November 14, 2005
Prophets Unarmed
By Dmitry Babich
Russia Profile

A New Breed of Writers Searches for a Public

“So, what can you do with these writers?” Vladimir Shevelyov, the editor of the morals and law section at the weekly newspaper Moskovkiye Novosti was obviously at a loss. The newspaper wanted to conduct a survey of novelists opinions on the moral values of Russia’s youth. Traditionally, such a task would have been easy for Russian newspapers. Since the time of Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, Russian writers have devoted much of their work to examining the lives of their countrymen. The change came during the 1990s. Shevelyov’s problem is not that there are no young writers, but simply that their opinions no longer matter to the average Russian today.

“The old Soviet writers died out or became obsolete,” Shevelyov said. “And the young ones are nowhere to be seen.”

“There are good writers in modern Russia, as there have always been,” said And-rei Nemzer, a literary critic. “The problem is with the distracted public. The communication between a writer and his audience has been clogged.”

The circulation of “thick” literary journals, a traditional Russian medium for delivering modern fiction to the broad public, has shrunk dramatically. The circulation of Novy Mir, the most prominent of these, reached 1 million in 1990, but is now no more than 8,000.

In the opinion of writers and critics, there are non-artistic reasons for the popularity of fiction in the Soviet period and its waning influence now. In the absence of modern institutions of civil society, literature served as a substitute for basic freedoms such as the freedom of the press, freedom of religion and trial by jury. Through their novels, writers passed moral judgments and positioned themselves as the “shepherds of the nation,” serving as journalists, judges and priests. But this state of affairs came to an abrupt end in the early 1990s.

The importance of literature decreased as modern institutions developed and mass media took a more prominent role in Russian life. However, the media and the judiciary are far from being the most popular institutions in Russia because of corruption and a perceived subservience to the rich and powerful. The church is often accused of indifference to social problems and of maintaining close ties to the state. In this environment, many writers view their situation inside this new society as humiliating.

“Literature lost its value in the eyes of society with the ruble devaluation of 1992,” said Alexei Varlamov, one of the most promising young fiction writers of the 1990s. “How did this come about right after the perestroika fervor of the 1980s, when not only fiction writers, but even economists writing for thick literary journals seemed to become prophets of the nation? The answer is that perestroika was full of lies and now we have to pay for this deception.”

According to Varlamov, perestroika encouraged excessive attention to be focused mediocre literary works that carried the right political message. “Writers allowed themselves to be lured into a cheap political struggle that was started by people who had no relation to literature. They divided themselves into patriots and democrats and started spitting at each other, thus discrediting themselves and literature at large in the eyes of the reading public,” he said.

“I can understand why some young writers feel undervalued,” said Lazar Lazarev, the editor-in-chief of Voprosy Literatury (Problems of Literature), a prominent Russian magazine of literary theory. “The publication of previously prohibited Russian 20th century novels in the late 1980s pushed a lot of young writers to the sidelines. It is difficult for a Varlamov to compete with a Nabokov if they happen to be published in the same issue of a magazine.”

The difficulties involved in publication and the decline in social status caused some writers to become disillusioned with reforms. Even some traditionally liberal writers started to voice more conservative opinions. Some authors drew parallels between the reforms of the 1990s and the revolution of 1917, complaining that, in both cases, traditional Russian culture, and fiction in particular, were among the primary losers.

“We writers suddenly found ourselves in the position of Russian emigres after 1917,” wrote satirist Valery Popov in an article for Voprosy Literatury. “The new revolutionaries turned out to be even tougher than those of 1917. They do not hire us even as ‘bourgeois specialists’ [the derogatory name by which Bolsheviks called those representatives of the ‘exploiting classes’ whom they used in the army and industry during the early years after the revolution] because we may say unpleasant things to them.”

Some writers and literary critics, however, do not despair and, instead, view continued writing in the current situation as a type of litmus test for a real author.

“We have some very interesting young prose writers,” said Irina Rodnyanskaya, the chief literary critic at Novy Mir. “Some of them live abroad, but it does not prevent them from writing for our magazine. For example, the writer Mikhail Shishkin lives in Switzerland, but his novels received the Russian Booker Prize in 2001 and the country’s National Bestseller prize in 2005. It does not matter where you live. You just have to keep being interested in writing and accept that you write for a smaller audience.”

Rodnyanskaya is skeptical about the claims that modern Russian fiction is becoming a sort of post-modernist game with no moral or political message. Instead, she supports the idea that the love of preaching, for which Russian literature has always been known, will survive all changes in style and economic conditions.

“I read the authors whom the media calls post-modernist or commercial and, in fact, they all try to preach to the reader at some point,” Rodnyanskaya said. “Viktor Pelevin once said that he writes only in support of the values that are dear to him. Boris Akunin, whose works are mostly a phenomenon of mass literature, suddenly comes up with a detailed project of reforming Russia in his novel “Pelageya.”

Rodnyanskaya notes that even Vladimir Sorokin, whose controversial books were criticized by conservative pro-government youth groups, started preaching in his novel “Ice.” For self-styled “punk” writer Eduard Limonov, the leader of the radical National Bolshevik Party, political activity has become a form of promotion, which helped him sell millions of copies of his books after his return from emigration in the early 1990s.

“Whatever you may think of Pelevin’s or Limonov’s political views, they are good writers,” Rodnyanskaya said. “Our main problem is not with authors. It is with the media, which pays little attention to fiction and the book trade.”

Lazar Lazarev, who has been tracking the development of Russian fiction since 1945, agrees, to an extent.

“The state should guarantee the cultural minority the freedom of choice, and the readers of fiction are a cultural minority now,” he said. “Under the current economic conditions, an author gets peanuts for his work and this is a huge humiliation for him. But reforming the book trade is only a part of the challenge. There are no ideas that would unite the nation and this is the real problem. The transition period since the fall of communism has been dragging on for too long, at least in fiction.”

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