Review: Rasskazy

In which me from the past reviews an anthology of works from New Russian writers. Most anthologies are mixed bags in terms of quality, and this one was no exception.

Rasskazy was published in 2009 and contains 22 works by as many authors, the oldest of whom was just 40. The pieces are very recent, published between 2002 and 2009. 21 short stories and one excerpt from a novel.
The introduction noted that the writers in the collection were the first generation to spend their entire adult lives in the post-Soviet era. Many of these young authors had had works published in distinguished journals in Russia, and a number had won literary awards there.

As background to their writing, the introduction noted developments such as a concentration of government power, corruption and crackdowns on the media, together with rising living standards, an emergent middle class and the nation’s resurgence as a global power. In addition, there were a free market and mass culture of low-brow TV and books that — together with a government-subsidized film industry — drowned out voices of opposition, to the extent that serious writing escaped heavy censorship, it was claimed. Debate on serious issues took place in a small number of newspapers and journals that were judged irrelevant by those in power and ignored.

Most of the works in the collection were described as “new Russian realism,” which was contrasted with the more heavily surrealist/absurdist writing of older, better-known post-Soviet writers like Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Some of the works touched on behavior during the wars in Chechnya (Babchenko, Sadulaev, Prilepin), and one on current political developments (Senchin); Babchenko was especially critical of the wars and the way they were run: “Russia is a country of former inmates and our army lives by the same laws as a prison colony . . . The person with the authority is not the one who observes the laws, but he who breaks it.” Most of the other writers, though, were concerned not with national events but with what personal life felt like in contemporary Russia (Alyokhin, Bezzubtsev-Kondakov, Boteva, Epikhin, Goralik, Klyuchareva, Kochergin, Snegirev, Zondberg). Some of the latter tended toward the bleak or absurd (Danilov, Kalinin, Ryabov, Starobinets), one toward magical realism (Klyuchareva), and a few toward the unintelligible or fantastic (Geide, Taratuta). There was much thinking and talking about love, companionship, disappointment and spirituality, amid drinking sessions and visits to apartments and dachas.

The stories enjoyed most were the first, by Goralik, which presented a number of voices as if overheard on a street in Moscow. The one by Snegirev, in which a man tried to decide how he felt about having a baby with his girlfriend, changing his mind according to how people treated him in the course of his day. The one by Kozlov — which unlike many was short and to the point — about an event from Soviet schooldays, told with black humor. And the one by Sadulaev, where the writer looked back on the people and places of his village in Chechnya that had been destroyed. The piece by Babchenko was also interesting for its depiction of the brutality of the wars, though some of his writing published elsewhere had seemed even more striking (“Argun” in GLAS issue No. 40, War & Peace, in 2006).

Stylistically, the most interesting for this reader were one by Maria Boteva, approaching stream of consciousness, in which a narrator discussed a woman who’d been disappointed in love and entered a monastery; was she to be pitied or admired? And Goralik’s piece that captured voices on the street.

Most of the stories appeared to be set in the near present, except for Kozlov’s, which took place in Soviet times. Several of the pieces incorporated mobile phones, blogs, userpics, MP3 players, Wikipedia and Google, the computer game Civilization, the foreign custom of Halloween and a comic film by Kevin Smith. Other works mentioned the Apocalypse, John the Baptist and the disciples of Christ.

I finished the collection feeling that I’d gotten some glimpses of contemporary life in Russia and the brutality of operations in Chechnya, but that fewer of the pieces than expected had impressed with their excellence as stories – some, in fact, came across as rather pointless. Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and this was no exception.

★ ★ ★

Rasskazy. Edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker. Pub. 2009 by Tin House Books. Paperback, 375 pages. ISBN13: 9780982053904

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2 comments

  1. “In addition, there were a free market and mass culture of low-brow TV and books that — together with a government-subsidized film industry — drowned out voices of opposition, to the extent that serious writing escaped heavy censorship, it was claimed. Debate on serious issues took place in a small number of newspapers and journals that were judged irrelevant by those in power and ignored.”

    Ugh. That’s it. Some people when they want to be “in-your-face” preachy climb a soapbox. In Russia people tend to climb an armored car .

    About the state of Russian culture (and how Russian state fits in).

    This might come as a big surprise to many, but there is no such things as “Art for the Art sake”. All them members of artistic intelligentsia want recognition, fame, popularity – and money. When Rembrandt painted his Night Watch he didn’t think about it as a masterpiece that will survive through centuries and make the people and art experts from all around the world to look with awe upon his canvas. No – he was thinking that due to the generous donation of this or that fine gentleman he will try to paint and position on his picture in the most favorable way. And those cheapsakes who were too greedy to part with a few more guilders could be relegated to the background.

    Artists throughout ages were selling themselves and their art. They capitalized on the events around them, like when during anti-Jewish sentiments in Britain (which ended in the execution of queen Elizabeth’s court medic) wrote and presented The merchant of Venice.

    Now, this might come as a big surprise – again – to many, but in the Soviet times the chief customer and patron of the Art was the state. After 1991 it became a non issue with the break up of the USSR and “triumph” of the market capitalism. But artistic intelligentsia was very unhappy. In a matter of days they became penniless, just like their lesser compatriots. They wanted this freedom and liberty, but they also wanted for the government to bankroll their “art”. What? “Market profitability”? Sorry, no – True Art Does Not Sell Itself Out!

    Russian new fangled oligarchs were loath to part with even a portion of their ill-gotten money, so the artistic intelligentsia couldn’t count on them to get any funds. Once again – the state had to do all the funding. That’s why Russia has a Ministry of Culture (I’m not sure if there is such analog in the US or UK) which is tasked in allocating the funds (i.e. taxpayers money) on every single cultural institution, museum, theatre, opera-house, concert hall; to fund exhibitions, theatrical productions, concerts by the luminaries of Russian art, etc, etc, etc. Oh, and they are also expected to fund virtually every single movie production on Russian territory.

    Up to very recently the situation was 100% in artistic inteligentzia favor. They could like the late Alexey Herman spent 19 years (yes – nineteen years) filming their screen adaptation of Strugatsky brother’s famous “Hard to be God”, and in the end release a monochrome… something… where shit, dirt and rain feature in like 90% of the film. Because, as it turns out, artistic intelligentsia, devoid of the Ruling and Directing Authority of the Party and allowed to film, write and paint just about anything, strangely enough makes absolutely unpopular (and financially unprofitable) “masterpieces”, but still expects its chief client (the common people) to be grateful and its chief sponsor (the state) of keeping silent and only providing the money.

    The most egregorious, watershed event was the state sponsorship in the production of the Zvyagintsev’s magnum opus – the Leviathan movie (2014). This fact alone can induce a brain emergency shut-down cognitive dissonance in just about anyone. Its like if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney personally bankrolling Michael Moor’s Zeitgeist and then advertising it at every single opportunity. A group of French politicians and artistic types decided to visit a town, which was used as “inspiration” for the Leviathan. To their utter shock they didn’t found a proverbial Hell on the Earth, or Northern Mordor (as they probably have hoped). In fact, they’ve found a pissed off people, who were deeply offended by Zvyagintsev shit-flick.

    And you know what originally “inspired” director Zvyagintsev to film this? You will never guess it! Marvin Heemeyer and his rampage. Instead, in Russian version we see this:

    The West was jubilant. Russian oppos and artistic intelligentsia were triumphant. Russian public was offended and didn’t like the film. With budget of about $6 millions (generously heaped by much hated government) the movie made only $1 375 303 in Russia and $1 092 800 in the US.

    Suddenly, Russian authority remembered that they are, you know, chief sponsors and producers of cultural activity in Russia. Not because they forbid everyone else to do this, but because they were the only ones who actually bothered all these years to fund this cultural schlagg. And that like any producer they have a say in what gets produced. Shocking, absolutely shocking thought! Artistic intelligentsia got face first introduced to the laws of free market.

    So, instead of blaming the government of “drowning out voices of opposition” or some “censorship” the artistic types better blame private capital, which (for some “unfathomable” reason) has no desire to invest money in them. But they better start with themselves, and finally understand that Russian people do not recognize as the paragons of “artistic expression” what they currently hold so dear to their precious selves – be it Riotous Pussies or the scrotum-nailing “artist” Pavlensky.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘Russian people do not recognize as the paragons of “artistic expression” what they currently hold so dear to their precious selves – be it Riotous Pussies or the scrotum-nailing “artist” Pavlensky.’

      But the West sure does! Pyotr Pavlensky made the cover of the latest issue of The Economist with the slogan “Politics is his subject. Body is his medium.”
      1) How is wrapping oneself in barbed wire, sewing one’s own lips shut, or nailing oneself by the balls on Red Square where children can easily see you considered “art”?
      2) I imagine other world leaders must secretly envy Putin. Obama has to send the IRS after the Tea Party. Erdogan must keep the riot police working overtime. Kim Jong-un must execute even jaywalkers to stay in power. Assad can only hope for more years of war. And Putin… his opponents nail themselves by the balls! How does he do it?

      Liked by 1 person

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