University of Washington, Department of Comparative Literature
Liudmila Ulitskaia's Medea and her Children: Medea, Stalin, and the Limits of Tolerance
Liudmila Ulitskaia, one of post-Soviet Russia’s leading authors, has been known as a voice of tolerance and understanding in contemporary Russian society, both in her stories and novels, and through her involvement with the Institute for Tolerance. Her novel, Medea and her Children, reads as a Utopian vision of a Soviet-era family that embraces all the nationalities of the former USSR. Medea, the reigning matriarch who descends from a long line of Pontic Greeks, welcomes and watches over family members who come from all corners the Soviet Union to her home in the Crimea; and she is proud to unite the various "tribes," from Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Siberia, and Georgia. A significant aspect of the novel, however, is also its reckoning with Russia’s Soviet past, examining how people survived during the worst of the Stalin era, and it is here that many questions emerge. Medea, as one who survives, does so by clinging to her Orthodox faith, a faith that she and other family members recognize as a "higher authority" than that offered by the Soviet state. What is this "higher authority," and how do others manage to survive? Further, although the novel chronicles Medea’s extended, supposedly happy family, not all family members are treated equally, and it is curious to see a distinct prejudice emerge against the Georgian branch of the family: many of the novel’s Georgians are portrayed as ignorant, unfortunate, or downright crazy. This prejudice seems to stem from guilt by association with the legacy of Stalin and his cohort of Caucasian henchmen who ruled the Soviet Union; and it is a prejudice that deserves deeper investigation, especially in post-Soviet Russia, which some have argued, has not yet reached closure about Stalin, and where, in fact, many say they would vote for a man like Stalin, were he to enter politics today. And, it is a prejudice that seems to contrast so sharply with Ulitskaia’s stated belief in tolerance towards cultural differences. In this paper, I will discuss Ulitskaia’s novel, hoping to shed light on her seemingly hostile attitude towards Georgians and the Caucasus, and thus gain a deeper understanding of current feelings and attitudes concerning relations between Russians and Georgians.