With the rise of Putin’s crony capitalism and the advent of our ever-connected world, the Russia of even 30 years ago and the Russia of today are barely recognisable. While the government has cracked down on free speech among journalists, novelists have been relatively free to produce works that are highly critical of the government. Quietly, a new generation of Russian writers have been trying to make sense of their new reality. What this has spawned is a new era of literature, tinged with frustration and despair: whether that’s frustration with the current system or despair at the very nature of existence. While the spectre of revolution is never far from their minds, most writers of the Putin era simply want to cast off the shackles of their current conditions – be that the state, their gender or their generation. More than anything, they’re searching for a way to express their own individualism in a system that is intolerant to anything but conformity. From neo-medieval secret policemen to anthropomorphic prostitutes, we take a look at the best Russian novels about the experience of living under the Putin regime.
The Living – Anna Starobinets, 2012
In the distant future, the number of humans in the world has become fixed at 3 billion. All people are connected by Socio, a network of cerebral computers by which they can communicate at any time. Death no longer exists. Instead, people are reborn, their in-code keeping a log of their previous incarnations. But one day, a child is born without an in-code, increasing the number of humans by one and threatening the harmony of the Living.
Neo-conservatives will note the similarity between the novel’s title and that of Ayn Rand’s We the Living. A fictionalised account of her life in Russia after the 1917 Revolution, in typical Rand-ian fashion the novel deals with the struggle of the individual to escape the family and state’s attempt to define them and find their own individualism. Starobinets presents a similar struggle; the inescapable and suffocating nature of Socio will be instantly recognisable to many readers today.
Counting Dostoevsky among her influences, Starobinets is similarly pessimistic about our attempts to free ourselves from the suffering of the current system through revolution. Starobinets posits that the abolition of the current order only results in chaos and rebuilding another similar order. While we may despise our present conditions, she sees them as inevitable. In a fashion similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, revolution is seen less as a goal and more as a continual, repeating process.
Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin, 2006
The year is 2027. The Russian monarchy has been restored. The Kremlin has been repainted its original white. The new order’s first line of defence is the oprichniki, the secret police, named after the force created by Ivan the Terrible. This vision of the future is distinctly Russian: The protagonist, Andrei Danilovich Komiaga wakes to a breakfast of “white kvass, a jigger of vodka, a half-cup of marinated cabbage juice.” The novel follows Komiaga about his daily routine of activities, which include: trade negotiations with the Chinese; the consumption of psychoactive fish; and the appropriation of a nobleman’s property and gang rape of his wife. The novel is steeped in ultra-violence. What’s notable is the ritualistic nature of their acts. As their violence supposedly brings order to Russia, ritual brings order to their violence. This is the norm in this world.
A trademark of Sorokin’s style, the novel is as much an exercise in word play as it is in world building. Sorokin’s prose resembles that of a Russian folk legend at times, with the original Russian reversing subject and predicate, recalling the bylina of old: “Заворочался Батя в кресле кожаном”. At the same time, the language of sci-fi pervades the novel. The juxtaposition of the two exposes the contradiction inherent in a regime trying to root a modern country’s identity in its past.
Most certainly failing the Bechdel Test, women are virtually absent from the novel and the story centres on Komiaga and his fellow thugs – hardly coincidental given the Russia’s heavily entrenched gender roles and the President’s predisposition for macho displays. Indeed, Komiaga seems to revere and to be searching for masculinity. He dreams of a “White stallion”, but in contrast, he and his fellow oprichniki drive “Merin”, Russian slang for Mercedes, but also meaning ‘a castrated male horse’. Unlike the true and free masculinity of individualism, that of the brotherhood is limited and – as shown by the novel’s climax – ultimately contradictory.
Comparisons have been drawn between the oprichniki and the siloviki, the shadowy circle of former KGB agents who have risen to positions of influence in business and politics under Putin. In the title’s nod to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Sorokin articulates his opinion on the state of modern Russia: This is their time.
Nontraditional Love – Rafael Grugman, 2008
In Rafael Grugman’s Nontraditional Love heterosexual marriages have been outlawed. Homosexuality is the enforced normality. World history and culture have been falsified so that it appears that relationships have always been this way. Shakespeare, Tolstoy and even the Bible have been edited to conform to this new truth. Conception occurs in test tubes and all embryos are genetically enhanced; one woman from each lesbian carries their child with male couples making use of surrogates. Children born from natural conception are social outcasts, only allowed to marry their own kind and forbidden from marrying their genetic superiors. The story follows Robert Marcus, a closet heterosexual. After his secret wife leaves him for another man he resolves to live his life as a normal gay man. He becomes romantically involved with Jacob Stein, a retired policeman. But during their first date Jacob dies. What follows is a tense thriller as Robert comes under suspicion of involvement of Jacob’s death.
Having become yet more relevant since the increasingly homophobic direction Russia has taken in recent years, Nontraditional Love could easily be misconstrued as presenting the gay pride movement and sexual liberalisation as a threat, were it not for the novel’s distinct call for acceptance of person’s right to be themselves. Grugman clearly draws inspiration from the great dystopian novels We and 1984 and makes use of a similar device as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, in which white people are subjugated to the rule of black people. By flipping our perceived notions of normality on their head Grugman exposes the cruel reality that many homosexual people are forced to live everyday.
The Sacred Book of the Werewolf – Viktor Pelevin, 2004
In the hotels of Moscow, fox woman A Hu-Li (whose name broadly sounds like “What the fuck” in Russian) makes her living as a prostitute. Over 2,000-years old, A Hu-Li survives by absorbing men’s life force through her tail, which is capable of casting illusions on her clients. Over the course of her exploits she starts a relationship with Alexander, a high-ranking officer of the FSB.
Much like he did in Chapaev and the Void, one of foremost Russian novels of the 90s, Viktor Pelevin takes a trip through eastern philosophy and Russian culture. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Pelevin poses key philosophical questions: “Dostoevsky questioned whether [happiness] was permissible if it was paid for by a child’s tear. But Nabokov, on the other hand, doubted whether happiness could ever be possible without it.” Where Chapaev and the Void questioned what Russia’s relationship with the West was, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf gives modern Russia’s answer: when asked by a westerner how anyone can think there is a better way to organise society than liberal democracy, Alexander replies “We don’t want any of those liberals here, thank you very much! We’ve suffered enough in ten years. We’ve only just started to draw breath again.”
Through her relationship with Alexander A Hu-Li discovers that Russia gets its oil by employing werewolves to call upon the spirit of a brindle cow, as seen in Russian folktales. As the story traditionally goes, Khavroshka is helped by the brindle cow until her stepmother slaughters it. Khavroshka buries its bones and is made rich when the cow comes back as a tree with leaves of gold. In Pelevin’s novel, if the werewolves can make a cow’s skull weep, oil will spring from the ground, like a black tree with leaves of gold. How many more times will the brindle cow weep?
Sankya – Zakhar Prilepin, 2006
Sankya opens with a demonstrations lead by The Founders, a revolutionary outfit. What begins as a political statement quickly descends into street vandalism as the police crush the protest. After escaping arrest, Sankya, the titular character and member of The Founders, struggles to escape the police’s grasp. Unsurprisingly for a novel detailing a young uprising, Alexei Navalny provides the foreword of the English translation. Both Putin and Medvedev have read Sankya: Obviously, they are trying to get to know their enemy.
What’s notable about The Founders is that whereas previous generations fought for the ideals of Communism, their ideology is markedly absent; “All ideology is gone,” intonates Sankya. The main unifying element of the group is anger at the status quo. The novel gives voice to the frustration and desire of the younger generation to throw off the restraints of the system the elder generation has constructed. At one point Sankya asks: “If we ask the elderly to draw, will their drawings be as bright as those of children?”
Outside its political overtones, the Sankya also paints a picture of what it is to be a youth growing up in rural Russia today. Prilepin makes vivid the country’s greyness: the concrete high rises of the city, the decrepit and aging population, the dilapidated houses of Sankya’s decaying hometown. In one stark passage (read beautifully here by Stephen Fry), Sankya recalls his attempt to drive his father’s coffin to be buried. With the poorly maintained roads between the isolated villages their van quickly becomes stuck in the snow. Still miles from their destination, Sankya and his mother are forced to get out and drag the coffin. Prilepin makes palpable their feelings of isolation, desperation and that no one else in the world could give a damn about their existence.
If anything, Sankya has become more poignant as time has passed. Prophesising the post-truth era, Prilepin writes: “The revolution does not come from the top or the bottom – it begins when the truth thins out…”
Photo Credit: Alexey Fokin