How the land of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy became a book lover's afterthought.
- By Owen MatthewsOwen Matthews, author of Stalin’s Children, was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2012.
Speaking at an event in January to launch the “Year of Literature,” a series of public events and projects extolling the virtues of Russian letters, President Vladimir Putin laid out his mission to raise the “prestige and influence in the world” of his country’s writers. Generations of American readers weaned on Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak may see cause for hope in such a revival: They want to return to that magical land they first discovered in books — one of passion and tragedy where vast forces tumble characters like ice cubes in the 11-time-zone-wide cocktail shaker that is Russia. Yet though nostalgic for Natasha Rostova and Yuri Zhivago, those readers might struggle to name a single contemporary Russian writer.
The last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation was Doctor Zhivago, which was published the year before Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. The most recent nonfiction book of comparable fame was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in the West in 1973. Since then, no Russian writer has enjoyed true breakout American celebrity.
Noble efforts to translate and promote Russia’s contemporary literature persist, but today in the United States, only about 4.6 percent of books translated into English were written in Russian, placing the language far behind French, Spanish, and German. “Great books are being written in Russia today,” Dmitry Bykov, Russia’s leading contemporary critic and a biographer of Pasternak, said in a radio interview. “But not nearly enough get translated.”
Putin biographer and journalist Masha Gessen disagrees, saying the reason for limited international interest is that modern Russian writers aren’t producing world-class books. Russian literature “is not as popular because there is very little to read,” says Gessen. Russia’s “general cultural rot has affected literature to an even greater extent than other cultural production.” Chad Post of the Three Percent translation project at the University of Rochester provides a more benign explanation: “poor distribution networks” in the United States. But Natasha Perova, whose famous Moscow publishing house, Glas, announced it was suspending work in late 2014, says the American market is more to blame. These days, people buying from Perova’s U.S. distributors “seem to have an allergy to everything Russian,” she says. In the early 1990s, “everything Russian was welcome because the world had great hopes for Russia. We thought Russia would be reintegrating into the European context. But it gradually went back to its former practices, and people turned away from us.”
A glib case can be made that characters in Russian novels are incomprehensible to a new generation of Western readers — like the chemotherapy patients in Solzhenitsyn’s 1967 Cancer Ward, changed forever by the poison they have ingested, Russians’ lives have become too grim to elicit immediate empathy. The #FirstWorldProblems suffered by the suburban protagonists of writers like Jonathan Franzen, the argument goes, are nothing like the avalanches of despair that their Russian contemporaries face. To be sure, being set in a violent, feudal, and unfamiliar world is not necessarily an impediment to a book’s U.S. sales; just look at Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell cycle. In that case, however, the reader’s guide is Cromwell, constructed by Mantel as an outsider — a man of almost modern sensibility projected into a late medieval world.
Perhaps that need for a detached perspective is why many of the Russian authors best known to Western readers are themselves Westernized. Boris Fishman and Gary Shteyngart, for example, are now New Yorkers. Russian author Mikhail Shishkin is lavishly praised in the West and widely translated, but he lives, at least in part, in Zurich. The brilliance of his 2005 novel, Maidenhair, lies in his skewering of the disconnect between hardscrabble Russia and bourgeois, defenseless, self-satisfied Switzerland. And his masterly latest novel, The Light and the Dark, reflects not Russia’s complex present, but its past: During the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, a soldier’s love letters transcend time and place.
Offering another theory of why so few Russian books find Western readers, Will Evans, a translator and founder of Dallas- based Deep Vellum Publishing, says Americans “read Russia” in a particular way. Given the Cold War and its unsettled aftermath, American readers tend to “politicize [Russian literature], read it for big ideas and political insight.” Indeed, just as in the mid-20th century, when superpower politics were projected onto Pasternak, some of the new Russian authors best known in the West carry political freight. Zakhar Prilepin, for example, whose novels Sin and Sankya were published recently in English, is a former paramilitary police officer who did tours in Chechnya and became a radical opposition activist. Then, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, he surprised his admirers by praising the volunteers in Novorossiya (eastern Ukraine). His hyperrealist depiction of the cynical post-Soviet generation “in search of fathers” in Sankya is sharp and vital, and he has drawn comparisons to Tolstoy.
Tellingly, some Western readers are also drawn to surreal visions of Russia: Many books making it into English translation today conjure horrific dystopias. In one of the tales in young Muscovite Anna Starobinets’s debut collection of short horror stories, An Awkward Age, Moscow has been destroyed by a war between humans and androids. And veteran satirist Victor Pelevin’s work, The Helmet of Horror, creates a nightmarish world where characters who meet in an Internet chat room find themselves trapped in a virtual labyrinth.
For all their virtue, though, modern Russian works may never satisfy the nostalgia that Americans harbor for the crowd- pleasing grandeur of bygone writers’ novels. This may have something to do with the fact that Russia’s literary culture has changed. Russia still produces more books than most other countries: Some 120,000 new titles were published in Russian in 2013, according to government figures. But today, Russia’s writers are content providers vying for attention in a vibrant marketplace of entertainment and information. In the past, Russians looked to their literature for a design and philosophy of life. The stern God of Russian Orthodoxy provided an immutable baseline of good and evil, but authors were the country’s spiritual legislators. In the works of Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov, Russians found their moral nuts and bolts, wrestling with the forces of history that threatened to break them apart. Writers, in short, were asked to live more deeply than ordinary mortals.
Today, Putin’s promised renaissance notwithstanding, Russian writers are no longer deified at home, let alone abroad. Yet at least the right to publish in Russia holds good; in comparison with the centuries that came before, the past 23 years have been largely free of censorship. Even if Russia is now entering another cycle of oppression, writers will be there to document every turn of the screw — and the best among them will produce classics.
Illustration by Edmon de Haro