Revolutions and resurrections: How has Russia's literature changed?

Anna Aslanyan talks to its writers as the country takes centre-stage at the London Book Fair

The word "mainstream" came to the Russian language from English and has become more widespread than its native analogues. People often use it when discussing contemporary writing, but its meaning is not entirely clear. In fact, the position of mainstream literature in present-day Russia resembles that of its middle class: 20 years after the collapse of Communism, it has not yet fully established itself in society.

The country's literary scene is sometimes perceived as a product of the old system. Although true in some respects, that hardly describes the whole picture. One of its most prominent and least understood elements is the polarised nature of the society and, consequently, its literature - which leaves no room for the proverbial middle way. Like many things in Russia, contemporary writing is a curious combination of extremes, where the archaic co-exists with the advanced.

There have been attempts at creating a new literature that would combine quality writing with mass affordability. However, in the words of Kirill Kobrin, an editor and author whose essays and short fiction are fine examples of the European modernist tradition, "a mechanism by which publishers and writers would be able to do their jobs to satisfy the demand for decent books is yet to be discovered in Russia". Mikhail Shishkin, the author of award-winning novels The Taking of Izmail and Maiden's Hair, is even more radical on this point: "Russian literature has never been defined by the book market".

In his view, for the majority of readers in Russia, "that innumerable army of teachers, doctors, engineers", the situation today is no better than during the Soviet times. "Their humiliation, now that the Communist regime is no more, takes different forms: the lack of basic rights, the autocracy, the gap between the rich and the poor. Western readers see a book as a way of killing time, whereas for Russians it is a barricade that helps people to fight for their dignity." Shishkin and Kobrin are among 50 authors who will be coming to the London Book Fair next week to take part in its Russian-themed programme. British enthusiasts of the country that gave the world Tolstoy and Chekhov must be excited, despite the sad fact that only a small proportion of the Russian books presented at the fair have been translated into English.

One writer recognised in the English-speaking world is Boris Akunin, author of best-selling crime fiction. Another is Ludmila Ulitskaya, whose novel Daniel Stein, Interpreter, soon out in the UK, was the first to make Jewish identity the subject of mass literature in Russia. Ulitskaya's prose is, perhaps, as close to "proper mainstream" as possible in the current climate, its success stemming from the omnipresent nostalgia for the vanished Soviet intelligentsia.

Aleksandr Ivanov, the director of Ad Marginem, a Moscow-based publisher, believes this nostalgia to be one of the main characteristics of today's readership. It is this factor that explains the popularity of Dmitry Bykov, whose attempts to combine all liberal Soviet writers under one name have proved very effective. The content of his books (among them Living Souls, published in English in 2010) may be too retrospective, but his biographies of Boris Pasternak and Bulat Okudzhava, these icons of Soviet culture, appeal to educated readers living in a society that no longer values them and serve as a tool for channelling their frustrations into remembering things past.

At the same time, the role of literature as a social institution in Russia is relatively weak. Literary prizes, critical opinion and writers' views have little impact on society, although the support lent to the imprisoned entrepreneur and activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky by Akunin and Ulitskaya is "definitely a sign of the mainstream emerging as a liberal form of the literary process", says Ivanov.

Two major writers who will be missed at the fair are Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. The former is admired for his ability to gauge the atmosphere of the moment, especially by those who grew up with his Generation "P" (Homo Zapiens) in the 1990s. Sorokin (see p.26) maintains his reputation as a great stylist who does not just work with Russian mythologies: he blows them up from within employing their very language as a fuse.

One of those who follow in the footsteps of Sorokin's postmodernism is Mikhail Elizarov. His Librarian, awarded the Russian Booker Prize in 2008, is a post-Soviet fantasy novel that expresses the feelings of many thirtysomethings towards their late-Soviet childhood, that "life dreamt". Nostalgia is clearly not a condition that afflicts just the older generation.

If the picture looks too dreamy so far, it has to be added that, along with the writers drawing heavily on their Soviet experience, there are those who ignore it altogether. Andrei Levkin, whose latest book Marple is a series of thought-provoking dérives through Riga, Kiev and Moscow, does not feel the weight of the Soviet empire on his shoulders. "It could be to do with my growing up in Latvia [then part of the USSR] or being closer to art than literature", he explains. Be it as it may, Levkin's prose – or "non-non-fiction", to use his own term – stands out as a fresh departure, a stab at creating a language free of both relics of the past and the fashionable newspeak.

To many Russians who are trying to turn a new page in the national literature, the notion of mainstream inevitably has negative connotations. Levkin mentions a few younger authors who fall into that category, including Zakhar Prilepin with his strong nationalist overtones.

He adds that Aleksandr Ilichevsky, whose travel essays he values highly, "is, in fact, part of the mainstream, but shouldn't really belong there". Ilichevsky's latest novel, The Persian, is a tribute to orientalism in which the author returns to his native shores of the Caspian Sea to find nothing but desolation. Having lived abroad and recently moved from Moscow to a small town, he is one of those writers who find provincial cultural scene more alluring than that of big centres.

If far-off places can be conducive for creativity, Russian publishers and booksellers struggle to survive there. Indeed, many face a distribution catastrophe, especially when it comes to serious books.

The old system has been replaced by a new, fully commercial one, whose flaws demonstrate that market economy does not benefit the long-distance book trade. If cities like Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Ekaterinburg usually keep their bookshops well-stocked, the further away you go from them, the harder it is to find anything decent to read.

The "no distribution, no demand" vicious circle is not easy to break. This is where literary magazines, such as Novy Mir, Oktyabr, Znamya, come into the game. Born in the Soviet era, these bastions of culture are sometimes compared to the 19th-century Edinburgh Review because of their wide variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. They are a meeting-point for authors as different as German Sadulaev (his I Am a Chechen! was published in the UK in 2010) with his traditional prose and, at the other end of the spectrum, Kobrin and Andrei Lebedev, whose jointly-written tribute to Neil Young's song, Helpless, defies genre definitions.

Notwithstanding financial difficulties, the magazines continue to publish high-quality texts and are available through libraries. The latter provide at least a partial solution for provincial book-lovers. It is not uncommon to see people queue for libraries, so their decline, caused by a shortage of experienced staff, is another blow to the mass readership.

The most efficient tool to overcome distribution problems is the internet. The number of literary web publications may not be huge, but their popularity is. They were pioneered by Babylon, founded 15 years ago as an anthology of contemporary writing by poet Dmitry Kuzmin, who edits Vozdukh, a quarterly poetry magazine. The problem with the internet is that it is still a luxury for some Russians, while its main users are rarely interested in good literature.

Traditional publishing is another area where things tend to be either too black or too white. The market is divided up between the giants AST and Eksmo, while independents suffer from high taxes and rents. Ivanov talks about a "tiny version of the British Independent Alliance" created by Ad Marginem and a smaller publisher, Tekst, allowing them to sell their books directly. He mentions that there is virtually no fund-raising and little private and government sponsorship: "We managed to get $3000 to publish Leonid Yuzefovich's Ruler of the Desert, the fictionalised biography of Baron Ungern [the hero of the First World War who sought to restore the monarchy after the Bolshevik Revolution], but that was a one-off".

As for print runs, large concerns churn out tens of thousands, often compromising on quality. Smaller companies usually begin with 1000-3000 copies, although total figures can be a lot higher. The most striking example is Word-for-Word Translation, a Soviet-era memoir by the late Liliana Lungina. The initial run of mere 4000 copies was followed by several reprints of a few thousand each, growing to 100,000 within a year. The project was initiated by Varvara Gornostaeava, the director of Corpus Books, an imprint of AST; she, too, attributes its success to readers' nostalgia for their intellectual past.

Worsening editorial standards also plague publishers, although there are encouraging examples. Gornostaeava is "fortunate to have two types of good in-house editors". The solid professionalism of the old school is matched by the skills of proactive – and surprisingly literate, given the current state of education – twentysomethings, often with a journalistic background.

Literary prizes, being a relatively new phenomenon in Russia, do not have the same significance as their Western counterparts. The Russian Booker is dying after 20 years because its funding is being discontinued; the Big Book and National Bestseller, supported by large publishers, carry on, but the idea of uniting commercial success with good writing has never been put in practice.

The oldest prize, named after the great Russian modernist Andrei Bely, was founded in 1978 in opposition to official literature and remains true to non-conformism. The award itself is symbolic – the winner gets one rouble, a bottle of vodka and an apple – but no less important for that. The name of another prize, NOSE, alludes to Gogol's famous story. It was founded in 2009, the year of the classic's 200th anniversary, by Irina Prokhorova, the head of New Literary Observer, an independent publisher. This year's winner was Snowstorm, a novel by Sorokin who, despite his cult status, had been shut out from official awards. According to Prokhorova, NOSE is designed to modernise the concept of literary prizes by opening the judges' deliberations to the public.

Is Russian literature as a whole ready for modernisation? Perhaps the best indicator is the common reader. You can now see more Kindles on the Moscow Metro than on the London Underground. At the same time, many Russians are still short-changed by booksellers in the matters of price and choice. Somewhere between these two extremes there must be a third way.

Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. Details of the Russia Market Focus cultural programme at the London Book Fair, Earls Court, 11-13 April:

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