Letter from Russia: Contemporary Émigré Writing

Context N°16

by Margaret Meklin

It is no surprise that many Russian writers now reside outside their native country, since it has been a subconsciously deep-rooted tradition in Russia to oust its own intellectuals as far as possible. The other factor contributing to this phenomenon, of course, has been the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left many Russian-speaking republics on their own—as a result, there are a number of writers living in the former republics and abroad who have never been accounted for by Russian critics and Slavists.

During my brief visit to Kazakhstan this past summer I was assigned to evaluate Musaget, a Russian literary organization that, in a country suspicious of independent writing and thought, stays afloat through financial support from a Dutch cultural fund. Musaget’s goal is to nurture—through its creative writing seminars, contests, and the literary quarterly Apollinary—emerging avant-garde writers in an otherwise malnourished literary Kazakhstan.

Contemporary literature is hardly of any issue in this ex-USSR republic; Socialist Realism is still the favored genre, ideal for casting the former Soviet province in a falsely positive and upbeat light. Writers walking on the sunny side of the page get published by state-subsidized publishing houses; writers choosing dangerous, derelict paths, who dare to depict impoverished, impossible lives are ostracized; writers criticizing the president and his clan are driven into seclusion and silence.

It would be too easy to say that the lack of democracy in Central Asia is slowing down cultural development. Beside external barriers, there are internal ones too, such as internalized shame, self-victimization, and the lack of individualism. The phrase “made in USSR” is so deeply engraved within anyone born in the Soviet Union that many generations will have to come and go before this stale mentality is completely dissolved. In an attempt to preserve the native Kazakh culture, the Writer’s Union of Kazakhstan, still not free from its nomenclature, pressures its writers to incorporate “Kazakh motifs” into their works. With great reluctance the Union admits new members who write in Russian, openly emphasizing the preference for writers who write in Kazakh.

In general, it can be said that one of the factors slowing down the literary process in Kazakhstan (and perhaps in other former republics of the USSR) is ethnic tension. During the Soviet era, Russian was viewed by many as the language of the oppressor. Once the republics dissociated themselves from the Soviet Union, they immediately began instigating ethnic, if not nationalistic, feelings, subsequently trying to get rid of Russian culture and language at once. Still, there is a massive Russian presence in Kazakhstan, with Kazakhs approximating 45% and Russians 35% of the population. Taking into account that Russian is still widely used in various literary and academic circles, émigré Russian writing in Kazakhstan remains rather unimpressive.

Overlooked by the local writer’s unions and invigorated mostly by nonprofit organizations such as Musaget, Russian literature in the republics of the former USSR is simply ignored in Russia. Dmitry Kuz’min, a Moscow critic, once wrote in his Internet blog that, its existence assumed, Russian literature in the former Soviet republics—where Russian is the native language for many—is of an extremely poor quality. Whereas a critic or writer from Kazakhstan will try to catch every “new word” whispered in St. Petersburg or Moscow, it is unlikely that a columnist from Russia’s cultural capitals would pay any attention to a publication from Kazakhstan or any of the other “provinces.”

Even the locals in a country starving for democratic freedoms have little regard for their own authors, preferring contemporary literature imported from Russia. Shelved under the rubric “contemporary literature,” the Kazakh bookstores sell fiction and nonfiction from U-Factoria (Ekaterinburg), Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie (Moscow), Inapress (St. Petersburg), and Amfora (Moscow—St. Petersburg). Books in Russian produced locally by independent nonprofits, such as Musaget, are rejected by salacious market-oriented bookstores.

Russian literature, unlike the fruitful, though frightful, “white émigré” era, does not flourish even in Europe. Take for instance the French-Russian literary quarterly Stethoscope, a thinner twin of Kazakhstan’s Apollinary, devoted in its entirety to new Russian writing. With many similarities between them—both magazines encourage a writer’s innovation and inner freedom and display no special penchant for politics or polemics (or, as the nasty narrator from Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins would say, they express a “pathological indifference to politics, major ideas in minor minds, and such vital problems as overpopulation in urban centers”)—Stethoscope is luckier than its Kazakh counterpart, having secured some distribution in Russia, no matter how miniscule.

One of the most prominent of Stethoscope’s contributors is Andrei Lebedev, a Parisian in the prime of his prose, who, in spite of a prolific pile of writings in Russian, failed to find a publisher and financed all his projects himself. His latest collection entitled Gorodorog [a Russian palindrome for A City of Many Paths] is an anthology of essays by contemporary Russian writers. Inspired by Guy Debord and “situationist” ideas about psychogeography as a science researching the influence of geographic environments on the emotions and behavior of its émigré inhabitants, Gorodorog, an insightful analysis of Russian writers living in Lima, San Francisco, Istanbul, and Krakow, is reminiscent of Dalkey Archive Press’s Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. There is one feature that Lebedev and the editors of Stethoscope and Apollinary (which claims to be the first journal in Kazakhstan to print an essay by Jacques Derrida) share: they welcome authors not only from France or Kazakhstan, but also from Germany, Russia, Romania, the United States, and other countries.

The allure of the literary American dream is so big that many Russian émigré writers, such as the Guggenheim fellow Mikhail Iossel or the “Russian debutante” Gary Shteyngart, both originally from St. Petersburg, have abandoned their Russian word wells and started drilling in English (this move could prove successful: had Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita failed to impress the American public, Russians, suckers for foreign flattery, would probably still go on debating whether to consider him great).

Many not very well-known, but nevertheless gifted Russians living abroad, who are not perceived to be “commercial” by various publishers, are paving and paying their way into the literary scene with their own dollars, showering money on magazines that will accommodate them. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the sluggish literary process in Russia is propelled by literary prizes given preferably to Russians living in Russia, turning magazines into fiction factories, wholesale suppliers of on-demand literature for the patrons, who promote the magazine. The second reason is the assumption that whoever lives abroad is rich. Often Russians depreciatingly call their former compatriots ham—not head—hunters, suggesting that the industrious émigrés, who have left Russia for France or the United States, are now able to afford hefty portions of ham.

Having nothing to do with this stereotype, many Russian émigrés in the States are eager to participate in group literary activities that usually take place in New York. One of the major players on the New York literary scene, Koja Press, is pouring money not into ham, but into handsomely bound editions, publishing the literary periodical Magazinnik. A recent success of this press is Edison in Paradise, a miniature poetry chapbook by the New Yorker Leonid Drozner, originally from Kharkov, a minimalist poet, prose writer, and painter with an affinity for the Lianozov Poetry School.

The second player on the New York scene is the Ugly Duckling Presse, with its economically packaged Eastern European poetry series. One of the upcoming exceptional entrées on this publishing house’s menu is Arkadii Dragomoschenko, an eloquent essayist and poet of the language school from St. Petersburg, whose elegant novel Chinese Sun—with its love for the fluidity of time and flirting, philosophy of language and Wittgenstein, bicycles, Borges, and bytes (Dragomoschenko is one of the first Russian writers to use computer terminology in his works)—will be published by Ugly Duckling (a second volume of essays titled Dust forthcoming from Dalkey in 2006). An underground guru, Dragomoschenko is well-known in Russia for his pro-American views, an image only reinforced by his teaching stints at SUNYBuffalo and the University of California (San Diego). A frequent lecturer in the Philosophy department of St. Petersburg University, Dragomoschenko has positioned himself at the vanguard of intellectual thought. Take American literati such as Paul Bowles and Eliot Weinberger, Lyn Hejinian and John Ashbery, Diane di Prima and Allen Ginsberg, or the Russian philosophers Aleksandr Sekatzky (St. Petersburg) and Mikhail Yampolsky (United States)—Dragomoschenko has collaborated with all of them at one time or another, translating and introducing their writings in Russia through his tightly weaved, erudite essays full of literary allusions and homemade aphorisms.

Regardless of the various attempts of Russian prose writers in the United States during the nineties, no charismatic figure emerged aside from already established émigrés of the older generation such as the late humorist Sergei Dovlatov or the “borderland” essayist Alexander Genis. Uprooted from the country of their upbringing, writers who do not mix with New York-based literary Russian circles have almost no means to reach their audience and their books remain “undiscovered.” The diminishing interest in Russian affairs does not help either. Behind the Iron Curtain, the West perceived “the Russians” as a desperate and bewildered folk, who lost their sophistication soon after the glasnost era and have become less intriguing. As a result, despite the violent conflicts in Chechnya or South Osetia and the war waged against freedom of speech, Russian dissident writers (a niche occupied in the past by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yuz Aleshkovsky) have lost their appeal in the West.

Among the émigré writers, Konstantin Pleshakov, who claims to have been influenced by the rawness of Burroughs’s characters and Vadim Mesiatz, whose novel Treatment by Electricity became a finalist for the Russian Booker Prize, were able to get some attention in their native country. Neither Pleshakov nor Mesiatz, however, were able to achieve popularity, unlike the aforementioned Alexander Genis, who has become a Russian Frances Mayes, penning pseudo-ethnographic, consumeroriented essays on fishing in Philadelphia or gardening in Great Falls. The reason for the meager response to the works of Pleshakov and Mesiatz is perhaps the fact that Russians are not ready yet for true multi-culturalism. A globetrotting tramp and omnisexual snob hopping planes and flip-flopping from a Mulatto girl to a Greek boy (because of his gay themes exploration, Pleshakov has been a welcomed guest in the avant-garde Russian journal Mitin Zhurnal published in Prague) is not a common figure on Russian pages. And yet in their fiction, both Pleshakov and in their fiction, both Pleshakov and Mesiatz develop eccentric characters who are equally interested in French philosophy and fine dining, Russian slang, American slums, foreign airports, and multi-lingual Internet portals. The intended absence of a defined plot and the omnipresence of word play put these authors in a niche of difficult writers and limit their accessibility, and only a few who have a penchant for bizarre books might find Mesiatz’s Treatment by Electricity an experimentation written very much in the style of Nabokov’s Ada.

As for other émigré literati, the selfcongratulatory atmosphere never leaves the crowded gatherings of these Broadway brodskovites, many of whom, borrowing Zinovy Zinik’s expression, “turn exile into a literary exercise.” Consumed by their experiences of displacement, these authors fall into the habitual spin of writing about working in brothels or brooding on a Salvation Army divan while composing poetry, or better yet, their bittersweet Soviet childhood seen through the veil of American life—they deny themselves unique voices, placing higher importance on the excruciating details of their expatriate existence instead of launching their own stylistic expertise. One of the more notable books written in this genre is Poor Lass, or Apple, Hen, Pushkin by Yulia Belomlinskaya, a Russian who, having spent fifteen years in New York, recently returned to St. Petersburg.

However, the sparse existence of “émigré literature” does not necessarily manifest the existence of exemplary fiction, which according to the critic Viacheslav Kuritzyn, is nearly impossible to find even in the Russian literary capitals. Another Russian critic, Dmitry Bavilsky, echoes Kuritzyn, stating that Russian writers, skilled either in avant-garde confessional concoctions reminiscent of unedited diary entries or in disposable detective stories, cannot find a balance between the two. The lack or absence of good émigré literature can also be explained by the critics’ and publishers’ inability to reach out to the gifted writer residing outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg. With almost no Russian literary criticism present abroad, writers outside of Russia do not feel that their literature is of any importance and write with no hope of seeing their works published. With limited and heavily biased information available on émigré writing, it is important for Slavists to stop relying on just the few established critics residing in Moscow or St. Petersburg and start addressing the issues of this exiled literature.

← Return to index

Comments are closed.