Over the past 20 years, Russian contemporary writers have been trying to find their place in a new reality. The task is Herculean because modern writers are expected on the one hand to follow a great literary tradition, but at the same time to interpret modern society.
This struggle reveals itself through seven themes.
Prison and war
There are two extreme situations that frequently recur in Russian literature: prison and war. Generally, any author who writes about prison has their work compared to the standard bearers, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.
Andrei Rubanov is a popular contemporary author whose topical novels explore self-transformation in prison, which sets his work apart from the tales of survivors of the Gulag system.
Do Time Get Time was a self-published work written while he was in one of Russia’s most notorious jails, a sudden turn of events for the erstwhile wealthy businessman with a crackerjack lawyer. Eight weeks after it was published, the novel was short-listed for the National Bestseller Prize.
Acclaimed author and former Omon special unit policeman Zakhar Prilepin’s book Limonka in Prison is a collection of essays written by members of the banned National Bolshevik Party (Eduard Limonov’s radical nationalist party) who served their time.
Today’s war prose is greatly influenced by Soviet front literature, except that combat veterans now often write and publish their texts on the internet. They rarely become widely known, but Prilepin, who established a reputation as a literary revolutionary after Pathologies, about the Chechen wars, came out in 2005, is a rare exception.
There are also war writers who have little or no personal experience in conflict zones.
Vladimir Makanin, who wrote about Chechnya in his novel Asan, was accused of mythologising Chechnya by authors and veterans of the conflict alike. Nonetheless, the writer was awarded the prestigious Bolshaya Kniga (Big Book) prize in 2009.
Death of an empire
The collapse of the Soviet Union has become a core subject for writers. Obsession with the end of the empire is not a new phenomenon for Russian writers.
Nostalgia for the past can be found in Alexander Prokhanov’s Mr Hexogen, Prilepin’s amusing collection of short stories Boots Full of Hot Vodka, Mikhail Elizarov’s humorous and thrilling Librarian and Leonid Yusefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs, (winner of the Bolshaya Kniga award).
The golden age
Sharp political and cultural change is a recurrent national trait in Russia. Often, the time before the change is idealised once it has gone.
Boris Akunin’s popular detective stories have the following dedication: “In the memory of the 19th century, when literature was great, belief in progress was infinite and crimes were committed and detected with grace and style.”
The satirist, poet and novelist Dmitry Bykov considers the Twenties and Thirties, with their strange and hectic intellectual life, to be the golden age, at least until the Terror brought much of that life deeply underground.