November 21, 2007
Rebels with some Prose
Exploring the New Categories of Modern Russian Fiction
By Dmitry Babich
For two centuries, Russian fiction writers were responsible for providing a healthy supply of rebels to world literature. Sometimes this supply was made in the form of charactersFyodor Dostoyevsky's Stavrogin and Raskolnikov, Ivan Turgenev's Bazarov and Mikhail Lermontov's Demon are all good examples. But even more often, the writers took upon themselves that thankless job, becoming rebels against the tsarist regime (Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Boris Savinkov), against a hypocritical society with its "comfortable" morals and shallow religiosity (Leo Tolstoy) or, last but not least, against bad taste (Vladimir Nabokov).
But now, when the international media is complaining about all of these evils taking root in Russia with almost Dostoyevskyan intonations, where have all the rebels gone? They are still here, but their works are no longer among the ranks of the bestsellers. And this is no wonder: the modern publishing world prefers revolutions in lipstick colors, perfumes and cuisine to revolutions in fiction.
"A modern writer writes for himself and a small secret service of connoisseurs. It is indeed art for art's sake. Let the others have their cooking guides," Vasily Aksyonov, 72, a prominent Russian literary rebel of the 1960s and 1970s, wrote in Moskovskiye Novosti weekly when his novel was turned down by his U.S. publisher in favor of a cooking guide. However, Aksyonov added in the same article that the spirit of Byronism will never die in Russia.
And indeed it won't, even though this Byron with a Russian soul has a protean character: he may change his political convictions, his philosophic views, his social status and even his age group every several years, not even waiting for one generation to replace another. The only thing that stays is his restless search for truth, his inability to put up with lies and seek the simple joys of life, whether it is a healthy Soviet food ration or the cool perks of today's consumerist world.
Modern Russian literary rebels may be arranged into several groups. The first may be called the traditional anti-Soviets. Besides the (C)old warriors of Aksyonov's age, several colorful younger figures could be added to this group. One of them is Ruslan Linkov, 37, a native of St. Petersburg who became famous at the age of 28 when he received two bullets in the head from the assassins of the Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, whom he happened to be accompanying the night of her murder. "I am a hereditary schizophrenic," Linkov writes in his book The Notes of the Unfinished-off One. "I am one of those who find it difficult to coexist with this country's state system and its other realities. My mother was thrice treated for this disease (in 1980-1982, 1984 and 1985-1986). Her disease (and mine) was called Inadequate Perception of Soviet Reality (IPSR). In 1988, the doctors acknowledged their inability to cure this family disease of ours and bowed off."
Linkov's book is not always fair to his enemies, but it is straight and sincere. It is built on the memoirs of his political activity, which he began at the age of 18 in the Democratic Union of Valeria Novodvorskaya (who is herself a talented writer of short stories), as well as on his uncompromising, harsh assessments of Russia's modern reality, which he just cannot "digest." For example, having heard about the anti-homosexual protests of Orthodox Christian groups, Linkov calls on the gay drivers to hit these protesters with their cars. The next step is a call to "stop giving way to government motorcades and to start unscrewing license plates with government numbers." The next understandable, but risky, suggestion is to "smear the windshields of cars with paint in a way that will cover up the documents that identify the owners as members of the presidential administration, Federal Security Service or the Interior Ministry." Add to this a strong dose of disapproval for the Russian "occupiers" of the Baltics, as well as for "the enemies of peace settlement in South Ossetia and Abkhazia" and you get a full portrait of a modern Russian Byron in his late 30s. The less militant part of his soul is reflected in some beautiful verses in the end of the book.
The second major classification could be called the Limonov school. Eduard Limonov, a prolific punk writer and former dissident turned Russian nationalist upon his return from exile in the United States in 1991, happened to be a sort of bridge between Linkov's anti-Soviet generation and the angry young men of the 1990s. If Linkov's anger was directed against the Soviet system and its remnants, the anger of Limonov and his much younger followers is directed against much more vague enemies, which tend to change with kaleidoscopic speed. This anger was directed against the Yeltsin "regime" and foreign embassies in the 1990s, against Muslim migrants and oligarchs in the early 2000s and, finally, against Putin's police after their brief arrest of Limonov in 2001. Although it is possible to debate the validity of Limonov's views, it is impossible to argue against the fact that Limonov managed to spawn a whole group of young literary talents, mostly of rebellious character.
His disciples include the talented young poet Alina Vitukhnovskaya, who projects an image of a femme fatale during her poetry recitals and has a bit of a reputation after she was arrested for using illegal drugs in the mid-1990s. The ironic young fiction writer Zakhar Prilepin and 27-year-old writer-turned-politician Sergei Shargunov could also be counted among the brightest stars of the strange constellation that came out of "Limonka," a radical newspaper positioning itself as "an organ of direct action." Unlike the older rebels from Linkov's generation, Limonov's literary followers are great masters of public relations and never allow themselves to be marginalized in the media as they savor their marginal image in society. For example, Prilepin always wears stylish black clothes on television talk shows and caused a scandal with his impertinent questions to President Putin during his meeting with young writers last summer. Shargunov, however, is a media figure on a different scale. After leaving Limonov's movement, Shargunov became the leader of the youth wing of the now defunct nationalist political party Rodina, and was listed as the third name on the Just Russia party list for the December Duma elections. However, in October, Shargunov was removed from this position as a result of a scandal over some caustic remarks about Putin made three years ago. Well, every writer must be ready to be held accountable for his words. "I am glad this nightmare ended and I can return to my extremist writings," Shargunov said after his expulsion.
Finally, there are the alternatives. These writers may have chosen the hardest way to fame, since they usually don't join any literary or political movements, instead trying to appeal to small devoted groups of followers. For example, Margarita Sharapova made a name for herself at the age of 34 with her straightforward writings about Russia's lesbian underworld. Alexei Tsvetkov, although a former follower of Limonov, has outdone his mentor by producing high quality fiction in the form of somber but beautifully written short stories. In his story Deserter, for example, Tsvetkov writes about a future in which the population receives new brains from the authorities whenever they need to produce some sort of change in the countrya clear hint at modern television and other tools used to manipulate society today. Another story, TV for Terrorists, copies the plot of one of the short stories of the famous Soviet dissident writer of the 1960s, Yuli Daniel. One day, the television announces that on a certain day it will be possible to commit murder legally. However, if Daniel reflects society's apathy and moral degradation by describing the relaxed "kitchen talk" and rumors on the eve of the "murder day," Tsvetkov uses a much more modern solutionhe provides the reader with a whole series of TV interviewsfrom young people, working women and businessmen. Modern people don't talk in the kitchenthey watch television.
Russia's rebellious young writers never disappeared; they just left the "commanding heights" of the bestseller lists, which is natural. In the modern world, the place of a rebel is underground.