One cultural consequence of the international crisis in Ukraine and the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations is that Americans are more interested in engaging with Russian culture than they have been in the last decade.
At least that’s the prognosis in the world of academia, where funding proposals and demand for Slavic specialists has begun to increase since the start of the Russia-Crimea debacle. “Russian departments around the country have been closing down till now,” says Anna Katsnelson, adjunct professor in Russian literature at CUNY.
“If you want to find out what makes Russia tick, you could do worse than reading Sorokin or Pelevin, or whoever,” says Peter Kauffman, director of Read Russia, which promotes Russian culture in the west. He agrees there is a renewed interest in Russia because, “It’s all over the news again.”
Kauffman is also the producer of the film “Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin,” which screened this month at New York’s Russian Documentary Film Festival. The film is aimed at introducing a Western audience to contemporary Russian literature under the increasingly oppressive Putin regime.
The documentary focuses on six writers, including Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Sorokin’s stories are fantastical and postmodernist, whereas Ulitskaya is firmly grounded in realism and traditional narrative structure. But they are united by their political stance against Putin’s rule, whether on a fictional or a practical level.
Opposition is much more explicit in Sorokin’s work; indeed, he is considered Russia’s most politically critical contemporary writer. His satirical novel Blue Salo caused controversy when it was released in 1999, among other things thanks to a homosexual love scene joining clones of Stalin and Khrushchev. A pro-Putin youth movement called Walking Together staged a public protest, denouncing the book as pornography and burning copies of it in front of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. A criminal investigation was opened against Sorokin on pornography charges, but it was quickly abandoned.
In the documentary “Russia’s Open Book,” Sorokin talks about a more recent novel, “Day of the Oprichnik,” set in a dystopian future where a czar rules in the Kremlin and a Great Russian Wall separates the country from the rest of the world. Sorokin says Russia’s current political situation gives him much fictional food as a writer; in Day of the Oprichnik, he draws explicit parallels between Putin and the tyrant Ivan the Terrible.
Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s fiction does not engage with politics as explicitly as Sorokin’s. She writes of family dramas and personal relationships, but has the status of a public intellectual in the opposition movement.
It’s not a role she relishes. “I would much rather not participate in demonstrations, if there wasn’t a need to,” she says in the film. But writers in Russia have a long history of being perceived and acting as public figures, often embraced by political movements, in a way that writers in the West aren’t accustomed to.
“In Russia a poet is more than a poet,” the poet Yegveniy Yevtushenko once said. Yevtushenko, popular during a period of relative freedom in the 1960s, used to fill whole stadiums for spoken word concerts.
In a recent New Yorker article, Masha Gessen, a fierce critic of the Putin regime, calls Ulitskaya “a voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians.” But Kauffman disagrees that Ulitskays is an anti-Putin symbol. “It’s more nuanced than writers are anti-regime and the regime is anti-writers,” he says. “There’s a whole gray area zone.”
While Putin may be giving literature some meaty subject matter, that doesn’t mean Russians have a new hunger to read their work, says Gessen. “If anything, there is a turn away from culture in Russia; new writing and the publishing of new writing has been dwindling steadily for years,” she writes in an email response.
Ulitskaya herself seems to agree. “The cultural field is diminishing but this process can be observed in Europe too,” said Ulitskaya in an interview last year. “A writer, however, has only one task that merits respect: to look at the world that surrounds them and reflect it as best they can. And so I am looking.”