5 Lesser Known Russian-Language Writers
Russian literature in translation has permeated beyond the Carpathian mountains and into Europe, and subsequently, the rest of the English speaking world. Though this in itself is something to be hailed by all true Russophiles, the extent of the average English-speaker’s knowledge of Russian literature is, generally, confined to the classics of the 19th Century. That is to say, the likes of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Some wider read bibliophiles with a keen interest in the Soviet era and its many downfalls might be familiar with the likes of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, but on the whole, later Soviet literature is widely unrecognised amongst English speakers. As someone who has consumed a large proportion of Russian literature of the last 300 years, from Lomonosov and Karamzin to Bunin and Nabokov, I feel it my duty to offer my tentative suggestions for those seeking some ‘alternative’ Russian literature. The following are 5 lesser known Russian-language writers.
We begin with Yevgeny Zamyatin, an early 20th century Soviet dissident – many consider him the first of his kind in this respect – who penned the infamous Мы in 1921. The novel greatly influenced and arguably, founded the genre of modern dystopian fiction. Interestingly Мы predated both Aldous Huxley’s widely recognised ‘Brave New World’ (1932) by some 11 years, as well as Orwell’s infamous ‘1984’, that wasn’t published until 1948 – both late to the game in comparison to Zamyatin. Indeed, when reading Мы the images of the дикари and idea of an arcadian green garden beyond the ‘wall’ bare striking resemblance to Huxley’s novel both in content and theme. Orwell himself is famously quoted as having accused Huxley of ‘taking inspiration’ from Zamyatin, though Huxley denied this. With company as illustrious as the aforementioned Brits, Zamyatin is a must read for anyone with an interest in dystopian fiction or early anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Ilf and Petrov
My second suggestion for any avid reader interested in alternative Russian literature is in fact two writers: Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, who collaborated in writing Двенадцать стульев (1928) and its sequel Золотой телёнок (1931). Ilf and Petrov stand on a similar plane as Bulgakov and, to an extent, Solzhenitsyn in their pioneering efforts in anti-Soviet satire. Whereas Bulgakov appropriates images of the supernatural and high-religious to achieve this, Ilf and Petrov do so through the vehicle of absurdity. The first novel follows local government official Vorobyaninov and великий комбинатор, Ostap Bender, in their chaotic adventure across the Soviet Union in search of the ‘12 chairs’, one of which is brimming with clandestine jewels. The sequel is just as much a tapestry of disarray as its predecessor. Both are fine examples of early Soviet satire and are generally light hearted – an ideal place to start with ‘alternative’ literature.
For those who prefer something a little less jovial, a more sombre social criticism akin to that of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy’s classics perhaps, then Vasily Grossman is the author for you. Indeed, his expansive Жизнь и Судьба (1980) was famously ascribed the moniker of the ‘Soviet War and Peace’ whilst Grossman’s own unrelenting devotion to neo-realism has been widely compared to that of Tolstoy. Life and Fate’s sheer breadth, diversity of cast and monumental subject matter is undeniably Tolstoyan; though the deep roots of anti-Stalinist rhetoric betray a far more partisan view on contemporary society, especially when compared to Tolstoy’s early works. The parallel storylines of both Soviet life and Nazi-era oppression echoes Tolstoy however, and Grossman’s invocation of historical figures (Stalin and Hitler) certainly reflect Tolstoy’s musings on Napoleon and his ‘Great Man Theory’.
Both Жизнь и судьба and the subsequent Все течет were published posthumously, in 1980 in the West, a herculean example of ‘tamizdat’. Regardless, Grossman offers a perspicacious and deeply emotional insight in to the realities of Stalinist policy and its resounding effects on Russian-speaking people. Hence, for me, Grossman is the greatest Russian-language writer of the 20th century.
My penultimate suggestion is perhaps the most obscure on this list, but certainly worth the read regardless. Namely, Fyodor Sologub and his 1905 standalone text, Мелкий бес – The Petty Demon. The novel is short, absurd and brimming with satire and serves as what is perhaps the finest example of the Russian literary concept of пошлость. This is most closely translated as ‘vulgarity’, though the English is far from capturing the full magnitude of the term’s semantic connotations. As a concept, пошлость is ubiquitous throughout Russian literature and, in my opinion, may be considered as an investigation into perversity – a theme that Dostoyevsky is especially adept at moulding into his texts. Indeed, Sologub’s protagonist, the somewhat repulsive Peredonov, has a certain Rasklonikov-like perversity and proclivity for scandal, though the novel ultimately lacks Dostoyevsky’s characteristic ascetic ornamentation. Nevertheless, Мелкий бес is a hilarious and perverse read that captures the inimitable sense of пошлость in its most raw form, a feat achieved by just one other author. Our final писатель: Vladimir Nabokov.
Admittedly, Nabokov is not exactly unknown in the English speaking literary sphere, owing to the immense success of his English language writings, most notably, his 1955 novel, Lolita. The literary effect of this text has been so monumental that it has informed contemporary culture, and so, lingering on Lolita is superfluous, despite its fine evocation of пошлость. Instead, I might propose a couple of alternative titles, from both his Russian language works, and his later set of English language texts. Namely, a reading of Дар (1926), Pale Fire (1962) and Ada or Ardour (1969) will offer a comprehensive cross-section of Nabokov’s uniquely flowery and characteristically convoluted style, in both English and Russian I might add. Reading Nabokov you’ll find yourself having to consider the meaning of a sentence for longer than it will take you to read said sentence. Such is the Nabokovian way, where every syllable is enriched with meaning. Certainly, Nabokov is an arduous endeavour, but one more than worth the effort.
The above is by no means an exhaustive compilation of authors. In fact, when planning this article, I found myself hard pressed to narrow down the vast and immensely talented selection of writers to just five. There are many, many more I could have included (Blok, Akhmatova, Esenin, Erofeev to name just a few), but I settled on the five named above for a simple reason. These were the authors that served as my own springboard into Russian literature. I can only hope they might do the same for you. Наслаждайтесь чтением.
Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.
Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/human-writer-literature-5749873/