A plague on both your houses

Back to Essays, Reviewsback to journalism

The fate of Russian literature post-perestroika, Guardian, March 1993
One of the paradoxes of Soviet Russia is the literary one; books in a dictatorship are given an importance no democracy has ever matched. Vassily Grossman, believing in Krushchev’s thaw of 1960-61, delivered the typescript of Life and Fate to the editors of Znamya, one of the most prestigious “thick journals”. They wasted no time in handing it over to the Cultural Section of the Central Committee. The novel was returned to Grossman a year later with a note informing him that it was anti-Soviet. Within days the KGB had come to his home and stripped it; they took everything, including his used typewriter ribbons. Grossman wrote to the Central Committee, requesting that his typescript be returned. The request was refused. In his reply Suslov, the chief Party ideologist, replied that there could be no question of Life and Fate being published for another 200 years.

The most striking side to Suslov’s many-sided response is his immediate recognition that he was talking about a masterpiece. Grossman himself died, painfully and wretchedly poor, three years later. “They strangled me in a doorway,” he said.

Whenever Philip Roth returned from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, he marvelled at the vitality of literature there — the source of his famous remark that “in the West everything is permitted and nothing matters, and in the East nothing is permitted and everything matters”. A frank envy in any Western writer’s heart for the pulse of Soviet writing is forgivable — even if Roth failed to see that the circumstances which sustained it were fatal for Grossman, as they were for Pasternak, Bulgakov and others, the same way the action of steroids can be fatal to an athlete: death brought on by cumulative intolerable stress.

Life and Fate — overloaded and testamentary, still a masterpiece — was finally smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm in the early 1980s. The case of Grossman will not be repeated, mutatis mutandis: in the new Russian mandate everything is at last permitted. Russia today has put its Soviet past so far behind it that, in Moscow in the week of the elections, I had the feeling that history had been abolished.

The one-time novelist Sergei Kaledin embodied the feeling in word and gesture. An ebullient and opportunistic man, he now describes himself as a film-maker. “Russia was a serf country, and like other serf countries the only drugs were vodka and books. Now we are free, though wretched, unhappy and poor, and the time for books is over.” (Like all opportunists he cannot quite decide what he wants. The Russian Booker Prize dinner to celebrate the best novel of the year, at the Architects’ Club in a few days’ time, produced a glint in his eye: he was furious not to have been invited.)

A post-literate Russia is another paradox one wants to refuse. There is no doubt that Communism kept the Soviet Union reading. Where reading got it is another matter; the facts spoke for themselves. The sight of everyone reading books on the Metro made a deep impression on visitors. Thick journals like Znamya and Novy Mir had a circulation of between one and five million copies, a month. In cultural terms, reading in Russia has stopped overnight. This year the journals will consider themselves fortunate to sell more than fifty thousand copies each. Russia’s timetable of freedom mirrors, for the present, the end of her love for literary language. Perhaps people used to read because life was dull, and there was nothing to do. Now there is: they can watch videos, play games, make money. Video-culture circumvents the problems of inflation and distribution, because it is a dollar activity in which Mafia penetration is practically total. In the streets around Red Square, people queue through the slush for a glimpse of consumer technology. This is the road from Sheremetyevo. The first sign you see after getting off the plane says, in English, “Sony Trinitron! Fantastic Value! Was $999, Now $769!”

Perhaps the blame cannot all be laid at capitalism’s door. Deferred demand is too great to be satisfied. If the Russian economy can sort itself out, the argument goes, a new literature (along with a new form of publishing) will emerge to replace the old prepotent greats. Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Brodsky, Dombrovsky, Grossman, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Platonov, Solzhenitsyn, Zamyatin — they are immeasurable in value, but uncontemporary in what Congressman Bob Roberts would have called “a difficult period of transition”. The anxious fact, of course, is that the economy cannot sort itself out. People say, with a hopeless smile, that all state-run business will be bankrupt within two years. Two-thirds of all enterprises in Russia are deep in corruption. The most absurd Western preconception about Communism is that Party ideologists did not understand that socialism costs (imagine the expense of distributing five million copies of a journal from Riga to Tashkent every month); the biggest mistake the ideologists’ reforming successors have made is to believe that freedom is free.

In the face of chaos habits remain, and the formal process of being published in a free press is hardly different: publication in a thick journal, then in book form. This once ensured recognition in the USSR, then in France and Germany (where Soviet Russian writing has been prized more highly than in Britain), and finally internationally. “These days it means nothing.” Of the 6000 new publishing houses which have been registered since independent publishing was permitted, Kaledin said, “Practically none are publishing new writers in book form. Five years ago publishers were puritanical. They published only the best. Now Ex Libris is the only house in Moscow which can afford the luxury of publishing three or four new writers a year. For the others it’s James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie, soap operas and pornography.”

The reality is worse. In the businesslike basement in Ostojenka Street where Ex Libris has its office — adjoining a single-storey clapboard house with a white pillared porch which was once Turgenev’s — the money has run out. Larisa Bespalova, a beautiful sparrow of a woman who is Ex Libris’ editorial director, is in despair. It’s over, for a list which would be the envy of a British publisher: Waugh, Malamud, Bainbridge, Mitford, Austen in translation this year; in Russian, Brodsky, Gerasimov, Zinik, Nekrasov and three new names — Ivan Alexeyev, Alexei Varlamov, Mariam Uzeforskaya. Instead the house will try to make money with a Russian translation of a popular German children”s encyclopedia.

In Moscow things just about work, after a fashion. Nothing works well unless it is part of the mob economy or under foreign ownership. Literature’s priority has gone; but for publishers, distribution is the worst problem. Books get stuck, stolen, delivered and not paid for; publishers cannot afford the freelance distributors’ prices. At the same time they are being squeezed by 20% a month inflation and the regular doubling of costs by the printing works. (All the heads of department in the printing plants are old Communists loyal to old cronies. People shrug. Yes, a senior official of the Moscow PEN Club is a well known ex-KGB informer; such chops of loyalty are common.) As for selling books — a buyer from Georgia or Armenia with an empty suitcase and a few dollars would be so welcome. But they don’t come.

In chaos too, the legible absurdities of the old world are being replaced by the illegible signs of the new. The scramble to live, the scramble for dollars, produce amnesia and agoraphobia. Leaving Ex Libris, we drove across an intersection past the great gazing head and snow-covered shoulders of the Tolstoy monument. Olga, the thirty-five-year-old interpreter, said bitterly, “If only the Revolution had never happened.”

“Would you still want the Tsars?”

“There must have been another way.”

The discarding of history in favour of illusion is mirrored in the evident relief of the older Moscow intelligentsia; the writers and poets of the “period of stagnation” in the 1970s, whose cri de guerre remains freedom for freedom’s sake. They shrug off its deepening reverberations as Olga shrugs off the implications of living under feudalism. They still have the habit of congregating at each other’s flats and talking. When I suggested one evening to Vladimir Kornilov, author of the novel Demobilisation, that Russian intellectuals were suffering from Berlin-Wall Syndrome — the cautionless euphoria of a sudden change in climate — he denied it with vehemence. I asked him what he thought freedom was for.

“You are wrong. Everyone must have freedom, that’s all.”

“Writers to have a free press?”

“Of course. And for everyone else the freedom to be themselves, and every sort of freedom.”

The greatest informant of the Russian novel has been history, its greatness this century the greatness of refusing specific, terrible repressions. What were Russians going to write about, now that history was finished with?

“Everything!” A little later, Vladimir became calmer. He admitted, “It was easier to write in the period of stagnation, because it was easier to be heard.”

This sounded crazy. A writer in the 60s and 70s could be fired from the Moscow Writers’ Union and not publish anything for ten years. (A tiny example: displeased with Lydia Chukovskaya, the Writers’ Union forbade the Carpenters’ Union to fix the roof of her dacha: her father’s house and a national shrine. No longer a young woman, she was forced to move to a sixth-floor flat in the city, on Gorky Street. Yet in the old days of censorship, monumental though the struggle was to get work published, the world divided very clearly. There was official publication and there was the heavy-duty samizdat typewriter with twelve carbons. Both had a never-ending supply of readers. (And a huge amount of rubbish was also censored.) The older generation’s self-deception stems from embarrassment: the embarrassment of having won the struggle to publish freely and finding that most of their audience has vanished. Not to mention the poverty many have been thrust into, after the sabbatical life they enjoyed if they managed to keep, by no means always dishonourably, on the right side of the Writers’ Union. (With inflation, the current royalty for journal publication now buys roughly half a dozen sandwiches at the Kempinski Hotel.)

Literature — I use the substantial term because it is what their fiction and poetry has been for ten generations of Russians — has been unseated by the abolition of history; at least it implies that circumstances remain in which it is indispensable. In any case, all literatures have their own history: one only has to look at the postwar marginalisation of literacy in Britain.

Mourning for literature is appropriate in Russia now, since the repression of freedom has given way to a freedom of such promiscuity. The moment cannot be evaded. A country of Russia”s boundless borders will always experience ideology at its most extreme. Her geography, at the same time, encourages the search for inner freedom. To paraphrase Bulgakov: “Literature doesn”t burn.” If any writer might be the spokesman for the post-literate generation, it is Dmitry Bakin, a thirty-year-old Army veteran — if he were willing to be the spokesman for anything. Those who have been in the Army in the last fifteen years have grown up rather quickly. Bakin’s story “Lagopthalmos”, published in English in Harvill’s Dissonant Voices, brilliantly describes that experience (more compactly even than Conrad in The Shadow-Line; the best short story, not in Russian, but in any language, I have read in ten years). Bakin, though, refuses to be a public figure; his real name is a secret. At the State telecom company where he works, he is a van-driver, not a writer. He nevertheless has two of the chief qualities for keeping literature going: he claims not to care whether a story of his is published or not; and he believes that “Lagopthalmos”, one of his first works, is “an incredibly bad story”. Significantly he is one of the few writers that other Moscow writers, Kaledin and Kornilov for example, are prepared to be generous about.

If not Bakin, then the poet Denis Novikov, or the novelist Andrei Kurkov. These lines are from Novikov’s poem “Optimistic winter stanzas”:


Let’s hymn this life (the next foretelling),

a palm branch grasped between our gums,

and as the tanks and guns start shelling,

on twin humps face whatever comes


“The present generation of the near-illiterate,” Novikov said in a recent interview, “will be compensated for by a select group…. But it will be no more than 5% of the generation. The rest will run wild.” He and Bakin write for themselves and publish for money, as Pushkin used to say. Kurkov also has one answer to Sartre’s forty-year-old and never more relevant question — “Who is one writing for?” — with a work of 1991, “The Cosmopolitan Anthem”, which forecast down to the detail of the failed White House revolt the chaos of today. It must be grounds for optimism that the story was denounced at the All-Union Writers’ Conference that year as “anti-Russian”.

It is a shame that none of these three was eligible for the Russian version of the Booker Prize this year. One wouldn’t have begrudged any of them the prize money of £10,000. On the night of the prize (Kaledin didn’t make it, though the ex-KGB informer did), however, there seemed something oddly pre-revolutionary about handing over to one man (Vladimir Makanin, the author of A Baize-covered Table with Decanter) a cheque which makes him a rouble millionaire in the present circumstances — rather like lining up the domestic staff to award long-service medals while the palace burns. Booker McConnell, along with its co-sponsor, Tetra-Pak Laval, stand to make great corporate fortunes with their refrigerated processing and distribution network in Russia. If they are in earnest about the health of Russian literature, they should start a publishing house. The publicity from a nice evening at the Architects’ Club must be good for them. The investment of their distribution skills in Russian publishing would go a lot further.

The Russians were the greatest readers in the world. Maybe literature will only become necessary again when the consequences of this era are worked through. It would be reassuring to think that everything that is happening now is the necessary capitulation to chaos that precedes a new Eden, that upon the gates of the new era waits a determined people who want to temper consumer democracy — the only kind of ready-to-wear democracy there is — with a collective re-determination of their Russian identity. (There is at least a little evidence that the last two years have done what Communism never could: shown excesses of materialism which have shocked honest people.)

What is the alternative? Russia still has the faith we lack. But consumer democracies have a special efficiency at turning beliefs into aspirations of a material kind, at turning reality into consumable phenomena. Russia could easily beggar herself in the cause of imported post-modernism — shopping can be made into a substitute for almost anything. This is Roth’s world, everything permitted, nothing mattering. Resistance is useless: all one can do is get shallow and like it. Yet while the country is still in its present embroilment, perversely, there is hope. It was summed up by the scene on the video showing on the Sony television at Sheremetyevo. (I took no notice at the time, but found out later that I’d written a couple of lines down in my notebook.) The film showing was Indecent Proposal, with Robert Redford playing the infinitely wealthy businessman-playboy who offers Demi Moore a million dollars to sleep with him. She agrees, in part at least because she and her husband face bankruptcy. They stand at the stern of his yacht. Having accepted the proposition, she suddenly says that she doesn’t want to go through with it. He suggests they toss a coin. She agrees and calls tails; the coin comes down heads. They looks at each other for a long moment and he smiles his polished playboy’s smile.

“I win…. Trust me,” he says.


© Julian Evans 1993

Conditions of use

This site contains copyright material © Julian Evans 1993-2013. Permission is granted to print, download, read/listen to the print/audio material for personal use only. It may not be reused (copied, broadcast, shared) without permission and all reuses must be attributed.