Notes From The Underground: The Rise and Fall of Russian Literature

In Moscow, a statue of the national poet Aleksandr Pushkin stands at the heart of the city, mere minutes’ walk from a monument to Feodor Dostoevsky. Metro stations carry writers’ names, and across Russia the homes of famous authors have been converted into museums.

In Russia the written word has power, and relations between writers and the state have often been antagonistic. Almost every significant Russian author of the last two centuries has battled censorship, oppression and—as often as not- his fellow scribes. Russian writers have thus earned an intimidating reputation as philosophers, martyrs and madmen, responsible for an epic literature that inspires global fascination. In the West, awe at the perpetual turbulence, strife and disaster of the country’s history has led to a belief that Russian literature must contain uniquely profound insights into the terrible depths of the human experience.  But how much of that is myth, and how much is truth?

In fact, by European standards Russian literature is young—it was not until the 19th century that the country acquired its “National Poet”, Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837).  Pushkin is a crucial figure for understanding Russian literature, even if he is little read in the West. Descended from an ancient aristocratic family but with the blood of an Abyssinian slave running through his veins, he flirted with political radicalism during his youth. Indeed, the only thing that prevented him from joining the doomed “Decembrist” uprising against Tsar Nicholas I was that he had been exiled to his mother’s estate for possible atheism. He struggled with debts, fretted about his reputation and died at age 37, in a duel fought over his wife’s honour.

Thus Pushkin seems to be the archetypal Russian author—anti-establishment; passionate to the point of tragedy; creating works of genius in the face of oppression. Perhaps however that is too simple an explanation. Pushkin’s patron was the Tsar himself, and Andrei Zorin, Professor of Russian at New College, Oxford argues that censorship was “very mild” in Russia until the Decembrist uprising, after which Pushkin lost interest in revolutionary politics:

“Pushkin was close to Radicalism in his early period and in exile. His Radicalism subsided later, but not his creativity – his most important works were all written after the end of his radical period.”

Meanwhile although much of his later work contained implicit criticisms of the system and was initially suppressed by hyper-sensitive censors, it was not “inspired” by censorship—Pushkin always wrote for publication and covered an astonishingly broad range of themes.

To truly understand Russian literature, we must also consider his dark twin, Nikolai Gogol. In a story by Gogol you might encounter a demon with a single giant eye so huge it needs assistants to help it blink; a nose might escape from the face of its owner and become a prominent member of society, or a ghost might run around Saint Petersburg stealing overcoats. 

Gogol was a strange character—celibate, stooped, frail and with a huge hooked nose, he was originally hailed by liberal critics as a ruthless satirist exposing the horrors of Tsarist tyranny; however his personal preoccupations soon overpowered his work and reputation. Possessed by a messianic, religious fervour he became a fervid supporter of the Tsar and started writing an epic trilogy which he hoped would “save” Russia. Ultimately he became convinced that literature itself was sinful, burned his manuscript, collapsed in a nervous fever and died. Legend has it that he may have been buried alive—Gogol suffered from narcolepsy.

Pushkin was aristocratic, classical, and “enlightened”; his verse is universally regarded as approaching perfection, and in his writing the world can be analysed rationally. Gogol represents the other side of the Russian tradition, spinning bizarre, grotesque narratives, as if the nation can only be grasped through distortion, absurdity, lunacy. The approaches of the two writers would have an immense influence on everything to follow.  

In the mid 19th century the novel became the major form of Russian literature. It was the perfect vehicle for discussing history, philosophy, and the battle of ideas that raged in the country. Opposition to the Tsar had grown more extreme; liberal humanists were replaced by anarchists, nihilists and terrorists who embraced murder as a political weapon.

Emerging against this background of increasing extremism was the man often cited as the greatest novelist of all time- the Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). Like Pushkin, Tolstoy was an aristocrat, but he was also a man of action who had spent his youth fighting in Russia’s then-as-now volatile Caucasus region. His experience of combat informed the book regarded as his masterpiece, War and Peace, which he wrote between 1862 and 1869.

Ostensibly about the Napoleonic wars, Tolstoy’s ambitions for the book were massive. He admitted himself that it was not really a novel, nor history but rather a hybrid encompassing philosophical discussions, historical analysis, psychology and much else besides. Tolstoy, says Professor Zorin,:

“…strongly believed in the strong moral and political role of literature and the writer…Both novels were meant as a direct input in the ideological battles of the age and the contemporaries could easily recognise the message.”

But as much as Tolstoy could write about the vast sweep of history, so too he could write about the intimate inner life of a lonely woman: indeed he viewed Anna Karenina, a tragic story about doomed love (which also contains long discussions on serfdom and profound meditations on death, naturally) as his greatest work. Moving from epic battles to private emotional turmoil, Tolstoy displayed the breadth of scope and piercing psychological insight for which Russian authors are held in awe.

Tolstoy was feted as genius in his own lifetime, but he was ambivalent about literature. He disliked other writers, hated the writing life and periodically abandoned it as not “useful” for dealing with Russia’s problems. He then lost his faith in conventional Christianity and became a moral “prophet” propounding his own version of Jesus’ teachings. When he returned to writing he was excommunicated by the church, and found his work banned. Unlike Pushkin however his experience of censorship did not coincide with the production of great work. His later books are didactic and little read; oppression and struggle does not necessarily lead to interesting prose.

Tolstoy’s great rival Feodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), led an extraordinarily dramatic life even by Russian standards. His father was murdered while he was a student, he was arrested for revolutionary activities and sentenced to death, only to be dispatched to Siberia for ten years; he had mystical religious experiences, suffered from epilepsy and was a compulsive gambler who usually lived on the verge of ruin.

Thus, like Tolstoy the soldier-prophet, Dostoevsky’s life experience was rich and extreme. But in his case conflict and struggle did produce great work, for he went into exile as a minor writer and emerged a great one. Dostoevsky had gained an almost supernatural degree of insight into the depths of the human soul, and in his novella Notes from Underground he offered a portrait of human nature as dark, irrational, self-destructive and perverse—in striking contrast to his optimistic, rationalist peers who dreamt of building a new world on the ashes of Tsarism. Dostoevsky wrote for money, and so filled his books with melodrama, violence and murder, but in Crime and Punishment he took that base matter and explored profound spiritual questions regarding sin and redemption. Meanwhile he threw himself into the ideological battles of the age. In The Devils, he launched an attack on Russia’s radicals that was so vicious it was banned in the USSR for much of the 20th century.

If Tolstoy was classical and rational a la Pushkin, then Dostoevsky had plunged headfirst into the grotesque and abominable, uncovering the fantastical, irrational nature of reality, resulting in a vision much darker than Gogol’s. The two author’s lives and work also exemplify the violent extremes of experience with which Russian authors are perhaps uniquely familiar. Had life been more stable in Russia, then no doubt a nation so vast and populous would still have produced great authors, but they would have written about quieter things—like Jane Austen in England, or Gustave Flaubert in France. Russians have been “lucky” to have fantastic source material to work from; their Western European peers really had nothing comparable. And so War and Peace is still cited as the greatest novel of all time, while Dostoevsky’s probing of the lower depths had a huge impact not only on the 20th century novel, but also on psychology and our very understanding of the self. And, most importantly—neither author ever forgot to include a good plot!

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky defined the expectations of millions as to what a Russian author should be—serious, philosophical and bearded. And yet at the start of the 20thcentury, many Russian writers were disengaged from the ideological battles of the day. Tolstoy himself complained that nothing happened in Anton Chekhov’s “boring” plays, while many poets embraced Symbolism, Decadence and Spiritualism, even if it was the politically radical Russian avant-garde that made the biggest impact internationally.

The October Revolution of 1917 had a catastrophic effect on all forms of Russian art, and quickly turned violent, oppressive and totalitarian. The poet Nikolai Gumilev was executed in 1921 and, taking the hint, many authors fled abroad, among them Vladimir Nabokov and Yevgeny Zamyatin author of the science fiction dystopia We (a major influence on both Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World). Inside Russia the prominent poets Sergei Yesenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide. A new kind of censorship was emerging, much worse than anything that had preceded it—for if the Tsars had told their poets what not to write, the communist new regime now dictated explicitly what they had to write.

In 1932 all independent literary organizationswere abolished and replaced with the Union of Soviet Writers. According to Joseph Stalin, authors were “engineers of human souls” and their books had to reflect and promote “socialist reality” which was, needless to say, absolutely wonderful. Anyone who dissented from the doctrine of Socialist Realism either stopped publishing, or went to the Gulag. Natasha Perova, editor of Glas, the journal of contemporary Russian literature in English translation points out:

“Censorship and dissent split the writing profession under the Soviets, and influenced author’s writing one way or another—you were either pro- or anti-Soviet. If you practiced “art for art’s sake” you were anti-Soviet anyway.”

So too Socialist Realism led to a perception in the West that the only good writers in the country were dissidents, working underground, circulating critiques of the system in samizdat, or smuggling it out of the country for publication abroad. The most celebrated dissident author was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) who spent eight years in prison camps and a further three years in exile for criticizing Stalin in a letter sent from the front during World War II.

Like Dostoevsky before him, Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in prison opened his eyes to a world of extremes, and his short novel about that experience One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a literary sensation at home and abroad. However the Soviet authorities blocked publication of his subsequent works and when The Gulag Archipelago, his three volume expose of Stalin’s crimes appeared in the West in 1973, he was declared persona non grata in the country and exiled; meanwhile as Solzhenitsyn sold millions of copies of his books, so Western publishers started to churn out other forbidden works by a seemingly endless series of oppressed literary genii.   

Nowadays most of those other dissidents are forgotten, suggesting that the interest in them was primarily political and not literary. Even Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has waxed and waned. In the West he was accused of anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism, and the Red Wheel cycle—which he considered his major work—languishes half-published. In Russia he remains extremely controversial, even though The Gulag Archipelago is today a set text in schools. According to Lev Danilkin, one of Russia’s leading literary critics:

“He will never be forgiven for his “Gulag Archipelago”—not because it is not true, maybe it is true, but it was written for foreign export, and this book helped destroy the Soviet Union—which did Russia more harm than good (or so many people believe).”

Perhaps some of the despised works of Socialist Realism were not so bad after all. Danilkin argues that certain authors had the artistry to produce great literature even while serving an oppressive police state: “Leonid. Leonov, who wrote Russian Forest, Nikolai Ostrovsky, and Alexander Fadeev, are all very great writers.” Increasingly meanwhile it is Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) who is viewed inside Russiaas the greatest prose writer of the 20th century. His haunting novels The Foundation Pit, Soul and Chevengur feature tragic souls struggling to build the socialist paradise, suffering terribly for their ideals. Uniquely, Platonov was neither dissident nor propagandist but rather a believing communist with the unfortunate habit of telling the truth—which was of course a dangerous thing to do under Stalin’s rule. Robert Chandler, Platonov’s translator explains:

“It’s hard to know just what Platonov thought he was writing, but he was certainly, almost without exception, writing with the aim of publication…  There were many occasions when he got contracts for work that, in the end remained unpublished, but there are only two or three occasions when he clearly wrote something “for the drawer”—as Russians say… I think he was, above all, a philosophical writer. He returns again and again to the same huge and impossible questions, but he does this in a unique way. ”

In the mid 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed censorship in the USSR.  Previously banned books such as The Gulag Archipelago circulated in the millions, while works by other dissidents, foreign literature and trash genres flooded Russia. Stalin-era Absurdism emerged from desk drawers where it had been hidden for half a century; it was a confusing time. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 censorship broke down completely and—in spite of Western media reports to the contrary—it has never returned. Certainly, the Kremlin keeps a close eye on the mass media, but Russia’s modern rulers don’t seem worried about books. Says Natasha Perova:

“The authorities have finally realized how harmless intellectuals really are and have left them alone. Now they can talk whatever they like, let off steam, and the authorities could not care less about their dissent so long as it is published in small print-runs. Writers yearned for freedom but when they were granted freedom they found that nobody cared much about their brave ideas.”

Once again Russian authors were at the centre of the historical hurricane, but the results this time were chaos. During the 1990s Russian authors revelled in themes that had previously been forbidden: grotesque, absurd, nihilistic, the long-suppressed Gogolian tradition returned in extreme form. The most famous exponent of this trend was Vladimir Sorokin, whose scandalous, pornographic works, according to Perova “…are Bosch-like visions of the world, or rather x-ray pictures which show the ugly truth (but not the whole truth).”

Sorokin got so accustomed to shocking the bourgeoisie and being rewarded for it that he was extremely surprised when protestors threw copies of his novel Blue Lard inside a giant toilet erected outside the Bolshoi Theatre in 2002. Ultimately however his sales benefited, he won more awards and the publicity helped sell his books to foreign publishers. Around the same time Edward Limonov, another scandalous writer and opposition figure was imprisoned for two years. This was not for his books however but rather his political activities: he was accused of trying to buy weapons to invade Kazakhstan! Limonov claimed the charges were false and intended to silence him. Even so, the authorities permitted him to write while in prison, and his Book of Water won the prestigious Andrei Bely prize in 2002. Nowadays in Russia, as in the West, dissent and scandal are good marketing techniques, helpful for boosting sales.

So after the end of two centuries of censorship and oppression, where does Russian literature stand now? Where is it going? It’s difficult to say. The fashion for fantastical, grotesque narratives has passed, and while major authors of the 1990s such as Viktor Pelevin and Boris Akunin remain popular with audiences and critics, according to Natasha Perova, all styles exist simultaneously in Russia today, with no single trend dominating. Lev Danilkin however sees a return to an almost classical realism:

“Literature as a whole has moved away from postmodernism, the concept of all-out game, from experiments with language, the techniques of narrative—and returned to ‘life as it is lived.'”

Meanwhile a new generation is coming of age, and for them the USSR is as much history as the era of the Tsars. None of these authors has yet broken through internationally, although some of the finest- such as Olga Slavnikova and Roman Senchin have had works translated into English. Russian critics are unanimous in their view that the new era has not produced a genius to compare with the authors of the illustrious past either. There is no bearded giant towering over the field, rather there are lots of writers who are very good, if none who are truly “great”.

One thing is for sure however: as Natasha Perova convincingly argues, there is no need to mourn the end of censorship and oppression: 

“Many people believe that art is stimulated by oppression. I don’t think so. A little hunger may stimulate an artist but a prolonged hunger will simply kill him. Thousands of talented writers perished in the Gulags, the best of Russian thinkers were exterminated with too much oppression, reducing Russia’s cultural level dramatically. Oppression has always existed everywhere and will always be part of our lives. In sensible quantities it may indeed be stimulating; some artists probably need to be disciplined occasionally—but if you live in a prison you’ll simply dry up or go mad.”

Originally published in Open Skies magazine, May 2012

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