Sergei Chavain’s Elnet reviewed

The novel Elnet by Sergei Chavain (1888–1937) depicts the Russian revolution in a Mari village of yesteryear and the conflict around Mari identity. The fate of two young men are intertwined in its plot. These characters are perfect opposites: Sakar is an unlettered hunter, a mischievous fellow who obeys no one and mocks the authorities, while Grigori Petrovič Vetkan is a village schoolteacher and part of the Mari nationalist intelligentsia.

Elnet is a classic — it is the first Mari novel. To be more precise, of the two dialects of the Mari language, Meadow Mari and Hill Mari, Chavain wrote the first thing worth mentioning. Elnet cannot counted among the best works of early revolutionary literature. In the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s many novels were written which depict the revolution and the transition to socialism. This is also the main theme of Chavain’s novel.

Elnet’s interest lies rather in its depict of the Mari and in a sort of dawning postcolonialist perspective. The Mari folktales and folksongs interspersed with the novel’s prose — such as the tale of the Bread Dough Hero — are fascinating. The social conditions depicted in Chavain’s novel are not so far from current conditions in Mari El, which since 2001 has been dominated by the racist governor Leonid Markelov, Kremlin-sanctioned oppression and Russification.


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