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Mikhail Shishkin: A revolution for Russia's words

Essay: The leading writer and maverick reflects on  the ties between literature, freedom and the state he left behind

As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.

It was quite a while after my move from Pushka to the canton of Zurich before the bizarre sense of the unreal, the carnival quality of what was happening to me, was gradually replaced by the tentative and amazed confidence that, indeed, this was no illusion. The trains were not toys, the landscape not painted, the people not planted.

Immediately following the change of scenery, I tried to finish writing the novel I had begun in Moscow, but I got nowhere. The letters I had traced out there had an utterly different density here. In the end, the novel was about something else. Every word is a high step for you to trip over.

Borders, distance and air do wonders with words. A combination of Russian sounds that was so obvious and natural on Malaya Dmitrovka Street, with the Chekhov Casino raging outside my window, won’t make it through customs here. Words stripped of all independent existence there acquire residency permits here and become not a means but a subject of verbal law. Here, any Russian word sounds completely wrong and means something completely different. Just as, in a theatre, the meaning of a phrase shifts when uttered after a change in scenery.

It is as if there were a different centre of gravity on the banks of the Limmat, and any word coming out of a Russian inkwell weighs far more here than in its country of origin. What in Russia suffuses the atmosphere, is strewn in sediments and across human snouts, in “the cadet Grushnitsky”, in the war in Chechnya and in “Christ has risen from the dead”, here it is all concentrated in every word of Cyrillic script – pressed, crammed into every last bI.

As it slips further from reality with each passing day, the fatherland seeks out new carriers and finds them in the squiggles of an exotic alphabet. Russia has gathered all its belongings and taken up residence in a font. Letters have been consolidated, just as apartments once were, to accommodate new residents.

My departure from the language, the loss of Russian murmuring in my ears, forced me to stop, to be silent. On the rare occasions when we meet, writers from Russia are amazed. “How can you write in this boring Switzerland? Without the language, without the tension?”

They are right – the atmospheric pressure in Russian letters is heightened. And the language is changing rapidly. My exit from Russian speech forced me to turn around and face it. Work on my text came to a halt. Just as there are rests in music, so are there silences in a text. Perhaps they are its most important part.

What is the language I left behind? What did I take with me? Where do the words go from here? A labour of silence. If I was to go further, I had to understand where the essence of writing in Russian actually lay. Being at once creator and creature of the fatherland’s reality, the Russian language is a form of existence, the body of a totalitarian consciousness. Daily life has always muddled through without words: with bellowing, interjections, and gag lines from film comedies. It is the state and literature that require coherent words.

Russian literature is not a form of existence for the language, but a way of existing in Russia for the non-totalitarian consciousness. The totalitarian consciousness has been amply served by decrees and prayers. Decrees from above, prayers from below. The latter are usually more original than the former. Swearing is the vital prayer of a prison country.

Edicts and cursing are the nation’s yin and yang, its rain and field, phallus and vagina; the verbal conception of Russian civilisation. Over the generations, prison reality produced a prison consciousness whose governing principle was that the strongest gets the best bunk. This consciousness was expressed in a language called up to serve Russian life, maintaining it in a state of continuous, unending civil war. When everyone lives by prison camp laws, the mission of language is a cold war between everyone and his neighbour. If the strong must inevitably beat the feeble, it is the mission of language to do this verbally. Humiliate him, insult him and steal his ration. Language as a form of disrespect for the individual.

Russian reality produced a language of unbridled power and abasement. The language of the Kremlin and the prison camp slang of the street share one and the same nature. In a country that lives by an unwritten but distinct law – the place of the weakest is by the slop bucket – the dialect suits the reality. Words rape. Words abuse. Had the borders always been under lock and key, there would be no Russian literature.

Literary language arrived in the 18th century, along with the idea of human dignity. Until then, we had no words for that language. The first century of our national literature consists essentially of translations and imitations. There was no verbal instrument to express individual consciousness; it first had to be created. Russian was taught as a foreign tongue, and the missing concepts were introduced: obshestvennost ("the public”), vlyblonnost (“being in love,”), chelovechnost (“humaneness”).

The Russian literary language, which in Russia is a form of existence  – a body – for human dignity, squeezed through a crack between the shout and the moan. Russian literature wedged its way into an alien embrace. From words it constructed the great wall between the Russian state and the people.

It was a foreign body. It was a colony of European culture on the Russian plain – if, by European colonisation, we mean the softening of manners and defending the rights of the weak before the mighty, and not the importation of Prussian gunners.

As has happened on other continents as well, the colony overtook the centre in its development. Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – these are colonists whose texts transferred literature’s capital from the Old World to Russia. They took the best from a thousand-year legacy and called, Go east!

But something is rotten in the Russian empire and, from time to time, the state and the people tear into one another, and this is disastrous for foreign bodies. Writers’ bones crack in these embraces, and they either die or slip away.

The familiar events of the 20th century returned the indigenous population to its former literary routine: decrees from above, prayers from below. Some “colonists” returned to their traditional homeland; those who remained had their tongues cut out by the barbarians.

The invented language of the Soviet utopia was also its very embodiment. Socialism’s invented, lifeless reality existed only in the suitably lifeless language of the newspapers, television, and political meetings. In the 1990s, when the regime disappeared together with the language that served it, prison camp slang rose to the top and filled the vacuum. Once again, the state and the nation are speaking the same dialect and “whacking the Chechens in the toilet”, to borrow the president’s words.

The totalitarian consciousness survives in the language of television, where the main principle of dialogue is to shout down the other guy. It is the language of newspapers turned sickeningly yellow. It is the language of the street, where swearing is the norm.

The language of Russian literature is an ark. A rescue attempt. A hedgehog defense. An island of words where human dignity might be preserved. When I left Russia, I lost the language I wanted to lose. The changes in modern Russian are a molting. The fur feels different, but the colouration is the same, and painfully recognizable at that. This language, which is meant to debase, reproduces itself with each generation of Russian boys and girls. In and of itself, the literary language does not exist; it must be perpetually created anew, and in solitude.

There is a legend about a prisoner sentenced to a life of solitary confinement. He spent years scratching out the image of a boat on the wall with the handle of a prison spoon. One day, they brought him his water, bread and gruel as usual, but the cell was empty and the wall was blank. He had climbed into the boat on the wall and sailed away.

The novel is a boat. Words must be revived in order for the boat to be genuine, so that I may climb aboard and sail out of this solitary life to a place where they love us and are waiting for us all. Save myself. And take all of my characters with me. And the reader too.

Translated by Marian Schwartz. Mikhail Shishkin’s ‘The Light and the Dark’ is published by Quercus