Ill. Karin Sunisson

Reviews Russian Literature since 1991. The past is part of the future

Russian Literature since 1991, Eds. Evgeny Dobrenko and Mark Lipovetsky, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 320 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, pp 123-125
Published on on June 19, 2017

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The volume Russian Literature since 1991, edited by Evgeny Dobrenko and Mark Lipovetsky and published in 2015, takes the form of a “compendium of modern scholarship on post-Soviet Russian literature” as the flyleaf tells us. And certainly, it comprises an impressive collection of scholars and articles with sharp, intelligent and poignant analyses of the development of post-Soviet Russian literature, with great emphasis on the post. Although the scope of the book is Russian literature from 1991 until today, it is the relation to the Soviet past, or the afterness of contemporary Russian literature in its transition period, that dominates the larger part of the articles. Eliot Borenstein aptly summarizes a ghastly feature of Russian contemporary writing when he asserts that Russian literature gives voice to an anxiety between dystopia and apocalypse, meaning at the same time postapocalyptic and preapocalyptic, based on an uncertainty not only as to whether the past is in the future or the future in the past, but also as to the question where to place the ideological signs in this confusion of history and time.

The volume indeed covers many aspects and fields of contemporary Russian literature. There are no subheadings, but the articles nevertheless seem to follow an order. The theme of the first part is the Soviet legacy in positive and negative terms, with contributions by Evgeny Dobrenko and Serguei Oushakine. This part aligns well with the following articles by Kevin F. Platt, Eliot Borenstein, Aleksandr Etkind and Ilya Kalinin, where the political aspect of “the relation to history”, meaning not only Soviet history, but also Russian history before and after the Soviet Union, constitutes a common thread. Alongside the relation to the past, there is another dominant theme, namely the upsurge of popular literature in the 1990s, and the attraction that it exerted on “well-known” writers. This theme conjoins the subsequent series of chapters by Mark Lipovetsky, Helena Goscilo and Marina Balina, which analyze genres between “mainstream and minority literature”. The last section is more disparate and contains readings of the minor genres of poetry and drama, with eminent contributions by Catherine Ciepela, Stephanie Sandler, Ilya Kukulin and Boris Wolfson. Yet here too the focus is on the relationship to the past and the re construction or deconstruction of the post-Soviet subject. For instance, both Ciepiela and Sandler discuss lyrical treatments of how the Soviet past speaks and in particular, to which lyrical self it speaks.
Although there are many fine and interesting contributions in themselves, questions arise during reading concerning what this compendium as a whole adds to our understanding of Russian Literature since 1991 and whether it really encompasses the dynamics of this literature in its contemporary development as a whole. A certain literature and certain writers that have for a long time constituted a canon in scholarly readings of post-Soviet literature are dominant in this volume, namely the genre of Russian dystopia or anti-utopia in the works of Sorokin, Tolstaya and Pelevin. In other words, this volume is another example of how contemporary Russian literature is largely read through the prism of postmodernism, already established in the early 1990s by Mikhail Epstein and elaborated by one of the editors of the volume, Lipovetsky, in several studies. Since Russian postmodernism is interpreted as the turn to popular literature and fantasy, focusing on the means of debunking the myths, false representations and utopia of socialist ideological representation, these works represent typical examples. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian literature undoubtedly performed a widespread turn to popular literature and fantasy, allowing for a free and phantasmagoric or even hallucinatory play with the falseness of the cumbersome and heavy reality of socialist realism. Yet although Borenstein opens a certain historical perspective on the genre and Oushakine astutely claims that “the familiar ways of the ideological critique of the past have been utterly exhausted” it would have been interesting to have a deeper analysis of the transformations of postmodernist Russian literature and genres over time, and also an analysis of its repetitions, or perhaps even of the possible exhaustion of this literature and its devices. There is a strong case for arguing that a different postsocialist Russian literature has emerged from around 2005 onwards, among established writers such as Roman Senchin and Yuri Buyda, both absent in this volume. They both develop a different understanding and configuration of the past in a different form of writing, where the legacy of the Soviet past in reality and literature appears hybrid in a different way. The focus in these works is not on exorcising the Soviet past, but on realizing its inevitable, tragic, dark, but also sometimes touching forms of continuation under a different ideological system, without therefore expressing longing or a turn to nostalgia. What is more, there is no discussion of the difficulty of forming and discussing any representative Russian literature today, due to the variety and to the large number of writers with a single strong novel.

As mentioned, this volume focuses on the relationship to the Soviet past, and an interesting question that this volume poses is that of the possibility or impossibility of distinguishing the Russian present from the Soviet past. As the introduction states, this is the question that guides the second editor, Evgeny Dobrenko, in his article, and it is framed as follows: “The question of post-Soviet literature’s relationship to the Soviet cultural legacy is extremely important, since this is essentially the question of how far post-Soviet diverges from Soviet models of culture, history, progress, and so forth — does it transcend them, or does it remain prisoner of them?” (p. 14) In posing the question thus, Dobrenko examines Russian contemporary literature mainly in its relation to the past in the form of opposition. Indeed, Russian literature appears in this volume to be mostly at odds with its Soviet past and the remains of this past, whereas its relation to the problems of contemporary Russia, whether to blame Soviet Russia or not, are not equally prominent. Another example is when Lipovetsky argues that “the postmodernist novel”, that is, the mainstream works of Sorokin and Pelevin, was able to “give rise to new intellectual models that suggest alternative versions of social, historical and epistemological consciousness.” Yet what Lipovetsky shows is primarily how they are open for new forms of relating to a present understanding of the past, and not to what extent they allow us to see beyond the ideological content of the images of the present and the past in the capitalist order of post-Soviet Russia.
The anthology would have profited greatly from thematizing and problematizing its own rather contingent theoretical take on the old question of continuity or discontinuity in recent Russian history. As it stands now, the book appears largely to confirm the Yeltsin myth of a fundamental break with Soviet society and culture in the 1990s with firstly, the introduction of a free literature and mass media, a “complete lack of censorship”, and secondly the hope of a good relationship between intelligentsia and state power, despite the increasing economic deprivation of both the people and the intelligentsia, and a return to the Soviet era with Vladimir Putin. This historical scheme is conceptualized in the anthology as the transition from Culture One to Culture Two, according to Papernyi’s theories. It is indisputable that Putin’s accession to power came to mean a substantial change, but still the conceptualization of this change could be further debated. The problem is that although there of course was an almost unfathomable break that led to the fall of a communist system, there were also many ways for the past to live on during the time of Yeltsin’s presidency, not only in the minds of people, ideology, hierarchies, corruption, education, but also in the very structures of society and power. Indeed, the question of how we understand the 1990s also determines our understanding of the 2000s, and, if we dig even further, since we understand the 1990s almost exclusively in relation to the historical (Soviet) past, of course, how we understand the Soviet past determines our understanding of the 1990s.

The main claim of my review of this book is that what we need today is a critique of the critique of Soviet system, not because the critique of the Soviet system was wrong, but because this critique also makes claims about novelty and transformation that need critical scrutiny. For instance, in this volume, the introduction establishes that the changing conditions for literature during the post-Soviet transition period assigned to writers the double task of deconstructing the Soviet past and illustrating that there is a new Russian literature, a literature that does not end with “Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky”, as they write. The book does not, however, stop to reflect on the notion of intelligentsia, and to what extent it really survived the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in this volume, the new cultural institutions, cultural exchanges, and mainstream literature appear as saviors after the devastation of the Soviet cultural institutions and cultural practices, and it makes a strong case for pop literature. It argues somewhat awkwardly in the introduction that there was an “enormous popularity of Akunin’s novels among the intelligentsia and others”, whereas Akunin’s reception among the intelligentsia was varied, if you can speak of the intelligentsia at all after the Soviet Union. What is more, a highly important and influential institution that this volume fails to discuss in any depth is that of the literary prizes, perhaps because it only mentions in passing the question how political changes affect the economic conditions for writing and for being a public persona. It would be interesting to at least pose the question in a dispassionate way if literature, as we know it, does not really end with the Soviet Union, because perhaps nowhere can literature again acquire the role or anti-role that it had at the apex of Solzhenitsyn’s or Brodsky’s fame.

To conclude, the volume certainly contains valuable contributions to our understanding of contemporary post-Soviet literature, but the picture it gives could be more complete and complex. We may also look at Russian literature since 1991 not solely as a way of dealing with the past, but also as a form of coming to terms with the fact that the past was not simply a past and therefore not only offers itself as legacy, return or the object of nostalgia, but that it also is a present, albeit in a capitalist form, that is, a world that keeps working but with different ideological signs. In Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard, the young Tancredi says to Prince Salina that he ought to join the revolutionaries, because you must “change all in order to preserve all”. This phrase catches well the difficulty of thinking change in liberal times, when change can be a means of preserving power. It also invites us to an understanding of how the future that we embody lived in the past of the Soviet system, and how the past lives on in the future of Russian literature and society not only as ideology, but also as everyday life.≈

  • by Tora Lane

    Project researcher at Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) and the Department of PhD in Russian Literature, Associate Professor and a Senior Lecture at the Department for Slavic Studies at Stockholm University, and a project leader of Writing and Thinking at the Margins at CBEES, Södertörn University (funded by the Baltic and East European Studies Foundation).

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Russian Literature since 1991, Eds. Evgeny Dobrenko and Mark Lipovetsky, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 320 pages.