Letters from Russia

Context N°14

by Dmitry Golynko-Volfson

Beginning in 1986, at the peak of perestroika, Gorbachev’s reforms, and the grandiose collapse of the Soviet empire, the so-called “reading boom” erupted in Russia and continued until approximately 1993. The “thick” magazines—those with a circulation of several thousand copies, such as Novi Mir (New World), Znamia (Banner), October, Zvezda (Star), and Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of Nations)—began full-scale promotion of forbidden authors of the past and promulgation of works that had before been under censorship. The quantity of publications was so large and diverse that it felt like an avalanche falling on the heads of Russian literature’s main consumers: the liberal intelligentsia. In fast succession, the reading public was offered the yet-unexplored heritage of Russian modernist writers, Alexei Remizov, Boris Pilnyak, Andrei Platonov, and Boris Pasternak, alongside the nostalgic texts of “second-wave” emigrants to Paris or Berlin, Georgy Ivanov, Georgy Adamovich, Boris Poplavsky, and Gaito Gazdanov. Both of these groups in their turn competed for readers’ attention with the political satire and memoir lampoons offered by the “third-wave” emigrant authors of the 1970s and eighties, most of whom had settled in Germany or in North America: Solzhenitzyn, Vladimov, Voinovich, Dovlatov, and Axenov, to name a few. The information shock caused by the fast expansion of readership was so great that by the 1990s it seemed that mass familiarization with the historical reserves and resources of Russian prose would lead to a new cultural renaissance.

However, at the start of the nineties, due to a fall in the economy, the “thick” magazines couldn’t sustain their previous publishing regularity. Instead of twelve, they released only three or four issues per year during this period. These often arrived late, causing a drop in subscriptions and a loss of charismatic meaning. Neither the old Soviet publishing agencies (such as Khudozhestvennaya Literatura) nor the newly established giant publishers (such as the Severo-Zapad from St. Petersburg) were publishing new or younger Russian writers, as it was far more profitable to publish translations of modern or postmodern authors from the West (Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, Pavich, Eco, etc.), which brought fast money and a large revenue. (High-quality translations of commercially less prospective writers such as Bioy Casares or Italo Calvino were rare until almost ten years later.) Meanwhile, Russian prose writers by and large were not producing works of outstanding aesthetic discovery; the few who were being published were those who had received the status of recognized classics decades ago (Andrei Bitov, Vladimir Makanin, Fazil Iskander), but very few new Russian names were appearing.

The influential postmodernist critic Viacheslav Kuritsin forecasted that the nineties would be the epoch of nonfiction, and, in regards to the intelligentsia, he was right. Russian intellectuals were anxious to learn about Western theories, interpret methods of semiotics, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and hermeneutics, and find ways to apply these methods in a Russian context. Simultaneously, literary writing became a secondary priority, serving primarily as material for this research. The interest of the time was not in belletristic fiction but in the free-flowing, highly intellectual critical essay, with its elements of autobiography and historical skepticism and its pointed illuminating aphorisms. A vivid example of such essay writing is Rasstavanie s Nartsissom (Parting With Narcissus), a book of sketches by the Israeli stylist, Alexander Goldshtein, which was noted in a number of prestigious literary competitions.

In the middle of the 1990s the situation slightly changed: economically speaking, things seemed stable, and this relative stability suddenly encouraged the development of a neocapitalistic mythology in which, more than ever, “success” meant monetary accumulation and was to be achieved at any cost. In literature, trendy authors began appearing in the guise of charming and purposefully scandalous media celebrities. For a time, it seemed that being well publicized in the media was a writer’s only means of cultural survival. Relatively prominent figures of this period—such as Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and a bit later Boris Akunin and Leonid Yuzevich—fit what the media were looking for; all (except Pelevin) participated in the topic-of-the-day TV talk-shows and appeared on the covers of glossy magazines and at social events. These writers were firmly entrenched in the pop-culture industry and were in constant competition with one another. The role of the media-star put writers before a mass audience and forced them to speak in an accessible man-on-the-street jargon, while at the same time trying to appeal to a small group of elite, a clique of experts, who acted as intellectual cheerleaders.

These circumstances led, in the second half of the nineties, to an era of triumph, a “league of celebrities” in Russian prose. A writer’s success was measured not by the number of books sold nor by the response of his readership, but by the index of citations in glossy magazines and by the size of his book advances (which were sometimes absurdly high). Thus, this cult of stars in Russian prose formed before the publishing houses began to systematically employ PR companies and advertising technologies. Obviously, this is just one of the paradoxes that occurred during the process of overlapping reform efforts in Russian cultural politics of the nineties.

A handful of celebrities—even ones as prolific and contrasting as Pelevin or Sorokin—could hardly encompass the entire literary horizon. Thus, around 2000-01, new names began to surface, writers who belonged to unique stylistic camps that aspired to become the new top authors of Russian prose. To use the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu, who is currently popular in Russia, it was precisely the turn of the millennium that restored the “social field” to Russian prose, establishing a kind of stability amid the chaos. The writer’s vocation and the reader’s preference now depends on existing ratings, predictable market prices, and cruel reputation-games that are played out in the pages of critical reviews. The current state of affairs offers greater opportunity for a wider range of contemporary writers to develop public careers. Familiarity with the work of Russia’s new prose writers has become a point of prestige for readers, and book sales have become quite profitable for the publishing business.

The development of an award system (besides the Booker and Maly Booker Prizes, there are the Anti-Booker, National Bestseller, Apollon Grigoriev, Andrei Bely, Solzhinitsin, Severnaya Palmira, and several other awards) created loci of attraction—frequently contradicting—that brought together writers belonging to different aesthetic schools. This establishment of literary “salons” was reinforced by the large publishing houses, which gathered authors according to their ideological preferences. For example, the St. Petersburg-based Amfora and Limbus Press consolidate the “Petersburg fundamentalists” (Pavel Krusanov, Sergei Nosov, Alexander Sekatski, etc.), whose books set forth and develop the patriotic ideas of a powerful state in the mythological form of the invented “imperial novel.” The Moscow based NLO (New Literary Review) and OGI (United Humanities Publishing) publish authors who have aligned themselves with Western experimental or protest-strategy writing. For example, Stanislav Lvovski, the famous translator of Charles Bukowski, recently published a book of prose in the NLO “Soft Wave” series, a project that represents literature not yet integrated into the mainstream and not incorporated in systems of commercial success.

The mainstream demand in Russian prose today is for “convincing” works with political themes. So strong is this demand that it is hard for writers to avoid engaging with themes of political euphoria and the pathetic struggle or sarcastic overthrow of this or that political truth. In novels of the preceding decades, such as Psalom (Psalm) by Friedrich Gorenshtein, Price by Leonid Girshovich, and Sled v Sled (Track After Track) and Do i vo Vremia (Before and During) by Vladimir Sharov, issues of ethnic-cultural identity, complexes of historical guilt, and instances of national trauma approached the metaphysical or existential, with authors usually taking the position of omniscient “higher judges.” By contrast, in Dmitry Bikov’s and Pavel Krusanov’s novels from the past few years, these questions find a painful resolution through the authors’ unequivocal declarations of strong political position or affiliation.

It should be mentioned, in this regard, that the spectrum of political sympathies and passions occurring in today’s prose is wide-ranging. From the anarcho-communistic renunciations of governmental machines of suppression in Alexander Prokhanov’s novels to the antiglobal protests against the diktat of the mass media and means of capitalistic production in Alexander Tsvetkov’s novels, it seems clear that the market success for such books depends on the level of the author’s craftsmanship in fanaticism, pathos, and rhetoric, and not on the clear argumentative expression of the author’s political beliefs. This pseudopoliticization of prose, and of culture in general, is symptomatic of Russia: the ordinary people living in the current democratic society are just as removed from the administrative levers of government as they were back in the totalitarian Soviet times.

At any rate, it is along these various currents—the political, the phantasmal, the cult of celebrity—that the thematic repertoire of Russian prose, indistinct until now, has begun to take shape. Engagement with themes of psychedelics, crime, media, political technology, computers, and unresolved mysteries of (post)Soviet history has become a prerequisite for any book to become “successful.” Sergei Kuznetsov, a popular Moscow-based journalist who is well acquainted with contemporary Western culture, has recently started a new series of chronicles of nineties hermetic detective-genre stories. In 2003, Amfora published the first novel from the series, Seven Petals. Using psychotropic substances and tantric practices, the main characters investigate a possibly accidental homicide. In the end, however, we discover that the actual criminal is not a real person, but the decade itself, with its symbolized criminal nature and its cliché descriptions of quest for affluence at any price.

The current in Russian prose of the nineties that was trying to dethrone a corrupted social reality, expose it as a carnival show or a synthetically programmed mirage that got caught in the web of virtual reality, is now replaced with a search for mysteries of the indispensable—and hardly attainable—emotional foundations of human existence. In the novel Golovolomka (The Puzzle) by Riga, journalists Garros-Yevdokimov, one-dimensional characters, and stereotypical marionettes from a computer game emerge as carriers of the serious (although suppressed) fears and neuroses of contemporary human beings. Meanwhile, a different group of writers has gravitated toward the idea of the genuine fake, a mockery of moral sense and a ridicule of tradition. An example is the eight-hundred-page action parody novel by Belobrov-Popov, Krasni Buben (Red Tambourine), which is about Russian villagers who use modern weapons in conflict with bands of vampires and werewolves.

Our contemporary prose has also started to mimic popular movies, with plots that develop by the guidelines of a thriller or a horror picture, and with the dynamic “action” of a Hollywood film. From criminal or action movie parodies (such as Schizophrenia by Vadim Sergeev or Mama ne Goryui [Mama Don’t Be Sad] by Maxim Pezhemsky) or police detective series (such as Menti [Cops], Ulitsi Razbitix Fanarei [Streets of Broken Lanterns], Uboynaya Sila [Lethal Power]), literature has borrowed elements of mafia romanticism, brutal ethics of professional killers, and behavioral antinorms as the basis of social order. More often than not, the sense of verisimilitude in these books is achieved by flashy references to pop culture and brand names.

Thus, through the existing mosaic diversity of names and styles, there are a few currents or trends that have come to the foreground in contemporary Russian prose and that continue to struggle for publication and reader support. The “Petersburg fundamentalists” and several Moscow-based right-wing conservative gurus, writers, and critics (Dmirtri Bikov, Lev Pirogov, etc.) represent the “scandalous” school of Russian prose and the rebirth of the great “imperial” style. The movement is rather odious and revanchist. Russia has of course been reduced from a superpower to an economically broken-down colony of globalized capitalism, and the fundamentalists believe it will have to redeem itself through a new messianic ideal, balancing between mystical fascism and orthodox sanctity. It is important to note that those who represent this movement are not bigoted illiterates, but culturally educated successors of the unofficial underground currents, people who have read Nabokov and Eco, Borges and Pavich, Cortázar and Marquez. Their voluntary turn towards a conservative ideology is, first of all, a reaction against the postmodern mockery that was so prevalent in Russian culture of the nineties, and second, a product of these writers’ need to find new aesthetic grounds that connect to the old patriarchal values.

The protagonists in their novels are people who have been tragically pushed out from history—martyrs who fight for truth, conservative anarchists who are prepared to sacrifice earthly moral norms for the sake of higher ethical and religious revelations. They are ready for an ethical superstruggle and willing to commit terrible crimes in the name of their envisioned objective: resurrection of imperial ideology from the ashes. The environment where these rebel-castaways exist is not the pallid background of Russian everyday life, but a phantasmal landscape, of either an individual or collective, where the imaginary imperial past is idealized, and concrete life emerges in a satirized and hostile form. In Pavel Krusanov’s novels Ukus Angela (Bite of an Angel) and Bom-Bom, a transformed Russia becomes the object of such a phantasm, which reestablishes its territorial integrity and struggles towards a peaceful rule by a single superhuman figure, either an angel or an antichrist. In Ilia Stogov’s novels Macho Ne Plachut (Machos Don’t Cry), Otviortka (Screwdriver), and Kamikadze, the phantasmal motif takes the form of gory and savage images of reality drawn from newspaper articles, criminal chronicles, and street rumors. (It is not accidental that Stogov’s collection of newspaper publications is titled Tabloid.) The leitmotif of the majority of these books weaves around one rebel or secret conspiratorial sect that strives to resolve the future of Russia not by liberal-democratic but by mystic-esoteric means. The books are investigations into which world will best suit the future and which ruling figure—man, antichrist, or messiah—will win, questions that the authors explore through bold and often reactionary parables.

Furthermore, these “imperial” novels, because they have roots in European culture, are usually quite playful and full of textual quotations. In Dmitry Bikov’s Orthography (published in 2003, two years after his first novel, Opravdanie [Vindication]), the 1918 reforms in Russian orthography are paralleled with the nineties assault on the oligarch Gusinsky and the NTV (Independent Television) and the government’s attacks on liberal journalism. Bikov uses the name Yat for one of his characters (yat is a letter that was snipped from the Russian alphabet during the Bolshevik reforms) and gives him a “split personality” composed of two key figures associated with the evolution of Russia’s liberal thought: Andrei Shemiakin and Viktor Shenderovich. In Orthography, Bikov examines why Russia in the twentieth century couldn’t achieve its historical destiny and didn’t use its full power to realize the Great Imperial Project for which it was preordained. The plot of the novel shifts from revolutionary Petersburg to the shore of the Black Sea, from monstrous pictures of anarchy and sabotage to a touching melodrama, and from the twenties into the nineties. And everywhere the novel takes us, Bikov has to discover what caused Russia’s fatal failure in its movement towards the Great Project, how every twist and shortcoming hampered it from realization of utopia. In Russian criticism, Bikov’s genre is often called “imperial schizophrenia”; in his unrestrained ultra-conservatism, he at times appears even more liberal than the most hard-headed liberals.

The leftist-radical tendency is almost the mirror-image of the right rhetoric of the new fundamentalism. Leftist authors gather around the Moscow-based Gileya Publishing (director: Sergei Kudriavtsev) or publish in the series “Kontr-Kultura,” organized by translator and political activist Ilia Kormiltsev (the prison memoirs of Eduard Limonov, titled Prisoner of the Dead, were published here). In the novels of Kudriavtsev (Variant Gorgulova [Gorgulov’s Version]), Oleg Gastello (Poslednii antisemit [The Last Anti-Semite]), Dmitry Pimenov (Mutrevolutsija [Murk-Revolutions]), and Alexei Tsvetkov (Sidiromov i Drugie [Sidiromov and the Others]), the protagonist is an asocial renegade who leads an undercover diversionary battle against the machines of control and subordination. The protagonist’s goal, obtained only through a self-destructive and merciless battle, is no longer an imperialist idea of national greatness but an anarchist program of social justice, affirmed not as much through reason as through instinct. A powerful and successful example of this movement is Alexei Tsvetkov’s book TV for Terrorists, published by Amfora. The author presents the current political sphere as one of constant provocations, a bloody theatrical production. The symbolic terror in the book arises from institutionalized “language codes”; everyone is forced by the government to use these codes for everyday speech. For Tsvetkov, the endless disintegration of the Russian language is a part of the growing social anarchy. In his story Sni Disangelista (Dreams of the Disangelist), he offers not a virtuous, evangelical message, but rather a somber, disangelic one on the confusion of contemporary “political unconscious.”

But as a whole, the leftist-radical tendency of Russian prose, with its revolutionist emotionalism and cult of hysterical resistance, today seems a bit outdated and even infantile. Unfortunately, most healthy instances of leftist thought have lost their meaning and value due to years of being distorted by communist ideology. And so it’s not surprising that for many readers the texts applying leftist thought to the Russian context currently seem artistically less convincing or engaging compared to the eulogist extolling of right-wing conservatism.

Somewhat on the side from the political dialectics of the “right-left,” there is a tendency that, it seems, may be quite promising in the sense of possible aesthetic innovations—namely, the Russian version of cyber-punk, which has borne many approximate and imprecise labels, ranging from “computer writing” to “computer interface text.” If the novels of Gibson and Sterling monopolize such sci-fi material as the cyborg, the virtual body, and battles with transnational corporations, their Russian counterparts focus on two common themes: the Internet as a garbage disposal, an archive of endless spam, and the young subculture of internet users. Popular web journalist Max Fray (a pseudonym of the famous painter Svetlana Martinchik) started a series of Russian futurological or simply hooligan-like Internet-epics with Amfora. In the novel Pautina (The Web), published under the pseudonym Mercy Shelly (real name: Alexei Andreev, a Petersburg internet-activist), the story revolves around the undisciplined pastime of a future community of hackers, told in an ironic and amiable tone.

Sentimental and religious motifs, which are paradoxically powerful in Russian cyberpunk, sometimes lend this work characteristics of autoparody. Such characteristics are obscured in the prose of Petersburg programmer (and developer of DrWeb antivirus programs) Andrei Basharimov. Published by Kolonna Pub-lications, his novels Inscrustator and Pugovka (The Little Button) have already received good reviews and were nominated for the highly esteemed Andrei Bely Prize. In Basharimov’s book, the main body of the text appears to be destroyed by an unknown and powerful virus. As the story unfolds, the author creates new and more effective antivirus programs, sometimes without any results, other times successful, until eventually the text acquires a sense of overall cohesion and unity. Also interesting are the experiments of authors from the Moscow-based publishing circle Ad Marginem (like Bayan Shiryanov, with his trilogy Lowest Aerobatics, Medium Aerobatics, and Highest Aerobatics), which attempt to combine elements of computer writing with very rough neonaturalistic scenes.

It is important to mention today’s influential phenomenon of “women’s prose,” which has carved an independent niche for itself among other movements in literature and whose representatives (Tatiana Tolstaya, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Victoria Tokareva, Marina Palei, and others) have secured their own place in the bookstores. In Russia, where the patriarchal ideology of the Domostroy (meaning household management) is still incredibly strong, feminist authors scrupulously seek to assert themselves and define gender issues.

Critical and readership debates never cease around the paradox of “Russian postmodernism.” On one hand they force the prosaic text to mechanistically follow the accepted norms of postmodern poetics, but on the other hand they speak constantly of estrangement from the Russian aesthetical tastes that were nurtured on historical avant-gardism.

The overpowering advertising campaigns of popular fantasy-texts ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter are at the center of many lively discussions. We will see how the endless flow of such texts, currently in high demand, will affect the development of prose. All these tendencies and phenomena form the unique and constantly changing face of contemporary Russian prose.

Is Russian prose today going through its long-awaited renaissance? Time will tell. One thing is clear: the arrival of the twenty-first century has been promising. Readership for serious Russian prose has grown, an award system is in place, a more democratic market has been established, and the Russian literary community has eagerly embraced these developments.


Translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan.

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