To Understand Russia’s Complexities, Turn to Its Contemporary Literature

by Olga Zilberbourg


A FRIEND’S TEN-YEAR-OLD SON son recently came up to me at a party to ask, “You’re from Russia, right?” Sensing caution in my assent, the boy hesitated before asking the next question, clearly trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t cause offense but would express his curiosity. He finally came up with, “It’s a very violent place, isn’t it?”

Whenever I’m asked to summarize the entire country of Russia at a party, I invariably recall a scene from a popular Soviet movie. When a character returns home from vacation onboard a cruise ship, his apartment building super pressures him to give a lecture to the residents entitled, “New York—the City of Contrasts.” The hero remarks that the cruise didn’t go to New York but to Istanbul and Marseille, and the administrator quickly goes along. “Fine. Call your lecture, ‘Istanbul—the City of Contrasts.’ What’s the difference?” To many Soviet citizens living behind the Iron Curtain there seemed, indeed, little difference between going to New York and Istanbul. Both were equally exotic. To many of my American acquaintances, contemporary Russia remains such an exoticized “other.” This massive country that covers more than one eighth of the Earth’s inhabitable land and is inhabited by approximately 160 ethnic groups speaking one hundred languages becomes reduced in conversation to a few set phrases.

I’ve been in America long enough to forswear quoting Soviet movies at parties: people find these quotations confusing. Talking about Russia at parties in general is a losing proposition. Yes, my parents still live there and I visit often, but, no, this doesn’t give me any particular insight into the political machinations of the country’s elite. One thing clear about Russia, though, is that, in this moment, it’s back at the center of American popular imagination. Earlier this year, the New York Times commissioned the famous Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard to travel to Russia and check it out. His essay begins with a succinct summary of what he sees as Russia’s recent history: It’s the story of “Stalin’s reign of terror, the story of a country that ossified and stagnated and eventually collapsed, the story of Vladimir Putin, the KGB officer who climbed to power amid chaos and re-established order.”

Knausgaard isn’t wrong, but neither is he particularly insightful. He’d never set foot in the country before this assignment and doesn’t speak any of its languages. If we hope for a deeper engagement with the country and its cultural complexities, perhaps the more appropriate place to turn is contemporary Russian-language literature. If so, English-only readers are in some luck. Though in recent years English translations from Russian have been hovering at a mere fifty or so books per year (Lisa Hayden provides detailed numbers and titles on her blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf), there is a very strong group of translators working in the field, and the titles that are represented show a good deal of breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary Russian letters.

Since, in most cases, these books are being published by academic and independent presses and are reviewed in specialized journals with small circulation, they often slip by the larger reading public unnoticed. Here are three important recent Russian titles that one might start with.

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 Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview by Linor Goralik

Linor Goralik first came to prominence in the Russian-speaking world as a LiveJournal blogger. Born in Ukraine, she’d lived and studied in Israel before moving to Moscow at the beginning of the new millennium. Her experience of life in different cultures and subcultures (she’d received a degree in computer science before she began writing fiction; later, her interests expanded to include cultural history and, in particular, the history of fashion) has helped to train her eye both on the absurd details of everyday life and on the overarching cultural narratives that dominate people’s psyches. Here’s a complete short story from this collection, titled “Apropos of Nothing”: “‘Our first fight,’ she said, ‘happened on our way to see my mom at the hospital.’” This line of dialogue, presented without setup or denouement, nevertheless conveys the trajectory of an entire relationship. It works because of the special meaning which, even in a casual conversation, we assign to the events that come “first.”

Goralik honed her unique style in the form of flash and micro fictions and later in a popular comic strip, as well as essays and plays. Found Life, a collection brought out this year by Columbia University Press, presents a broad range of Goralik’s work in translation by a stellar team of academics, Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour.

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 Other Russias by Viktoria Lomasko

Other Russias, a collection of graphic reportage by Viktoria Lomasko, in translation by artist and writer Thomas Campbell, was put out in 2017 by n+1, the publishing arm of the popular literary and culture magazine. (It was published simultaneously by Penguin in the UK.) Like Goralik’s collection, this is a multi-voiced book, tracing the artist’s conversations with people from far reaches of the country. Lomasko, an outspoken feminist, seeks out the marginalized and disenfranchised and finds her subjects in juvenile prisons, dying villages, among sex workers, in lesbian communities, at public protests. There are two sections in this collection, “The Invisible” and “The Angry,” with panels of black-and-white art in a range of styles, interwoven with brief explanatory notes. Lomasko’s sense of humor makes this book a pleasure to read and also lifts it from the genre of “reportage” (declared by the author) to profound social critique. Lomasko doesn’t only offer portraits of her subjects, but pinpoints the historical and social ironies that dominate their lives. Under her pen, the absurd and the ironic supersede the personal and become political.

 

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Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from The Archives by Natalia Gromova

Natalia Gromova’s Moscow in the 1930s was published in 2016 by the British-Dutch Glagoslav Publications and translated by Christopher Culver, a linguist who also specializes in Finno-Ugric languages. The book’s subtitle, “A Novel from the Archives,” is, as its forward suggests, less an indication of genre than a test for the reader: “Will the reader be able to overcome the widespread aversion toward musty shelves? Will the reader follow the author into an alien world, one that is forgotten and has slipped away?” Gromova begins by poring over letters left by her father-in-law, a writer named Vladimir Lugovskoy, and takes us on a journey through personal diaries, literary archives, and books by friends of the family who were important literary figures in Stalin-era Moscow, many of whom have since been forgotten. Gromova’s own story – as a child and later a writer and social critic in contemporary Russia - is interwoven with the stories of her subjects.

Though many of the characters Gromova unearths in the archives belong to the 1930s, the world that she describes is very much with us. The moral dilemmas presented by Stalinist doctrine to its writers, and the survival strategies they found, have had a lasting effect. What personal qualities allow writers today to speak truth to power? And, conversely, what impels them to use their positions of power to attack minorities and people in need, to intentionally misrepresent reality? The archival documents Gromova presents illuminate what happens when fear of public persecution creeps into every aspect of a writer’s daily life. He may, for instance, begin to bury personal truths so deeply that they eventually become mysteries to everyone, including himself. Close friendships are compromised and secret love affairs become so secret that even the writer himself has trouble knowing whether the love has any substance to it. Little by little, an authentic life turns to one of lies and self-deceptions. I would recommend this book as a manual for survival under a totalitarian—or post-totalitarian—regime.