Contemporary Russian literature is suffering an identity crisis. Lesley Chamberlain describes how post-Soviet writers are struggling to escape the legacy of both 20th century repression and 19th century mastersby Lesley Chamberlain / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
We’re back where we started,” mourned an ?migr? Russian writer in the literary press recently, observing that three generations of Soviet writing looked like wasted effort. “Ask people what they mean by Russian literature and they will say Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov.” He has a point.
Russian literature has virtually skipped the intellectual and artistic 20th century, and if there are any anti-modernists out there who think that might be a good idea, may they think again. Despite the paternity of those eternal avant-gardists-Dostoevsky and Gogol-Russian literature has remained in a 19th century condition, closest to Tolstoy. Socialist realism continued the line from Marx’s favourite novelist, Balzac, through to Solzhenitsyn. The style just happened to be the communist requirement, but it was practised by Soviet and anti-Soviet writers alike and, with few exceptions, is now also the province of post-Soviet writers. Long isolation from the world at large, coupled with a straightforward and traditional style, can make the product seem amateurish and provincial. The word “new”-pace the requirements of journalism and publicity-is not appropriate.
The work surfacing now was often written up to 20 years ago. Some of the most promising contributors to the recent Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, such as the gay writer Evgeny Kharitonov and the humourist Sergei Dovlatov, are already (in good premature Russian fashion) dead. In other cases the writer is alive but his fable has passed on. Vladimir Makanin’s Baize Table with Decanter, which won the Russian Booker prize in 1993, describes a frightened man not knowing why he is facing inquiry. In style, Baize Table is in the “school of Dostoevsky,” but with no artistic life of its own-and as documentary it’s old hat. The most interesting thing to come out of the debate about the book was the comparison Russian critics made with Kafka. It suggests Russians can’t understand Kafka: they never had an individualist tradition based on a strong sense of self-identity, so they can hardly grasp its undermining. That Kafka’s world looks like Stalin’s, or even Brezhnev’s, is a coincidence.