Many questions have kept me from the release and peace that follows my head hitting the pillow at night. More recently, I have spent many a twilight hour pondering if Russian President Vladimir Putin has ever read Sylvia Plath.
It has recently been revealed to me that there is little doubt that Putin, like a good upstanding Russian boy growing up in a Soviet world, has delighted in the words of Alexander Pushkin, Sergei Yesenin, and, of course, Leo Tolstoy. It is also said he enjoyed classic Russian novelists like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov. Even Russian fairy tales have stuck with Putin, such as those collected in the Kolobok, which make the most unforgiving that the Grimms had to offer, along with all of the Penny Dreadfuls, look like Baby Shark. When he is not filling his head with the dangerous-nonsense philosophical musings of Alexandr Dugin or ‘the modern-day Rasputin’, Vladislav Surkov – who believes Ukraine does not exist – Putin instead tops up with other worldly classics like the I-Ching, the Book of Change, a much more astrological book than I would think fitting his tastes, and Ernest Hemingway – oh the things you learn when you ask for whom the bell tolls! His admiration of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and the novels of Alexander Dumas makes me rethink my own readings of and admiration for these works. Perhaps he could do us all a favour and take a page from Hemingway’s advice on mixing spirits and longing gazes down the end of a double-barrel shotgun. That was dark, but such is the case when we explore the sources of another’s knowledge.
While it is not exhaustive, we can tell a lot from what a person reads. To begin, we can see what knowledge they may have or at least have been exposed to. But more importantly we can see what gaps leave room for uncertainty and ignorance. We put almost all of our epistemological efforts into trying to understand what others know. While this can be a most fruitful quest, we often, incompletely, refer to this as education. In actuality, it is only one side of the coin. Agnotology, the study of ignorance, can be equally as revealing and simultaneously self-revelatory as to what we ourselves do not, and perhaps cannot, know. So, instead of trying to sort between what Putin has read or what his media apparatus would like to have people think he enjoys reading, I wonder what exploration of ignorance Putin himself has taken on. This is where Plath comes in. In fact, after considered thought, had I the opportunity, I would not really wish to speak with Putin, simultaneous translation can be a bit of a headache, instead, I would gift him Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar.