Is Russian Literature Dead?

Speaking at an event in January to launch the “Year of Literature,” a series of public events and projects extolling the virtues of Russian letters, President 
Vladimir Putin laid out his mission to raise the “prestige and influence in the world” of his country’s writers. Generations of American readers weaned on Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak may see cause for hope in such a revival: They want to return to that magical land they first discovered in books — one of passion and tragedy where vast forces tumble characters like ice cubes in the 11-time-zone-wide cocktail shaker that is Russia. Yet though nostalgic for Natasha Rostova and Yuri Zhivago, those readers might struggle to name a single contemporary Russian writer.

The last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation was Doctor Zhivago, which was published the year before Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. The most recent nonfiction book of comparable fame was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in the West in 1973. Since then, no Russian writer has enjoyed true breakout American celebrity.

Noble efforts to translate and promote Russia’s contemporary literature persist, but today in the United States, only about 4.6 percent of books translated into English were written in Russian, placing the language far behind French, Spanish, and German. “Great books are being written in Russia today,” Dmitry Bykov, Russia’s leading contemporary critic and a biographer of Pasternak, said in a radio interview. “But not nearly enough get translated.”

Putin biographer and journalist Masha Gessen disagrees, saying the reason for limited international interest is that modern Russian writers aren’t producing world-class books. Russian literature “is not as popular because there is very little to read,” says Gessen. Russia’s “general cultural rot has affected literature to an even greater extent than other cultural production.” Chad Post of the Three Percent translation project at the University of Rochester provides a more benign explanation: “poor distribution networks” in the United States. But Natasha Perova, whose famous Moscow publishing house, Glas, announced it was suspending work in late 2014, says the American market is more to blame. These days, people buying from Perova’s U.S. distributors “seem to have an allergy to everything Russian,” she says. In the early 1990s, “everything Russian was welcome because the world had great hopes for Russia. We thought Russia would be 
reintegrating into the European context. But it gradually went back to its former practices, and people turned away from us.”

A glib case can be made that characters in Russian novels are incomprehensible to a new generation of Western readers — like the chemotherapy patients in Solzhenitsyn’s 1967 Cancer Ward, changed forever by the poison they have ingested, Russians’ lives have become too grim to elicit immediate empathy. The #FirstWorldProblems suffered by the suburban protagonists of writers like Jonathan Franzen, the argument goes, are nothing like the avalanches of despair that their Russian contemporaries face. To be sure, being set in a violent, feudal, and unfamiliar world is not necessarily an impediment to a book’s U.S. sales; just look at Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell cycle. In that case, however, the reader’s guide is Cromwell, constructed by Mantel as an outsider — a man of almost modern sensibility projected into a late medieval world.

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