The Rise of Bulgakov Diplomacy

The Kremlin is backing an ambitious effort to make the B-sides of the Russian literary canon more accessible to a global audience. Is it a boon for cultural understanding — or propaganda?


The Russian classics occupy an unassailable position on every passionate reader’s shelves. They’re the books you reread — Chekhov’s plays and short stories, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita — and of course, no library is complete without War and Peace. But which contemporary authors do Russians read? Do you know? And have you read any Russian authors besides Tolstoy or Dostoevsky — or anyone who has been alive and writing fiction in Russia for the past 40 years? Would you know where to start, if you wanted to?

During the Cold War, some dissident fiction and memoir emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Boris Pasternak and Vasily Aksyonov; the CIA devoted funds and men to finding out what disenchanted Soviets were writing and helped them, covertly, to publish it. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in December of 1991 and the borders crumbled, the ramparts of Russian literature remained strong, but global interest in the country and its literary output waned. As Owen Matthews wrote earlier this year in Foreign Policy, Doctor Zhivago, published nearly 60 years ago, was the last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation.

Yet today, as Vladimir Putin’s newly assertive Russia has magnified the country’s presence on the world stage, a spotlight has again landed on the country’s literary arsenal. While the Russian Federation’s borders creep outward, and relations between Washington and Moscow approach a level of hostility rivaling the Cold War chill, the bulwark of Russian literature is being reinforced. Belatedly, it appears, Russia has perceived the value of soft diplomacy to shore up the nation’s reputation overseas and is buttressing this underused resource.

In late June, the first ever Books of Russia festival was held on Moscow’s Red Square. Putin attended, alongside his cultural advisor Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo. It was there, amid banners and traditional costumes, that a group of international scholars, publishers, translators, and Russian and American officials announced an ambitious literary initiative. They were joining forces to publish a treasury of Russian literature in English, at least 100 volumes strong, spanning three centuries and possibly more. The undertaking was convened by Read Russia, an American NGO founded in 2012 that’s devoted to the promotion of Russian literature and book culture, along with Rospechat, Russia’s Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications, and Moscow’s Institute for Literary Translation, the project’s principal sponsor.

The collection, tentatively titled the Russian Library, has been hailed by its instigators and many readers as a much needed, laudable effort to improve the English-speaking world’s understanding of Russia’s past, its present, and even its future — through literature. And yet, the politics underlying the initiative make some observers uneasy, even as they yearn for under-recognized works to get proper exposure. Culture and patriotism; patrimony and propaganda; how are these opposing forces allied in today’s Russia, and can they exist separately?

It’s remarkable, when you think of the number of Russian authors that command the world’s respect and move individual emotions — not just Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, but Lermontov, Turgenev, Gogol, Babel, Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Goncharov, and others — that an official undertaking like this one has not been completed long before now (even if the husband-wife translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are powering through Russia’s greatest hits on their own initiative). It’s also remarkable that so little word of Russia’s excellent contemporary writers — like Dmitry Bykov, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Mikhail Shishkin, Viktor Pelevin, Olga Slavnikova, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Vladimir Sorokin, to name an important handful — has made it beyond the melted Iron Curtain. To find out about current Russian writers who matter, you need to read Russian or befriend a grad student. American bookstores rarely carry any Russian authors but the ones you read in high school or college.

Why should we want to read them? Because to lack a sense of a country’s current literature is to lack a sense of a country’s current mindset. The political and cultural shifts that have occurred in Russia over the last quarter century make the intellectual quest of Read Russia unusually relevant and timely. That said, Russia’s relationship with its writers has always been complicated, and it still is. In imperial Russia, Pushkin was censored by the tsar, despite his universal renown; Dostoevsky was nearly put to death. During the Soviet era, dissidents were suppressed, censored, and exiled, and any writer who hoped to publish and thrive within the system had to belong to the Union of Soviet Writers and to project the values of Socialist Realism. If, in Communist times, Moscow had attempted to promote the work of the state’s favored authors overseas, their efforts would have been (rightly) dismissed as propaganda. Armaments, not books, were the calling card of the Soviet Union. But the current Russian literary landscape displays more nuance.

Internationally, in recent decades, many other countries have recognized that authors are assets to a nation’s reputation. In the 20th century, Germany’s Goethe-Institut and Spain’s Cervantes Institute spread offices across the world, shoring up their countries’ intellectual and social standing. (France created the Alliance Française in the 19th century for the same purpose.) But the Soviet Union largely looked inward, not outward, showing little interest in cultural outreach, apart from the occasional Bolshoi world tour. Early in the Yeltsin era, in 1992, a Russian Booker Prize was inaugurated. It was the first nongovernmental literary award to be bestowed since the Bolshevik Revolution. However, since Russia’s economy was stumbling badly at the time, little was done then to increase global attention to the nation’s literature; it was not a priority. The current strengthening of Russian literary clout, by some lights, can be seen as playing catch-up with everyone else.

Since Putin’s ascendancy, which brought with it the rise of a billionaire oligarch class, the Kremlin has put muscle into increasing the value of Russia’s literary holdings. In 2000, the Debut Prize was created by Putin’s friend and metal mogul Andrei Skoch to identify and reward young writers. The quality of the writing varies, but the award’s intention is to foster a new creative class, and generous prizes in six categories help the winners gain the financial freedom to write (a winner at the 2012 Debut Prize awards in Moscow told me his award would go toward buying an apartment).

In 2006, Russia’s Big Book Prize was launched — 3 million rubles for the best book of the year (of any genre); and in 2009, the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (now the owner of the Brooklyn Nets) established the NOS Literary Prize to recognize exceptional contemporary fiction. (Back in 2004, Prokhorov founded an arts-minded charitable foundation that advances Russian cultural institutions and initiatives at home and abroad. His sister Irina Prokhorova, an award-winning literary critic, historian, and the founder of Russia’s New Literary Observer magazine, attended the Russian Library conference in Moscow in June.) And in 2011, the Institute for Literary Translation opened in Moscow, with the goal of promoting “Russian literature around the world.”

It was amid this wave of renewed interest in the written Russian word that Read Russia emerged in New York in 2012. Peter Kaufman, a lifelong enthusiast of Russian literature and associate director of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, was named Read Russia’s president. In 2014, he announced the first Russian Literature Week in New York, comparing the value of Russia’s literary oeuvre for foreign readers to a “driveway full of sapphires and emeralds — the greatest areas of excitement lie in polishing off gemstones that may become future classics.” (Disclosure: I moderated a Read Russia festival discussion of three translations — Zakhar Prilepin’s Sankya, Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Definitely Maybe.)

The putative repertory collection that Kaufman and Vladimir Grigoriev, deputy head of Rospechat, announced in Moscow this summer will serve a similar purpose as the Library of America, in the United States, or La Pléiade, in France, except that its works will appear in another nation’s language: English. Kaufman told me in July that “there is a great deal of excitement among scholars and translators here, about this effort to make up for lost time.” It won’t hurt, he said, “to learn a little about Russia and to think about some of the things Russians think about when they think about literature.” Antonina Bouis, a New Yorker admired for her translations of Solomon Volkov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Strugatskys, and Bulgakov (among others), said earlier this month that the Russian Library corrects a history of neglect: “It’s a brilliant idea. I think what’s going to be very valuable is it’s going to be a scholarly edition; they will find the right expert in the field to present each book and explain it to the general reader.”

This kind of responsible curation has clear value, beyond the literary content of the titles that appear. And yet, the very fact that this projected series, conceived to inform and enlighten Western readers, may also serve to buttress Putin’s aims makes some people wary — including some supporters of the Russian Library. One of the participating scholars, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained, “The problem here is that, despite the very noble nature of the project, which is long overdue and timely and necessary, the Russian authorities are using it to make a good face. And that’s why I am split. I don’t want to add my two pennies to the Kremlin bank.” Kaufman responds rhetorically to detractors, “If people want to say it’s useful for Putin, or Obama, or [Ukrainian leader Petro] Poroshenko, what can I say? If Dostoevsky or Mayakovsky is useful for those people, I can’t really speak to that point. I think every act has some element of history-making in it, of politics, of art.”

In any case, it won’t be Putin’s circle that decides which titles to choose, which translators to employ, and which prefaces to seek. That will be the task of a scholarly panel at Columbia. Politics aside, bestowing literary laurels is always a fraught process. At the end of the Moscow meeting, the experts debated for an hour which books to publish first. Nobody could agree; the discussion had to be postponed. The Russian Library’s editorial advisory board (which includes scholars from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford University, St. Petersburg’s Pushkin House, and Moscow’s State Museum of Literature) will convene intermittently, at offices at Columbia University Press. When they meet, they will wrangle over which writers are worthy of inclusion. Questions will arise: Do you retranslate existing translations of, say, Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak, from the Soviet period, which arguably underserved the original Russian? Do you redo classic translations, quibbling over their quality? Which 21st-century authors will last? How many volumes should be devoted to each century; or should the scope reach back to the 12th century and pull in The Lay of Igor’s Campaign? There’s a lot of distance to cover, but, Kaufman said, “We’re already in the race; we’ve got the go-ahead. It’s a question of which titles will finish the first heat in front, and then we’ll run again.”

Even those who bridle at Russian involvement must accept that you can’t select, translate, edit, annotate, bind, and circulate a hundred books without significant committed financial backing; so why not make books while the sun shines? Diplomacy is a requirement not only for statesmen and cannons, but for scholars and canons. If a reader, down the line, picks up one of the titles that the Russian Library negotiations have produced — a novel by Pelevin, Petrushevskaya, or Sorokin, or maybe Bely or Goncharov — and comes away with a political conclusion, where’s the harm? Books are ambassadors that speak for themselves.

Photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based journalist and translator, and teaches at the New School in New York. She is the author of the book of neologisms, Wordbirds.

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