There’s also the older Olga Slavnikova, whose bio reads like a thriller, born, as she tells it, in a Soviet “secret” city where her scientist father worked on top-level nuclear research that exposed him to so much radiation he was forbidden to have kids — an order he flouted.
These three authors, and two others — Dmitry Biryukov and Irina Bogatyreva — were in the D.C. area on a tour sponsored in part by the Debut Prize, an award for young Russian writers that’s
noteworthy because it recognizes literary achievements by the first generation of Russians to grow up after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It’s a generation whose writing seems to be united less by subject matter or style or political slant than by a confidence, honesty and vibrancy that have made the literary establishment take notice. A few of these authors could barely have bought a legal drink in the United States a few years ago, yet their work is already available in English translation.
Causa Artium, a New York-based arts nonprofit, has kicked off an initiative to raise awareness of the authors: The organization collaborated with the Debut Prize on a February tour that had them speak at intellectual bastions such as Georgetown University and Harvard University.
“This new generation is unusually talented,” says Slavnikova, director of the Debut Prize.
Slavnikova — an acclaimed writer who was born in 1959 — is not certain whether the burst of young talent can be attributed principally to historical circumstances or whether other factors are at play. But she does think that the end of the U.S.S.R. has had a liberating effect: Free of the compulsion to wrestle with the Soviet legacy, the Debut Prize authors have been able to “look at the world and describe it the way they see it,” she says.
The Debut Prize writers have a new approach to language itself, declares Milla Fedorova, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s department of Slavic languages. “It seemed that during the Soviet era, all the important words, like ‘friendship’ or ‘love,’ had been compromised,” she explains. “A ‘friend’ meant a friend in the [Communist] Party.”
Awareness of these lingering Soviet overtones, she says, resulted in the ironic and postmodern Russian writing in the 1990s, by authors such as Victor Pelevin, who made a splash with books like the cosmonaut-themed satire “Omon Ra.” But the Debut generation seems unencumbered by such linguistic anxiety, writing “as if they are the first — as if words had not been spoiled — as if Soviet literature had not existed,” Fedorova says.