Stephen Fry Profiles Six Russian Writers in the New Documentary Russia’s Open Book

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­toric Meet­ing Between Dick­ens and Dos­to­evsky Revealed as a Great Lit­er­ary Hoax

George Saun­ders’ Lec­tures on the Russ­ian Greats Brought to Life in Stu­dent Sketch­es

Russ­ian Punk Band, Sen­tenced to Two Years in Prison for Derid­ing Putin, Releas­es New Sin­gle

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • kambiz says:

    Fan­tas­tic. If you could please link the books in the doc­u­men­tary as well if avail­able in Eng­lish. I am now search­ing for Mari­am Pet­rosyan book in Eng­lish. But the books explained in the doc­u­men­tary all seems amaz­ing and must read.

  • Michael says:

    Won­der­ful. Glad I watched it.

  • andi says:

    This was great! Thank you for shar­ing!

  • ricardomarquina says:

    won­der­full work, thanks

  • Ivan Night Terrible says:

    6 Russ­ian Homo­phobes :)

    • Ivan Night Terrible says:

      Was 7th lit­er­ary Genius — Greatest(sic!) Russ­ian Poet Alexan­der Pushkin.
      Pushk­in’s influ­ence on Russ­ian cul­ture and Russ­ian men­tal­i­ty — equiv­a­lent Shake­spear’s influ­ence on Eng­lish men­tal­i­ty and cul­ture.

      But Fry nev­er write any­thing about Pushkin…
      because afraid inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties ;)
      2 homo­sex­u­als (“fam­i­ly”) french­man Georges d’An­thes (Georges Charles de Heeck­eren d’An­thès) and dutch­man Louis Gek­er­ren (Jacob Derk Bur­chard Anne baron van Heeck­eren tot Enghuizen) killed Poet on 37 years old (and in 1837).
      These vile per­verts killed… some of unwrit­ten great sto­ries, some of unwrit­ten great nov­els and some of unwrit­ten great poems.

      This is one of the black­est crimes of homo­sex­u­als against Rus­sia — and Stephen Fry of course now afraid to remem­ber… or afraid write.

  • swiesel says:

    Rus­sians are degen­er­ates who should be elim­i­nat­ed. We’ve freed Europe from them but we should not rest and destroy them com­plete­ly so that even their name will be erased from his­to­ry.

  • Linda says:

    I have to pause and take a deep breath, in an, alas, futile effort to find includ­ed in this list of Olympians, the name of Vladimir Nabokov, pos­si­bly the most bril­liant and orig­i­nal Russ­ian writer of them all.

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