Leading up to and throughout the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, we will be exploring through poetry, fiction, and nonfiction the implications of growing restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia since President Putin returned to office in 2012. The pieces were written for a special issue of The Dissident Blog, published by Swedish PEN.
In this piece, Natasha Perova, editor of Glas New Russian Writing, explains how the fear of commercialism and genre literature are often misleading if one wants to understand what is happening in the Russian literature of today.
Russians have traditionally had great reverence for their writers. And it’s not entirely a thing of the past—after all, people in their middle age, who were raised on the “great Russian literature”, like myself, are still alive, and many young people feel much the same way, but the situation regarding literature and serious arts is tending in a Western direction, where writers know their modest place in society. Our writers nowadays also try to entertain rather than to teach. Like elsewhere, the majority of people today prefer flashy shows, exciting games, and light fiction. Serious ideas have to be attractively packaged. And, of course, there is the addictive Internet with its huge variety of diversions, including reading. (It would seem that the length of online texts is irrelevant but people’s attention span keeps shrinking and even online magazines accept stories of only a few pages, preferably optimistic and cheerful: no doom and gloom, please.) Publishers try to persuade authors that they should adapt their writing to people’s tastes because this is where their income comes from. Naturally this approach undermines the authors’ self-respect and any feeling of self-importance.
For the past three years Glas has been publishing mainly books by authors under 30, winners of the Debut Prize, so I have had a chance to learn much about this generation. They don’t aspire to be “engineers of people’s souls,” to quote Stalin, nor do they feel responsible for their country’s fate, like the 19th century intelligentsia. Young authors are sober-minded and rather pragmatic, even the romantics among them. Their formative years coincided with the period of economic dislocation and political chaos in the 1990s, which they perceived as the norm. Where I would be shocked and frustrated, they remain cool and detached, not expecting the world to be perfect. The world in turn has little need for their stories unless they are adapted for the screen or TV serials.
However, they have a sharp eye for detail and great literary abilities that enable them to paint graphic pictures of the real Russia, mostly distant places at the back of beyond, of which we know hardly anything. Glas has published some of these writings in English translation.
In the past, the state made life hard for writers in Russia (and this is still not entirely a thing of the past). Censorship and dissent used to split the writing profession and influenced their writing in one way or another—you were either pro- or anti-Soviet. If you practiced “art for art’s sake,” you were anti-Soviet anyway. When censorship was lifted in the early 1990s and torrents of formerly banned books poured into bookshops, the newly-written works were “post-Soviet” in spirit, then “post-post-Soviet,” but they still couldn’t get away from the Soviet past. Only today’s 20- and 30-year-olds are finally writing about here and now while the Soviet theme for them is purely historical, like the times of Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible.
The authorities have finally realized how harmless intellectuals really are and leave them alone. Now they can say whatever they like and let off steam as much as they want, while the authorities couldn’t care less about their dissent as long as they are published in small print runs, which is usually the case. Writers yearned for freedom but when it was finally granted to them, they found that nobody cared very much about their brave ideas. The state can still make trouble for writers (and there are quite a few instances of this) but clever writers simply take the opportunity to use trouble as publicity.
During the 1990s, we witnessed the collapse of the morally engaged tradition of Russian literature. Fantasy, SF, the grotesque and nihilism became dominant. And yet we still have excellent serious authors who do their own thing, without heeding trends—they are trend-setters themselves. Fantasy, grotesque, detective novels, etc., are only literary forms, which they fill with great ideas and images. Suffice to recall that Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a fantasy and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a detective novel.
The contemporary literary scene is highly varied. The authorities let it be; they only worry about investigative journalists who may suddenly discover something not intended for their eyes and ears. Then things get serious – Politkovskaya is one example.
Readers abroad often say that Russia doesn't seem to have produced any “great novels” addressing the big issues of the last two decades, which were so rich in consequential events. Readers should be reminded that literature is not journalism which is supposed to run hot on the heels of events. Writers need to digest a historical period and analyze social changes. This is why, during the most violent period of social upheaval, writers were still trying to come to grips with their Soviet past. Contemporary novels are seldom translated (for various reasons) but they exist. Quite a few major novels have been published which deal with the perestroika, the onset of wild capitalism with its gang wars, and ordinary people’s failed attempts to start their own businesses and generally survive. Suffice to mention Olga Slavnikova’s definitive novel 2017, a summary of the last two decades of Russia’s life (published in Swedish by Ersatz), and her latest novel Light Head, which is about even more recent times (the resurrection of the secret service, terrorism, legions of petty business managers, and human relationships damaged by the cruel state machine, which is just as indifferent to the little man now as always has been the case in Russia.) Or we can recall Alexander Terekhov’s major novel The Stone Bridge, with two epochs juxtaposed as the protagonist investigates a crime committed in 1943 while chasing the survivors in present time and coming into contact with various aspects of the new order. Dmitry Bykov writes about Russia’s near future: in Living Souls, new sources of energy have been discovered in the West and no one needs Russian oil anymore, putting Russia on the brink of disaster and unleashing a civil war. In her novel of social protest, The Little Man, Liza Alexandrova-Zorina provides a frightening vision of Russia, depicting a provincial town controlled by the mafia with the approval of corrupt authorities and a submissive population.
Some people see a connection between political oppression and great art, believing that art is stimulated by terror. I disagree emphatically. A little hunger may stimulate an artist but a prolonged hunger will simply kill him. Thousands of talented authors and artists perished in the gulags and the best of Russian thinkers were exterminated or expelled from the country, reducing Russia’s cultural level dramatically. Oppression has always existed everywhere and will always be part of our lives. In sensible quantities, it may indeed be stimulating—some artists probably need to be disciplined occasionally, but if you live in a prison, you’ll simply dry up or go mad rather than be inspired to create a work of art.
In our times of market economy, pulp fiction has won over literary fiction in Russia, quite simply pushing it to the margins. If Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky tried offering their novels to commercial publishers today, they would have a hard time getting them published—they’d probably be rejected on grounds that their novels are too long and dense, too verbose, slow-moving, and serious. Many writers of literary fiction are heading for the middle market, turning out novels by numbers. In the early 1990s, they were still embarrassed to write under their own names and used pseudonyms. But now it’s even become fashionable among the intellectual elite to acknowledge pop culture and work within popular genres.
The example of Victor Pelevin is both typical and exceptional: he was one of the first to declare his intention to embrace genre forms and win broader appeal (which seemed highly improbable to me at the time). He was one of the very few, however, who never sacrificed any of his literary merit and, as a result, his books are enjoyed by many different categories of readers, each perceiving the text at their own level. Very few of the new writers who followed his example have managed to keep this balance—either the quality of their writing has suffered or they never reached the mass market anyway.
Boris Akunin is another highly symptomatic figure—a highbrow intellectual who made a conscious decision to write for the mass market (although under a pen name) and has had a great success precisely because, as an extremely intelligent person and a good psychologist, he knew how to impress simple minds. His example has been followed, with varying success, by many other bright young authors.
Since literary fiction has to co-exist with mass-market culture, young writers keep trying to bridge the gap, increasingly employing popular literary forms and resorting to all sorts of self-promotion devices, of which scandal has become the most popular and effective means of catching the public eye. When Vladimir Sorokin, our Russian Marquis de Sade, was accused of disseminating pornography and his books were theatrically thrown into a cardboard toilet outside the Bolshoi Theatre, the scandal only served to enhance Sorokin’s popularity, so much so that his publisher just tried to fan it out as much as possible.
The literary process is now organized as show business, with flashy presentations and contests, ratings, quizzes, and so on. Serious authors conduct TV shows and even advertise consumer goods.
Western influence on young Russian authors is quite obvious today. But this mostly concerns the form and method rather than the deeper things. Since authors look at the Russian condition and use local material, their works remain uniquely Russian in spirit and style. It should be mentioned that the celebrated 19th century Russian classics used the classical French novel as their model and that detracted nothing from their originality and importance.
Only in the last decade have big publishers, very cautiously, started launching literary fiction series in the hope that some of the works will make it into wide distribution and bring profit. This has, indeed, happened with Pelevin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, to name just two, who are probably the best known in the West today.
Women, as more practical creatures, are particularly active in mass-market publishing, although in Soviet times, women’s names, and gender problems as such, were practically absent in Russian literature. The current profusion of successful female names in both pulp and literary fiction is a new feature of the current literary scene.
State support for culture came to an end in the late 1980s, together with ideological censorship. This gave writers freedom of expression, but public interest was already irrevocably diverted toward mass culture. Serious literature lost its prestige. In the meantime, the 1990s produced a rich and varied culture. In many aspects, this post-censorship period had much in common with the 1920s—the country was again in the throes of violent change, overthrowing its former idols, questioning established values, and trying on new ideas for size. All sorts of productive as well as weird theories and movements sprouted up. Post-modernism co-existed with every brand of realism: magic, dirty, surrealistic. Writers set up their own publishing houses, bookshops, and literary clubs to reach their readers and somehow make a living in the absence of public interest in new writing. Literary fiction was published in tiny editions. People were busy catching up on their education devouring formerly banned books. The literary and artistic scene was active as never before, but faced such variety that both the critics and the public felt disoriented.
Although some of the above is still going on, I’m using the past tense here, because this period is over and the once endangered freedom of self-expression has moved to the Internet, where new writing thrives and feels safe, so far.