When I gave talks at literary conventions in the 1990’s, interested people would ask me what was happening in Russian literature and whether it was in as terrible a state as the economy. It used to give me great pleasure to reply that, on the contrary, Russian literature was flourishing to an enviable degree.
People still ask me this question today. A while ago I started to realise that I no longer enjoy replying. When I am asked, I frantically try to remember a recent work that I have genuinely liked. Of course, I always manage to come up with something. I tell them about a girl in Petersburg (they say she’s a girl, but perhaps the writer is actually a bearded guy), who has the very unfortunate pseudonym of Figl-Migl. Or I tentatively ask my companions if they are not perhaps interested in poetry, short stories or even essays. No, no one cares about anything except the “great novels”. They want to know who the prominent contemporary novelists are and who is attempting to become, or being hailed as, heir to the legacy of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol. Who gives cause for hope? And what happened to the high hopes of the 1990s – a time when a hundred flowers bloomed, as Chairman Mao would have put it.
Back then everything was dynamic. At literary festivals and international conferences, published writers of all ages happily rubbed shoulders with representatives of the new culture; it seemed as though infighting was a thing of the past. Lambs grazed side by side with lions, and wolves wagged their tails at the sight of sheep. Open hostility to different principles, opinions and lifestyles was only possible “on the other side of the fence”, among the “patriots” and “village writers” who, as a result of their publications and actions, had definitively set themselves apart. This was the period that Alexander Prokhanov called “the literary catacombs of the 1990s”, and the fact that Prokhanov didn’t like it, speaks for itself. (To avoid any misunderstanding: this is a description of the literary scene at the time, not of people’s lives, which were very difficult). Nevertheless, this was not “a peace, but an armistice”, in the same way as Marshal Foch wittily called the Treaty of Versailles, “an armistice for 20 years”. Twenty years have also gone by in our case. The joyous and terrifying 1990s are behind us and it is already possible to look back and assess the restoration decade of the 2000s.
So I began to wonder what had actually happened to our hopes.
In the late Soviet period there was increased interest in experimental literature, all forms of modernism and the avant-garde. This was mainly because books (and culture in general) were in short supply and highly coveted. The fact that many good books and authors were banned was only a secondary factor. Initially, when what had previously been forbidden was permitted and the unobtainable became available, everyone rushed to subscribe to magazines and buy books. Then came poverty, indifference and boredom, when no books apart from pulp literature (which was consumed as pulp, without respect) could interest the general public. At the beginning of the “noughties”, readers’ money began to be worth something again. Liberated from the need to read the unreadable and respect the incomprehensible, readers became interested in “serious literature” again. Mass serious literature that is. Publishing it became a profitable business once more. As we know, after several years of complex and protracted trading, the book market fell into the hands of a just a few large corporations. Those publishing houses with essentially literary output moved their small-circulation businesses quietly to the sidelines where there was little opportunity (and seemingly little desire) to sell their publications anywhere except in two or three large cities, at a few small shops specialising in “intellectual” (what a strange word) literature.
The large concerns do not, of course, only publish detective novels, fantasy and sad tales about women’s broken hearts and lives. They publish the classics, naturally, and some contemporary serious literature as well. This is the actual reason for the return of socialist realist literature, which, itself, was literature for the mass market with pretensions to seriousness. There is also the question of bias: the important positions at these corporations are held by former officials of the Soviet book trade; editors who served in Soviet publishing houses; readers brought up on Soviet writers. They probably genuinely like this literature.
The works of famous Soviet writers were published in large quantities. But you can’t live off old literature, readers have an appetite for the contemporary. New stars writers appeared, such as Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who moved from tales of the seamier side of women’s life in the perestroika era to writing sensitive, feminine prose, and more recently to religious and moralizing fiction with an anti-Semitic flavour (“Daniel Stein”).
Stop. Here, a short digression is required. It is not relevant to the matter at hand, but necessary, because there have been staggeringly different reactions to my completely harmless remark concerning the quite pronounced arrogance in the novel towards practising Jews. Here is an excerpt from a monologue by the main character as he is dying: “Perhaps I’m too much of a Jew? Do I know better than everyone else? No, no… Not really. […]. Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy, Lord have mercy…” The life of a man who died of natural causes has been dressed up as death in undisclosed circumstances with suggestions of a ritual Jewish curse. This is served up in pseudo-documentary prose and there's a hint of murderous calumny. However, the reactions to my comment were naturally much more anti-Semitic towards Mrs. Ulitskaya than her entire polemic with Judaism. It is also very unpleasant that many of the responses to my article focused on this aside, because I was not, in this case, writing about Jews or anti-Semitism, but literature.
So what happened to the hopes of the 1990s? Let’s take, for example, a former hero of the avant-garde, Vladimir Sorokin, who since completing “Blue Lard” has been writing increasingly trivial literature. I have a sad memory relating to this. While attending an exhibition in Frankfurt, Dmitry Prigov came to visit us for what turned out to be our last meeting. We talked at length on a wide range of topics. […] We discussed Sorokin, and quite unexpectedly Prigov expressed his surprise and regret that a former brother-in-arms had turned into a “commercial writer” (I’m not sure that these were his exact words, but this was his meaning). This was a particularly sad revelation, because Prigov never said anything bad about anyone – at least, during our rather superficial, but relatively long acquaintance I never heard him say a single ill-natured word (perhaps he did in conversation with closer friends, I don’t know).
Literature which was concerned with language, new images and unexpected ideas has become completely marginalized in a way unimaginable even in the Soviet period, when official literary functionaries were at least wary of it and, therefore, kept very close track of it. This marginalization has especially affected new authors who had not made a name for themselves during the Soviet period. In the end, the ruling literary taste has become what official Soviet criticism had always wanted it to be (but which it never was back then – simply to spite officialdom!): direct story-telling with a faint resemblance to the classics. It was usually very sentimental with strong ideological undertones, primitive language and extremely simplistic descriptions of the world. This is the posthumous victory of socialist realism! It was in this atmosphere that the new prose writers of the 2000s were raised – not all of them of course, but the majority of those who were noticed by publishing houses and critics, as if they were selected according to this principle.
[…] If we’re talking about new talent, I just want to understand why, when they’re completely free to choose, they – and those like them – have taken bad literature as a model. Do I need to stress that I mean bad from my point of view? (These people, and many others, must undoubtedly like this literature; why they do is one of the questions for this article). Another is why contemporary Russian literature is in such a state, that this is the new talent in the limelight, and not writers like Figl-Migl (this is also just an example).
Clearly the formative years of this generation were not conducive to gaining a well-rounded emotional education. All the value systems were overturned, aggression and self-pity were at a very high level, and the general state of awareness very low. During the transitional period it wasn’t just the hysteria of perestroika that left its mark on the minds of the poor children, but also (and even primarily) the old Soviet jargon.
“On the whole I believe that a writer should be listened to, and the perestroika congress of deputies where Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Vasily Belov were present is a worthy model”. My God, you think, reading this interview with the 29-year-old writer and politician Sergei Shargunov, what Yevtushenko, what Belov, what congress, where is it coming from, what planet is he on?! Then you look at the literary landscape and realize that young people’s heads are buzzing with a dangerous cocktail. Given the prevailing “red and brown” tendency, you can talk about freedom and democracy without bringing ideology into it at all. Nothing excludes anything else, everything can co-exist at the same time. Shargunov started by being associated with the National Bolsheviks, and supported Limonov. He moved from the “opposition forces” to “government-oriented forces”, but the real problem is not his political ambitions, but the fact that his thinking lacks any kind of cohesive structure. The main thing is that “a writer should be listened to”, and what he actually says and how he says it is not so important. […………..]
It goes without saying that taste is a matter of taste. For some sour horseradish tastes like raspberries, for others blancmange tastes like wormwood. […] The main thing here is the absolutely natural presence of Soviet literature in the consciousness of contemporary fiction. When I started reading the new realists, I immediately noticed something terribly familiar and almost forgotten. It makes itself felt through the tones of self-pity which remind one of perestroika films with their roll-call of standard clichés: cops, tramps, hitmen, drug addicts, prostitutes etc. Each time I recognised the style, the heavy breathing and semi-literate tones of official Soviet writers such as Valentin Rasputin or Yury Bondarev.
Perhaps it all began when the Ad Marginem publishing house resurrected Alexander Prokhanov from his semi-limbo on “the other side of the fence”. For several years I noted with interest that a left-wing tendency was starting to emerge in the publishing programme of this once quite attractive establishment that had published several excellent books. […] and wondered where it could be leading. The answer was the publication of “The Last Soldier of the Empire”, as a result of which Prokhanov became a kind of cult figure. This was because the book was published “on this side of the fence”, in that part of the Moscow literary world whose receptions are illuminated by antique chandeliers [….] The fantastic, paranoid images based on the mystical-geographical and racial-social “false sciences” that were popular in the dreary late-Soviet period are characteristic of Prokhanov’s generation in general. However, at a time when he needed their skills to fight the daily battle for survival, his young followers rallied behind him. They had no time for phantoms. Perhaps this makes them better people (or perhaps it makes them worse, I don’t know), but unfortunately it does not make them better writers.
It is insulting to Russian literature that a person who writes in Russian in the way that Zakhar Prilepin does, is considered one of the leading writers. As an example of his writing, it is sufficient to recall the much-ridiculed excerpt, “I was stroking Dasha, who was standing over me. Her face was turned towards me and her vast boobies were touching my face...” Once again, the problem for me is not Prilepin. Perhaps under different conditions he might have become a decent writer. He hankers after the Soviet period. Perhaps he would have been a good Soviet writer, because the editors of the time would have simply crossed out all these “vast boobies touching my face”, and he could have then complained of “Jewish tyranny” to the Central House of Writers. The problem is that this reflects the status of literature today, where using substandard language is considered unimportant. The critic is forced to conclude wryly that relevance and authenticity are the main priorities. And the conclusion of the critics is more revealing than the real (if he is real) Zakhar Prilepin.
I regard it as very important to understand why educated people, who are supposedly far removed from the patriotic ideas primitively interpreted by Soviet ignoramuses, are prepared to have anything to do with this ideological and cultural standard. For living with it clearly means living by it. Of this there can be absolutely no doubt. Why is this of so little interest to people, even as a way of formulating the question? It would be no surprise if this kind of literature were being accepted and sponsored at the editorial offices of the “Young Guard” magazine. But the liberal opposition comedian Viktor Shenderovich, for example, said on Radio Liberty, that people should simply enjoy the works of the great writer Prilepin, paying no attention to his Bolshevist views. This is what is significant, rather than the fact that such writers and prose exist.
I have given only a few examples to illustrate the renaissance of Soviet literary taste and the rehabilitation of Soviet cultural ideology. This is an objective phenomenon, not an organized initiative. Things will not improve until it is fully recognized – above all by people for whom the fall of the aesthetic, ideological and economic monopoly of the Soviet cultural machine was a long-awaited liberation, and not a catastrophe that deprived them of writers’ dachas and places in the Supreme Council (or the hope of achieving them). There will be no improvement in new, young literature either. I felt I had a duty to name and define this problem. This is the only reason I have restated the content of my German article and commented on it, though it was actually written for a different purpose – primarily to inform.
This is an edited version of Olga Martynova's article which first appeared in www.openspace.ru