Russia was once known for its brooding and principled writers: In the 19th century, there were Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov; more recently, there were samizdat writers whose work was linked to their resistance to the Soviet state, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn—whose The Gulag Archipelago exposed the horrors of Stalin’s camps to the Western public—and the poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian writers were suddenly left to fend for themselves in a harsh free market and with no state to write against. Even Solzhenitsyn was not exempt from the hardship this imposed: Although he returned to Russia in the early ‘90s, he has been largely ignored by a public that has little time for his high-minded novels. Other well-known dissident writers also lost their audience in the confusion and turmoil of the post-Soviet era.
This fall was the year of Russia at the famous Frankfurt Book Fair. With more than a decade having passed since the Soviet collapse, it was expected that Frankfurt would help herald the rise of a new, and mature, Russian literature. Those visitors hoping Frankfurt’s organizers would trot out modern-day Tolstoys crafting the great Russian novel in the isolation of a remote Siberian village were disappointed. The most interesting names on the list of writers at Frankfurt—Aleksandra Marinina, Boris Akunin, and Victor Dotsenko—had one thing in common: They all wrote thrillers. The official essay on Russian literature on the fair’s Web site devoted its longest paragraph to “Contemporaneity as a Crime” or “Crime Literature.”
To the dismay of traditionalists, pulp writers have become the dominant influence in contemporary Russian literature. Most prominent among them is a formerlieutenant-colonel with the police, Aleksandra Marinina, who has written 17 novels featuring a female detective, Anastasia Kamenskaya, who single-handedly takes on the Russian mafia. Vulnerable, harassed, and underpaid, Kamenskaya often dabbles in hypnotism and other esoteric rituals to survive the cruel world of post-Soviet Russia. Victor Dotsenko, who spent 10 years in a Soviet prison after being convicted for rape, is almost as popular as Marinina. The Rambo-like hero of his bestselling novels is a Russian veteran of the Afghan war who does violent battle against the Russian mafia. Both writers use a rough prose style peppered with criminal jargon and allusions to the violent, oligarchic, and hyper-sexed world of ‘90s Russia. They seem to have hit upon a winning formula: Dotsenko has sold almost 20 million copies, and Marinina is not far behind.
Victor Pelevin is one of the few literary novelists to have gained a measure of success in the last decade. His absurdist and drug-fuelled take on ‘90s Russia proved enormously popular, especially his hallucinatory novel Buddha’s Little Finger, whose protagonist time-travels between the ‘20s and the ‘90s: He is both a celebrated general during the Civil Wars and an inmate at a post-Soviet mental institution. Pelevin was hailed as the great hope of Russian literature, but even he is closer to the pulp writers than he is to Chekhov. His influences are Quentin Tarantino, Bret Easton Ellis, and slick advertising jargon, and the world he portrays is violent and nihilistic. Boris Akunin, a former literary critic, recently eclipsed Pelevin in both stature and sales with his finely crafted John le Carré-esque detective novels set in czarist Russia. His characters have a richer inner life and their motivations are more complex, but his books still owe an allegiance to the much-maligned pulp genre. The public wouldn’t have embraced him as it did if it weren’t for the earlier success of cruder and bloodier storytellers.
The pulp writers have thus succeeded in framing the debate about literature itself and creating a standard by which other writers are judged. While literary critics shake their heads at this phenomenon, the reasons are easy to understand. These writers are popular because they depict the reality of a country that morphed into a violent mobster state in the years following the Soviet collapse. Contract killings were rife, prostitution was ubiquitous, former state enterprises were taken over by the mob, and conspicuous consumption was the defining character trait of the new Russians. Frankfurt’s thesis is similar. The fair’s organizers argue that the ‘90s in Russia were so disorienting and frightening that average citizens didn’t want to deal with fantasy at all. Reality was crazy enough, and so they craved books that spoke to their fears and their newfound desires and that made sense of the confusing world around them.
There is another reason for the cultural clout of crime novelists. Size matters in Russia, and thus even literary writers are accorded respect in direct proportion to the volume of their sales. (Pushkin and Dostoyevsky were best sellers in their time.) So other voices can’t break through into the public space until they have sold a comparable number of copies. Unlike in America, where literary writers like Philip Roth or Norman Mailer get large advances for books that might sell modestly, Russian novelists must sell in bulk in order to survive. A writer in Russia gets an average of just 10 cents in royalties for each book that is sold. (The U.S. average is approximately one to two dollars.) Unless his novels sell in the tens of thousands, he has little chance of supporting himself financially. Until recently, there were no lucrative magazine writing or screenplay assignments that the struggling writer could fall back upon.
This all sounds rather dispiriting, but there’s a silver lining. With the exception of a few satirists like Mikhail Bulgakov or Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who wrote the Soviet era’s most celebrated comic novel, The Twelve Chairs, most Soviet literature was dull, preachy, and unreadable. Perhaps Russians needed a dose of primal literature, full of expletives, sexual perverts, and rapacious gangsters, to break free from the anodyne cultural world of the Soviet Union. Pulp fiction can be seen then as a form of catharsis, a spontaneous reaction against the censorship of the preceding decades. (Most crime fiction was suppressed by the former Soviet government.) In America, pulp fiction in the repressive ‘50s first exposed the sleazier side of life and thus paved the way in the ‘60s for more mainstream and nuanced books and films about the country’s hookers, mobsters, and weirdos. The popularity of “crime literature” now leaves the road open for Russia’s next generation of Norman Mailers and Hunter S. Thompsons, who have now begun to emerge in the new Russia.
Of all these writers, then, Boris Akunin is the real harbinger of future trends in Russian literature. Though tied to the crime genre, his novels are more subtle and less violent than those of his contemporaries. Akunin’s graceful books mirror the changes in Russia, which is already past its wild capitalist phase and has become less lawless and more responsible under President Vladimir Putin. While crime and the mafia will remain the themes of Russian literature for many years to come, the more recent novels are already beginning to aim for the psychological depth of Dostoyevsky’s classic thriller, Crime and Punishment.