On the New Russian Realism by Kevin Kinsella

Few countries have undergone more radical transformations than Russia has, so it’s easy to assume that with each geopolitical quake the country’s cultural continuity gets split along the resulting fault lines.

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But if one looks closer at contemporary Russian literature, there are more convergences than divergences with the country’s heritage. The stories in Tin House Books’ Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia offer 23 depictions of the so-called new Russia from some of its most talented young writers. According to Rasskazy editors Jeff Parker and Mikhail Iossel, Russia’s greatest contribution to the world has been a continuum of writers capable of examining life’s emotional and intellectual restlessness, its complexity and intensity. I spoke with Parker and Iossel following the anthology’s New York launch at Housing Works Bookstore.

Kevin Kinsella Most of the stories appearing in Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia have appeared in Russian literary journals, newspapers, and magazines, and a few have never appeared in print before publication in this anthology. How did you choose them-particularly the stories that hadn’t even appeared in Russian yet?

Mikhail Iossel I used to be a member of the literary underground scene in Leningrad back in the early 80s, and over the subsequent years have made it a point not to lose touch with that part of my life. The founding, some 11 years ago, of the Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg has also enabled us to stay immersed in Russia’s literary life. Also, on the initial stages of putting this book together, we kept in extensive contact with some prominent figures in the Russian literary community, some of the country’s leading writers and literary critics, people whose judgment we trust and with whom we already consulted in a similar way in the past, while working on our Amerikaanthology of Russian writers’ essays.

Additionally, as we prepared for that year’s SLS-St. Petersburg program in 2007, in addition to our regular annual SLS fiction/poetry contest, we also held, over the Internet, a Russian-language literary contest, titled Tamizdat [literally: there-publishing, a play on the signal Soviet-era acronym samizdat, meaning self-publishing]. It was free and open to anyone writing fiction and poetry in Russian, and we ended up receiving in excess of 2,000 submissions from every corner of Russia and dozens of countries across the globe. Tamizdatsupplied us with a broad array of theretofore unfamiliar names. Stories by several participants in that contest ended up in the Rasskazy anthology, including the first-prize winner Vladimir Kozlov’s Drill and Song Day.

Jeff Parker We’d asked all the writers we got in touch with to send a few stories each. Then we went through them and tried to pick the best stories that represented different aesthetic points of view. Because there hadn’t been a project like this, introducing wholesale the new generation of Russian writers to Western readers, we wanted to give a sense of the heterogeneousness. This led to us taking some chances on some pretty wild pieces, too.

KK How did you choose the translators?

JP The initial idea was to get young Russian writers translated by young North American writers/translators who knew Russian and had a sense of contemporary Russia. The thinking being they’d be best suited to represent them in modern English and understand their world best—so Keith Gessen, Andrea Gregovich, Mariya Gusev, and Ellen Litman. But the list of translators who meet that criteria is small. When a few couldn’t do it for one reason or another, we cast a wider net and found actually some very good translators, mostly through happenstance. Robert Chandler, the noted Platonov translator in the UK, had recommended Anna Gunin to us, and we simultaneously had been looking for someone to translate German Sadulaev’s work. It turned out she was working on Sadulaev’s novel I Am A Chechen for UK publisher and so we got her on board, and an excerpt of Sadulaev’s novel to boot. Arkady Babchenko’s piece would’ve been one of the most impossible to find a translator for being that it’s thick with military jargon and slang as well as being about 45 pages long, but Natasha Perova from Glas put us in touch with Nick Allen, who had translated Babchenko’s memoir One Solider’s War and was a war correspondent who happened to have worked for a while at The Moscow Times, and he agreed to do it.

KK According to your foreword, all of the writers included here grew up in the wake of the Soviet Union and have spent their entire adult lives in “post-Soviet circumstances.” How do these writers differ, if at all, from the previous generation of writers, which watched the Soviet Union as it began to come undone?

JP When westerners think of post-Soviet writers, if they know any, they think of Victor Pelevin. His work is a very different thing than the work in this anthology. Many of these writers clearly have read him and absorbed his influence, but the work of this new wave of Russian prose writers has already begun to be classified in Russia and described as New Russian Realism. This is not to say that it’s all realist work, but its primary concerns are mimetic. The best example of that is probably Roman Senchin’s “History.” Set during an anti-government rally with [Eduard] Limonov and [Gary] Kasparov stand-ins, an apolitical history professor finds himself caught up in the protests and arrested—very social realist. I think of the book as a news dispatch. This is what Russians see when they look out of their windows every day.

MI The new, the first fully “post-Soviet” generation of Russian writers, grew up largely unburdened by the massive inferiority complexes of their antecedents. They have no idea what it feels like not knowing anyone who’s ever traveled to the “Far Abroad,” the great bugaboo of the capitalist West. They consider themselves to be the rightful citizens of the world, perfectly at home in most of its confines, free to go anywhere on a moment’s notice, and so they’re equally impervious both to the demonization and idealization of the West.

That said, one cannot underestimate the pervasive brainwashing power of a rigidly centralized, government-run, Soviet-style electronic media which is trying to convince them, day in and day out, of a few very simple quasi-truths and truth substitutes. For instance: There are no truly democratic societies in the world. Everywhere, everyone in a position of power is just as corrupt as some of the more corrupt among our officials, so don’t you worry your heads with matters of politics. Or—and just as importantly: We’re so great and different from everyone else. We have so much, such uncountable riches in terms of mineral resources, and such an immense landmass. We have such an amazing uniqueness of spiritual and emotional experience throughout history, in terms of our blazing such a totally iconoclastic and dissimilar path through the universe than everyone else, what with Tosltoy-Dostoyevsky-Pushkin-Chekhov-Gagarin-Bekla-Strelka-Russian ballet-balalaika-dancing bears-ice-cold vodka. And then, of course, there’s our eternal antipode and arch-foe, the terrible and ineffably and irresistible America, the object of our eternal love-hate and impotent envy—hates and seeks to undermine us.

This bears repeating, I think: the powers-that-be in Russia, over the last decade, for reasons of their own and ones having nothing to do with the interests of the Russian society as a whole, have worked hard, in a determined and efficient fashion, in order to make Russian citizens (writers of all generations among them, needless to say) feel as alienated as possible from the domestic political process, by means of removing them from that process and eliminating that process from the sphere of public discourse, and turn them thereby into the cynical, thoroughly apathetic clones of their own worse, “Sovietized” selves—the “homo-Sovieticus” type of foreigners in their own land. What is interesting and important to note, however, is the apparently intuitive response on the part of the young generation of Russian writers to this new (to them) condition of non-freedom imposed upon the society.

Literature, at this time, happens to be the only form of popular artistic expression not subject to officialdom’s censorship. It just does not have nearly the reach of television or the government-sponsored movie industry. It just does not matter much, to put it simply, in terms of its ability to influence the collective mind of Russia’s populace; it’s just not worth the effort, therefore, of monitoring it. The young writers, more so even than the “older” ones, react to the onset of this condition of non-freedom by proliferating their own numbers and exhibiting the growing willingness to tackle the manifold ills of the society. In Russia, whenever literature starts mattering less, it starts mattering more, at least to the Russian writers themselves.

KK Over the past several years, Russian novelists writing in English from a post-immigration perspective have enjoyed popularity here in the United States. I’m thinking of Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, Lara Vapnyar, Irina Reyn, Olga Grushin, Ellen Litman—a remarkably long list that could go on. Despite the differences in the languages in which both groups write, is there any dialogue between the two?

JP Actually most those writers you mentioned are right in that very generation we’ve collected here. These are essentially their counterparts, the writers they might have been had—in most cases, I think—their parents not emigrated. I don’t really see much congruence between their work and the work in this anthology though. The social and political contexts of their lives as well as the immediate literary influences are quite different. I’d be interested to hear what they think of what’s being done there.

MI In the mid-to-late seventies, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews (and people related to them, whether in actual or imaginary ways) were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union, and the majority of them ended up in North America. They brought with them little children—under the age of 16. That’s a very large number, of course—sufficient for those kids brought along by their parents to have formed a distinct North-American generation of Soviet-émigré children: a large group of young Americans with their parents’ story to tell: the unorthodox story of one’s ordinary life in the old Soviet Atlantis.

A writer is defined by the idiom in which he lives, I believe, and one should draw a distinction, within the group of those you name above (and indeed, the list could go on for quite a while longer) between those for whom the main language of their being is English (the majority), and those who still happen to be the primary speakers (thinkers, if you will) of Russian. Still and all, once you’ve started writing in English in America (or anyplace else in then world), you become an Anglophone (if not necessarily American, obviously) writer. It’s just the way it is. Language is stronger than memory or the vector of one’s spiritual aspirations, for a writer.

KK In the introduction to Rasskazy, you say that as the result of the government’s absolute control of TV and electronic media, serious literary writing has been marginalized to the relative backwater of literary journals and a small number of newspapers where authors are fairly free to write whatever they want, free from censorship and the self-censorship that comes from fear of reprisal on purely political grounds. You write, “The writers in today’s Russia derive their sense of relevance from having been adjudged irrelevant by the country’s rulers.” But who reads these writers in Russia?

JP I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that literature in general is pretty irrelevant around the world to most mainstream audiences—Russia is no exception. People buy books there, certainly. And on the subways in the cities it seems like there’s about the same amount of people reading Dan Brown and Danielle Steele as here in North America. But this is a spurious basis for judgment. The most interesting statistic to me touching on this issue is how many aspiring writers there are in Russia—the annual Debut Prize for young writers gets 40,000 or so submissions.

MI They read themselves, of course, but other people read them as well, if mainly just in big cities: there’s no efficient book distribution system in place in Russia, and cities with the population of under 100,000 typically do not have a single bookstore within their bounds. Still, in a country of 140 million people, even if only 5 percent of the population turn out to be readers of serious literature, that’s 7 million people right there—and in reality, the percentage probably is higher. Russians still do read literature. Being a published writer still carries a lot of caché there. It still is considered a prestigious, enviable way to dispose of your life.

KK One of the big English-language anthologies of contemporary Russian writers that I can recall was Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry, which was edited by translator John High in 2000. That collection focused on the transformations in Russian poetry in the previous fifty years, with particular attention to the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years and what High calls “the profound changes in language and values that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime.” Has your newer generation of Russian writers forgone poetry? Or do the two genres—poetry and fiction—exist simultaneously in those same literary journals and newspapers?

JP Actually the poetry scene is very vibrant there it seems to me. Several of the writers from the anthology are primarily poets and several have published books of poetry. Poetry is still, I think, a much more exalted form in Russia than prose, which is seen more and more through a commercial lens. But it, too, occupies a much more political position than most of the poetry I see in North America. Whether it’s a conceptual attempt to antagonize commoditization or blatant protest. Ugly Duckling Presse has over the past few years been publishing excellent contemporary Russian poets in excellent translations. Keith Gessen is translating quite a bit of the work of Kyrill Medvedev, who is interesting for his plain style (related, incidentally, to the fact of Medvedev’s having been the Russian translator for several major Charles Bukowski books). In the West we actually have much better access to Russian poetry than prose at the moment.

MI Russian poetry has been undergoing a period of profound change, both on the purely linguistic and conceptual levels (for instance, [Joseph] Brodsky’s death has largely closed the chapter on the canonical, classical, old-school-beautiful Russian poetry, having probably reached its apogee in his oeuvre), but this may be too extensive, and self-contained, a subject for one to deal with in this format. It’s a whole world of Russian poetry unto its own out there!

KK What does it mean to these writers to be compiled together in a book like Rasskazy and be read in the United States?

JP I don’t know. Several of them posted weird comments on their blogs about it, which were hard to decipher. Comments like, “being in the same volume with villagers.” It’s a strange assortment. You’d rarely find this group together in Russia. You’d certainly never see the Chechen Sadulaev with the ex-soldier Babchenko. You’d certainly never see a complex, stylistic feminist writer like Maria Boteva alongside the mercurial fiction of 24-year-old Evgeni Alyokhin with whom we deliberated at great length about precisely which lines from his text were direct quotes from Jay and Silent Bob and as such could not be rendered in literal translation from the Russian as, for instance, “What the fuck you bitches babbling about?”

Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR. He immigrated to the United States in 1986 and is currently the coordinator of the creative writing program of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The author of Every Hunter Wants to Know (W.W. Norton), a collection of stories, and coeditor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive), his fiction has been translated into several languages and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. In 1998 he founded Summer Literary Seminars, Inc.—one of the world’s largest international literary conferences.

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the collection The Back of the Line, and the coeditor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. He is currently the acting director of the Master’s Program in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator (from Russian) living in Brooklyn. His translation of Osip Mandelshtam’s Tristia is available through Green Integer Books. He blogs about Russian literature at http://reddomino.typepad.com/newfirstunexpected.

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