Reading Russia: yesterday and today, true and false

At Russia Beyond the Headlines novelist Zakhar Prilepin has written a broadside against the neglect of contemporary Russian literature, ongoing simplifications of Russia he sees coming from the West, and makes a case for a non-parodic, traditional, conservative form of Russian writing as it existed in the time of Tolstoy and Chekhov.

Well, he is certainly right about the ignorance of contemporary Russian literature. Yet he doesn’t seem too clear about, in Herzen’s words, Who is to Blame.

He is outraged that the Russian selections on a German newspaper’s list of the most significant books of the last seven decades only include Doctor Zhivago and The Gulag Archipelago, works he thinks will not be seen as “pivotal moments in modern Russian literature.” Perhaps he’s right and their importance will be more political and historical. And though the stress on the political element of Eastern European fiction has always been overdone and is increasingly (though sadly, not entirely) archaic, the original reason for it – what Prilepin almost mockingly calls the “terrible Soviet Union” – is precisely why Russian writers aren’t more prominently featured on that “Best of” list.

Imagine: Isaak Babel’s last works wouldn’t have fit into the 70 year qualifying period anyway, but it wouldn’t have mattered because the KGB burned them and, of course, killed him at 45 years old. Given an ordinary lifespan (assuming he would have survived the Holocaust) who on that list would have surpassed him?

Yury Dombrovsky wrote brilliant novels despite 18 years in prison camps and exile before being beaten to death in 1978. Imagine what he would have written without that oppression and brutal death. Of course, there’s a level of this that is too hypothetical. In Dombrovsky’s case his travails were also, to a degree, his material. It’s impossible to separate some of these writers from what they went through. Still, when a bullet or a steel pipe ends their literary efforts for good then there is no longer another side to the story that needs to be balanced out.

The number of Russian writers that were prevented from writing over the last 70 years is so big and so impressive that had they lived and continued working it would be possible to imagine a list that doesn’t include writers from any country other than Russia.

Western naivety

Prilepin points out that 99% of Russians hate Gorbachev. He mentions this to imply that the West is naïve to admire him. Fair enough, but it’s worth noting that in recent polls of the country’s most popular historical figure Josef Stalin came in third with over 50 million votes, so perhaps appealing to the likes and dislikes of the Russian public is not exactly an appeal to measured judgment.

He then brings up the naïve western reception of Nicolai Lilin’s supposed memoirs of combat in Chechnya that turned out to be fiction. Maybe Prilepin has never heard of James Frey (he’s lucky if he hasn’t) but then begins to write with that combination of national chauvinism and paranoia that sounds curiously like the Russian government:

“But back in Europe, strange things can happen. Plenty of second-rate books make it to print, and the most popular still seem to be this load of nonsense that no one in his right mind would ever bother reading in Russia.”

Uh, really? Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky is a bestselling historian who has written many controversial history books, one of which is War. Myths of the USSR. 1939-45, in which he denies that the Soviet Union invaded Poland, among other bizarre claims. And bestselling 9/11 conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan works for and appears regularly in the Russian media, publishing articles like the one hinting that the Beslan massacre was a CIA operation (only hinting because of the whole stupid finding evidence journalism requirement).

I wonder if anyone in Russia in his or her right mind bothers reading these guys’ books.

Return to Tolstoy

Back to literature in Part II, Prilepin writes about reinstating Russia’s almost lost literary tradition and doing so by moving away from the parodic and grotesque towards the aesthetic of Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov: “Russian readers (and also Russian writers) are sick and tired of mockery, base idiot savants, and unrelenting parody.”

It’s a compelling argument mixed with some very questionable points – e.g. that classic Russian literature possessed “idealism free of dogma and didacticism” (Tolstoy? Free of didacticism?) – but makes for an interesting read nonetheless. Best of all he cites a number of contemporary writers whose work represents the aesthetics and standards he’s advocating.

I recently got a copy of Prilepin’s 2007 novel-in-stories Sin and am looking forward to reading it. You can read a long extract (but not all) of the title story on Prilepin’s website.

Photo – Zakhar Prilepin at a rally of the National Bolshevik Party by Mikhail Beznosov

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Categories: Essays


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3 Comments on “Reading Russia: yesterday and today, true and false”

  1. Elizabeth Pearl Morgan
    13/07/2016 at 9:26 pm #

    Hello, I would like to cite this article. Please let me know to whom I owe the credit.

  2. 05/09/2016 at 12:31 pm #

    If you mean my article, cite me (Michael Stein). If you mean the article on RBTH then check the link.


  1. Literary roundup: Libya through Hungarian eyes, Akhmatova weighs in, and the dark marvelous | literalab - 27/10/2012

    […] follow-up on what I wrote about Zakhar Prilepin’s opinion piece at Russia Beyond the Headlines, which included a dismissal of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as […]

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