20 years under Putin: a timeline

Casual observers of Russia often lament that the country’s once-vaunted culture no longer produces novelists of caliber equal to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But in fact, the world of contemporary Russian literature is vibrant and includes several novelists known for their grand realist works. These books are not only striking pieces of prose, but also valuable windows into modern-day Russian society, according to Bradley Gorski, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Studies at Columbia University.


Writer Liudmila Ulitskaya presents her book ‘Man taken to hospital’ at the 22nd Moscow International Book Fair. Photo Valery Sharifulin / TASS


Earlier this month, The New York Times published an op-ed by David Brooks titled “The Russia I Miss.” Brooks pines for the Russia that had an influence on world culture. The column fits into a long tradition of tin-eared nostalgia for the society that produced Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (I’m guilty myself—I wrote an essay called “Nostalgic for Tolstoyevsky” for my college newspaper. But I was in college.)

Russian culture, Brooks writes, once had an unmatched intensity. From the Middle Ages right up through the Cold War, Russia stood for “depth of soul” and “total spiritual commitment.” Rounding out the stereotypes, Brooks fondly remembers a “counter culture of intense Russian writers.” Even if at times extreme, these writers “produced a lot of cultural vibrancy.” They were unafraid to speak their minds, to push against the global trends of industrialization and capitalism with a brand of romantic utopianism that “had an effect on the world.”

The day after the op-ed appeared, my social media feeds were alight with gleeful mockery of Brooks, including a count-the-clichés meme and a piece by Eliot Borenstein that manages to pinpoint most everything that’s wrong with the column. But one thing Borenstein doesn’t touch on is that Russian authors today are doing exactly what Brooks seems to think is missing. Many of them are even available in English! Despite the appearance of modernism, Soviet socialist realism, and postmodernism, many of Russia’s most popular authors are still writing in a style that wouldn’t shock Turgenev. Realism—and especially socially engaged realism—is alive and well in Russia.

Big fat books with compelling plots and finely drawn characters tackle contemporary Russia’s most pressing issues, both timeless and contemporary. Recently imported identity politics have given questions of gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic belonging new life in Russian letters. At the same time, a blossoming post-colonial consciousness among Russia’s minorities has charged questions of belonging, nationhood, and distinctiveness with a newfound urgency. Much of that urgency derives from fresh explorations of the Soviet past, its legacies and its traumas. Is Russia inevitably the inheritor of everything Soviet, both guilt and glory? How should the past be sorted out, how can it fit into the present, and how can it help build a future?

Liudmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s most popular literary novelists, has spent her last several books delving into that past. She started writing in the 1990s, but she has had her biggest successes in the new millennium. An heir to the carefully observed realism of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, Ulitskaya writes wandering narratives that bring together huge and diverse casts of characters who often form something like an improvised family. These organic social units, dear to the intelligentsia’s self-image, coalesce around shared values rather than blood ties. With all official associations corrupted during Soviet times, and the institution of family buckling under burdensome living conditions, characters in Ulitskaya’s fiction find each other through the dips and swerves that each atomized human life takes on its meandering path through the world.

Ulitskaya’s latest book to be translated into English, The Big Green Tent, slated for U.S. release on November 10, explores dissident culture in a similar fashion. Loosely following three school-age boys as they grow up through the post-Stalinist decades of the Soviet Union, the novel manages to include and humanize members of several generations, social classes, religious beliefs and even sexual orientations. Ulitskaya’s novels are nothing if not inclusive. (For this reason, she might have the best claim to the mantle of 19th-century Russian novels, which Henry James famously called “loose baggy monsters.”)

And she has put inclusion and tolerance at the center of her public persona. As one of the leaders of the 2011-12 protests in Russia, she spoke in a recognizably Western, liberal way about individual rights, personal freedom, and human dignity. She has continued advocating forcefully for gay and minority rights within Russia even as the protest movement has cooled and the country’s sentiments, to say the least, have moved away from her own.

While those in power refuse to engage the opposition at all, these authors read each other, respond, and interact. Ulitskaya, for instance, has said how much she admires Prilepins prose, even as she disagrees with his politics. In Russia, literature is still the place where versions of the past are hashed out and visions for the future offered.

On the other side of the political spectrum (and much closer, it’s worth remembering, to the reactionary nationalism of Dostoevsky) sits Zakhar Prilepin. Prilepin served in Chechnya during President Vladimir Putin’s renewed and redoubled military efforts to quash the local independence movements. Upon discharge, he spent several years as a firebrand for the now-banned National Bolshevik Party. The party, whose politics might be best described as neo-fascist-Stalinist, has protested, often violently, against the liberal and free-market capitalist tendencies of the Yeltsin and Putin administrations.

Since the release of his collection Sin, Prilepin has been turning these experiences into prose that is at turns searingly effective, searchingly beautiful, and morally discomfiting (a continuation of the tradition set by Dostoevsky’s own anti-Semitism).

Prilepin’s kinetically charged writing has the ability to jump aggressively off the page at one moment, and then resolve into beautiful lyrical passages in the next. His novel Sankya, for instance, opens on a National Bolshevik rally with 15 pages of screaming violent chaos that hardly give the reader a chance to breathe. In the next chapter, the protagonist hears of his father’s death and sets off for his home village to bury him. The journey away from Moscow and into Sankya’s own memory seamlessly transforms into a meditation on the country’s past as Sankya alone, abandoned by everyone who was supposed to help him, has to drag his father’s coffin through the snow to the cemetery.

This lonely hero with cryptofascist beliefs and the audacity to take the country’s future into his own hands doesn’t bode particularly well for Russia. But Prilepin leaves the fate of the country and of his title character unresolved. Though Prilepin’s politics can be disturbing, Sankya is not a political tract, but a study of one of the darker sides of contemporary society from an author on the inside (and who shows no signs of changing his views).

The position of avowed outsider, on the other hand, might be best represented by Alexei Ivanov. A writer from the provincial city of Perm in the heart of Russia, Ivanov constructs his authorial persona, and his works, against the Moscow establishment. Moscow has incredible centripetal force in Russia: it draws together all the political capital of Washington, D.C., the financial pull of Wall Street, the literary prestige of New York, and the entertainment power of Hollywood into one city.

Ivanov stands against all that. Proudly from the provinces, Ivanov has been at the forefront of a blossoming of regional identity throughout Russia over the last decade. Even as the Putin administration has taken steps to centralize political control over the provinces, cultural attention to local history and traditions has flourished.

Still not translated into English, Ivanov’s novels sell enormously well in Russia. (His manager told me in an interview that he has sold more than a million books in his career, but this number is almost impossible to verify, since only publishers and writers have access to sales figures.) Ivanov’s most popular books comprise a sort of historical cycle of the Perm region from the earliest days of Russian colonization (here, the Muscovy princes are the clear antagonists), to the heady days of 18th-century industrialization, to the post-Soviet present. Significantly, the three novels in this cycle leapfrog the entire Soviet period during which Perm hosted the most notorious camp for political prisoners, Perm-36, and was a center of the defense industry’s enormous manufacturing network.

Ivanov frames these recent events as inorganic outgrowths of Moscow’s colonialism, as invasions from the alien center. Instead, Ivanov constructs a history that is equal parts romanticized medieval warfare and pagan mysticism all constructed on a foundation of deep historical and ethnographic knowledge. It’s Game of Thrones superimposed on real historical events, and it’s proved incredibly successful both commercially and in positioning the region against Moscow and providing its citizens with a deep sense of history that allows them to escape the more immediate traumas of 20th-century history.

In their own ways, each of these three authors are doing exactly what their big bulky forebears did in the 19th century. They are grappling with the biggest problems in contemporary Russia in ways that are often extreme and off-putting, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, but never afraid to engage.

It’s important to remember that Russian literature is not censored. Unlike TV news, and even film production, literary publishing is largely independently run and funded and is most often ignored by power politics. This is where debates are often most interesting, respectful, and productive. While those in power refuse to engage the opposition at all, these authors read each other, respond, and interact. Ulitskaya, for instance, has said how much she admires Prilepin’s prose, even as she disagrees with his politics. In Russia, literature is still the place where versions of the past are hashed out and visions for the future offered.

Those visions are at times unsavory. They often clash with what we expect enlightened authors to think about their own society, its past or its future. And that can serve as a reason to close a book, to put it down and sigh at the absence of a 21st-century Solzhenitsyn—but that would be a mistake. No matter what you think of contemporary Russian literature, it is still a field of vibrant cultural debate, and still provides one of the best windows into the feelings and beliefs of modern-day Russians.