Russia (20th Century)
Edith W. Clowes
While in the twentieth century English-language critics proclaimed the death of the novel, in twentieth-century Russian literary culture this genre enjoyed a dominant position. The novel, as defined by its most famous Russian theorist, Mikhail bakhtin, is a polyphonic genre characterized by the ideological and stylistic counterpoint of multiple “speaking voices,” “centrifugal” and generally freer of the clear “monological” authorial control that the three classical genres display. In the 1930s, even as Bakhtin was developing his theory of the novel, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the eventual dictatorship of Joseph Stalin (1928—53) forced the split of the Russian novel into three sociopolitical avenues of development: the novel in exile, the highly censored officially published “Socialist Realist” novel, and, eventually, the underground novel (later known as samizdat, “writing for the drawer” e.g., self-publishing). This arrangement continued, though eventually with some loosening, until 1986, when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, announced glasnost, or the freedom to express one's opinion publicly.
Beyond the political changes brought by the revolution, the twentieth-century Russian novel developed under rapidly changing social conditions. In the early twentieth century increasing literacy led to a new diversity of readership and divisions of novelistic production into the popular, the middlebrow, and the esoteric, experimental novel. After the fall of the tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution some traits of the esoteric novel were tolerated for another decade and thereafter existed only abroad or in the underground. In the 1930s, under High Stalinism, middlebrow and popular novels disappeared, replaced by centrally controlled mass literature.
In Russia both journal culture and the near-omnipresent censorship led to a variety of ways of producing novels. In the Soviet era, as in the nineteenth century, editors, censors, and political leaders were often the novelist's most important readers, and the text of the novel could and often was altered to suit their taste. Traditionally a novel first appeared serially in a journal and only then in book form, thus making the novel cheaper and more accessible to the public (see SERIALIZATION). This practice continues even today, though it is no longer the rule. In the underground, banned novels were ever more frequently typed with multiple carbon copies. Some copies were entrusted to friends for safekeeping or sent abroad for publication (tamizdat). Others were lent to a trusted circle for rapid overnight reading. In the post-Soviet era, which thus far has been free of censorship, novels sometimes (e.g., those of Viktor Pelevin) appear on the internet for downloading free of charge.
The stylistic history of the twentieth-century Russian novel can be divided into the following broad, overlapping periods:
1. The modernist novel (1890—1930), also known as the Russian Renaissance or the Silver Age. Modernist novels are marked by meta-aesthetic discourse and mythopoetic experiment. Subcategories include: the decadent novel (based on realist descriptive and narrative techniques); the Symbolist novel (rejecting realist technique for experiment with narrative voice, visual and musical structures, and mystical seeking); the post-Symbolist novel (playing with both realist and symbolist stylistic features). The modernist period also encompasses the middlebrow, neorealist, or expressionist novel as well as the popular serial novel.
2. The socialist-realist novel (1923—91): a form of didactic novel epic strongly controlled by the interests of the Communist Party. This form soon bred both (underground) satire and the critical realist novel, as well as documentary fiction, both semi-official and underground (see REALISM).
3. The post-Soviet/postmodernist novel (late 1960s to the present), until 1986 appearing in samizdat and tamizdat (see p. 723), characterized by parody, play with intertextual reference, and meta-aesthetic consciousness.
In the modernist period the Russian novel branched into an array of different forms, including the esoteric experimental novel (decadent, Symbolist, post-Symbolist), the first politically engaged revolutionary novel, the popular serial, and the middlebrow neorealist novel.
Although the decadent, or first-generation symbolist, novel was based on the established realist aesthetic (precise description, socioeconomic setting, third-person narration, a world knowable to reason and the senses), it added a meta-aesthetic consciousness of the creative process, including changing frames of human perception, effective parody of realist forms and experiment in narration, and ritualistic use of the novel world to apprehend and play out myths of cosmic and social renewal. The Symbolists were first of all poets, and that practice certainly shaped their use of language, voice, and perspective. Although quite traditional in his narrative style and imitative of the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, in his popular trilogy Khristos i Antikhrist (Christ and Antichrist)—Smert' bogov: Yulian Otstupnik (1896, The Death of the Gods), Voskresshiye bogi: Leonardo da Vinci (1901, The Forerunner), and Antikhrist: Pyotr i Aleksey (1905, Peter and Alexis)—sought through voluntarist religious feeling the roots of cultural renewal in the three historical eras of late Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and early Enlightenment Russia.
Valery Briusov also wrote historical novels: Ognennyi angel (1908, The Fiery Angel), set in the German late Renaissance, and Altar' pobedy (1913, The Altar of Victory), set in ancient Rome. Prud (1908, The Pond), by Aleksei Remizov, deals with Russian merchant life, pursuing Dostoyevskian motifs of moral searching and adding lyrical techniques to convey dreams and meditations. The outstanding decadent novel Melkii bes (1907, The Petty Demon), by Fedor Sologub, undermines psychological realism in the absurdist character Peredonov, who, like Anton Chekhov's protagonist in the story “The Man in a Case,” is obsessed with ambition and paranoid angst. One of several European coming-of-age novels of the early twentieth century, the novel also explores the Dionysian myth of cosmic renewal, suggesting that the novel's boy protagonist, Sasha Pylnikov, is a new incarnation of the god, who through festival and sacrifice will deliver the world from Peredonov's mental and emotional paralysis.
The second-generation Symbolist novel features much bolder experiment with narrative voice, perspective, lyrical and musical forms, linguistic destructuring, and mystical rituals of renewal, again typically by writers better known for their poetry. Certainly the best-known novelist among the younger Symbolists is Andrei Bely, whose first three novels are all highly experimental. The first, Serebriannyi golub' (1910, The Silver Dove), explores sound symbolism and the disintegration of language, consciousness, and self in the context of sectarian rituals of rebirth. Peterburg (1916, Petersburg), one of the greatest parodies in the history of the novel, looks for cosmic rebirth in the musical, phonemic, anthroposophical play behind the matrix of narratives associated with the city of St. Petersburg. Kotik Letaev (1922) explores earliest consciousness and memory and their relation to language. Belyi's novelistic technique and his rhythmic prose exerted a powerful influence on the post-Symbolist and later generations.
The post-Symbolist novel kept some of the experimental and mythical aspects of the Russian modernist tradition while functioning among emigrants or in the Soviet underground. Kozlinaia pesn' (1928, Goat's Song), by Konstantin Vaginov, plays on the roots of the Greek word for tragedy as a “goat song,” heralding the death of Great Russian culture. Living in emigration after 1919, Vladimir Nabokov (pseud. Sirin) wrote in Russian until moving to the U.S. in 1940. Nabokov's early novels focus on aesthetic artifice. His most famous—Zashchita Luzhina (1930, The Defense), Otchaianie (1934, Despair), and Priglashenie na kazn' (1938, Invitation to a Beheading)—combine constructed parallel worlds with highly structured and stylized plots, play with consciousness and unreliable narration, and mix paradox with brilliant verbal play. His best Russian-language novel, Dar (1937—38, The Gift), parodies the foundational Russian ideological novel, Chto delat'? (1863, What Is to Be Done?) by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Doktor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak is the last echo of the Russian post-Symbolist novel. A parody of the Tolstoyan epic, it layers—over a meager skeleton of epic narrative about the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the ensuing civil war—other, more powerful lyrical, musical, philosophical, and mythopoetic structures.
Two important but often unnoticed aspects of the modernist era are the rapid growth of literacy and the widening gap between levels of readership and varieties of accessibility in the novel. The esoteric novel of the Symbolists and post-Symbolists was what Roland Barthes would call a writerly novel, meant for the initiated reader's active cooperation. Much more successful among the broader public were middlebrow, neorealist novels, which mimicked commonly recognizable actuality. Many of these works dealt with topical themes, from critique of the Russian military to sexual liberation. Poedinok (1905, The Duel), by Aleksandr Kuprin, is a traditionally realist short novel that became famous for its incisive critique of the Russian military just at the time of the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904—05). Mikhail Artsybashev's scandalously “pornographic” Sanin (1907), a novel in a somewhat popularized Turgenevian style, explores the free-sex movement and features a vulgarized superman protagonist. Derevnia (1910, The Village) and Sukhodol (1912, Dry Valley), by Ivan Bunin, Russia's first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature (1933), deal with the downward spiral of the Russian countryside in richly evocative prose. Bunin's Zhizn' Arsen'eva (1952, The Life of Arsen'ev) is perhaps the most significant treatment of the Russian émigré experience, weaving the autobiography of a young artist.
The early twentieth century also saw the grassroots emergence of the potboiler and the truly popular novel-romance that were accessible to virtually every level of reader. The most famous of these serial novels, Anastasia Verbitskaia's Kliuchi schast'ia (1909—13, The Keys to Happiness), published in a series of six volumes, created a liberated heroine and is a virtual catalogue of political and artistic life, fashions, scandals, and celebrities of the years leading up to WWI.
After the revolution of October 1917, the new Soviet government attempted to curb the taste for real grassroots popular literature through a hybrid propaganda-popular novel; these included the Red Pinkerton novels; the series by Marietta Shaginian(pseud. Jim Dollar) combining adventure, sleuthing, and proletarian heroism; Mess-mend, ili Ianki v Petrograde (1924, Mess-Mend, Yankees in Petrograd); and Aleksey Tolstoy's immensely popular science-fiction novel and subsequent film, Aelita (1923), about a scientist's and a Red Army soldier's flight to Mars, the scientist's love affair with the princess Aelita, and the soldier's fomenting of a workers' revolt. The early 1920s also saw the emergence of the mass novel based on Lenin's call for “party literature,” featuring the leadership of the Communist Party and the genre of the Tolstoy-inspired didactic epic novel. Various revolutions of 1905 and 1917, as well as the civil war (1918—21), gave ample material for such epics. Among the best were Chapaev (1923), by Dmitry Furmanov—whose historical hero, the commander Chapaev, became a genuinely popular hero in film and anecdote—and Razgrom (1927, The Rout), by Aleksandr Fadeev.
The New Economic Policy, 1921—28
The six years following revolution and civil war saw the novel develop relatively unencumbered by censorship. During the revolution many middlebrow writers emigrated or alternated between Russia and Europe. Many works were published both in Germany and in the Soviet Union, something that was legal only in the 1920s and then after 1986. Writers who remained in Russia but were undecided or unwilling to join the Party became what Leon Trotsky (1879—1940) and the new regime termed “fellow travelers.” These writers accepted the revolution but did not typically adhere in their literary practice to the Leninist concept of party literature, which called on revolutionary art to serve the interests of the party. Some novels were highly experimental, while others retained a realist aesthetic. Golyi god (1922, The Naked Year), by Boris Pilniak (Boris Vogau), presented a collage of people and episodes in the Russian province during the civil war. Virtually plotless, it shows a Bely-inspired, highly stylized treatment of characters and moods. Like many modernist novels this one often engages in what formalists would call “baring the device,” showing the artifice of novel writing, e.g., the frequent incursion of the author into the text.
Evgeny Zamyatin, a neorealist writer and teacher in the politically autonomous literary group, the Serapion Brothers, wrote the famous experimental dystopia My (We) in 1920—21, which could not be published in Russia until 1988. An English translation appeared in 1924 and the Russian original in New York in 1952. Written as a diary of D-503, an aeronautical engineer living in the totalitarian One State, centuries in the future, My builds on Dostoyevsky's parody of 1860s utilitarianism in Zapiski iz podpol'ya (1864, Notes from Underground), and Bely's experimental constructions of the city of St. Petersburg. It parodies contemporary avant-garde utopias of the Futurists, Suprematist and Constructivist artists, and the new proletarian poets.
The last permitted experimental novel, Zavist' (1927, Envy), by Yury Olesha, enjoyed a succès de scandale and confounded ideological critics who could not agree on its stylistic achievements and its meaning. In essence a “Symbolist fantasy,” Zavist' rebels absurdly against all systems of meaning (Maguire, 344). It parodies the conventions of the novel of manners, although it can also be superficially read as a black-and-white novel pitting old attitudes against the fresh, youthful views of the new order. Konstantin Fedin, a member of the Serapion Brothers, wrote Goroda i gody (1924, Cities and Years), the first large-span novel to be published in Soviet Russia, best known for its experimental treatment of narrative time, starting the novel with the death of the protagonist, Andrei Startsov, who proves tragically unable to take a moral stand during the civil war. Belaia gvardiia (1925, The White Guard), by Mikhail Bulgakov, was a realist novel by an author known for his fantastic satire; it gave one of the few truly sympathetic and politically daring treatments of the educated Russian—Ukrainian elite in Kiev during the civil war. This novel made a stronger impression as a play, Dni Turbinykh (1926, The Days of the Turbins), supported by Stalin himself through a long tour at the Moscow Art Theater.
In the 1920s the middlebrow novel developed particularly successfully in satirical forms. A new wave of Ukrainian writers, particularly from the Jewish community in Odessa, enjoyed popularity. Among these were the satirical picaresque novels coauthored by Ilya Ilf (I. Fainzil'berg) and Yevgeni Petrov (Evgenii Kataev): Dvenadtsat' stul'ev (1928, The Twelve Chairs), which enjoyed multiple film versions both in Russia and the U.S., and Zolotoi telenok (1931, The Golden Calf). Both feature the crafty rogue Ostap Bender and two of his get-rich schemes. Valentin Kataev satirizes the period's greed in his novel Rastratchiki (1926, The Embezzlers).
Andrei Platonov (Klimentov), by far the most innovative novelist of the 1920s, emerged from the Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) movement. His two greatest works, Chevengur (wr. 1929; pub. Paris 1972) and Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit, wr. 1930; pub. U.S. 1973), just missed acceptance for publication at the end of the New Economic Policy. Like many experimental novels of the 1920s they had to wait until the 1980s to appear domestically. Both novels at once participate in and satirize the utopian novel, creating more than the traditional dystopian vision. Both distort ideologically colored language and explore the link between language and consciousness.
High Socialist Realism (1934—56)
During the period of Stalin the true popular novel disappeared, co-opted by the Stalinist government as the didactic mass novel, which was completely scripted and controlled by Party policy. Known also as the literature of “social command,” Socialist Realism was codified as a method in 1934 at the first congress of the newly created Union of Writers. Socialist Realism featured the epic novel as the genre best suited to constructing and conveying the myth of Soviet success—the victory of the revolution, the success of Stalinist industrialization, and the promise of the coming Communist utopia. The notion that Soviet writers served as the “engineers of human souls” (Andrei Zhdanov) conveys the didactic purpose of the Socialist Realist novel. Writers were ordered to express the “truthful, historical depiction of reality in its revolutionary development” (Terts, 402). A fixed form with required ingredients, the Socialist Realist novel features partiinost'—the celebration of mass spontaneity and energy guided by the wisdom and political consciousness of Party leaders. The novel must also portray narodnost' (a “positive hero” who embodies the energy and character of the masses) and ideinost' (ideological correctness; see IDEOLOGY).
The roots of the Socialist Realist novel lie in nineteenth-century utopianism (such as Chernyshevsky's Chto delat'?), Tolstoyan realism, and the revolutionary romanticism of the 1905 period. Its direct precursor is Mat' (1907, Mother), by Maksim Gorky (Aleksei Peshkov), the story of a mother's switch from a figure of suffering passivity to the icon of the revolution. The epics of the civil war era—Furmanov's Chapaev, Zheleznyi potok (1924, The Iron Flood), by Aleksandr Serafimovich, and Tsement (1925, Cement), by Fedor Gladkov—comprised the instant Socialist Realist canon. Among these were genuinely fine novels, e.g., the Cossack epic, Tikhii Don (1928—40, Quiet Flows the Don), purportedly by Mikhail Sholokhov, and the strongly Dostoyevskian Vor (1927, The Thief), by Leonid Leonov. Some of these novelists became the leaders of the Writers' Union and the enforcers of the Socialist Realist method.
The Socialist Realist novel of the 1930s built on the civil war experience, the production novel of collectivization and industrialization, and the historical novel. Kataev's Vremia, vpered! (1932, Time, Forward!) represents the Socialist Realist novel of “social command,” dramatizing the building of a huge steel plant at Magnitogorsk. Shaginian's novel Gidrotsentral (1931, The Hydroelectric Station) is a well-researched production novel dealing with building a hydroelectric dam in Armenia. Blind and ill, Nikolai Ostrovsky part-wrote and part-dictated Kak zakalialas' stal' (1932—34, How the Steel Was Tempered), an autobiographical fiction about the making of a true communist, the hero of which, Pavel Korchagin, became one of the icons of Soviet male consciousness. Aleksey Tolstoy wrote two well-received historical novels, the trilogy Khozhdenie po mukam (1921—42, The Road to Calvary), about an educated Russian family before, during, and after the revolution, and the unfinished Petr pervyi (1929—45, Peter the Great), in which Tolstoy recast modern Russian history and Russia's first modern emperor, Peter, as the prefiguration of Stalin. The tribulations of WWII fed more grist into the Socialist Realist mill. Most famous and idiosyncratic was Vokopakh Stalingrada (1946, In the Trenches of Stalingrad), by Viktor Nekrasov, which celebrated the decisive Soviet victory over the Nazis. A keen war journalist, Nekrasov delivered precise descriptions of sometimes unheroic characters and their heroic behavior and sidestepped the required Socialist Realist ingredients, partiinost' and ideinost'. Another readable war epic that touches upon, among other things, the normally taboo subject of the Holocaust on Soviet soil is Buria (1947, The Storm), by Ilya Erenburg.
The “Thaw Period” (1953—66)
Following Stalin's death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev's “Secret Speech” in 1956, which called, among other things, for greater candor in art, the officially permitted possibilities for the novel opened somewhat, allowing the development of so-called “critical realism.” The first Thaw-era novel was Ne khlebom edinym (1957, Not by Bread Alone), by Vladimir Dudintsev, which dealt with conflicts between an inventor and the administration of a research institute.
Critical realism was first to cross the boundaries of the permissible. Having taken seriously the call to expose the “mistakes” of Stalinism, realist writers were soon perceived to have written much too openly on topics that compromised living leaders. Vasily Grossman's Zhizn' i sud'ba (wr. 1961, pub. U.S. 1980, Life and Fate), a vast epic dealing with the Soviet resistance to the Nazi invasion, featured characters discussing the similarities between Nazi and Stalinist forms of totalitarianism. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn successfully published Odin den' iz zhizni Ivana Denisovicha (1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), a short novel dealing with the survival of a simple man in the Gulag. Two of his novels, V kruge pervom (1968, The First Circle) and Rakovyi korpus (1968, Cancer Ward), were slated for publication, only to be rejected because they explored in detail the system of Stalinist police control and the prison system.
The critical realist novel, which emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, can be divided into the “urban” and “village” novel, since they re-create the experiences of various social groups, including the peasantry and the urban intelligentsia, without the falsely optimistic window-dressing typical of Stalin-era Socialist Realist writing. Among the finest is Dom na naberezhnoi (1976, The House on the Embankment), by Yury Trifonov, which deals with the children of the Stalinist elite and their privileged life. Another is Khranitel' drevnostei (1964, The Keeper of Antiquities), by Yury Dombrovsky, the first “museum novel” to deal with the Terror of 1938—39. Structurally and stylistically the novel abandons Socialist Realist ingredients and uses a much more ambiguous variety of voices, memories, and temporal frames. Among critical realist novels, the officially permitted village novel became prominent in the Thaw period and remained so to the end of the Soviet era, in part because of fine writing, in part because of its claims to express true Russian national identity. Prominent examples are Brat'ya i sestry (1958, Brothers and Sisters), by Fedor Abramov, and Zhivi i pomni (1974, Live and Remember), by Valentin Rasputin. Abramov's novel is the first novel of an epic trilogy, Priasliny (1958—78, The Priaslin Family), dealing with several generations of an Old Believer clan in the far northern village of Pekashino. Rasputin's novel makes Siberia the locus of true Russian character. Few of these novels have been translated into English, although their spare, precise prose and their narrative closeness to rural consciousness have literary merit, and their bold treatments of the destruction of the Russian peasantry through collectivization were major historical achievements of the Thaw period.
Another important facet of the critical realist novel is the emergence of significant Russophone, non-Russian ethnic voices. Belyi parakhod (1970, The White Steamship) and I dol'she veka dlitsia den' (1981, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years), by the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, are examples of successful novels written by a Central Asian. Aitmatov was Communist, yet openly and without repercussion alluded to the depredations of Stalinism and Soviet bureaucracy. The 1970s saw the emergence of Fazil Iskander, an Abkhazian writer, as a major novelist. Parts of his satirical trilogy, Sandro iz Chegema (1973, 1979, 1981, Sandro of Chegem), appeared in Soviet print, while others were available only in samizdat and tamizdat. The Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimanov aroused official ire with his Turkic-nationalist novel, Az-i-ia (1975), which plays on the word “Asia” and two Russian words for “I.”
Although Socialist Realism as a method started to fade soon after Stalin's death, censors still held control of official Soviet literary culture and enforced political and Party correctness. The subject matter and experimental style of many of the novel genres that developed during and after the Thaw quickly expanded beyond the bounds of what censors and editors viewed as politically acceptable. Among the array of novels published in the underground and abroad were experimental, parodic, satirical, documentary, and science-fiction novels. During the Thaw these novels were often first submitted for official publication and rejected. They then found their way to publication abroad (tamizdat). From the early 1970s onward innovative novels were first published underground (samizdat) or abroad.
Novelistic experiment and true ideological “polyphony” were discouraged until glasnost, and the still-heavy censorship led to the development of vital samizdat and tamizdat publishing of innovative novels. The first example is Pasternak's Doktor Zhivago, which was pulled after being accepted for publication in 1956 in the relatively permissive journal Novyi mir and published in Italy the following year. The 1960s saw the official publication of works banned through the Stalinist era, including Pasternak's poetry from Doktor Zhivago and the least corrosive of Platonov's fiction. The most intriguing novel of the Stalinist underground is Bulgakov's Master i Margarita (wr. 1928—40, pub. U.S.S.R. 1967, The Master and Margarita), which operates on multiple narrative layers as a brilliant satire of 1920s venality, a romance, political commentary, and a meta-aesthetic novel. It contains a novel within the novel that features a typically post-Symbolist interest in religious philosophy and mythopoesy.
Another genre that emerged as a result of the Thaw period's call to be “honest” and “sincere” was the documentary novel. Of those published in the official media, Babii iar (1966, Babi Yar), by Anatoly Kuznetsov, is certainly the most important. Based partly on interviews with witnesses and his own autobiography, Kuznetsov tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who experienced the Nazi murder of Kiev's Jews in the ravine known as Babi Yar. This work's thematically bold comparisons of Stalinist and Nazi terror disappeared under the censor's red pencil. Particularly famous is Solzhenitsyn's trilogy, Arkhipelag GULag (1973—75, pub. France, The Gulag Archipelago), which he called “an experiment in fictional investigation.” These vast tomes investigated and documented life and death in the Soviet prison camp system.
The satirical novel, another genre that soon found a home in the literary underground and abroad, was among the first victims of the Soviet censor's red pen. Planned for publication, Zhizn' i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina (1969, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin), by Vladimir Voinovich, appeared first abroad. Influenced by Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek's popular anti-Austrian mock-epic, Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka za svtové války (1923, The Good Soldier Schwejk), this novel parodies the Stalinist WWII epic, making broad use of slapstick humor and puns. Voinovich's Moskva 2042 (1987, Moscow 2042) renders a “meta-utopian” parody of post-Soviet totalitarianism that satirizes a number of different views of the ideal society.
Science fiction continued to enjoy popularity after the 1920s, when it bloomed partly under the influence of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris) were the leading representatives of Soviet science fiction during and after the Thaw period. Although their first works, e.g., Strana bagrovykh tuch (1959, The Country of the Maroon Clouds), adhere to the strictures of Socialist Realism, they introduced fresh characters and expanded the possibilities of science to alter the world. The novel Piknik na obochine (1972, Roadside Picnic) became the basis for the famous experimental film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (1987). With Gadkie lebedi (1972, pub. W. Germany, Ugly Swans) the Strugatsky brothers also crossed the boundary into novel writing that explored the ideologically unacceptable parallels between Stalinism and Nazism and challenged readers to think more critically.
The Late Soviet and Post-Soviet Novel (1966—)
The late 1970s and 1980s saw a broadening array of themes openly aired under the rubric of critical realism. Historical novels on formerly taboo topics saw the light of day. Tiazhelyi pesok (1978, Heavy Sand), by children's writer Anatoly Rybakov, treated several generations of a Jewish family that suffered during the Holocaust. His novel Deti Arbata (1987, The Children of the Arbat) exposed the complicity of young people in the Stalinist repressions of the Great Terror in the late 1930s.
After the end of the Thaw younger writers parodied all claims to literary realism, let alone Socialist Realism. They pushed the novel in genuinely new directions from the edges of Soviet culture. To paraphrase the novelist Andrei Bitov the least well treated in literature—and thus offering perpetual sources for new creativity—are the worlds of the child, the drunkard, and the “inauthentic person lacking talent” (1978, Pushkinskii dom; Pushkin House, 72—73). Sasha Sokolov, who was brought up in a privileged family in the diplomatic service, wrote his “surreal” novel, Shkola dlia durakov (1975, pub. U.S., A School for Fools), from the point of view of a retarded child. Rejecting the life of an official litterateur, Venedikt Erofeev wrote a brilliant short novel, Moskva-Petushki (1969, excerpts pub. U.S.S.R., Moscow to the End of the Line), that made ingenious fun of every aspect of Soviet mass culture, told from the point of view of an unsalvageable alcoholic. Bitov published his “museum novel,” Pushkinskii dom, in the U.S. Set in Leningrad, the novel treats the interface between genuine Russian culture destroyed in the Stalinist camps and the inauthentic culture of both the Stalinist 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s of the Thaw period.
Toward the final years of the neo-Stalinist government, a younger generation of writers exposed the oppressiveness of the literary power structure and rejected the strictures of Socialist Realism. In 1979 they openly published a compendium of experimental literature, entitled Metropol'. It was immediately confiscated and the minor contributors arrested. Two of the organizers were Bitov and Vasily Aksenov. Forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1980, Aksenov wrote a number of fine novels, including the historical fantasy, Ostrov Krym (1984, The Island of Crimea), which imagines a Crimea free of Soviet rule, and Ozhog (1980, The Burn), about the jazzy, fast-paced life of the new, freer-thinking generation of 1960s Moscow. Glasnost', announced in 1986, brought the first-time domestic publication of an enormous backlog of great twentieth-century Russian novels. Beyond novels well known abroad, such as My, Kotlovan, Doktor Zhivago, and Rakovyi korpus, new riches now emerged, such as Yury Dombrovsky's Fakul'tet nenuzhnykh veshchei (1978, The Faculty of Superfluous Things) and the works of Nabokov. Although for a few years contemporary novelists appeared stunned by the tidal wave, experimental trends already at work in Erofeev and others eventually regained their hold.
In this experimental turn away from all kinds of realism is what might be called the postsocialist novel, which adds a whole new dimension to the familiar postmodernist novel. This novel is characterized by literary play and PARODY, though with the material of Stalinist culture and Socialist Realist art, rather than popular Western forms. Vremia—noch' (1992, The Time—Night), by Liudmila Petrushevskaia, parodies the Russian matriarchal myth. Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) has reintroduced subgenres of the DETECTIVE novel and the thriller with a parodic twist. His novels feature a family of detectives, the forebear (E. Fandorin) serving in the late nineteenth century, for example, in Azazel' (1998, The Winter Queen), and the grandson (N. Fandorin) in the Stalin secret police of the 1930s, for example, in the generic Shpionskii roman (2005, Spy Novel).
The most popular and prolific novelist of the post-Soviet era since 1991 is Viktor Pelevin. In the 1990s he wrote three outstanding novels. Zhizn' nasekomykh (1993, The Life of Insects) draws on the premise of Czech writer Karel apek's Insect Play (1921) but with a post-Soviet, postcolonial overlay. In this world where all characters transform into insects, the main character is Sam Sucker, an exploitative American businessman who becomes a mosquito and sucks the blood of a variety of locals. Pelevin's finest novel, Chapaev i Pustota (1996, Chapaev and the Void, also trans. as Buddha's Little Finger), building on Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), is set partly in a Moscow mental hospital in which an oppressive psychiatrist assumes that mental illness is merely a reflection of tumultuous social change. Pelevin's style may be called “neo-baroque” in that its witty intertextual trompe l'oeil masks the deep pain of the post-imperial Russian psyche. His third major novel, Generation P (1999), satirizes the transition from Soviet-era ideology and propaganda to the post-Soviet commercialist culture of advertising.
Probably the best example of the post-socialist, postmodernist meta-utopian novel is Kys' (2000, Slynx), by Tatiana Tolstaia. Set two hundred years after a cataclysm that destroys Moscow, this isolated community is populated by part-human, part-animal mutants who rediscover and try to interpret the debris of Soviet civilization and culture. Another line of development in the post-Socialist Realist novel springs in part from the South American tradition of magical realism and the postcolonial experience. Liudmila Ulitskaia uses her novel to deconstruct the historiography of the Stalinist era. For example, her first novel, Medea i ee deti (1996, Medea and Her Children), traces the history of a clan of Greek heritage from the Black Sea area, thus replacing the debilitating “Great Family” myth of Stalinist culture with their and other minority cultures, including Jewish and Tatar.
Although the twentieth-century Russian novel survived powerful cataclysms, some forced by the nature of cultural discourse, some forced by political events, it has remained a vital form of Russian literature. The popularity of the playful, multilayered post-Soviet novel attests to the increasing sophistication of the general Russian readership. In world literature the impact of the Russian novel has remained powerful.
SEE ALSO: Modernism, Narrative Perspective, Narrative Structure.
1. Brooks, J. (1985), When Russia Learned to Read.
2. Brown, D. (1978), Soviet Russian Literature since Stalin.
3. Brown, D. (1993), Last Years of Soviet Russian Literature.
4. Clark, K. (1981), Soviet Novel.
5. Clowes, E.W. (1988), Revolution of Moral Consciousness.
6. Clowes, E.W. (1993), Russian Experimental Fiction.
7. Cornwell, N., ed. (2001), Routledge Companion to Russian Literature.
8. Dunham, V.S. (1976), In Stalin's Time.
9. Freeborn, R. (1982), Russian Revolutionary Novel.
10. Garrard, J.G., ed. (1983), Russian Novel from Pushkin to Pasternak.
11. Gillespie, D.C. (1996), Twentieth-Century Russian Novel.
12. Jones, M.V.and R.F. Miller, eds. (1998), Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel.
13. Maguire, R. (1968), Red Virgin Soil.
14. Parthe, K. (1992), Russian Village Prose.
15. Peterson, N.L. (1986), Fantasy and Utopia in the Contemporary Soviet Novel, 1976—1981.
16. Shneidman, N.N. (2004), Russian Literature, 1995—2002.
17. Terts, A. [ A. Siniavskii ] (1957), Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realism [1960, On Socialist Realism, trans. G. Dennis].
18. Weiner, A. (1998), By Authors Possessed.
19. Weir, J. (2002), Author as Hero.