Russian literature has fascinated the world for generations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a fresh generation of talented writers has emerged to depict the nation in a new light. The New York Public Library and Causa Artium recently presented four finalists of the Debut Prize, awarded to Russia’s best new authors under age 35. They were joined by debut coordinator Olga Slavnikova, author of 2017 and winner of the 2006 Russian Booker Prize.
Runnin’ Scared talked with the Debut Prize finalists about politics, life, and literature in their home country. These interviews were mostly conducted in Russian, with translation courtesy of Causa Artium Director John William Narins.
Runnin’ Scared: What role does literature play in Russia’s current political situation?
Alisa Ganieva (Moscow/Dagestan), author of Salam, Dalgat!: There is an opinion now that literature doesn’t play a big role in Russian society, as compared to Soviet times for example, when prose writers and poets were considered to be prophets. It’s the exact opposite of that now. In my personal experience, I see that fiction can stimulate public discussion and even changes in society. When I wrote about my native region, different problems in Dagestan and the Caucuses, there were many reader letters and discussions on political websites. It was strange for me because I didn’t intend to write a political story. It was just a story about a young man, but it [stimulated discourse].
I did take part in political protests in Moscow, and it was amazing to see public conspiration. People in costumes dressed as tigers, Santa Claus…interesting jokes and clever slogans on picket signs, and so on. It could be depicted in literature.
Olga Slavnikova (Moscow/Ekaterinburg): You see, a novel can’t play the role of a newspaper article; it’s not written directly in reaction to a specific event. The very existence of novels and the writers who wrote them take up a tremendous amount of cultural space; they are like cultural boulders, if you will. By the very fact that these texts exist in connection with society, the event is more noble and significant. In other words, there must be literature surrounding these events in order for the people who participate in them, and especially the generations that follow, to really comprehend what happened. Often, people who are eyewitnesses to an event don’t really understand what they are witnessing. Literature serves the role of putting these events into a social, perceptive context, to make them interpretable.
Of course there are writers who actively take part in the protests themselves —
Boris Akunin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, for instance. I personally didn’t take part in the demonstrations because I don’t see a serious candidate leading the opposition, and therefore I don’t think it ultimately has much of a chance to succeed. And for many reasons having to do with my personal views and family history, I am never going to be in a group with the Communists. It’s a kind of social personal hygiene, the same way I would never be in the same camp as the Red-Brown coalition (Radical Nationalists).
Igor Savelyev (from Ufa), author of Pale City: It’s interesting that the younger generation, which has played a huge role in this, was somehow already prepared to play that role. A lot of them participated in free public expression that their elder compatriots would not have been able to do. They wrote in blogs and worked as journalists, which would not have been the same as working as journalists 15 years ago. So it comes as no surprise that young writers end up at the forefront of public expression of these events, writing about them in the papers, and so on.
Runnin’ Scared: Alisa, you wrote your story under a male pseudonym, which received quite a bit of backlash. Are women often discriminated against where you are from?
Alisa: In Dagestan, the situation of gender inequality is not as simple as it may appear to an outsider. In Russian culture, the stereotype of the Eastern woman is that she is completely subservient and kept in the background. But in the Caucuses, historically, this was actually quite the opposite. Women were extremely free and in control…Now, the younger generation is losing the connection to its roots, and as that happens, women are losing everything…There is almost a fashion for strict Islamic law, which was never the case in Dagestan before.
I am feeling less and less free there now. When I published my story, some of the reactions in Dagestan were that it’s completely inappropriate for a woman to write about things that happen on the streets.
Runnin’ Scared: Your generation has come of age in the post-Soviet era. What distinguishes your generation from the last?
Irina Bogatyreva (Moscow), author of Off the Beaten Track: I believe our generation is connected to the Soviet period. Children of my older brothers, who are teenagers now, [feel detached] from Soviet history because they can’t remember any of it. But for us, this was the time our parents lived. It’s not only an interesting period, but we feel a sort of [endearment] for it because we love our parents and it helps us understand the past. We cannot deny the past; we need to learn from it.
For us, it is easier to understand the previous generation than for them to understand us. The older generation lived in a completely different situation and country, so my parents can’t understand why I hitchhike and travel so much. When they call me they don’t ask me, ‘How are you?’ but ‘Where are you?’
Dmitry Biryukov (Novosibirsk), author of Uritsky Street: It would take several generations, or even an entire century, to really get over and be able to understand the Soviet epoch.
Irina: But Dmitry, do you really have to free yourself from the Soviet epoch? Is that something you really want to get rid of and put behind you?
Dmitry: A lot of people who are younger than me and have never seen the Soviet epoch have begun to develop a sense of nostalgia for it; for a form of life that they never actually knew. They see the problems with our reality and believe that in previous times, there were no problems. Our problems didn’t exist then–however, there were others. Today’s problems will eventually disappear and new ones will emerge as well. Such is life, and such is history.