In his latest campaign article, published in the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily, Russian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin takes Russia's national question and breaks it in two.
How do we deal with outsiders? he asks. And what does it mean to be an insider?
Accordingly, Putin uses his piece to call for several hard-nosed policies for dealing with the "outsiders"
-- the nation's growing immigrant population. But at the same time, he proposes a literary gateway for those who wish to become "insiders" -- a cultural canon of 100 books to serve as required reading for all students in Russia's schools.
Speaking on January 23 in the southern city of Kislovodsk, Putin acknowledged Russia's rich legacy as a multiethnic state, but said its inhabitants had much to gain from embracing a unified Russian identity.
"No one who lives in our country should forget about their religion or ethnicity," Putin said. "But everyone should be, first and foremost, a citizen of the great country of Russia."
Putin noted in his article that "every self-respecting" student at leading American universities has dutifully read their way through similar lists, such as the 51-volume Harvard Classics world-lit anthology
or the works included in American educator Mortimer Adler's "Great Books of the Western World."
Russia, Putin implied in his article, was not to be outdone.
"Our nation has always been a reading nation," he wrote, and called on the country's leading cultural authorities to get cracking with a list of their own.
The idea is not a new one. Similar lists already exist in Russia. For example, the decade-old "Library of National Classics."
That list, devised by the Education Ministry with the aim of unifying reading curriculums in secondary schools nationwide, includes standards like Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons," Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," and "And Quiet Flows the Don," by Mikhail Sholokhov.
But Grigory Balykhin, a United Russia lawmaker on the State Duma's education committee, today applauded Putin's plan
as "much broader" and likely to include not only national classics but unspecified philosophical and contemporary works.
For guidance, some visitors to the Russian blogosphere suggested Putin could turn to the list of 83 essential works
recommended by the late poet and author Joseph Brodsky, which begins with the "Bhagavad Gita," moves on through the works of Plato and Plutarch, and ends with Eliac Canetti's "Crowds and Power." Dostoyevsky, in fact, is the only Russian to make Brodsky's list.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Putin will favor the inclusion of foreign authors, as many Western book lists do -- and as many Russian readers would seemingly prefer. An informal reader poll on the website 100bestbooks.ru
ranks British writer Arthur Conan Doyle and France's Antoine de Saint-Exupery higher than native sons Pushkin or Tolstoy. To be fair, Mikhail Bulgakov and his beloved "Master and Margarita" still occupies the top spot.
Putin's 100-book proposal, meanwhile, has sparked some lively comments in cyberspace.
"I wonder if Orwell will make the list?" one Muscovite playfully mused on Twitter.
What books do you think should be on this list? Leave your recommendations in the comments section.