#7 - JRL 2009-185 - JRL Home

Russia Profile
October 5, 2009
Modern Literature Refines
The Greatest Episode Missing from Contemporary Literature is the Breakup of the Soviet Union
Comment by Alexei Pankin
Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the role of literature in the life of a contemporary educated Russian over 40 is to give a tour of our family library. It contains over 3,000 volumes, more than half of them fiction. Some books we inherited from our grandparents, others were our parents’ gift. The rest we collected over the decades of our adult lives. Our friend, the famous culture and sociology expert Dmitry Furman, calls it “the classic intelligentsia collection.”

There are six shelves of Russian classics, mostly filled by multi-volume collections. The oldest are the 20 plus volumes of Maxim Gorky’s works published in 1930. Leo Tolstoy, 1948. Published later: Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolay Gogol, Nikolay Leskov, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

One of Pushkin’s volumes is always on my bedside table. I often reread Leskov and Gogol. During the Chechen wars I reread everything Tolstoy ever wrote about the Caucasus. His descriptions of relations between the Caucasian highlanders, the local Cossacks and the central authorities in the first half of the 19th century are so full and accurate that contemporary sociology and journalism can only add details. I cannot stand Dostoevsky, but I still reread him sometimes. Endless soul-searching instead of practical solutions­that’s what Russia is. One thing I don’t understand though is why Westerners love Dostoevsky so much and yet really dislike Russia.

Foreign classics­six more shelves of collected works, mostly published in the Soviet Union: Charles Dickens, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Victor Hugo, R. L. Stevenson, Jules Verne. I reread all the historical chronicles recently when I was on vacation. All the rest our daughter reads as part of her school curriculum.

Actually, we have a great collection of pre-revolutionary, Soviet and foreign children’s literature, but for some reason our daughter prefers mostly modern translated books or identical ones by Russian authors, advertised as “the best novels about love, written just for girls.” Another seven shelves bear individual volumes of Soviet literature: from the Civil War period to the late 1980s. I often stand in front of these shelves feeling a mixture admiration, nostalgia and bewilderment.

I admire the fact that despite the terrible times, despite wars, hunger and repressions, a great literature was born. I can’t even imagine any other country in the world that can brag of having as impressive a set of great writers as the Soviet Union.

I’m nostalgic because I still remember all too well the 1970s and early 1980s, when the publication of every new book by, let’s say, Vasily Shukshin, Valentin Rasputin, Chinghiz Aitmatov, Fazil Iskander et al.­became a social event, the subject of debate in the press and conversations in kitchens. This was spiritually invigorating; in a country that was not free it provided us with aesthetic pleasure and catharsis. It is not often, however, that I reread books from these shelves, because they are tragic.

And I am bewildered because the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union is the only great breaking point of the 20th century that was never fully interpreted in literature. The only works of modern literature that have truly touched me are those written by Soviet classics: When the Mountains Fall Down, the last novel written by the great Kirghiz Chinghiz Aitmatov, and The Last Duty, a novel written by Abdijamil Nurpeisov. Yury Polyakov has composed not great but good literature about the fates of members of the intelligentsia in my generation.

These shelves also have a spot assigned for contemporary literature that has the reputation of being “high-quality:” Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin, Generation P by Victor Pelevin, Dukh-less by Sergey Minayev. Soon they will be joined by the new novel Aroundzero, which is said to have been written by Vladislav Surkov. Such books end up in our household because so much hype surrounds them in the mass media and on the Web that you start to believe that without them, your life would have been lived in vain. Usually the first encounter with such authors turns out to be the last. I am especially upset by the situation with Vladimir Sorokin, whom some of the people I truly respect consider to be a significant writer. I started my acquaintance with his work by reading the scandalous novel Blue Lard, got through the first forty pages, and since then, any mention of this name makes me gag, as it does right now.

The tour of the last three shelves of our fiction collection will be very brief. Here you’ll find modern detective stories, which I like to read; political thrillers, which both my wife and I read, and novels “about the life on Rublyovka” just for my wife. Many authors of such literature (Nikolay Leonov, Boris Akunin, Daniel Koretzky, Yulia Latynina, etc.) can be described the same way George Orwell described the work of Rudyard Kipling: “Good bad literature.”

Once every year, I take many pounds of such literature to my relatives’ place in the village. These books are their only “spiritual food” apart from television. Moreover, since they don’t have a lot of money, they use these books as payment for different types of services. This even helped my aunt to drastically decrease the amount of moonshine she distills, which used to be her only means for barter payments. So I won’t be wrong if I say that modern literature refines people.

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