Reading a new Russia

Contemporary Russian writers forge a new path, while keeping sight of their roots

What does it mean nowadays to say, “I’m reading the Russians”? Francine Prose poses this question in her introduction to Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, an anthology of 23 short stories penned by the generation of writers currently living in post-Soviet Russia. “The Russians” conjures a literary tradition that contains Tolstoy’s verbose depictions of battalion lines, Dostoyevsky’s tortured exploration of mental labyrinths, or Chekhov’s doomed cherry orchard. But these conceptions are changing. Rasskazy shows that to speak of “reading the Russians” signifies not only the country’s literary past, but also the fiction being written by Russia’s new generation of creative talent.

In their forward, editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker describe the writers featured in Rasskazy as “free people, but…also Russian writers, and Russian writers need a measure of nonfreedom to feel free, to realize their relevance.” So perhaps appropriately, these contemporary authors frequently use their fiction to explore a past at once foreign and hauntingly familiar. Consequently, their cultural amnesia is translated onto the page, in the form of stories about deterioration, sacrifice, and regeneration.

German Sadulaev’s “Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall” begins during the harvest season with a “late white St. Petersburg autumn” that will ultimately blossom to when “spring has come to St. Petersburg.” Maria Kamenetskaya’s “Between Summer and Fall” centres around the Russian proverb, “Every man should build a house, plant a tree, raise a son” as part of his life’s legacy and work. Like Sadulaev, Kamenetskaya fills her story with images of autumnal abundance, where “wherever you go, everywhere it smells like stewing sugar” and concludes with the phrase “Harvest year” – a two-word proclamation of promised plentitude.

In more sinister tales, however, authors talk of Halloween and werewolves, animals that represent the potential sacrifice has to bring renewal and metamorphoses, implicitly commenting on Russia’s ever-fluctuating political conditions. The anthology’s opening piece, Linor Goralik’s “They Talk,” is composed as a postmodern patchwork of overheard voices, wisps of imagined conversations. Goralik’s disjointed narrative strands reflect the incongruities and instabilities of Russian life.

In the concluding lines of Goralik’s story, he imparts that “art—it is precisely that, this ability to discern big issues in small things…in the simple things of life.” While cognizant of Russia’s towering cultural history, Rasskazy contains fewer conspicuous social critiques than one might expect it to. Here, Russia’s contemporary artistic movement mirrors that of post-Unification Germany, where artists are less intent on deliberately working through the dense implications of the Third Reich than with purely portraying a story. German director Andreas Dresen, once asked why he does not call greater attention to the political significance of using Berlin as the unambiguous setting of his films, responded that his aim lay solely in story-telling. Further, contemporary German writer Ingo Schulze – coincidentally, a former resident of St. Petersburg – chose the title Simple Stories for his recent anthology. The very title Rasskazy translates simply into “stories,” suggesting that the anthology is principally interested in the timeless, fanciful, and folkloristic aspects of a text. Against the tradition of post-Soviet Russian authors such as Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin, who create surrealist, absurdist, or dystopic landscapes, the stories of Rasskazy are characterized as “New Russian Realism,” telling terminology that aligns these authors closer to Pushkin than to their present-day peers.

One evening, over tea and dark chocolate, the Russian mother of a friend expressed her distaste for Nabokov in response to my guileless rhapsodizing. Trusting that I’d find a kindred opinion in anyone who had traipsed between the pages of Lolita, I was taken aback by her critique of Nabokov’s shameless and amoral decadence. She informed me that whereas Chekhov depicted the honest tragedy of working citizens, Nabokov merely managed to emphasize what was already banal and lewd about the human condition.

Such a marked opposition between Nabokov and Chekhov may hold some truth – Nabokov once accused Chekhov’s work as a “medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions.” Yet it is these “repetitions” which one encounters in the stories that populate Rasskazy – recapitulated themes of unfulfilled passion, failed attempts at communication, residual hope, and nature’s potential for regeneration. When reading Rasskazy, we become immediately conscious of each writer’s unmistakably “hip, modern, [and] contemporary” voice while simultaneously acknowledging that we are nonetheless still reading “The Russians.” These young authors are clearly aware of the literary lineage to which they are eternally rooted. Yet ultimately they know their prose must grow beyond such lineages in order to articulate a distinct and alternate future: new fiction for a new Russia.