We don’t yet know what history will say about the Russian presidential election scheduled for March 4. But East Coast Americans recently glimpsed some of the writers who could — on a literary level — help with the saying.
The writers include Alisa Ganieva, a casually glamorous 26-year-old who wrote a hugely controversial short story under a male pseudonym, only revealing her real sex when she showed up to collect a literary award. And then there’s Igor Savelyev, a twenty-something crime reporter whose novella about hitchhiking became a cult sensation.
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 Whiting Writers’ Awards
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.
The award recipients feel free to be sincere and to write without any particular agenda. “In Russia, usually, the writer is a teacher of society,” Fedorova notes. But “these new writers are much more humble.” They write with a slightly questioning attitude, as if “they are in the process of discovering the truth.”
Discovering the truth in 2012 may mean contemplating the burgeoning opposition movement that has, in the past few months, generated huge protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime. While the younger writers don’t take a particularly political approach to fiction, they are aware that they’re living through a milestone moment in Russian history.
Savelyev, born in 1983 in the city of Ufa, in the Urals — where he works for a weekly newspaper — believes that Americans think about Russia in overly political terms. “There are a lot more aspects of Russia than Americans tend to see,” he points out, speaking through a translator.
Savelyev’s fiction, as it happens, could help Americans peer past politics to other Russian realities. A young man who cites F. Scott Fitzgerald as a favorite author, Savelyev made his name by writing about Russia’s youth-hitchhiking subculture. As described in his novella “Pale City,” which attracted a cult following and made him a 2004 Debut Prize finalist, the subculture involves restless youths who revel in a rootless lifestyle.
Mark Lipovetsky, an associate professor in the department of Germanic and Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Colorado at Boulderand author of books on modern Russian literature, speculates that young hitchhikers are part of an anti-conformist ethos that hit its stride about a decade ago. “We may even speculate that Russia, and especially Russian youth today, are going through the processes that were popular in the [United] States in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “It’s a kind of new beatnik movement.”
Savelyev joined the movement as a university student, finding in the hitchhiking world a stimulating mix of people, many of whom rejected the establishment notion that, in his words “everything is about money.” Although he thumbs fewer rides these days, he doesn’t feel too constrained by adult working life. “It may be that writers are one of the very few categories of people in Russia that have been able to maintain and require a sense of internal freedom,” he says. Literature has a smaller audience than the mass media, so it’s “not subject to the same scrutiny by the government.”
He did attend recent political protests in Ufa. Six months earlier, he says, he would have sworn that mass demonstrations were an impossibility in modern-day Russia. “It’s amazing how incredibly things have changed,” he says.
Raised in a nonreligious household in Dagestan, a mountainous republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region, Alisa Ganieva has aimed to write in clear-eyed fashion about her homeland, a region that has been racked by violence fueled by criminal and clan elements and an Islamic insurgency. Her long story “Salam, Dalgat!” aims a merciless lens on a Dagestani town roiling with drug gangs, Islamic fundamentalists, water-supply breakdowns, burning garbage cans, abusive police officers and women fawning over Gucci knockoffs.
She used a male pseudonym — Gulla Khirachev — for the story, published first in a Dagestani newspaper, then in a literary journal. The pseudonym was a device reflecting the “male-dominated world of today’s Dagestan,” she says. She also wanted the story to be judged on its own merits, rather than in the context of her reputation as a literary critic and editor. (She works at the literary supplement published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a daily). The world learned her real identity when she collected the Debut Prize for “Salam, Dalgat!” in 2009.
The exceptionally gritty portrait of Dagestan in “Salam, Dalgat!” earned Ganieva death threats. “They accused me of betraying my society,” she says calmly in slightly halting English, explaining that Dagestani literature has long favored facile romanticism—texts “about snowy mountains and eagles in the sky.”
Ganieva is equally disinclined to don rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia’s fledgling opposition movement. She attended the protests that took place in December and February, and describes them as “very inspiring and artistic events.” However, she notes, “I am afraid some destructive forces — I mean, communism, nationalism and so on — will use this public inspiration.” There’s no opposition leader she really trusts.
“I don’t want to avoid one influence” — the regime dominated by current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — “and get under another” — a communist- or nationalist-controlled one, she says. Still, “I was extremely happy to see this awakening of civil consciousness. Especially now, writers ought not to be passive. They must participate in social life.”
Olga Slavnikova, too, is wary that undemocratic forces might co-opt the nascent opposition. Though she opposes the political status quo, she stayed away from the protests for fear of being “in the same camp as the communists and the nationalists,” she says, through a translator.
Slavnikova’s anxiety about communism is understandable, given her biography: Her father declined to join the Community Party — never a life-smoothing choice in that era.
The tensions surrounding family life may have sparked young Olga’s literary leanings. “The romantic atmosphere of mystery and even danger that was attached to [my father’s] life, that I couldn’t help feeling — of course, being in the presence of that would develop your imagination,” she says.
Decades later, Slavnikova’s career got a huge boost when “2017,” her simile-crammed novel about dystopian politics, love, the gem business and the lore of a mythical mountain range, snagged the 2006 Russian Booker Prize. “The runs of my books went from just 5,000 to 50,000,” she remembers. Now her print runs are more like 100,000, she says.
When the Debut Prize writers gain more exposure abroad, Slavnikova thinks, the reading world will gain a valuable resource. The writers “say things that are important and profound about life in general,” she observed at a cocktail party in Adams Morgan, while Washingtonians swarmed like bees around the Russian writers and several stacks of books in English translations.
That the books may give Americans a more nuanced picture of Russia is, of course, an added plus. “We’d like you to understand that Russia is not Putin personified,” Slavnikova said.
READING THE DEBUT PRIZE WRITERS
Some works are available in English translations:
“Squaring the Circle: Short Stories by Winners of the Debut Prize,” compiled by Olga Slavnikova. Glas New Russian Writing, 2010. Contains Alisa Ganieva’s “Salam, Dalgat!” and Igor Savelyev’s “Modern-Day Pastoral.”
“Off the Beaten Tracks: Stories by Russian Hitchhikers .” Glas New Russian Writing, 2012. Contains Igor Savelyev’s “Pale City” and Irina Bogatyreva’s “Off the Beaten Track.”
“Mendeleev Rock: Two Short Novels From Debut.” Glas New Russian Writing, 2011. Contains Andrei Kuzechkin’s “Mendeleev Rock” and Pavel Kostin’s “Rooftop Anesthesia.” Both works were Debut Prize finalists.
“2017,” by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz. Overlook/Duckworth, 2010.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“I was extremely happy to see this awakening of civil consciousness. Especially now, writers ought not to be passive. They must participate in social life.”