Conference papers What is post-Soviet literature today?    

For large groups in the East, the fall of the Soviet Union was like a floodgate opening through which history flowed in. The period following 1991 has been described as transitional, and the literature as post-Soviet. In the panel discussion “Fast forward – Rewind” at the Stockholm Literature Fair at Kulturhuset in December 4, 2021, questions such as how this transition can be understood in retrospect, and how we are to talk about Russian literature of today, were addressed.

Published on on December 14, 2021

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For large groups in the East, the fall of the Soviet Union was like a floodgate opening through which history flowed in. The period following 1991 has been described as transitional, and the literature as post-Soviet. In the panel discussion “Fast forward – Rewind” at the Stockholm Literature Fair at Kulturhuset in December 4, 2021, questions such as how this transition can be understood in retrospect, and how we are to talk about Russian literature of today, were addressed.

According to sociologist Ruth Levitas the cold war, the spread of capitalism and, the fall of the Soviet Union closely interlinked utopia with dystopia. Still, human beings inevitably relate to utopias and establishes a relation to them. Philosopher Ernst Bloch even claims it to be a part of human ontology and emphasises art’s potential to visualise and evoke the not-yet-here. After the fall of the Soviet Union expectations on radical social transformation, that lies close to the notion of utopia, was high. The panel discussion – a co-arrangement by the Swedish cultural magazine Aiolos and the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) at Södertörn University – revolved around the outcome of these expectations.

The panel consisted of experts in Russian literature and Cultural Studies: Professor Emeritus Lars Kleberg, Professor Irina Sandomirskaja and Lecturer Mattias Ågren. In her introduction moderator Tora Lane, Associate Professor and research leader at CBEES, framed post-Soviet literature as characterised by the relationship with the Soviet Union or Soviet culture and the change this relationship has undergone during the thirty years that have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union. After the fall there was an urge to move fast forward in time. This, said Lane, just like a need to deal with the past, it’s myths and lies characterised the literature during the 90s and beyond.

Lars Kleberg. Photo: Eva Lindblad, NoK.

Lars Kleberg. Photo: Eva Lindblad, NoK.

As a run-up Kleberg presented three interlinked examples of what the post-Soviet is today: First Sergei Lebedev’s debut novel Oblivion (Предел забвения, 2010) about an unnamed boy and an old, blind man who becomes his “Grandfather II”. Something about the old man rubs and as the boy grows up, he starts searching for the truth and travels far north. Just as he has suspected it turns out that the old man is a former camp manager and his blindness can be interpreted as symptomatic of an entire society that closes its eyes to its own history. Oblivion is a descent of Dantean proportions into the deserted Gulags and mass graves. There are many depictions of the Gulag system and Stalin’s terror but, according to Kleberg, Lebedev was perhaps one of the first to write about how the memory of the horrors of the past pursues the survivors.

Warped Mourning. Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (2013), Kleberg’s second example, is a study within the field of cultural memory studies written by historian Alexander Etkind. Etkind’s point of departure is that in today’s Russia there has never been a settlement with the past comparable to Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Perpetrators have not been banned, perpetrators have not been convicted and the victims and their families have not been compensated. This way of not dealing with the painful past makes it, according to Etkind, highly present and contentious and, also a significant factor in the political ubiquitous.

Kleberg’s last example was International Memorial (Memorial), the historical and humanitarian organisation founded in 1992. Kleberg described Memorial’s studies of political repressions in the USSR and in present-day Russia, and its promotion of moral and legal rehabilitation of persons subjected to political repressions as a beam of light in the struggle to shed light on a past that is cast in all today’s Russian public institutions. “It is impossible to talk about post-Soviet literature without talking about the civil society and the memory of the post-Soviet reality. The memory, as well as the repression, of the dead bolts on the door of almost every Russian home – it is against this background that one must read Post-Soviet literature”, finished Kleberg.

Lane: Why, then, is the past still – 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union – so difficult in Russia. How is the fact that the Soviet Union in many ways lives on to be understood?

Mattias Ågren

Mattias Ågren

Ågren: This is the basic question of the panel. Soviet history has not been settled. Although communism no longer exists, the Soviet system in several aspects remains. I choose to see the wave of dystopias written and published after the millennium as a warning of how parts of the Russian system, which is similar to the Soviet system, is getting stronger.

Sandomirskaja: The Russian history is a circular story with a never-ending exploding empire. 1991 everyone expected the same as after the revolution, or at least that a thaw would follow, a growth in the cracks of the Stalinist discourse. But nothing like that happened. I think literature deliberately took a step away from the revolution. Instead, it started to rewind and process the Russian history. When large archives of previously banned texts opened up it resulted in a literature trying to tell its experiences in other languages to people who cannot believe it. Literature got sensational, but we do not have time for this fetishization and aesthetisation of the socially realistic patterns. They are sexy today because they have an aura of something old. They are goods, commodification of Stalinism in many respects.

Ågren: I agree. 1991 did not lead to the same creative wave. Authors were busy problematising what had ended. At the same time, there is a tug-of-war about the historical narrative in literature and politics and there is no consensus on what happened. When we talk about the term post-Soviet – is it viable in literature and other fields? The answer is both yes and no. Last year there was a lot of outrage in political circles when municipal authorities in Prague decided to remove a monument of Ivan Konev, Marshal of the Soviet Union. Monuments arouse much debate and it says something about how much remains to be done to process Soviet history.

Irina Sandomirskaja

Irina Sandomirskaja

Sandomirskaja: Do you think literature helps doing this?

Ågren: I think literature has a part to play. Oblivion by Lebedev is a piece in this puzzle. Literature can open our eyes and in the post-Soviet literature we often find particular stories that have not emerged before.

Sandomirskaja: But do you think this literature revolutionises the form?

Ågren: No.

Kleberg: Speaking about form I would like to mention the poet Lev Rubinstein. He is a true wordsmith. He works and processes the Soviet form. What is left of the Soviet is a language, a form, different rituals – nothing ideological. Rubinstein’s work is a way of trying to dismantle and practice the dismantling of the Soviet language with irony and play. Even with him the current reality and the past flow into the texts. I am thinking of this long poem ‘Farther and Farther On’ which is a kind of strange searching in language, a searching in a ruined landscape that goes on and on. Like Lebedev’s book it is also a kind of Dante. ‘Farther and Farther On’ was written in 1984, before the fall of Soviet Union…

Sandomirskaja: … as a part of the counterculture, now there is no counterculture anymore…

Kleberg: … despite that, Rubinstein always manages to push off the straitjacket of the ruling discourses.

Lane: Is something different happening in the medium of film?

Sandomirskaja: It is not a question of medium but of artists who want to, can, and know how to do. Sergey Loznitsa, for example, processes propaganda material in his own films in a very interesting way. In contrast to documentalists and photographers who use romantic ruins such as photogenic post-war brutalist objects to evoke great emotions, Loznitsa takes propaganda from Stalin’s time and goes to the archives and picks out things that were never allowed to be included due to censorship, or did not fit in aesthetically or ideologically. (The archives are so faithful, even things that was disliked by the regime are preserved.) When you see these films, you understand that the regime does not like the revolution and that there is something strange about our expectation of an explosion where everything changes and then time begins again. His works makes us think of this prefix: re. Re-peat, re-act, re-wind etcetera. Philosopher Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback claims that re is the most important prefix in modernity, because modernity must constantly look behind itself to make sure that what is said and done is not something old, which has already been made. So, I claim that it is not good that we expect an explosion. Instead we should look at the small nuances that arise with each cycle of repetition, in all these cycles of repetition there is something else going on, a dislocation.

Lane: What I think you are describing is that we have a dilemma in relation to time. A settlement and at the same time a fixation of the Post-Soviet. How can we understand this need for change today? Can we still name the structures we see as Soviet or are they Russian?

Sandomirskaja: If there is an avant-garde somewhere, it is post-Soviet contra revolutionary. The machine of power is repeated quickly, firmly and without ethical and political reservations. We cannot keep up with that pace. We want to read long books. We want to think of words. It goes fast forward, and we want to slow down, but we don’t know how.

Ågren: We have spoken about both the time after 1917 and 1991. 1917 was a reaction, not just to Russian conditions but to tsarism. After 1991 a varnish took over. It never got any substance and what remains is a departure from the Soviet experience. Since it was not replaced with anything else that became basic, several things exist at the same time, the view of history and development for example. Therefore, we see no trends in literature, film, or art.

Sandomirskaja: That is freedom, it’s called freedom.

Kleberg: In relation to freedom I want to say something about Loznitsa’s documentary The Event (2015) – in Russian the title Sobytie means ‘being-with’. It’ s about the coup (Putsch) in August 19th, 1991. An attempt by hard core communists to regain the totalitarian system which instead ended it. The film is about people that come and go, in streets and squares. They are grotesque, beautiful, and fantastic with expectations that something will happen. It was made recently, and it shows that the moment of freedom is not forgotten.


The panel recommends the following post-Soviet literature and film:

Aiolos 72-73 (2021) on post-Soviet literature (forth-coming issue)

Sergei Lebedev Oblivion (Предел забвения, 2010)

Vladimir Sorokin Telluria (Теллурия, 2013)

Alexander Etkind Warped Mourning. Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (2013)

Lev Rubinstein Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (2014)

Sergey Loznitsa The Event (Событие, 2015)








  • by Maria Mårsell

    Maria Mårsell is a PhD Student in comparative literature at Södertörn University. Her PhD project, with the working title Peace and Future. The Potential of Utopia in the writings of Frida Stéenhoff, Elin Wägner and Hagar Olsson, explores the utopian potential in peace as a literary theme.

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