Fake Literature as Cultural Problem. The Case of ’Tolstoy Prophecy of WWI

Incontro con Ilya Vinitsky, Princeton University

But about the year 1915 a strange figure from the north – a new Napoleon – enters the stage of the bloody drama. He is a man of little militaristic training, a writer or a journalist, but in his grip most of Europe will remain till 1925. The end of the great calamity will mark a new political era for the old world. There will be left no empires, nor kingdoms but the world will form a federation of the United States of Nations.”

This talk is about an international (cross-cultural) faker from the Russian Empire who lived in the age of numerous fakes, worked in the biggest world production factory of fakes and spent most of his life in the country, which was obsessed, according to Umberto Eco, with the desire to fabricate the absolute (or perfect) fake. The lecture departs from the sensational case of Tolstoy’s prophecy of WWI and aims to introduce a new interdisciplinary methodology for an analysis of the phenomenon exemplified by the real author of the prophecy and, eventually, to lay the foundation for a new historical (sub)discipline dealing with the formation and cultural values of liars, forgers, and mystifiers. I propose to call this discipline cultural physallidology (from the Greek word “physallis ” [φῡσαλλίς],” an air bubble). 

ILYA VINITSKY is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. His main fields of expertise are Russian Romanticism and Realism, the history of emotions, and nineteenth- century intellectual and spiritual history. His books include Vasily Zhukovsky’s Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia (Northwestern University Press, 2015), Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism (Toronto University Press, 2009; Choice Magazine’s list of Outstanding Academic Titles for 2010) and A Cultural History of Russian Literature, co-written with Andrew Baruch Wachtel (Polity Press, 2009). He also co-edited Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2007) and published a chapter on the history of madness in literature and art in the recent Routledge History of Madness & Mental Health. His most personal book, The Count of Sardinia: Dmitry Khvostov and Russian Culture (New Literary Observer, 2017; in Russian) investigates the phenomenon of anti-poetry in Russian literary tradition from the 18th through the 21st century and focuses on the literary biography and cultural function of the king of Russian “bad poets,” Count Dmitry Khvostov. This book received a 2018 Marc Raeff’s Book Prize of the Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies Association. He is currently completing a comprehensive study of political and literary activities of Ivan Narodny (Jaan Siboul), a Russian-Estonian expat writer, art critic, and con-man, who lived in America from 1906 until his death in 1953 and was labeled by FBI as “the worst fraud that ever came out of Russia.” In 2019, Vinitsky received a Guggenheim Fellowship for this project.