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Editor's Note:

This column is the second of what will be a periodic series of "letters from Moscow" written exclusively for Post.com by David Hoffman, The Post's Moscow bureau chief. These letters have not appeared in the print editions of The Post.

In his first column for Post.com, Hoffman writes that the Russian landscape is still dominated by the massive, bleak remnants of the dead Soviet empire.

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Letter From Moscow:
Literature Probing Brave New World

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 1996

MOSCOW -- Five years after the collapse of Soviet power, both politics and economics have raced forward at a dizzying pace. Just imagine, only a few years ago, during the perestroika years of Mikhail Gorbachev, there was speculation that someday there might be "private" banks in Russia. Back then, the state owned the banks.

Now, a few years later, there are 2,500 private banks, many of them shady, and a few of the biggest ones appear to control the state itself.

However, there is one group in Russian society that, understandably, lags a little behind the curve. Unlike the bankers, they have not plunged headlong into the future. They are the writers, many of whom are trying to probe the Soviet experience anew, from divergent points of view and differing generations. They are also delving tentatively into what kind of country Russia has become.

Russian literature, in the last century and this one, has always had a special relationship to society. People were distant from their authoritarian rulers, but found truth in their literature. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it in his Nobel Prize lecture, "In Russian literature there has long been an inborn idea that a writer can do much for his people and that is his duty."

Solzhenitsyn was a mighty example of this role in his courageous and eloquent challenge to Soviet power. He told a truth of immeasurable importance, especially at the time that he told it. The writers' duty, Solzhenitsyn said, is "not to take part in the lie."

But in the new Russia, is this still the calling of writers? If they don't have a totalitarian state to challenge head-on, will they still flourish? What truths can they tell? Are they still as important in a free society?

The answer is obviously yes, and several different groups of writers who span the Soviet and Russian experience are showing the way. My favorites are several writers who came of age in the Soviet years but who have been publishing in the freer climate of Russia.

Five years is barely enough time for the first of these novels and stories to appear, and there will be many more to come. By far the best place to read this new writing in English translation is "Glas," a literary journal edited by Natasha Perova in Russia, and Arch Tait in Britain. Many of the finest of the new generation of Russian writers have been first published in English in "Glas". (The U.S. distributor is: Ivan R. Zee, 1322 N. Halsted St., Chicago, Ill., 60622-2637. The toll-free number is 800-634-0226.)

The new Russian writing can be shockingly absurd. There is a strong element of farce, fantasy and escapism. But what makes it fresh and important is that it has thrown off the stale official conventions of the Soviet era. Some readers may wonder if these contemporary writers have yet discovered what makes the new Russia tick. In my view, they are still looking. But in the process, they've come up with some remarkable new pieces of fiction.

One of my favorites is "Escape Hatch" by Vladimir Makanin, recently published in the U.S. by Ardis Publishers, Dana Point, Calif. Makanin, 59, is one of those writers who bridge two eras, and does it with exceptional skill. He was writing in the Soviet years, but had trouble getting published; some of his work circulated in "samizdat," the typewritten illicit manuscripts that were passed from hand to hand. In more recent years, Makanin has been published openly; several pieces have been in "Glas".

"Escape Hatch," first published in 1990 in Russian, takes place in some kind of dark, post-Soviet Moscow, where people live in fear in dimmed apartments with the thick curtains drawn, and sneak around on the streets. It's not clear just what they fear, but Makanin writes of angry mobs that roam the city, which is always shrouded in twilight. There's a sense of coming apocalypse as the main character, a man named Klyucharov, begins to dig a bunker in a riverbank for his family.

At the same time, Klyucharov literally crawls in an extraordinary passage through a gap in the earth to another world -- a world below ground, where there is always light, where people are brightly chatting at wine bars and cautiously questioning him about what's happening "up there." Makanin can be obscure -- his two worlds are not fully explained as metaphors; perhaps they were meant to symbolize the divergent paths of Russia. His characters once come in contact with the mob, but they, too, remain obscure; perhaps the rampaging, blind, throbbing crowd is meant to symbolize Soviet society. But the novel's opaque moments don't subtract from Makanin's writing, which is sparse and thought-provoking.

Another novel on the seam between old and new eras is "Omon Ra" by Victor Pelevin, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in the U.S.

Pelevin, 34, is a leader among the younger writers. The title of his 1992 novel comes from the name of the narrator. His father named him Omon, for the Russian interior ministry police. But he added Ra, after the Egyptian sun god. Omon's story is about his dream of exploring space as a Soviet cosmonaut.

Omon and his friend Mitiok go to a Soviet space camp -- and discover a little cardboard model spaceship hanging from the ceiling in the dining hall. "When they made it, they started with this little man," says Mitiok, after fetching the model from the ceiling. "They made him and sat him on the chair and glued the cardboard shut all around him." But, he adds, "The most interesting thing is that there was no door. There was a hatch drawn on the outside, but in the same place on the inside, just some dials on the wall."

The boys win coveted places as cadets on a Soviet lunar mission. The mission is designed to catch up with the West. But they discover later that, as at the space camp, the doors to the lunar mission don't open. The Soviet Union cannot afford to bring them back home.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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