Does Putin’s New Literary Assembly Bode ill for Russian Writers?

Pushkin: Not a BelgianPushkin: Not a Belgian

Russia has a long history of revering writers; it also has a long history of censoring, exiling, corrupting and, on occasion, killing writers. The Tsarist and Soviet authorities recognised that the written word was powerful and thus dangerous – a view widely held in the country until the 1990s, when authors suddenly discovered they could write whatever they liked and nobody much cared, the state included.

The era of official disinterest may be coming to a close, however. Last month, Vladimir Putin took time out from his busy schedule wrestling tigers and posing for beefcake snaps to speak at the opening session of Russia’s new Literary Assembly. According to news reports, the Kremlin intends it as a replacement for the Union of Russian Writers, itself the replacement for the Union of Soviet Writers, which was established under Stalin in the 1930s, to catastrophic cultural effect. Allegedly, more than 1,000 Russian writers, critics and publishers will participate, with the first official congress slated for the upcoming spring. At the grand opening, Putin – whose own literary tastes include Hemingway and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam – announced plans to make 2015 the “Year of Literature” in Russia, and of getting young people to read more.

That all sounds very noble, but Putin was speaking to a room severely lacking in literary talent, as practically no respected Russian authors accepted his invitation to attend the event. Boris Akunin, the pen-name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, whose literary detective stories have sold millions of copies, was fairly scathing on his blog, writing: 

As long as there are political prisoners, I cannot get near the leader or even be in the same room with him. That would mean that I considered it acceptable to listen to speeches about the finer things in life from a man who is keeping people in prison for their political convictions. I would enjoy talking to Putin about literature after all the political prisoners are released. Until then, it is not possible.

Akunin’s attitude seems to be shared by anybody of note in the world of Russian letters. That’s not to say that Putin’s literary shindig lacked for marquee names, however. In a bizarre act of cultural necromancy, Putin invited along the shades of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Lermontov, as represented by their descendants —none of whom is a writer. Vladimir Tolstoy makes sense, as he is a cultural adviser to Putin and heavily involved in promoting his great-great-grandfather Leo’s legacy. Alexander Pushkin, however, is a random Belgian distantly related to the legendary poet, while ex-tram driver Dmitri Dostoevsky is certainly an amusing interviewee but doesn’t have much worthwhile to say about literature. The perennially cheeky Putin even tried to get the ghost of the great dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on board by inviting the author’s widow along, but apparently she asked a question about the use of slave labour in Russia’s prison camps, striking a less affirmatory note than he might have liked.

As for the non-dead authors in attendance, prominent Russian literary agent Julia Goumen told me that “hundreds” showed up, but they were

… the relics of Soviet times dreaming of restoring the Union of Writers and the privileges and advances they enjoyed thanks to it … It looks as though the bulk of those who attended have no relevance in the literary market whatsoever. And it is they who most strive for being fed by the state … This was at once a shameful and pathetic scene of the buffoons of dead classic names and the mob of generally unknown literary fungus, to put it sharply.

It would be nice to believe that Putin really is motivated by a passion for his homeland’s magnificent literary tradition, for it is a tradition in trouble: 2012 was the worst year for Russian publishing in a decade, and the book market is in decline by about 7% year on year.

Alas, Putin’s track record as an activist in cultural/social matters is not good. His sudden concern with public morals, most notoriously expressed through the law banning “homosexual propaganda”, has been well covered in the media, while Russian courts have a ludicrously free hand when it comes to banning books. This month Putin abolished the country’s most respected news agency, putting a bigoted, Ministry of Truth type in charge. The response of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov to Akunin’s comments was also ominous: he accused the writer of “social nihilism”—i.e., a thought crime against the state’s current ideological mishmash of “traditional values”, orthodoxy and patriotism as defined by the Kremlin.

Speaking at the plenary session, Putin himself adopted a reassuring tone: “We will never return to that terrible time in the past when Pasternak was exiled,” he said. In fact, Pasternak was never exiled; rather, he was one of a handful of writers who managed to produce excellent work while living inside the Soviet system.

Whether or not the birth of Putin’s Literary Assembly marks the dawn of a new era of state censorship remains to be seen. Goumen, however, makes a crucial point by highlighting the appeal of such a body to the untalented. For if this postmodern zombie version of the Union of Soviet Writers resembles its predecessor in any way, then collaborating writers will at the very least enjoy decent salaries, nice state-funded trips and relaxing holidays at sanatoria in Russia’s warm southern regions. All they will have to do is obey.

For the more ambitious, the opportunities for self-betterment could be far greater. After all, in addition to revering authors, Russia has another venerable tradition—cosmic levels of graft perpetrated by state functionaries. Reportedly the Literary Assembly will be funded by taking 7-10% of Russian book sales; given that the market is worth around $2bn (£1.2bn), that’s a lot of cash to tap into, not to mention a great deal of largesse to be spread around, a lot of foreign holidays to be enjoyed and many, many luxury villas to be built by those ambitious literary mediocrities willing to make the Kremlin happy.

From The Guardian, Friday, Dec 20, 2013

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