Out of Russia: Booker seeks to whet appetite of literary lions

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - At a glittering ceremony in Moscow's House of Architects this week, the novelist Mark Kharitonov was declared the first winner of the newly founded Russian Booker Prize for Lines of Fate or Milashevich's Trunk, the story of a scholar who pieces together the life of a forgotten writer from the strange belongings he finds in his trunk.

Mr Kharitonov, 55, who beat five other finalists, received pounds 10,000 from the British Council and the organisers of Britain's Booker Prize, who hope their award will help stimulate Russian literature.

'I feel here our common spiritual task, and I hope this will have its effect on our cultural atmosphere,' Mr Kharitonov said at the ceremony. He said he had no idea what he would do with his winnings, a fortune in this country where the average monthly salary is pounds 12.

Russia has one of the world's greatest literary traditions, having produced writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov, but is going through a very barren period in the arts, apparently because of the uncertainty brought by attempted market reform.

Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, expression is free. But the state has few resources to support serious culture, business sponsorship is in its infancy and commercialisation is taking hold. Worse still, readers and audiences, who were so enthusiastic, are falling away because ordinary Russians are busy from morning to night scraping together a meagre living.

Ironically, creative Russians often express nostalgia for the repressive Brezhnev years, when the public's appetite for good books, paintings and songs was enormous because most were forbidden by the censors. One of my strongest impressions of those times was being at an intellectual's flat where an illegal copy of George Orwell's 1984 was being passed round among the guests.

It was written by hand in a school exercise book, and the person who had translated it into Russian had even added his own illustrations and maps of Eurasia and Oceania. He could have been jailed for his creation. The readers held it in careful hands as if it was a priceless treasure. In this way Russians got to know much of their own and world literature, and they were far better read than the average Briton.

Then came glasnost. It began as a trickle in 1986 when Ogonyok, an official magazine, published some poems by Nikolai Gumilyov, an anti-Communist who was shot in 1921 for alleged involvement in a plot to kill Lenin. Soon, a flood of journals competed to bring out banned writers, from Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn.

Russians also learned the full horror of Stalin's crimes and became better acquainted with the diaspora of Russian writers abroad. They caught up with a generation or more of lost writers. But, during this time, little new was being written. Suddenly they found they had read everything that had been 'on the shelf' and there was not much fresh to read.

These days bookstalls are piled high with sex magazines, astrological almanacs and translations of Western science fiction. Part of the problem is that paper and newsprint are expensive, and publishers have to pander to the basest tastes to make a profit.

But all is not hopeless, as the organisers of the Booker Prize did find 50 writers working in the Russian language, at home and abroad, from whom they produced the shortlist of six. The panel of international judges noticed a tendency among the writers to avoid political subjects, which should delight ordinary Russians who are sick to death of the tedious bickering of their politicians.