbook” fantasy of an old world with its antique paintings and selfless servants, which continually looked away from real racial dynamics.

But by the end of the article, the writer had still not mentioned, in her meticulous study of racial blind spots as they applied to peripheral characters, the racism at the book’s very center, in the character of the Russian Boris who is the protagonist’s nemesis and best friend.

I’m especially surprised that this had gone entirely unnoticed in the U.S ever since the book’s publication in 2013, even though literary conversations of the past decade have often simultaneously been conversations about identity.

***

A growing awareness on the topic of representation — who has the right to represent whom and how? — confronts us with our deep-rooted and unquestioned judgments. This awareness also highlights which groups we deem worthy of respectful representation. How are the groups chosen? What amount of past suffering is necessary for them to gain this respect? How much of our sympathy does a foreigner need to acquire before we grow sensitive to their culturally prevalent stereotypes and even stand up for them? We would hope that there is no threshold for our humanity.

Imagine, for a moment, that Boris was black. Imagine he was Muslim. Imagine he was any person of color.

One similarity between The Goldfinch’s protagonist, Theo, and Boris, is that they both lost their mothers at a young age. Theo’s sorrowful humanity is founded on this loss, as is his bond with the sweet Pippa, an equally traumatized and fragile orphan. As for Boris the russki, tragedy leaves him unscathed: “She’s been dead for donkey’s years,” Boris says about his mother. “She was an alkie. She was drunk one night and she fell out a window and died.”

Of course, Boris’s mother was an alcoholic. So is Boris’s father, and Boris himself. Perhaps this is why Russian orphans don’t really mind their situation; there is no need for us to feel sympathy for them.

Let me note that Theo’s father is also an alcoholic, and utterly lacking in moral qualities, except for those instances when he serves as a civilized counterpart to Russian alcoholics. Theo asks Boris:

“What does your dad do again?”

“Drink, mainly,” said Boris sourly.

“He should meet my dad, then.” Again the sudden, explosive laugh — almost like he was spitting over you.

“Yes. Brilliant. And whores?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised,” I said, after a small, startled pause. Though not too much my dad did shocked me, I had never quite envisioned him hanging out in the Live Girls and Gentlemen’s Club joints we sometimes passed on the highway.”

One evening, Theo watches Boris get kicked and hit with a cane by his father, for no apparent reason except that he is drunk and irrational. After his beating, Boris carries on nonchalantly, which is surely the reaction of Russian children numbed to violence.

“‘Ah, nothing,’” Boris said, sounding unaccountably cheerful, wiping his nose with a wet snuffling noise. “‘Storm in a glass of water.’”

(Tartt’s use of a Russian proverb marks her character’s authenticity, much like 19th century European paintings of harems, entirely fabricated in their subject matter but faultless in their attention to the interiors’ smallest details.)

And again:

“‘Yah,’” said Boris cheerfully, wiping his mouth on the shoulder of his blood-stained shirt. ‘He’s killed people. He beat a man to death down the mine once.’”

But we must have seen that coming. Boris’s father, who works for a mine and causes environmental damage around the world is also, of course, part of the Russian mafia, or whatever dark things Russians are always up to.

Imagine, for a moment, that Boris was black. Imagine he was Muslim. Imagine he was any person of color.

But no. Let it be clear that all this is only because Boris is Russian. And his Russianness is something he can’t ever get rid of. Although, strangely, he was born in Australia, has lived in Saudi Arabia, Papua, New Guinea, Indonesia, Poland, and Canada (among other countries) before moving to Las Vegas. He makes elaborate vocabulary lists, with such terms as “dereliction of duty,” all the while continuing to say moneys and weathers (but also saying them correctly from time to time) and still hasn’t figured out how to use articles in simple speech: “But if you steal money from sleazy person, like gangster, they are likely to hurt you, nie?”

I, too, lived in different countries growing up, and went to schools with Russians. But never did I meet a kid who so stubbornly held on to his “dark, slurry” accent with “a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent.”


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Tartt makes it clear that Boris, the product of his country and his family, cannot change. But Theo can, despite his own abusive father and the fact that he has never left his country. Theo’s moral compass is finely developed because he is a free individual, a character who is allowed to choose who he will become.

“Is that your girlfriend?” said Boris — crunching an apple, “What happened to her? (…) Did you hit her?” (…)

“Yeah, right,” I said — and then, from his earnest, intent expression, realized he was perfectly serious.

“You think I beat girls up?” I said.

He shrugged. “She might have deserved it.”

“Um, we don’t hit women in America.”

No, of course they don’t, and Theo tries in vain to teach this to his friend. Boris has traveled the world, converted to different religions, has friends from different tribes, has read Tolstoy and Chekov, but he has not learned any lessons of humanity. You can make fantastical characters all you want, heap them with skills and experience and multiple languages, but none of it will mean anything if you’re dealing with a Russian. Because human values, Tartt is telling us, cannot be learned; differences cannot, really, be bridged. Those others, who aren’t free to choose who they will be, are bound to their national fate.

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Book Review, “Fate and Misogyny: Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth” one critic writes about the Russian word sudba:

For Russians, everything that happens in life is either sudba, or ne sudba. It’s either meant to be, or it isn’t meant to be. And ot sudbi ne udyesh is also a popular phrase: you can’t fight fate. For instance, when one character in the novel receives news of her husband’s death, she says out loud: “This is fate.” She continues: “Our suffering is fated.” Suffering, too, is intrinsic to the Russian worldview. As Phillips writes, “This world was built for people to suffer.” This could be the motto of Russia.

How easy it is to write the motto of an entire country of nearly 150 million people. How easy to dismiss their suffering with a single word. For one moment, replace “Russia” with any other country. Imagine that this were one of Edward Said’s case studies in Orientalism about the unchanging Orient. But of course, those stereotypes are easy to spot, because those people look different.

Nor is sudba one of those untranslatable words like the Danish “hygge,” supposed to encapsulate some exotic national quality. It is, literally, Russian for “fate” or “destiny.” The word exists in English, too. There is a saying: “It wasn’t meant to be.” In fact, the critic has unthinkingly included it in his “translation” of the Russian psyche. What can the existence of such a saying tell us about the subconscious of the English-speaking world?

***

My point here is not that racism, xenophobia, or reductive thinking, exist, but that they exist even within liberal, literary institutions that favor diversity; in the blind spot of conversations calling attention to stereotypes; and that they draw no reaction from otherwise egalitarian audiences. We might feel secure in our moral superiority, having adopted the latest politically correct language and attitudes. And yet, it is possible that we’ve set our sight only on a specific kind of experience while putting aside others, overlooking the same structures of thought that enforce exclusion. It is possible that political correctness, meant to protect human dignity, can become a rigid system of thought and lose sight of kindness as the compass with which we must orient ourselves in life and in art.

I thought I’d hit on an uncomfortable topic when I first brought up the representation of Boris’s character with American friends. Had they read the book? Why had no one noticed the stereotypes? Some friends insisted that those weren’t really stereotypes but more or less a truth about Russians. Others said that such comments weren’t racist because Russians were white. One person said that, even though the depictions were indeed “unsympathetic,” it was wrong to focus our attention on Russians when there were other groups in greater need; that I was going too far in my defense of people who were not very innocent.

The attitudes underlying these arguments state that our human values are indeed based on skin color, that we have a limited potential for caring, and that we can only care about groups who are “innocent” in their history and political structure; that individuals, such as the orphan Boris, should be held responsible for this history.

***

I notice that I am sometimes classified — as a secular Muslim from Turkey writing in English — as “a writer of color.” The uniquely Anglo-American term, with its particular historical and cultural context, is somewhat foreign to me and seems a vast one for grouping an array of hugely different identities. Still, I realize that in the cultural sphere, the prevalence of such a category is intended to promote underrepresented or marginalized artists. If the term serves to bring these artists’ unique experiences to a wider audience, rather than blending them into a single Otherness, then all the better.

I should say that I am neither a minority in my own country nor marginalized in the U.S. Certainly, in the years I lived in the U.S, as well as in Europe, I’ve heard many Islamophobic comments, and patronizing, if not hateful, anecdotes about Turks and Middle Easterners. But none of these anecdotes served to highlight my own experiences; rather, they pointed to others from whom I was separated by the privilege of my education and social capital. I wonder, therefore, whether I benefit unduly from being labeled “a writer of color,” particularly if it serves to publicize my work, or bring attention to myself.

My point here is not that racism, xenophobia, or reductive thinking, exist, but that they exist even within liberal, literary institutions that favor diversity…

Still, it is easy for me to take advantage of my assigned category in order to express indignation about ignorant representations of “people like me” because my identity, on paper, fits the definitions of those who are considered Other, even if my experiences do not. But what about those who don’t have such categories to protect them, who cannot draw on the established liberal narratives for indignation?

***

I finished writing a first draft of this essay and sent it to friends and editors — people with whom I correspond often, people who express frequent outrage on topics of racial injustice — with the hope that the examples I quoted would make my point better than I had been able to during conversations. It was one thing to state my indignation about a drunk Russian; another to point out the repeated double standards that applied to these characterizations. No one responded to me.

Did they find my argument wrong or offensive? Did they see my point, but find themselves not persuaded by it? Did I make them angry?

I wrote a follow-up email to one of them to ask if they’d read my essay. I received a one-word response: “Yes.”

***

When I was a freshman at a very liberal university in the U.S, I often felt I was doing something wrong by asking questions about race, religion, or sexuality. It was inappropriate to ask, even if I was trying to understand the norms and dynamics of a new country, of people from backgrounds I’d never met before. But I had the sense that it was better to shy away from conversation than to say something that sounded wrong, even if I was simply showing curiosity, far from belittling or harassing anyone. It was easier to accept the liberal American norms and language as universal and to quickly become fluent in them without questioning. I switched back and forth from being regarded an authority on issues of culture, to a naïve and awkward foreigner. But these two identities could never converge; it was not considered that my position as an outsider, with my own knowledge of ethnic and cultural segregation or gender structures, could contribute to the American conversation. If I wanted my voice to be recognized and respected, I could do so in the category allocated to me, as a representative of my own culture: I even had the right to claim that I was marginalized as a result of this culture, even if that was not the truth. But I couldn’t stray from the category, or talk about ideas that did not fit inside its own definition of diversity.

***

For a writer, the greatest danger, I think, is to shy away from different perspectives, to willfully ignore the human value of another whom we consider our opposite. For a writer whose only tool is truthful language, the danger is to speak in coded phrases that automatically deliver packaged ideas. The danger is to stop asking, naively and stubbornly.

Would readers and editors have protested to The Goldfinch if those representations were about another group towards whom they feel more sympathetic? Are Russians not worthy of respect, because of their skin color? Or is it alright to equate our disdain for a country’s politics — if that is at the heart of this — with its people?

The Goldfinch, unlike the book review, was written before Donald Trump’s election and the liberal American outrage at Russians interfering with their democracy. But now there is The Goldfinch movie. One year after the all-Asian cast Crazy Rich Asians — a standardly banal rom-com which nonetheless felt historic in its heroes being something other than Caucasian — it might have been fair to expect that Boris should be played by someone faintly Russian, given his character’s unchangeable worldview and accent. Instead, he is played by the Canadian Finn Wolfhard — Mike from Stranger Things — who has swapped his native accent for that dark and slurry whiff of Count Dracula and KGB, as interesting to listen to as someone speaking in mock Chinese.

But to question the morality of any of this would just be making a fuss over nothing. Storm in a glass of water.

* * *

Ayşegül Savas‘s debut novel Walking on the Ceiling was published in April 2019 by Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, among others. She lives in Paris.

Editor: Sari Botton