It is not inconceivable that future historians will read accounts of Russia’s recent history and assume that it was the work of some forgotten satirist: a political system that swung from fervent communism to rampant capitalism, a society with huge extremes of decadent wealth and abject poverty, and a ruling tandem that features a dancing president and a singing prime minister. Surprising then that today’s Russian satirists have failed to make a bigger impact on the international scene.
Many people will be familiar with books and plays from the 20th century’s ‘Golden Age’ of Russian satire. Writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Vladimir Mayakovsky were busy at work during this period pulling apart Soviet power structures to reveal the folly and brutality of what lay beneath the surface.
These authors themselves owed much to the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol. But the revolution of 1917 had thrown new and pressing threats on the literary community. Satire became a means of expressing and challenging not just an oppressive system but the trials of everyday life under it.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of recent additions to the canon suggests the genre continues to capture the imagination of Russian authors. Examples that have made it as far as international release include the work of Victor Pelevin (Homo Zapiens, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf) and Dmitry Bykov (Living Souls).
The question, then, is why, if satire remains a popular form among Russian novelists, does it seem to fail to excite international readers?
A large part of the problem these authors have faced is one of specificity. Writers such as Gogol and Bulgakov were responding to pan-European themes—even if the Russian example was extraordinary in its intensity and scale. Those attempting to satirise present-day Russia have tended to focus on discussing the peculiarities of its recent past and the bizarre stagnation of its present. In translation too much needs to be explained and the humour is lost amongst the detail.
As one critic notes of Bykov’s Living Souls, a lot of the humour of the novel “bases itself on cultural in-jokes which do not easily make sense to the casual western reader.” For example, one of the book’s central…