Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov… someone could design a personality test around which great 19th century Russian writers turned readers on to that most brooding and intense of national literatures. For me it was first Dostoevsky, with an obligatory high school reading of Crime and Punishment, whose ending I hated so much that I had to go on and read The Idiot, The Possessed, Notes From the Underground, and nearly everything else to find out what went wrong. And the mischievous fantasist Gogol I preferred even to Kafka as a young reader, so I’d probably score high on existential angst and absurdist tendencies on whatever we’re calling our literary Meyers-Briggs.
But we would have to include the 20th century successors: Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, Pasternak. The dissenters and exposers of Soviet cruelty and corruption who took on the traditions of stark, brutal realism and darkly comic allegory. All of these are traditions that literary gadabout Stephen Fry rightly points out “changed the literature, and particularly the literature of the novel, the world over.” Yet somehow, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s a literature we seemed to stop hearing about. However, “just because we stopped reading,” says Fry as host of the documentary above, Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin, “doesn’t mean the Russians stopped writing.” Produced by Intelligent Television and Wilton films and premiering online today (and on PBS on December 28), the film profiles six new Russian writers most of us haven’t read, but should.
Perhaps a particularly iconic figure for the Putin age, we first meet the controversial and somewhat macho novelist Zakhar Prilepin, whose nostalgia for the Soviet past has earned him the ire of liberals. Prilepin freely admits that his happy, “wonderful,” childhood explains his sympathy for the Soviet state. Despite these warm psychological origins, literary critic Alexander Gavrilov calls Prilepin’s first novel, 2005’s Pathologies, “an aggressive terrorist attack of a book,” for its harsh portrayal of the war in Chechnya. The book draws on Prilepin’s experiences as a veteran of two Chechen wars. His second novel, Sankya was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and National Bookseller prizes in 2006, and yet aside from a few short stories, Prilepin’s work has yet to be translated into English.
What has fascinated Westerners about Russia in the past is in part its deep veneration for its writers. In every age—Golden, Silver, or blood red—Russian writers held places of cultural prominence, or infamy. Lenin was a great writer of history and polemic. Even Putin soft-pedals his backing for the Syrian regime in a genteel open letter. To be a recognized writer in Russia means being a celebrity, or as Prilepin says, it’s “a kind of show business.” Russia’s Open Book narrator Juliet Stephenson quotes poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “In Russia, a poet is more than a poet.”
And then we meet contemporary Russian “activist, journalist, teacher, novelist, critic, and poet” Dmitry Bykov, a dead ringer for an earlier vintage of Saturday Night Live’s Horatio Sanz. His genial appearance hides deeply serious intent. A romantic inspired by the vibrancy of Russia’s political fight for “the dignity of all its citizens,” Bykov tells us “Before I went to the first protest, I’d stopped writing. Afterwards, I wrote a whole volume of lyric poetry. No politics, it’s all roses and rhymes.” Bykov’s 2006 Living Souls—which does exist, abridged, in English—takes up the great Russian tradition of the political fable. Other writers, like the boldly outspoken novelist (and former geneticist) Ludmila Ulitskaya, are much more ambivalent about political engagement. “But in some situations,” says Ulitskaya, “you can’t remain silent….”
It’s difficult perhaps for Westerners to appreciate the contemporary situations of these new Russian writers, given how little we seem to understand Russia’s internal political state (and given the relative absence of a viable U.S. foreign press service). After all, it’s no longer an existential necessity that we know our sworn enemy, as in the Cold War, nor is Russia treated any longer as Europe’s distinguished first cousin, as in its Imperial 19th century past. But the writers profiled in Russia’s Open Book make us keenly aware that the country’s literary culture is thriving, and deserving of our attention. To learn more about the makers of the film and the six contemporary writers profiled, visit the Russia’s Open Book website. And to expand your appreciation for Russian literature in general, spend some time at the Read Russia 2013 site here, a new initiative “to celebrate Russian literature and Russian book culture.” We also have many Russian classics in our Free eBooks and Audio Books collections.
Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin will be permanently listed in our collection of 600 Free Movies Online.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness