Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Nicole Christian; Neil Cornwell | Go to book overview

violence; but it leaves the reader staring into the abyss with no indication of a way out.

The four decades between the death of Stalin and the death of the Soviet Union proved to be cataclysmic not only for society, but also for its culture. Literature bore the brunt of those upheavals, with arrests, imprisonment, and exile of some writers, and the stagnation of the cultural process in general. Russian literature abroad flourished and developed alongside the hidebound home-grown product, continually enriched by the exiled individuals filling its ranks. In Russia, writers were increasingly drawn into social and political debate on the future of the country. By the late 1980s the contradictions of a freely functioning literary process and the needs of a One-Party State had become irreconcilable. Whereas in 1953 an oppressive ideology had dominated literature, by 1991 literature had played a decisive part in its downfall.


Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period

The year 1990, often known as Solzhenitsyn Year, since several of the main literary journals were then rushing to get out his remaining prose works in case the literary "thaw" was succeeded by a new "freeze", marked the end of both glasnost and of the literary boom that had begun in 1986. The publication of most of the Arkhipelag GULag ( "The Gulag Archipelago") in Novyi mir in 1989 meant that the official censorship system had finally been overcome, but it simultaneously signified the beginning of a new literary situation, wherein literature would have to exist in conditions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

This is what all writers who were in one way or another opposed to the regime had apparently been dreaming of, but few people then realized that official support for socialist realism was the prerequisite not only for "approved" art and literature but also the precondition for the appearance of such diverse antitotalitarian works as Vladimir Dudintsev's Belye odezhdy [ White Robes], Anatolii Rybakov's Deti Arbata ( Children of the Arbat), the novels by B. Iampol'skii, Iurii Dombrovskii, Vasilii Grossman, Aleksandr Bek, and others that had led to the literary boom at the beginning of the period of perestroika. All these works had been undermining the ideological walls surrounding the aesthetic field of the socialist realist novel, the validity of whose foundations these and other writers denied. When the walls finally collapsed, there was no need for other works of this type. Readers, who had been following the struggle of anti‐ establishment literature against the system of taboos and "disapproved-of" themes, language, and forms with the intensity of spectators at a top-rated sporting event, quickly lost interest after it became clear that there were no more officially forbidden subjects or styles of writing.

In 1991 the last remaining "bastions" were taken. Many people had felt that, because of the all-pervasive "modesty trope" inherent in Soviet socialist realism, it was more likely that The Gulag Archipelago would be printed in Russia than Nabokov's Lolita, not to speak of Iuz Aleshkovskii's Nikolai Nikolaevich, containing large chunks of "non-normative" language, and that, if some of the works by Vasilii Aksenov and by Eduard Limonov were passed for publication, then substantial cuts would be required. But in that year it was easy enough — at least in the largest cities of the USSR — to pick up a "Soviet" edition of Aleshkovskii's novella as well as Limonov's novel Eto ia, Edichka! ( It's Me, Eddie!). It was now the writers (and not the Party or the State) who would have the final say as to the language, as well as the form and content, of their works. There were no longer any words that had to be censored out of all printed matter.

The dividing line between the previous literary period and the present one was drawn by the failed coup attempt in August 1991 and the subsequent economic reforms introduced at the beginning of 1992. There were now virtually no official restrictions on what could be published (other than limitations of the sort found in the most mature liberal democracies), but henceforth the writers had to cope on their own with the vagaries of the chaotic free-for-all of the unregulated post-Soviet market.

One of the key signs of this problem is the critical state of the traditional Russian "thick" literary monthlies. Subscription rates have not been able to keep up with galloping price rises in general, and the increasing costs of paper, printing, and postage in particular. Entire issues, completely ready to go to press, gather dust at the printers and reach subscribers and sales outlets several months late. The number of copies published and sold has been declining steeply. For instance, in 1990 the journal Novyi mir had a print run of 2,660,000, whereas the figure for 1991 (before the economic reform and concomitant price increases) was 958,000. This dropped in 1992 to 250,000, in 1993 to 74,000, in 1994 to 53,000 and in 1995 to 25,000 (most copies went to libraries, supported by a project of the Soros Open Society Foundation). Circulation is therefore considerably lower now than in the "years of stagnation", prior to glasnost, when Novyi mir was printed in an edition of some 250,000 to 300,000 copies. (The figure for January 1996 was 30,zoo, but it had sunk to 20,570 in July.) This trend is characteristic of all Russian literary magazines. Readers now cannot afford and/or do not want to buy and read "serious" writing.

There is also a general crisis in the publishing industry. State publishers have been starved of cash, and even contemporary writers who were popular in the perestroika period are experiencing difficulties in reprinting their earlier works and publishing their new ones. Most of the new private publishers, having successfully helped to weaken their state-owned


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Reference Guide to Russian Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Reference Guide to Russian Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers xi
  • Contributors xi
  • Alphabetical List of Writers and Works xiii
  • Alphabetical List of Works xix
  • Chronological List of Writers xxiii
  • General Reading List xxvii
  • Chronology xxxv
  • Glossary xxxix
  • Introductory Essays *
  • Old Russian Literature 3
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 9
  • Russian Literature in the I8th Century 13
  • Aleksandr Pushkin: from Byron to Shakespeare 18
  • The Classic Russian Novel 25
  • The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature 29
  • Women's Writing in Russia 35
  • Russian Literary Theory: from the Formalists to Lotman 40
  • Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 45
  • Experiment and Emigration: Russian Literature, 1917-1953 49
  • Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature 55
  • Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991 59
  • Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period 64
  • Writers and Works *
  • A 73
  • B 127
  • C 213
  • D 237
  • E 271
  • F 297
  • G 311
  • H 379
  • I 389
  • K 413
  • L 485
  • M 521
  • N 559
  • O 585
  • P 611
  • R 685
  • S 707
  • T 789
  • U 859
  • V 861
  • Y 897
  • Z 899
  • Title Index 933
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 963


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