new russian writing
A Glas - SRF partnership
Blog postings 2016-
The flyer is released to freedom,
Having swung his two blades, as a beast
Into the water of the sea,
He slipped into the air streams.
From Alexander Blok’s Aviator (1910-1911), trans. Lyudmila Purgina
The latest winners of the annual Big Book Prize (Bol’shaya Kniga) were announced in December last year at the Pashkov House in Moscow. This year’s winner was Leonid Yuzefovich (1947), who was awarded the first place for his historical autobiography The Winter Road (Зимняя дорога, 2015). Respectively, second and third places were awarded to Evgeny Vodolazkin for his historical novel Aviator (Авиатор) and to Lyudmila Ulitskaya for her novel Jacob’s Ladder (Лестница Якова), a family saga. While Yuzefovich and Ulitskaya are well known in Russia and outside Russia, Vodolazkin still awaits full recognition as an important contemporary writer.
Evgeny Vodolazkin (b. Kiev 1964) is a Russian scholar of old Russian literature at the renowned Pushkinsky Dom in St Petersburg. He gained both national and international acclaim for his historical novel and bestseller Laurus (Лавр, 2012: trans. Lisa Hayden, publ. Oneworld Publications), the winner of the Big Book Prize of 2013, for which he has been compared to Umberto Eco and Garcia Marquez by more than one reviewer. With his latest novel Aviator, he confirms his status as a respected writer by taking the same genre much further while engaging with fantasy.
Aviator sets out the story of Innokentii Petrovich Platonov, a young Russian man, who wakes up during the late nineties in a Russian hospital with a complete loss of memory. Gradually Innokentii recovers his memory due to the help of his personal doctor, named Geiger, who advises him to keep a diary. Through his diary notes, the complex world of the hero is revealed.
The reader quickly discovers that Innokentii, born in 1900, has been the victim of a Soviet experiment which took place in the Solovki prison camps during the thirties. As part of an experiment to prolong the lives of the party nomenclature, he was frozen alive. Surprisingly, he survived and he was eventually defrosted by Geiger, who brought him out of a deep coma. Against this background, the life of Innokentii is set out, carrying the reader back into St. Petersburg at the beginning of the twentieth century. Vodolazkin’s meticulous narrative style sketches convincing and readable accounts of Innokentii’s youth, his passion for aviation and his first love story, leading up to his imprisonment in the Solovki prison camps, where he is sent for murder.
Innokentii’s recovery is set in the nineties, a period which in the novel is characterised by disorder and kleptocracy, but also by fundamental societal change. As in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Innokentii’s favorite book), the hero finds himself all of a sudden in unknown territory, a new era in Russian history, in a country where technology, media and consumerism are representing the ‘new’ normal. Through the use of subtle humour, Vodolazkin mocks the sore points of the time. It does not take long before the hero becomes the target of the Russian media, the government and big business which are all struggling to get hold of him to further their political and/ or commercial agendas. He is chosen ‘Man of the Year’, he gets awarded the highest order of the government (in the form of rehabilitation), he is hunted down by paparazzi and he is even asked to appear in advertisements for deep-frozen products,
The hero’s search for his own identity develops into an original attempt to discover truth about or at least answers to the Soviet past. This is stylistically facilitated through dexterously moving back and forth in time with St. Petersburg as central reference point. A multiplicity of narrating voices translates Innokentii’s quest into a dynamic portrait of Russian history, while fundamental questions about the past are raised and sore points such as the Solovki camps and Stalin’s legacy are highlighted. The hero, who gradually develops into a symbol for the post-Soviet generation, digs into literature and archives in an attempt to recover his identity and find answers to the many unsolved questions which jeopardise his quest.
This dive into history is not only typical of post-Soviet Russian writers’ ‘obsession’ with Russia’s past, but it also refers to a broader trend in contemporary Russian society, where ‘rewriting Russian history’ has become a crucial aspect of successive regimes’ attempts to redefine Russianness, well exemplified in the restoration of pre-revolutionary and Soviet symbols in everyday life such as the Soviet anthem or the celebration of days honouring the army, for example, the Defender of the Fatherland Day (Den’ Zashchitnika Otechestva).
It is rather difficult to pinpoint the central idea of the novel as the writer touches upon various fundamental questions such as the concept of history seen from a personal versus a societal point of view or the post-communist transformation and the Russian obsession for ‘truth’ during the nineties. Most interesting from my point of view, however, is the interaction between national identity and history in the negotiation of the difficult question of judgement and guilt with respect to Russia’s twentieth century. Vodolazkin brilliantly addresses the latter in Platonov’s relationship vis-à-vis Geiger. When it comes to his judgement of the Soviet legacy, Geiger, depicted as a typical liberal, leaves little doubt about the utter necessity to acknowledge the inhumanity of the former regime. Innokentii however, holds a more nuanced vision on the same question. Critical of the Soviet system and in particular of the figure of Stalin, who is seen as a source of terror, Innokentii flirts with the idea of the inevitability of the collision of time, history (and fate?).
Vodolazkin’s novel is a worthy second place winner of the Big Book Prize and this is reflected in its positive reception in Russia. If we read the character of Platonov as a metaphor for the post-Soviet citizen, his quest addresses the ongoing search for a definition of Russianness in the 21st century. This makes the novel a must-read as it, in the best Russian literary tradition, provides a key to an understanding of contemporary Russia. The narrative structure of the novel is arguably the strongest element of the novel. It successfully leaves space for the disparate voices present in today’s society, which Vodolazkin observes as an aviator, who is watching the world from his plane.
For 18 years now the first week of December has been the time for the main book event in Moscow: the International Non/Fiction Book Fair. This misleading name was given to the book fair when “nonfiction” was a new word in Russia and sounded attractively foreign and mysterious. In actual fact the “nonfiction” Book Fair offers a wide variety of all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, and the only limitation is that no trash is allowed. The big commercial publishers are permitted to participate with only their high-quality literary fiction and nonfiction. This rule, incidentally, encouraged commercial publishers to launch or extend their series of good books for a more educated readership.
By the time the organisers realised that the Book Fair’s name creates problems for foreigners (because for non-Russians “nonfiction” is just nonfiction and does not sound at all glamorous) it was too late to change the name and it stuck.
During the 18 years of its existence this special book fair for “intellectual” books has undergone certain transformations, reflecting the evolution of Russian public life and the publishing situation. It started as a kind of a safety-valve to provide a breath of fresh air in the conditions of total commercialisation and wild capitalism of the 1990s. Hundreds of new independent publishers were springing up then to satisfy readers’ interest in formerly forbidden books, both Russian and foreign. Most of those small publishers had to close down later or were consumed by the big publishing houses. Today the surviving small publishers are united into a Book Alliance and exhibit in a collective stand supported by the Book Fair. At some point the big publishers started exhibiting as well but we strictly see to it that they observe the rule of “no trash is allowed”. Inevitably they introduced an element of commercialism in the general atmosphere and functioning of our book fair. But since there are 400 events taking place on eight platforms it still remains one of the most important intellectual events of the year. This year 300 exhibitors from 18 countries participated, and nearly 50,000 visitors attended.
This year, as part of the “UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016”, the United Kingdom was the Guest of Honour at “Non/Fiction”, and this is at a time when Russia has managed to make itself conspicuously unpopular among the international community. I was really happy to hear the members of the British delegation I talked to, unanimously say that problems in the political top circles makes it all the more important to broaden cultural exchanges.
The programme was rich and varied. The venues were packed to bursting, people crowded in the aisles and sat on the floor. We all enjoyed the inimitable English humour, the art of rhetoric, and professionalism of the speakers. We were thrilled to see some famous authors in person (Julian Barnes, Jonathan Coe, Andrew Davies, Sebastian Faulks) and discover new names (Emma Healey, Laline Paull). We enjoyed very informative and lively lectures by Emma House of the Publishers Association, the brilliant lecture on current UK literature by Cortina Butler of the British Council, and Professor Marianne Elliott’s eye-opening historical survey, to name a few. I only regret not being able to multiply so that I could be present at all the British events.
As I listened to them I thought that in Britain, just as in Russia, intellectuals are invariably critically-minded individuals not much influenced by official brainwashing, they make their own judgements and tend to give the benefit of the doubt, refraining from hasty opinions if they don’t have sufficient information. There are different sorts of people, naturally, but my British friends belong to the above-described category and I’ve never stayed long enough in Britain to discover other sorts.
20 December 2016
The evolution of Russian women’s writing was quite unlike that in Western countries. Women did write in the old days, but none of those early literary efforts have stood the test of time and they are known today only to scholars. Female presence in 19th century Russian literature was in the form of memorable literary heroines: either idealized or demonized, either angels or femmes fatales.
Women authors came on the literary scene only with the arrival of the Silver Age in the early 20th century, and at first they were mostly poets (Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Gippius, to name a few). How was it possible that such a promising beginning then ran into the sand and women kept a low profile until the end of Soviet censorship in the 1990s? It seems that in conditions of male-dominated totalitarian ideology anything unorthodox, even not openly subversive, was an irritation to the authorities. Women were discouraged from writing about their personal problems and social status since these were an embarrassment to the state, while the inner world of thinking women was of little interest to society.
With the ideological shackles gone, women's writing in Russia progressed rapidly. The tone of early-wave women’s literature was plaintive at first as they tried to get their painful Soviet experiences off their chests. A decade later their tone had a more vigorous and confident ring to it, reflecting increased self-awareness and growing feminist attitudes. More recent stories by women were still focused on women’s rights, often being straightforwardly autobiographical or essayistic, and their literary quality improved markedly. Another decade later you could no longer tell male and female writing apart and women’s rights were taken for granted. Today young women authors increasingly tend to write in men’s names to emphasize the fact that gender is irrelevant in real art.
A good example is Liza Alexandrova-Zorina, a brilliant novelist and essayist exposing the seamy side of the Russian society and providing a frank and merciless picture of today’s world. She is the author of six books some of which have already been translated into English, French, Ukrainian, Estonian, Hindi and Arabic. Her writing reflects her active public position and social protest. She depicts the life of misfits made redundant under the new regime. These ‘humiliated and insulted’ individuals are nevertheless prepared to fight for their rights. Alexandrova-Zorina paints graphic pictures of squalid life in the provinces, the ruthless Moscow mafias, police lawlessness, and people’s helplessness in dealing with the corrupted authorities and indifferent society. "Even though it's dark there's something that shines through as redeemable - perhaps it's the ability to reveal the darkness for what it is without condoning it." – Melanie Moore, the translator of The Little Man.
Liza Alexandrova-Zorina was born in 1984 in a little town on Cola Peninsula beyond the Arctic Circle (the setting of her prize-winning novel The Little Man). After school graduation she left her native town for Moscow where she soon became a prolific journalist, famous blogger, a popular columnist on leading periodicals, and a public activist. Liza was a finalist in two important literary competitions: the Debut Prize and NOS (2012) with her novel The Little Man. She also won the Northern Star Prize (2010) for her collection of short stories The Rebel. Critics compared The Little Man to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And also to Zvyagintsev’s prize-winning film Leviathan which is set in the same parts but released two years later than Alexandrova-Zorina’s novel.
“The image of the ‘little man’ features in the works of Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, and Gorky. In Western literature this traditions is taken further by Camus, Beckett and Kafka. In other words, our Liza Alexandrova-Zorina is in good company which means that readers will expect her to live up to this level.” – The Free Press
Her later novel The Broken Doll makes the protagonist experience all the ulcers of the modern megacity after she becomes homeless as a result of cruel intrigues against her. In Man Is a Noun a modest face-blind person is wrongly accused of a murder, but reviewing his life during his long prison confinement he comes to the conclusion that all people are guilty of something and deserve punishment. Her novel Homophobia, about urban terrorism, is pending publication.
This October I went as usual to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It is the world’s largest and most representative book fair and reflects the situation in and sets the trends for the international book world. The fact that interest in contemporary Russian fiction is only marginal was no news to me, but I tried to understand the current reasons for it and whether there is anything to be done about it. It was reported that the number of translations published in the UK and US rose 20% in the last two years. However, the number of translations from Russian fell dramatically. Is the reason only political? It can’t be. I wonder what the SRF readers think is the real reason.
For almost 30 years I’ve been proposing excellent Russian authors to foreign publishers who would typically say things like: “Why should our readers be interested in your Russian problems?” or “This is good literature but we need something more awesome to impress our readers.” Or “This book is too focused on your local issues.”
I asked my publisher friends to name a book the kind of which they would definitely consider for translation. Many mentioned Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, already translated into many languages. I grabbed one of them and read it greedily. I did not find it particularly remarkable except for the visual descriptions of a working-class suburb of Naples in the 1950s from which you learn much about the everyday life, local types, traditions, and morals and mores of the day. In other words, readers all over the world are sufficiently interested in the Italian world (or Scandinavian, German, French, etc.) but they are not interested in the Russian world. Of course there are people who still love Russian literature and don’t associate it with the country’s officialdom. But then you have to accept the fact that the West at large is tired of Russia and the short-lived interest after our perestroika ended in disillusionment. I could clearly see in Frankfurt that the West is living a life of its own and has no use of the Russian experience.
True, classical Russian literature has long become part of world’s culture, so much so that many people don’t even realize it’s 19th century and read it, if they do at all, as contemporary writing. And those books immerse them in the Russian world, its everyday life, local types, traditions, and morals and mores of the day. If people were curious about today’s Russia they would find ample information in contemporary Russian fiction, and moreover, this information is much closer to the truth in fact than any journalism, because a talented author paints a visual picture which the reader can interpret in his/her own way and make his/her own deductions.
Not only literature lovers can benefit from reading the best in contemporary literary fiction but also sociologists, human-rights activists, politicians, businessmen, etc. Works of literature will take you to distant places which you are not likely to visit, they will give you a glimpse into the various sections of Russian society and ethnic communities, and into the proverbial “Russian soul”, which has also undergone considerable evolution. And at least some of the misconceptions will be dispelled.
In this column I would like to draw your attention to unjustly overlooked Russian authors, who enjoy the admiration of most discriminating readers in Russia but somehow do not look attractive to publishers abroad. One of the most glaring examples is Alexander Melikhov whom critics have compared to Nabokov and Thomas Mann.
Born in 1947 Melikhov spent his childhood in Northern Kazakhstan where his father, a historian, fled to avoid a second arrest for his unorthodox views on Russian history. A science prodigy, Melikhov graduated from Leningrad University majoring in mathematics, defended his PhD and worked at a research institute for many years.
A budding author in Soviet times he could not get published because his writing did not conform to approved aesthetic and ideological standards and also because he was Jewish. On the advice of the editors of a literary magazine he changed his Jewish family name Meylahs to the Russian surname Melikhov, but that did not help much. Luckily perestroika arrived soon after and with it the end of censorship. Just then he submitted two of his novels to the Northern Palmira Prize where the jury was not supposed to see the authors’ names until they select the winner. The jury considered two books for the top prize and finally decided to divide the prize between them. The author turned out to be one and the same person – Alexander Melikhov. This is how his nationwide fame began.
His philosophical-psychological writings continue the tradition of the great 19th century Russian literature with its intense spiritual and intellectual search, and at the same time they contain a strong dose of modernism. Winner of the Nabokov Prize, the Russian PEN Prize, the Gogol Prize, and many other prizes, short-listed for the Russian Booker and the Big Book Prize, Melikhov has some 20 books to his name, all in print.
Melikhov addresses the most painful problems of Russian society, such as the Jewish question, drugs and alcoholism, the disabled, the generation gap, etc. But these problems exist in other countries as well and should be of interest to readers everywhere. Melikhov possesses an extraordinary understanding of life, he offers a multitude of apt observations, parables, and wisdoms, his powerful and merciless texts are integral and wonderfully bitter-sweet. Although his novels are primarily interesting for their lyrical and philosophical digressions the plots are always original and exciting.
Confessions of a Jew and Farewell to Eden describe his hungry but happy childhood in Kazakhstan when he thought that “Jew” was just a swear word and had nothing to do with him, when his world was wild and frightening but whole and logical. His father "taught foreign languages, geography, and history, becoming for several generations a symbol of a perfect Teacher." His mother, a descendant of wealthy Ukrainian farmers exiled to Kazakhstan, was a physics teacher. "For a Jew my scientific career progressed bearably, although with all the expected humiliations." He depicts in fact the tragedy of alienation experienced by thinking individuals if they wish to retain their independence of mind and inner freedom.
In Escape from Retribution the protagonist’s dead father comes to him in a dream and asks him to punish the prosecutor who had incriminated him on a false charge in 1936 as a result of which he had to abandon his successful academic career and make do to with a pitiful life of a village teacher. The father’s spirit tells him to find the prosecutor’s children and reveal to them the true nature of their father. The son swears to avenge his wronged father. His personal investigations bring out many different truths and motives whereby some scoundrels and executioners appear as victims and heroes. The river of oblivion washed them all away, even any memory of them, and the only one spared is the that very prosecutor: he had lived a full and satisfying life amidst loving family, wealth and respect.
Melikhov’s novel The Plague is based on his attempts to save his own son from drug addiction. He depicts the world of drug addicts, unscrupulous drug peddlers, and drug clinics, all drawn from real life.
Romance with Prostatitis is based on Melikhov’s own experiences of the early perestroika years when he had to make a living by "shuffling" goods from abroad for resale at home in the company of women traders who used him as a porter and a bodyguard. He describes the society in the throes of violent change affecting people’s minds. The Schweik-like protagonist keeps philosophizing as the group travels all over Russia, China, Turkey, and other places.
In The Federation of Fools the real world is juxtaposed with the home for the mentally handicapped. The inmates dream of a certain international refuge for the insane where they will one day retire. Melikhov have for many years been involved in the rehabilitation programs for the disabled.
Melikhov’s latest novel, Rendezvous with Quasimodo, looks at the fatal role of beauty in human lives and shows the relativity and ambivalence of beauty. The heroine considers herself unattractive and is obsessed with a search for pure beauty and true love. She works in forensic medicine (this provides brilliant insert novellas about convicts) dealing with misfits in situations of a clash with the normal world. She tends to take the side of the accused and always finds exonerating circumstances. In the end she is cruelly murdered by a serial killer who contacts women by internet, inspires their pity by describing himself as a Quasimodo, lures them into his den and kills them.
List of works by Alexander Melikhov (FTM site)
Glasgow University Library has three books by Melikhov. For more information or to search for other library copies see COPAC. To purchase books see suggestions at the top of this page. The novel "Чума" can be read online on
Based in Moscow Glas has been publishing English translations of contemporary Russian authors and overlooked 20th century classics for more than 25 years and still remains a showcase for new Russian writing. With more than 150 names represented in our thematic anthologies and single-author issues, GLAS is an important English-language source on Russian literature today. However over the last two years we were not able to publish any new titles (for purely financial reasons) while the need for an independent publishing program to promote new talents from Russia is greater than ever before.
At this point the SRF, who have been sympathetic to our cause for some time, extended a helping hand by offering a page on their site as a channel for information on Russian literary life. Regretfully, Russian literature is again divided into officially accepted, accepted with reservations, and unaccepted, to say nothing of the most implacable of censors – the market economy.
SRF is known for their wide-ranging activities to bridge the gap between the UK and Russia by organising events and projects as well as supplying objective information on various aspects of Russian life and culture. They see an additional angle of vision on Russia in its literature. So together we are launching this online resource on Russian literature. This is a logical move since literary fiction provides a more accurate picture of a society than any media which many of us have long ceased to trust. If you want to know what people feel and think, what makes them tick, what aspirations they have, and what losses they sustained, you should get to know their poetry and prose, their narrative nonfiction and drama. You do need to have some background information though to better understand and appreciate Russian fiction but I’m sure that readers of the SRF publications have all the basic facts on Russia, both its past and present.
I intend to present to you Russian authors not yet available in English or just recently published for the first time in English and little known yet. For quite a few new authors I have detailed synopses and translated excerpts from their books, but occasionally I’d like to attach extracts in Russian for those who can read the language, and particularly for translators looking for new authors they might want to offer publishers for translation. I’ll be happy to answer readers’ questions and respond to their comments. The latter sometimes show the extent of the gap still existing between the English-language and Russian worlds – I often come across signs of them in translations I line-edit with the original. I’m particularly interested to spot the various misunderstandings and address them. Psychologists believe that fears derive from insufficient information and in turn lead to aggression. So lack of knowledge breeds aggression. People interested in cross-cultural matters can prevent this. I think literature can be helpful here too.
July 2016. Originally published in SRF Forum No.35.