The ten writers presented in this collection are among the finest writing in Russian today. They range from Fazil Iskander, who began his career in the 1950s, to Viktor Pelevin, who published his first work when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. Together, they offer an insiders’ account of the fate of Russian literature over the last four decades, from the post-Stalin Thaw, through the repressions of the Brezhnev years, to the heady revival of literature under glasnost and the radical recasting of the writer’s role in the post-communist market-place.
Since the war, news of Russian literature has come to the West primarily by way of political scandal. The humiliation of Boris Pasternak, the trial and exile of Iosif Brodsky, the arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel, and the persecution of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his monumental exposé of the Soviet regime all propelled these writers to international fame. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the suffocating atmosphere of censorship and repression forced a host of other talented writers, musicians, ballet-dancers, artists, and film-makers into protest and exile. Never, perhaps, has a country scored such a spectacular series of own goals as did Russia in the twilight of the Brezhnev era.
Yet if the persecution of writers, and the expulsion or departure of many to the West, brought a bitter celebrity to those involved, in some ways it distorted our understanding of Russian literature as such. Russian writers were read less for their contribution to art, more for the political message they embodied. Attention was naturally focused on those whose criticism of the regime was most direct and outspoken, and who had suffered most dramatically in consequence. To take one example, the name of the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned and exiled in the 1980s for her anti-Soviet beliefs, is perhaps more familiar to readers in Britain— where an active campaign for her release was conducted—than that of Aleksandr Kushner, one of the finest Russian poets of the century, who has lived all his life in St Petersburg. There has been a tendency to assume a stark polarity between ‘dissident’ writers who fetched up in the West and ‘conformists’ who toed the Party line at home. Yet among those forced or pressured into exile, by no means all were political crusaders; in many cases their ‘dissidence’ lay simply in the assumption that art should be free from ideological directives of any kind. Meanwhile, despite the fact that much of their work remained unpublished until the late 1980s, many of the most innovative and artistically subversive writers remained in the Soviet Union. Alongside the didactic realism espoused by many among both the regime’s defenders and its detractors, other traditions were developed and pursued, both in Russia and in emigration.
One purpose of this book, then, is to present this more complex picture, and to give voice to writers whose contribution may have been eclipsed, in the West, by too great an emphasis on what Vladimir Makanin calls the ‘beautiful’, or heroic,