Russian literature is synonymous with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov. To the extent one thinks of Contemporary Russian literature, there is the samizdat prose of protest during the 20th century. But few, if any Russian literary writers are translated let alone read widely in America today.
On Monday evening, February 20th, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard welcomed a group of young Russian authors to its campus, winners of Russia’s national Debut Literature Prize.
The Prize itself is worthy of description; its mission is to bring attention to the country’s new literary talent and publish young authors’ work (winners must be under 35 years old). Olga Slavnikova, former Russian Booker Prize winner and present Debut Prize Director, made no small efforts to emphasize her goals to not only revive the Russian literary tradition but to invest in its future. The Debut Prize winners tour which took them to the NY Public Library, Bard, and Harvard, is part of a mission to bring a new generation of Russian writers to the international reading public. As the evening’s organizer and translator John Narins, of Causa Artium, put it: we Westerners are one generation behind in our understanding of Russian civilization.
Identity stood out as the evening’s theme. Bridging the gap between the Soviet generation and young adults for whom the Soviet Union was an impersonal historical event is an uneasy task. One strategy, as offered by historian turned author Dmitri Biryukov, is historical fiction and exploring how history is perceived by his generation. In his Uritski Street (named after the former head of the USSR’s foreign spy master) he intertwines the lives of a contemporary young man named Igor with a 1917 shop keeper who both lived in the same building. For Biryukov, exploring Russia’s urban life and historical forgetfulness allows him to explore how the post-communist present is shaped by the Russian and Soviet past.
Looking into the past is one method for accepting the present, but another is self-reflection about one’s immediate circumstance. These young authors’ childhoods were not the propagated socialist utopia their parents grew up with but what is now ominously referred to by Russians as the “wild ‘90s.”
A decade often characterized for its disorder and criminality is reinvented with a personal perspective by authors like Igor Savelyev and Irina Bogatyreva. Their writings address the post-Soviet childhood and contribute to an emerging genre on hitch hiking, an activity extremely common amongst Russia’s newly mobile youth.
Individuality and mobility were contrasted by Alisa Ganieva’s reading of an except from her Salaam, Dalgat! set in Dagestan, a Muslim state located in the Northern Caucus. While the region is more often known for its political and social turmoil, Ms. Ganieva’s documentation intends to break domestic and international stereotypes about life on the Russian-Georgian border. By following a politically neutral narrative, her alternative focuses on individual existence within the country’s extremely heterogeneous territories as if to declare that this too is a form of Russian national culture and identity. Ms. Ganieva’s daring approach is evident not only in her subject matter but writing persona: she submitted her work under the male pseudonym of a violent young fighter Hirachev Hull, revealing herself for the first time at the ceremony where she received the Debut Prize.
The Debut Prize winners are not didactic about what the country and society today is or is not. Rather, they are experimenting and reflecting on their condition through writing truthfully, creatively, and beyond the former regime’s dogmas. As mentioned before, thinking and writing about the Soviet legacy remains the task for this lot of young authors. But their task does not end there. The writers that graciously presented their work at Bard are only the herald of Russian literature’s return to the world stage. As Ms. Slavnikova declared: Russian literature does not end at Dostoevsky.
Authors present included Olga Slavnikova, Igor Savelyev, Alisa Ganieva, Dmitry Biryukov, and Irina Bogatyreva. The event was organized and sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Bard’s Russian/ Eurasian studies program, and the Center for Civic Engagement in conjunction with Cause Artium.
You can watch a video recording of the event here.