Transmissions from a Lone Star: Sacred Monsters - A Conversation About Russian Literature

© PhotoDaniel Kalder
Daniel Kalder - Sputnik International
Lev Danilkin is the most influential literary critic in Russia today. Recently I interviewed him about the past, present and future of the book in the homeland of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I hope you enjoy our conversation.


Lev Danilkin is the most influential literary critic in Russia today. Recently I interviewed him about the past, present and future of the book in the homeland of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

1. Traditionally Russians have revered their writers. Does this continue today? Or is it a thing of the past?

If in the 90's and at the start of the 2000's domestic writers were the only people interested in each other, now Russians have returned to their traditional habit of peering at them. In Russia over the last seven years there has been a boom in domestic authors and their books sell better than translations. Writers are still perceived as a moral authority, and some - such as Victor Pelevin and Zakhar Prilepin - are popular; and even if they are not as popular as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky were in their day, they are very close to that level.

2. Another venerable Russian tradition is state censorship. Is this an issue today?

No form of state censorship exists in literature. Rather, the state supports literature. The largest literary award in Russia – “The Big Book” – is a state prize. So we can say accurately that the government does not interfere with literature, and in this area it generally behaves quite decently.

3. During the 1990s the morally engaged tradition of Russian literature collapsed. Fantasy, Science Fiction, the grotesque and nihilism seemed to be the dominant trends. Is that a fair description? What are the literary trends of the Putin/Medvedev era?

As far as the 90s go - yes, it is possible to describe them that way. As for the Putin-Medvedev era, the distinctive feature of this literary period is a return to traditional realism. Literature has moved away from postmodernism, from conceptual games, from experiments with language and narrative techniques. As a result, the major writers of modern Russia are not the monsters of postmodernism of the 1990s, such as Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Sokolov and Viktor Erofeev, but rather younger writers - Prilepin, Roman Senchin, Andrei Rubanov and Alexei Ivanov - the "post-Limonov generation." The public and critics alike enjoy their works.

4. It is a cliché that oppression produces great art. Will the recent protests against Putin generate interesting writing?

The sole oppressed writer in Russia at the moment is Eduard Limonov; however they persecute him not for his literary but rather political activities as he is the leader of the National Bolshevik Party. His publishing - and literary - fate has developed brilliantly. The protests did immediately end up in literature (in Alexei Ivanov’s novel, "Kommunity"), but just as one theme among many, and not a particularly remarkable one.

5. Thanks to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, Western readers expect fat novels from Russian authors addressing profound philosophical/moral questions while simultaneously fighting oppression. Do Russian readers expect the same, or is this a caricature?

No, it’s not a caricature. A "real" writer here is one who is able to tell a certain truth which no one except that writer is capable of expressing (which is precisely why Russians harbour suspicions towards non-fiction – as a document, a mere outline, investigative journalism cannot find the truth, which can be revealed only in fiction, the novel). Russians like writers who not only entertain but also moralize. Hence, the awards and commercial success of Prilepin and Pelevin.

6. Has Russia produced a "great novel" attacking the big themes of the last 20 years? There is little on the events of 1991, for instance. Is it fair to be looking for that kind of big book?

In fact, much more important for Russia are the events not of 1991 but rather of 1993, when Yeltsin's tanks shelled the parliament; it was a colossal psychic trauma, which is often described in literature (for instance, "Cranes and Dwarfs" by Leonid Yuzefovich "Matisse" by Alexander Ilichevsky, "The Buddha’s Little Finger” by Pelevin, etc.) - dozens of texts are dedicated to October 1993 one way or another.

7. Who are the great authors of today? Is the "great novel" a dead idea?

Pelevin. Ilichevsky. Rubanov. Yuzefovich. Limonov.

There are a lot of young writers who have good, new experience, just as in England in the early 18th century the new political and economic conditions created new storytellers who had a story to tell. The same thing is happening now in Russia.

"The great novel” is an idee fix of Russian writers, everyone here is trying to write a "great novel." But in Russia there is no unique and undisputed writer of genius. There are many who are wonderful in their own way, but an absolute leader: no.

8. How do giants like Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fit into today's framework? Do they still influence readers and writers?

"Sacred Monsters" – the classics, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky - absolutely do not crush either readers or writers with their greatness. They are still read, but in society there is not a sense that "before we had a great literature, and now all is lost." No: writers are many, to be a writer is still socially prestigious, they have readers; Russia has always been a literature-centric country - and so it remains.

Russian-speaking readers are recommended to seek out Lev Danilkin’s biography Yuri Gagarin: Man and Myth.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”

Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.

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