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Katya Kazbek: Discourse in Danger

The state of Russian literature today

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Image taken from Flickr user Doctor Yuri

By Katya Kazbek

It’s hard to imagine a time when Russia was not in a state of political tempest. And it’s even harder to imagine a time when the tumult was not creating exquisite literature. So when a delegation of Russian authors came to New York to talk about the political milieu back home, one imagines that there is something wonderful brewing, despite the fact that the panel is called “Closing of the Rus-sian mind.” The panel, part of the PEN “Discourse in danger” series that took place in New York City in early February, focused on the quickly narrowing creative space in Russia, and the implications for the creative work being done there.

One take away from the discussion was that vastness does not collapse upon itself, and despite years of political tumult and ever-increasing censorship, Russian literature and free thought in gen-eral still stand, and have often become stronger with the more drastic regimes. Therefore, any prob-lems that the Russian literature is facing right now must only work to its own advantage and serve as precursors to a wide awakening. Besides, as journalist and non-fiction writer Masha Gessen, the mediator of the panel, who had recently moved her family to the US herself, pointed out: There is no such thing as one single Russian mind. However, it turns out, the disparity between Russian minds is, quite possibly, at the center of the problem with Russian literature and the way it functions to influence the political and the social institutions in the country.

The only writer in the delegation who has been extensively translated into English and is therefore known in the US is Ludmila Ulitskaya. The latest of her translated novels, The Big Green Tent, was published by FSG at the end of 2015. In August, the first publication of the Eng-lish translation of her 2001 magnum opus The Kukotsky Enigma, will be released. It is the story of a gynecologist who dedicates himself to the legalization of abortions during Stalin’s reign. It is a must read for any American in the time of crackdowns on Planned Parenthood. In Rus-sia, by way of an unexpected aftermath of the Soviet Union, abortions are free and legal all over the country, and constitute one of the few liberal advantages over Western countries.

The three other writers in the delegation, Maria Stepanova, Ann Nemzer and Ilya Danishevsky, are not translated into English extensively—or at all. Stepanova is a poet, whose main outlet is serving as editor-in-chief to colta.ru, Russia’s independent online magazine, which can afford certain liberties because it is not privately owned but crowdfunded by the readers. Nemzer is a fic-tion writer and an editor at TV Rain, which is Colta’s television counterpart. Ilya Dan-ishevsky writes both fiction and poetry and heads Vremena, an imprint at AST, one of Russia’s biggest publishing houses. The day jobs of all three bravely cater to a very specific audi-ence, the urban intellectuals of all breeds, who have one thing in common: They do not support Vladimir Putin and his regime.

It seems, however, that this juxtaposition of the Russian intelligentsia to the majority further un-dermines its positions and alienates their works from a wider readership.

The same is true for the panelists. According to Ulitskaya, despite holding different positions on many political issues, all five of them, including Gessen, share one thing in common—a firm place in the opposition to the existing government. The state of belonging to the resistance was a main theme of the panel. All of the speakers referred to their target audience as the 14 percent—the amount of Russian citizens who, according to a survey conducted in May 2015, did not support president Putin after the annexation of Crimea. The other 86 percent, who have in the Russian in-tellegentsia’s lingo become a synonym for the lumpenproletariat, were only mentioned as the rival force. Ulitskaya has to confront the most aggressive representatives of the majority dur-ing her regional book tours, while Danishevsky meditates by reading Sartre’s Nausea before bedtime to overcome his frustration with the 86 percent.

It seems, however, that this juxtaposition of the Russian intelligentsia to the majority further un-dermines its positions and alienates their works from a wider readership. Ulitskaya is undoubtedly one of the bestselling authors in the country—along with fellow liberal Boris Akunin, who predom-inantly works in the genre of historical detective novels and is currently dedicating his time to works on Russian history. However, her position as the influencer is shaky. Her own books are not being censored or prevented from being published, however, Ulitskaya had recently found herself in the middle of a censorship scandal as the editor to a set of educational books for children, one of which included a paragraph on same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, another prominent author of literary fiction in Russia Zakhar Prilepin, called by The Guardian a modern Leo Tolstoy in 2012. He is enjoying a more secure position. Previously a liberal, and a TV show host for TV Rain, he has recently become enam-ored with Putin’s politics, traveling extensively to the areas of military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and covering his interactions with the separatist government. It would have been an admirable polit-ically-justified endeavor if not for the blatantly propagandist agenda that his work involves.

Prilepin also dabbles in music, and one of his recent forays into the medium is a joint venture with Rich, a Russian rapper of little renown. In the video to the song “Time to leave”—the defining mot-to for a vast amount of Russian liberals who flee abroad—the rapper and Prilepin kidnap a man (who, as one can gather by the lyrics, wants to leave Russia), beat him to a pulp and force feed him kasha. Presumably, the feeding serves to evoke the feeling of patriotism in the man. Or maybe this is an allusion to the way suckling pigs are served in Russian feasts: stuffed with kasha. There’s also an epic line that’s roughly translated into something like: “Those who brood and go abroad are called ‘sbrod,’ those who stay remain mute and sit at the long table” (probably eating humans stuffed with kasha, no less). But the most important thing is that the viewer of the music video is supposed to be wholeheartedly on the side of the abductors, of those who violently denounce other-ness.

Prilepin fits the role of the Russian nationalist author admirably. He is male and masculine, white and straight. He wasn’t born rich, with both of his parents solid working class, yet he abuses class issues in his writing to make a point of being a thug, an image that has become increasingly popular in the ideology which deifies Putin, a strongman with a KGB past. Prilepin has served in the army, he never wants to leave his homeland, and he loathes otherness. He is incredibly appealing to the audience which usually does not seek out literatures outside of genre, as well as the intellectual with social democratic proclivities.

When talking about the minorities that exist in contemporary Russia, Ilya Danishevsky asserted that the most prominent writers are the LGBTQI and the atheists.

While any comparisons of Putin’s regime to that of Hitler are uncalled for and quite frankly shal-low, the general sentiments of the population, are, unfortunately, similar to those at the end of Weimar Republic: an impoverished people uniting under propaganda in their hatred for everything foreign, different, external—be it the migrants, the liberals, or the LGBTQI. And Prilepin, in his collaborationist frenzy, has a bigger chance of success with this audience than any of the panelists.

When talking about the minorities that exist in contemporary Russia, Ilya Danishevsky asserted that the most prominent writers are the LGBTQI and the atheists. Not to downplay the struggle of both groups (to which I myself belong) but such an approach effectively cancels out the two other very prominent sectors of marginalized in Russia: those who do not belong by class or by race. And this, essentially, becomes the problem at the heart of Russia’s contemporary literary movement. It does not see eye to eye with the society at large and does not share its concerns, and when it does, its ob-jectives are not positive.

This isn’t something new or previously unseen. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Under-ground, whose ideological and admirable concerns set him ablaze, could only find an outlet by drunkenly insulting the establishment or by mentally abusing a sex worker. However, Dostoev-sky, who had narrowly escaped an execution for his rebellious aspirations, still managed to shape the pre-Revolutionary mindset of the Russian readership, at that moment even smaller than it is now, quite successfully. He did this, in part, by not trying to position himself above the masses, or by trying his hardest to extract the mediocre, the unlikeable, the ambiguous. It remains to be seen whether Ulitskaya, Nemzer, Stepanova and Danishevsky, all of whom play their parts as intellectu-als impeccably well, will be able to do the same. It’s also unclear if Prilepin will remain obscure to the majority by lieu of belonging to the elite strata, of which appreciation for literary fiction is frankly a part.

it may be up to the new generation of millennials, born with Putin already in power, to actually change the literary dialogue on a larger scale.

When asked about his attempts at publishing books that would not be welcome by the nomencla-ture, Ilya Danishevsky only managed to give an example of an upcoming work: a book on Petr Pavlensky, the Russian artist who gained prominence by nailing his scrotum to the ground in the Red Square. Pavlensky is currently detained at a criminal psychiatric ward after he set fire to a door leading to the FSB (formerly KGB) headquarters. This publication is an admirable pursuit. The main problem in Russian publishing, however, is not the impossibility of putting out more books that challenge this paradigm. It’s more likely the fact that there are not many of such books at all. And with all due respect to the panelists who do their best to create the new Russian avant-garde, it may be up to the new generation of millennials, born with Putin already in power, to actually change the literary dialogue on a larger scale.

Katya Kazbek is originally from Russia. She is a feminist and an LGBTIQ issues freelance writer. Her work has been published in Creative Times Report, Russian GQ and Vogue. Katya’s main fields of interest include the post-colonial struggle in the ex-USSR territories, race, migration, class, sexual violence and queer identities. She likes drag queens and messy cooking and currently lives in New York City with her partner. She has an MA from Oxford and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University, where she is at work on a novel. Follow her on twitter @kazbek

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